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Campus, Durham ghost legends liven local lore

For a school steeped in history and tradition, there have been surprisingly few ghosts reported to haunt Duke's imposing Gothic campus.

Specters of long-deceased professors languishing in tenured perpetuity are absent from our hallowed halls. No ghouls are said to lurk in the dormitories, although Tom Harkins, associate university archivist, noted that there have long been rumors that the Southgate dormitory was formerly an insane asylum.

"This isn't true," Harkins said. "It was a woman's college, self-contained, and so it had an infirmary, classrooms, kitchens-things one might mistake as characterizing an asylum, I suppose."

But the University's most prolific source of spooky tales is actually its most visible landmark-the Duke Chapel.

A phenomenon known as the 'ghost chapel' was documented in the 1951 Chanticleer. It is an eerie shadow appearing when the chapel is lit and photographed from certain angles.

Harkins described one rather bizarre incident from the 1930s when a group of men, hired for a task about which they knew nothing, gathered at the Duke family burial grounds in the middle of the night. Their job?

"To discreetly dig up and transfer the bodies of Benjamin, James and Washington Duke to the memorial chapel," Harkins said.

The ghost of James Duke, however, seemed to remain restless. A psychic medium visited the University during former President Terry Sanford's administration and, while sitting in the chapel crypt, said she had a vision of Duke dressed as Jesus Christ.

"The medium claimed that James Duke instructed her to meet with Doris Duke to discuss financial efforts to 'find the truth,'" Harkins said.

The medium proceeded to ask Sanford to set up this meeting; Sanford was unable to grant this request.

The Duke family has been associated with its share of off-campus hauntings as well. Jim Wise, a documentary studies instructor and writer for The News & Observer, recounted a story he heard from a former employee at the Duke Homestead, which is about five miles away from West Campus.

"He said that when he would spend the night there, he would sometimes see a light, with no apparent source, coming from inside the farmhouse," Wise said. "He also said that he would see a woman, dressed in 19th-century clothing, appear in the window when the house was empty."

Wise also noted that, while the Duke campus is somewhat lacking in supposed hauntings, Durham offers stories of its own. "The old Belk's department store downtown had an elevator that operated with a mind of its own when the store was closed," he said.

There have also been stories of a 'ghost train' appearing at the abandoned railroad crossing behind the Catsburg Store on the Old Oxford Highway, Wise said.

Paranormal investigators have also reported hauntings at Stagville, a centuries-old plantation in northeast Durham County.

"Durham doesn't have as many ghosts as does, say, Hillsborough, because we're about 100 years younger," Wise said.

The same might be speculated of Duke, which moved to Durham in 1892. Duke's roots actually trace back to 1838, when the school was chartered as Brown's Schoolhouse in Randolph County. "My theory is that any ghosts who might have otherwise haunted Duke have been confused by all its institutional changes," Harkins said.

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