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Flying Skeleton ‘Terrorizes’ 1900s Students

Flying Skeleton ‘Terrorizes’ 1900s Students

By Stephen Grinch
University Archivist

Otterbein University does not have a lot of haunts. The theatre ghost, Twyla, is blamed for the technical snafus that unexpectedly crop up from time to time in Cowan Hall, but there have been no documented sightings of an actual spirit. If Otterbein was haunted it would probably be by the ghost of Benjamin Russell Hanby ‘1858, composer of “Up on the Housetop” and “Darling Nellie Gray.” He was a well-known prankster who loved a good joke. While Ben would probably love nothing better than scaring the wits out of some poor, unsuspecting underclassman who was roaming the campus late at night, truth be told Otterbein University is not known for its ghosts. However, in the early twentieth century we did have a remarkably ambulatory skeleton, one that was known on occasion to fly.

Around 1876, a skeleton was purchased for the Science department by Thomas McFadden for the princely sum of $50, the equivalent of $1,100 today. Some sources called the skeleton “Mary Ann” while others refer to her as “Aunt Sally.”  Whatever her true name, she was a favorite accomplice, or perhaps “victim,” of the pranks pulled by Otterbein undergrads in the early 20th century. For example, in 1904 Mary Ann was the sole resident of a brick “house” constructed by the students on the front lawn of Towers Hall for the benefit of incoming president Lewis G. Bookwalter, who had been looking for a home near the university. The photo shows Mary Ann peering out of a window, one hand raised in skeletal salute and a cigarette dangling from her mouth, which leads historians to wonder if smoking was the cause of her death. Later that year, Mary Ann was cast as “Pluto, God of the Underworld” by the junior class for In a Wigwam by the Styx, an epic poem illustrated with photographs that was published in the 1904 Sibyl. However, the most frightening and ingenious prank was played not once, but twice, in the fall of 1903.

At the turn of the last century it was tradition that every fall the classes would pair off, the freshmen with the juniors, and the sophomores with the seniors, and hold a large banquet in the Association Building, then the University Gymnasium and home to the Otterbein YMCA and YWCA. It was a good way to get to know the students in the other classes, and in the days when Westerville was still mostly isolated from Columbus it was a grand excuse for a party.  On the night of the Sophomore-Senior banquet, someone, either a freshman or a junior, thought it would be funny to throw some eggs in the window of the Association Building to disrupt the banquet. The plan backfired. Instead of disrupting the banquet, it united the two classes to come up with an even bigger and better prank, one that would show the freshmen and the juniors who the real prank masters were.

It must have been quite a shock to the students and faculty when they arrived for class the next morning to see a skeleton floating in the breeze in front of Towers Hall. The sophomores and the seniors had stolen Mary Ann from her home in Saum Science Hall (located where the green space is to the east of the Courtright Memorial Library), dressed her in rags of their class colors and attached her to one of the electrical lines that ran in front of Towers Hall.

Some students were scared out of their wits; most were just impressed with the audacity of the prank. The faculty, however, were not amused. It didn’t take long for the school custodian, Mr. Moon, to remove Mary Ann from her perch high above campus and return her to the biology lab in Saum Hall.

This was not the end of Mary Ann’s high wire act, though, as two days later she was found once more swinging from the electrical lines in front of Towers Hall, this time wearing the colors of the freshman and senior classes. No one was really scared this time, and even fewer were impressed, especially poor Mr. Moon, who was required once again to pull down the skeleton.

Over a century later no one knows what finally became of Mary Ann. There is no record of her sale or interment. The author’s calls to the Biology Department inquiring after the skeleton have been studiously ignored. The logical mind says that the paperwork was simply lost or discarded at some point in the last 101 years. The more romantic mind, with thoughts turned toward the remembrance of our dead in this twilight season, might be forgiven the occasional glance at the sky. And if you feel a chill on the back of your neck one cold and dark night, don’t be afraid. Just say, “Hi, Mary Ann,” and then run like crazy!