The Phantom in Leeds Library
By Richard Smyth
Leeds, like every city, has its share of ghost stories. But not many ghost stories are as creepily detailed as that recounted by the young Leeds librarian John MacAlister in 1844. And few encounters with the walking dead take place in a location as evocative as the 250-year-old Leeds Library.
The Library was founded in 1768; the legendary chemist Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was one of its first subscribers. The library moved from place to place for a number of years, before, in 1808, finally settling in first-floor premises on Commercial Street, in the centre of the city.
It still stands there today. It remains an extraordinary place, musty and quiet, a repository of ancient volumes, a warren of shadowy corners, winding staircases, endless cellars and lonely galleries.
Into this strange world of learning and lore came John MacAlister. In May 1880, aged just twenty-four, MacAlister was appointed the library’s head librarian. For four years he worked in the quiet chambers without incident: arranging the ancient collections, advising scholars, perhaps taking time to repair loose pages or flaking book-bindings.
“Strange, shuffling gait”
For some reason, his work kept him late at the library one evening in March, 1844. So late, in fact, that he suddenly realised that was in danger of missing his last train home to Harrogate. Grabbing his things and snatching up a lamp, he dashed from his office. As he hastened through the dark library, the lamp he was carrying suddenly, and startlingly, illuminated a man’s face at the end of a gloomy passageway. A burglar, John supposed. Heart pounding, he ran back to his office – and returned with a loaded revolver.
In the dusty silence of the library, he shouted a warning – more in the faint hope that a policeman passing by in the street outside might hear him and come to his aid than in any expectation of rousting the intruder. No answer. He shouted again – his quavering voice echoed among the high, dark shelves. No answer.
Then, from behind a bookcase, the face reappeares. It is no burglar. The face is pallid and hairless, with deep, heavy, shadowy eye-sockets. Hesitantly, gripping the butt of his revolver, MacAlister advances towards it. Now he sees not only a face but a body – an old man’s body, tall, with high shoulders – and seeming, as MacAlister watches in amazement, to rotate out of the end of the bookcase. The figure turns its back on MacAlister. Moving with a strange, shuffling gait, it walks quickly away from the bookcase, and into the library’s small lavatory.
“Linger among the old books”
MacAlister followed the figure – and found that it had vanished. There was no trace of anyone in the tiny room. ‘I confess I began to experience for the first time what novelists describe as an “eerie” feeling,’ the librarian later remembered.
It was a local priest, Charles Hargrove, who, on hearing John McAlister’s disturbing tale, identified the strange, hairless figure as one Vincent Sternberg, John’s predecessor as librarian. Sternberg matched MacAlister’s description of the library ghost: he had lost all his hair in a gunpowder blast, and since the accident had walked with a shuffling gait. Sternberg had died several months previously.
This was not the end of the haunting of the Leeds Library. Sternberg’s ghost continues, it seems, to linger among the old books. Librarians working at the library after dark report extinguished lamps being mysteriously re-lit in Sternberg’s old office. MacAlister himself notices an even stranger phenomenon: odd, resonant vibrations issuing from a long library table. These are attributed to ‘Sternberg’s gong’: the old librarian had been accustomed to keep a gong on that table, which he would strike when he needed a colleague’s assistance.
“Communicating through knocking”
In 1885 things begin to get out of hand. A group of young librarians, in adventurous mood, convenes a seánce. They are determined to make definite contact with the restless spirit of Vincent Sternberg.
Afterwards, they report that Sternberg, communicating through knocking sounds, has brushed aside the veil and emerged from the Other Side to make a terrible confession: sometimes, when head librarian, he had given away library books to friends.
At a later seánce, the irritable ghost provokes a former head librarian into accusing him of fiddling the library’s accounts. Boyish pranks, no doubt.
Nevertheless, it seems that hairless, shuffling, gong-striking Vincent Sternberg has managed to get well and truly under his successor’s skin. One afternoon, as ‘Sternberg’s gong’ again rang out eerily in the library reading room, library employee Albert Edmunds urges John MacAlister to commune with the spirit in private, and learn its secrets once and for all.
Extract taken from ‘Bloody British History: Leeds’ by Richard Smyth.
Published by The History Press.
Available via thehistorypress.co.uk for the 10% discount of £8.99