The Tragic Tale of Miss Condie Cunningham
Researched and Contributed by Scott A. Martin
Perhaps the most infamous ghost story of Shelby County concerns the tragic death of Miss Condie Cunningham, a student at Alabama Girls' Industrial School (now known as the University of Montevallo). On February 4, 1908, Condie Cunningham was so badly burned by the fire of a chafing dish that she died within forty-eight hours. In great panic, she ran screaming from her dormitory room with her clothes on fire. Legend has it that soon after her death, an image appeared on the door to her room – an image of a girl screaming with her hair in flames. Supposedly this door has been replaced several times and the image continues to reappear.
But the intent of this article is not to discuss the legend of her ghost but to focus on the tragic events concerning her untimely death. Condie Cunningham was born 15 December 1891 in Jefferson County AL, the daughter of William Columbus Cunningham and Delia Jackson. William Columbus Cunningham was born 31 January 1867 in Hickman County KY, the son of William Crawford Cunningham and Margaret Hutchison. William Columbus Cunningham married Delia Jackson (daughter of A.B. Jackson and Delia Morgan) 18 November 1888 in Jefferson County AL. They had four children (three daughters and one son): Ora, Condie, William Jr., and Margaret. William Columbus Cunningham served in the Alabama State Legislature, representing Jefferson County, and was a court clerk in Jefferson County for twenty years.
Records from the University of Montevallo recount the following, "At 9:30 pm., February 4th, when the signal sounded permitting pupils to be at rest from their night's studies, Miss Cunningham and her roommate decided to do a little cooking on their chafing dish. They placed the dish on the floor and seated themselves nearby. When the signal sounded at 10:00 p.m. for putting out the lights, they had not finished and continued to cook a few minutes longer. They suddenly became in a hurry to close up and in so doing turned over the alcohol which was in a bottle nearby. And in putting out their light, in some way blew the flames toward the alcohol on the floor. This ignited and almost immediately Miss Cunningham's clothes caught on fire. Her roommate attempted to throw a rug around her but she ran out of the room and the rug was dropped. Teachers and pupils on the hall heard the noise and quickly came to her rescue, but before they could extinguish the flames, she was fatally burned." (Griffith, Lucille. Alabama College, 1896-1969. Montevallo, Ala.: University of Montevallo, 1969).
Miss Condie Cunningham died 6 February 1908 (although her death certificate states she died 13 February 1908). She was buried on 8 February 1908 in Oak Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. However, her journey would not end here. Following the death of her father in 1925, she was reinterred in Elmwood Cemetery in the Cunningham Family plot. The following newspaper articles recount the tragic events of her death.
"Miss Cunningham Dies from Burns"
The Birmingham Age-Herald, 7 February 1908
Miss Condie Cunningham died last night at 10 o'clock at the Girls Industrial School in Montevallo from the burns she received last Tuesday night by her clothing catching on fire from an alcohol lamp. Miss Cunningham is the daughter of W.C. Cunningham, clerk of the inferior court, and her parents were at her bedside in the dormitory when death came. The remains will arrive in Birmingham over the Louisville and Nashville railroad at noon today, being carried by private conveyance from Montevallo to Calera. No funeral arrangements have yet been made, but the funeral will probably be tomorrow morning. The body will be accompanied to Birmingham by an escort of the faculty.
The fatal accident has cast a gloom over the entire school at Montevallo, where Miss Cunningham was held in high esteem by her class mates. She was just 17 years of age and had been a student at the school for the past two years. On Tuesday night Miss Cunningham and her roommate were busy with a chafing dish in their room in the dormitory and while trying to extinguish the flames of the alcohol lamp here clothing caught on fire. She rushed into the hall where the flames were soon put out by her schoolmates, but not before she had been badly burned. Her parents in Birmingham were immediately notified of the accident and went to Montevallo on the next train. Doctors worked hard, but their efforts were of no avail, and after 48 hours of suffering the beloved student succumbed to her injuries.
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