A Haunted Library

A Haunted Library

A Haunted Library    Still Life with Book and Skull by Charles Paget Wade (Shortlands, Bromley, Kent 1883 – Evesham, Worcestershire 1956), 1908. http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1336606

World Book Day is coming up and what would it be without a haunted library story? I picture the kiddies all gathered around the light of the copy machine while the librarian storyteller shines a checkout scanner gun up beneath her chin as she tells the tale….


An Authentic Narrative. By Albert J. Edmunds.

With Attestation by John Y. W. MacAlister of the Royal Society of Medicine.

The “Mr. J.”, who will now speak, is well known to librarians all over the world: J. is the initial of his first name. In the case of his assistant, Mr. R., the initial is that of the surname. Q. and X. are complete disguises. [Later, Mr. Edmunds describes “Mr. J.: thus: Mr. J. is a Highlander, and this is only one more instance of the well-known Highland gift.]

On October 12th, 1888, Mr. J. gave me viva voce the following account of his experience in the X. Library, in 1884, which I have taken down from memory next day, and which he has revised and corrected:—

In 1880 I succeeded a Mr. Q. as librarian of the X. Library. I had never seen Mr. Q. nor any photograph or likeness of him. when the following incidents occurred. I may, of course, have heard the library assistants describe his appearance, tho I have no recollection of this. I was sitting alone in the library one evening late in March, 1884, finishing some work after hours, when it suddenly occurred to me that I should miss the last train to H., where I was then living, if I did not make haste. It was then 10.55, and the last train left X. at 11.05. I gathered up some books in one hand, took the lamp in the other, and prepared to leave the librarian’s room, which communicated by a passage with the main room of the library. As my lamp illumined this passage, I saw apparently at the further end of it a man’s face. I instantly thought a thief had got into the library. This was by no means impossible, and the probability of it had occurred to me before. I turned back into my room, put down the books and took a revolver from the safe, and, holding the lamp cautiously behind me, I made my way along the passage—which had a corner, behind which I thought my thief might be lying in wait —into the main room. Here I saw no one, but the room was large and encumbered with bookcases. I called out loudly to the intruder to show himself several times, more with the hope of attracting a passing policeman than of drawing the intruder. Then I saw a face looking round one of the bookcases. I say looking round, but it had an odd appearance as if the body were in the bookcase, as the face came so closely to the edge and I could see no body. The face was pallid and hairless, and the orbits of the eyes were very deep. I advanced towards it, and as I did so I saw an old man with high shoulders seem to rotate out of the end of the bookcase, and with his back towards me and with a shuffling gait walk rather quickly from the bookcase to the door of a small lavatory, which opened from the library and had no other access. I heard no noise. I followed the man at once into the lavatory; and to my extreme surprise found no one there. I examined the window (about 14 in. x 12 in.), and found it closed and fastened. I opened it and looked out. It opened into a well, the bottom of which, ten feet below, was a sky-light, and the top open to the sky some twenty feet above. It was in the middle of the building and no one could have dropped into it without smashing the glass nor climbed out of it without a ladder, but no one was there. Nor had there been anything like time for a man to get out of the window, as I followed the intruder instantly. Completely mystified, I even looked into the little cupboard under the fixed basin. There was nowhere hiding for a child, and I confess I began to experience for the first time what novelists describe as an “eerie” feeling.

I left the library, and found I had missed my train.

Next morning I mentioned what I had seen to a local clergyman who, on hearing my description, said, “Why, that’s old Q.!” [J’s predecessor Vincent Thomas Sternberg, well-known as a folklorist.] Soon after I saw a photograph (from a drawing) of Q., and the resemblance was certainly striking. Q. had lost all his hair, eyebrows and all, from (I believe) a gunpowder accident. His walk was a peculiar, rapid, high-shouldered shuffle.

Later inquiry proved he had died at about the time of year at which I saw the figure [Spring 1884]… I am under a pledge to the X. people not to make public the story in any way that would lead to identity. Of course I shall be glad to answer any private inquiries, and am willing that my name should be given in confidence to bona fide inquirers in the usual way.

Mr. Edmunds added a corroborating story from the principal assistant in the library, Mr. R., and a junior clerk, Mr. P., who both witnessed a room they had just left dark, fully lighted. When P. went back to check, the light went out.

In subsequent letters Mr. R. says:—

The light was seen after the phantom; but those who saw the light were not aware that the phantom had been seen, for Mr. J. mentioned the circumstance only to his wife and to one other friend (who has confirmed to us the fact that it was so mentioned to him), and he was naturally particularly careful to give no hint of the matter to his assistants in the library.

With regard to the illuminated room, it must be observed that it was a favorite resort of the deceased. It opened on to a gallery in the main hall of the library, and we used to call it “The Infirmary.” This was because it was a lumber-room for injured books and for purposes of sorting. When Mr. Q. was alive he used to sit up there late at night writing articles for the press. Taken together with facts that are to follow this will become significant, in view of the phantasmal illumination observed by R. and P. When Mr. J. went to X. in 1880 (from a town one hundred miles away) he spent his first week in “The Infirmary”, clearing up muddles left by his predecessor. He could not open the door “for a solid buttress of books” (his own words). They lay piled upon the floor awaiting the binder, who had never been called for. The librarian has been too busy with his journalism to attend to this business. Among the neglected books were valuable manuscripts, “the loss of which would have raised a howl from all the antiquarians in shire.”


Edmunds also told of an event from 1 April 1885 where Mr. J. and he heard a strange bell-like vibration coming from the table where Mr. J. was seated.  They searched, but found nothing that could have made the sound. Edmunds asserted that “This has got something to do with old Q.!”

Just then Mr. R. came in, who had seen the illuminated room. He was the only member of the staff who had worked under Q. “R,” said I, standing beside him. “let us put our hands on the table.” We both laid our fingers lightly thereon, and the moment R. touched it, the sound came ringing out of his sleeve. Mr. J. and I rushed upon him with one accord, and rolled up his sleeve. Of course there was nothing there, but the impression upon both of us had been simultaneous. I then remembered that Q. had died in the spring, and that haunting phenomena were frequently associated with anniversaries. “Cannot we discover,” I asked, “the exact date of Q.’s death?” “Yes,” said R.: “old So-and-So down the street can tell us.” A messenger was dispatched, and returned with the news that Mr. Q. had died on the first of April, 1880, between four and five o’clock in the afternoon.

In addition, Mr. R. said that Q. had used an “old cracked gong” to summon his staff and that it had stood upon the table where the ringing sound had been heard.

Thus, upon the fifth anniversary, to the very hour, of the old man’s death, a phantasmal bell reminded us of his presence. Taken together with the lighted room of the former year, this is significant…

Edmunds then describes a meeting with Mr. R. in the room that had been mysteriously illuminated. There they communicated with what they believed to be the spirit of Mr. Q. , which rapped out answers to questions. I have left these out except for the following, which goes to “Q’s” motive.

“Have you anything on your mind that you wish to divulge?” “Yes.” “Have you done something wrong?” “Yes.” “Is it anything to do with finances?” A loud thump gave an indignant No. I learned later, however, that Mr. Q.’s accounts were disorderly when he died. So much so, that Mr. J., who was the soul of honor, was subjected to an offensive surveillance, for his predecessor’s misdeeds. I now thought what wrong things a librarian might do, and at last inquired: “Did you ever give away books belonging to this library to your personal friends?” “Yes.” “Will you tell us the names of those friends?” “No.” “Will you tell them to the head librarian?” “Yes.” I then asked the invisible one whether he had believed in a future life when on earth, and he said no. Mr. R. broke silence by confirming this: the deceased had been a materialist. Was he unhappy? I inquired. Yes. Would he prefer extinction to his present lot? Yes. Was he aware that some people maintained that he was only a cast-off shell of the soul, and was destined to perish? Yes. Such was our conversation. I told him we would pray for him, and so the seance closed.

Edmunds told Mr. J. about the séance, whereupon another was held with a skeptical lawyer, Mr. J., and the head librarian.

George Hudson, a certain lawyer, and Mr. J. went to the library one night soon afterwards, to find out what they could. I was invited, but declined. Hudson and J. were my intimate friends, but the lawyer had the air of not wanting me. I wish now that I had gone….  they did not join hands, they did not place hands on the table; they did not sing, as spiritists often do; they did not sit passive; they merely smoked their cigars round the fire for an evening chat. Suddenly there were rappings on the table, on the floor, behind the books, and everywhere. The head librarian, being present, had sent the janitor away, and made sure that the premises were clear. We assistants had not been able to do this. The three witnesses were not content with mere yes and no, as we had been: the lawyer demanded severe proof, and laboriously repeated through the alphabet, writing down letter after letter that was stricken. In this way that took two hours to discover what we had done in twenty minutes. The letters fell into intelligible sentences and conveyed the same information: that the deceased had something to divulge which he would communicate to no one save the head librarian alone. At one point in the inquiry Mr. Hudson, who had been a past director of the library (and therefore an employer of deceased) addressed the ghost very familiarly: “Look here, old man, you know that your accounts were all wrong when you died!” A perfect thunderstorm of knocks and thumps declared his indignation.

When obstinate silence refused to answer more, the lawyer said: “Gentlemen, this thing must never be known in X. It must be hushed up at once. There are women in this town who would never set foot in this library again. Mr. J., you must instruct your assistants to say no more about it.” This was done, and silence was enjoined upon us. The phantasmal bell, however, continued to sound, and did so throughout the month of April. It was heard again and again in broad daylight by every member of the staff, down to the janitor.

The story got out, and one day a youth of fashion brought two ladies in a chaise to see the ghost! Mr. J. expressed astonishment: “You, a nineteenth-century young man, believe in ghosts! I don’t know what you mean.” He simply lied and denied knowledge of the whole affair. At last I appealed to him to go along and listen to the secret.

“Edmunds.” he said, looking sadly and fixedly at me, ” I have suffered enough from that man’s misdeeds, and if he’s in hell he deserves to be!”

This was the last. I left X. on May 10, 1885. Returning for a short time in the summer, I found nothing new, and on August 28, I sailed from Glasgow to New York, and have never since been back to Britain.

When Mr. MacAlister met me in New York, as implied in the foregoing attestation, he gave me permission to disclose his name, but bade me preserve the other anonymities.

ALBERT J. EDMUNDS. Philadelphia, January 6, 1905.

Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research Vol. 9, July 1912 439-448

An attestation by J.W. MacAlister, New York, 10 September, 1903, affirms the accuracy of the account and reveals the identity of Mr. J. as John Young Walker MacAlister, a highly distinguished librarian and secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine. If we look at MacAlister’s career, the dates given in this account reveal X. Library as Leeds Library [This story and this fact are quite well-known on the internet]. He was much travelled, but his biography in The Library World for 1899 does not mention a visit to America.  MacAlister had a long and influential career in librarianship and science, was knighted for his services in the First World War, and died in 1925.

As for the ghost: “The face was pallid and hairless, and the orbits of the eyes were very deep,” is uncannily suggestive of the cloaked spectre in M.R. James’s The Tractate Middoth, published in More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1911. I would assume that James and MacAlister knew each other. It seems as though their interests in manuscripts and books would have brought them at least into antiquarian proximity.  MacAlister’s journal The Library for 1920 cited James’s publications frequently and published a notice that “Dr. M. R. James’s monograph on the manuscripts owned by Dr. Dee, is being printed off.”

Links between James and MacAlister? And is Leeds Library still haunted by the pallid ghost of “Mr. Q.”? All the stories online refer back to this one.

Thoughts to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com who cautions you: Don’t open that book…! Don’t open that book….!

Mrs Daffodil has also reported on the ghost at New York’s Astor Library, who seems to be looking for a reanimation spell.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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