They laugh, knock down pictures, set off fire alarms, slam doors, yell “no” and bounce balls in the hallways. But they aren’t rowdy students. They’re the ghosts of Maxcy Hall.
“Some people freak out, but most think having ghosts on campus is really cool and fun,” said forensic science major Josh Low ’14, a former vice president of UNH’s decade-old, student-run Paranormal Investigation and Research Organization (PIRO), the largest club on campus. “Exactly what types of spirits haunt Maxcy Hall isn’t something we’re entirely sure of, but we do know that it definitely is haunted. Not everything that happens here can be explained by science.”
New students and staff are almost guaranteed to be greeted with stories about the ghosts of orphans who died in a fire, a boy who was beaten to death, or a man and wife who worked in Maxcy in the early 1900s, when it was an orphanage called the New Haven Temporary Home for Children. Dramatic tales of security guards who’ve heard the sounds of a young girl crying late at night, or students who’ve seen a shadowy man standing near the first-floor vending machine, have become as integral a part of UNH’s history as Maxcy Hall itself, which was known as the Main Building when UNH – then New Haven College – purchased it from the state of Connecticut in 1958 to serve as the centerpiece of its new, growing campus in West Haven.
But Maxcy ghost stories also are told well beyond UNH.
As a quick Internet search shows, word of otherworldly activity at Maxcy has spread, leading to the imposing brick Colonial being listed among Connecticut’s most haunted locations. On popular ghost-hunting websites, well-established paranormal organizations like South Jersey Ghost Research and the Las Vegas Society of Supernatural Investigations tout the validity of the presence of spirits there. The Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce includes a stop at Maxcy on its tourist-oriented Historic Ghosts Walking Tour. Even the hit television series “Ghost Hunters” expressed interest in taping a show in Maxcy Hall.
Such notoriety hasn’t always pleased UNH administrators.
“I’m not a big believer in ghosts, but I do try to keep an open mind,” said Scott Davis, who has served as UNH’s director of the Annual Fund since 2001 and, despite his doubts, as the PIRO advisor since 2005. “The members are so meticulous about making sure their investigations are scientifically based that I can’t help but admire their dedication.
“Besides, I’m a night person,” he added, “so staying up for their late-night investigations is no problem. I have to admit that I’ve had some strange things happen to me in Maxcy Hall – I heard footsteps in a deserted math lounge and saw a little girl in the basement – so if some significant, ghostly thing were to happen, I think I’d want to be there.”
Roughly half of Americans believe in ghosts, says a CBS News poll, though fewer than one in five say they’ve actually seen one. It’s fair to suggest, however, that many staff members with offices in Maxcy are on the lookout, including mathematics chair Joseph Kolibal, who several times since taking the position in 2012 has found himself in his office well after dark.
“It hasn’t been ghosts that have made my hair stand on end,” Kolibal said, “but co-workers have mentioned spooky things that have occurred throughout the building and especially here on the third floor.”
Indeed, in all of PIRO’s investigations – as well as in one conducted in 2006 by the Connecticut Paranormal Research and Investigations (CPRI) team – the majority of scientifically unexplainable activity in Maxcy has occurred on its second and third floors. But that makes sense, said criminal justice alumnus Brad Reed ’09, who served as PIRO president from 2008 to 2009.
“Spirits tend to be drawn to places that were meaningful to them in life, or where they wished they could have stayed longer, and it’s clear that Maxcy Hall was an important place to a lot of people,” said Reed, a Wallingford police officer who joined more than 20 current PIRO members for an overnight investigation last fall. Dressed in black pants and t-shirts, and armed with cameras, audio recorders, temperature sensors, electromagnetic field detectors and other devices, it was the first of two University-approved investigations of Maxcy that PIRO will hosts annually.
Established with the help of longtime paranormal researcher John Zaffis, host of the Syfy Channel’s “Haunted Collector,” PIRO and its investigations are focused not so much on proving the existence of ghosts but on scientifically proving why a phenomenon occurred.
“Only after we’re sure something is not scientifically explainable or natural can we consider that it might be supernatural,” said computer science graduate Holly Stradczuk ’12, who also attended the September 2012 investigation and, as many PIRO members do, spent time at UNH learning about Maxcy’s history.
Paranormal experts say schools, and former school sites like Maxcy, can be particularly strong paranormal hot spots because of the buildup of psychic energy from students exuding so many emotions. For the 46 years Maxcy was the New Haven Temporary Home for Children, it contained not just dormitories for up to 250 boys and girls whose parents were either dead or, during the Depression, couldn’t afford to care for them, but also classrooms, a gym, dining hall, chapel, administrative offices and infirmary. Most of the children slept on the second floor. Staff lived on the third.
From 1936 to 1944, the staff was headed by superintendent and assistant superintendent Esther and Harold Wolfe, who lived in Maxcy along with their three young children, Jack, Ted and Midge. Some paranormal experts, such as Christine Kaczynski from CPRI, believe Esther and Harold Wolfe may be two of the ghosts.
Kaczynski said she and her team encountered seven spirits the night they investigated, including a man and woman who seemed like a couple, worked at the orphanage and were very protective of the other five spirits, all of whom were children. Temporary Home records say the Wolfes were the only couple to work there.
But ask 86-year-old Ted Wolfe whether he thinks his parents could be traveling between Maxcy and their resting place down the road at Oak Grove Cemetery, and he’s not so sure – although as he’s told the students and parents he’s met giving “Ghosts of Maxcy Hall” tours during the past several UNH Family Days, “anything is possible.”
On Family Day 2012, Wolfe listened intently to reports that, during one investigation, paranormal experts categorized the spirit activity on Maxcy’s third floor as an “extreme” 7 on a 1-10 scale. He nodded as he learned cold spots as much as 15 degrees lower have been measured in the faculty offices that, 68 years ago, were his family’s living room. And his mouth dropped when he heard news that CPRI took photographs of what they believe is a translucent woman walking down the third-floor hallway.
Another photo taken just inside the math lounge, which was Wolfe’s and his brother’s bedroom, shows an image of a shadowy man who, Kaczynski said, did not want investigators to enter.
“Well, if it was Dad, he must have thought that Jack and I were still there and that he was protecting us,” Wolfe said. “No way would he have let strangers into our bedroom. He probably was pretty upset that strangers were there at all.
“When we lived here,” Wolfe continued, “we never saw or heard anything that made us think it was haunted. But if it’s true that ghosts are drawn to places where they were happy, they could be Mother and Dad. Mother always said our years here were some of the happiest in her life.”
Within those years, Wolfe said, the Great Depression ended and World War II began. Milk, even at 14 cents a gallon, was sometimes too expensive. And after the Great Hurricane of 1938 blew through, most of the huge, paned windows needed to be replaced. Responsible for 100 percent of the facility, its operations and all who lived there, his parents often worked 18- to 20-hour days.
During the eight years that Wolfe lived there, he never witnessed any of the fires that reportedly led to some of Maxcy’s ghosts. Nor was anyone beaten to death, he added. Maxcy also was never used as an insane asylum, which is among the rumors.
“I’m sure any ghosts here are friendly ones,” he said.
Stradczuk agreed, noting that over the past several years, the amount of paranormal activity at Maxcy has seemed to wane.
“That’s pretty natural in the paranormal world,” said Stradczuk, who co-led PIRO during her senior year. “Entities move around just like people do, so sometimes there’s a lot of activity, and sometimes it’s quiet. But there’s no doubt spirits are here. They’re part of what makes UNH special.”
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2013 Alumni Magazine.