WHEN best-selling historical crime fiction author Karen Charlton was researching the second novel in her series about a Second World War York ladies’ detective agency, she may have been tempted to include the fascinating figure of a frock-coated gentleman ghost that haunted the Yorkshire Museum.

“A ghost in a murder mystery novel? Not in my book!” said Karen. “It’s against the rules!”

While researching for her murder-at-the-museum story, Dancing With Dusty Fossils, (published on November 15) Karen uncovered the fascinating tale of the absent-minded and untidy old gentleman who allegedly haunts the members’ library at the prestigious museum.

“I know that there’s more spooky sightings in York than any other city in England,” says Karen. “Every medieval tavern seems to have its own ghost who jangles the keys and harasses the guests. Even the buildings on the hallowed ground around York Minster echo with the tramping feet of long-dead Roman legions, the rumble of cartwheels rolling over the cobbles and the screams of Royalist soldiers.”

“But I never expected to stumble across a ghost story linked to the Yorkshire Museum. This was the main seat of serious scientific learning and discovery before York University was built. A ghost just doesn’t belong there!”

For nearly 130 years the museum was owned and run by an auspicious group of learned gentlemen (and a few ladies) drawn from 150 of the north’s wealthiest families. They called themselves The Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS) and built the museum in the grounds of the ruined abbey in 1829. Many of them left large bequests of money and the entire contents of their library to the society in their wills – and that’s where the museum’s ghostly trouble began.

York Press: Yorkshire MuseumYorkshire Museum (Image: Newsquest)

Alderman Edward Wooler of Darlington was one such gentleman. When he died in 1927, he left over 1,600 books on archaeology and local antiquities to the museum. During his life, he was in the habit of pushing letters, notes and other memorabilia inside the volumes; he used them as an informal filing system. But such a haphazard system has its problems – in death as well as in life.

The ghost of Alderman Wooler, an elderly, stooped gentleman who had fluffy side whiskers and very little hair, was first seen by the museum caretaker wandering through the library in September 1953. He was muttering: “I must find it; I must find it.”

After pulling out one of his own books and flicking through the pages, he tossed it onto the floor for the humans to clear up then promptly disappeared.

It was quickly established that the ghost of Alderman Wooler appeared every fourth Sunday at 7.40 p.m. on the dot, looking for something he’d lost. By the end of that year, evidence of the ghost’s antics – lots of scattered books – had been witnessed by several people, including a journalist from The Yorkshire Evening Press who duly reported it in the newspaper. Although no-one else, apart from the caretaker, had seen his spectral form or heard him speak.

York Press: Headline from article in the Yorkshire Evening Press about the museum ghostHeadline from article in the Yorkshire Evening Press about the museum ghost (Image: Newsquest)

By February 1954, it was suggested to the YPS that they invited the Society for Psychical Research to mount an investigation, but this caused a lot of furious arguments amongst the members, many of whom felt this was ridiculous and their scientific credibility would be ruined. A lot of resignations followed.

Despite the turmoil, the Society for Psychical Research came twice to the museum to investigate the ghost. Sadly, both evenings were a non-event. No-one saw anything; Alderman Wooler didn’t appear.

With such a wonderful back story, surely Karen Charlton was tempted to include the ghost of Alderman Wooler in Dancing With Dusty Fossils which is set in 1940 and features the brutal murder of a museum sub-curator? After all, novelists need book-lovers – and Alderman Wooler was definitely one of those.

York Press: Karen's new novelKaren's new novel (Image: Supplied)

Sometimes the ghost left muddy footprints on the tiled floor. Perhaps Karen could have used these as a red herring to distract her two private detectives, Jemma and Bobbie, from solving the murder? Maybe, she could have written a scene where the killer spooked the spook – or the other way around?

“I was tempted - but it’s not traditional,” Karen says, smiling. “Readers of crime fiction expect the case to be solved by dogged detection and brilliant deduction; there’s no place for ghostly interference. Back in 1929, the British Detection Club, a society peopled by such legendary mystery writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, came up with the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction. And the second commandment was ‘All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.’

“Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the grandfather of the genre, who attended many séances and popped up to Yorkshire to investigate the mystery of the Cottingley Fairies, downplayed his own fascination with the supernatural when it came to writing his stories. There’s no ghosts. Other characters might be superstitious, but Sherlock Holmes isn’t. He’s the embodiment of logic and reason.”

“There’s already three mysteries in Dancing With Dusty Fossils. Apart from solving the murder, Jemma and Bobbie are led a merry dance around the city by Jodie, Yorkshire’s most famous and spirited actress, whose aristocratic husband wants evidence for a divorce. In addition to that, Jemma is still looking for her own husband who has gone AWOL from the RAF. Quite frankly, there wasn’t room in the book for a ghost story as well, and I don’t think including Alderman Wooler as a character would have matched the expectations of my readers.”

Anyway, Dancing With Dusty Fossils by Karen Charlton will be published – without a ghost – on November 15 and will be available in eBook and paperback from all good bookstores.

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