October 30, 1918
Mary Hawkins dies in an asylum; she is later said to haunt Easter Illinois University’s Pemberton Hall
One stormy night in January 1916, while the rest of the students and faculty were at home for the holidays, Eastern Illinois University’s Pemberton Hall had three lonely occupants. One — a young woman named Angela — decided to pass the time playing the piano on the Hall’s fourth floor. The second, a janitor, stalked Angela and attacked her as she played. The third, Mary Hawkins, a counselor barely older than the young women she was charged to look over, could not hear the attack over the crashing thunder outside. What Hawkins did hear, however, was a menacing clawing at her bedroom door. Frightened, Hawkins tried to ignore the sounds until they became fainter and fainter, eventually disappearing altogether. Hawkins spent a sleepless night huddled in her room until she could summon the courage to investigate the noise in the morning. At her door lay the body of the single student to remain behind, drenched in blood, her fingers worn to the bone and littered with splinters from her feeble attempts to alert Hawkins of her impending death. Hawkins, riddled with guilt, steadily lost her grip on reality until she was committed to an asylum where she later died. Her ghost now haunts the dormitory, ethereally protecting the occupants from the beyond to atone for her past.
At least, that’s one version of events involving Mary Hawkins and a solitary, unfortunate student. Variations are plentiful, as is often the case with urban legends. Sometimes the attack happened in Spring. Another version claims Hawkins was the victim rather than the counselor, while yet another claims Hawkins took her own life when she could no longer cope with the grief and guilt. And more often than not, “Angela” is never given a name at all.
Similar to the urban legend itself, the supernatural experiences Pem Hall residents have reported are varied as well, and date back at least as far as 1952. They include: lights in the fourth floor’s piano room turning on and off seemingly by themselves; bloody footprints appearing on the floor only to vanish a few minutes later; the faint sound of a piano playing emanating from the fourth floor; a dragging sound reportedly coming from a stairwell; televisions and radios which had been left on while their owners are away being turned off before the students’ return; apparitions appearing in stairwells and dorm rooms; and furniture being moved or overturned in the piano room then returned to their original positions.
My grandfather, William “Bill” Michael, was a lifestyle journalist (though he preferred the term “newspaperman”) for the local newspaper in Decatur, Illinois, and wrote about the Pemberton Hall ghost in the 1980s, staying the night in the supposedly haunted music room in hopes of coaxing the spirit out. However, he “was less concerned with determining the origin of the ghost legend than with finding a good Halloween tale for his newspaper,” as Haunted America noted. His face crudely cut out and pasted onto a drawing of a Ghostbusters shirt is evidence of that. And it’s my intention to be the antithesis of my grandfather’s style of journalism in Hawkins’ story.
Located in Charleston, Illinois, Pemberton Hall is the oldest female residence hall in the state of Illinois, housing as many as 120 students at once. Its construction ended in 1908 and its fourth floor — where Angela’s alleged attack took place — has been vacant for almost as long as the building has been in existence. “It’s an attic,” Eastern Illinois University’s Director of Housing and Dining Mark Hudson stated during an interview in 2003. “It’s not really a place for public use.” As for the student from the legend, there is no recorded evidence of someone being attacked or killed in Pemberton Hall.
What is known for a fact regarding Hawkins is that she was born in Moat, England on September 10, 1877, immigrated to the US in 1901, and was indeed employed by Eastern Illinois University. She attained the position of dorm director in 1910 but left the school in 1917. In September of 1918, Hawkins was admitted to a sanitarium — specifically the Kankakee State Hospital — because she was “depressed and irrational.” Her symptoms of delusions, hallucinations, insomnia, and memory loss were attributed to “overwork and over worry.”
Hawkins died in the state hospital a month after her admittance, on October 30, 1918 at the age of 41. Her cause of death was ruled “general paralysis of the insane,” also called general paresis — a disease which seemingly prefers men in their 30s and 40s, leading to “grandiose delusions, a staggering gait, disturbed reflexes, asymmetrical pupils, tremulous voice, and muscular weakness” as The Psychologist reports. This disease typically kills its patients within months or even days of diagnosis, and is often linked to patients with late-stage syphilis.
Hawkins’ obituary addressed her highly and described her as “a woman of education and refinement and a most efficient person in the position she occupied. Very seldom, indeed, does one find in the same individual good business ability, a most excellent housekeeper, and a fine influence over young women… her work was highly esteemed by all who knew it.”
Whether Hawkins’ spirit roams the halls of Pemberton is up for debate, though it is undeniable the former dorm director has left an indelible impression on the building for over a century, even if her legacy has overshadowed her true accomplishments.
Mary E Hawkins. Standard Certificate of Death. Registered No. 358. State of Illinois, State Board of Health — Bureau of Vital Statistics. 1918 (digitized: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9VV-TZ94?i=1020&cc=3541609)
Mary Elizabeth Hawkins. Find a Grave. Accessed: March 12, 2020. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/193125788
EIU Housing: Pemberton Hall. Eastern Illinois University. Accessed: September 12, 2020. https://www.eiu.edu/housing/pemberton.php/
“Looking back: This fascinating and fatal disease.” The Psychologist. Accessed: October 14, 2020. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-25/edition-10/looking-back-fascinating-and-fatal-disease
Kleen, Michael. “The Legend of Pemberton Hall.” Eastern Illinois University, The Keep. 2014. https://thekeep.eiu.edu/pemberton_hall_ghost/1/
Taylor, Troy. The Big Book of Illinois Ghost Stories. Lanham: Globe Pequot, 2009
Taylor, Troy, “Eastern Illinois University” in Weird Hauntings: True Tales of Ghostly Places, compiled by Joanne Austin. New York: Sterling, 2006
O’Malley, Brian. “Pemberton’s ‘haunted attic’ no longer open.” Daily Eastern News. October 31, 2003 (digitized: https://thekeep.eiu.edu/pemberton_hall_ghost/7/)
Allen-Kline, Margaret. “”She Protects Her Girls”: The Legend of Mary Hawkins at Pemberton Hall.” Eastern Illinois University, The Keep. 1998 (archived: https://thekeep.eiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2605&context=theses)
Christensen, Jo-Anne. Ghost Stories of Illinois. Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing, 2000 (digitized: https://thekeep.eiu.edu/pemberton_hall_ghost/23/)
Scott, Beth and Norman, Michael. Haunted America. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 1994
Michael, William M. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” Decatur Herald & Review. October 25, 1984
“Mattooners Abroad Believed To Be Safe.” The Daily Journal-Gazette [Mattoon, Illinois]. August 5, 1914