Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 29, 2016 11:55:46 GMT -5
Phantom Flapper: ‘The Red Lady of Pratt Hall’
Since the late 1920s, the spirit of a former student has stalked Pratt Hall (above), an old Collegiate Gothic structure on the campus of Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. Kathryn Tucker Windham and other authors set the tale in the early 1900s and call the lady in question “Martha,” however, a woman attending the school when the tragedy occurred insisted her name was “Tillie,” possibly short for “Matilda.” Patricia McLeod, daughter of a Women’s College of Alabama alumna who was there at the time in question, recalled the story as told by her mother. “It has always been one of my favorite ghost stories,” she admitted, “and my children loved it. Every time my mother came to visit, they always coaxed her into telling the story of the ‘Red Lady.’ Now, my grandchildren ask me to tell the story.”
“Can’t it wait?” she protested, “I still have so much to do!”
“No, Tillie, put those things away and come down here,” he insisted. For the past few months, the successful, middle-aged businessman, who had grown up in Alabama, had been disturbed by his offspring’s increasingly reckless behavior and growing disdain for the rules of society. Fearful of what might happen once she was free of parental supervision, he made a decision he would live to regret.
Tillie, wearing a short, red, shapeless garment, her hair in a stylish bob, flopped onto the sofa facing her father’s enormous desk. It was difficult to ignore the girl’s lack of manners and petulance, still, he paused a moment, pondering what he was about to say. “Tillie,” he began, clearing his throat, “I’m afraid there has been a change in plans. I’ve enrolled you at the Women’s College of Alabama in Montgomery.” Before the rebellious girl could object, he continued, “The matter is not open for discussion. The train leaves Tuesday next. You will be on it, or you won’t be going to college at all. The choice is yours.” Observing the look of despair on the face of his only child, he softened somewhat, adding, “Your grandmother and Aunt Maddie attended the school when it was in Tuskeegee. Your grandmother is a great lady, the kind of lady I want you to be, Tillie.”
Though he failed to mention that “Aunt Maddie” died while a student in Tuskeegee, Tillie, who had no compunction about airing the family’s dirty laundry, blurted, “It wasn’t some silly college in Alabama that made Gran a great lady. And look at what it did to Maddie . . . .”
“Quiet!” her now irate father commanded. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“You’re right,” she agreed, “I don’t. Because no one in the family will discuss it. Gran says Aunt Maddie killed herself. She also says I inherited my love of the color red from Maddie. The school must be an awful place if it drives students to suicide!”
“Enough, Tillie! You’re going to Alabama! End of discussion!”
The distraught young woman, her flushed face almost as crimson as the dress she wore, burst into tears and rushed upstairs to her room. Over the next few days, she pleaded with her mother, then her grandmother, and was shocked to discover they both supported her father’s decision. So, the following Tuesday, Tillie, accompanied by a maid, watched her set of matching red leather cases and several trunks and crates loaded into the baggage car and boarded the train that would carry her to the deepest part of the Deep South. As the locomotive wound its way through the open countryside, Tillie gazed out the window at the changing landscape, convinced that with each passing mile, she was being transported farther from the civilized world.
Saying Tillie arrived in Alabama with a bad attitude would be an understatement. She took one look at her classmates with their long pinned-up hair, frumpy attire and deferential smiles and decided she was more than just a cut above them – she was so far above them, mere words could not adequately convey the differences. One after the other of what she considered “a gaggle of fluttering Southern belles,” introduced themselves and attempted to make small talk. Tillie would have none of it. She asked the house mother to show her to her room and was none too happy when the silver-haired lady led her up three flights of stairs to a tiny room in what Tillie immediately dubbed “the attic.”
Tillie’s roommate, who had arrived earlier, was transfixed as she watched two porters deliver a gramophone, upon which Tillie placed a record, wound the contraption and suddenly, the latest jazz tunes were drifting from the fourth floor of Pratt Hall. After the men unrolled a plush Persian carpet and helped arrange the furniture, Tillie danced around the room while the maid hung heavy, crimson velvet curtains at the small double windows and placed a spread of the same color with matching pillows on the bed of her young mistress. Then, the sophisticated New Yorker and her servant proceeded to fill the tall, mirrored wardrobe with clothes the likes of which the roommate had seen only in magazines. Once everything was to Tillie’s liking, the maid departed for her return trip to New York. Though the girl had begged her father to allow the servant to remain with her in Alabama, he refused, declaring he wanted his daughter to fit in and learn to do for herself.
The brazen young woman then removed her summer dress, shoes and cloche (close-fitting hat), rearranged the pillows, lay back on her bed of scarlet and, making herself comfortable, placed a cigarette in a long red holder. The roommate was shocked. She had never seen a woman smoking so openly, but at the same time, she was mesmerized, for Tillie was like no one else she had ever known. Even the girl’s silk undergarments were red! She couldn’t wait to tell her classmates about the exotic creature sharing her room.
But the girl from New York City was difficult to live with and before long, the roommate asked to be reassigned. Another student was sent to the top floor to bunk with Tillie, but within a few days, she, too, complained to the house mother, and a third young lady moved into the scarlet lair.
Tillie went to class, but didn’t always pay attention, and though she wasn’t failing, she wasn't doing her best. But mediocre grades did not seem to bother the high-strung flapper. In her spare time, Tillie wrote entertaining letters to friends back home in New York. She graphically described her tiny attic room, unsophisticated classmates, the inedible food and the “hick town” that passed for a state capital. But she also bragged about attending parties at Winter Place, a Montgomery mansion where, a few years earlier, F. Scott Fitzgerald had been introduced to Zelda Sayre. Tillie mentioned her Winter Place escapades to some of her classmates too and the girls listened in awe as she described wild parties where she drank champagne, ate caviar, danced the Charleston and mingled with the jazz age elite. Whether Tillie actually attended such parties is unknown. Nevertheless, on Friday and Saturday nights, she would leave the dorm, dressed to the nines, and if asked where she was going, the saucy New Yorker would enigmatically reply, “I’ve got to see a man about a dog.” It is doubtful her classmates knew what this meant, but during Prohibition, the phrase was often used by those intending to purchase alcohol.
One memorable evening in late October, according to Mrs. McLeod’s mother, Tillie, all decked out in a dress consisting of rows and rows of cerise fringe that swayed sensuously as she walked, appeared on the front steps of the dormitory. The night was chilly and the dark-haired flapper nonchalantly threw a black velvet cape lined in scarlet about her shoulders and hurried toward a big, shiny motorcar. A driver in uniform opened the door for the lady in red, who slid casually into the rear seat. Her classmates later recalled there was an older woman already in the car and assumed their adventurous classmate was off to a night of revelry at some high society affair.
Wild parties aside, Tillie continued to exude an air of extreme ennui and by late November, she was already packing for Christmas break, so anxious was she for a short respite from surroundings and people she described as “boring beyond belief.”
But too soon, the holidays were over and Tillie was back in Alabama. The sun seemed to shine very little. From her fourth-floor window, she looked out upon the bare branches of distant trees silhouetted against somber skies. Many days it rained and with the high humidity, 50 degrees in Alabama felt chillier than 30 degrees in New York. Tillie spent most of her time within the confines of her room smoking, listening to jazz on her Victrola and, perhaps, drinking gin, for some of her more gossipy classmates spoke of detecting “strong drink” on her breath.
Her fellow students had made every effort to welcome Tillie, but she had not reciprocated. Before long, some of the cattier girls began mocking the “stuck-up Yankee.” They found her fondness for the color red of particular interest and a few young ladies made small wagers as to what item of red Tillie would be wearing when she entered the diningroom at breakfast. Nevertheless, there were other, more sensitive students who noticed that Tillie – who had been snobbish and defiant during the fall semester – now seemed distracted and withdrawn. The out-of-place New Yorker even made a few overtures toward some of the friendlier women, but by that time, it seemed none wanted to have anything to do with her.
As time passed, Tillie’s behavior grew increasingly bizarre. Many nights after lights out, she donned a floor-length robe of rich red velvet and paced the fourth floor corridor. Sometimes she opened doors and many a sleeping student awakened to find the strange young woman staring at her from across the room. Without saying a word, Tillie would close the door and resume her solitary promenade.
Her class attendance was sporadic at best and she usually missed breakfast so, one frosty winter morning when the lady in red failed to appear, no one considered it unusual. By that night, however, people were asking if anyone had seen Tillie. No one had. The house mother, the student body president and another dormitory resident resolved to check on Tillie, even though they knew they risked a tongue-lashing if they happened to awaken the irritable northerner. Upon reaching the fourth floor, they saw what appeared to be flashes of crimson from the transom over the door at the end of the hall. When one member of the search party screamed, doors began to open and a throng of curious students watched as the three brave ladies made their way toward the pulsating red light. The house mother knocked, called Tillie’s name and waited. When there was no answer, she unlocked the door with her master key.
Inside the small, oddly-decorated room, they discovered Tillie. The young woman, dressed in a bright red beaded evening gown, was lying on her back on the single bed, her alabaster hands, streaked with rivulets of dark congealed blood, dangling from either side. The deep ruby background of the carpet made it impossible to determine how much blood had drained from the vertical slits on each wrist, but the girl’s face, as pale as that of a marble statue, answered the unspoken question. The student president softly touched Tillie’s arm, then immediately jerked her hand away, exclaiming, “She’s dead! She’s ice cold! My God, she’s been lying up here dead all day!”
The school, probably at the request of Tillie’s influential father, attempted to keep the incident as quiet as possible. There was no service and the official word was that Tillie had died as a result of illness. Her body was shipped home to New York along with her possessions.
Some of the students who had made fun of Tillie were sorry they had done so and for the remainder of the school year, a favorite topic of discussion was what they might have done differently. Could they have been more understanding? Or, was Tillie a lost cause from the start?
Shortly after the unfortunate young woman’s suicide, her last roommate, a girl called “Sissy,” returned to school following a bout of influenza. Sissy had shared Tillie’s room from just before Christmas until she [Sissy] became ill and, so far as is known, she never complained about her weird dorm mate. According to Sissy, whatever drove Tillie to take her own life happened in New York – not in Alabama. In December, when the fashionable flapper boarded the train that would take her home, she was as haughty and disparaging as ever, Sissy declared. But when she returned in January, thoroughly modern Tillie seemed sad and lonely.
The gossip was viscous. Students whispered among themselves that Tillie was in the family way but did not know which boyfriend had fathered her child. Sissy, however, was able to provide information disputing this rumor. The roommate also claimed that beginning in January, Tillie became increasingly anxious and spent an inordinate amount of time at her desk writing long letters. Then there was that memorable day she discovered Tillie sobbing uncontrollably. . . .
The most likely cause of Tillie’s depression and ultimate suicide was a love affair gone wrong, but this is only speculation. No one will ever know for certain what drove the lovely young lady in red to the point of no return that frigid winter night on the uppermost floor of Pratt Hall.
The guilt of Tillie’s classmates hung heavily over the school, but more disturbing was the phantom footsteps treading the fourth floor corridor and mysterious flashes of red emanating from what had been the New York girl’s room in Pratt Hall. Almost every resident of the dormitory’s top floor either heard or saw the inexplicable phenomena and no student would venture into the hall alone at night. If a woman had to leave the room, her roommate would be awakened to accompany her. No one questioned or objected to this arrangement because no one wanted to encounter the spectral Tillie.
Making bad matters worse was a story related by the house mother about a similar phantom in red that had strolled the halls of Alabama Conference Female College at Tuskeegee when she was a student there. When prodded by her credulous charges, the older woman would stare into space as she recited the tale in a low, funereal tone: “It started a few days after Maddie took her own life. We never knew why she did it ... She liked red too and her spirit – for it was a spirit as surely as I sit here – was enveloped in a glowing red light. We were scared to death. ...” No one recalled if the house mother knew, or included in her narration, the fact the earlier “Red Lady” had been Tillie’s grandaunt.
Over the years, many young women occupying Pratt Hall’s fourth floor have heard the phantom footsteps. Others have witnessed the incandescent streaks of crimson and a few have actually encountered the phantom flapper. Some of the women who lived in Pratt Hall during the 1944-45 school year swore Harper Lee, author of the famous novel To Kill A Mockingbird, left Huntingdon for the University of Alabama after being badly frightened by the “Lady in Red.” Interestingly, Ms. Lee has never discussed the year she resided in the haunted dorm.
Barbara Willis, a Huntingdon graduate who lived in Pratt Hall during its final years as student housing, is convinced the Red Lady still stalks the corridors of the spooky old building. "On the fourth floor,” she claimed, “you never felt like you were alone. It was always like there was somebody else up there.”
One cold February night, after the building was converted to office space, two freshmen were working on decorations for a Valentine’s Day Dance in a room on the top floor of Pratt Hall. Though they were at the opposite end of the building from the gable room once occupied by Tillie, as they opened the door to leave, they heard what sounded like a woman’s laughter. Believing they were alone in the building, they were hurrying toward the stairwell when they were stopped dead in their tracks by a sudden, blinding flash of red light that bathed the entire corridor in an eerie crimson glow. The now terrified girls ran from the building in such haste they forgot to secure the door. Upon reaching Ligon Hall and realizing they had left the door of Pratt Hall standing wide open, they notified security. When asked why they were so careless, one of the girls blurted, “It was the Red Lady! We saw the flashes of red! It’s real! I’d always thought it was just a story, but it’s real!”
Even on bright, sunny days, there is an air of foreboding about the spooky old building and the most skeptical students are hesitant to say it isn’t haunted. They have all heard tales of the Red Lady, and many crossing The Green at night, have themselves glimpsed a flash of red in the topmost window at the southwest end of Pratt Hall.
Sources: Patricia McLeod (1996 interview); Barbara Willis (2001 interview); The Face in the Window and Other Alabama Ghostlore by Alan Brown; “Haunts of Huntingdon College,” Huntingdon College Gargoyle, October 1975; Houghton Memorial Library, Huntingdon College; Eric A. Kidwell and Sharon Tucker, Huntingdon College; and 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham.