New College Ghost Stories: the Catalyst investigates

What do College Hall, Old Caples, the Cá d’Zan and nearly all the theaters in Sarasota have in common? Ghost stories. Current students, sketchy alums and even campus police officers have spun tales of apparitions, unexplained phenomena and bumps in the night about these and other places within New College and Sarasota.

Recently, the Catalyst was locked inside College Hall at night, sat in the “Devil’s Chair” during witching hour and lurked around Old Caples at ungodly hours. What have we found? You’d be surprised.

College Hall

While some Novo Collegians may be scared of the clowns in a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, even more are scared- or at least wary of -the Ringlings’ houses. Stories have floated around New College that some members of the staff refuse to go into College Hall at dusk because of bad vibes. While the Catalyst couldn’t find any firsthand accounts of ghosts in College Hall, several newspapers have confirmed that its owner, Charles Ringling, died inside.

College Hall was completed the year of Charles Ringling’s death in 1926. Could it be that Ringling stayed in College Hall to enjoy his estate for longer than the few months he was alive to see it? Intrepid second-years Casey Morell and Michael Waas joined the Catalyst inside College Hall to find out.

With ghost-hunting gear in tow, the Catalyst entered College Hall at roughly 11 p.m. “I’ve been up on that couch late at night. I’ve heard shit,” said the campus police officer as he locked College Hall’s front doors. Once inside, the gear was laid out on the circular centerpiece table.

Three disposable cameras, two digital cameras and a video camera were brought to capture any visual phenomena. Audio recorders were kept handy in order to hear if electronic voice phenomena (EVPs) could be captured. EVPs are voices caught on such electronic devices that would not otherwise be heard with the naked ear. Since spirits are thought to give off electromagnetic energy, we were equipped with an electromagnetic frequency (EMF) meter that would tell us when either a spirit or our cell phones were present.

We began the investigation on the first floor and headed to the basement. After discovering that the basement was locked, we quickly turned around and encountered our first instance of “activity.” As we made our way back to the main hall, the EMF meter began to spike between the lounge and the flight of stairs leading to the offices on the second floor. It spiked for about 10 seconds without pause as we stood there watching and listening for any signs of what might have set it off.

Once its initial bout of activity finished, it continued to go off intermittently. After checking our cell phones, cameras and other electronic devices which emit electromagnetic energy, it was clear that none of our devices set the meter off. We then checked the walls and surrounding areas to see if there were any cables or electric appliances that may have triggered the meter, but none were strong enough.

Was it a ghost? We can’t say. Our audio recorders picked up no EVPs and our pictures were devoid of activity.

The classroom at the top of the main staircase provided the next instance of activity. Ghostbuster Waas caught a blurry anomaly in the bottom right hand side of a photograph taken with his digital camera. The anomaly doesn’t look like the typical interference from another camera’s flash, but it could very well be a reflection from the overhead projector lens in the room.

The servant’s quarters, which are currently professors’ offices on the second floor in the north wing of College Hall, provided no activity. We then ventured to the couches that overlook the bay where the officer who locked us in said he had heard unnerving noises. After recording audio and video for several minutes, no EVPs or visual anomalies were recorded. Charles and Edith Ringling’s rooms provided no activity either. If there was one place in College Hall where the Catalyst would have encountered some activity it would likely have been there, since Charles Ringling likely died in his bedroom.

The only two places that were off-limits to the Catalyst in its investigation of College Hall were the basement and the third floor, which houses the organ pipes and several rooms.

Aside from a few pictures with orbs and other anomalies, we encountered no definitive evidence that College Hall is haunted.

The Bamboo

Weather it be the wind that blows through it or the Ringling graves that are covered by it, the bamboo by College and Cook Halls has become infamous among students. While most of the rumors of hauntings stem from the fact that John and Mable Ringling were reburied there in 1991, the sounds that come out of the bamboo don’t help. “If you want to hear something spooky, come down here some windy night,” New College Campus Police Officer Mike Tully told the Catalyst. “I ain’t never heard nothing like that on a horror movie. I tell you, it sounds like there’s animals in there, screeching, birds. It’s a bizarre sound.”

After reviewing pictures, audio and video recordings, no evidence was found to substantiate any claims of ghosts, but that hasn’t made the spot any less creepy. “Next time it’s windy, stand next to College Hall. You won’t stand there long,” warned Tully. “It’s right out of the Wizard of Oz, man.”

Devil’s Chair

On April 5, 1988, a New College student committed suicide by the bay. The student doused himself with gasoline and set his body aflame. Since then, rumors have linked the student to the cement chair by the bay, when in fact there is no connection. Some believe that the chair marks the spot where he committed suicide, but it seems that it occurred closer to the dock. Nonetheless, the Catalyst went down to the bay at 3 a.m. with cameras, voice recorders and EMF meters. However, no paranormal activity was recorded.

Pei Dorms: Third Court

According to alum James Sheridan (96’), the handicap accessible room in the third court Pei dormitories has a ghost named Varney. The Catalyst’s 30 minute long interview with Sheridan is 30 minutes of pure silence. Could Varney, or other spirits that Sheridan later spoke of, have tampered with the recording? Varney is known for turning lights on and off, giving students cold chills and the occasional touch, so such a mischievous deed shouldn’t be put past him. Purportedly, Varney hasn’t been very active for the past few years, but it’s likely he still lurks around third court.

Old Caples

The most rampant ghost story among students has to be that of the Old Caples mansion. Built and lived in by close friends of the Ringlings, Ralph and Ellen Caples, the mansion’s seclusion from the main campus has given it the perfect setting for ghost stories. “The building is so isolated that I think it encourages stories about ghosts.” Professor of Art History Magdalena Carrasco, whose office is in Caples, told the Catalyst.

Students have passed on a story that involves a mentally handicapped child being chained and locked upstairs in his room. Second-year Nathan Howell told the Catalyst that he was introduced to the story during orientation for his first year at New College. The ghost tour related to students that one can “occasionally hear the rustlings of his chains,” Howell said. “Once somebody looked in there and there were chains in there and a desolate floor. And then they got the police officer and he looked up there and the chains were completely gone.”

While the tale makes for a good ghost story, it likely sprang from Hollywood movies which have similar motifs, such as The Goonies, and with the help of a former professor. Alum Claire Miller (‘00), daughter of retired Professor of Literature Mac Miller, told the Catalyst how her father haunted New College while he was here. Miller’s interview with the Catalyst, conducted at the same time as Sheridan’s, was also rendered unplayable. Although, Miller did not haunt New College from the afterlife, but during a divorce that had him sleeping in Caples. Miller explained to the Catalyst that her father was sleeping in Caples thanks to some rough times and during some nights a few students would come by Caples either with a boom-box or some curiosity about the mansion’s eeriness at night. Miller would flick the lights on and off, make noises, anything he could do to scare the students off. If a police officer would come in to investigate the unexplained noises, he’d quickly hide and make a noise or two.

Although some of Caples’ paranormal activity may be debunked, it is also known for two other ghosts according to Sheridan. A man in a white suit who appears in the garden and a woman in a purple dress who plays the piano in Caples. Sheridan also said he saw two shadow figures through a window in the carriage house outside Caples. The figures were talking to each other and making hand gestures as the light from the exit sign shone down upon them. Sheridan told the Catalyst that he couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing: Black figures on a black background.

Professors who have had offices in Caples have told stories about odd phenomena when they return to their offices in the morning. Lights on when they had left them off and books rearranged throughout their room. “When I first moved into this office I became convinced that these stories were true,” Professor Carrasco said. “I’m not totally convinced theres a logical explanation for the various phenomena.” While there may be no definite explanation as to why the books were moved, Carasco believe that the custodial staff may have something to do with it. “I think ultimately that was simply that the custodial staff gets here early in the morning,” Carrasco said.

Rosemary Cemetery

In December of 1885, a group of Scots established Ormiston Colony in Sarasota, but many left shortly after because of the rugged conditions and snowfall they faced that winter. The few that stayed behind in Ormiston Colony are likely still here, buried in the Rosemary Cemetery. The cemetery, set aside int he town plat in 1886, “is burial place for many early Sarasota citizens, civic leaders, and entrepreneurs including Scotsman John Hamilton Gillespie, first mayor and local manager for Florida Mortgage and Investment Co., British land developers of the municipality,” according to the City of Sarasota’s website.

With such a rich and deep history, it’s very possible that it could be haunted.

The Players Theatre

Located at 838 N Tamiami Tr, The Players Theatre is just one of many local performance venues available to Sarasotans. Little do most of its patrons know as they seat themselves to watch an off-broadway performance, is that the building they’re in is haunted.

“The Player’s Theater has to be where we’ve had the most experience,” co-founders of Ghosthunters SRQ Marko and Maggie Sumney told the Catalyst in an email. “One of our investigators watched an apparition walk through a door and go into the auditorium during one of our hunts. Of course, it happened so fast, we did not get it on camera.”

The Ghosthunters SRQ team has been investigating paranormal activity since 2000 and has amassed quite an impressive amount of evidence since then. “We’ve heard MANY stories over the years and, after our first investigation, we captured some very good EVP’s,” the Sumneys told the Catalyst. Among the most impressive of the EVP’s they have captured are disembodied voices clearly saying: “ Go home.” “C’mon.” “Just shut me up . . .” “Wait, where’d they go?” “[Explicative] ‘em.” These electronic voice phenomena can be heard on their website, ghosthunterssrq.org.

Why would a theater, of all places, be haunted? “Theaters hold a lot of energy,” the Sumneys explained to the Catalyst in an email. “This energy is from past souls who poured themselves out emotionally on stage or even souls who enjoyed the passion of a great performance. We believe that, even though a person has passed on, their energy lingers. This can play out as a residual energy (on going and plays out over and over) or an intelligent energy of a spirit who does not want to leave.”

For those interested in The Players Theatre and what the Ghosthunters SRQ crew is up to, a public investigation of the theater is tentatively scheduled for March 13. “The staff at the Players has allowed us to investigate and invite anyone to come along at a cost of $20.00,” the Sumneys stated. “This fee goes back into their facility to cover electricity, etc.”

The Cà d’Zan

Built by John and Mable Ringling in 1926, the Cà d’Zan incorporates one half Mediterranean Revival style with one half spooky if you ask many New College students. According to Sheridan, those sentiments aren’t unfounded as the entrance of the Cà d’Zan had occult symbols prominently displayed on it’s exterior until it was painted over. While the occult symbols are no longer visible, the fact that Mable Ringling held séances in the tower of the Cà d’Zan lends some credence to their existence.

“We were able to investigate the Ringling Mansion and picked up an EVP of a conversation b/t a man and a woman,” Marko and Maggie Sumney of Ghosthunters SRQ told the Catalyst.  No one else was in the room at the time. We also captured what looks like ecto – but that photo can be debated.” “Ecto,” short for ectoplasm, is supposedly a substance or energy that is associated with the formation of spirits in the physical realm.

New College’s Audio-Visual Specialist Scott Swanson took a picture at the Cà d’Zan that may add to the stories revolving around the mansion. “Everyone in my tour group had gone ahead to the next room and for some reason I felt compelled to stop, turn around, and snap the photo of the ornate mirror before moving on,” Swanson told the Catalyst in an email. “I didn’t notice anything at the time, only later when I looked at the photos at home.”

The result was a picture of an ornate mirror with what seems to be a face in it. “I e-mailed with a person from Ringling a few years ago and sent him the picture,” Swanson said. “He told me that they have had several reports of weird stuff going on in that dining room. As I recall, the mirror itself was already an antique when Charles Ringling bought it.”

If readers have had any ghostly encounters of their own, Ghosthunters SRQ assures them that they’re here to help. “Don’t be afraid to call us to investigate things that “go bump in the night,” the Sumneys said.  We love to hear from people who have had experiences and we love to hear from anyone who are simply curious about what we do.  We are open to investigating homes, businesses, or old buildings that are abandoned.”

While the Catalyst didn’t have any ghostly encounters during its investigation, we would have to agree with Director of Campus Space Scheduling Jeff Thomas, “Even though I’m a big fan of Ghost Whisperer, I’ve not seen any ghosts here.”

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