Josh Shaffer

The Brown Lady, 19th-century ghost in taffeta, still haunts Chowan – Shaffer

The Brown Lady has haunted Chowan University since the 19th century, when the Murfreesboro school was an all-female Baptist college. Depending on the version of the story, she jumped to her death when her beau died in the Civil War, expired from typhoid or a broken heart. This photograph, with a model posing as the ghost, appeared in the now-defunct campus paper Smoke Signals.
The Brown Lady has haunted Chowan University since the 19th century, when the Murfreesboro school was an all-female Baptist college. Depending on the version of the story, she jumped to her death when her beau died in the Civil War, expired from typhoid or a broken heart. This photograph, with a model posing as the ghost, appeared in the now-defunct campus paper Smoke Signals. Courtesy of Chowan University

In one story, the ghost known as the Brown Lady is enrolled at a tiny Baptist college during the Civil War when her promised blue-blood husband commits a pair of unthinkable sins: One, he fights for the Yankees; two, he dies on the battlefield.

So in true heroine style, she jumps to her death from the roof of her dormitory – handkerchief fluttering after.

In another, the Brown Lady hails from an aristocratic farm family in Northampton County, and on a summer’s holiday in New York, she accepts the wedding proposal of a young lawyer on a single condition: First, she must finish her college degree.

But before her sophomore year is complete, while her beau pines in the North, she expires of typhoid fever. Or perhaps melancholy. The details vary.

For at least 100 years, the Brown Lady has haunted the Murfreesboro school now known as Chowan University – her heart cleft in two, her education incomplete. Her taste in 19th-century gowns ran to the earth tones, hence her name. But she rarely appears on campus, preferring to plague her modern classmates on Halloween – her death date – with the sound of ghostly taffeta shifting up and down the halls.

History disputes even her name.

“Among the many fair-haired and energetic girls that were preparing for college this beautiful September was Eolene Davidson, the beautiful daughter of a well-known farmer,” wrote student Jessie Maie Piland in 1915. “She was a pleasant, sweet-natured girl of nineteen, tall and slender, with wavy black hair, fair complexion and dreamy blue eyes. Much did she enjoy the pleasures of life.”

Or:

“Her name is lost to history but she shall be called Julia for the purposes of this story,” wrote Daniel Barefoot in “Haunted Halls of Ivy.” “But all was not well for Julia during that time. Her tall, handsome Southern-born fiance went away to fight – but to Julia’s dismay, not for the South.”

But rather than run screaming, the campus has long celebrated its scholar-spirit. In the 1950s and ’60s, Chowan freshmen were blindfolded and escorted into the woods or a nearby cemetery, where they met the Brown Lady in person or rolled upon her grave.

“Actually, they were only taken to the science building,” according to a 1959 edition of The Chowanian. “Then they shook hands with the Brown Lady. Upon touching her hand they felt something cold and sticky. This was ketchup. Then they had to remove their shoes and step into several holes containing egg shells, ice, crushed bananas and mud. There were quite a few screams. After the ordeal everyone goes back to the dorm where refreshments were served.”

To this day, Chowan holds a Brown Lady academic bowl in Eolene-Julia’s honor. The campus creative writing magazine is titled The Brown Lady. Each year, a representative from the honors college dresses in Brown Lady garb for Halloween. All versions of her short, tragedy-strewn life are honored in Chowan tweets and YouTube posts.

“I think all of them are right,” said Christina Thomas, university spokeswoman.

Since her story is so fluid, it seems fitting for me to add my own chapter here. I think the Brown Lady is uninterested in traditional haunting. No clanking of chains or midnight wails for her. Like so many people undermined by circumstance, whose life plans went astray due to random circumstance, the Brown Lady has admirably chosen to return to school and pursue her degree from beyond the grave.

Students take note. She’s sitting in that empty chair at the back of history class, taking notes with a quill. She’s up late reading “Wuthering Heights” in the common room. She’s dropping pre-calculus because she’s carrying a D-average at the mid-term and she needs to keep her scholarship.

So don’t tremble at the sound of shifting taffeta. Leave out a pot of ramen noodles and turn the music down.

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