Custodians of a Ghostly Campus Legacy

A pair of talented stonemasons with a murderous feud gave Toronto’s oldest university its hauntingly intricate architecture—and its first grisly ghost story. A century and a half later, late-night janitors report an abundance of eerie encounters.

Custodians of a Ghostly Campus Legacy

It was 1856 when two stonemasons, the Russian, Ivan Reznikoff, and the Greek, Paul Diabolos, were hired to carve the delicate reliefs of University College, the Norman Romanesque building at the heart of the University of Toronto. Reznikoff was an enormous and imposing man, coarse and rugged. Diabolos, a slight and pale fellow, was described as “young, handsome, and of a subtle nature” by Douglas Richardson in “A Not Unsightly Building: University College and Its History.”

As the story goes, the relationship between the two carvers was acerbic, beset by acrimony, bile, and relentless chiseling, of every kind. Diabolos taunted Reznikoff by carving baboon-faced Gargoyles in his likeness. Reznikoff, the inferior carver, plodded on, drunkenly etching pocked and grotesque visages of his own.

Reznikoff, simple and hardworking, had carefully amassed a nest egg to start a life with his fiancé. Diabolos, however, loved the same woman, and through a series of trysts, he convinced her to elope, taking Reznikoff’s savings with them.

University College at night.
University College at night.

When Reznikoff discovered the plan he confronted Diabolos…with an axe. His axe glanced off the massive oak door, splintering shards of wood into the face of Diabolos, who made a narrow escape. The door guarding Croft Chapter House, the circular room at the southwest corner of University College, is still scarred by the heavy blow. Diabolos fled up the tower’s winding stair, slid between two stones, and prepared a small dagger he kept always at his side. From there he launched a furtive and deadly attack on the ascending Reznikoff. It is worth noting that the living legend is much more diffuse, vaporous. We heard several accounts in which Reznikoff is killed against the scarred door.

Whatever the truth, the story usually ends with the haunting fact that Diabolos concealed his partner’s body in the foundation of the building, at the foot of the tower stairs. In the decades that followed, Reznikoff’s ghost haunted the building mercilessly.

Then, on Valentine’s Day 1890, University College suffered a devastating fire started by a festive lamp, destroying much of the wooden parts of the structure in all but the west wing. In the ashes and debris, at the foot of the tower, a human skeleton was discovered. After the remains were buried under a maple tree in the northeast quadrangle, the haunting diminished. Yet the ensuing years have not been fright-free for the University. A century later, another mysterious fire nearly devastated the campus, and reports of ghostly happenings continue to this day.

An Old Woman in a Black Robe

As two long-time Toronto residents, we had often heard the legend of Reznikoff and Diabolos, but more interesting to us is the pressing question: Is University College still haunted? Does Reznikoff or some other specter reside in its halls? We resolved to find out.

Our limited familiarity with ghost lore suggests that, first, hauntings happen mainly at night, in the dark, when you are alone, or mostly alone. We asked ourselves: who would be hanging around, at night, in the dark, alone, in this purportedly haunted building? The singular answer: custodians. We set out to meet the night shift.

We wandered the basement hall — desolate. But, then, under the cool fluorescents, leaning against the wall, a broom and a not insignificant pile of dirt and general student detritus, our first clue. We knocked on the nearby locked doors of boiler and storage rooms. Freddy Kruger, eat your heart out. No reply, but all jest aside, it was now apparent that we were involved in a ghost story of some kind.

A relief in the south wing of University College.
A relief in the south wing of University College.

We ascended to the first floor and headed to the Croft Chapter House, or the roundhouse, the building whose chimney flue is adorned by Reznikoff and Diabolos’ carved likenesses, whose door carries the mark of the big man’s maul. Here, on the threshold of Croft Chapter House we found our first custodian, Heinrich. A nice enough man, he had little to say about ghosts, and was not interested in our story. He accompanied us to the basement for a photo, but then quite literally disappeared through a small door, and up a narrow staircase, moments after we arrived at the location. He apparently had second thoughts, but we didn’t get to learn what they were.

Heinrich had given us a name: Ravi. “Ravi has a story,” he offered. Ravi moved his family to Canada from Sri Lanka to avoid increased violence, including the deadly public bombings that plagued that country for decades. His children now attend the University of Toronto, and Ravi works in the west wing of University College, the only section to survive the fire. Ironically, the interior of the west wing is less grand and less gothic than the other reconstructed wings. It is a dark labyrinth consisting of a series of narrow stairwells and hallways, connecting small offices and classrooms, and in which we found nothing.

In the quadrangle, however, there was something very odd afoot. A group of hooded figures stood chanting in a circle. They cast long shadows against the old walls. (We later discovered this was the chorus from a Greek production; I’m guessing The Oresteia.) It was here in the quad that we met Ravi.

Ravi and Margaret comprised the hapless custodial duo that had a striking encounter in the middle of the previous winter, while working in the west wing. Ravi took us to a tiny room, on the third floor of the west wing, with entrances on both sides. He explained that his coworker, Margaret, had entered the dark room, headed for the only light switch by the opposite entrance. By the small single window, at the far side of the room, stood a hooded figure, an ancient woman, wearing a black, hooded robe, spewing long, grey hair. Margaret screeched. Ravi came running.

It was Friday, and on Fridays University College is cleared and the doors and gates are locked early, at six p.m. It was now after nine p.m., and the last of the public would have left hours earlier. Ravi entered the room and turned on the light. He confronted the old woman, and asked her to produce some identification. She issued no sound, despite his insistence.

Ravi displays the crucifix that he wears for protection.
Ravi displays the crucifix that he wears for protection.

The duo left the room for a moment or two, and summoned the rest of their coworkers, but when they returned in numbers, there was no one to be found in the building. No one could navigate those labyrinthine halls more quickly or efficiently than the custodial staff, least of all a woman of 80-plus years. Perhaps more mysterious, this encounter was in February, yet there were no footprints outside in the fresh snow.

After this event, Margaret requested a transfer and refused to continue working in University College. Ravi is no longer frightened, but feels the need for caution. “I wear this for protection” he said, as he reached under his shirt and produced a large crucifix.

Shadows on the Stairs

Ravi tried to arrange a meeting with Margaret, but she was reluctant to talk about the experience. He did tell us that there was another custodian, Isabelle, working on the second floor, and that she and Margaret were friends.

We found Isabelle in West Hall. It is a majestic room with soaring ceilings, bathed with light from high stained-glass windows. This is where the natural history museum was housed before the fire of 1890.

Isabelle was glowing, warm and friendly, but she was slow to divulge her personal experiences in the building. Eventually, she told us a story that concerned the large staircase, adorned with a striking, curled gryphon — a mythical creature with the head, wings, and talons of an eagle and the body of a lion — in the middle of the east wing. She described seeing a shadowy, hooded figure move up the staircase. She entertained the idea that it was Alex, another custodian, known for his playful trickery. But it couldn’t have been; the figure was completely silent. It moved up the stairs inaudibly; there were no footsteps, no sounds at all, on the old wooden stairs. As she recounted her story, she had an enthusiastic moment of revelation:

Isabelle in West Hall.
Isabelle in West Hall.

“Now I’m making my conclusion: I told you what happened to me was Friday. Margaret and Ravi’s experience was Friday, and another story that happened, before I was here, that was Friday too. Always Friday.” Isabelle was starting to open up.

She shared more of her experiences; in her nine years in the building she had only that one definite encounter, but she had heard stories from others. A carpet cleaner saw a shadow descending a large staircase in the southeast corner. He screamed. “I never saw those things in my life,” he told Isabelle. Usually he worked with a small crew, but when his company required him to work alone in the building, he refused. He quit his job with the intention of returning to Mexico, his home country.

Isabelle had an interesting take on Margaret’s encounter with the old woman. As Isabelle tells it, the old woman was reading a book when she appeared to Margaret, despite the darkness. There is a diminutive bookstore in University College run by Alumni. Genevieve, an alumnus with a great generosity of spirit, and love of the college, ran the bookstore for many years. Isabelle noted that Genevieve had passed away not long before Margaret saw the old woman. Could she be the old woman? Margaret was visibly shaken when Isabelle showed her a picture of Genevieve.

This sort of thing was not new to Isabelle. As a child, she lived in a large house in Guatemala. The house had sinks in the hallway, and at night sometimes they would hear the taps running, but when they went to the sinks, the water was off, the sinks dry. As she tells the story, she still seems surprised: “But we could hear! All of us could hear! And sometimes we could hear our names, like my mom was calling me. And my mom would say, ‘don’t answer.’”

Like Ravi, she hadn’t used “ghost” or any of its close synonyms, to describe her experiences.

“I cannot tell you I saw this or that, I just hear, we only hear. I did something when I came here, my first day of work, I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s true or not there is a ghost here,’ but I told him I came here to work, I didn’t come here to bother him…you don’t have to bother me.”

It was around this time, having told her stories, that Isabelle recalled something else that might be of interest to us: “No one likes to go into Croft Chapter House late at night. In there you feel strange, warm, even if it is cold outside. When people work on the first floor they clean it first; I don’t like to be alone in there.”

This takes us back to our starting point, and the core of the legend. Recall that Croft Chapter House is at the center of the Reznikoff and Diabolos myth, The scarred door leads to this building, which is adorned by their gargoyles. Obviously we wanted to see inside, and Isabelle agreed to take us there.

This carved owl was recovered from the east wing after the 1890 fire, and has the initials P.D. (Paul Diabolos) etched in the back. It was set here in the arcade of the south, or Laidlaw wing, during its construction in 1963-64.
This carved owl was recovered from the east wing after the 1890 fire, and has the initials P.D. (Paul Diabolos) etched in the back. It was set here in the arcade of the south, or Laidlaw wing, during its construction in 1963-64.

As we arrived at Croft Chapter House, Heinrich exited, a roll of paper towel in hand. “You’re back!” he commented. We were. We told Isabelle that we had met Heinrich, that he didn’t have any stories. “He’s only been here a few months,” she offered. “He’ll learn.”

It must be said that Croft Chapter House at night, alone, is an uncomfortable place. It is a circular room of maybe thirty feet in diameter. It originally housed a chemistry lab, run by its namesake. The walls, adorned with old portraits, rise to a domed ceiling three stories above. The room deadens all sound, and so it is permeated by an uncomfortable silence. The lighting is minimal and ominous. We didn’t see any ghosts, but we certainly felt uncomfortable when she left us there alone in the night.

The Ghost of Burt the Custodian

We would be remiss if we didn’t turn our investigation on its head for a moment to recount the story of the custodian ghost of Hart House, a building connected to University College on the east side by a structure called Soldiers’ Tower.

Our investigation led to Hart House when we were shown a locked, ornately painted steel door, hidden behind a locked wooden door, in the basement of University College. According to custodial lore, behind that locked door there is a tunnel to Hart House. A secret tunnel merited an extended investigation.

Hart House houses, among other things, the Hart House Theatre. We learned that Paul Templin, Director of Meetings and Event Services, had an unusual story he is fond of telling.

This gargoyle carved by Diabolos in Reznikov’s likeness adorns the flue of a chimney on Croft Chapter House.
This gargoyle carved by Diabolos in Reznikov’s likeness adorns the flue of a chimney on Croft Chapter House.

Hart House Theatre, as Paul tells the story, had been in the care of a custodian named Burt in the 1950s. Burt had a heart attack on the college streetcar on his way to work, but his ghost continued on, and haunted the theatre for many years. The apparition was frequently seen in a long, blue coat, the uniform that custodians wore in the fifties.

Paul began working in Hart House in 1981, and was the production manager at Hart House Theatre in the late 1990s. He didn’t believe in ghosts, so he didn’t believe in Burt. Paul was a skeptic and also a trickster, known for frequent ghostly pranks, such as a stage curtain that opened of its own accord. He worked hard to meet a demanding schedule, and even now and then slept in his office, in the subbasement, near the theatre — the area where Burt was often seen.

On the night in question Paul decided to sleep in this office, and he told the night watchman so. The building was locked. The basement was locked. The theatre was locked. He observed the satisfying click as the heavy, old, oaken door closed securely, and then nestled into the narrow cot that filled most of his office.

In the dark of night, the heavy old door banged Paul’s little cot and startled him awake. The door then closed, but without latching. Through the frosted glass panes, and the fog of sleep, he glimpsed a shadowy figure moving in the hallway outside his office (the hall light was always on). He groped for his office light switch and flicked it on. Nothing. He still could not see clearly. The air was filled with smoke. He felt his way into the hall, and then through a door in the clouded adjacent office leading to the main basement corridor of Hart House. The women’s washroom was spewing thick, black smoke.

A relief in the south wing of University College.
A relief in the south wing of University College.

Safely outside, amid the firemen who answered their call, Paul gathered his thoughts and questioned the night watchman, the only person who might have been in this side of the building. Had he been awakened by the watchman? He hadn’t. Was his office door opened by the watchman in the course of his rounds, or because of the fire? It wasn’t. He had skipped those rounds; he knew Paul was sleeping.

But a door like that, heavy, old and securely latched, doesn’t just open. Could someone have broken in and started the blaze? No. It was an electrical fire, originating deep within the building’s stone walls, and anyway, the building was secure, locked, and locked again.

The opening of that heavy, old door saved Paul, the theatre, and perhaps the entire building. Paul only tells one ghost story now, and he doesn’t play any tricks. “You never know, Burt might be watching,” he adds coyly.

Years later, Paul received a visit from Burt’s granddaughter, a University of Toronto alumnus. She had heard Paul’s story. He showed her the places Burt had been seen, and Burt’s old supply closet, which was currently unused and kept locked, but was found open at least once a week. She got chills. She wept.

Burt’s ghost hasn’t been seen in Hart House since. Now the only custodians seen roaming the halls, at night, in the dark, are the living ones.