Ghosts of the Triad: Tales From Salem College And Academy
Written By: Michael Reneger, Amy Spease
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Salem Academy And College is a highly respected school for women in the heart of Winston-Salem. It was founded by the Moravian Church in 1772. By the mid 1800’s, it had become a renown boarding school, famous for its quality education and wonderful environment. By 1866, Salem Female Academy was the place to send young women for “finishing school.”
At an institution of such age, with dozens of historic buildings, ghostly legends are almost a given. And indeed, there are a wide array of spooky stories and goings on reported throughout the campus. Every Fall, new students are oriented to the many legends of Salem College.
One of the first stories the girls are told concerns the residence hall named Clewell. The story tells of a young girl, between 8 and 12, who came to visit her sister, who lived in Clewell Hall. At some point, the child began exploring on her own. Somehow, she managed to get inside the elevator shaft, and plunged to her death at its bottom. According to legend, the elevator shaft was sealed and never used again.
While it is possible this accident actually occurred, we could not verify it. As for the shaft never being used again, this is a fact. Actually, there never was an elevator installed, so it was never used to begin with! Some reports indicate a construction worker was killed when it being built, but this too proved undocumented.
Strong Dorm is another building alleged to be haunted. A place called The Friendship Room is said to be particularly active. The spirit that dwells there has a mischievous streak. Amongst its favorite tricks is to throw the covers suddenly off sleeping students. The ghost will also touch you, or brush you gently on the arm!
Gramley Library is another campus haunt. Students claim it is the home of a variety of spirits. In the basement, by the archives, one student told us that a German man seems trapped! He makes his presence known with odd noises, footsteps, and a deep, icy cold!
The Third Floor is often the scene of awful, disembodied cries, and strange, unexplained lights, which flit about! At times, these phenomena have been reported as often as once a week! Supposedly, these haunting incidents are the work of two girls who died in 1907. They were allegedly electrocuted in an accident.
Sisters Hall is one of the oldest buildings on campus. Strange whispers have been reported, and several girls told of being touched inappropriately while in the shower! Kristen Brown always felt uncomfortable in the building. She once felt someone brush by her, seemingly in a hurry. She felt a strange warmth, then an icy cold! Two girls attempting to record EVPs left a recorder in the stairwell one night. When they played it back the next day, a faint voice said, Please! Turn on the light, please?”
One of the most talked about buildings with an alleged haunting is Gramley Dorm. A student is supposed to have hanged herself in the top floor. Students have often heard the sound of a chair being dragged across the floor on that floor, then suddenly knocked over. We met Elissa Gall through Kristen, and she told us several personal experiences in several places on campus, starting with Gramley Dormitory.
Once, Elissa was standing at her mirror, when she heard a knock from the other side of the wall. She knocked back, and got a response! So, she knocked again. This time, the knock was returned, but the sound moved up the wall and across the ceiling! She was quite unnerved by that, and even more unnerved when she remembered that the room on the other side of the wall was a locked closet! Elissa was also witness to the sounds of the moving chair overhead… Try as we might, however, we could not find any documentation of the alleged suicide in Gramley Dorm.
Another thing people experience in this dormitory, is the sound of marbles hitting the floor and rolling! Yet, when anyone goes upstairs to check, the room the noises came from will invariably be empty! And on occasion, girls will hear a knock at their door. When they check, no one is there…
In the room where Elissa heard the knocks, her roommate, Katie, may have come face to face with a full body apparition! One evening, while Elissa was studying with a neighbor, Katie was in the room alone. There was a strange sound, then suddenly, a little blonde girl burst through the door into the room! She was dressed in a Victorian era dress. The child stopped short when she saw Katie. Just as they made eye contact, the girl turned and ran out the door! Katie was hot on her heels, but the child had vanished into thin air. Katie pounded on the door of the room where Elissa was studying, and related, wide-eyed, the incident.
The little girl was apparently known. The girls in Gramley came up with a name for her. They called the child Nancy. They believed her to be the daughter of a Salem minister. And Nancy loved to play tricks on the girls.
The child ghost could be really mischievous. Sometimes, she would take small things and hide them. The item would not be returned until the victim of the prank asked Nancy to return it! Many a student searched frantically for something, such as their keys. Only when they would appeal to Nancy was the object found, often right where they’d looked repeatedly!
Babcock Dormitory is another campus building which sees a lot of paranormal activity. The building is named for Mary Reynolds Babcock, daughter of tobacco magnate, RJ Reynolds, Sr. A portrait of Mrs. Babcock hangs in the building. The eyes of the portrait will follow you. Students claim the painting’s facial expression changes too, if you offend her! By tradition, students greet the portrait when they enter, and say good bye as they leave, so as not to disrespect her, and bring some sort of paranormal payback upon themselves!
Tiffany lived in Babcock with her roommate, Ana. She believes it was in Room 121. As Tiffany was moving in and unpacking, she noticed a woman in a white dress standing in the doorway, with beautiful long brown hair. Thinking it was a new neighbor, Tiffany turned to greet her. When she spoke to her, however, the woman vanished right before her eyes! Tiffany is a paranormal sensitive, so such things do not bother her. She is used to ghosts! So, instead of running, screaming, from the building, she simply shook her head, and returned to her task.
About two weeks after classes began, Tiffany was passing by the science building. There is a fish pond in front of it. Tiffany looked up and saw the same woman, serenely observing the fish! Again, she disappeared when Tiffany spoke to her. But this was not to be her last appearance…
Just after mid term exams, the girls were exhausted. Sometime around 6:00AM, Tiffany awoke suddenly. She could sense a different presence in the room. Ana had also been awakened by something. As Tiffany watched, she sat up and looked around. She didn’t have her glasses on, but Ana seemed to focus on the middle of the room. “Tiffany?” she asked groggily.
“Yes?” Tiffany responded.
“Is there a woman with long brown hair sitting in that chair?” Ana asked thickly, “And is she wearing a white dress?”
“Uh-Huh.” Tiffany answered.
“Okay.” Ana yawned, then rolled over and went back to sleep.
Tiffany remained where she was for while. Finally, as light grew, the woman faded from view. There was no chair there. Tiffany went back to sleep.
Tiffany began to look into the ghost stories around campus with friends. They recorded several Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVPs) in several campus buildings, including Babcock. Out on Salem Square, they found a huge, ancient tree. Tiffany could feel a sense of Death around it. She felt a deep sadness there, and got the feeling of a young couple, who she believed may have met their end there. The names Jacob and Elisabeth came to her. The tree is no longer there. We tried to find a couple with those names, but were unsuccessful.
Elissa and her friend Paula also did some investigating, and EVP recordings. They are the ones who captured the voice in Sisters Hall. Elissa had gotten really in to the ghost stories after her experiences.
The old infirmary on campus is often said to be haunted. It is called The Bahnson House, not to be confused with the home of the same name on 5th Street. Elissa had also lived in this building. Her room was the first room on the left, on the first floor. It had once been a kitchen.
As Elissa sat there one night, the VCR clicked on and off several times by itself. “Please, stop!” Elissa called out, and it did… for a while… but it began to click on and off again, and didn’t stop this time when she asked. It remained quiet only after the besieged girl got up and unplugged it!
We had heard about ghosts at Salem College many times. So, when we decided to do this book, we knew we had to include it! We began our research with relish. It became clear, rather quickly, that we were not going to be able to find documentation of any of the supposed deaths alleged to have caused the hauntings. No “smoking guns.”
There was nothing we could find on any of them. Neither the worker in the elevator shaft, nor the girl who fell. Not the girl who hanged herself, and nothing on the two supposedly electrocuted. We were, however, able to find one historically documented story of a tragic death on campus, which might explain the genesis of several of the campus legends. It is the sad tale of Sarah Tilkey.
Sarah, called Salley, was the daughter of John and Malinda Tilkey of Augusta, GA. The businessman and his wife had been searching for a boarding school to send young Salley to. They were most impressed with Salem Academy.
Salley arrived in Salem in August, 1872, when she was 15. She was a very bright student, and very likeable. She made a lot of friends, and her first year at the school passed happily and uneventful.
Salley spent the summer of 1873 with her parents, then returned to Salem for the Fall Term. She began taking piano lessons and studying music theory. Her future seemed to hold exceeding promise.
Friday, November 28, 1873 dawned bright and clear, but exceptionally cold. The entire week was unseasonably cold, and the stoves and fireplaces all over campus had been lit. It was bitter cold outside, but the buildings were warm and comfortable.
Salley was upstairs, most likely in Sisters Hall, practicing on a piano. An ember from the fire floated over and landed on her dress. At first, she didn’t notice, but smoke soon began to rise.
Salley tried to put it out, but couldn’t. She ran into the next room where some of her friends were. They tried to put it out, but the smoke began to billow more and more! The girl panicked. She took off running down the hall, shrieking for help! This only fueled the smoldering ember… The dress burst into flames!
“Help me! Help me!” Salley screamed as she ran, “Somebody, please help me!”
She must have been a shocking, horrifying sight to anyone who saw her. The dress was fully engulfed as she reached the staircase and began to descend. The poor girl ran down the steps, smoke and flames trailing behind her. Her terrible screams filled the air, and echoed through the building.
On the first floor, Music Professor Edward Linebach heard the awful ruckus. He ran to see what was happening. To his horror, he saw Salley rushing down the steps toward him, completely engulfed in fire!
Lineback rushed to grab a blanket to smother the flames. Salley collapsed in a burning heap at the foot of the stairs. Her screaming had stopped. The professor used the blanket to put the fire out, burning his hands seriously in the process.
The fire was out. Lineback covered the horribly injured girl with the blanket, scooped her up, and took her to a bed in a nearby room, where he gently placed her. A crowd was gathering. Girls clung to each other, sobbing. Teachers stood looking about helplessly. Professor Lineback sent for a doctor.
Doctors came, but there was little they could do. It was clear there was no hope. Salley was just too badly injured. Throughout it all, Salley now remained calm. Incredibly, she tried to comfort those around her! Every little bit, she would ask about friends, and assure her attendants that she had a deep faith, and was ready to meet her Creator. Tears fell like rain that day at Salem College.
Salley lingered for several hours. Finally, around 7:00PM, she drew her last breath. A pall of sadness settled over the campus. The despairing Professor Lineback sent word to the unfortunate girl’s parents.
The Tilkeys arrived on the train from Georgia on November 30, 1873. They were allowed to see Sarah’s body. The fire had not touched the child’s face. To the grieving parents, she looked peaceful, as if just sleeping. They left for Augusta the same day, and Salley was laid to rest in her hometown. That Christmas was one of the saddest Salem College ever saw. This tragic episode was recorded in Moravian Records, and in Jennifer Bean Bowers’ book Winston And Salem: Murder, Mystery, And Mayhem, published by The History Press.
We have to say that we believe the personal accounts of those who spoke with us. There is something to the incidents they recounted, despite the lack of solid documentation, or proof. However, we also believe that certain elements of the sad story of Salley Tilkey have been incorporated into the ghost stories associated with several campus buildings. The accounts of screaming, running footsteps, and cold and hot spots all fit.
Whatever their true origins are, the ghosts of Salem College and Academy will continue to go about their business. And their stories will continue to be passed down to new students every Fall.
(c) 2011 Michael Reneger and Amy Spease -- Published by The History Press, Charleston, SC.