As a work-study student in the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Wharton senior Greg Bryda had never given ghosts much thought before the time of his first "encounter."
One day in November, 2004, Greg was given high-security access to the subbasement, where the museum's unused artifacts are kept. His job was to vacuum a row of newly-stored South American canoes. When he reached the third canoe, he realized that the vacuum cleaner wouldn't turn on. As he began to investigate the problem, he heard "an audible scratching noise." Though he'd been sure he was alone, he first assumed that there must be an intruder. He peered down the rows and there "it" was: "a silhouette walking from right to left ... it was a person." Next came the noise, the sound of clay pots or dishes hitting the floor, or as Greg recalls, "a dull shattering." A disturbing unease settled over him. "I literally felt the hairs stand up on my arm," he says. "It was a strange, out-of-body experience."
Terrified by the shadowy figure and unusual sounds, Greg ran to get security. He and a team then scoured the basement for an intruder, or, at the very least, the shards of the clay pots he'd heard shatter. But when they found nothing, the guards never questioned Greg's sanity; instead, their suspicions turned to the paranormal. Greg, previously unaware of the folklore of the so-called "subbasement ghost," had suddenly been inducted into the museum's supernatural history. "You can call me crazy," he says, "but I know what I saw ... and there was no one down there."
There are definitely spirits moving around, I can feel it," says Marla Schenck, the security guard at the Penn Museum whom Greg first alerted after his subbasement run-in. "You got a lot of dead things here," she continues. The subbasement, as many facilities workers will gladly recount, has been the site of several bizarre incidents they believe to be the work of a ghost network within the museum.
Plenty of employees share Schenck's sentiment and many have their own stories. In fact, the whole museum seems fascinated by the the hauntings, the spirits, the ghosts and other unclassified, paranormal activity. These tales are written into Penn's oral folklore, and they continue to surface.
The facilities workers and security guards, like the ones who suggested that Greg Bryda's subbasement companion had been paranormal, are the primary keepers of this strange community lore. Mostly long-term employees who have spent 10, 20 or even 30 years perusing the museum at night, they are happy to share the strange stories that color the museum's 125-year-old past.
Eddie McLean, who works in ground maintenance, is one of the most enthusiastic volunteers of Penn ghost history. Once, as a night watchman in the early '80s, he had locked a room at 12 a.m. and then gone back through two hours later. When he noticed a light bulb was out, he went to screw in another, only to set off a small explosion of sparks. Next, he describes, "I said, 'OK, must be a power surge -- I'll go get another bulb.'" But as he lit up the room, he was shocked to see that "the chairs in the room, the rows that had been perfectly straight, were zigzagged all over the room." Searching for an explanation, he realized that the only other security guard did not have the keys to that particular area. "I don't believe too much in ghosts," McLean says, "but there's gotta be something." McLean's encounters, interestingly enough, are not limited to the museum. "I got a little girl ghost at home," he notes, ardently nodding his head.
Marla Schenck, as with many other guards who have not (yet) had a dramatic ghost experience like Eddie McLean's, believes the strange "feelings" that accompany long stretches of quiet time contribute to the haunted atmosphere. Random toilet flushings, rapid opening and closing of doors and tripped alarms are the kinds of unexplainable on-duty occurrences that quickly become commonplace. As Schenck describes, "When you're in here by yourself, I'm telling you, it's creepy. I get alarms on the weekend, but nobody's in here but me." Imperfect alarms are not necessarily worrisome, but for Schenck, they seem to be proof of a different kind of intruder. "Penn Police call and check up, and I say, 'I'm the only one here. I'm telling you, all three buildings are closed and secure.'" She may not be able to offer an explanation, but Schenck seems certain of the museum's unnatural forces.
The museum's most famous ghost, as the archives or the guards will tell you, is George Vaillant, a museum director in the '40s. Vaillant's story is shrouded in the kind of mystery and scandal that breeds the best tales. His unexpected death in 1945 (while he still occupied his museum post) was deemed a suicide, but those who have sighted him purposefully walking the halls in the past 20 years seem to think the ghost has unresolved business. "The George Vaillant story has always been compelling," notes one museum official. "If it's true that he was killed, maybe he was killed .... They always say he's looking for something," he trails off in true, campfire dramatic fashion.
At the museum, fervent believers and skeptics alike share in the fascination of these occurrences. When one of the curators is asked if he believes in ghosts, he shrugs his shoulders indifferently, though Greg Bryda says later that this particular individual had been "insanely jealous" after the subbasement encounter. Alex Pezzati, the museum's archivist, says he has never thought much of the ghost stories, which are recorded and filed with all other types of incidents. If they do come his way, he'd rather not get involved. "I've always re-directed them elsewhere," he says. "It's just not my interest."
Still, even this skeptic does not seem exempt from the communal sensitivity to unusual happenings. Pezzati later divulges, "I've worked here late, and you hear creaks -- but one time, it did sound like a few footsteps, like four steps." He pauses. "But that's it, that's as far as I can go with what I've seen .... They were measured though, rather than four random things -- who knows?"
Laurie Hull is the founder of Delaware County Paranormal Research, the American Ghost Society's Philadelphia branch. "I don't like the Penn Museum," she says, referring to unsettling feelings she's had while researching some of the better-known stories. "I've been to lots of museums of its type, in New York, to the National Gallery in London, even the Titanic exhibit," she recounts, "and I've never felt as weird as I have in certain parts of the Penn Museum." Trying to articulate her vague instinct, she questions whether it's "the building that works with the energy of the artifacts or the artifacts themselves?"
The museum joins a larger community and tradition, as Philadelphia itself is steeped in old ghost stories, with a ghost society, a ghost-hunting society and a nightly -- and immensely popular -- ghost tour, validating America's founding place's status as one of its most haunted cities.
Philadelphia, says Hull, is subject to such a proliferation of ghosts because its history is riddled with "emotional and important events," associated with the founding period. Such emotion, she explains, leaves a profound "imprint upon its environment." But what's the point of ghosts if their presence goes unexplored? Hull notes that Philadelphia's particular interest in ghosts is fueled by the "amount of opportunities to congregate and communicate" on issues and findings.
The Philadelphia Ghost Tour is just one such opportunity for congregation and communication. "We're not here to tell you to believe in the occult, we're just here to share some stories. The rest is up to you," says Josh, who, as a tour guide, is appropriately dressed in long black robes. The packed crowd on a Sunday evening is a mixed bag of tourists, curious first-timers and real ghost followers and enthusiasts. As Josh leads the march through the cobblestone streets of Old City, the stories themselves become less interesting than the increasingly rapt individuals.
"Ghosts so often arise from human suffering," explains Josh with dead-pan seriousness, "so there may be ghosts waiting here to tell us about the birth of America, or any other unresolved wounds, or many other things that are essentially the communication of the most historical events of our time." Josh makes many grandiose statements about the nature of ghosts over the course of the hour, but no one laughs. Everyone, from the terrified little kids to the semi-skeptical adults, seems to love entertaining the pairing of historical old Philly and its scores of ghosts.
One member of the group discloses that he's been on the tour several times and has witnessed its bizarre "power." "I had a friend that got sick at the Washington Square stop," he recounts, "and so he left. As soon as he got off, he felt fine. There's definitely something -- or someone -- haunting this path." Not so surprising, says Laurie Hull, who claims that the ghosts in this famous spot are expecting visitors. "There's a weird, heavy feeling in the atmosphere," she describes. "There will be noise everywhere else, but as soon as you go into the Square, it gets silent." Haunted or not, the tour is consistently full of people ready and eager to hear something truly unbelievable.
Josh does have a couple of good stories. There has never been a (documented) Benjamin Franklin sighting on the Penn campus, but his spirit is known to frequent Old City. In 1884, he was reportedly spotted for nearly a week in the library of the American Philosophical Society, where he knocked over a cleaning lady as he furiously rushed (as Josh says, with "ghostlike violence") towards one of the bookshelves. Not unlike George Vaillant, Ben is usually seen "looking for something." Well, either looking for something or dancing in the streets of Old City, as many passers-by have claimed to see his statue do.
Dilys Winegrad, the curator of the Arthur Ross Gallery on Penn's campus, is the author of two histories of the University and an authority on its secrets, scandals, eccentricities and old-fashioned ghost stories. Still, she is not surprised that Ben Franklin has never frequented the campus and doubts his ghost status in Old City. "Benjamin Franklin was such a rationalist, eminently so," she explains. "He represents that side of America. He was practical; he was not religious."
Ghost stories, as Franklin himself might attest, only last as long as they find believers. "That side" of America is ever-present at Penn, where you have to go hunting for ghost stories, and they are few, far between and well-hidden. Nonetheless, there are still pockets of paranormal activity and small communities of people forever on the lookout. Right here at the Penn Museum, the unofficial hunt goes on. However doubtful or disbelieving, it seems as though everyone would agree with archivist Alex Pezzati when he says, "I'm waiting to see one"