Published on September 19th, 2017 | by Brittain Thompson0
Civil War Commentary and Local History Featuring Starke Miller: The Dead House
Steve Vassallo continues his series of interviews with local Civil War historian Starke Miller. This week they discuss The Dead House.
The Dead House was built in 1859 for what specific purpose?
The Dead House was built as a magnetic observatory. The University was going to use it for magnetic experiments that primarily had to do with mapping for the United States Coast Survey.
Where exactly on campus was it located and how large was it?
It was just two small rooms. It was located straight to the east of the Chancellor’s residence in the right-hand, or eastern, end of the main Observatory building, which still stands. In modern terms, it was on the other side of Sorority Row from the old Observatory.
The building lasted almost 100 years. Beginning in 1860 and through 1958, what were the primary uses for the building?
Although it was built as a magnetic observatory, most of the ordered instruments could not be delivered because of the Civil War, so it was never used for its intended purpose. After the Civil War it was used as faculty housing, a fraternity house, and finally as the UM Law Journal offices.
The name “Dead House” originated from the building being utilized as a morgue following Shiloh. How many bodies are estimated being prepared there prior to burial on campus?
Probably nearly all of the 700-plus Confederates who died at the University Hospital before and after the battle of Shiloh passed through that small building.
What was Chancellor Barnard’s involvement with the Magnetic Observatory?
Chancellor Barnard secured the funding for the building surge at the University in the late 1850s, which includes this building. He would have been the professor conducting the magnetic experiments in that building. He taught physics and astronomy in addition to serving as chancellor.
He missed the 1860 commencement due to a solar eclipse.
He was asked to go on an expedition to Labrador to observe the total eclipse that occurred in July of that year. Unfortunately, it was very cloudy where they were and those scientists on that expedition did not see much.
You once told me that the building was constructed similar to a thermos. Describe the construction materials for us.
The walls were double, 10 inches thick with 10 inches of air between them. There were no windows, they were added, or cut, after the war. The ceiling was brick. All this was done so as not to have sudden temperature swings when the weather changed because that would affect the instruments. All the door hardware and all the nails used were copper so the magnetic instruments would not be disturbed.
The Dead House received some unwelcome overtures from professors’ wives following the War while being utilized for faculty housing. Why is that?
It is written that whenever a married professor was given that building for housing, that just as soon as the wife found out it has been used as a morgue, either she or her husband showed up in the chancellor’s office and told him she would not spend another night there!
While we’re on that subject, as recently as 2016, there have been reports that “figures” have been seen climbing the outside walls of Farley Hall late at night. Have you heard similar accounts?
I have been told stories that some of the women students on Sorority Row have reported a man climbing the blank brick wall of what is now the Blues Archive Library. That is right where the Dead House sat. This has been reported several times over the years and the university police show up and cannot find anything or anybody.
What ultimately happened to the bricks and other materials from the Dead House?
The bricks and woodwork were stored on campus. They were given to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They were going to rebuild the Dead House out by the campus Confederate Cemetery. They were never able to raise the funds and the bricks “walked away” in ones and twos and tens as souvenirs, and I am sure for small student projects that needed “just a few bricks.” What was left were finally hauled off and stored in a barn up at College Hill. If there are any left, it would mean a great deal to me to have one. That would make me the happiest man in Oxford, for at least a week!
The building was finally decided to be destroyed to accommodate what?
The Law School, in 1958, badly needed an enlarged Law Library, and they had no other direction to go in.
Lastly, the Ole Miss campus and the Civil War are so intertwined, are you aware of another university campus anywhere in the country with this degree of history?
I have looked at the history of most southern colleges and universities. Only a few sent a university company of soldiers to the war. Only a few others were used as a hospital during the war. I believe only the University of Mississippi had both distinctions.