Phantoms among the Folios:
A Guide to Haunted Libraries

A tireless ghosthunter stalks the stacks for bibliospirits

October 28, 2015

Willard Library, Evansville, Indiana

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of American Libraries. It has been updated to include new information (updates in blue).

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 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 seem 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.

Trisha Noack, ‎manager of Public Relations at Peoria Public Library, said their Main Library was remodeled and reopened in December 2010.

“Most of these reports came from the stacks area, now known as LL1 and the home of our Art Gallery and Local History and Genealogy Room,” Noack said. “Since the stacks were eliminated (and) the entire library building (was) stripped down to the bare walls, there has been no further activity.”

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 into a vacant remodeled junior high school building in November 1996, according to library director Mary Finney. Ruth’s old building has been converted into the Pendleton Center for the Arts. Former executive 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 kind of get used to it,” Smith said.

Ghosts who read, succeed

Phyllis Parker, the female ghost at the Bernardsville (N.J.) Public Library’s former building at 2 Morristown Road, was 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.

In 2000, Bernardsville Public Library moved into a new modern building at 1 Anderson Hill Road, leaving the home of their library ghost, which is now hosts the O-PA! Performance Academy.

“We have not had any visits from her since our move,” said Pat Kennedy-Grant, the library’s readers’ services manager and facilities manager.

Grey 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. They also have free annual Grey Lady Ghost Tours beginning in mid-October, as well as the option for patrons to go on self-guided tours using the packet provided on the library website.

Their “lady in grey” has been seen in this 130-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.

Library director Greg Hager said there have been reports on the second floor in the Genealogy Department of chairs being pulled away from the tables after being meticulously pushed in, file boxes jumping three feet or more from the shelf as if pushed or thrown. A former custodian also once heard typing coming from a corner of the 2nd floor, but the library was closed, no one was in the corner, and there was no typewriter. Hager said there have also been many reports of electronic and electrical equipment being disturbed, such as fresh batteries being destroyed or staff members hearing the library’s elevator moving between floors with no one in, near, or on the elevator.

“Willard Library’s Grey Lady has become an international sensation and may in fact be the world’s most famous library ghost,” Hager said.

In 1999, Hager and the Evansville Courier & Press’s new media editor James Derk came up with the idea to set up a webcam that sent a live picture to a server every 30 seconds so that it could be viewed on the internet.

“We set up the webcam on the second floor of the library about two weeks before Halloween,” Hager said. “In the first two weeks the cam captured over two million images requested by internet viewers; on Halloween night that year, there were so many people trying to visit the cam that all internet service to and from the City of Evansville crashed.”

While the webcam was supposed to come down on the first day of November, the library kept it up, and five more have been added. The webcam has won several national website awards, including the Digital Edge Award for Most Innovative Use of the Online Medium in 2000, won by the Evansville Courier & Press. Willard Library has also been featured on numerous paranormal shows on network and cable television, such as “Ghost Hunters.”

According to Hager, the Grey Lady’s most recent visitation in the original building was in 2010. The Grey Lady was last seen in person by a staff member in the basement hallway in the exact area of where she was first seen in 1937.

On February 7, 2015, Willard Library opened its first building addition, which connects at the basement level to the historic structure approximately 15 feet from where the Grey Lady was first seen in 1937. So far, the library staff has received two reports of strange occurrences happening in the new addition.

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 August 1997 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 (LRC).

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 (NHCPL) in Wilmington, North Carolina, harbors the ghost of a patron who frequented the library conducting Civil War research. Former local-history librarian Beverly Tetterton insisted that some mornings she had 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 on pages turning—subtle rustling noises that a “librarian would recognize as the sounds of doing research.”

She often would find one book, The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, left out on the table. Tetterton said that once 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 have been through that book hundreds of times and never saw that envelope. I could feel my hair standing straight up.”

A New Hanover County Public Library patron poses in her Halloween costume during the 2014 Haunted Library, NHCPL’s annual spooky storytelling festival for children.
A New Hanover County Public Library patron poses in her Halloween costume during the 2014 Haunted Library, NHCPL’s annual spooky storytelling festival for children. Photo: New Hanover County Public Library

Library Associate Joseph Sheppard said that paranormal activities, explained or unexplained, have continued to happen.

“Mostly the same odd noises happen here in the Special Collections Area, or movement of objects from place to place, a cold tap on the shoulder, and then the occasional visitor claiming to see a bearded heavyset man in late 19th Century garb appear and vanish before their eyes,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard said many of these unexplained activities fall into the realm of the explained, such as echoes from other parts of the library building being from a prankster staff member.

“But then sometimes we fail to provide explanation for what some may consider normality beyond the range of scientifically known phenomena. Whether we have real ghosts or not still remains a mystery,” Sheppard said.

The haunted occurrences have inspired spooky programs at NHCPL, including Scare Squad, where teens build props for the New Hanover County Haunted Library, and Haunted Library, their annual spooky storytelling festival for children.

Buffy, 911

Someone should call on TV high-school protectress Buffy 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 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’ 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. Former Library Director Patricia LeFraivre said that her staff had seen dots of lights dancing on the walls inside the closed art gallery room in such a way that ruled out an external light source like car headlights.

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 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 email. 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 in 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.”

Sweetwater County (Wyo.) Library ghost-hunting equipment.
Sweetwater County (Wyo.) Library ghost-hunting equipment.

Lindsey Travis, public relations specialist for the Sweetwater County Library System, said the ghosts are still active. In 2006, they began hosting Ghost Walks at the library, where they would take patrons on tours and let them use ghost hunting equipment, such as ghost boxes, dowsing rods, and KII meters. The library is also now working on a book, spearheaded by Reference Librarian Micki Gilmore, chronicling Sweetwater County Library’s history of ghosts.

“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 nearly two centuries.

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.”

Fiona Lilley, visitor services manager at Felbrigg Hall, said there has been no recent sightings or any form of haunting activities in either the library or anywhere in the hall or grounds.


Columbia University History Professor Eric Foner. Photo by Daniela Zalcman.

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