Campus ghost stories: A new candidate

I just got the alumni magazine from my alma mater, Eastern University, from which I learn a piece of trivia I’d somehow never heard during my years attending the school: In 1919, years before Eastern’s college would be founded there, the Walton estate in St. David’s, Pa., was the filming location for the silent movie Oh, Johnny! (the exclamation point there is part of the movie’s title, not this sentence).

I am now dreadfully disappointed in YouTube and the rest of the Internet for not quickly supplying me with video of this film. The best I could find were an advertisement and a still from this site on the film’s star, Louis Bennison, aka, “The Smilin’ Cowboy.” (Montco’s library apparently has a copy of this Betzwood Films production in its archives — let’s get that digitized, folks.)

Bennison’s life after Oh, Johnny! was not a happy one, and a decade later he would be found dead, a murderer and a suicide in a Manhattan penthouse.

I do not believe in ghosts, but I do enjoy ghost stories. Eastern’s campus has a decent one (which I described here), and they have an even better one across the street at Cabrini College. But I think we could trade up.

Louis Bennison met an unhappy, violent end, while some of his happier memories took place at the site of what is now Eastern University.

Those seem to me like the raw materials for a new campus legend involving the ghost of the Smilin’ Cowboy.

New legends, of course, have to be retconned back onto the past in order to seem plausible, so let’s get started with that. Work with me here, people.

Did I ever tell you about the time in college when I was walking across campus late one moonless night and thought I heard the sound of a horses’ hooves?

I was coming down the back stairs of Walton Hall, headed back toward Doane, when suddenly, there on the porch overlooking Willow Pond, I saw …


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  • FYI: Sometimes the only way to date an old  photo is
    by old movies posters in the street in that photo.

    I love IMDb, almost always has much more info
    and gossip than mere Wikipedia. Helps to get a date to also help spice up a dull “ghost”

    Link below to fifth photo down.


  • edenz

    FYI – Betzwood Films was based just outside of Valley Forge Historical Park, and the original building is still standing as part of a apartment/office complex. You can see the building and one of those historical spot signs if you walk east of the park on the Schuylkill River Trail.

  • Vermic

    Did I ever tell you about the time in college when I was walking across campus late one moonless night and thought I heard the sound of a horses’ hooves?

    Silent film ghosts don’t make noise, everyone knows that!

  •  I don’t think hoofbeats are your hook. It’s got to be the smile.

    It was one of those chilly nights that’s not so much foggy as misty, you know? Everything kind of damp and dim. I was coming down the back stairs of Walton Hall, and I saw this guy… well, at first all I saw was this silhouette, just a tall figure in this big cowboy hat, the kind nobody wears in Pennsylvania. He was standing with his back to me, and his shoulders were slumped like… I don’t know, like despair, like he’d just given up. And I said something like “Hey man, you all right?” And he turned to me and he had this big, big smile. Too big, you know? Just this frozen smile. And he said “Don’t I look all right?” But here’s the thing, man, I swear to god HIS LIPS DIDN’T MOVE WHEN HE TALKED. The cowboy just kept smiling. I just backed away, kind of freaked out, and when I looked again he wasn’t there. Later, though, when I told a couple guys about it, I found out that I wasn’t the only one to see him. People have been seeing him on cold nights for DECADES.

    See, that way every time someone sees somebody from a distance wearing a hat with a brim, they can claim a new sighting. It’s self-replicating.

  • sarah

    Oh, Eastern and its ghost stories.

    The newspaper and the writing center both had offices on the third floor of Walton, so I spent many late nights there. It’s a creaky, drafty building and a little freaky at midnight…