Mysterious America

Decades-Old Mystery Hangs Over Rush Rhees Library

At least one University of Rochester employee refuses to stay dead, according to this 88-year-old campus legend. But was he–or his accidental death–real?

Established in 1850 as an independent offshoot of Baptist-born Madison University, the University of Rochester grew to become a mid-sized research university along the Genesee River in Rochester, New York. Benjamin Rush Rhees, a Baptist minister and namesake of Rush Rhees Library, was the University of Rochester’s third president, serving from 1900 to 1935. His long and steady leadership oversaw the university’s growth into a modern institution.

Rush Rhees Library was constructed between 1927 and 1930 in neoclassical style, and its tower, which contains a carillon featuring 50 Dutch bells, stands 186 feet high. The library’s impressive collection contains over three million books, as well as beautiful neoclassical artwork and sculptures. But does something otherworldly flicker through its halls?

The ghost story at Rush Rhees Library is as old as the library itself. In 1929, during construction of the central library tower, a Sicilian immigrant and laborer named Pete Nicosia fell 150 feet to his death. James Conroy, his foreman, supposedly signed Nicosia’s death certificate and made burial arrangements, or so the legend goes. Since then, Nicosia’s disembodied spirit has materialized before bewildered and unsuspecting students.

His deceptively solid form, clad in an old sweater and overalls, asks to see James Conroy or remarks about his “painless death.” “Do you know of anybody named Pete Nicosia?” a student named George Maloney asked the spirit in 1934. “Shu,” the ghost replied. “That’s me.” A black and white photo of the workman even surfaced.

There are a few problems with this story: there are no records of someone named Pete Nicosia on the library construction crew, and in 1990, one eyewitness, Bob Weiss, confessed to the Campus Times that he made up a 1948 encounter for the newspaper.

Reporter An Nguyen theorized the staff of the Soapbox, a men’s literary magazine, invented the story for publicity, since nearly everyone involved in the original ghost sighting worked for or were involved in the magazine. “Maloney was a member of the Board of Editors for the Soapbox issue that published that first account,” she wrote. “Gilchrist was the Faculty Advisor. Stull and Metzdorf had been on the Board of Editors in November of 1932, soon after the first alleged ‘sighting.'”

Or, perhaps, the unfortunate workman was just trying to get some attention from beyond the grave. “Even death, it seems, doesn’t quell that desire for the power quarter hour, the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame,” Mason Winfield, author of Haunted Rochester (2008), speculated.

Sightings peaked from 1933 to 1948 before tapering off, but everyone wonders if Nicosia’s ghost will ever return. Whatever the phantom’s true origin, he has become a perrenial part of campus lore, inspiring autumn visits to Rush Rhees for curious students hoping to solve Rush Rhees’ oldest mystery.

Rush Rhees Library, at 755 Library Road in Rochester, New York, is located on the River Campus of the University of Rochester, at the east end of Eastman Quadrangle. The library is open (usually) 8:00am to 3:00am Monday through Thursday, 8:00am to Midnight on Friday, 10:00am to Midnight on Saturday, and 10:00am to 3:00am on Sunday. Hours vary throughout the year, so consult before visiting. A parking lot is available.

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