As the days grow longer and the sun shines more brightly in the sky, it seems an inopportune time to be discussing rumors of ghosts and murders that took place many years ago. Yet the Tudor mansion that is Upper Campus’ O’Connell House will not let those rumors rest even amid the charms and beauties of early spring—and, as twilight falls, the wind whistles through O’Connell’s tall windows, wailing like the cries of dying men.
O’Connell is the building where even “Upper kids” rarely go. It is so imposing, so Gothic, and so incongruous with the modernist buildings that surround it that it is by far the most fitting setting for a ghostly tale, with the similarities to both Shirley Jackson’s “Hill House” (close to Boston, according to the book) and Walt Disney World’s “Haunted Mansion” adding to the effect.
The house was built in 1895 by the Storey family, who based the ivy-coated, red-brick architecture on Wales’ Gwydir Castle. In 1916, it was purchased by Boston drugstore baron Louis K. Liggett, who incorporated it into his massive, sprawling estate that extended the length of what is now Upper Campus. Liggett’s desire to build his own personal Xanadu meant covering the lavish grounds of his palatial estate with gardens and fountains, only a few of which have not been replaced by the parking lot that now surrounds the house.
In 1931, Mrs. Liggett died—the New York Times obituary states that she passed away in Plymouth, yet, curiously, there is no cause of death given (besides a statement that she had been ill for some time), and rumor has it that she was in fact murdered in what is now O’Connell House. The story goes that she was stabbed near the ornate main staircase, screaming for help and managing to crawl to a second-floor bedroom, now room 207, where she died. Her ghost, it is said, still haunts the mansion. The story could not be confirmed or denied at press time, but believers may point to the tale’s odd number of specific details (e.g., Rm. 207) to bolster their case, while skeptics may conclude that the Times obituary completely debunks the myth.
Either way, in 1937, Liggett donated his entire property to William Henry Cardinal O’Connell, archbishop of Boston, who in 1941 himself donated it to Boston College, his alma mater. Film producers were so impressed with the house that they used it for 1946’s 13 Rue Madeleine, starring famed actor James Cagney. After that, however, the school didn’t know quite what to do with it, using it for a variety of functions, and even considered its demolition in the early 1970s. Thankfully, the house received a $1 million renovation project instead, serving as the student union building since 1972.
A problem with identifying O’Connell’s definitive ghost story is that there does not seem to be just one. There are so many conflicting and at times contradictory reports that one does not seem to know where to turn. Besides Mrs. Liggett’s, three stories pop up again and again in the archives with surprisingly little variation: a young boy who drowned in the pool near the solarium, a woman who is heard opening all doors and windows, especially in the third-floor attic, where, strangely enough, all the windows are sealed shut, and a dog, seen and felt by O’Connell residents over the last 30 years.
According to Moriah Billups, a current graduate assistant at O’Connell House, several residents have had possibly supernatural experiences this year. Billups said that graduate assistant Morgan Blumefeld has heard the ghostly dog near the attic staircase on the staff-only side, but the dog’s barking stopped the moment that Blumefeld opened the door. She also saw an apparition on the staircase, telling Billups that, to think of the apparition, one would have to imagine “if wind had a color.” If that weren’t enough, Billups’ completely closed door has opened when there was no wind, and female sighs have been heard in the staff kitchen.
As you can tell, the stories and legends of the grand, now-incongruous mansion on the hill have not died down even yet—nor, it seems, will they ever. Its mysteries and ghosts, perhaps infused in the house’s very wood and stone, have not left it. And, on dark nights when the moon shines her pale effulgence onto the lawn, and we stop for a minute to forget our humdrum comings-and-goings and reflect on our spirits and our human quest for the numinous, we can be thankful that we still have O’Connell House, where we are never quite sure what might be there to meet us just around the corner—and where we, once creatures of the twilight, now so content in the materialist beat of the everyday, may think of the other, far more unknown side of life just long enough to consider not turning the light off in the night.
Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor