On October 25, the History Department hosted its first Haunted History Halloween Campus Tour. Students gathered outside the Social Sciences Research Building in the early evening and walked to various spots to hear spooky tales related to the history of the University and its campus.
Professor of Russian History Faith Hillis started off the evening with “The Disappeared,” in which she related the many thrilling twists and turns in the story of how Thomas Riha, a Czech-born professor of history who at one time held the same position as Hillis at UChicago, mysteriously disappeared in 1969. Riha had by the time of his disappearance moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he was teaching Russian History. His fate remains uncertain to this day, but the story involved years of intrigue, a bitter divorce, a feud between the FBI and the CIA (including involving J. Edgar Hoover), various mysterious deaths connected to other women Riha had been involved with, and numerous other larger-than-life happenings. Hillis noted that all the details of this scary story are available to read online in a now-declassified trove of government documents that is several hundred pages long.
Professor Faith Hillis tells "The Disappeared," the elaborate story of former UChicago Professor of Russian History Thomas Riha's mysterious 1969 disappearance.
Next, U.S. Labor History professor Gabriel Winant regaled the audience with “The Cold Case,” the story of Romanian dissident Ioan Culianu, a professor of religious history in the Divinity School at UChicago who was murdered in the third-floor bathroom of Swift Hall in 1991. The identity and motive of the killer are still unknown, but many suspect Culianu’s death had something to do with his outspoken criticism of the Romanian fascist group the Iron Guard.
Professor Gabriel Winant tells "The Cold Case," the story of the unsolved murder of religious history Professor Ioan Culianu in 1991, which took place in one of Swift Hall's bathrooms.
The tour then moved closer to the Main Quad, where Assistant Instructional Professor and Undergraduate Administrator Peggy O’Donnell, one of the event’s main organizers, told the story of “The Irradiated.” O’Donnell reminded the audience of how UChicago scientists affiliated with the Manhattan Project achieved the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction in a squash court underneath the stands of the former Stagg Football Field (now the site of the Regenstein and Mansueto Libraries) on December 2, 1942. O’Donnell explained the lasting legacy of this first nuclear reaction, including its connections to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Assistant Instructional Professor Peggy O'Donnell tells "The Irradiated," the story of the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction under UChicago's former football field in 1942.
Subsequently, Professor of U.S. History Kathleen Belew related “The Drowned,” explaining the history of the fabled erstwhile swimming pool located in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall. Belew first told an apocryphal tale of a drowned undergraduate student whose bereaved father made a large donation to the University to build a student center in her name, requesting that the center include a pool in which all students would be taught to swim. Belew explained that in reality, Ida Noyes was the wife of a philanthropist and not a student who met a tragic end. Ida Noyes Hall did at one time have a swimming pool in the basement, and the University required all undergraduate students to pass a swimming test until 2012.
Professor Kathleen Belew tells "The Drowned," an apocryphal tale about the erstwhile swimming pool in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall.
Finally, History of Science professor Michael Rossi led the tour back to SSRB to tell “The Eugenicists.” Above the entrance to the Social Science Research Building are carvings of the faces of various famous social scientists, such as Jeremy Bentham and Auguste Comte. Rossi focused on two of the carvings – of Francis Galton and Franz Boas – who are facing each other. Galton is known as the one of the founders of the eugenics movement, while Boas – a pioneer of modern anthropology – vehemently opposed eugenicist theories. Rossi speculated about whether leaving the two men to face each other for eternity was an intentional choice by the building’s designers.
Professor Michael Rossi tells "The Eugenicists," about the carvings of Francis Galton and Franz Boas above SSRB.
At the end of the tour, a mysterious ghost shrouded in red light appeared atop the roof of SSRB, tossing candy down to the audience below.
A mysterious presence tosses candy down from the roof of SSRB!
It was a wonderful night full of mystery and history! Special thanks to all the story-tellers; to Peggy O’Donnell and Kathleen Belew for their work in organizing the event; to Alex Hoffmann, Teaching Fellow in the Social Sciences who served as the tour’s “medium” and official guide; and to those who responded to Professor Belew’s tweet crowdsourcing material for the tour (in particular, thanks are due to Kit Ginzky, alumna of the college and current PhD student, who supplied the ideas for “The Cold Case” and “The Drowned”). Perhaps we will see you again next year for the second installment of the Haunted History Halloween Campus Tour!