University of Virginia’s Twilight Tales

The University of Virginia is steeped in history and traditions, some of which are downright macabre. What strange encounters await visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s famous academy?

Founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville is considered the equal of New England ivy leagues like Harvard and Yale.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its prestigious academics and history.

But this gilded façade hardly conceals shadowy tales whispered by students and staff.

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and third president of the United States, actively campaigned to create a secular university near his home in Albemarle County after leaving public office.

He raised funds to purchase a site, obtained a charter from the Commonwealth of Virginia, designed its buildings, and planned its curriculum.

Jefferson even served as its first rector, for a brief time, before dying at the age of 83 in 1826.

The year Jefferson died, future master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe, then a young man of 17, enrolled to study ancient and modern languages.

His tenure lasted a mere eleven months, but the university takes pride in their famous student.

It has preserved Room 13, West Range as it would have looked when he stayed there—with the addition of raven décor.

The original campus, called the Academical Village, consisted of a rectangular lawn anchored by the Rotunda at one end and the Academical Building at the other–both fine examples of neoclassical architecture.

A series of pavilions and dormitories lined the Lawn, surrounding gardens enclosed by serpentine brick walls.

Five pavilions sat opposite of each other, each a unique design to accommodate lectures and faculty quarters.

For nearly a month, students passing on the Lawn waved to their professor, unaware they were waving to a corpse.

It was in front of Pavilion X that an early tragedy occurred.

John A. G. Davis was a highly respected law professor at the University of Virginia who, on the evening of November 12, 1840, confronted two masked students firing pistols on the Lawn.

The students, William Kincaid and Joseph Semmes, were protesting the disbandment of a student militia three years earlier.

Professor Davis interrupted their rowdy-dow and attempted to apprehend them, at which point Joseph Semmes shot him in the stomach.

Davis lingered for two days before succumbing to his wound. Semmes fled the state and later committed suicide.

According to folklorist L.B. Taylor, Jr., the professor’s ghost has been seen lurking around the former home of his son’s mother-in-law.

A particularly ghoulish tale is told about Pavilion VI, otherwise known as the “Romance Pavilion” due to languages like French, Spanish, and Italian being taught there for many years.

Rumors swirl that, while living in Pavilion VI, a deceased professor’s wife changed his clothes and kept him propped up by the window in order to continue enjoying their accommodations.

For nearly a month, students passing on the Lawn waved to their professor, unaware they were waving to a corpse.

Alderman Library, home of the Rare Book School, is believed to be haunted by two ghosts.

The library opened in 1938, and the university’s book collection was moved from the Rotunda, including several hundred volumes donated by Dr. Bennett Wood Green.

Patrons and staff have reportedly seen Green’s short, bearded ghost in the stacks.

Another phantom, that of an unnamed physician, haunts the Garnett Room and a book collection he took an interest in while he was alive.

Both bibliophiles are said to watch over these rare tomes and keep them safe.

Today, the University of Virginia is home to over 36,000 students, faculty, and staff, studying and learning in this historic Charlottesville enclave. Cavaliers take pride in their university, its history, and traditions—phantoms and all. Perhaps, if you visit, you might catch a glimpse of something unexplainable as well.