Oct 30, 2010

What’s Scary about Stanford—Halloween Tales Retold in Honor of the Season

Admittedly the 7.2 percent admit rate can be pretty frightening, and the new random application audits may be cause for alarm.

But what’s really scary about Stanford may be the ghostly tales surrounding the university’s founding and some of the little-known secrets locked in structures located far from paths traced by campus tour guides.

To celebrate the holiday, I offer a few of the university’s tales from the dark side.

Communications from the ‘Other World’
A seldom-told tale suggests that the founding of Stanford University may have been the result of communications from the “other” world. Shortly after the tragic death of their only child, Leland Junior, Jane and Leland Stanford traveled to New York and Paris for a series of séances.

According to Maud Lord Drake, who attended one of the séances, the idea for creating a university came directly from Leland Jr. in a spirit communication channeled through her to his parents. Responding to published accounts of the event, Leland Stanford vehemently denied this ever happened and insisted the idea for Stanford University came to him in a “dream.”

However true either story may be, it’s clear that Jane Stanford suffered her son’s death greatly and continued trying over the years to make contact with him via the “netherworld.” A grieving mother on a mission, Mrs. Stanford threw herself into the construction of the university that was to honor her son’s memory and supervised every detail down to designing the stained glass window found in Memorial Church, illustrating Leland’s rise to heaven in the arms of angels.

Sometime in 1893, Mrs. Stanford had her son exhumed from his original resting place and moved to a grand marble and granite mausoleum located elsewhere on campus. Both the mausoleum and the nearby university museum are said to be haunted by Mrs. Stanford’s restless spirit which regularly visits the toys and other family mementoes housed in the museum.

A Missing Memorial
For over 100 years, a marble memorial stood sentry over the spot where Leland Jr. was originally buried. Carved on its face are lines selected by Jane Stanford from a poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans that reads in part, “Yes, it is haunted this quiet scene, fair as it looks and all softly green…”

In 2000, the tablet disappeared to make way for the university’s Sand Hill Road development. To avoid disturbing senior citizens residing in the community, Stanford quietly relocated the memorial some distance away from the site of the small mausoleum that held Leland Jr.’s remains until they were exhumed and moved to the much grander family mausoleum in 1893.

While a small metal sign explains the relocation, the tablet no longer marks what Jane Stanford hoped would be a permanent memorial to her son. The real “haunted ground” in the poem is actually somewhere in the vicinity of a university-affiliated senior citizen complex.

The “Old Chem” Building
In his original plan for campus development, Leland Stanford insisted that the school’s first major independent science building—a chemistry lab—be located far from the “quad” because of his personal fear of fire and sudden explosion.

Unlike several other ornate and outrageously expensive buildings that were hastily constructed but totally destroyed before they could open, the distinctly Romanesque facility was finally completed in 1902. It would serve the department for 85 years despite significant damage caused by blasts from several earthquakes. When the building was condemned and finally closed in 1987, the Chemistry Department held a wake, in defiance of school directives.

But decades later, “Old Chem” continues to stand—an eyesore surrounded by weeds and a chain link fence kept far from public tours. The Victorian-era structure may be robbed of dignity, but its historical foundation saved it from demolition and may be the source of ethereal sightings of students holding glass beakers and flasks.

If you’re among the thousands of applicants burning the midnight oil to meet the Stanford University “Day of the Dead” Early Action deadline, I hope you enjoyed a little ghostly stroll down some of the back roads of Stanford’s past.

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