History haunts Stephens College


Riley Martin

Senior Hall at Stephens College campus. Photo by Riley Martin
While Missouri is a state rich of history it isn’t exactly one of the states that most
people know much about. Due to the traumatic history of Missouri, there’s sure to be
some whispers through the centuries of local haunts. The most well know haunted place
is Stephen’s College in Columbia.
In 1862, the Civil War was raging throughout Missouri and it was during this time
that the story took place. The events that took place here occurred shortly after the defeat
of Sterling Price’s Confederate forces at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. This defeat brought an end
to organized Confederate resistance in Missouri, save for the bushwhackers, and paved
the way for the Federal occupation. A short time after, Union forces, under the command
of General Henry Halleck, moved into Columbia, upsetting the populace and most
especially Dr. Hubert Williams, the president of the local Female college and its dean,
Miss Clara Armstrong. The presence of the soldiers was of great concern and they feared
for the safety of the young female students, as soldiers are not often known for their
gentlemanly behavior. The college, now Stephens, was originally the Columbia Baptist
Female College.
One evening after dinner, a student named Sarah June Wheeler, was hurrying up
to her room. She had just stepped inside when a soldier climbed over her window sill
and staggered across the floor. Needless to say, Sarah was quite surprised, although even
more shocked to see that the man wore, not the uniform of the local soldiers, but the dirty
gray of the Confederacy.
Before Sarah could call out for help, the young man had grabbed hold of her and
clapped his hand over her mouth. She struggled to get free of him and the man suddenly
just slumped to the floor, unconscious. Just then, the door to the room opened and
Sarah’s room mate, Margaret Baker, came inside. She was also surprised, although not as
frightened to see a Rebel soldier as Sarah had been. Margaret was a resident of the south,
having been born and raised in Arkansas. She was fiercely loyal to the Confederacy and
instead of payment to the school, her father had sent two slaves to work at the college
instead. They cooked, cleaned and worked in the school’s laundry.
Sarah and Margaret knelt down beside the soldier and looked to see if he had any
injuries. They found nothing, so using some smelling salts, were able to revive him. He
explained that he had collapsed from hunger because he had not eaten in days. The girls
helped him into a chair, then Margaret sent her servants to bring back a tray of food from
the kitchen. They were given strict instructions to say nothing of the soldier.
The young man proceeded to introduce himself as Corporal Isaac Johnson from
Mississippi. He said that he had fought at Pea Ridge and had recently escaped from a
prison in Illinois, traveling by night and hiding during the day. His father had been killed
in Grant’s attack on Nashville and Johnson had vowed to avenge his death in some way.
The plan that he had come up with was to sneak into Columbia and assassinate General
There was something about the young man that appealed to the girls, especially to
Sarah, and they agreed to try and keep him safe. Their room was located in Senior Hall,
just beneath the school’s bell tower, and over the coming days, Sarah hid Johnson away.
She brought him food and talked with him into the early hours of the morning. It was not
long before the young couple had fallen in love.
Someone, possibly one of Margaret’s slaves, let the secret slip that a Rebel soldier
was hidden in Columbia. Eventually, word reached General Halleck’s staff and it was
hinted that the soldier was being sheltered by one of the young women at the college.
General Halleck paid a call on President Williams and warned him that the school would
be closed unless the soldier was captured.
That evening, Dr. Williams addressed the young women and explained to them
what Halleck had threatened. Quickly, Sarah returned to her room and urged Johnson to
surrender… but he had a better idea. He had stolen a suit from Dr. William’s closet, and
in disguise, he would escape to Canada.
The plan seemed very doable, except for the fact that Sarah’s secret had somehow
escaped and become public knowledge to the other young women at the school. A crowd
gathered near Sarah’s room and in loud voices, they urged her to turn the soldier over
the Federals. The voices and ruckus grew louder until Dr. Williams and Dean Armstrong
appeared and behind them was the General Halleck himself. The college, the General
stated, was now officially closed. The young women were told to pack up their belonging
and be on their way before morning.
Just then, Corporal Johnson appeared from Sarah’s room and surrendered himself.
He begged that Halleck let the students remain and explained that he had been hiding
there without their knowledge. Halleck reluctantly agreed and proceeded to arrest
Johnson as a spy. Ironically, as he was now wearing normal civilian clothing, he was no
longer afforded the rights of a soldier. A spy who was captured behind enemy lines was
sentenced to death.
Three nights later, Corporal Isaac Johnson was executed on the rusty brick street
at the front of the Senior Hall. When the last shots rang out, the bell in the school’s tower
began to ring. A short time later, Sarah’s body was discovered… the rope of the tower
bell was wrapped around her neck. She had taken her own life, hoping to join her lover in
According to the stories, it is believed that the ghost of Sarah June Wheeler still
walks in Senior Hall, which has been restored today to look much like it did when she
lived there. The legends claim that her spirit is still searching for the ghost of Corporal
Johnson, hoping to be reunited with him in the afterlife. In recent years, other stories have
surfaced, claiming that Sarah and her lover actually died as they were trying to escape
from Columbia. They allegedly perished by drowning in a nearby flooded river. This
version of the story might make even more sense, as Stephens College did not actually
have that bell tower in 1862. It was not built for another ten years or so afterward.
One thing that we do know though, is that strange things are still said to occur
in Senior Hall and that the place has a weird energy about it, according to the residents
who have lived there. Perhaps the story of Sarah and the Corporal is merely a legend to
try and explain the oddities of an otherwise spooky building… a piece of folkore which
was created to help the residents understand why ghostly events were taking place in the
building with them. But then again, maybe not.
Inside the tower in Senior Hall. Photo by Riley Martin.
Mirthin, now a local who helps out at the downtown store Good Nature was a
Stephens College security guard for many years. He has not doubt that Sarah is merely
a story. “Go sit in front of that piano in the ballroom. Just go sit there and she’ll play.
I heard her play for me and watched her many nights. She’s a peaceful spirit though.”
When asked her appearance, “Beautiful little thing, dressed in a period light blue dress
and blondish rusty hair. People shouldn’t fear her. If you don’t believe me go walk the
grounds at night.” His first occurrence was her apparition walking around the base of
the tower as any other student and her continuous appearances at the piano playing him
However, Senior Hall isn’t the only building on campus with a haunted past.
Searcy Hall; according to locals is just as eerie. A student is said to have gave birth in
Searcy and left the infant in a locker to die. It has been documented that students living in
the dorm have heard what sounds like a baby crying at night. Yet the story has never been
As for Columbia Hall, student Chelsea Coopersmith, a junior, says “I didn’t
really think too much of it at first because I always seem to have bruises on my legs,”
Coppersmith started noticing strange occurrences when she moved into Columbia her
second year at Stephens. Coppersmith began to think the bruises were pure accident when
they began to look more familiar. “After I started to see new bruises every night appear
on my legs, I joked about it being a ghost.” Coppersmith said.
Pillsbury Hall is the second most haunted building talked about among alumni.
Almost every student at Stephens has to live in a dorm on campus their freshman year. In
the Pillsbury dorms, “there are three women that will sing to you at night and tuck you in.
They have been affectionately named, ‘The Blue Ladies.'” Many students who have lived
in these dormitories have said that they have heard lullabies.
Robin Riley, an Alumni of Stephens College who lived in Pillsbury talks about
how, “there was always this one window that would never open no matter how hard
anybody tried.” On Thanksgiving break, “I was the only one there, the campus was pretty
empty and all of a sudden in the cold the winter just flew up.” There’s also been a lot of
talk about the mysterious elevators that sometimes work… and sometimes don’t and kind
of go to whatever floor they decide, regardless what you push.
Brooke Cummings is a junior at Stephens College who once lived on the second
floor of Pillsbury. “A duffle bag fell from my closest twice while cups on the bathroom
counter would be falling off, one by one.” Cummings later transferred to MU, though she
said this was not due to occurrences at Stephens.
By Riley Martin