School Spirits: Ghosts at Florida State

ghostHave you ever felt a slight chill while walking up the College Ave. hill, and it was much more than a midsummer sweat? Perhaps you’ve woken up in the middle of the night in Cawthon and seen a girl peering through your window (on the 4th floor!). Don’t worry – you’re not ill or in the middle of some sort of mental episode – you’ve probably just had a paranormal experience. FSU is home to several ghost stories, with wraiths purportedly haunting different buildings and landmarks around campus. While many students and alumni hold these stories near and dear to their hearts, keep in mind: they’re campus mythologies born of the imagination of FSU’s inhabitants.
Westcott Gate, where Gallows Hill used to be located
Westcott Gate, where Gallows Hill used to be located

The oldest ghost story originates decades before the institution was even founded. Written about in Tallahassee: A Capital City, Gallows Hill was constructed in 1829 as a place to hang Tallahassee’s most unsavory criminals, right about where the Westcott Fountain is today. The first and most famous execution to happen at Gallows Hill was of a mother convicted of killing her own child. Over the years, students have reported feeling chills and hearing strange sounds while traversing the Westcott Fountain at night. Another story from long ago involves the ghosts of the Confederate Cadets trained at the (briefly named) Florida Military and Collegiate Institute, one of FSU’s predecessor institutions. Members of the FSU ROTC have made claims that the ROTC parade grounds are haunted by the cadets, where they continue their drills and turn off the lights during showers.

Sarah “Tissie” Landrum Cawthon, ca. 1920s

For those who live in Cawthon Hall, they don’t have one ghost to worry about – they have two. One story told is about the ghost of Sarah “Tissie” Landrum Cawthon, the namesake of Cawthon Hall. Cawthon, the first Dean of the College Home (now known as Student Affairs) at FSCW was hired to oversee that students were consistently on their best behavior, and representing themselves as fine young women. She was described as becoming dismayed when students picked up more modern and revealing fashion, started drinking and smoking and public, and expounding more liberal ideas during the Roaring ’20s. In Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities,  it is said that her ghost moved into Cawthon Hall after its dedication, and she continues to look over the female students in the dorm. Some say that her new residency in Cawthon Hall occurred not-so-coincidentally when campus became co-educational and men moved into the dorm.

"Is there a ghost in Cawthon Hall?" by Lucy Weber, Florida Flambeau, 1971
“Is there a ghost in Cawthon Hall?” by Lucy Weber, Florida Flambeau, 1971
The other ghost of Cawthon Hall isn’t nearly as benevolent as the ghost of Tissie Cawthon. In 1971 the Florida Flambeau ran an article entitled “Is there a ghost in Cawthon Hall?” and speculation about new ghosts began. Legend has it that an FSCW student was sunbathing on roof of Cawthon when suddenly a thunderstorm rolled in. Trapped on the roof, the girl pounded on windows and doors, hoping for someone to let her back into the dorm, but she wasn’t discovered until after she had been killed by a lightning strike. To this day, students who live on the top floor claim they occasionally hear someone pounding on the window, crying and screaming, and sometimes will see a girl looking into the window from outside.
Do you have a favorite FSU ghost story that isn’t listed here? Leave it in the comments and we’ll be sure to add it to our collection! To see more photographs, ephemera, and artifacts related to the history of Florida State, check out the FSU Heritage Protocol Digital Collections or like the Heritage Protocol Facebook page.

3 thoughts on “School Spirits: Ghosts at Florida State

  1. Have there been any stories about Reynolds Hall before it was renovated in the 1990s? I lived on “Zero Alley” and we were sure that there was a ghost, but we could never get any evidence.

  2. Interesting to hear all of this, as I lived in Cawthon Hall 1990-91. At that time, it was exclusively a co-ed Transfer Student Dorm. I lived on the 4th floor south-side “men’s-wing”, often referred to as the “5th” floor, but this was not the case, 4th was the highest level short of being on the roof. A 5th floor is a misnomer, as per the buttons on the elevator. When you entered the dorm from the Landis Green side, due to the hill the Dorm was built into, you were at street “ground” level, I believe the elevator designated this as the B-level, or basement. The South-side 1st floor were Housing Offices, and the elevator skipped this level altogether, you could only choose from 2nd, 3rd, or 4th floor. During off-business hours, if you were sure the Offices were vacant, you could pull hard enough on the elevator doors to make them open, but I assume there were motion-sensors that would detect if you exited, and risked getting caught walking around (Others attempted it).
    The north side “women’s-wing” had their own elevator, and 4 floors. Other than the 1st floor, 2nd-4th had unlocked double-doors separating the wings.
    The official “front” of the Dorm faced East, and had multiple entrances at this 1st floor level, where a “common-room” connected the North and South Wings at the main level.
    It was in this common-room, full of leather chairs and couches, tables, and fireplace, that I felt if any was the most creepy area of the Dorm. It had that old mansion type of feeling, where if there were vintage portraits on the walls, the eyes of the people in the photos would follow you as you walked by. Often time this was a popular study-area at all hours of the night, especially since we had a curfew for not being in the girls-wing after-hours, but this was a co-ed common area, and was virtually never empty.
    I’m sure there were instances late at night where people in this area thought they heard/saw things that weren’t there, and other nooks and crannies throughout the building where a little exploration could lead you to somewhere where you weren’t supposed to be, mostly behind unlocked doors and windows, to possibly stumble upon things you weren’t supposed to see.

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