Tales from the campus crypt: A haunting in Billsville

The barn that sits off the trail in Hopkins Forest is said to be haunted by the spirit of Mr. Sweet, a former proprietor of the building.
The barn that sits off the trail in Hopkins Forest is said to be haunted by the spirit of Mr. Sweet, a former proprietor of the building.

With Halloween approaching, you may be asking yourself, like I was a few days ago, how you’re going to get that adrenaline rush you used to get from corn mazes, your neighbor’s “haunted house” and scary masks when you were 10 years old. I decided that the only real way for me was to try to uncover all the ghosts that haunt the College and share them with all you horror aficionados.
I set to work digging through the bones of the College’s past, anticipating with not a little breezy confidence that I would be overwhelmed by the tales of poor souls who wander ceaselessly around the College, filling creaky buildings on campus with their soft moans and rattling chains. It turns out that finding such spirits at Williams is not as easy as I thought. Sylvia Brown, college archivist, told me sadly that the College is a very happy place and has no ghosts. “Hate to tell you this, but there are no ghosts at Williams,” Brown said. “We’ve been asked this many times, but no stories, lore or accounts exist that we know of.”
I found this hard to believe. “No ghosts at Williams?!” I thought to myself. “Impossible!” Nevertheless, Jo Procter, associate director of public affairs, echoed Brown. “I’ve not heard of a ghost haunting Williams,” she said. “But I know there’s a ghost up at Southern Vermont College in the main building and it wears a rain coat.” Little raincoat-clad ghost be damned – there was no way that Southern Vermont College could out-ghost Williams.
It was time to enlist the help of other ghost hunters. I turned to my good friend Sara Finkle ’13, for support. “I don’t even know if ghosts exist,” she said. “But we will hunt them down and find them.” We decided to visit the Williams cemetery first, as David Fitzgerald, grounds supervisor, aroused our curiosity. While he did not know of any ghosts who haunt the cemetery, when pressed, he offered hesitantly, “Look for Michael Bell’s stone . . . ” So in Friday night’s torrential downpour (yes, I do spend my Fridays looking for ghosts) we crept through a thick ring of pine trees into the cemetery. Michael Bell, Michael Bell, Michael Bell – we wove around strangely shaped, eroded stones with our flashlights, trying to make out the names that time, rain and darkness blurred. Michael Bell! The grave popped up, right in front of the entrance; somehow we had not noticed the looming stone with bold lettering, even though we had walked right past it. The glare of our flashlights revealed a strange row of small stones that someone had perfectly lined up on top of the gravestone. On the bottom of the stone, a small inscription read: “If you can read this, you’re standing on me.” Crouched down right next to the gravestone, our heads basically touching the ground, Sara and I made eye contact, jumped up and ran the heck out of that graveyard.
Back in my dorm room, I told my parents, Dan and Sarah Goldman ’82, who just happened to be in Williams for Family Weekend, about the graveyard. “Michael Bell!” My mom cried out. “He was an English teacher while I was at Williams. What were the dates on the stone again?” Somehow, no dates came to mind. There must have been dates on the stone, but I was definitely not going back to that graveyard. “Funny,” my mom said. “Just the other day I had a dream about Bell. And I never dream about college professors! He kept telling me about how he wanted you to take his class – how he wanted to teach you.”
Wow. That creeped me out. In a good way . . . I guess. And I realized my parents might have a whole stockpile of creepy stories from another era. My dad, a history buff who is particularly fond of Williams history, immediately told me about President James A. Garfield, class of 1856, about whom he read in History of Williams College book. “Newly elected President Garfield was going to his 25th reunion at Williams,” my dad said. “While he was standing on the train platform about to get on the train, he was shot. He never made it to his 25th reunion. While I was at Williams, people swore Garfield’s ghost haunted Garfield house around Halloween. He would bang around the house unseen, no doubt drunk and bloody, trying to get to his 25th reunion. Poor soul, he just wanted to see his friends, take a break from being the president and have a good time again.” Now the question is: Does Garfield’s ghost still haunt Garfield house? Some say yes, some say no – go and see for yourselves on Halloween. Sara and I will venture there, poke around and prepare to meet a president for the first time.
Another haunted place that Sara and I attempted to check out is an old barn in Hopkins Forrest. Tom Bleezarde, who was the editor of the Alumni Review for 30 years, informed me about this place. “If you go in straight ahead from the main visitor’s center in Hopkins Forrest, past the barn that sits on the right hand side, up that trail, there is an old barn that sat there that was sort of landlocked,” he said. “I think the owner’s name was Sweet. He was an old guy who had this piece of property and wouldn’t sell it when Hopkins Forrest was being amassed. Once Mr. Sweet died and the College finally got his property, his spirit would show up in the barn if people tried to use it for anything.” A little more faint of heart after the graveyard experience, we ventured to Hopkins Forest during the daytime, dressed from head to toe in rain apparel. Following Bleezarde’s directions, we entered the dripping trees and the night they made with their shadows. We definitely heard moans coming from the whole forest. We ran – we never even saw the barn. Even if the spirit of Mr. Sweet does not exist, there definitely is more than one creepy ghost haunting that area of Hopkins in October.
I may have not played the fearless ghost hunter as smoothly as I had initially hoped, but here’s the news: There are some very creepy happenings, ghosts and places at the College. Keep your eyes sharp for spooks around this time – you know you want to be scared by these old Williams ghosts and discover new ones. With that said, I’ll see you, and hopefully the old President himself, at Garfield House on Halloween.

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