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Cheney ghost story reaches centennial milestone

Thu., Oct. 29, 2009, 9:01 p.m.

If the ghost that haunted Elizabeth McLanahan at her Cheney home in 1909 is still around, he’s not doing much harm.

Unless you’re concerned about needlessly depleting the water supply.

Britney Dancer, who works across the street from where McLanahan’s home used to be, paused when asked Thursday if she’s experienced any paranormal activity.

Why, yes, she said – now that it’s been mentioned – there are issues with the toilets inside the building, Eastern Washington University’s visitor’s center: “Every once in a while they’ll flush on their own.”

Admittedly, if this is the same spirit that bothered McLanahan, it’s not about to become the kind of urban legend passed between generations of Eagle alumni or to inspire M. Knight Shyamalan. Still, 100 years ago, this nameless ghost taunted McLanahan enough to prompt a $15 reward for its capture. That’s about $350 in today’s dollars and a pricey sum for a widow who made her living doing laundry.

Her plea made the pages of The Spokesman-Review a century ago on Saturday. The headline: “Ghost seen at Cheney. Woman fears strange specter that haunts cottage.”

She told a reporter that the ghost had caused her trouble for months and the story said she “circulates the notice for her own protection.”

“Fifteen dollars reward will be paid to any one that will locate and identify a party prowling around my back door and yard and kitchen windows evenings from near 7 till 9 o’clock. A view may be had from both streets and alley. This is not a freak of imagination. The sneak does exist, but is ghostlike, as he seems to float far out and near and does not seem to wear any shoes.” It was signed: “Mrs. E. C. M’Lanahan.”

With the help of friendly folks from the Spokane Public Library, the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society, the Spokane County Auditor’s and Assessor’s offices, the state archives and Helen Boots, a Cheney historian, there’s a bit more to learn about McLanahan.

She and her husband, William McLanahan, were born in Pennsylvania. In the 1887 territorial census his occupation was listed as “speculation.” He died in 1893, and by the looks of his grave, which includes a fancy fence around it, he did well at “speculation.”

“He wasn’t poor. Let’s put it that way,” said Boots, the historian for the Cheney Cemetery Association, who helped a reporter and photographer locate the grave in the snowy cold of Thursday afternoon.

Peeling moss from one side of his obelisk tombstone, Elizabeth’s name is revealed. But there’s no dates listed below. Therefore, she likely is not buried there, Boots said.

In fact, she may not have died at all.

OK, since she would be about 160 years old, she has passed. But she probably didn’t die in Washington, because there’s no death record for her in this state – at least not in what researchers said was the state’s reliable database.

So where did she go from her haunted home at 321 Sixth, which is cater-corner from EWU (what was then called the Cheney State Normal School)? She sold it in 1917 and bought a home at 219 F Street, only to sell it a year later to move to 414 4th, a home that county records say burned in the 1980s.

Did McLanahan move to get away from the spirit?

Was the ghost responsible for burning down her former home on 4th decades later?

What about the fire that destroyed the main building at the Normal School in 1912?

Or is this spirit mainly an annoyance, making odd noises and wasting water?

Dancer gave examples of other spookier spooks on campus, the scariest being a screaming woman’s face that appears on a dorm. Charles Mutschler, the university archivist, said when he attended EWU, his roommate insisted Monroe Hall was haunted. Senior Hall has a similar reputation for screeches and mysterious door slamming. But Mutschler said he’s never heard of McLanahan.

“If there’s a ghost haunting that part of Cheney, I haven’t encountered the stories of that until now,” he said. “It almost sounds like the sort of thing you’d think of as a collegiate prank. But most of the students at that time were young women. It’s not likely that they would have engaged in that sort of horseplay, but you never know.”

Two students living in the 11-unit apartment building sitting on the property where McLanahan’s “modest cottage” (as it was described in the newspaper) once stood say they haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary.

“I’m sure I’ve heard some bumps in the night, but you never know if it’s your neighbors,” said Dave Ulrich, an EWU freshman who has lived in the Lee Apartments for a couple months.

Still, he and another resident couldn’t explain why several of the units in the building are empty, especially considering the building’s convenient location adjacent to campus.

For the nonbelievers, like Laura Schlect, who works with Dancer at the visitor’s center, there are simpler explanations for the mysterious toilet flushing and other happenings: “I think it’s just a malfunction in the toilets.”


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