Street view of Corbett House
Photo by Alex Barr

Corbett House urban legend sparks curiosity

As I approached the Corbett House at 9 p.m. on a Thursday, camera and phone flashlight in tow, I wondered why I cared so much about this ghost story. My answer then came readily: the story is inaccurate. 

The story begins with Harriet “Sunny” (in reference to her long blonde hair) Corbett. According to her obituary published in The Oregonian, she was born on Nov. 3, 1922. Her parents were Hamilton F. Corbett, Portland socialite and renowned entrepreneur, and Harriet Cumming Corbett, a member of The Portland Garden Club.

The Corbetts and Lewis & Clark have had close ties since the college’s beginnings. According to LC’s The Chronicle Magazine’s Summer 2000 Issue, the college might not have survived without the help of Sunny’s great-grandfather, U.S. Sen. Henry Winslow Corbett. 

“Sen. Corbett was a trustee and one of the largest donors to the Albany Collegiate Institute, the forerunner of Lewis & Clark College,” Michael Mooney, former president of LC, said in The Chronicle Magazine. “His generosity saved the fledgling College from foreclosure in its early years.”

In the summer of 1999, Sunny passed away in Pennsylvania. Following in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, she left LC a $4.3 million gift as a part of her estate. LC used this money to purchase the Corbett House from the Sisters of St. Francis, who had bought the estate from Sunny’s father in 1942. Since then, LC has closed off the Corbett House and it is locked at all times. However, according to the digitally-published accounts of four students who allegedly spent a night in the Corbett House, the house remains occupied by a paranormal presence.

The online article, written by Brennan Klein, elaborates on the four students’ experience and the history behind the haunt, which was published by The 13th Floor (the13thfloor.tv). According to urban legend, Sunny fell in love with the Frank family’s son, Frederick. Sadly, their love never came to fruition, as Frederick was sent away to fight in World War II, where he tragically died in a training exercise at the age of 20. Sunny, overcome by grief, was allegedly sent away to an institution in Pennsylvania to recover.

While there is no evidence that explicitly proves the validity of this urban legend, the timeline does check out. Past coverage on the history of the Frank family by The Pioneer Log confirms that “Fred Frank died in a plane crash in 1942.” In Sunny’s obituary in The Oregonian, it states that she moved to Pennsylvania in the early 1940s.

Beyond this general overlap of time, there are no other historical records I could find that corroborates the story of Frederick and Sunny’s love affair or that she spent time in an institution in Pennsylvania. 

The stories surrounding the haunting of the Corbett House have always alleged that the poltergeist is the spirit of Sunny Corbett. Many, including Klein, cite the phantom’s reported fascination with long, blonde hair as evidence to support this claim, as Sunny earned her nickname for her own golden locks. After reviewing the aforementioned evidence, an important question came to my mind: “What if the ghost is Frederick Frank?” Sunny Corbett lived for many years after Frederick died. The idea that she would come back to haunt this home when she spent the rest of her life in Philadelphia seems far-fetched. However, for Frederick, who only had 20 years of memories, returning to the home of his longtime childhood friend appears plausible. 

According to Klein, the four students who stayed the night in the Corbett House experienced hallmark indicators of paranormal encounters. The first sign was that two of the students smelled rotten eggs, or sulfur, upon entering the house. 

The four students then moved upstairs. The two other students, who did not smell the sulfur, felt increasingly worsening abdominal pain as they neared the second floor. 

When they reached the second floor, they began to walk down the hallway when one of the students felt a strand of her long blonde hair being lifted into the air. She turned to chastise her friend behind her for playing a prank, but was instead met by her friend’s shocked face from 10 feet away. The other student had not touched her.

After witnessing this, LC’s very own mystery gang rushed downstairs in fright, called Campus Safety and requested to be let out of the house. Much to the students’ chagrin, Campus Safety informed them that they were responding to an emergency at one of the dormitories and that the wait would be 20 minutes. 

Immediately after ending the call, the students heard noises all throughout the house. The grand piano’s keys played on their own, then a vacuum switched on in a nearby room. 

Eventually, Campus Safety arrived to liberate the students from their night of terror. When the officers opened the front door, every light in the house switched on, even though only one room was wired for electricity. 

After spending a great deal of time researching, investigating and spending time near the house, I find myself leaning towards the unfamiliar side of skepticism. Typically, I am the first to cry “ghost,” but Corbett House takes the super out of the supernatural. Its stories, both in lore and eyewitness testimony, fall flat in a vacuum of basic paranormal logic. Not to mention, I gave the ghost plenty of opportunity to communicate via camera microphone, audio recorder and the ever-present opportunity to possess me. 

At the end of the day, even beneath the full-moon-glow of a brisk October night, Corbett House is just as it seems: a house.

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