The Ghosts of the Boston Athenaeum

get to know Boston's haunted library

With a book bound in human skin and a panoramic view of one of the most spooky cemeteries in the city, it is no surprise tourists flock to this eerie destination. Boston, Massachusetts’ Athenaeum is said to be haunted by the ghost of Reverend Harris, first witnessed by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the reading room, almost two centuries ago. Not your typical paranormal site, prepare to be overtaken by feelings of calm enlightenment, emanated by the peaceful spirits that walk the Boston Athenaeum.

Did you know?

  • The practice of binding a book in human skin is known as Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. The Boston Athenaeum currently houses a book of this kind, which contains the memoir of the man whose skin was used to line the cover.
  • Celebrated author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, frequented the reading room of the Athenaeum during the mid-1800s. One strange day, he came face to face with the ghost of a recently-deceased Reverend, an experience he documented in his short story The Ghost of Dr. Harris.
  • Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenaeum is considered to be one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States, specializing in New England history and literature.
  • The Athenaeum began as a small collection kept in a building on Congress Street. Today, the historical library’s collection is so vast, five stories are required to display them properly.

The Residents of the Boston Athenaeum

The Ghost of Dr. Harris

In 1842, Nathanael Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables had his first ghostly experience while in the “noble hall” of the library. When he entered the reading room, he noticed Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris sitting in his usual spot, reading the Boston Post.

Hawthorne hadn’t realized this was merely an apparition until that evening when he was told that the minister had passed away. The next day, he went back to the Athenaeum and saw Harris again, still sitting, still reading. According to the author, the same bizarre occurrence continued to happen every day for several weeks. He never saw the spirit leave or come into the room, yet he was always there, concluding that maybe Harris was reading his own obituary.

The last time Hawthorne saw Harris was the day the deceased minister gave him a sad, griefful stare, as if he had just realized (and accepted) he had died. Hawthorne must have thought that Dr. Harris was finally able to cross over since he never saw him again. But recent activity in the library points to this not being the case.

In the mid-19th century, the Athenaeum was located on Pearl Street and has since relocated, meaning that the current building is not where Hawthorne saw the Reverend. However, Sam Baltrusis, author of Boston Ghosts: Haunts of the Hub believes that when the library was moved to Beacon Street, the ghost of Harris followed.

Locals swear they have seen a man, dressed in a black pulpit robe, waiting to take the elevator. The same elevator that has been malfunctioning since it was installed and is currently off-limits. Many believe that its regular glitches point to the lingering presence of Dr. Harris’, spending eternity leisurely riding the elevator.

But the good Reverend is not the only one roaming the Athenaeum, his light is dimmed by a dark spirit that prowls the halls.

Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est (This book was bound in Walton’s skin)

If a book made with your own skin doesn’t bring your spirit back from the afterlife, nothing will. Paranormal enthusiasts and intuitives alike believe James Allen’s ghost walks the Boston Athenaeum, bound to the library where his skin book lives.

James Allen (aka George Walton) was a career criminal from Lancaster, Massachusetts, who spent most of his life in and out of jail. Knowing he would die of tuberculosis, he decided to immortalize himself by having a prison warden write down his story. But that wasn’t his only request. His second demand was much more unsettling as he asked to have the memoir bound in his skin.

Immediately following his death, a substantial amount of skin was removed from Allen’s back and taken to a local tannery. The freshly-tanned hide was then delivered to a bookbinder, who produced two copies of the memoir. The skin-bound book is currently on display at the Boston Athenaeum, believed to have been donated by the daughter of John Fenno Jr., for whom one of the books was made.

Brief History of the Boston Athenaeum

The Boston Athenaeum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States, founded in 1807 by the editors of the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review (an early 19th-century miscellaneous magazine). Inspired by The Athenaeum in Liverpool, England, the founders sought to provide the accessibility of a public library and accommodate great literary works.

The library began as a small collection displayed on Congress Street. Striving to provide information to an eager-to-learn society, it wasn't long before the small organization had gathered a substantial amount of books, paintings, and artifacts from around the world. This growth led to the library moving locations several times, arriving at its present building on Beacon Street in 1849. By 1851, the Athenaeum was considered one of the largest libraries in the United States, specializing in local history and New England literature.

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, the building overlooks the Granary Burying Ground, which is known for being one of the most haunted cemeteries in Boston. Those who visit the Athenaeum say its close proximity to the graveyard only adds to the calm atmosphere of the library, provoking us to face our own mortality and embrace the spirits that have roamed the area for centuries.

Visitor Information

James Allen’s memoir (skin-book) is on display in the first floor reading room, which is included in the admission fee.

The second through fifth floors of the Athenaeum are accessible only to members or by appointment. The library currently offers guided tours.

Location

10 ½ Beacon Street Boston, MA 02108

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Looking for the perfect ghost tours in Boston? Ghost City Tours is proud to offer our haunted history tours in one of America's most historic and haunted cities. Follow the link below to see our Boston Ghost Tours.

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