Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Curse of McGraw Mansion

Today marks 102 years since a horrible fire took the lives of four members of the Chi Psi fraternity at Cornell University. Three firemen perished while fighting the blaze as well. It was a tragic incident that destroyed a mansion that some believe was cursed by the death of its original owner, Jennie McGraw. The tale of Jennie McGraw is a long story, filled with tragedy, romance, conspiracy, money, courtroom drama and possibly a curse and a haunting. I will only relate only a tiny portion of the tale here.

Jennie McGraw was a wealthy heiress. She was the only child of lumber merchant John McGraw. Both Jennie and her father were benefactors of Cornell University and two buildings there are named for them; McGraw Hall and McGraw Tower. After her father's passing, Jennie ordered a mansion built for her on the University property. She went to Europe to purchase furnishings for the new home as it was being built. Jennie had long suffered the effects of tuberculosis and her condition worsened while overseas. Her time in Europe extended into years and her mansion, once finished, stood empty in wait for its mistress.

While in Italy, Jennie fell in love and married a Cornell professor who was also travelling. There was much whispering over whether it was true love or the work of a gold-digger in league with fellow conspirators out to get their hands on Jennie's fortune. Alas, that is a part of the tale we won't be discussing today.

In 1881, Jennie and her new husband were told by a doctor that she had only weeks to live. She decided it was finally time to leave Europe and head home to Ithaca, New York to die in a familiar place. Her and husband returned to Ithaca, whereupon she was taken by coach to a care facility to spend her final days. During the coach ride, Jennie was driven past the mansion she would never have opportunity to live it. She raised her head weakly from her pillows where she lay in the coach long enough to gaze upon the mansion and state her approval of its construction. After her death, she would finally enter the home. The mansion's housewarming was her funeral. The years that followed her death involved a good deal of legal ugliness that turned friends against each other and caused embarrassment for Cornell. The scars of this time are still evident on the campus today. A plaque featuring a bitter jab at Jennie's widow can be seen hanging at the Uris Library.

Some say that this tragic start for the McGraw Mansion tainted it with a curse. A curse that ultimately resulted in a massive fire that destroyed the mansion and the lives of seven men on December 7, 1906. For the last ten years of its existence, the McGraw Mansion had become a lodge for the Chi Psi fraternity on the campus. Tragically, a fire caused by oily rags stored in an unused elevator shaft combined with the way the home was constructed caused the mansion to become a raging inferno within a very short period of time. The fire spread rapidly upwards and outwards while the fraternity brothers slept. By the time it was discovered, it was too late for the building and for most of the fraternity members to escape in a safe fashion.

Some fraternity brothers jumped three floors to the ground to escape. Others on the second and third floors were lucky to escape from the blaze with non-fatal injuries when the section of wall they were near collapsed into the yard. Two other members were not so lucky and perished while trapped in the tall tower of the lodge. Still two other Chi Psi brothers died of injuries sustained from heroically trying to save their friends. At least one of these two heroes (a student named in the newspapers as O.L. Schmuck) escaped the mansion, only to run back into the burning building in an attempt to save his roommate (who was one of the students trapped in the tower).

Members of Cornell's football team and other students assisted fire fighters in an attempt to save lives and quell the flames. The fire was too widespread and the construction of the house made it very dangerous. The wooden interior burned quickly, causing the brick walls to collapse suddenly in sections. Three brave firefighters were killed when a flaming wall collapsed outward causing them to be pinned under the wreckage and "slowly roasted to death" as the New York Times stated later that day. It was a tragic end for a mansion with a tragic beginning.

The foundation of the mansion was used the following year to build a new lodge for the Chi Psi fraternity. They still occupy it to this day.

Visit the Chi Psi Lodge at Cornell University.

Or pay a visit to the tower at Cornell Jenny is said to haunt and discover the details of the drama that surrounded her and her death.

-Tom G

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