Monday 24 December 2012

A ghost story for Christmas

The early publications of the Society for Psychical Research would frequently contain accounts of peculiar and paranormal events (usually with at least one statement from another witness corroborating the story) and this is a particular favourite of mine since it has a sort of M.R.James style about it, and I'm a big fan of his ghost stories.

The first time it was published, in 1890, all the names of people and places were replaced by initials, but a later report in the JSPR identifies these initials, so I've taken the original account and dropped in the names etc. as and when necessary.

In 1880 I succeeded a Mr. Sternberg as librarian of the Leeds Library. I had never seen Mr. Sternberg, nor any photograph or likeness of him, when the following incidents occurred. I may, of course, have heard the library assistants describe his appearance, though 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 Harrogate, where I was then living, if I did not make haste. It was then 10.55, and the last train left Leeds at 11.5.

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 14in. x 12in.), and found it closed and fastened. I opened it and looked out. It opened into a well, the bottom of which, 10 feet below, was a sky-light, and the top open to the sky some 20 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 Sternberg!" Soon after I saw a photograph (from a drawing) of Sternberg, and the resemblance was certainly striking. Sternberg had lost all his hair, eyebrows and all, from (I believe) a gunpowder accident. His walk was a peculiar, rapid, high-shouldered shuffle.

This story is actually quite famous, and searching for Ghost of Leeds Library will bring up more information. However, what really struck me on reading this was that librarians were armed in those days! It really was a different world back then.

Lambert, G.W. (1969), "Stranger Things: Some Reflections", Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol. 45, No. 740, p50

Myers, F.W.H., (1889-90), "On Recognised Apparitions Occurring More Than A Year After Death," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research Vol 6, P57-95

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