Things That Go ‘Bump’ in the Night: The Ghosts of Old Salem 

In 1766, Moravian missionaries from Pennsylvania made a long and difficult trek halfway down the eastern seaboard to northwest NC where they ultimately established a colonial town named Old Salem. The word “Salem” is Hebrew in origin and means peace.  In 1772, Salem College was founded as a girls’ primary school by the settlers who believed in an equal education for men and women. In 1890, the school began offering college degrees, eventually becoming a liberal arts women’s college.  Today it has the distinction of being the oldest female education establishment in the United States.

However, the name “Salem,” ironically, may not have portended a peace for all of its inhabitants, some of whom still call the community home.  For hundreds of years Old Salem has enjoyed a reputation for spirit activity and unexplainable phenomenon, with many supernatural occurrences abounding at the college. When a high school history teacher friend told me the story of running into a ghost himself while working one summer in the Salem Tavern Museum, my interest was immediately piqued. Quite shaken, he immediately quit his job. I began my own investigation of the haunts of Old Salem and do believe that the spirits are alive and well (so to speak) and not particularly shy about making their existence known to an open-minded visitor.

The most famous ghost story concerns Andreas Kresmer, a shoemaker who lived in the Single Brothers’ House on the corner of Academy and Main Streets. While helping to excavate a cellar in the building, an overhang of soil collapsed, crushing the 33-year-old man who was wearing a distinctive red cap at the time of his death. In quick succession stories arose of a short man with a red cap moving through the hallways of the home and in the building’s cellar. On one occasion one of the town’s most prominent citizens and a  guest went into the cellar and both recounted simultaneously seeing the apparition of the Little Red Man which quickly vanished.

Gramley Hall, once a student residence and now Salem College’s library, has also had numerous ghostly visitors associated with it. Shortly after it opened, a young woman named Margaret committed suicide by hanging herself on a rafter of a third floor ceiling. There are numerous reports of anguished wails, loud knocking on the walls, the sound of marbles hitting the floor, and the movement of a heavy crate being dragged across the floor.  In 1907 the death of two girls occurred by an electrocution accident and their apparitions have been seen, accompanied by deep cold, odd noises, footsteps and screams. Still others have reported seeing a little blonde girl in Victorian dress, dubbed “Nancy” in the building who hides things but returns them when politely asked.

The Babcock Residence Hall enjoys a lot of paranormal activity, too.  A portrait of Mary Babcock Reynolds, daughter of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, Sr., hangs in the lobby’s building.  Numerous students have claimed that her facial expressions will change if you offend her and that her eyes follow you about.  I can attest to the latter happening to me while standing in the hall’s periphery. 

The Single Sisters Building at 601 S. Church St. now contains offices and classrooms.  There are regular reports that its basement has a very aggressive presence who inhabits it and a photograph taken by one student apparently reveals an image of an angry face looking back at her from behind a heavy metal door. Figures have been seen moving in the windows and strange whispers heard in the building’s corridors; there is also a sensation of warm air suddenly turning icy cold.

There are other stories.   Clewell Dormitory is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl who died when she fell down an old elevator shaft. The Fine Arts Center has a phantom pianist who can be heard playing the piano or organ late into the night despite the building being locked and empty. A patron who died in Theatre 2 still lingers there and haunts the room with mischievous deeds and spooking unsuspecting students.  

Spirits have also regularly been seen at the J. Blum House, Distribution Center, and on Bank Street hill where a young child named David lost his life while sledding on an icy hill. If you are not too afraid to venture out one night to Old Salem, you may run into a resident spirit who seems alive but is probably in point of fact not doing very well.  Take note that if you see The Lady in White roaming the May Del amphitheater, she is supposedly a friendly spirit unlike the sinister spirit which appears frequently as a black orb under the nearby stone bridge.


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