“Okay, so the deal is, there’s A.D. White and Ezra Cornell. So, there are statues of each of them. Ezra Cornell is the first president of Cornell and, I forget, I think A.D. White was the founder. Oh, no, no, no, A.D. White was the first president and they named the school after Cornell. So, um, what happened is, there’s statues of them on opposite sides of the Arts Quad, and Cornell legend says that if a virgin crosses the Arts Quad at midnight, the ghost of the two statues walk to the center of the Arts Quad and shake hands in appreciation of chastity. Okay, in recent years, students have painted footprints of the two umm, one in white, one set of footprints in white and one set of footprints in red that lead to the center circle on the Arts Quad as if the statues actually were able to get up and walk.
I dunno really where I heard this from. Everyone just sort of knows it. I think maybe I heard it from my Orientation Leader or a tour guide but I can’t remember.”
The informant was pretty shaky on the details of the legend, and seemed somewhat flustered when she forgot who founded the school and who was the first president. It was pretty funny because even though there are statues of these two important figures at her school, that does not seem to be very important to her, and understanding the actual, historical roles of these two figures is not imperative to understanding the legend.
The legend is a quaint throwback to the notion of chastity and is particularly ironic in a college environment, where the attitude usually seems to be that everyone is having casual sex or losing their virginity. It almost seems to be making a joke out of the idea of a virgin on campus, as if to say that having a virgin on their campus is so impossible that if there was one, supernatural things would occur. It is interesting that students have taken the urban legend and perpetuated their own sort of folklore by making a folk tradition out of painting the footsteps onto the quad.
A variation of this legend appears in the book Campus Legends: A Handbook (Greenwood Folklore Handbooks), compiled by Elizabeth Tucker. The book says, “…if a virgin graduates from Cornell, the two statues will meet in the middle of their courtyard to shake hands” (Tucker 16.) The book also notes that students have a tradition of painting the red and white footsteps in the courtyard between the two statues. It is interesting that the version of the legend in this book, which was published in 2005, has a distinct variation from the version of the legend that the informant told me. In one version, the statues shake hands when a virgin graduates, whereas in the version the informant told me, that statues shake hands when a virgin crosses at midnight. The canonized version of the legend suggests that it is rare for a person to graduate a virgin (that is, to make it through all four years of college and remain a virgin), whereas the version the informant told me suggests that it is rare for someone to maintain their virginity at all once they arrive at college. Perhaps this variation implies a changing view of sexuality over the past few years and suggests that modern college students are much more sexually aware and sexually active than ever before.