A Coe ghost story — 100 years in the making

Grandfather clock donated by Helen's family

Research provided by Associate Professor of History Bethany Keenan.

In 1918, a young woman passed away just three weeks after beginning her education at Coe. It’s now been 100 years and some are convinced her spirit never left campus.

Helen Esther Roberts, the Voorhees ghost, was a first-year student from Strawberry Point, Iowa. She fell victim to the Spanish Flu epidemic — her ghost story includes both a history of Coe and things that go bump in the middle of the night.

On Oct. 9, 1918, with 200 cases, it was clear the epidemic had arrived in the area. The following day the number of cases tripled and Cedar Rapids found itself forced to close schools, churches and public meeting areas.

On Oct. 19, 1918, Coe announced that eighteen-year-old Helen Roberts died of Spanish influenza-induced pneumonia. The flu epidemic continued for several weeks and by Oct. 24 there were a reported 2,375 cases throughout the city.

Helen was laid to rest in Strawberry Point with Coe professor Dr. Charles T. Hickok and his wife in attendance. In an effort to preserve Helen’s memory, her parents donated a handsome grandfather clock to Voorhees dormitory. They also endowed a scholarship in her name which continues to be awarded 100 years later.

It is difficult to pinpoint when Helen’s legacy transitioned from tragic death to ghost story but by the seventies, Helen was a permanent fixture on campus.

Encounters with Helen include sightings of a figure or feeling a cold breeze near the clock and phone calls received with a weak unknown girl’s voice on the other end. Voorhees women report being locked out their rooms, electrical items that turn on and off unexpectedly and pictures falling from the walls. It is rumored that Helen does not approve of gentlemen visitors in the women’s dorms, and she is not afraid to let them know. The women of Helen’s sorority, Delta Delta Delta, appear to suffer more sightings than others. Although Helen’s actions are unnerving they’re never mean or vindictive as she is a friendly ghost.

The biggest discrepancy is the location of her death. While all agree she died in Voorhees, the exact location is unknown. Research indicates that Helen died on the second floor, which was used as an infirmary during the Spanish influenza epidemic.

With the context of Helen’s death removed, what remains is the story of a young woman cheated out of her college experience. Perhaps this explains her varied attempts at pranks with Voorhees residents and her Tri-Delt sisters.

So on this 100th anniversary of Helen’s passing, take time to reminisce on your Coe experience — the experience that Helen never had. And if you happen to see or hear from Helen, give her a warm Kohawk welcome.

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