Aaaahh, Woodlawn. A lovely mansion that dates from the 1830’s nestled in the heart of Douglass campus. Every day students and faculty walk by this graceful former home to one branch of the prominent Neilson Family, oblivious to the fact under the elegant scrollwork and airy verbenas lies a hotbed of paranormal activity, stories of which carry over the last several decades.
The RR Team knew that there was something special about this place (we were absolutely sure that this was no mere old campus mainstay!) and luckily enough we managed to secure a visit and collect some stories from one of the good-hearted staff who wanted to not just regale us with tales of spooky happenings in the manse, but also wanted to give us some background information on this very unique building that has been a relatively unchanged witness to the development of Douglass Campus over the last 180 years.
Our expert guide, M., knows every nook and cranny of the building as he has worked at Woodlawn since the 1970’s and his first-hand accounts of some of the paranormal activities that he has experienced on-site are rather chilling as you realize that these are not just your common “spooky noises late at night” stories.
The first account M. related to the team took place in the first-floor kitchen of the mansion, which is still a fully-functioning kitchen today and is at the use of caterers for the large events often held at Woodlawn. One evening about six years ago, M. was in the kitchen with another staff member preparing some food for a party. They were both standing at a central table, using the chopping surface to prepare vegetables, when suddenly the door to the refrigerator across the kitchen opened up and swung open. Now this door had latches that ensured that the door remain closed, however M. and his co-worker saw with their very own eyes, the door latches “spring open” of their own accord with the door, itself, then slowly opening. While the staff members stared, the door then slowly swung shut and the latches fastened again with no outside or human action. YES, the latches opened of their own accord and the door opened- the door then closed and the latches closed upon themselves with NO apparent logical source for the movement- ALL BY THEMSELVES. This was seen by M. and his assistant first-hand while chopping vegetables. Apparently this incident took place after several other unusual encounters had been experienced by M. and while very scared, both employees continued to work, albeit in silence, only confirming before they left for the evening “did you see that?” “Yes, I did”.
Another account M. told us took place in the mid 1980’s when M. often worked in the early mornings at Woodlawn and would open the place before any students or faculty would arrive. “There was a student” M. recalled, “a young man, very shy and quiet who always wore this green polo shirt. He would come in very, very early and just sit and read or study quietly in one of the rooms. Unfortunately this young man turned out to be a very depressed person and we later learned that he actually committed suicide while in his student career here at Rutgers.” The story doesn’t end here as apparently the young man’s fondness for Woodlawn continued even after death. “The funny thing about this story is that almost exactly ten years after the student’s suicide one of the facilities staff informed me of a student who was arriving in the early hours of the morning and startling her, as he could be found sitting quietly in one of the rooms before anyone else had opened the building. This co-worker asked me if I knew who this young man was as he was somehow getting in the building before it was opened and he never spoke, just sat there reading, always wearing a green polo shirt. The description of the young man was exactly the same of that as the student who committed suicide ten years earlier, to the month no-less. I didn’t work mornings anymore, so I never saw this apparition but the facilities assistant was terrified when I told her what I knew about it”.
Woodlawn also has kept the “echoes” of past residents locked away in its many small cupboards and rooms. One experience M. had while working the night shift at the Old Neilson residence occurred while vacuuming near the winding staircase in the front hall. “There used to be a woman I worked with many years ago who was a little rough on me. She was always yelling for me in this loud voice to do this or that. She was the head cook and well, I often had to listen to her whether I liked it or not. So about three years after she had retired from Rutgers, I was here working in the front hall and in the middle of vacuuming I heard her call me, just like she used to, in that loud sharp tone. I actually stopped what I was doing and started to walk towards the kitchen automatically responding to her voice, just like I used to. I then realized ‘wait a minute- she’s not here anymore- what am I dreaming?’” M. continued, “Then I heard the toilet flush and this was a full toilet flush, not just the little swish you occasionally hear from when the pressure might build up and cause the pipes to release- this was a full flush where the handle must’ve been turned. I started to get scared at this point so I called my girlfriend to come down to see me at work as I still had to finish up for the night as I was really too scared to be here alone. My girlfriend came and sat in the front hall while I finished. She stopped me at one point and asked who was cooking tonight, ‘cause she smelled a roast cooking. Now roast beef was the specialty of the woman whose voice I thought I heard. So I sat and sniffed and yes, sure enough, you could smell a roast cooking and the smell was coming from the vent that led directly to the basement, where the stove used to be when this lady had worked here. There was no basement stove used since she had left but this smell of roast was strong and distinct. My girlfriend clearly smelled as did I. Needless to say we left the building immediately after that.”
Lastly, M. told us that painters who were hired to do some repair work and repaint the upstairs rooms were startled one night by a presence that would turn off the lights when one painter would yell to another worker to shut off the lights. The painters reported directly to M. that when the one worker asked his co-worker to turn off a light in a room, the light would be immediately turned off and the worker who made the request assumed that it was his partner who heard him and did so. It turned out that it wasn’t his co-worker who turned off the light- the other worker said that he never heard the request and wasn’t the one who immediately responded by turning off the light. Who did then M. wonders? “I guess it’s a helpful ghost” he added, noting that this was a more recent event that occurred.
Woodlawn holds many stories in its 180 year+ history. Aside from the ghost stories, there is also a legend of Napoleon’s sword which was given to a Neilson descendant who lived and presumably kept the relic in Woodlawn. We were told by M. about how an extended member of the family called and asked to visit & look for the sword as the family story was that it was kept somewhere at Woodlawn. “I keep thinking maybe it’s in one of these closets somewhere. Somebody will be cleaning one day and boom, a sword is gonna fall out of the wall.”
Swords and ghosts aside, the Woodlawn history is intriguing and at the Douglass Library much of this legacy can be read in a book entitled “Woodlawn” which covers the origins of the Neilson home and how it was remodeled and ultimately given to Rutgers as a gift by the remaining Neilson descendants. We strongly urge anybody interested in this unique nearby campus fixture to read the Woodlawn history as it’s a well-written account of one of the most haunted places on campus that you most likely never even knew about.