Ghosts of the Prairie


Columbia, Missouri

The story of the ghost of Stephens College appears here as an excerpt from Troy Taylor's book, Spirits of the Civil War (Whitechapel Press 1999)

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In 1862, the Civil War was raging throughout the land and it was during this time that one of the greatest ghost stories of Missouri was said to have begun. The place was the Columbia Baptist Female College (now Stephens College), near Columbia, and the events that took place here occurred shortly after the defeat of Sterling Price’s Confederate forces at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. This defeat brought an end to organized Confederate resistance in Missouri, save for the bushwhackers, and paved the way for the Federal occupation.

A short time after, Union forces, under the command of General Henry Halleck, moved into Columbia, upsetting the populace and most especially Dr. Hubert Williams, the president of the local Female college and its dean, Miss Clara Armstrong. The presence of the soldiers was of great concern and they feared for the safety of the young female students, as soldiers are not often known for their gentlemanly behavior.

One evening after dinner, a student named Sarah June Wheeler, was hurrying up to her room. She had just stepped inside when a soldier climbed over her window sill and staggered across the floor. Needless to say, Sarah was quite surprised, although even more shocked to see that the man wore, not the uniform of the local soldiers, but the dirty and bedraggled gray of the Confederacy.

Before Sarah could call out for help, the young man had grabbed hold of her and clapped his hand over her mouth. She struggled to get free of him and the man suddenly just slumped to the floor, unconscious. Just then, the door to the room opened and Sarah’s room mate, Margaret Baker, came inside. She was also surprised, although not as frightened to see a Rebel soldier as Sarah had been. Margaret was a resident of the south, having been born and raised in Arkansas. She was fiercely loyal to the Confederacy and instead of payment to the school, her father had sent two slaves to work at the college instead. They cooked, cleaned and worked in the school’s laundry.

Sarah and Margaret knelt down beside the soldier and looked to see if he had any injuries. They found nothing, so using some smelling salts, were able to revive him. He explained that he had collapsed from hunger because he had not eaten in days. The girls helped him into a chair, then Margaret sent her servants to bring back a tray of food from the kitchen. They were given strict instructions to say nothing of the soldier.

The young man proceeded to introduce himself as Corporal Isaac Johnson from Mississippi. He said that he had fought at Pea Ridge and had recently escaped from a prison in Illinois, traveling by night and hiding during the day. His father had been killed in Grant’s attack on Nashville and Johnson had vowed to avenge his death in some way. The plan that he had come up with was to sneak into Columbia and assassinate General Halleck.

There was something about the young man that appealed to the girls, especially to Sarah, and they agreed to try and keep him safe. Their room was located in Senior Hall, just beneath the school’s bell tower, and over the coming days, Sarah hid Johnson away. She brought him food and talked with him into the early hours of the morning. It was not long before the young couple had fallen in love.

But their relationship was doomed from the start...

Someone, possibly one of Margaret’s slaves, let the secret slip that a Rebel soldier was hidden in Columbia. Eventually, word reached General Halleck’s staff and it was hinted that the soldier was being sheltered by one of the young women at the college. General Halleck paid a call on President Williams and warned him that the school would be closed unless the soldier was captured.

That evening, Dr. Williams addressed the young women and explained to them what Halleck had threatened. Quickly, Sarah returned to her room and urged Johnson to surrender... but he had a better idea. He had stolen a suit from Dr. William’s closet, and in disguise, he would escape to Canada.

The plan seemed perfect, except for the fact that Sarah’s secret had somehow become public knowledge to the other young women at the school. A crowd gathered near Sarah’s room and in loud voices, they urged her to turn the soldier over the Federals. The clamor grew louder until Dr. Williams and Dean Armstrong appeared.... behind them was General Halleck himself.

The college, the General stated, was now officially closed! The young women were told to pack up their belonging and be on their way before first light!

Just then, Corporal Johnson appeared from Sarah’s room and surrendered himself. He begged that Halleck let the students remain and explained that he had been hiding there without their knowledge. Halleck reluctantly agreed and proceeded to arrest Johnson as a spy. Ironically, as he was now wearing civilian clothing, he was no longer afforded the rights of a soldier. A spy who was captured behind enemy lines was sentenced to death.....

Three nights later, Corporal Isaac Johnson was executed in the street near the school. When the last shots rang out, the bell in the school’s tower began to ring. A short time later, Sarah’s body was discovered... the rope of the tower bell was wrapped around her neck. She had taken her own life, hoping to join her lover in death.

According to the stories, it is believed that the ghost of Sarah June Wheeler still walks in Senior Hall, which has been restored today to look much like it did when she lived there. The legends claim that her spirit is still searching for the ghost of Corporal Johnson, hoping to be reunited with him in the afterlife.... or so they say.

In recent years, other stories have surfaced, claiming that Sarah and her lover actually died as they were trying to escape from Columbia. They allegedly perished by drowning in a nearby flooded river. This version of the story might make even more sense, as Stephens College did not actually have a bell tower in 1862... it was not constructed for another ten years or so afterward.

One thing that we do know though, is that strange things are still said to occur in Senior Hall and that the place has an “unusualness” about it, according to residents who have lived there. Perhaps the story of Sarah and the Corporal is merely a legend to try and explain the oddities of an otherwise spooky building... a piece of ghostlore which was created to help the residents understand why ghostly events were taking place in the building with them.

Then again... perhaps not.


© Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.