Imagine Catholic University in 1905, surrounded by unpaved roads, with no streetlights. Most of the structures commonly associated with campus are not present. Even the iconic power plant won’t be built for another 5 years. Electricity is sourced from a dynamo located in the basement of McMahon Hall, with power cut off at 10pm every night. The campus – and dorms – are left in darkness throughout the evening, with late-studying students permitted to keep reading by gas light (for a charge billed to their specific room). The perfect setting for a spooky scene…
Keane Hall, later renamed Albert Hall, was one of the earliest dorms on campus. As the third major structure on campus, built in 1896, it served as the residence hall for lay students. With the admission of undergraduates beginning in 1904, the Hall became the center of student life on campus. Demolished in 1970, it was located along Michigan Avenue. As is the case for dormitory life regardless of the period, tensions could mount over noise or light disturbances in its early years. Among such disturbances was a game of craps played by staff members outside the dorm’s windows. The students, not wishing to report it and risk the employees losing their jobs, came up with an unorthodox solution. As reported by Frank Luntz (class of 1907), in his book Undergraduate Days, 1904-1908:
“In the biological laboratory in McMahon Hall there was a human skeleton which we rubbed all over with wet phosphorous so it could be seen in the dark. After dinner one dark night we wrapped it in a blanket, and, stretcher fashion, we sneaked it to a fourth-floor window directly over the spot where we were sure the game would be played. Except for the profs, everyone in Keane Hall, plus visiting day hops, crammed the windows on the rear side of the building. We waited until the crap game was at its height of excitement and then gently lowered the skeleton right in to the middle of it. Every spectator had been cautioned not to laugh or make any sound. Everyone had to gag himself with his hands at this moment in order to comply with this silence mandate. The crap shooters darted in all directions. Two went screaming against the building. It was quite a scene!”¹
Kuntz continues with the aftermath of the skeletal surprise:
“The two waiters involved refused to work for the University any more. However, when the joke was explained to them two days later, they returned to their jobs. But that was the end of the crap games. Meanwhile, the skeleton was sneaked back to the glass case in the laboratory. We Expected Dr. Griffin to scold us for taking the skeleton, but during class next day he went to the case, opened the door, and said to the skeleton, “If you don’t stop prowling around the campus during the dead of night, I shall have to put a padlock on this case and lock you in!” He closed the case and resumed his work with his students. The consensus of the boys that evening was, ‘Good old Doc Griffin! He’s a regular guy!’”²
While most campus legends center on Caldwell Hall, the University’s true tale of terror was located in the now-vanished Keane (Albert) Hall. Letting this skeleton out of the closet highlights the early character of the campus, including the landscape and the personalities that shaped it.
For more information on Keane (Albert) Hall, see the “Vanished Buildings” online exhibit: http://cuexhibits.wrlc.org/exhibits/show/vanished-buildings/buildings/albert–hall
¹ Frank Kuntz, Undergraduate Days, 1904-1908 (Catholic University of America Press), 68-69.
² Kuntz, Undergraduate Days, 69.