The Haunting at Rush Rhees Library
Halloween is the season for ghouls, goblins, and ghosts. Many hallowed institutions boast an apparition or two on premises: the Opera has the Phantom, Hogwarts has Nearly Headless Nick, George Eastman House has its namesake spirit.
And here at the University of Rochester we have the ghost of Pete Nicosia.
The Campus Times, March 16, 1934
Who is Pete Nicosia?
Pete Nicosia’s ghost haunts Rush Rhees Library. The legend dates back to the building’s construction in the late 1920s.
The story goes that Nicosia, a mason’s helper and recent Sicilian émigré, was working on the library tower when he slipped and fell 150 feet to his death. His foreman, James Conroy, supposedly signed the death certificate and saw to the burial arrangements.
A few years later, things got spooky.
In October 1932, student George Maloney ’34 recalled meeting a stranger dressed in a tattered sweater and workman’s overalls near the library. The man asked where he could find James Conroy, because Conroy still owed him pay for time worked.
Maloney directed the man to the service building and thought nothing more of it.
But a year later, Maloney and another student, Robert Metzdorf ’33, were standing in the library tower when the strange man came up to them. He commented on the great height of the tower. The students informed him that it was about 150 feet to the ground.
“Oh boy, 150 feet!” he said in accented English and then laughed. The man continued to stare down, shaking his head and chuckling, while the students got in the elevator and left the tower.
Coincidence or conspiracy?
Still confused, the students reported the strange man to a librarian, who showed concern. Apparently, this was not the first time the man had been seen wandering campus.
The librarian wrote to Conroy, giving the man’s description. Conroy is said to have answered in a letter that the description matched that of Pete Nicosia—a dead man.
A file photo, supposedly of Nicosia, soon surfaced. Witnesses—including Maloney and Metzdorf—swore that the stranger looked just like the man in the photo. But the photo’s provenance is questionable, as no records of Pete Nicosia have been found in River Campus construction files or Rochester city directories.
In February 1934, Maloney encountered the stranger again and confronted him, saying, “Do you know of anybody named Pete Nicosia?”
“Shu,” he chuckled. “That’s me.”
"But didn’t you get hurt? Didn’t—”
“No,” he said, cutting Maloney off. “It didn’t hurt a bit.” The man then disappeared into the library cellar.
For years afterward, the campus newspaper reported claims of Nicosia sightings in the library stacks, basement, or tower, but with no concrete evidence. One person recanted his sighting; others doubt the original source, since Maloney’s story first appeared in The Soap-Box, the literary magazine of the men’s campus.
In 1985, Maloney wrote, “The story of Pete Nicosia was inconclusive in 1934. At this late date, I expect that it will remain so.”
Scare today, gone tomorrow
At 186 feet high, the library tower remains the building’s most imposing feature; and after 80-plus years, the story of Pete Nicosia remains its most enduring mystery.
With the Halloween season upon us, modern-day ghostbusters can attend Scare Fair 2013 on Thursday, October 31. Rush Rhees librarians will host a Stack Stalk and Tower Tours.
Who knows? You might have your own close encounter to report.
2013 Scare Fair
The annual Scare Fair is one of two times each year the Rush Rhees Library tower is open for tours. Take a spooky look through the stacks, while snacking on cider, donuts, and Halloween treats.
Thursday, October 31
1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.