Ghost tracker

- October 31, 2008

Shirreff Hall. (Nick Pearce Photo)

One dark and stormy night—well, badly-lit and mildly windy afternoon—I stood in front of Shirreff Hall, looking for a ghost.

For a long time, the only legend I’d heard about Shirreff Hall was that it had the best cafeteria food on campus. Then somebody told me about Penelope—the beautiful, ethereal spirit “in a blue dress” who haunts Shirreff’s halls.

Penelope’s tale is simple. A heartbroken young maid hung herself in the Shirreff bell-tower in the 1920s. Being a day student, and not having to share a Shirreff res room with a restless spirit, I didn’t pay the story much thought. Then, as Halloween rolled around, I began to wonder—what is afoot in Shirreff Hall? I did some sleuthing and, before I knew it, I was marching up Shirreff’s steps, ready to get to the bottom of Penelope’s tragic tale.

The first person I interviewed was Mateo Yorke, Shirreff’s facilities manager. He’s an expert on Dalhousie’s most infamous ghost story. “I was a student here at Dal, originally. Even then, I heard stories of the ghost of Shirreff Hall.”

Who was Penelope before she took to haunting Shirreff’s halls? “Most versions (of the story) have it taking place in the 1920s, pretty soon after the building was opened,” Mr. Yorke says. “(Penelope) was a staff member… a young woman who had a tryst of some sort with a professor, and upon finding herself pregnant and him unwilling to help her, she hung herself in the bell tower.” He pauses. “Which isn’t really a bell tower,” he adds. “It’s part of the attic.”

Mr. Yorke is a skeptic. “There’s different versions of the story, which is your first clue that there might not be a whole lot of substance to them.” So what’s Dalhousie’s official public-relations policy on Penelope? “The official story is that none of this actually took place. No person. No story…I was hoping that there was a historical person named Penelope, and at least the story behind the ghost had some credibility, but I’m told no.”

Among Shirreff’s students, however, Penelope has plenty of followers. “She hung herself in the tower, because her boyfriend was out to sea and she never heard from him, and blah blah blah,” is how Ashley Stead, a first-year sciences student and Shirreff resident, relates the tale. Don’t be deceived by Ms. Stead’s flippant adaptation of the legend—she knows something’s strange about Shirreff Hall. She had a brush with the supernatural just last week. “I was waking up a couple of times throughout the night, and it was really warm even though the heat was off and my window was open, and my phone (was) making a hideous noise,” she relates breathlessly. “I hear something fall on the floor… my phone charger fell out of the socket! The charger just physically fell on the floor.”

Her friends have also had close calls with Shirreff spirits. “My friend Nicole was telling me that she woke up in the middle of the night – she’d had her computer turned off and flipped down – she woke up, and her computer was on… she didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, because she knew something was going on.” Another of Ashley’s friends had problems with a shaky window. “The window had fallen out of the frame onto her desk. The wind’s blowing right in – it shut her laptop completely!”

As Halloween creeps up, Shirreff’s clearly getting jittery. But Mr. Yorke says no one needs to sleep with one eye open. “Penelope is benevolent,” he explains. “She’s not here to scare or intimidate or frighten anyone.”
“I don’t think she’s very harmful,” Ms. Stead agrees—then pauses. “But if you think about it… if she hung herself because of her boyfriend, or whatever, she must be a little bit hating on the world, right?”

Mr. Yorke does agree that there is at least one very serious side-effect attached to encountering Penelope. “One person told me that seeing Penelope was kind of a warning that you were going to have your heart broken.” The ghost can’t be too opposed to romance, however—Shirreff went co-ed four years ago, with nary a peep from its ghostly resident. “She didn’t strike up a band, and kick the boys out, or anything.”

In fact, Mr. Yorke says Penelope hasn’t been very active lately at all; he hasn’t heard any recent stories. Despite all Ashley’s ghostly tales, it seems that Penelope is the invention of youthful imaginations.


“On my first day, when I arrived at Shirreff Hall as facilities manager,” begins Mr. Yorke quietly, leaning forward, “I heard something. I heard this voice say ‘hello’ that I couldn’t explain.” He laughs uneasily. “I just kind of stopped in my tracks for a minute and then just… didn’t say anything for half an hour.”

You be the judge.


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