It’s Halloween, a time when the story of Alice Van der Veer rises from the grave to presumably scare another generation of ghost believers.
If you aren’t familiar with the tale (and there are various iterations) the gist is this: Around 1672, Van der Veer was a fetching 17-year-old who lived with her family in a cabin along the Mohawk River, on the outskirts of Schenectady in its infancy.
A prospective suitor, ignoring the threats of her father that he would shoot any man that came a courting, enjoyed strolls with his new lover along the river. One night, on summer’s first full moon, Alice’s suspicious father followed her, and upon catching the couple locked in an embrace, kept his promise: He shot the smitten man dead. He then grabbed his daughter and fled.
Rabid townspeople, alarmed by the shots and screams and unsure of what happened, gave chase. They caught up to the father first and burned him to a stake. As midnight approached, the mob eventually found Alice. She was hiding near a spot in what is now Jackson’s Garden. She too, was tied to a stake and burned alive.
Since then, according to legend, on the first full moon of summer, Alice’s ghost reappears in the garden, hoping to find her lover’s body.
Spoiler alert: After more than 300 years, Alice remains single.
So is the story a figment of many an imagination?
Through the years, a number of students and staff have vouched for the ghost. They attribute unusual circumstances, weird happenings and the sudden emergence of howling winds to Alice’s presence. Just over a decade ago, two employees even blamed Alice publicly for a power outage on campus that disrupted an annual conference of fund-raisers.
Alice has also benefited from good press. In May 1946, the New York Folklore Quarterly published what is believed to be the first article about her fate, “Union College Ghost.” A year later, the same publication recounted her tale in a roundup, “Ghosts of the Schenectady Area.”
Alice went national in 1957, when Life magazine, in its Oct. 28 issue, featured her in a two-page color spread, “By Moonlight Burned,” in an article headlined “Ghostly American Legends.”
Even a supermarket tabloid, The Sun, gave the ghost a nod in July 1991 as part of a mystery series featuring a collection of “incredible but true stories from firewalkers through zombies.”
No doubt the piece probably got more attention because under the headline “Lonely ghost wails for her lost lover” was a publicity photo of Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand from “The Way We Were.” A number of scenes from the 1973 movie were shot on campus, including, naturally, Jackson’s Garden.
Wayne Somers, author of the Encyclopedia of Union College History, scoffs at the idea of a ghost in the garden. He points to a host of implausibilities in the story’s retelling and the fact there has been no credible claim from someone who has seen the ghost. He said it also doesn’t help that it took more than 200 years for the first account of Alice to surface.
He tried to bury the legend of Alice in a two-paragraph entry he reluctantly included in his 2003 book:
“There is no evidence that an Alice Van der Veer ever existed, or that any such incident ever occurred in Schenectady,” he wrote. “Nor is it clear that anyone ever seriously claimed to see the ghost; the story is probably more correctly classified as modern fiction than as legitimate folklore.”
Yet interest persists. Union’s ghost continues to be recycled in countless print and broadcast accounts, gaining more traction around Halloween.
The legend of Alice is a favorite topic for Kate White ’72. In her senior year, White, the former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, now a best-selling author of murder mysteries, wrote a fascinating article about the ghost for The Idol, Union’s literary magazine.
While living in North College, on the edge of the garden, White had heard stories about Alice. She and her roommate had also been awakened a few times by the unexplained loud click of a bolt on their door. In a possible precursor to her interest in murder mysteries, she needed to know more.
White spent months on research. She dug through campus archives, pored over genealogy records, interviewed the state historian and met with a possible descendant of Van der Veer.
“Why wasn’t I working on my thesis?” she joked recently from her home in Manhattan.
In the end, she couldn’t prove Alice was real.
“But I’m still fascinated by people who do have experiences that are hard to explain,” she said.
White’s story created some buzz on campus and was picked up by the local newspaper. Students also started camping out in Jackson’s Garden, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ghost.
After graduating, White stuck around Schenectady for the summer. She received a visit from a student who had learned of her research. He told her he had been walking on campus recently near Jackson’s Garden when he was suddenly lifted up and hurled clear across the road.
In talking with him, White figured out the night it happened – the first full moon of summer and the 300th anniversary of Alice’s supposed death.