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The Legend of the Headless Gownsman

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    The Legend of the Headless Gownsman

                Late one snowy winter evening, librarian Annie Armour sat admiring the splendor of St. Luke’s Chapel, thinking over her most recent research. Tomorrow, she was driving out to the Paranormal Research Organization’s national meeting to present her findings about ghosts in Tennessee. After months spent in musty archive rooms, her hands covered in dust and newsprint, her eyes fatigued from the hours of reading miniscule print, she was finally ready to speak about Tennessee’s colorful legends of paranormal activity.

    Normally, this spot was ideal for mulling over thoughts – the gothic buildings both quiet and serene. The snow-covered trees muted sounds from the campus buildings and reflected the moonlight in such a way everything was cloaked in a soft yellow light. On this particular night, however, students, excited about the end of finals, milled around campus, moving from party to party, carrying thermoses of cheap liquor.

    A group of male students, rowdy, drunk, and cloaked in the long black gowns symbolizing membership in the Order of the Gownsman approached Annie. “Hey lady, whatcha doin’ all alone? Come party with us!” “Maybe another time,” she politely replied, hoping at least that they would leave her alone with her thoughts. And sure enough, they did.

    Not five minutes later, she saw a cloaked shadow behind one of the hickory trees to the right of her bench. “Oh God, not another prankster,” she thought to herself before speaking to the figure: “I already told you guys – I don’t want to go to the party. Why don’t you just go along and leave me alone?” The figure neither moved nor spoke in response; it just continued staring intently at Annie. “Thank goodness for cell phones,” she thought as she searched in her purse for her cell phone, warning the figure that if he didn’t leave her alone, she would call campus security.

    The cloaked figure emerged from the shadow of the hickory and began slowly walking towards Annie. Annie frantically tried to call security, but her cell phone oddly had no signal. “You’re phone doesn’t work, does it?” the figure asked rhetorically, “That’s my doing.”

    “What do you mean, ‘that’s your doing’? Who are you and what do you want?” Annie demanded.

    “I would have thought that you, of all people, would have recognized me.”

    “How could I have recognized you? I can’t even see your face; it’s covered by your gown.”

    “Is it?” the figure asked before removing his gown, revealing that there was, in fact, no part of his body on top of his shoulders.

    “The Headless Gownsman!!!!!!!” Annie exclaimed.

    “Ah, yes, so you know my nickname and a bit of my story, I suppose.”

    “Of course I do. Everyone’s heard about you in Sewanee. You’re a legend. In fact, I’m giving a presentation about you this weekend at a conference.”

    “My legend, yes. Some have said that I was a theology student, who, in the midst of studying for my exams crammed my head so full of knowledge that my head just fell off. What a preposterous idea! Others have said that I was a student here at the University of the South who died in a tragic car accident. These people are much closer to the truth.”

    Annie, though not a stranger to reading about ghosts, had never actually been in the presence of a ghost. She tried to see past her fear in order to recognize what a remarkable opportunity this was for her research project and asked the Headless Gownsman to tell her his story.

    “My name is Thomas, or Tom as my friends knew me. I was, in fact, a theology student here at the University of the South, and I dearly loved this place. My childhood had been traumatic – I lost both of my parents when I was just a baby and grew up in the care of an aunt and uncle who resented my presence. When I arrived here, I immediately felt at home. I had friends. I had mentors. I spent all of my vacations here, as I didn’t see the use in returning to a home where I wasn’t welcome. At last, I had found people who cared about me, and who would accept my offers of friendship openly.

    “I even fell in love. One day I was sitting in my favorite spot – right about where we are now – studying, when I saw a beautiful young woman sobbing quietly next to a tree. I went and asked her what was wrong – she had just broken up with her boyfriend at the homecoming game, and we spent the whole rest of the afternoon talking. Every day for a month, she would come find me at this spot, and we would just talk and talk. It was as if we were the best of friends who had known each other for ever.

    “One afternoon just after final exams were over, Sarah asked me if I would like to have dinner at her house that weekend so that I could finally meet her parents. I was absolutely ecstatic! I had been looking for an opportunity to meet her parents so that I could get their permission to ask Sarah to marry me.

    “So, Saturday afternoon, I scraped the snow off my windshield and hopped in my car. I figured if I left at 3:00, I would have time to drive very slowly over the winding road on Monteagle Mountain and still arrive in time for dinner at 7:00. The road was even worse then than it is now – steep hills, sharp curves, limited visibility. And with snowy conditions, it’s treacherous.

    “I was driving safely – I had every reason to be cautious. Nevertheless, I hit an icy patch in the road, and my car went over the side of a cliff. A tree branch came through the windshield and decapitated me. I died instantly, feeling no physical pain whatsoever.

    “The emotional pain, however, was too much. My last thought was of how much I would miss Sarah and the promise of living my life with her. That’s why I keep coming back to Sewanee, particularly at Homecoming and finals time. When I saw you here tonight, you reminded me of Sarah, and I knew I had to come share my story with you.”

    Annie was almost speechless but managed to muster the courage to thank Tom and to ask him if he would mind if she included his personal story in her presentation that weekend.

    “Of course you can share my story with anyone. Just be sure that before you drive over the mountain tomorrow, you touch the roof of your car. I’m sure you know the legend about the angel that helps drivers over the mountain, as long as they touch the roof of their car before leaving. Well, that ‘angel’ is me.” And with those words of caution, Tom disappeared back behind the trees.

    The next day, Annie packed her bags in the car, scraped the snow off her windshield, and touched the roof of her car, just as her grandmother Sarah had always warned her.

    Works Cited

    Brown, John Norris. “Ghosts & Spirits of Tennessee: University of the South.” Retrieved June 20,

    2009 from

    Byram, Lauren. “Sewanee Archivist Sheds Light on Sewanee Spooks with Upcoming Book

    Project.” Sewanee Purple April 23, 2008. Retrieved June 20, 2009 from

    Cross, Kim. “Two Perfect Towns.” Southern Living, August 2005. Retrieved June 20, 2009 from

    Sellers, Tammy. “Interstate Highway System, Tennessee.” The Tennessee Encyclopedia of

    History and Culture. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2002. Retrieved June 20, 2009 from

    Original legend, from Brown (

    The University of the South is a small college located atop Monteagle Mountain in Sewanee, TN. Considered by many to be one of the best colleges in the South, it is well known for it’s Episcopal Seminary, as well as it’s very beautiful campus. In all the country, you would have a difficult time finding a more lovely campus.

    The University of the South was founded in the late 1860s by Leonidas Polk, a former Confederate General, and an Episcopal Bishop. The school’s rigorous academics and high quality of teachers and students soon made it known across the country as one of the finest schools available. Today, it is still considered that by most.

    With it’s rich history, it’s not surprising that this college is said to have a few resident spooks. By far, the most well known is the headless gownsman. The tale is that a former student there died tragically, and now his ghost haunts the campus. The spirit seems to show up the most during homecoming or finals periods. It wears the traditional robe reserved for members of the Order of the Gownsman. His shadowy figure is seen walking around campus, or his head is seen floating around! The head and the body are never attached, however.

    There are two different stories of the ghost’s origin. One states that many years ago, there was a young student at the university who loved it there very much. One night, he was driving along one of the narrow and winding roads of Monteagle Mountain when he lost control of his car, and wrecked. The car and his body were mangled very badly, and he was decapitated. Now his body and head haunt the campus. The second story seems the less plausible. According to it, a young seminary student was so fascinated by the books in the library that he spent all his time there, reading and learning. Eventually, his head became so filled with knowledge that his head became to heavy for his body to support, and his head fell off!

    These are the most common theories of the origin. Both seem to have problems. The second story’s problems are obvious: a head would not fall off a body because it was filled with knowledge. The first one sounds more reasonable, however, the sightings of the gownsman go back very far in history, possibly all the way back to the 1880s. If this is the case, since no one died in a car wreck in the 1880s, so the first story must also be untrue. Of course, there is no way to prove the story went back that far, so the first tale could be fact. The Gownsman is most commonly spotted in Wyndcliff Hall or Saint Luke’s Hall, though it has been seen all over campus.


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    The Legend of the Headless Gownsman. (2017, Feb 01). Retrieved from

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