Time Machine

Does ghost of Coe freshman, who died in 1918 flu epidemic, haunt Voorhees Hall?

Helen Esther Roberts
Helen Esther Roberts
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For decades, the ghost story involving a young Coe College student has resurfaced around Halloween.

Helen Roberts died Oct. 19, 1918, at age 18, during the Spanish influenza epidemic that killed millions worldwide, including 675,000 Americans.

When she became ill, she was quarantined — along with other sick students — on the second floor of Coe’s Voorhees Hall.

Stories about Helen haunting Voorhees started about a year after she died, around the time her parents donated a grandfather clock to Voorhees in Helen’s memory.

Students reported late-night appearances of a girl in white that disappeared down a hallway.

Sightings ceased after a few years, only to recur in the late 1960s when the residents of the second-floor area where Helen died began hearing strange noises.

When things appeared to move in the room Helen had once occupied and pounding noises would awaken residents, the whole floor of girls sometimes would grab pillows and blankets and move to the lobby for the night.

Who was Helen?

Helen Esther Roberts was born in Strawberry Point in December 1899 to Charles Stark Roberts and Caroline Little Roberts. She was named for her grandmothers, Helen Stark Roberts and Esther Little.

Helen’s father, Charles, inherited a furniture business started in 1860 by his father, a cabinetmaker. The business grew into the Franklin Furniture store.

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Helen was an only child and accompanied her parents whenever they traveled. They made frequent trips to surrounding communities and went to San Diego when she was 17.

She had scarlet fever in 1914 and was seriously ill a couple of times after that, always recovering to make regular shopping and sightseeing excursions with family and friends to places like Fayette, McGregor and Cedar Rapids.

Helen’s senior year in high school included roles in school plays. She graduated in 1918, with the baccalaureate service held at the Congregational church. A quartet that included her father sang during the ceremony.

Helen’s summer concluded with her being recruited to the Tri Delta Sorority at Coe on Aug. 6 and becoming a member of the Order of the Eastern Star on Aug. 9.

On Sept. 30, she arrived in Cedar Rapids to attend Coe. She fell ill Oct. 14.

When sorority rushing was completed Oct. 18, Helen was listed as a pledge along with Mildred Marshall, daughter of Harry Marshall, part owner of The Gazette.

The next day, Helen died.

Her obituary

The Oct. 23, 1918, Evening Gazette carried a story about her untimely death:

“Miss Helen Roberts of Strawberry Point, who died last Saturday at Voorhees Quadrangle from influenza, was buried Monday afternoon at Strawberry Point. Miss Roberts was a freshman at Coe College this year. Mr. and Mrs. H.L. Godfrey of this city accompanied her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Roberts, to Strawberry Point when they returned with the body. Prof. and Mrs. Chas. T. Hickok and Mr. and Mrs. S.N. Harris motored to Strawberry Point Monday afternoon to attend the funeral.”

The actual cause of Helen’s death was determined to be pneumonia as a result of the flu, a common occurrence,

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According to her Strawberry Point obituary, Helen was “one of the most loved and popular girls in the community.”

The Coe Cosmos recorded her passing with an item on page 2: “She was a member of our freshman class and to most of us little known. The many kind things spoken by those who knew her best, however, convince us that her place in Coe would have borne out the testimony of her local newspaper, which says, ‘She was probably the most loved young lady in this community.’ We sympathize with the parents in the loss of their only child.”

A few days after Helen died, it was reported the number of Spanish flu cases at Voorhees had been reduced from the original 42 to six.

Helen’s father died five years later. Her mother continued to operate the family’s furniture business until her death in 1956, when it was sold.

Summoning Helen

On the anniversary of Helen’s death 19 years ago, a Gazette online team set up a webcamera aimed at the grandfather clock her parents had given Coe, where it was said Helen appeared at 2:43 p.m. Oct. 19, the time of her death. (The clock had been moved, at some point, to the Coe president’s office, then located in Stuart Hall. It’s now back at Voorhees.)

Twenty students signed up for a séance with a Ouija board to summon Helen’s spirit. They received only two “answers” out of 15 questions asked the board. “Via the Ouija board,” The Gazette reported, “Helen told the group she was still stuck at Coe and was not looking for her diary.”

No one saw Helen’s ghost.

Another ‘haunting’

Strangely, in 1885, when spiritualism was popular and purported mediums conned the populace, a 25-year-old Charles was among a group of young men who attended a séance led by a well-known medium who had been holding gatherings in Strawberry Point for several days, charging people $1 each to attend.

As the evening progressed, two “spirits” had appeared and left. When the third came out, Charles grabbed him and found out it was the medium himself. The culprit was arrested for taking money under false pretenses and taken to the Elkader jail.

• Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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