The legend of Eastern Illinois University’s Pemberton Hall is, by far, the most famous ghost story to come out of Coles County. A variation of a well-known folktale called “the Roommate’s Death,” it has been passed down by generations of young women at EIU and has appeared in dozens of books. One night, it is said, a deranged janitor attacked and killed a student on the fourth floor. Her ghost, or the ghost of the dorm mother who discovered her body, now haunts the hall. Over the years, Pemberton Hall’s own history contributed to this story, creating a unique tale beloved by students and alumni alike.
In 1907, the Appropriations Committee of the State legislature passed a bill to provide $100,000 to build a women’s dormitory at Eastern Illinois State Normal School. The dorm was named after state senator Stanton C. Pemberton, a strong proponent of the bill. The first dorm director for Pemberton Hall was the now infamous Mary Hawkins, who served in that position from 1910 to 1917. She was thought to be very strict and would not allow “her girls” to go to social functions without a chaperone. During the early half of the twentieth century, women attending the college and staying in Pemberton Hall would, in addition to their classes, learn basic housekeeping skills and serve dinner to the college deans on some occasions. They were not allowed outside after 7:30pm on weekdays and 10pm on weekends. Mary Hawkins personally doled out punishment for any infraction until she left the college in 1917. Ironically, Miss Hawkins died on October 29, 1918 at the Kankakee State Mental Hospital a year after leaving her position as “Dorm Mother” from complications stemming from syphilis.
Storytellers allege that the murder in Pemberton Hall took place during World War 1 when the college’s newspaper was published sporadically to conserve materials for the war effort. Consequently, there was no issue from the weeks in question, leading some to suggest a conspiracy to cover up the murder. The current consensus is that this event took place over winter break either in 1916 or 1917, but there is some disagreement. An October 1984 Daily Eastern News article written by Diane Schneidman suggested May as the month the murder occurred, and an article published in 1982 claimed it occurred during Spring Break. Jo-Anne Christensen, in her book Ghosts Stories of Illinois, portrayed the crime being committed in the midst of a furious thunderstorm, which also suggests springtime. The National Directory of Haunted Places, written by Dennis William Hauck, challenged all of those accounts by changing the year of the murder to 1920, long after Mary Hawkins was deceased.
There are also several versions of the story. In one version, Mary Hawkins was the name of the unfortunate student, and her ghost is similar to a banshee, scratching at doors and leaving behind bloody footprints. In the version told by the staff at Pemberton Hall, Mary was the Dorm Mother at the time of the murder, and her ghost has come back to look after and protect the girls at Pem Hall for all eternity.
One of the earliest articles in the Eastern News concerning the ghost of Pemberton Hall was written by Karen Knupp in October of 1976. The story, she wrote, had been told for “years and years,” and was handed down from veteran Pem Hall residents to incoming freshmen. Some of the eerie encounters she chronicled included a girl who saw a light emanating from one of the windows on the fourth floor, a resident assistant who found that the lounge furniture rearranged itself, and a strange encounter with a girl in a white gown who went around asking for safety pins before she disappeared. Karen noted that some residents had celebrated their unique heritage by holding a “Mary Hawkins Day” the previous spring.
In November of that same year, Karen wrote a follow up story after she had been contacted by a 1921 resident of Pem Hall named [Estella] Craft Temple. Mrs. Temple told the story of [Euterpe] Sharp, a 30 year old student who made a habit of scaring the younger girls by jumping out of the janitor’s closet. Mrs. Temple, who if she had actually lived there in 1921 could not have known Mary Hawkins (who would have been deceased), claimed that, “no one would tell Miss Hawkins… she was English and very strict.” She suggested that Euterpe’s strange behavior was the origin of the legend, not a murder.
According to interviews conducted by Margaret Allen-Kline, who wrote her Master’s thesis on the legend in 1998, several students living in Pemberton Hall connected the crazed janitor in the story to a “local insane asylum,” the notorious Ashmore Estates. But as Margaret pointed out, the building that became known as Ashmore Estates was originally an Almshouse and not an asylum. Margaret believed the legend of Mary had formed a “folk community” at EIU because the students always reported the story as if it was true.
Over the years, Pemberton Hall has opened its doors—and the notorious fourth floor—around Halloween in an effort to capitalize on the story. According to an October 27, 1978 Eastern News article, the tradition of turning Pem Hall into a haunted house dates back to the early 1970s. In 1984, William M. Michael, a writer for the Decatur Herald, spent the night in the fourth floor piano room. Needless to say, he reported no encounters with the ghost or anything unusual. Pemberton Hall resumed its haunted house in 1997, complete with an actress playing the X-Files theme on the fourth floor piano.
Despite an unsubstantiated claim by Elizabeth Raichle in a Daily Eastern News article from October 1993, there is no evidence that a death ever occurred in Pemberton Hall at any time, let alone in 1916 or 1917. However, there is no evidence that this fact will stop the story from continuing to be told, passed on, and personalized for generations of Pem-ites to come. From doors that lock themselves, to strange electrical behavior, to unusual sounds that emanate from the fourth floor, the ghost of Mary Hawkins will always be with us.