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Haunted by Eugene O’Neill

A new book about Boston’s secrets includes Shelton’s literary ghost

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Eugene O’Neill, one of America’s greatest playwrights, spent his last days in Shelton Hall. Photo Illustration by Edward A. Brown

Shelton Hall’s fourth floor can get eerie. The elevator stops there for no reason. The lights are dimmer than on every other floor. And students occasionally hear a knock on the door, only to find no one on the other side.

Perhaps it’s all a matter of aging infrastructure. Perhaps it’s coincidence that Eugene O’Neill, one of America’s greatest playwrights, spent his last few years on Shelton’s fourth floor — and that none of these eerie events were noted until after his death there.

The mystery and mystique surrounding Shelton, and O’Neill’s “ghost,” has proven enduring enough to earn a spot in the Boston Globe’s new book Boston’s Secret Spaces, a compilation of 50 of greater Boston’s most intriguing locales.

“Strange things do happen,” says current fourth floor resident Stephanie Lui, who moved into the dorm because she loves the way the rooms are set up, with private bathrooms and moveable furniture. “For example, there was a period of time at night when a gust of wind would blow underneath the door from the hallway into our room. It made a loud noise, and we couldn’t figure out why wind would be blowing within the building.”

Lui (SMG’12) knew of the haunted house rumors concerning Shelton, but remained skeptical despite a connection to superstitions from her Chinese heritage. Many buildings in China are not labeled with a 4th floor (like many American buildings don’t use 13) because the Chinese word for the number sounds like “die” or “death.” But she decided to give it a go. “All my fears have been eradicated since I moved in. This place is great!” she says.

David Zamojski, director of Residence Life and an assistant dean of students, says that students “have been telling stories about O’Neill’s spirit and ghost as long as I’ve been here. We have received reports of many a strange incident.”

Zamojski was Shelton’s residence director from 1983 to 1989, living and working in the building. He returned to work as assistant director and associate director of Residence Life from 1993 to 2003.

“Students have told me that they hoped to be inspired to write their creative best by virtue of being on the fourth floor,” he says. “Others said they actually wanted to connect with his spirit.”

The floor was named “Writer’s Corridor” at the beginning of the 1984-1985 academic year, acknowledging the interests of the students it attracts. Every spring, Shelton’s fourth floor residents put out a collection of creative writings called “Eugene’s Legacy.”

But Shelton is not only about its famous fourth floor. Two more of its nine floors are subject-specific, engineering and management, and the top floor is a study area, performance venue, and television room. With its spectacular views in every direction, Zamojski likens Shelton, circa 1984, to StuVi2 these days: everyone was scrambling to get a foot in the door.

Built in 1923 as one of the original Sheraton Hotels, Shelton was purchased by BU in 1954. Before that, the hotel had been renamed Shelton by the family that now owns the Sonesta Hotel chain, allowing them to continue using linens and silverware imprinted with an S. The name “Sheraton” can still be seen above the front entrance.

The dorm, with a capacity of 418, primarily houses upperclassmen in two-bedroom suites.

When O’Neill arrived at suite 401 with his wife, Carlotta, in 1951, he came to the Shelton Hotel. The playwright chose Shelton in part because his wife’s psychiatrist had an office on Bay State Road. O’Neill himself been suffering from what was thought to be Parkinson’s disease and rarely left the hotel. He died in November 1953, uttering famous last words three days before his death: “Born in a hotel room and goddammit, died in a hotel room.”

O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 and wrote a string of highly regarded plays, including The Iceman Cometh (1939) and Pulitzer winners Anna Christie (1920), Strange Interlude (1928), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941), produced after his death and widely considered his masterpiece. He is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery, in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Carlotta O’Neill claimed she and her husband burned his unfinished manuscripts in their suite in 1952, although reporters have pointed out that there are no fireplaces in Shelton. She altered her story to say they were burned in the building’s furnace. Years later, the widow said that she had conversations with her husband after his death and that he was in her room.

Whether O’Neill’s ghost visits others as well, without doubt lights on the fourth floor are dimmer than elsewhere in Shelton. Zamojski says it is because of the height of the ceilings. “We don’t think it has anything to do with O’Neill trying to create a spooky ambiance,” he says.

Boston’s Secret Spaces: 50 Hidden Corners In and Around the Hub, published by the Boston Globe, is based on an online series. It features 50 sites from around greater Boston. Shelton Hall appears in a chapter titled “Meeting Eugene O’Neill.”

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Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.

4 Comments

4 Comments on Haunted by Eugene O’Neill

  • Anonymous on 09.29.2009 at 11:40 am

    “For example, there was a period of time at night when a gust of wind would blow underneath the door from the hallway into our room.”

    did you have your window open??? Simple physics of pressure/temperature differences. Case closed…

  • Scott C. Mohr on 09.29.2009 at 3:03 pm

    E. O'Neill

    Having lived on the 4th floor of Shelton as a faculty-member-in-residence (FIR) for 8 years (1999-2007) I had very ample opportunity to encounter O’Neill’s ghost (especially coming home from the lab in post-midnight hours). To my great regret (since I have long been a big O’Neill fan, nothing supernatural occurred in my presence. However, it always felt uplifting to think that he had once walked those corridors. In 2003 (the 50th anniversary of O’Neill’s death), with President Chobanian’s help we dedicated a plaque to his memory in the front lobby. Next to it is a photocopy of a letter from Carlotta O’Neill to a friend written on “Hotel Shelton” stationery a few days after Eugene’s death. I was fortunate to be able to track down a doctor in St. Louis whose hobby has been collecting O’Neill memorabilia and he kindly made the copy available free of charge. I also much enjoyed helping Steve Weiss (the 4th-floor RA at the time) to start (and later RAs to continue) “Eugene’s Legacy,” which the Office of Residence Life kindly sponsored. I think the Shelton ambiance contributed to the motivation of the student writers who published work there. It was (and I’m sure continues to be) good stuff. O’Neill is doubtless pleased with his legacy. If there **is** a ghost, I’m sure it’s a benevolent one!

  • cherokee on 10.08.2013 at 6:20 pm

    this is the best ghost story I read so far.

  • Jocelyn on 01.16.2014 at 6:35 pm

    Spooky love these

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