Ghost stories at library building part of Evansville legend
EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — A custodian walking through Willard Library early one morning was surprised to hear what sounded like someone slamming keys on an old-fashioned typewriter. Expecting to see a librarian who came in to work early, he walked around bookshelves to investigate the noise — but found that he was alone.
“When he got back to the corner, he realized not only was there nobody there, there was no typewriter,” Library Director Greg Hagar said.
That’s only one of the spooky encounters with Willard Library’s legendary ghost reported by staff, paranormal investigators and library patrons.
“Turning on water, messing with electricity, that’s all been reported,” Hagar said. “Messing with books, throwing books, knocking things off desks.”
Another custodian was the first to report seeing the Grey Lady ghost, back in the late 1930s. He described her as a woman with a veil over her face, in Victorian clothes, who appeared to him in a basement hallway when he came in during the middle of the night to stoke the furnace.
That man later cited seeing the ghost as his reason for quitting the library, Hagar said.
The Grey Lady is rumored to be Louise Carpenter, the daughter of the library’s founder, haunting it out of resentment that it received most of her father’s estate.
The last known ghost sighting was in 2015, when two library staff members in the children’s department noticed a security camera showing a strange woman looking out a glass door. She turned to look at the camera, but then her image began pixelating on the video.
Her face was the last to disappear, they said.
Despite working in a building famous for being haunted, Hagar is a skeptic. Ask him if he believes in ghosts, and he responds with a firm “no.”
“I’m willing to keep an open mind but I just_” he said, trailing off. “I’ve seen weird things here, I’ve heard what I would describe as … footsteps coming across the floor . at a time when the library was otherwise closed.
“But old buildings make funny noises, they do strange things, so I’m a skeptic.”
He may be in the minority, though not by much. Just more than half of Americans believe places can be haunted by spirits, according to a scientific survey by Chapman University. Three in four believe in some kind of paranormal phenomenon.
Others at the library are convinced the Grey Lady exists. Intern Lisa Redman, 33, said she hasn’t seen the ghost but has seen lights flicker. Once she left a room and came back to find five formerly standing books laying face-down.
“I’ve loved ghost stories since I was a kid, so getting to be in a haunted location is exciting,” Redman said.
History Professor Tamara Hunt collects ghost stories and teaches about the history of belief in ghosts at the University of Southern Indiana. Ghosts used to be seen as agents of God, then of the devil, but now are “to a large extent, entertainment,” she said.
“The way people understand ghosts changes over time, because it’s a reflection of the culture and the era people live in,” Hunt said.
In the 18th century, people started to believe ghosts were the spirits of dead people who might have a purpose — warning someone to change their ways or deal with unfinished business. When seances and Ouija boards became more popular, people believed they could communicate with any spirit, not just dead loved ones or spirits with specific business.
“It’s a belief that helped people deal with the rapid change in the 19th century,” Hunt said. “Ghosts are a link between the present and the past, the living and the dead. There was comfort in that.”
Talking about ghosts can give people an outlet to express fears they might not have discussed otherwise, Hunt said.
“I view it as being like someone who likes to go and ride on extreme roller coasters,” she said. “You’re in a position where you get the thrill of being afraid, but at the same time it’s a controlled situation.”
The Grey Lady makes for a good story, Hagar said. Even for people who don’t believe in ghosts, she is part of Evansville legend.
“The building itself looks like it should be haunted,” he said. “It lends itself to having a friendly ghost in the building. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Scott Stalcup, an instructor in the USI English department, points to philosopher Edmund Burke to understand why people love ghost stories.
Burke wrote that anything that causes a sense of pain or danger can produce the strongest emotion a person can feel — an overpowering, awe-inspiring quality he called “the sublime.”
“He described the Sublime as a feeling of terror, a heightened sense of awareness a person faced with (their) own extinction must overcome,” Stalcup wrote in an email. “I’m sure colleagues would say I’m oversimplifying but … we like being scared because it reminds us that we’re still alive.”
Willard Library offers ghost tours in October so guests can visit hot spots for Grey Lady sightings and learn the history of the library. Hagar said it’s been “marketing gold.” The number of tour guests jumped by 1,000 between 2015 and 2016, and he expects about 2,000 visitors this year.
“The idea is, come for our ghost tour and bring your family and have fun,” he said. “And come back next month, next week, not for a ghost tour but to use the library.”
There are no jump scares on the tour, but guides do not make up the scary stories, either. Guests hear about spooky sightings that were actually reported.
“Reality can sometimes be more frightening than someone in a mask jumping out at you,” Hagar said. “We can kinda reason one away, and the other one is real.”