Legend of Merion Ghost continues to haunt Bryn Mawr
By biconews On 1 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives, Bryn Mawr, Features | With 0 Comments

By Leeza Friedman

Quite a lot has been said about the fate of Lillian Vickers. Since her death in 1901, the Bryn Mawr community has speculated not only about the mysterious details of her death, but also about the notion that she haunts the third floor of Merion Hall.

It is this tale that overshadows one that involves all-powerful Bryn Mawr former president M. Carey Thomas. Tales of alleged sightings appear in the introduction to Thomas’ biography, The Making of a Feminist. Unlike those of Lillian’s story, the details of Thomas’ death seem more pedestrian, and the alleged sightings have been documented more frequently. Perhaps the mystery surrounding Lillian, which no one knows exactly what happened or knows what concrete information truly exists, has fueled community’s fascination with her spectral fate.

During the 1996-1997 school year, the College News printed a story on this legend, which influences sentiments on the supernatural among many current seniors. The article also serves as the source of much of the upperclasswomen’s information regarding the legend. What they recall tends to differ from the assertions of underclasswomen, who have never read the article. The popular legend among underclasswomen includes the idea that Lillian, who believed she had leprosy, was treating herself with kerosene or rubbing alcohol. Possibly by accident, she bumped into a lantern and subsequently caught on fire. To save her friends from dying in a burning building, and not to shame Bryn Mawr, she leapt out of her third story window. According to this underclasswomen, she died in the arms of M. Carey Thomas on Merion Green.

The upperclasswomen recall a different set of details. As Diane Sacker (BMC ’00) said, “She was kind of mentally ill … that last night, her friends were nervous. So, they all sort of sat around by the bathroom, I think. Things happened and I don’t know how she got out and downstairs … and then died in the hospital.” Diane continued to say that she does not hold stock in the jumping-out-the-window version.

The College News’ primary source of information, which is located in the Bryn Mawr College archives, includes an unsigned letter to Lillian’s father in Los Angeles. The letter, famed by oral tradition to have been written by Thomas, serves as perhaps the primary record of how Lillian actually died.

The letter states that Bryn Mawr community had been concerned about Lillian’s mental state for approximately two weeks prior to her death. The member of the Class of 1903 had been a witty, popular and well-known woman on campus just prior to her rapid decline. Although friends and professors stated, in retrospect, that they had perceived some changes in Lillian’s character over the course of the semester, none seem to have felt notably concerned until the last two weeks of her life. During those two weeks, Lillian became extremely suicidal due to her belief that she had incurable leprosy.

Those who knew her traced this belief back to her encounter with a fundamentalist missionary from the Christian Union, who had diagnosed her with this disease. Even though the letter’s writer, Dr. Chrystie, as well as the Bryn Mawr community at large, attempted to disillusion her fears, they were not able to do so. Attempts to have her to visit family in Brooklyn, and to have a cousin in Philadelphia intervene, were to no avail. Her condition rapidly declined.

In the letter, the author becomes increasingly concerned, but she trusted the opinions of the doctors and Lillian’s cousin, despite the fact that she wished to see Lillian hospitalized. “I now reproach myself very much,” she writes, “that I did not act on my responsibility.”

Lillian sought treatment for the leprosy twice, once on the Saturday prior to her suicide, and once during the week, from a local doctor. The doctor informed the College of the her [sic] mental state after seeing her the second time, when it became clear to him that he could cure Lillian of her “delusions.” In spite of the doctor’s optimistic prognosis, this seems to have been too little, too late for a women who truly believed herself to be incurable.

Thursday afternoon, one day before her death, friends accompanied Lillian to the train station, from where she was departing to visit her aunt in Philadelphia. Lillian had expressed that “she was afraid of throwing herself on the cars.” From the time of her trip to Philadelphia until her death, her two best friends arranged to be with her 24 hours per day. At 8:00 p.m. on Friday evening, after 24 hours of observation under her friends, Lillian broke free from them and locked herself in a bathroom. After attempting to break into the room, one of the friends heard the door unlock, followed by a moan. “She immediately opened the door,” recounts the writer, “and found your daughter in flames…Your daughter told her that she had saturated her nightgown with alcohol and set herself on fire.”

The letter’s writer says that when she visited Lillian in the hospital, “[Lillian] asked me to forgive her for the harm her death had done to the College … I did everything I could to console her and tell her she was not responsible, but throughout our conversation she assumed that she had killed herself in order to avoid being dangerous to other people … .”

Lillian died approximately five hours after the incident.

Following her death, reporters besieged the grieving campus. Under the letter writer’s instruction, they all told the reporters the same simplified story, which painted the incident as a tragic accident. As a result, reporters from the dozens of newspapers that ran copy on Lillian’s death speculated on everything from whether a suicide had occurred, Lillian’s “happy” mental state, and even concrete facts, such as her age, which came to conflict.

Despite the College News article, and the information in the college archives, the continued speculation has wrought an unusual impact upon Merion residents. Freshmen Shannon Overcash and Anna Momigliano have a cup of candy outside of their door as an offering for Lillian. Various current and former residents believe that she opens and closes doors, resides in their chimney or causes them to experience computer problems.

An effective tale comes from last year’s resident of Merion 323, sophomore Molly Clarkson. She recalls, “My roommate happened to have a lab partner named Lillian, and we had a really bad answering machine … we lived in the suppose[ed] haunted room. [W]hen I came home from class one day, there were like 10 people standing outside my door.” Referring to a special phone message, she continues, “They had heard it, and I went in and checked my message. It was a message from my roommate’s lab partner: ‘Hi Mandy, this is Lillian. I’m down at the PSB.’ And of course, everyone was just standing there, staring at the door, like something was speaking from beyond the grave.”

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