Senior Hall stands out among the five buildings on the historic quad of Stephens College in Columbia, Mo.

It’s the oldest building on campus and said to be haunted by the ghost of Sarah Jane Wheeler, a young Southern lady studying at what was in the 1860s the Columbia Baptist Female College, a finishing school for Southern ladies.

Peter Byger, drama teacher at Stephens since 1971, heard about Sarah his first Halloween on the job.

“I’d heard about the legend of the ghost of Senior Hall, and I decided we would have a séance,” Byger said. 

Although the cause of Sarah’s death is contested by historians, the most popular story is a soldier injured outside Columbia during a skirmish between Union and Confederate troops arrived at the college injured and begging for aid.

“The girls heard him crying for help; then they let him in and nursed him back to health,” Byger said.

Troops followed the soldier’s trail of blood, but wouldn’t enter the college grounds.

During his recuperation, the soldier fell in love with Wheeler. But historians can’t agree on which side the soldier served.

“The lover was a Confederate or the lover was a Union soldier,” said Dr. Alan Havig, professor of history at Stephens since 1967. “She hid him in any case.”

Desperate to be together, the fugitive and Wheeler tried to escape and died.

One story is that they drowned in the Missouri River or nearby Hinkson Creek.

Another has Wheeler witnessing enemy soldiers hang her lover, so she threw herself from the bell tower at Senior Hall. However, in the 1860s the tower didn’t exist.

“There are lots of variations,” Havig said, who doesn’t believe in Sarah’s ghost. “There’s no way to know if anything happened.”

But Byger is sure something happened. The night of his séance, Halloween eve 1971, Byger held a punch and cookies party in the aging building. Then he took his wife and a few students to the third floor’s bell tower room.

“We went up hand in hand and lit candles around midnight,” Byger said.

The group passed Bob M. Gassaway, a reporter for The Columbia Tribune. He was camping on the third floor for a Halloween story.

“We went up the stairs and went in the room and sat down,” Byger said. “We put our candles on the floor and at that point, the door slammed, the candles were blown out and one of the girls in the group screamed and passed out, and we heard all sorts of commotion in the hallway. Everyone was kind of frozen there.”

Byger got up and opened the door to find the reporter trying to get into the room.

Gassaway recounted his story in the Nov. 1, 1971 edition of The Columbia Tribune:

“There was the sound of slow steps at first,” Gassaway wrote. “When they stopped, deep breathing became audible… I saw the figure of a man. Then the swish of a woman’s long skirt caught my eye as the man dropped into a half crouch, his left hand outstretched as though to ward something off. Then both figures disappeared down the stairs – quietly.”

Byger’s still not sure what the man saw.

“It could have been students, or it could have been a ghost,” Byger said.

After making sure the fainted student was OK, Byger and the students went home. But Sarah wasn’t finished with Byger.

“I got a call about three in the morning,” Byger said. “It was two girls coming back from a party and were passing Senior Hall. They met a woman in a gown and she told them I was no longer welcome in Senior Hall, but my wife was.”

The apparition mentioned Byger and his wife by name.

“The two girls called me and they were hysterical,” Byger said. “Still, to this day, I always feel a little strange going over there.”

Havig isn’t impressed by ghost stories.

“In the ’70s or early ’80s, the building was more or less abandoned. A lot of students used to break in on Halloween night,” he said. “They said they experienced sightings, but, of course, no pictures.”

The school restored and rededicated Senior Hall in the 1990s. It’s now home to music and dancing classes, but the ghost stories persist.

“I take the attitude that there are no ghosts. I think people dream these things up. There’s an old building, a door slams, and it’s a ghost. It’s just something students adhere to,” Havig said. “Colleges need that. Especially ones without football teams.”