The REAL phantoms of Oxford, Ohio

(Spoiler alert: they have nothing to do with Ronald Tammen)

Fisher Hall
Historic American Buildings Survey, C. (1933) Oxford Female College, Fisher Hall, Miami University Campus, Oxford, Butler County, OH. Butler County Ohio Oxford, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
It’s almost October 31, just another day in our search for Ron Tammen. Over the years, Halloween has become an alternative anniversary for the Ron Tammen saga, when news articles have recounted his tale in a spooky sort of way. It’s odd, really. A stand-up guy disappears from his dormitory one snowy night in April, and, all too soon, people start spreading rumors that he was haunting the place he stepped away from. Thousands of people disappear every year and they aren’t accused of being phantoms. Why Ron Tammen?

Normally, I’d suggest that it was the naiveté of the time, or the immaturity of the college crowd back then, but Richard Cox, from Mansfield, Ohio, disappeared from his dorm several years before Ron did, and no one was suggesting that he was the phantom of West Point. (On the other hand, Ruth Baumgardner, who went missing in 1937 from Ohio Wesleyan, had the misfortune of disappearing from a dorm that some feel is haunted. We’ll save our discussion of Richard and Ruth’s disappearances for another day.)

Why did the phantom stories start? When did they start?

One key reason behind the rumors is that Ron couldn’t have selected a more noteworthy building on campus from which to disappear. A once-regal brick structure with pillared porticos at the south, east, and west entrances and a cupola on top, Fisher Hall had been in a crumbling state even when Ron and his fellow residents lived there. Put another way, if Miami’s dorms at that time were played by iconic 1940s actresses, Bette Davis would be Fisher Hall, a building whose glory days were in the past as the university added more Anne Baxters to its fold.

The building that would eventually be named Fisher Hall was built in 1856 to serve as a women’s college. (U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, who graduated from Miami University, was the son-in-law of Oxford Female College’s first president.) The building had originally possessed the grandeur and amenities that the administrators and architect felt befitted its inhabitants, including a ballroom, chapel, and bathing rooms that offered both warm and cold water. In 1882, after years of financial hardship at the college and the death of its second president, the property was sold. For more than four decades, Fisher Hall would then serve as the main building of the Oxford Retreat, a private institution that treated people with psychiatric disorders and alcohol and opium addictions. Although advertisements for the Oxford Retreat described its environs as homelike, beautiful, and salubrious, news articles from that period tell of the tragic acts of its less-satisfied clients who attempted an escape or committed suicide, most often by noose, razor, or window, and, in at least one instance, jumping in front of a westbound train.

In 1925, Miami University purchased the 69-acre property as part of a $2 million dollar expansion effort. (Another building that was part of Oxford Retreat, The Pines, was purchased by Miami in 1936.) Officials remodeled the main building into a men’s residence hall and named it after 1870 Miami graduate Judge Elam Fisher. For a brief stint during WWII, the building became the U.S.S. Fisher Hall as part of the Naval Radio Training School, where sailors and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) came to learn Morse code. When the war ended, it went back to being a residence hall—first for women, then back to men—but in 1958, a mere five years after Ron disappeared, it was shut down for that purpose because the upper floors were considered unsafe. For the next ten years, Miami’s Department of Theatre occupied the first floor, where the dining area had been converted to an auditorium. The rest of the building was used for storage or boarded up entirely. So, over the years, Fisher Hall had developed a certain level of creepiness about it that was no doubt a contributing factor to the phantom stories. In short, the place had a past and it looked haunted.

The second unfortunate factor was that, well, Fisher Hall may have actually been haunted. Before the building was torn down in 1978, stories had made their way around campus of mysteriously lit rooms and eerie noises emanating from somewhere within. In a 1972 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, reporter Irene Wright described some of the phenomena that people in the theatre department had experienced while they were housed there. One former professor had told his colleagues that, while he was working in his office one night, he heard footsteps descending the staircase from the upper floors, beyond the barricaded area. The worrisome sound followed him all the way to the basement, where, totally freaked out, he’d locked himself in a men’s bathroom. After it finally stopped, he grabbed his briefcase and got the hell out.

Another professor told how lights would appear in the third floor of Fisher Hall on every opening night of a production even though that area was inaccessible and the electrical wires had supposedly been cut, or how lights would dim and brighten in the auditorium for no apparent reason when he was there alone. Once, when he was teaching a class, a rope dropped from the ceiling and began swinging hypnotically, however, when he glanced in the rope’s direction again, it was gone.

The professor also relayed a story told to him by a part-time maintenance person: over a period of nine days, a 300-pound bust of Judge Fisher had been moved from its location outside the theatre office to various points on the first floor. On the tenth day, it appeared to have vanished, until it was later found on the third floor, which seemed a near impossibility to the building’s occupants. (The article doesn’t say who the brave souls were who ventured to the third floor to make that discovery, or, for that matter, why they even felt the need to chase down the 300-pound bust.) When individuals who studied ESP were brought in, they mapped out the locations from which the judge had been hop-scotching, and found that they formed two letters: E and F. Elam Fisher, they decided. A stray set of data points in the shape of a diamond seemed inexplicable, until they learned that ol’ Elam was nicknamed the “Diamond Judge” because of a stickpin he used to wear. The professor who shared the story in 1972 concluded that, if there were a ghost in Fisher Hall, it was probably the building’s namesake. The bust eventually vanished entirely. (Side note: a quick search on eBay didn’t yield the bust either, however, someone was selling an Elam Fisher duck call. Apparently, Elam Fisher of Detroit, MI, had developed the first-ever patented duck call in 1870, which he named the “tongue pincher.” I’m thinking that has to be our guy since Judge Fisher got his law degree from the University of Michigan. Read about the patent here.)

“…If students were involved in moving the bust, no one ever confessed to the incident,” the professor said at the time.

In later years, Fisher Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and, even though the structure was eventually demolished, the Library of Congress still has photos. The Marcum Hotel & Conference Center now stands in its former location.

The third possible reason that Ron’s name became associated with anything phantom-related had to do with rumors of a life form that appeared in Miami’s Formal Gardens, near Fisher Hall, the November after Ron disappeared. The visitor first came to students’ attention on Sunday, November 15, at roughly 7:45 p.m., and was described as roughly six feet tall with long black hair, a soprano’s singing voice, and superhuman athletic ability. At one witness’s insistence, the phantom was bounding at a height of 10 feet. The so-called phantom obviously recognized the importance of bundling up, for he/she remembered to wear a coat (it was black) as protection against the chilly November temperatures. Several more appearances were made that week, but, as the crowds of students continued to grow each night (a time when they really should have been studying), the visits abruptly came to a halt (phantoms need to study too). One of the students admitted that he nearly overtook the phantom at one point, but slowed up at the last moment out of fear of actually catching it. The human imagination is a powerful thing.

When I asked Ron’s contemporaries if they remembered hearing any rumors about Ron after he disappeared, many would chuckle, and bring up the long-haired soprano who could clear ten-foot hurdles. “Well, there were those crazy appearances of the phantom in the Formal Gardens…,” they’d say, and I’d laugh and move on to the next question.

It’s not that I don’t believe in things we can’t see, or things that may be part of another dimension (except for the Formal Gardens phantom—I most definitely don’t believe in the Formal Gardens phantom). It’s just that I don’t think any of the above had anything to do with Ronald Tammen. The reason is that I believe Ron Tammen was very much alive when he walked out of his room in Fisher Hall on April 19, 1953. And, at this stage of my research, I also think that he went on living for a long, long time.

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