Haunted McGill

Student Living by
Ryan Reisert and Michael Paolucci

Once upon a midnight dreary, McGill’s campus was quite eerie. The orange leaves rustled and the autumn air was crisp; shadows danced in the blustery wind. It was Halloween and the ghosts that lurk McGill were out to play.

Where are these phantoms of the night, you ask? They can be found in many places; all it takes is a little faith and courage. The place to start hunting for McGill’s ghosts is in front of the Arts Building, where the remains of James McGill were reinterred in 1875.

Born on Oct. 6, 1744, in Glasgow, Scotland, James McGill immigrated to North America in 1766. Taking on the wilderness, McGill navigated rivers and lakes, and lived off the land in the unmapped snowy backwoods as part of the fur trade industry. Once he became a successful merchant, he moved to Montreal. After his death in 1813, McGill was originally buried next to his fur-trading chum, John Porteous, in the Dufferin Square Cemetery, near present-day Place du  Canada. The eradication of this cemetery in 1875 brought McGill back to the University he founded. If you’re lucky, you just might catch a glimpse of the famous founding father guarding the University wearing a tricorne hat made of beaver fur.

There have been other stories of ghosts haunting the Arts Building itself. After passing the ghost of James McGill, take the steps up into the Arts Building to wander its echoing corridors and the recesses of its basement alcoves. According to Peter McNally, Director of the History of Montreal project, in the 1840s the Arts Building housed the Faculty of Medicine and its cadavers. So beware, the ghosts that prowl these quarters may not be as welcoming as the shape of James McGill. Perhaps the only detection of a ghost you’ll find is that chill that has just passed through you, or the light that appears only on some nights in the cupola atop the Arts Building.

Rumours floating around cyberspace indicate that McGill’s old Faculty of Science building  may have a ghost as well. Many teachers and students have said that they often feel as if they’re being watched, and some have even claimed they saw a man in a top hat hurriedly passing through the halls; perhaps an old professor late for office hours?

If you make the trip up the hill to the Osler Library, you can pay your respects to William Osler and his wife Lady Grace Osler, whose ashes rest in a niche of the library. Osler is one of the most renowned members of the Faculty of Medicine. He graduated from McGill in 1872 with a medical degree. In 1919, at the age of 70, he died during the Spanish influenza epidemic. Osler bestowed a large portion of his priceless collection of books and manuscripts to the University, and it is amongst his collection in the Osler Library that he wished to rest. So if you’re studying late at night in the library, you just might catch a glimpse of William Osler leafing through his old manuscripts, or examining your new science notes over your shoulder. But fear not, with his dying wish fulfilled, to rest with his wife amongst his treasures, he should be no bother to you, and is probably the friendliest ghost you’ll find on campus. Look out for his wife’s ghost too for some interesting tales; her paternal great-grandfather was the famous midnight-rider, Paul Revere.

The upper buildings of the McGill campus, above Dr. Penfield, appear to be the most ghost-ridden of them all. After leaving the Osler Library, continue upwards to brave the Allan Memorial Institute. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the MKULTRA experiments, partially funded by the CIA, subjected patients to electroshock therapy, sensory deprivation, and lobotomies. Experiments also forced patients to listen to broadcasted messages (either from loud speakers or from under their pillows), as well as giving them experimental hallucinogenic drugs. Any ghosts trapped in this building will be forever reminded of their tortured pasts.

Near the Allan Memorial Institute are several other potentially haunted buildings. Their ivy covered brick and turreted facades alone reveal what can be found within. This journey is not for the faint of heart, and it is for this reason that these buildings shall remain nameless: to protect those who wish to remain unacquainted with these terrible ghosts. Janitors here refuse to clean the morgues and the other surrounding buildings, especially at night, due to the ghosts they have encountered there. What’s more, the tunnels connecting the buildings in this area are extremely old, and a wrong turn down there may bring you face to face with a spectre haunting the way.   

Making your way back down the hill, proceed to the Rare Books collection on the fourth floor of McLennan library, where the University’s Lincoliana collection is kept. The eclectic collection was donated to McGill by   alumnus Dr. Joseph N. Nathanson in 1986.  It consists of dozens of Lincoln busts, multiple copies of his biography in Icelandic, a lantern held by Lincoln in his 1860 campaign, and most famously, a piece of towel, stained with Lincoln’s blood, that was placed under his head after he was assassinated on April 15, 1865. This remaining piece of cloth, no bigger than a business card, is the “Holy relic,” as Dr. Richard Virr, Head and Curator of Manuscripts of McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections, puts it. While this may not be the resting place of Abraham Lincoln, being in the presence of an object so intimately tied to his death certainly induces goosebumps. Who knows, perhaps Lincoln visits from time to time, to sit in his chair upon which the framed cloth stands.

Finally, leaving the campus, take a stroll over to Prince Arthur Street, between Parc and Ste. Famille in the McGill ghetto for your final ghostly rendezvous. There is a home on this street (address unknown), rumoured to be the home of a poltergeist. According to the legend, in 1929 a series of knots started to mysteriously appear, first in the curtains, and then spreading throughout the house, anything that could be knotted, was. Years later, a separate, new tenant of the house reported the same occurrence happening one night.

Thus ends your midnight journey through McGill’s most haunted spaces. Visit one, or visit all, it is up to your discretion. Bring a friend for company and safety, and don’t wander where you’re not welcome. Tread lightly, for you can’t ever say you weren’t warned.