Blog Post

Our visit to Transylvania U., site of famous rare book heist & creepy traditions

Sweetums and I are familiar with Transylvania County in North Carolina, one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see. It’s located in the Pisgah National Forest and known as the “land of waterfalls.” My uncle lives there so we visit from time to time.

But we were surprised to learn there’s also a Transylvania University right here in the South – and it has a number of famous alumni. Located in Lexington, Kentucky, the private college has fewer than 1,000 students. It was the first college in Kentucky, founded in 1780.

Locals and students refer to it as Transy and we got to see some of the beautiful old buildings on its campus, including Old Morrison.

I’ll tell you more about the college below but first I’ve got to report on a more fascinating subject. When we got back, I started researching Transylvania U and discovered it was the site of a 2004 library heist in which $5 million in rare books was stolen.

The Transy Book Heist

The incident, known as the Transy Book Heist, is the subject of the 2018 film “American Animals” and this article in Vanity Fair, which says the incident was “a crime that would one day be listed among the F.B.I.’s all-time most significant art-theft cases.” Among items taken were a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and four double-size folios of John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

The story behind the heist is stranger than fiction, for sure. Three men who were arrested and imprisoned for the crime said they committed it to escape suburban life. The article says, “the three of them came to believe that it was their best and perhaps last chance to create a viable life for themselves after college. Only by committing a felony could they ensure that they would never end up living back in the sterile, suburban world of the subdivisions. As far as they could see, there were only two ways out: either getting away with the crime or getting arrested for it.”

Famous grads

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Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)

This venerable old college has had many famous graduates, including authors, actors and athletes. It was also the alma mater of two U.S. vice presidents, John C. Breckinridge and Richard Mentor Johnson, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices, John Marshall Harlan and Samuel Freeman Miller.

Also, a man who may have been POTUS for a day, David Rice Atchison, attended Transylvania U. Click here to read the story about Atchison.

Other well-known grads include Stephen Austin, founder of Texas; Confederate president Jefferson Davis; author James Lane Allen; and actor Ned Beatty.

Creepy tradition

Of course, with a name like Transylvania University, you would expect the student body to have a healthy admiration for Halloween. Transy students observe a week-long celebration of Halloween known as Rafinesque Week, named for a former botany professor Constantine Rafinesque who cursed the college when he left in anger in 1826. The events are meant to keep the curse at bay.

raf tomb civil war buff
The tomb of Constantine Rafinesque at Old Morrison at Transylvania U. (Source: CivilWarBuff/FindaGrave.com)

Students participate in Pumpkinmania and line the steps of Old Morrison with carved pumpkins, but the strangest tradition is a lottery in which four students win the chance to spend the night in Rafinesque’s tomb. He is interred in the Old Morrison Crypt. Now that’s an awesome school.

Transylvania U. is also known for the Kissing Tree, a white ash tree that is estimated to be approximately 260 years old. It got the name because, in the 1940s and 1950s, when public displays of affection were frowned upon, teachers would look the other way when students canoodled under the giant tree. The Kissing Tree was listed as one of the most romantic places on college campuses by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2003.

old morrison
Old Morrison at Transylvania U. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
transy marker
Historic marker at Transylvania U. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
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The historic Transylvania pavilion. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
transy pavillion
Marker at the historic Transylvania pavilion. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
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Statue on the grounds of Transylvania University. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
naked children statue
Statue on the grounds of Transylvania University. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
allen marker
Marker honoring author James Lane Allen, a Transylvania U. grad. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
brown marker
Marker at the home of Samuel Brown, the first professor of surgery at Transylvania University. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
brown house
The home of Samuel Brown in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
christ church marker
The Rev. James Moore, pastor at Christ Church Cathedral, was also the first president of Transylvania University. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
christ church doors
Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
christ church cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)
christ church
Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)

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