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Scared to Death by a Ghost 
Cambridge, Massachusetts 
c.1800

Harvard University was established in 1636, and is the oldest college in America. The hallowed halls of old Harvard have produced some ghost stories over the past four centuries. This story is attributed to Washington Allston, the landscape painter, who graduated from Harvard in 1800.

It is told that a student was scared to death, either by participants in a college prank, or by a real ghost that appeared while such a prank was taking place.

"In those reunions which used so often to take place in the students' chambers, for conversation, cigar-smoking, and social enjoyment, the subject of ghosts had been very frequently discussed. Some students from the country told long and dreadful stories, well authenticated by their grandmothers and maiden aunts, of real, veritable ghosts appearing in the old fashioned legitimate way, dressed in long white robes and making appalling revelations of crimes and hidden treasures, and then vanishing instantly—going off without beat of drum, and leaving the astonished and horrified spectator in the most pitiable state.

To these narratives many of the student auditors would 'seriously incline,' while others counterfeited belief, in order to induce the narrators to afford them more entertainment of the same sort. In fact, on one occasion, the whole coterie, with a single exception, declared their unqualified belief in ghosts. The stories they had just heard were too accurate, circumstantial, and authentic, to be doubted. There was no withstanding the accumulation of evidence. The single dissenter from this opinion, however, stubbornly declared that there must be some mistake. The thing was too absurd in itself to gain his belief. He would never believe in ghosts till he should see one with his own eyes. As for fearing them, 'he would like to see the ghost that could frighten him.'

One of his fellow students, as far from a real belief in supernatural appearances as himself, resolved, nevertheless, to put the hero's courage to the proof.

Accordingly on the next evening after that when this remarkable conversation took place, at a very late hour, he dressed himself up in white, and quietly glided into the chamber of his companion, who was lying alone in his bed and wide awake.

The ghost-student, knowing that his friend always slept with loaded pistols under his pillow, had previously taken care to draw out the bullets from them; for he was too well acquainted with the impetuous character of the other to doubt that he would use them on such an occasion. On the appearance of the spectre, the hero sat up in bed and very deliberately took a survey of him, as well as the 'struggling moonbeam's misty light' shining in at the windows would permit. The ghost glided across the room, and, standing before the bed, raised his hand in an awful and menacing manner, according to the most approved fashion of ghostdom. Still the whole performance failed to shake the firm nerves of the Harvard ghost-seer. He only laughed, and shouted aloud in melodramatic form of speech, " Vanish ! I fear you not!"

The spectre was motionless, still standing and gazing upon him with ghastly masked face. Our hero, at length, determined to put the apparition to the proof, and 'teach him never to come there no more,' took one of the pistols from beneath his pillow and fired it point blank in the spectre's face. When the smoke cleared away—there stood the grim figure, as before, immovable and apparently invulnerable. Instantaneously the appalling belief came over the mind of the unhappy beholder that he was actually in the presence of a spirit from the other world. All his preconceived opinions—all his habits of thought, all his vaunted courage vanished at once. His whole being was changed; and he instantly fell into the most frightful convulsions.

His companion, who had been watching the effect of his experiment, became alarmed in his turn; and called in others from the entry who had participated in the ill-timed joke. Medical aid was called in, and every appliance resorted to for his recovery. But it was all in vain. Convulsion succeeded convulsion; and the unfortunate youth never recovered sufficient consciousness to be made aware of the trick that had been played upon him, until the melancholy scene was closed by his untimely death.

This story has its moral. The mind of man is too delicate and complicated a structure to be tampered with by experiments of this description. Whatever may be one's opinion of ghosts, it is dangerous to counterfeit any thing of this kind for the purpose of producing terror in the mind of another."

Unrelated, Allston, Massachusetts, the neighborhood in Boston, was named after William Allston. He was a native of South Carolina, but lived in Cambridge for about 25 years of his life.




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