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Phantoms among the folios: a guide to haunted libraries
American Libraries. 28.9 (Oct. 1997): p68+.

The stories behind several haunted libraries are described. These include hauntings at the Public Library in Peoria, IL, Umatilla County Public Library in Pendleton, OR, and Public Library in Cairo, IL.

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In the fall, a journalist's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of ghosts. Newspapers and magazines that haughtily refrain from printing news of the paranormal for 11 months of the year eagerly jump on the Halloween coach in October to regale their audiences with dubious tales of the preternatural.

American Libraries is no exception. However, unlike less reputable media, we go to original sources whenever possible to ascertain whether or not our spooks are spurious. And in so doing we have uncovered a hauntful of genuinely eerie events hiding amid the folktales.

Libraries are haunted?

Bleak mansions and somber castles usually spring to mind when we think of haunted places. But ghostly phenomena - whatever the cause - can manifest in well-lit, modern offices as well as crumbling Carnegies. Of course, it helps if you inadvertently build your library on top of a graveyard.

Haunted libraries fall into two types. First, there is the "building with a reputation," where a convenient murder, curse, or other tragedy has occurred. Library staff can then blame the odd noise, the occasional book falling off the shelf, or glitches in the air conditioning on the resident "scapeghost." No one reports anything too spooky, and the children's librarians have a good time with it at story hour.

Second, there are libraries where credible, responsible people observe enigmatic human shapes, hear disembodied voices, and witness other classic parapsychological events. Glib explanations about how the building must be settling ring about as hollow as those mysterious footsteps late at night on the upper floorboards. The library staff learns to live with its wraith, usually by accepting the paranormal as a normal working condition.

Both categories of haunted libraries are described here. Like a good journalist I will begin with Type One, forcing you to read through to the end to get to the good stuff. Just make sure you don't finish this article alone in bed, late at night, during a violent thunderstorm.

'Tis the curse of service

As if library directors didn't have enough to worry about, a curse would be sufficient to send stress levels over the line. Fortunately, the curse on Peoria (Ill.) Public Library directors seems to have lifted long ago. Uttered in 1847 by the lawyer-plagued woman who owned the land where the library now stands, the curse is said to have been responsible for the untimely deaths of three directors: The first was killed in a streetcar accident in 1915, the second died from a heart attack suffered after a heated debate at a library board meeting in 1921, and the third committed suicide in 1924 by swallowing arsenic. Since then, Peoria directors have lived long, fruitful lives.

Ruth did it

On October 11, 1947, Ruth Cochran, assistant librarian at the Umatilla County Public Library in Pendleton and president of the Eastern Oregon Library Association, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as she was closing the building. She went to the basement to rest, but soon became too weak to move or summon help. The next day the custodian's wife found her, still conscious, and she was taken to the hospital where she died, according to the Pendleton East Oregonian. Ever since, spooky events in the library have been blamed on Ruth's ghost.

Harvey Thompson, a library patron who took an interest in Ruth, said there is "something in the building that makes people nervous." Once a custodian was alone in the building painting the children's room when the intercom system buzzed repeatedly. "The folklore was that Ruth was suffering in the basement trying to summon someone," Thompson said.

The library, now called the Pendleton Public Library, moved to another location last November and Ruth's old building has been converted into a city art center. Current director Tom Hilliard said that he never saw or heard anything he couldn't explain: "It was an old building [a Carnegie built in 1916]. Noises turned out to be pipes expanding or a bird in the attic."

Rockin' wraith

The Cairo (Ill.) Public Library boasts of a ghost that one young library patron has dubbed Toby. Director Monica Smith noted that Toby usually hangs out in the special collections room on the second floor of this 1884 building. "I'm here a lot of times by myself at night, and I do hear many different sounds like someone walking around upstairs," Smith said. "Many times I come back and find the lights on that we turned off in that room. I definitely think there is a presence here."

Former librarian Louise Ogg once saw a ghostly light rise up from behind a desk, pass slowly by her office, and disappear into the book stacks. Another staff member was with her and saw the same thing. There used to be a rocking chair in the library that made creaking noises by itself, as if someone were rocking in it. "You kinda get used to it," Smith said.

Ghosts who read, succeed

The female ghost at the Bernardsville (N.J.) Public Library has been so active that the staff issued it a library card. Jean Hill, local-history-room volunteer, remarked that "she was not put on our computer with the rest of us mortals, but her card is always available should she choose to use it."

Beginning in 1974, employees started seeing an apparition moving through the front rooms of the library building, which was a tavern during the Revolutionary War. The ghost is said to be that of Phyllis Parker, the innkeeper's daughter, who suffered a nervous breakdown when her British-spy boyfriend was executed. You can read the whole story in Phyllis - The Library Ghost? a booklet published by the library and written by local-history-room volunteer Eileen Johnston.

The last known Phyllis sighting took place in November 1989, when a 3-year-old boy saw a lady in a long, white dress in the reading room and said hello to her.

Gray lady at large

The Willard Library staff in Evansville, Indiana, likes their resident ghost so much that they feature her on the library Web page at A "lady in gray" has been seen in this 112-year-old Victorian Gothic building since 1937. The specter sports a scent of perfume that is often sensed near the elevator, near the restrooms, or in the children's room. Occasionally staff will walk into "cold spots" in the library, which are also indicative of its presence. Former director William Goodrich said that the lady appeared once on a security monitor placed near the restrooms. According to current director Greg Hager, the most recent visitation was on August 6, when an employee felt a cold spot and saw the apparition briefly in the special collections department.

Doorway deviltry at a museum library

The Fort Concho museum complex near San Angelo, Texas, was an active army outpost from 1867 to 1889, and it has its share of ghost stories. Lights have been reported late at night inside the museum library, housed in the former bachelor officers' barracks.

Museum librarian Evelyn Lemons related that in early August she was sitting at the microfilm reader looking at names of people who had died at the fort. "The back door just suddenly started coming open, and when I said 'Hello,' it stopped. It's a wooden porch, so you can hear people when they walk off," she said. There was no one outside, of course. "I guess I should have looked at whose name I was on when I was looking up dead people, to find out who was coming in the back door."

Lemons recalled other brushes with the unseen when she was an educational assistant working in a different building, Officers' Quarters #9. An invisible presence locked the door on her several times. However, it used a restored 19th-century lock, not the modern deadbolt.

Chills in the LRC

Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois, started life in 1838 as Monticello College. Its most revered headmistress was Harriet Haskell, the ardent feminist who directed the college from 1868 to 1912. Haskell's favorite room was said to be the chapel, which now serves as the school's learning resources center.

Stories about Haskell haunting the library have been collected by Lewis and Clark history professor Lars Hoffman. One incident in the 1970s involved "a young librarian who didn't believe in ghosts. She was working at night," Hoffman related, "there weren't many people, if any, in the library, and she felt a hand touch her on her shoulder blade. She turned around and no one was there. It so raised the hair on the back of her neck that she quickly closed the library and left."

For many years Hoffman has brought his history classes to the library as a lesson in folklore. Invariably one or two students, without being told beforehand, mention to him one of the two prominent cold spots in the reading room.

Just can't quit readin'

The local-history room of the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, North Carolina, harbors the ghost of a patron who frequented the library conducting Civil War research. Local-history librarian Beverly Tetterton insisted that some mornings she has found files spread out on a reading-room table when she is certain she had put everything away the night before. Sometimes people report the sounds of pages turning - subtle rustling noises that a "librarian would recognize as the sounds of doing research."

She often finds one book, The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, left out on the table. About two years ago, Tetterton related, a 10-year-old boy came into the room to investigate the ghost. "I gave him the book to look at. Later, he walked up and said, 'Do you think this has anything to do with it?' Inside this book was an envelope addressed to the person that I thought might be the ghost. I had been through that book hundreds of times and never saw that envelope. I could feel my hair standing straight up."

Buffy, 911

Someone should call on TV high-school protectress Bully the Vampire Slayer to investigate the bizarre haunting at Rocky Mountain High School in Byron, Wyoming. In 1952 or 1953 school superintendent Harold Hopkinson was working late in the office when he heard footsteps coming down the hall and going up the short staircase to the library. After hearing the library door open and close twice, he heard them again and this time he got up and looked out into the hall.

"As I stood there looking," Hopkinson remembered, "those footsteps went right past me and there was no one there. I heard them continue down the stairs to the front door, which I heard opening. . . . I didn't dream it. There really was something walking on that old floor, which used to creak in a certain way." He said his predecessor refused to go to that part of the building after dark, and so did he for some time afterwards.

The custodial staff agrees that something is amiss. Eddie Davis, who was a maintenance man at the high school for 13 years, heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from the girl's restroom late one night in 1989. "It set my hair on end," he said. But when he cautiously went inside, there was no one there.

Another time Davis's wife, also a custodian, was retrieving some cleaning materials from the second floor when she saw a small, "smoky-looking something" in the hall. "It stunk to high heaven," she said. "I got the feeling that thing was telling me, 'Jump out the window!' I couldn't move; I couldn't get to the door. But finally I took off and ran. I wouldn't want that to happen to me again," she whispered.

Ghosts in Green River

The spirits aren't as restless as they used to be in the Sweetwater County Library in Green River, Wyoming, but almost from the day it opened in 1980 lights went on and off for no reason and flapping sounds reverberated through the building at night. Library Director Patricia LeFaivre said that her staff has seen dots of light dancing on the walls inside the closed art gallery room in such a way that ruled out an external light source like car headlights.

Back when the library had electric typewriters instead of computers, at least two of the machines were seen to type on their own. There was no paper loaded at the time, so if these were messages, they were lost. The staff experimented by leaving paper in the typewriters overnight, but no phantom typing occurred.

The most bizarre event occurred some years ago when the interlibrary loan librarian turned away briefly from her computer - it was a dedicated Geac terminal - and when she looked back she saw her name spelled out on the screen. "I don't think the system could have done that itself," LeFaivre explained. "It had no word-processing capabilities, and at that time we didn't have e-mail. Her name appeared in quite large letters . . . with nothing else on the screen."

The library was built on top of a cemetery dating from the 1860s. Most of the graves, primarily those of Asian railroad workers, were moved in the 1920s, but a coffin turned up as recently as 1985. Paranormal activity most often takes place when maintenance crews are working on the building or the grounds.

"We've developed an interest in the haunting and keep notes in the ghost log when anything happens," LeFaivre said. "What's interesting is that when we finally accepted the ghost's existence, it seemed to quiet down - like it just wanted to be recognized."

"That would be Master Windham, sir"

Great Britain has more haunted places per square mile than any other country in the world, so it is no surprise that there are several haunted libraries there. My favorite by far is the ghost of William Windham III, an 18th-century scholar and close friend of lexicographer Samuel Johnson. Windham's spirit has been observed in the library of his family estate, Felbrigg Hall, for the past 170 years.

David Muffon was in charge of putting the estate in order after it was acquired by the National Trust. In November 1972 he was working at a desk in the library when he noticed a "gentleman sitting in the armchair by the fireplace reading books. It was so natural I thought nothing about it. . . . After about 15 seconds he put the book down beside him on the table and faded away."

Muffon asked the old family butler if the house had any ghosts and was told: "Oh yes, there's the ghost of William Windham who sits in the armchair on the far side of the fireplace." For many years the butler had set out books, specifically those given to Windham by Samuel Johnson, on the table for the ghost to read.

"Rather more interesting," Muffon revealed, "the next year we actually found in a trunk in the attic clothing very similar to the clothing I saw the ghost wearing from the 1780 period."

AL Associate Editor GEORGE M. EBERHART's book A GeoBibliography of Anomalies (Greenwood, 1980) lists haunted places throughout North America.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Eberhart, George M. "Phantoms among the folios: a guide to haunted libraries." American Libraries, Oct. 1997, p. 68+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A20044827