1884, March - 1885, April: A Haunted Library

John MacAlister, head of the Leeds Library in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, was working late; it was a March night in 1884. Checking the time -- 10:55PM -- MacAlister realized he only had ten minutes before he would miss the last train home. Hurriedly, he gathered up his books and picked up his lamp, and left the librarian's room on the ground floor he had been working in to head down the hall that led to the main room of the library... when he saw a face at the end of the hall.

        MacAlister immediately feared a thief was in the library, and quickly returned to the librarian's room where he dropped the books on the table and retrieved a revolver from the safe before walking cautiously back out to the library's main room. He didn't immediately see an intruder, but because of the multiple bookcases he couldn't be sure in any way; so he called out loudly several times for the intruder to show himself, "more with the hope of attracting a passing policeman than of drawing the intruder." And then MacAlister saw the intruder. Sort of.

An intruder...?
The intruder...? [Larger version here]

        There was a face looking out at MacAlister as if from behind one of the bookcases... but it's positioning clearly implied the figure's body was somehow in the bookcase. The face was "pallid and hairless," the orbits of the eyes were very deep.

        As MacAlister was still trying to understand what he was seeing and was walking closer, the head turned away from him as the figure's body rotated out of the bookcase and then started to walk with a shuffling gait at a surprising speed. The figure -- described by MacAlister as an old man with high shoulders -- shuffled into a nearby lavatory that opened off the main library floor, making absolutely no noise as all of this happened, and MacAlister immediately entered the lavatory behind the strange man. The room was empty.

        The only possible escape would have been a small window, measuring about 14 inches by 12 inches; MacAlister opened it to look out. The window opened into a chute that would require a ladder to go up twenty feet, and had a sheer drop of ten feet to a skylight... and, even if a ladder had been available, there had certainly been no time for the man to crawl through and make an escape. The only other possibility was a little cupboard under the basin that didn't have enough room for a child to hide in, but which MacAlister confirmed was empty anyway.

        Mystified and creeped out, MacAlister retreated from the library for the night. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had missed his train.

        On the following day, MacAlister discussed the strange encounter with a local minister and got a surprising response: "Why, that's old Vincent!" the minister had said. MacAlister had become the head of the Leeds Library in 1880, after the death of the former head of the library... a man named Vincent Sternberg. A photograph of Sternberg confirmed for MacAlister that this was indeed the man he had seen the night previously in the library. Sternberg had apparently lost all of his head and facial hair in an accident, and was remembered to have had a "peculiar, rapid, high-shouldered shuffle." Later inquiries told MacAlister that Sternberg had in fact died sometime around the same time of year that his odd encounter had occurred as well.

        In writing of the matter for the Society for Psychical Research [SPR] in England, MacAlister stated that he never gave particular attention to the matter of ghosts and spectres, but did admit he had seen a phantasm just once before in his life, when he was a boy of ten. His mother was away, and MacAlister and his brothers had been simply told that she was not feeling well; they were not worried about her, though they did miss her. One day MacAlister saw his mother on the staircase, so he ran up to greet her... but she disappeared. When he told the others, they laughed it off. Later, MacAlister discovered that his mother had given birth to one of his sisters on the same day and time that he had seen the phantom figure of her on the staircase. Since MacAlister could not judge if this earlier incident might be in some way connected to the later library incident, he was sure to include it for consideration in his report to the SPR. The management of the Leeds Library made clear to MacAlister that they did not want the situation to become a public matter, so the SPR eventually published the details of the matter using false names for all involved as well as for the location.

More Oddities

        Another strange event occurred some time between the first incident in March and September 1884, when MacAlister first mentioned both events to friends and was asked to write his description of them for the SPR. This second event involved a principal assistant at the library, referred to as 'Mr. R', and a junior clerk, referred to as 'Mr. P'; their true identities have not yet been discovered or revealed.

Leeds Library
Main room from top of stairs. [Larger version here]

        According to Mr. R, during busy times at the library he would often have to stay until late in the evenings to finish up his work. On one night in particular, he and Mr. P had been busy until around 11:00PM in an upstairs room which had a good view out over the main library. Because it was late, the only lights on in the building were in the room they occupied and, since they were done, they turned off the gas to the lights, and checked the fireplace to be sure the fire was out. They then both headed down the stairs to the main library, being familiar enough with the building that the lack of light didn't impair their progress.

        On reaching the bottom of the stairs, they couldn't help but notice that the room they'd just left appeared to have the lights on again.

        Mr. P went back upstairs to check the lights again, while Mr. R tried to glimpse the light fixtures through the doorway (he may have been worried about a fire having started). As Mr. P came within a few yards of the doorway, the lights suddenly went out. Mr. P hadn't seen this happen from where he was, so he walked the rest of the way; finding the room dark, he entered and inspected the lights, gas, and fireplace, all of which were properly turned out.

        Neither man had any explanation for the strange occurrence. In response to the standard SPR question regarding previous paranormal experiences, Mr. R stated he had never had one before. The strange event happened after MacAlister saw the figure of Vincent Sternburg in the library, but neither Mr. R nor Mr. P knew that the previous sighting had occurred at the time they had their problem with lights.

        After the SPR learned all of this, they were able to make some inquiries about the Leeds Library and the former librarian, Vincent Sternberg. The room that lit itself up was apparently a favorite hangout for Sternberg, as it opens onto the gallery above the main library. The room used to be called "The Infirmary," because it was where injured books were taken until they were repaired, and it was used for sorting as well. Sternberg used to sit in the Infirmary late at night writing articles for the press. When MacAlister arrived to take over Sternberg's duties at the library after the former librarian's death, the Infirmary was chock full of books and manuscripts needing repair, so much so that it was difficult to open the door. It was supposed that Sternberg had fallen behind on this work because of his interests in his articles.

The Haunting Continued

        From 1884 to 1885, Albert Joseph Edmunds worked with the Leeds Library under MacAlister; Edmunds was one of the two people that encouraged MacAlister in 1884 to contact the SPR when MacAlister had discussed his strange encounter from earlier in that year. The next chapter in this library haunting was reported by Edmunds, who also encountered some strange events about a year after MacAlister's reported experience.

        On an April afternoon in 1885, around 4:00PM, Edmunds entered the librarian's room where MacAlister was seated in his usual spot at the head of a long table; and MacAlister asked him to stay a moment to see if he could hear an odd noise that MacAlister claimed the table was making... then a bell-like tone issued from the table, seemingly from a spot about an arm's length in front of MacAlister.

        It sounded "something like a tuning-fork when stricken and held to the ear"; and there was nothing on the table that would explain the strange noise. Edmunds was alarmed, because there was a scare about bombs in the news of the day, and that's the first thing he thought the noise might be; therefore he quickly looked under the table, but nothing was there that could explain the noise. Edmunds placed his ear against the bottom of the table, assuming that if a bomb was somehow hidden in it, he would hear it ticking... but the moment his ear touched the wood, the bell sound "thrilled through me quite piercingly." Edmunds immediately stated to MacAlister that the weird matter must have something to do with the ghost of Sternberg.

        About this time Mr. R, who was now the only employee at the museum who had previously worked with Sternberg, entered the librarian's room and, presumably, also heard the strange noise. Edmuds suggested that he and Mr. R should try touching their hands on the table at the same time, and they did so. The moment Mr. R's hands touched the table, both Edmunds and MacAlister heard the noise emanate from one of Mr. R's sleeves, and both men rushed Mr. R and rolled up the sleeve, discovering nothing.

        Edmunds, who knew that Sternberg had died sometime in the Spring of 1880, asked Mr. R. if he knew exactly when. Mr. R didn't, but knew someone who did, and a messenger sent to ask soon returned with the fact that Sternberg had died on April 1, 1880, between 4:00PM and 5:00PM. Edmunds asked Mr. R if there was any reason this odd sound would be associated with the deceased librarian. Mr. R said yes, Sternberg used to have a gong on the table in the same room, which he would strike to summon one of the employees when he needed them... and that the sound currently occurring sounded very much like that gong.

        Edmunds and Mr. R, both familiar with the then-popular practices of Spiritualism and the common ritual for contacting the dead called a seance, agreed to meet back that evening at the librarian's room to see what might happen if they actively called upon the ghost.

        Edmunds arrived at 8:00PM, and found that Mr. R was already there; Mr. R said there had been tapping sounds from the sky-light, but nothing else of an unusual nature yet. They were both joined by a third library assistant, unnamed, who was a man with a belief in both ghosts and their ability to communicate; likely Mr. R invited him, as Edmunds made no special note about it. They sat around the table in the librarian's room, placed their hands upon it, and waited. The library's ghost, it would seem, didn't want to disappoint them; soon the three men heard loud thumps coming from the wall that separated the librarian's room from the same small lavatory that MacAlister had seen Sternberg's figure vanish into a year earlier.

        Edmunds declared "if any intelligent being is making these noises, let him count seven!" ... and seven thumps were the immediate response.

        Edmunds established a quick code for 'yes, no, maybe,' and then asked for the spirit's name by repeating letters of the alphabet until the ghost thumped; and, after getting the letters "S-T-E-R-N" this way, he asked if he was talking to Vincent Sternberg, to which the ghost thumped a "yes." Further questioning determined that Sternberg had given some of the library's books to personal friends, and wanted to fix this matter; but would only name the people involved to MacAlister, the new head librarian.

        Edmunds talked to MacAlister about this strange development the next day and, at MacAlister's request, also explained the matter to the same local minister that MacAlister had initially told about seeing the phantom. Edmunds also talked to George Hudsen, a local white-lead merchant who had once been a director for the library and who also had some experiences with ghosts previously. Soon afterwards, MacAlister arranged for a night at the library with just himself, Hudsen, an unnamed lawyer, and Edmunds; but Edmunds declined the invite, as the lawyer clearly didn't want him there. Edmunds wrote up the report of what happened that night after Hudsen described it to him.

        The three men had the library all to themselves, as MacAlister had made arrangements for all staff (including janitors) to be off for the night; MacAlister wanted to be sure they were the only people in the building. The three did not attempt to hold a seance at all, instead just sitting around the fireplace in the room smoking cigars and chatting until there were sudden rappings heard coming from the table, the floor, the walls, the books... just everywhere.

        The three then started to question the ghost, the lawyer in particular insisting on using the alphabet counting routine to get full answers, rather than using a "yes/no" format; it would seem he expected fraud in the matter, and likely had suspected Edmunds of being the trickster due to his having reported the earlier seance. In this manner, they spent about two hours getting full sentence answers that simply confirmed what Edmunds had reported of the spirit's desires earlier... he wanted to communicate with MacAlister alone.

        Sternberg, when he died, had left financial matters at the library in very bad standing; so much so, that MacAlister was closely watched after being hired until he could straighten out the books. Apparently Sternberg's ghost felt he had left things in good shape, and when Hudsen -- who had been an employer of Sternberg as director at the museum -- pointed out the bad shape of the library's accounts at the time, it was followed by "a perfect thunderstorm of knocks and thumps" that declared the ghost's indignation at the accusation, and then silence.

        The lawyer, being a practical sort, had a predictable reaction to this astounding series of events: he stated that the whole matter had to be hushed up to protect the library, for fear that customers would boycott a haunted building. MacAlister was directly instructed to tell all of the assistants that they were to say nothing more about the haunting. And so it was.

        Of course, this didn't mean that the spirit of Vincent Sternberg was obligated to listen; and the sound of the phantom bell continued to peel all through the month of April, until every member of the staff had heard it at one time or another, and news in the form of rumor inevitably got out. MacAlister stuck to his duty, however... so even when a youth arrived at the library with two ladies who wanted to "see the ghost," he denied the whole matter.

        Edmunds finished his duties and left the library on May 10, 1885. Though he returned to visit the library briefly that summer, nothing new had developed; and by August Edmunds had sailed to the United States for a new job.

        Nothing more was ever written of the haunting, likely thanks to the lawyer's order of silence, though it seems clear the haunting did not simply stop at the time. Nowadays, the library's staff and administration openly talk about Vincent Sternberg's ghost in social media, which says two things to me. First, they know a good tourist-bait story when they hear one. Second, the haunting has likely long since stopped, or they would be telling new stories regarding it.