Is there a spectre in the stacks?

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by Tim Hornyak, BA’95

Is the McLennan Library haunted? (Photo: Tim Hornyak)

At first blush, the McLennan Library is anything but spooky. There’s lots of concrete, fluorescent lights, and stacks of books — nothing especially sinister. But if you enjoy a good online rumour, the building and its contents can take on a decidedly spectral aspect. The ghost of an old man in old-fashioned attire is said to haunt the sixth floor. It floats around the stacks, seemingly lost. But when you speak to it, it gazes back at you before disappearing.

That’s the ghost story that’s been circulating on the Internet for years. It being Halloween season, your intrepid reporter went up to the top of McLennan in search of the phantasm. En route, I stopped at the Rare Books and Special Collections on the fourth floor to glimpse its bloody secret: Behind a locked door and encased in glass is a singular object: a towel applied to Abraham Lincoln’s head when he was fatally shot in 1865. The linen is mottled with brown presidential blood. Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, apparently visited Montreal during the Civil War to meet Confederate spies, and one report puts him in the city three days after he was shot dead on a Virginia farm. If Booth did make it to Montreal, did he linger on in some form?

When I reached the sixth floor, I listened for anything remotely undead. The only sound I picked up was heavy snoring coming from a coed sprawled on a sofa. I searched the stacks and call numbers from A to Z, but only saw living students, dead trees, and miles of blood-red linoleum. Was the spook just bogus?

“I recall a lot of odd characters wandering around,” says John Hobbins, an emeritus librarian who worked on the sixth floor for years. “However, I don’t recall any suggestion that these may have been ghosts. Indeed, I would have thought a ghost more likely to haunt the old Redpath Library stacks. They were far spookier. However, McLennan was built in the late sixties – a period when people were seeing all kinds of things after experiments with drugs.”

One of the remarkable items in the Rare Books and Special Collections: A piece of cloth stained with the blood of Abraham Lincoln (Photo: Tim Hornyak)

Indeed, the building dates to 1969. But it’s on ground where an elegant 19th-century mansion once stood. Home of the first McCord Museum, Dilcoosha, as it was called, was the residence of Jesse Joseph, a prominent Montreal financier who died in 1904 at age 86.

“‘An old man dressed in old-fashioned clothing’ sounds a lot like me in my jacket and tie, ‘haunting’ the sixth floor as I walk to and from the Archives Reading Room,” jokes Peter McNally, director of the McGill History Project. “As far as I know, however, I’m no ghost. My doctor says I’m very much alive and breathing.”

As it turns out, the Internet rumor is based on a Britannica.com article and a book by George Eberhart, senior editor at American Libraries magazine. They list McGill as having one of five haunted libraries in Canada. And where can you find Eberhart’s book, Whole Library Handbook 4? On the sixth floor of McLennan, of course. Happy Halloween!

 

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