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The Ghosts of Kansas

A fourth-generation Jayhawk looks back at the sometimes-bloody history of his home state. The ghosts, it turns out, aren't the thing to be afraid of.
Kansas Jayhawk. (Photo: quinn.anya/Flickr)

Kansas Jayhawk. (Photo: quinn.anya/Flickr)

Eighteen percent of Americans claim that they’ve seen ghosts. I’m not one of them, at this point, but given the bloody history of my home state—a prairie state that’s seen everything from major Civil War action to mass-murdering pioneers—it feels inevitable. When my time comes, I hope it’s not some minor ghost, like the ghost that used to haunt the Sigma Nu fraternity at the University of Kansas that the brothers had ingeniously named “her.” I want this ghost to have a good story.

Though you’d think the ghosts of Kansas would have plenty of reason to be mad—no small number were slaughtered in the vicious Bleeding Kansas battles—not all of them harbor ill will inherited from Civil War bad blood. Take, for instance, the ghost of Colonel William Eldridge, a Civil War veteran who built (and consistently rebuilt) his hotel on the corner of 7th and Massachusetts in downtown Lawrence. By many accounts, Eldridge still haunts the hotel—in particular, Room 506, which conveniently features a landmark cornerstone that’s a portal to the realm of the dead—a place that he cared to restore once pro-slavery Missouri forces burned it, as well as most of Lawrence, to the ground. Imagine, room service from another dimension! Few hauntings seem chosen by the ghost, but this one surely is. Since the Eldridge is, and has been, a pillar of downtown for over a hundred years, I’d argue that The Colonel deserves it.

Other spectral presences in Lawrence, and outside, have much darker histories. On the grounds of Haskell Indian Nations University, which opened as a re-education center for the offspring of “noble red men” in 1885, there’s a cemetery filled with children’s graves, most of them filled with kids who fell ill at the school shortly after being wrenched away from their parents. According to Beth Coopers Ghosts of Kansas, the cries of an infant child can be heard there—possibly the crying of Harry White Wolf, a child who died at the school when he was six months old. Stories are told of trains arriving at Haskell, filled with crying children wrenched away from their parents in Oklahoma and elsewhere, sliding out of the carriages and stepping onto the campus like zombies. Since 1970, Haskell has served as an accredited university, where Native Americans who qualify receive their education for free.

Once you untangle the cobweb of history, both good and evil, from the nation’s most rectangular state, Kansas looks like it’d be a pretty good place to be a ghost. There’s lots of open haunting space and lots of remarkably strange graveyards to set up shop.

Going west on US-40 from Lawrence carries you to Kansas’ most famous haunted site, the cemetery in Stull. Though the apparition there isn’t a traditional ghost, per se—pop star Ariana Grande’s visit to the cemetery wasn’t easily shaken—it is said to be one of the devil’s gateways to Hell. Once a year, according to the legend, a door would open behind the cemetery’s chapel and present a spiral staircase that one could presumably walk down and end up in Hell. Also, according to the same mythology, the Pope will not allow his pilots to fly over Stull. Eventually, the chapel that stood in the middle of the grass—an eerie, ramshackle building like something Guillermo Del Toro would put up in his backyard—was knocked down on the day before Halloween, in an attempt to discourage people from camping behind it on the night of the 31st. Despite that, the cemetery still attracts its fair share of thrill-seekers as well as pledge classes from K.U.’s fraternities.

KANSAS ONCE REPRESENTED THE colliding changes of the American West, and also the American Dream. Buster Keaton is from Piqua. Barry Sanders is from Wichita. Dwight Eisenhower is from Abilene. Robert Altman used to own the house I grew up in, in Prairie Village. Clyde Tombaugh—the guy who, at 23, discovered Pluto, which is definitely a planet by the way and I won’t hear otherwise—is from Burdett.

Since taking over as governor in 2010, though, Sam Brownback and his group of non-Kansans have reinvented Kansas as a lab for his austerity measures. Unprecedented cuts to education are soon to be passed down. The state-wide arts budget is $0, making it the only state with no budget for arts initiatives.

While I’m proud to be a Kansan, it’s easier in theory than in practice. My ancestors were native Kansans—there’s a family story about a great dust storm in the early-to-mid 1800’s where a great-grand-something-or-other was saved by a mysterious man on horseback and pulled from the storm at just the right moment. My maternal grandfather is from Horton; my paternal grandmother is from Pittsburg. We have a family farm, which is no longer operated by anyone in the family, in Holcomb.

When I enrolled at the University of Kansas, you could find my picture in the front of the official alumni magazine with the handful of other fourth-generation Kansas Jayhawks. Though it’s a state that’s basically as well known as shorthand for “flyover territory” or Wizard of Oz trivia, I think its history, Bleeding Kansas and all, is something I should be proud of. It’s a weird state, and every time I go back it feels like a different planet than New York, but it’s a huge part of my identity, probably more so than I’d ever admit.

Once you untangle the cobweb of history, both good and evil, from the nation’s most rectangular state, Kansas looks like it’d be a pretty good place to be a ghost. There’s lots of open haunting space and lots of remarkably strange graveyards to set up shop.

Out west, the ghosts have a little more room to range. According to Cooper’s book, many of the state’s spirits have settled down in Topeka, but that just might be because she, admittedly, lives there. Topeka High, the Elk Lodge, Downtown Sandwich Shop—if you’re going off of Cooper’s manifesto—they’re all infested with ghosts. But from what I’ve gathered, through observations fortified by reading Cooper’s stories, the eeriest place in Kansas happens to be the Capitol Building in Topeka. But the scariest thing about Kansas has nothing to do with ghosts.