Doors slamming, screams in the night, and levitating objects. Between 1981 and 1995, when Emerson College used the former Charlesgate Hotel as a dormitory, the supposed haunting of the building was so well known that the Berkeley Beacon and the Boston Phoenix wrote several articles about it. To this day, it is still considered to be the most haunted building ever owned by the College, and alumni who lived there often talk about the strange happenings they experienced.
Although there are many different frightening tales told about the building, one of the most popular legends focuses on Elsa, the daughter of J. Pickering Putnam. Putnam, the architect of the Charlesgate, had a decorative wall tile holding Elsa’s likeness placed near the elevator during the building’s construction in 1891. The Putnam family lived in the Charlesgate after it was completed, and according to legend seven-year-old Elsa fell down the elevator shaft to her death while chasing her ball across a hall. At that exact moment, the tile with her image cracked. Students claimed to see the ghost of the young girl searching the halls for her ball as well as a new friend.
This makes for a sad and spooky story—especially after the elevator was boarded up in the 1980s—but are there any facts to support it? There were indeed decorative tiles placed in the main lobby, and one very well could have been made in the likeness of Elsa. However, the daughter of J. Pickering Putnam did not die in the Charlesgate. In fact, she lived a full and active life until her death in 1979.
Other stories involved multiple murders and suicides in the Charlesgate. The building was originally a hotel but was sold several times before being purchased by Emerson College. An oft-told story is that the mafia purchased the building in the early 1900s and violently executed people during and after the Great Depression, including three individuals who were shot in the elevator. By the 1960s, the building was owned by Boston University, and it was said that there were a series of student suicides during that decade. Emerson students often claimed to see the ghosts of these individuals roaming the halls as well as haunting the rooms and elevator in which they died.
These gruesome stories received a lot of attention among students, so in the 1980s and 1990s multiple individuals conducted research into the history of the Charlesgate to determine their veracity. Researchers included Berkeley Beacon writers and archivist Robert Fleming. After looking into the lives of past owners as well as delving into the city’s records, it was found that the mafia did not purchase the building, although one owner may have been involved in loan sharking, and there were no recorded murders or suicides.
Aside from the many ghosts that were said to haunt the Charlesgate, students also claimed that there were other strange occurrences. Doors would suddenly close after a burst of cold air swept through the rooms; alarms that had never been set would go off at the same time every morning; and music would play from machines that were not in use. Students also stated that the toilets in the bathrooms would flush on their own, and their seats would suddenly clatter down when the stalls were unoccupied. While explanations for these activities have included shared plumbing for adjacent bathrooms and the draftiness of old buildings, many of these stories cannot be proven or disproven.
Whether or not the Charlesgate is truly haunted may never be known, but the terrifying stories told by alumni are certainly compelling. They also make wonderful campfire tales for those who enjoy a good fright. Happy Halloween!
Jenn Williams (Archives)