Spooky Stacks: Viewing Haunted Libraries of the Midwest through Library Postcards

According to a scientific survey by Chapman University, a little more than half of all Americans believe that places can be haunted by spirits, with three in four believing in some kind of paranormal phenomenon [9]. The history of ghosts in America is a storied one and can generally be charted as first being thought of as “agents of God, then the devil, and now are seen as entertainment, to a large extent”, according to Tamara Hunt, a History professor at University of Southern Indiana and collector of ghost stories. Generally speaking, the way ghosts are seen in culture and society reflect the temperature of the era. Those in the 18th century viewed ghosts as the spirits of the dead who had unfinished business on Earth. Later on, ghosts helped people deal with the rapid changes of the 19th century, and when seances and Ouija boards rose in popularity, so did the belief that people could communicate with any spirit – not just a loved one. Throughout all time, ghosts provided a link between the present and the past, and the living and the dead – a connection that brings comfort and peace of mind during turbulent times. Some of the most haunted libraries in the Midwest can be viewed – from a safe distance – through the American Library Association Archives’ extensive postcard collection. More information about haunted libraries throughout the United States can be found through the Haunted Libraries LibGuide, courtesy of the University of Illinois Library.

Illinois

Cairo Public Library – Cairo, Illinois

Cairo Public Library (Record Series 97/1/65, Box 3)

Cairo Public Library, 241 miles south of Champaign, is home to one of the “busiest ghosts in Cairo,” according to Greg Fields, founder of the Paranormal Research Society of Southern Illinois [5]. “Toby,” named as such by former librarian Louise Ogg, is a regular in the Library’s Special Collections room. He usually makes his presence known through squeaking chairs in empty rooms and flashing white lights that jump between bookshelves – phenomena that live in the corner of your eye and in your deepest subconscious, but when coupled with the ghost story leave you chilled. Former Director Monica Smith noted that there is a “definite presence” in the building, but that you eventually “get used to it” [1].

Monticello College – Godfrey, Illinois

Monticello College Library, Front Side (Record Series 97/1/65, Box 3)

Monticello College Library, Reverse Side (Record Series 97/1/65, Box 3)

The Reid Memorial Library of Monticello College – now known as Lewis & Clark Community College, 167 miles southwest of Champaign – is home to the spirit of Harriet Newell Haskell, the revered headmistress of the College from 1867 to 1907. As noted on the back of the postcard in the Archives’ collection, the Praise Angel windows on the east wall of the library were given in memory of Haskell. When the College became the home of Lewis & Clark in 1971, the Reid Memorial Chapel – which incidentally was Haskell’s favorite room on campus – became the very library where Haskell now haunts [7]. During her tenure as headmistress, Haskell made the school one of the most respected female institutions in the country, leading the way through funding woes and an 1888 fire that ravaged much of the campus. Stories about ghostly encounters with Haskell started almost immediately after her death in 1907 – lights, fountains, and steam-operated elevators that would turn off and on at will, ghostly apparitions in darkened hallways among them. Liz Burns, the Assistant Director of Instructional Services at Lewis & Clark recounts her interaction with Haskell [6]:

“Years ago, I was walking down the stairs into the library basement, and when I reached the bottom of the staircase, I smelled lilac perfume. I paused, recognized the smell, and said ‘Hello, Harriet’, then suddenly, the smell had disappeared.”

Lars Hoffman, a former history professor at the College, took it upon himself to collect these haunting encounters. In recounting his collection of haunts, Hoffman shared one story [1]:

“She [a young librarian who didn’t believe in ghosts] was working at night. 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.”

Scary stories to scare new students…or actual interactions with spirits of the dead? Time and again, students and staff members, once skeptical about the existence of ghostly presences, have come away from their interactions with Haskell feeling otherwise. Some experiences are hard to reason away, even for rational minds rooted in reality.

Peoria Public Library – Peoria, Illinois

Peoria Public Library (Record Series 97/1/65, Box 3)

The hauntings at Peoria Public Library, 90 miles northwest of Champaign, are storied and have survived both the passage of time and a 1966 building teardown. As many as thirteen ghosts – including a former library director – have been reported to roam the building, causing employees and patrons hearing their names called out while alone in the stacks, feeling cold drafts in otherwise temperate rooms, and even see the ghostly face of E.S. Wilcox – the library’s first director – in shadowy doorways clad in full turn-of-the-century attire [2].

These spooky occurrences can trace their roots back to Mrs. Andrew Gray, a prominent resident of Peoria who lived on the plot of land the Downtown branch of the Library now occupies on Monroe Avenue. She gained custody of her wayward nephew after her brother’s death, and his frequent run-ins with the law eventually required the services of a lawyer [2, 4]. That lawyer, David Davis, took out a mortgage on Gray’s home as collateral for his services, and when the time came to pay up, Davis sued to foreclose, draining Gray of all her resources. Enraged, Gray cut off her unruly nephew, whose body was later found floating in the nearby Illinois River. According to local legend, Gray then set a curse on the land and all its future occupants. This alleged cursed led to the first ghostly occurrence on Monroe – the apparition of Mrs. Gray’s drowned nephew banging on the front door, begging to be let back in [3].

This curse could also be responsible for the untimely and rather violent deaths of the first three directors of the Library – E.S. Willcox was hit by a passing streetcar in 1915, Samuel Patterson Prowse died of a heart attack during a board meeting in 1921, and Dr. Edwin Wiley died by suicide in 1924 by consuming arsenic. This concerning lineage was the subject of an episode of the Dewey Decibel podcast, the official podcast of American Libraries magazine. In the episode, host Phil Morehart wonders whether the reason why Willcox still haunts the library he used to run. One reason could be because he was so fond of his workplace and invested in the practice of librarianship. As its first director, Willcox oversaw the construction of the Library and was also the author of the 1872 Illinois Library Law, which paved the way for public libraries as Illinoisans know them today.

Morehart interviewed Randall Yelverton, the current Executive Director of the Library, who remains unfazed by the fate of some of his predecessors. He is so at ease about the history of his position, in fact, that he has revoked the unwritten, long-standing agreement between directors to not talk about or publicize the history of hauntings at the Library [4]. He think it is all fun lore and doesn’t tarnish the overall mission of the library. The reputation of the Library as one of the most haunted libraries in America has actually brought renewed interest to the library – not from Peoria residents interested in checking out the latest Stephen King, but in enthusiasts wanting to spend the night in the library, waiting for a ghost to appear. Staff were eager to share their experiences with Morehart, and insist that the ghosts they encounter are not malevolent and usually just want to make their presence known – sometimes even correcting staff members in their shelving errors! Trisha Noack, the then-Manager of Public Relations at the Library stated that since the Main Library was renovated in 2010, there has been no ghostly activity. Perhaps the Peoria ghosts no longer feel at home in the Art Gallery and Local History and Genealogy room that now occupy the former stacks, where most ghostly experiences occurred. The next time a patron or staff member hears books crashing down from an otherwise still bookshelf, or slamming doors and flickering lights in empty rooms, they may want to hesitate before turning around, lest they want to come face-to-face with a face from centuries past.

Indiana

Willard Library – Evansville, Indiana 

Willard Library (Record Series 97/1/65, Box 3)

The spooky shenanigans at play at the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana – 179 miles southeast of Champaign – have grown from a local legend to something of a national phenomenon, with the Library fully embracing its gang of ghosts (most notable of which is the Grey Lady), even including a full page on their website about the history of the Grey Lady, along with interactive opportunities to spot the ghosts on camera and learn more about the most haunted spots in the library.

Willard Library (Record Series 97/1/72, Box 3)

Considered to be one of the most haunted libraries in the United States, Willard Library’s claim to fame is the Grey Lady, though as many as eight entities haunt the library halls, according to paranormal investigators who have become regulars. While her identity is unknown, many suspect her to be Louise Carpenter, the daughter of the Library’s founder who was upset her father left his entire estate to the library in his passing [9]. Though the Library has been around since 1885, the first sighting of the Grey Lady did not occur until 1937 – right in the middle of the “Thousand Year Flood” that saw the nearby Ohio River rise to historic levels and devastate the area – when she appeared in a long dress and veil to a custodian worker who came in early to stoke the furnace [8].

Willard Library (Record Series 97/1/65, Box 3)

The Library was the subject of a special episode of the Dewey Decibel podcast, where host Phil Morehart spoke to Library Director (and avowed, but open-minded skeptic on the paranormal) Greg Hager. Coloring the Library building as a large Victorian building that is “stately, refined, and kind of creepy in an Addams Family sort of way,” [8] Morehart asks Hager how he has embraced the Library’s storied past. Hager notes that the presence of the Grey Lady, who he sees more of as a benign prankster than a malevolent force, is one that is usually felt and not seen. Strong, cheap perfume, a slight chill in the air, and the distinct feeling of a presence next to you in an empty room, are her trademark tells. She travels all over the library, but is most often felt in the basement-level Children’s Department and the second-floor Local History/Genealogy room, pulling tables away from chairs, moving file boxes and books, and typing on phantom typewriters wherever she goes [1]. The last known sighting was in 2015, when two Children’s Department staff members noticed security camera footage of a strange woman looking out a glass door. Upon taking a closer look, the image became pixelated and grainy [9]. In his interview with Morehart, Hager lays out the Library’s engagement strategy in relation to the hauntings – which Hager sees as “marketing gold” – made famous by appearances on television shows like “Ghost Hunters” on the Discovery Channel.

Willard Library (Record Series 97/1/72, Box 3)

Hager sees the explosion of the Library’s popularity among ghost enthusiasts as starting in 1995, when the Library’s first Ghost Tour drew a crowd of 800 guests, greatly surpassing expectations, along with occupancy limits for the building [8]. These Ghost Tours, which are slated for the last three weekends in October every year – have continued since then and draw in thousands of out-of-town guests to the Evansville area. The greater strategy for these tours, according to Hager, is “come for our ghost tour and bring your family and have fun. And then come back next month, next week, not for a ghost tour but to use the library” [9]. In 1999, Hager, in conjunction with the Evansville Courier & Press’ new media editor James Derk came up with the idea for a series of six webcams in areas of the library with high ghost activity that would upload pictures in real time to an online server, allowing people from around the world to get in on the fun. On Halloween Night of that year, so many people were trying to access the webcam images that all internet service to and from Evansville crashed [1]. This initiative won the team a Digital Edge Award for Most Innovative Use of the Online Medium in 2000. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has halted in-person Ghost Tours this Halloween season, those who are interested can still take themselves on a self-guided (masked) tour of the library using the educational guide provided by the Library. In speaking about the lack of jump scares and cheap thrills on the ever-popular Ghost Tours, Hager notes that “reality can sometimes be more frightening than someone in a mask jumping out at you…we can kinda reason one away, and the other one is real” [9]. The ghost hunters who are frequent guests at Willard Library have noted that the “eerie feelings” some get in certain areas of the library can be traced back to electromagnetic fluctuations in the air [8], but perhaps – to some – that chill means something more than just science and molecules.

 

[1] Marcotte, Alison, and George M. Eberhart. “Phantoms among the Folios: A Guide to Haunted Libraries.” American Libraries Magazine, 28 Oct. 2015, americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2015/10/28/phantoms-among-folios-guide-to-haunted-libraries/.

[2] Blair. “Top 10 Most Haunted Libraries in the Midwest.” Mysterious Heartland, 1 Oct. 2019, mysteriousheartland.com/top-10-most-haunted-libraries-in-the-midwest/.

[3] Ysbryd. “Haunted Libraries: Peoria Public Library.” The Witching Hour, 3 Jan. 2014, 4girlsandaghost.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/haunted-libraries-peoria-public-library/.

[4] Morehart, Phil. “Episode 31: The Haunting of Peoria Public Library.” SoundCloud, American Libraries, 26 Oct. 2018, soundcloud.com/dewey-decibel-703453552/episode-31-the-haunting-of-peoria-public-library.

[5] Halstead, Marilyn. “Haunted Southern Illinois: Legends of Ghosts and Strange Occurrences.” The Southern, 31 Oct. 2015, thesouthern.com/news/local/haunted-southern-illinois-legends-of-ghosts-and-strange-occurences/article_93ed0026-2dc2-54ac-ab4d-874bb1bcbd68.html.

[6] Earney, Darick. “The Ghosts of Lewis and Clark Community College.” The Bridge, 27 Oct. 2014, thelcbridge.com/the-ghosts-of-lewis-and-clark/.

[7] Taylor, Troy. “The Ghost of Harriet Haskell: Hauntings of Lewis & Clark Community College.” Haunted Illinois, 2007, www.hauntedillinois.com/realhauntedplaces/ghost-of-harriet-haskell.php.

[8] Morehart, Phil. “Episode Seven: ‘Night of the Living Dewey Decibel.’” SoundCloud, American Libraries, 27 Oct. 2016, soundcloud.com/dewey-decibel-703453552/episode-seven-night-of-the-dewey-decibel-podcast.

[9] Fater, Tori. “Why Spooky Ghost Stories Keep People Coming Back to Willard Library.” Evansville Courier & Press, 21 Oct. 2017, www.courierpress.com/story/news/local/2017/10/21/why-spooky-ghost-stories-keep-people-coming-back-willard-library/784663001/.

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