Haunted UMKC

5 Historically Eerie Locations on Campus
Epperson House 1922- sepia photograph of the exterior of Epperson house made of bricks and with extravagant architecture

Just in time for Halloween, we’re getting the scoop on five reportedly haunted places at UMKC from our own resident historian, Chris Wolff, manager of the UMKC Bookstore.

sepia tone photo of University Playhouse in the 1950s
Historical photo of University Playhouse at its location near present-day Miller Nichols Library and Learning Center.
1. Lurking Patron at the University Playhouse
Vaugn Burkholder
Vaugn Burkholder

Since opening in 1948, the University Playhouse had a tradition of bringing in professional actors and directors to work with the students. One of the actresses was a local woman named Vaugn Burkholder; she had a short career on Broadway, was petite in size and wore tall heels to compensate. With her love for theater, she would often observe casting calls and rehearsals from the catwalk above the stage.

On the night of Oct. 23, 1957, Vaugn’s husband dropped her off at the playhouse. Just as she walked in, she was greeted by the stage manager and suddenly collapsed. They called an ambulance, but it was too late. Vaugn died of a heart attack right in the manager’s arms.

Since Vaugn’s death, strange activities began to happen at the University Playhouse: reports of lights turning on and off; campus police, on multiple occasions, found all the doors and windows open in the middle of the night as they heard sounds of a performance—including audience laughter and applause--yet upon entry, they discovered no one was there. Sometimes guests of the theater would claim they saw a woman on the catwalk. However when they asked the ushers who it was, there would be no one there. The most interesting of all:  the stage manager would often hear the distinct, chilling sound of Vaugn’s footsteps in those high heels on stage when he was in the building alone.

The University Playhouse was eventually torn down; all that remains today is the playhouse patio located on the southwest corner of Miller Nichols Library and Learning Center.

Interior of the Spencer Theater- detailing the catwalks above the stage and auditorium seating
Present-day Spencer Theater with catwalk pictured above.
2. Dancing With the Past in the Spencer Theater

After the University Playhouse was torn down in 1978, Olson Performing Arts Theatre was built to replace it. The Kansas City Repertory Theatre moved inside to the Spencer Theatre in 1979, and it wasn’t long before strange things started to occur. Lights would mysteriously turn on and off. One evening, a costume designer left a project unfinished only to find it finished in the morning. Another time, an actress fell coming down the staircase from the catwalk and felt an invisible force stop her fall mid-air and steady her on the steps. And again, like in the University Playhouse, guests would ask the ushers, “Who is that woman up on the catwalk?”

In 1985, an actress named Laura San Giacomo was cast as Juliet in the KC Rep’s production of Romeo and Juliet. One evening, Laura went on stage to perform a scene where she danced around the stage by herself. As she set out across the stage, suddenly an older woman appeared in full costume dancing with her, step-by-step. Laura kept her composure and completed the scene. She then rushed off stage and found the stage manager and asked, “Who was that woman on stage with me?” He replied, calm and unfazed: “It was just the stage ghost.”

historical color photo of UNews House, a two-story, brick house
Historical photo of the UNews House at 5327 Holmes Street.
3. The UNews House Possession

The house at 5327 Holmes St. has been owned by the university for decades; it was once the home of radio station KCUR 89.3 as well as a weekly radio show first produced there in the 1970s. Legend has it that in 1977 a gunman forced his way into the home, burst into the studio and shot the host and guest he was interviewing. The gunman fled the scene and was never caught.

However, none of that is true. Once the rumors had begun, it only grew, and when the University News campus newspaper moved into the house years later, the legend took on a life of its own. It provided a backdrop and explanation for all the strange phenomenon that generations of UNews staff have experienced in the house. Working hard well into the night, students would often experience lights turning off and on by themselves and strange, unexplainable noises. Some students even encountered cold spots in corners of the house. Could it just be faulty wiring in an old, settling house? Could the urban myths be clouding the students’ perceptions? Perhaps.         

The UNews house has sat empty for the last several years and the stories have now faded into memory. However, this year, the staff have moved back into the house and taken possession of their old work-space. Hopefully they’ll have no paranormal activities to report.

black and white photo of Linda Hall Library
Historical photo of Linda Hall Library, which is surrounded by Volker Campus.
4. Ghostly Pages in the Linda Hall Library

When Herbert and Linda Hall passed away in the 1940s, they left behind a trust fund, their home at 5109 Cherry St. and instructions to create a public library. The trustees of their estate decided that the library would be dedicated to science and the history of science. Over the years, the library has acquired a world class collection of books, including original works of scientists such as Galileo, Darwin and Einstein. In 1964, the Hall home was torn down and the modern Linda Hall Library we have today was built. This new facility allowed the library to store and make available hundreds of thousands of books it had collected over the years in a special annex building — and within that collection, one of those books is haunted.

When someone requests a book, a staff member must go to the annex to retrieve it. In the late 1960s, staff began to experience strange phenomena on the top floor of the annex, where items least requested are stored. In this room there are also statues, paintings, and other relics that made a decidedly creepy atmosphere. Staff would enter and find themselves in complete darkness after the lights mysteriously went out.  When they came back on, there would sometimes be a message scribbled on the chalkboard on the wall. One message identified a ghostly author: “I am Andre Dettonville.” Over time, Andre revealed his story. He was killed on a scientific expedition in the 1650s. His spirit attached itself to a book published by the French Academy of Science, and now he is travelling through time along with the book. It is to be believed that when the Linda Hall Library acquired the collection of the American Philosophical Society in the mid-1960s, it acquired Andre, too.

Living room, or Great Hall, of the Epperson House in 1926- shown: organ loft, hanging chandelier, and area fully furnished
Living room, or Great Hall, complete with organ loft pictured top right, of the Epperson House in 1926.
5. Famous Epperson House Haunting

When the home of insurance tycoon, Uriah Epperson, at 5200 Cherry St. was under construction in 1920, his wife, Mary, couldn’t help but call it “The Eppersons’ Folly.” This four-story, 54-room, $500,000 mansion built for just the two of them was a cross between a Tudor style home and a castle. Beautiful and a little eerie after you learn some of the reasons it’s considered haunted. Here is part of the story.

Uriah Epperson
Uriah Epperson

The Eppersons had no children and devoted most of their time and affection to the various charities they supported, most of which had to do with music and the arts. Their support of the Kansas City Conservatory (now the UMKC Conservatory) led them into a friendship with organ instructor Harriet Barse, whom they fondly referred to as their “adopted daughter.” It was agreed that Harriet would move in with the Eppersons and a special organ loft was constructed for her in the home’s living room. Harriet commissioned a custom pipe organ and everyone looked forward to her entertaining guests of the home.

However, shortly after they moved into the home around 1922, Harriet fell ill. She was rushed to the hospital where she died during an operation to remove her gallbladder. The Eppersons were crushed, but life went on. Uriah Epperson died of a stroke in 1927, and following that, Mary Elizabeth Epperson died of cancer in 1939. In 1942, the home was donated to the University of Kansas City and its first real use was as a dormitory for Navy air cadets during WWII. These men were the first to report sightings of a ghostly woman in a white gown who walked the hallways of the home.

The home was later used as a residence hall for the School of Education and in the 1970s, as practice and office space for the UMKC Conservatory. It was during this time that stories of strange phenomena inside Epperson House came to life. In addition to sightings of the ghostly figure, students reported hearing footsteps in empty parts of the home. Interestingly, the light in the top of the tower would turn on by itself even though the tower had been sealed off decades before. Then, there were claims of the unmistakable sound of the organ music coming from the basement.

Harriet Barse
Harriet Barse

A chandelier came loose in the living room once and barely missed a custodian, which only encouraged the spread of belief in the haunting of Epperson House to university staff. Even campus police were becoming believers after one officer was struck in his vehicle early one morning by another vehicle. When the officer got out to see what happened, there was no one nor another car around. Yet he had heard the shattering of glass and saw skid marks on the ground where his vehicle had been moved. And there weren’t just sightings of a woman: another officer saw a ghostly hand clothed in a man’s blue suit appear out of nowhere and turn off a light.

Today the Epperson House sits empty and in need of repair and access is strictly forbidden. However, depending on who you ask, you will get mixed responses on the potential for the supernatural. Although some may think the strange occurrences are caused from the old structure, others know for a fact they have heard the organ music and seen unexplainable things. 

Published: Oct 21, 2020