The Willard Library

Evansville, Indiana

Evansville looks like any other modern city.  Shimmering asphalt and concrete make up much of the skyline and landscape, while the Visitor’s Bureau insists that here, one can experience the meaning of "Hoosier Hospitality."  And yet, nestled in the urban jungle sits a throwback to a bygone age, a castle in the midst of modern efficiency.  She towers above the streets with craggy peaks and a high tower, and though she is used as a place of learning, patrons can feel eyes watching them, as though the windows themselves stared down, judging or even begging for help.  Inside, books line the walls and shelves, the scent of old paper drifts through the air, and the typical library hush feels heavy.  But sitting in a chair reading, a patron might feel breath on his neck, his spine might tingle as its length is traced by the unseen eyes of someone for whom the building is more than just a library. 

The reasons behind hauntings are as varied as the manifestations themselves.   While some are created by horrific death, others are made by loss and remorse.  In some cases, however, a spirit lingers to right a wrong, whether actual or perceived.  The intense emotions of scorn and anger leave scars on the site, tethering the soul to that spot until their point of view is recognized and validated.  At the Willard Library, few wonder who walks between the shelves, and her reasons are clear.  She wants what she believes is rightfully hers.

The city of Evansville has the philanthropist Willard Carpenter to thank for the existence of its most famous landmark.  It was through a grant from Carpenter that the great library was built.  By his direction, the library was to be a place of learning for all people, regardless of age, sex, social class, race or religion.  It was also his intention, as laid down in his will and papers from his lawyers, that the library was to remain free of charge for the duration of its existence. 

The library opened its doors in 1885, a thing to behold in its construction.  The Gothic-Victorian structure’s main building stood two stories tall, with a Victorian tower rising high above.  The Italian stone trim lent it an air of nobility, giving it the curious appearance of a castle.  Inside, the ceilings rose high above the floors to make way for kerosene lamps that lit the rooms and halls during the first years of its construction. 

When Willard Carpenter passed away, some controversy arose, courtesy of his daughter, Louise.  It was her notion that her father was not in his right mind when he donated the library and land to the city, or that he might have been coerced.  Regardless of the reasons, she sued the library’s Board of Trustees for what she considered her fair share of the library’s holdings and property.  She lost the case, however, forfeiting any claim she might have had, and remained bitter over the affair until the day she died. 

In 1937, scarcely over a year before opening its doors, the Willard Library became famous for more than just its generous attitude toward books.  During the winter of that year, a janitor made his way through the snow to prepare the building for the next day’s patrons.  It was his job to stoke the furnace and shovel coal to warm the air and make the library bearable for the next day.  Though he performed his duties faithfully for many years, on this particular night, as he made his way to the basement, he was startled to find what he described as a woman, dressed head to toe in gray, awaiting him.  Before he could manage a word, the woman vanished.  He quit his job, but not before telling anyone who would listen just what he saw. 

Since her first sighting, there’s been a great deal of speculation as to the identity of the famed “Lady in Gray.”   She is most often sighted as a fleeting shadow, vanishing before one can confirm what he thinks he might have seen.  She does, however, sometimes appear in full view, quiet and shy, as she walks her lonely path through the hallway.  She always wears gray clothing from the early 1800’s.  Her long dress and high-topped shoes are often complemented by either a hat and veil or a simple shawl.  Her hair also matches that of the time period, parted down the middle and braided down her back. 

She has been sighted by over a dozen people over the last hundred years.  After the original janitor quit in fear, his replacement reported numerous run-ins with the mysterious lady.  He too quit eventually, when his nerves could no longer handle the strain.  Several people witnessed faucets that turned on unaided by human hands, preceded by a strong chill and the scent of perfume.  One librarian, who is now deceased, came to be great friends with the Lady in Gray, as she claimed the spirit followed her home during the reconstruction of her favorite room, the Children’s Library.  That librarian, Margaret Maier, is also said to have never left her beloved books, and has been sighted a few times since her death.  Doors open and close themselves, lights go on and off, and children often report seeing a kind lady in gray in the children’s library.

Still, exactly who she is remains a mystery.  While many point to the feelings of Louise Carpenter making her a likely candidate, it seems unlikely that such a gentle and shy spirit could come of someone so bitter and angry.  Also, the manner of dress of the Lady in Gray seems to predate Louise Carpenter by a few decades.  A 1985 psychic investigation provided some possible clues, as the psychic revealed that the lady did not haunt the library per se, but the grounds upon which it sits.  According to the psychic, the lady drowned in a canal, which still sits near the library, and possibly committed suicide. 

Whatever her identity, she still roams the building, always shy, gentle and confused, startling patrons on first sight.  After a while, many get used to her presence.

Present Day:
Though the kerosene lamps have long since been replaced by electric lights, much of Willard Library stands as it did when it first opened its doors.  A few subtle differences, however, brought it into the modern age, both as a library and as a legitimately haunted house.  Computers now catalogue the books, and help keep an eye on things twenty-four hours a day, via what has been called the "ghost-cams."  Two internet video cameras broadcast pictures and refresh every five seconds, trained on the two most active areas:  The Research Room and The Children’s Library.  Those who are interested can watch the feed from their website.  In addition, viewers can share in screen captures that seem to show the gentle Lady’s form, as well as a few spoof photos sent in good fun.

Best Times:
The lady is most active, it seems, during the winter months.  However, sightings have been reported during the spring as well.  One doesn’t have to travel far to watch the building, only as far as the nearest internet connection. 

See you in two weeks!

Scott A. Johnson

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