Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
Place-based ghost books are usually gazetteers, with perhaps a description of the odd investigation thrown in. Ghosts of York is unusual in consisting solely of descriptions of investigations, with no attempt to include a wider range of stories set in the city. Rob Kirkup and a few friends, all based in Newcastle, visited York ten times during 2010-11 to conduct brief overnight investigations, and the book is a record of their activities there, down to where they stayed and ate. It is a relaxed autobiographical account rather than a rigorous analysis.
The venues they visited were: The National Railway Museum; the Best Western Dean Court Hotel; Gray's Court; York Tyburn; Siward's Howe; York Dungeon; ‘Haunted’ (35 Stonegate); Middlethorpe Hall Hotel; York Guildhall; and The Golden Fleece. Most of these visits were made by the group alone, though one was done in conjunction with another group, and one was as part of a commercially organised tour. Originally five in number, one person dropped out after the first trip, and there were sometimes only three participants. This was rather a small number for the sizes of some of the sites, necessitating a lot of moving around to cover likely spots. They had a variety of experiences, though mostly open to interpretation, and the words of one member before the final visit, “I have a feeling we‘re going to SEE something“, says a lot about the danger of expectancy effects in such situations.
It is often said that it is difficult for small closed-membership paranormal groups to find suitable establishments nowadays, given the involvement of companies turning a profit and venues wanting to maximise revenue. The penultimate visit, to the Guildhall, was arranged by such a company. There were almost twenty people in the party, and at one point they met another group who had been at ‘Haunted’ but had finished early and had decided to pay an impromptu visit. As Kirkup says, the problem with large groups is lack of control over the environment. Given the presence of these sorts of numbers, most of whom had never been on an investigation before but may well have harboured unrealistic expectations from watching TV shows, it is hard to see how any meaningful results could have been obtained. These organised events are not cheap, and while they may provide a frisson of excitement, it should not be assumed that they are providing anything other than immersive entertainment. Kirkup and his friends show that it is still possible for a small group to spend time on premises the owners have generously given free access to, though to be fair having a book contract probably opens a few doors.
The strength of Ghosts of York is that it is a warts-and-all account, down to an obsession with a particular sandwich shop and the extremely bulky coat one participant habitually wore. This is the stuff that usually gets left out, including reports of feeling completely knackered but extremely wired after late nights. The drawback is that they don’t do any deep research into the cases. A chapter is devoted to each location, there is a bit of background, the team describe what they did and anything odd that happened, then we move on to the next one. If the reader is looking for a survey of York ghosts, perhaps as a tourist guide, this is going to be a disappointment. However, there are plenty of those on the market. As a portrayal of what it is like to conduct a vigil this is a useful, if at times over-detailed, document that will hopefully encourage people to give it a go for themselves, rather than line the pockets of companies whose motive is profit, not the pursuit of psychical research, and who cannot be relied on for accurate information.
It is unclear why Kirkup’s band decided only to investigate ten sites, though one suspects it had something to do with that book contract, which gets mentioned a few times. This was not a formal ghost-hunting group – in fact they never even managed to come up with a name for themselves – but the dynamics seem to have worked well, and they clearly enjoyed what they did. That they found the experience satisfying is suggested by the hint of a sequel, set in a city even further north than York. It is doubtful whether descriptions of such vigils will ever provide evidence that would satisfy anybody who had not themselves been present, but while there’s a chance, why not?
Andrew Homer, co-author of one book about haunted pubs, Beer and Spirits: A Guide to Haunted Pubs in the Black Country and Surrounding Area, has produced another linking ghosts and alcohol, this time focusing on Shropshire. He is well known as an investigator for the Association for the Scientific Study of Claims of the Paranormal, (ASSAP’s President and First Lady Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe contribute a foreword), and he has given talks at Fortean UnConvention and to the Ghost Club.
The introduction gives some general information about the folklore of the county, and the origins of inns, and Homer also makes the point that you are as likely to experience something paranormal as a customer as you are by participating in a commercial ghost hunt. It’s an excellent point: why not combine investigation with a good meal or drink, rather than pay a third party handsomely for the privilege of sitting in the dark waiting for something to happen?
Homer notes that ‘The Acton Arms’ at Moreville was called “England’s most frequently haunted pub” by Marc Alexander in his well-known Haunted Inns, though how you quantify these things I don’t know. The entries are the usual mix of folklore and anecdote, beyond confirmation but fun to read. In the one on the ‘Railwaymans Arms’ (sic) at Bridgnorth on the Severn Valley Railway preserved line, Homer suggests that ghosts could possibly be confused with people wearing period dress at themed events. The SVR boasts a ghost train, apparently less corporeal than the phoney one in Arnold Ridley’s classic play. Homer wonders if the witnesses were misled by a night-time train running during the SVR’s Autumn Steam Gala, but adds that the fact the apparition was silent undermines this theory.
The best-known case in the book is surely that of Wem town hall, and the famous ghost photograph taken by Tony O’Rahilly during the conflagration there in 1995. Homer, who knew and clearly liked him, nevertheless covers the discovery of the postcard in 2010 featuring an identical figure to that in the photograph of the fire, showing O’Rahilly’s photograph to be a hoax.
Haunted Hostelries of Shropshire is nicely produced, and well illustrated. It is divided into towns, with establishments listed under each, and an outline county map shows the locations of the towns, so the book is easy for the visitor to use. Shropshire is an attractive county full of attractive hostelries and those featured in Andrew Homer’s book would be worth dropping into even without the added value of a haunting, but having his book in hand will make a visit still more enjoyable. It complements Allan Scott-Davies’ 2010 History Press publication Haunted Shropshire.
Fortune Telling: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Judiciary of the Committee on the District of Columbia House of Representatives Sixty-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 8989, February 26, May 18, 20, and 21, 1926, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1926 (The “Houdini Hearings”).
On the face of it, the transcript of a subcommittee meeting stretched over several days in 1926 does not sound particularly interesting, but if Houdini is involved you can be sure it will be. The purpose of the Washington, D.C., subcommittee was to consider a bill to amend the law “relating to offenses against public policy” in the District of Columbia. This would outlaw the pretending of fortune telling for reward, the selling of charms, pretending to remove spells, obtaining property, and stating where lost or stolen good might be found. Anybody engaging in such acts would be considered a “disorderly person“. This would also include those who, in its quaint language, pretended to “unite the separated” (which might be construed to include mediumship). Fines could be swingeing – up to $250, up to six months in prison, or both.
New York Congressman Sol Bloom, presenting the bill, naively claimed that its wording was clear, and that there could be no debate on the meaning, a statement belied by the subsequent wrangles. Bloom, who had worked with Houdini to frame the bill, said that it was not aimed at Spiritualists; but fortune telling, the bill’s title, was broadly, and rather vaguely, linked in a New York precedent in the Criminal Code to “the ability to answer confidential questions from spiritual aid”, which meant that the hearings were effectively a trial of mediumship, and that is how the Spiritualists, and Houdini, construed them.
Houdini was present throughout the proceedings, having, as he reminded the gathering several times, come down from Chicago to support the bill at great financial cost. Used to taking centre stage, he acted at times like a member of the committee, much to the chagrin of the bill‘s opponents. Like Bloom, he stated that the bill was not an attack on Spiritualism as a religion – as long as it did not conflict with the law (in essence, as long as it was not a money-making scheme). What he objected to was mediumship, which was fraudulent in his opinion: “There are only two kinds of mediums, those who are mental degenerates and who ought to be under observation, and those who are deliberate cheats and frauds.” You were either mad or bad, with no middle ground. Those who believed them were “neurotics.” It was, he claimed, a fraud raking in millions of dollars a year, but ignored because it was considered a religion. Asked about the relevance to the bill, which related to fortune telling, Houdini argued that mediums were just clairvoyants (fortune tellers) using the label of mediumship to circumvent the law, none of whom was genuine.
Given this sort of provocative language, it was no surprise that sessions became heated. Much of the cross-examination revolved around forms of fortune telling, with Houdini attempting to hitch it to mediumship at every opportunity, while the Spiritualists countered by attempting to make the bill appear to be an attack on religion in general (the debate about the legitimacy of selling charms ended by discussing Roman Catholic medals, for example). Houdini came under fire himself for charging for entertainment, which, it was argued, was no different to a fortune teller charging for the same thing, and he was asked why having one‘s fortune told for a bit of fun should be criminalised. The National Spiritualists’ Association of America denied that there were any fortune tellers in its ranks anyway, and protested, with some justice, that the problem with the bill was that it did not distinguish clearly between fortune telling and mediumship. Spiritualists giving evidence insisted that the provisions of the bill were adequately covered by existing legislation, so that a new bill was unnecessary.
The issue of fraudulent mediumship was a central topic. The Spiritualists claimed to be as keen to root out fraud as Houdini was, but were unable to give a satisfactory answer to the question of how one could tell a genuine from a bogus medium, despite which they did concede that there were charlatans, as in any sphere of life. Ranging beyond the committee’s terms of reference, Houdini seemed to be as keen to settle scores with individual mediums as he did to pilot the bill, and in return he and his associates, notably Rose Mackenberg, who went undercover to investigate mediums, were the targets of a great deal of Spiritualistic animus. Mackenberg created an enormous stir when she alleged that she had been informed that a number of prominent Senators were interested in mediumship, as was President Coolidge, and that séances had been held at the White House itself (a charge denied by “friends of the Coolidges“).
Given a remarkable amount of latitude, Houdini, to show how frauds were conducted, demonstrated slate writing, the use of a trumpet, and a book test, and supplied a mediumistic message which the Spiritualists took as evidence that he was one of their number, despite his explanation of how he did it (he repeatedly had to deny that he possessed any mediumistic gifts). The sessions, sometimes entertaining, sometimes tedious, often somewhat obscure, were a bruising encounter between the Houdini camp and the Spiritualists, who proved that they could be less than spiritual when their livelihoods were threatened.
The transcript gives hints that the sessions were more than lively, with numerous appeals for order, the numbers of people speaking at once preventing a proper record from being made. At one point the chairman complains that he cannot see the witness because people are standing in the way. But it does not really give a flavour of the chaos on the second day captured in a New York Times article (19 May 1926):
“Scores of mediums and clairvoyants were in attendance to combat Houdini’s contention that all such persons were “fakes,” that there was no sound basis for spiritualism, and that the so-called messages from the dead were spurious and designed as a money-making scheme to defraud the credulous.
“Today’s session was unusually disorderly and came near winding up in a free-for-all fist fight. Cries of “liar!” “Fake!” and “Traducer!” were exchanged by Houdini and his assailants, and the din reached such a point that members of the committee demanded that the police be called ....
“The committee tried to restore order, but failed, and an adjournment was taken. The shouting continued as the witnesses and audience filed into the corridors of the House office building.”
Considering the circumstances, it would seem that the stenographer did a decent job recording proceedings. But given the suggestion that mediumship was carried out in high places in Washington, it is not surprising that the bill was unsuccessful, and Houdini‘s investment in time and money in vain.
It is a pity that the scanning is not quite as crisp as it could be, but this is an important historical document, and the Miracle Factory have done a valuable job in making it available. While not exactly a rattling yarn, it should be read by anyone with a serious interest in Houdini or in the debates around Spiritualism during that period. An introduction setting the context would have been useful, but in its absence, William Kalush and Larry Sloman devote part of a chapter to the hearings in their 2006 The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero (pp.481-88) which helps to fill in the background to this peculiar episode in Houdini‘s career.
Handcuff Secrets, by Harry Houdini
Also from the Miracle Factory, this slim 1910 volume by Harry Houdini does pretty much what it says on the cover. It reveals the tricks used by, as Houdini derisively calls them, “Manacle Monarchs, Handcuff Kings, and Jail Breakers” (though not, he alleges, the “very deep intricacies” practised by himself). Houdini’s opinion of the competition is not high, and as is his wont, he takes the opportunity to settle a few scores with rivals along the way while exposing their methods.
His survey covers various types of handcuff, beginning with the British, the limited range of which presents the fewest challenges to the expert: all you have to do is secrete a duplicate key, et voilà, with a bound you are free. Anyone expecting subtlety might at this stage be feeling disappointed, but more elaborate tips on using prepared cuffs are given, and those typical of different countries displayed, including the startlingly-named “French Letter Cuff” (actually a combination lock using letters rather than numbers). As there is clearly only a limited amount to be said about handcuff-escape techniques, at least while avoiding the “very deep intricacies” of the subject, he strays off into an account of safe crackers and straightjacket escapes in a rambling narrative.
If the book were solely devoted to showing how clever Houdini was, it would restrict the readership, so he indicates that it is of service as a manual in order to allow readers to put on their own handcuff performances without too much preparation. The lengthy categorisation of types is of historical interest only, unless one is planning an escapology exhibition using antique ironmongery, but seeing him laying into the competition is always fun. Houdini was a lively writer, if an idiosyncratic stylist, and Handcuff Secrets gives an insight into his painstaking attention to detail, even if you are never quite convinced he is giving you the whole story.
Essex is an extremely varied county, ranging from the attractive to the … less attractive, and these two books, published by Amberley Publishing and The History Press respectively, delve into its often murky past. Both are well illustrated, though a significant proportion of the pictures in Haunted Southend are generic clip art images that add nothing to the local history ambience. Neither volume has an index.
Paranormal Essex is written by David Scanlan of the Hampshire Ghost Club (his involvement some way from his home turf is not explained) and Paul Robins of Essex Paranormal. It starts with advice on spontaneous case investigation, discussing equipment but not, as some groups do, fetishising it. Most of the forty location entries, listed alphabetically, are quite short, so this is a fairly brisk read despite the number of places included. More space is devoted to Borley Rectory and Matthew Hopkins, though even these entries are briefish, and tread well-worn ground. The most interesting sections are those detailing investigations by paranormal groups, such as at Coalhouse Fort, the Red Lion Hotel in Colchester, and the, er, Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker; or those containing witness statements. The blurb claims that the book explores “in depth, the complete range of paranormal phenomena reported throughout Essex.” But it is fair to say that it does not live up to that promise.
Unlike the authors of Paranormal Essex, Dee Gordon is not a paranormal investigator, but is a professional writer mainly specialising in Essex history. A Southend resident, she is well placed to write about its paranormal side, and has been assiduous in combing newspaper accounts and talking to locals. The book takes in a larger area than just Southend, covering places like Leigh-on-Sea, Westcliff and Shoeburyness as well as some of the local villages. While she has packed in a lot of locations, navigating her text is not made easy for the casual reader. The contents are divided into: haunted houses; churches and rectories; commercial buildings; open spaces; watering holes (ie pubs, hotels and restaurants); unlikely haunted locations (really a few cases hard to fit into the categories employed); and phantom dogs. Looking for a specific place requires some thumbing (the pier, for example falls under haunted houses), limiting its use as a guidebook. For the armchair reader, though, it is an enjoyable tour of the Southend area.
The History Press also publishes Paranormal Essex and Haunted Chelmsford, both by Jason Day, Haunted Essex, by Carmel King, and Essex Ghost Stories, by Robert Hallmann.
In discussing the implications of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) for our understanding of consciousness and life after death, it is easy, while focusing on them as data, to forget about the individuals who experience them. Carolyn M. Matthews examined the NDE phenomenon, and more significantly, worked with survivors, while undertaking post-graduate work at Atlantic University, Virginia, USA, as a result of which she has developed a distance-learning course for those who have had an NDE.
Matthews begins by providing some figures which indicate that large numbers of people have had one; describing the features of an NDE; and sketching in the transpersonal characteristics, with survivors left more open to spiritual possibilities than before the event. She observes that the transformational aspects, which incline survivors to be open and caring, can make them targets for exploitation, leading in turn to depression. It can also be difficult for families to understand changes in personality, often causing friction and a rejection of the claimed event. Even those most expected to be understanding – health care professionals – may pathologise the narrative. Keeping silent, to avoid disbelief or the risk of a negative psychological assessment, can bring its own stresses.
The transcendental part can make “experiencers” reluctant to want to return to life, and disappointed to find themselves back among the living. It can also leave them with a sense of a mission to fulfil (the reason for the return), but sometimes an inchoate sense of what that mission is, and a difficulty in incorporating this new perspective into their lives. Failure at integration can lead to anxiety and a sense of purposelessness, and this creates social and personal difficulties.
In an effort to address these problems, the heart of the book is a course, a modified version of a successful pilot, which aims to provide validation of the NDE and enable experiencers to work out what this mission is and how to pursue it, with beneficial therapeutic consequences for the healing process and for their self-confidence. It is suitable for use by healthcare and other support professionals who may not know how best to provide meaningful assistance at what is a difficult time for the individual, and gives guidance on running such a course. The text of the revised version is available on a CD from the author.
The pilot was predicated on the assumption that, subconsciously, survivors know what their mission is, and this needs to be drawn out and made explicit, with an action plan for its implementation. The basic structure was a life-coaching course, but tailored to the specific requirements of the group It included self-expression, dream analysis and meditation. Students kept a journal, did exercises, and were able to communicate with each other via a private website. Attempting to verbalise a transcendental experience was frustrating for some, but the writing proved generally helpful in making sense of what had happened.
The assumption of the course is that these individuals had an experience that really took them to a different realm. However, it does not seem to be essential that a person using the material in a support role believe that, because the crucial component is the verbalising and integration of a life plan by the person who had the experience. There is a religious element to the presentation, but the content could be adapted if religious references were not felt to be appropriate. Even counsellors with doubts about the reality of the NDE will find the materials useful in assisting those individuals who have, or believe they have, undergone such a profoundly life-altering event.
Trevor Davey was born into a family of Spiritualists, has an extensive knowledge of mediumship and healing, and currently, with his wife Lucy, writes for the newspaper Psychic World. Beyond Reasonable Doubt is a handy and accessible primer for anyone new to Spiritualism who is interested in learning more about mediumship and spiritual development, whether as an interested observer, consumer, or potential medium. It is not doctrinaire and does not promote a particular viewpoint.
Davey has crammed a lot in, with a brief historical overview, biographical details of notable figures, organisations (though not, curiously, the College of Psychic Studies), and sources of further information. Different types of mediumship are explained and there is an A-Z of vocabulary, the multiplicity of which, often with variations in meaning for the same word, can be confusing to the newcomer.
The characteristics of a good medium are spelled out, whether working with large groups or in private. Methods of communication are explored, and what a sitter might find happening in a séance room. In passing there are brief comments on various other aspects of the paranormal, such as EVP and spirit photography, though they sometimes shade off into a description of New Age pursuits. The book concludes with advice on running a spiritual workshop.
This is not going to convince a sceptic, but it is a useful summary, whatever one’s attitude to the phenomena it addresses. While Spiritualist churches seem to be in decline, clairvoyance and mediumship are still reaching large numbers of people, through psychic fairs and the performances of star platform mediums, so there is a need for relevant information. Davey’s book is pro-Spiritualist, but he is not uncritical of some of its outgrowths, and the book will assist the novice in deciding what to try and what to avoid. There is plenty here to act as a stimulus for further investigation.
My major criticism is that it could have done with some proofreading as there are a number of typos that could have been easily corrected. Overall, though, given the low price, this will reach a wide audience, and whether one agrees that the Spirit Realm can be contacted or not, it constitutes a convenient overview of Spiritualist beliefs and the forms they currently take.
The publication of Haunted Girl is well timed as it marks the centenary of Esther Cox’s death on 8 November 1912, aged 52. The story of the mysterious events that befell her in 1878/9 has entered the canons of psychical research as a prime example of a hostile entity that makes its victim’s life a misery, Esther and her family being plagued for months on end and Esther herself suffering considerable pain and discomfort. Author Laurie Glenn Norris and local historian Barbara Thompson have delved deeply into the standard account to try to establish what really happened, to discuss what Esther was like, and to paint a picture of the life she led in the small community of Amherst, Nova Scotia, in the 1870s.
The setting was a crowded two-story cottage occupied by Esther, her sister Olive, Olive’s husband Daniel Teed, the Teeds’ two young sons Willie and George, Esther’s sister Jennie (with whom she shared a bed) and brother William, and Daniel’s brother John. Daniel was the foreman in a local shoe factory. Things began quietly, as they often do. One night Esther screamed and jumped out of bed, saying that there was a mouse under the bedclothes. Finding that there wasn’t, she and Jennie went back to sleep. However, the following night they saw a pasteboard box filled with fabric patches moving backwards and forwards, but on inspection they found it empty. The next night things escalated, with Esther crying out that she was dying. To Jennie’s horror, Esther’s body seemed to have swelled, her face red, eyes bulging and hair on end. Attracted by the commotion, the rest of the family rushed in to be met by loud booms that shook the house, while Esther’s body returned to normal.
Incidents followed at a furious pace. Bedclothes moved, pillows flew about, Esther experienced swelling and twitching of her limbs, her skin became red hot. She was attacked by needles and pins, was stabbed, cut, slapped and scratched. Rumblings and bangs were heard around the house. On several occasions a bucket of cold water on the kitchen table bubbled like boiling water, though it remained cool. Spikes placed on Esther’s lap became too hot to handle, then were thrown a considerable distance. Some events occurred when Esther was not in proximity, such as the occasion when three men entered the cellar and one received a blow to the forehead. The householders found that they were able to communicate using the by-then tried and tested mechanism of asking questions and receiving knocks in response. Famously, one evening as they watched Esther, family members heard a scratching sound and saw the words ““Esther Cox you are mine to kill” in large letters scored in the plaster.
Esther claimed that the entity was threatening to burn the house down. The family did not take the threat seriously until lighted matches began falling from out of the air onto her bed, and one of Esther’s dresses was rolled up, stuffed under her bed, and set on fire. Naturally there was suspicion that Esther, rather than a pyromaniacal ghost, was the arsonist, especially when the fires became more serious. On one occasion a fire in a bucket of cedar shavings in the basement nearly blazed out of control.
Not surprisingly, the goings-on attracted crowds of gawpers to the extent that the police had to restore order. Esther received widespread coverage in local and regional newspapers, becoming a celebrity. Sympathy for her plight was not unreserved, and opinions were divided on its cause. There was a feeling among some that electricity rather than the supernatural was at the heart of the matter, accounting for the sounds of thunder, while others thought that Esther was producing the events, and chastisement would bring a swift resolution.
Given the chaos centred around Esther she was occasionally sent away, which gave the family temporary relief until she returned. Unsurprisingly, even though Esther had been in Olive’s sight when the fire in the basement began, the landlord, concerned that his house would be destroyed, told the Teeds that Esther had to leave. She eventually went to work on a nearby farm where the activities continued, culminating in the barn burning down along with another owned by a local lawyer. Esther was found guilty of the theft of some clothes belonging to her employer (though not convicted of arson), spent a month in jail, and the phenomena ceased.
The second major character in the story was not a member of Esther’s family, nor even a resident of Amherst, but one Walter Hubbell, a jobbing actor who heard about the case and saw a way to make a fast buck. When a half-baked scheme to tour with Esther as an exhibit failed through audience hostility at the lack of anything occurring on stage (staring at Esther while Hubbell lectured proving insufficiently entertaining), Hubbell did the next best thing by boarding at the Teeds’ house and rushing out a best-selling book about her.
Hubbell’s book went through a number of expansions, and its popularity means that our perceptions of what happened at Amherst are filtered through his account. The first edition, published quickly in 1879, was called The Haunted House: A True Ghost Story, which gives an idea of how he wished to depict the story. The title page declares that it concerns “The young Girl who is possessed of Devils, and has become known throughout the entire Dominion as THE GREAT AMHERST MYSTERY. Of the three explanations that he says have been offered by experts, he thinks devils a more likely explanation than electricity or mesmerism.
His treatment of the two sisters is interesting. Jennie, whom he calls Jane, and mentions before Esther, is referred to as a “belle”, “quite a beauty”. He is less flattering about Esther, ”a queer girl”, effectively describes her as short and fat, and suggests that she is lazy, “self-willed” and “sulky”. Despite being a slim volume of fewer than 60 pages, the presentation is leisurely, with invented dialogue, and it is half over before we reach the Mystery. The overwhelming impression is of a rather dull lifestyle, ripe for the manufacture of a bit of excitement.
Hubbell expanded the book in 1888, altering the title to The Great Amherst Mystery: A True Narrative of the Supernatural. This was more workmanlike than its predecessor. He stresses that his theatrical experience has given him knowledge of effects and impostures, and he is not subject to hypnotic or mesmeric influences, just in case the reader wonders if Esther had pulled the wool over his eyes. He claims he went as a sceptic, and paints the Teeds as honest guileless rustics, in the depiction of whom he displays his bent for verse:
“A cosy cottage free from every strife,
Was home indeed with honest Daniel's wife.”
By cosy he means extremely cramped. He must have thought that his earlier depiction of Esther was too negative as he has removed the suggestion in his description that she is lazy; now she is “very fond of housework.” However, she is still 'homely' compared to Jennie. Despite the book’s increased length the personal details of the family are abbreviated compared to the 1879 edition. Their domestic situation still comes across as monotonous though.
Hubbell has changed his mind somewhat on the cause, devils giving way to an evil ghost. His theory is that there are parallel worlds inhabited by the living and the dead, each as material as the other to its own inhabitants, with “vital magnetism” on both sides, the escape of which into the atmosphere renders contact possible. The parallel existence suggests that we are as much ghosts to those in the other realm as they are to us. He has no doubt that the Amherst events were genuine; Esther’s system was in an “abnormal state”, hence her suffering.
“Abnormal state” because there was a possible sexual assault by a friend, Bob McNeill (spelled McNeal by Hubbell) just days before the phenomena began, when she went for a night-time buggy ride with Bob and returned home in a distressed state. Hubbell thought that Bob was the root because he was “obsessed”, his actions governed by an evil ghost which left him, transferred to Esther, created mayhem, then reattached to him permanently. Bob seems to have been a thoroughly unpleasant character, because Hubbell records that “he had a very cruel disposition, and when a boy, had been known to skin cats alive, and allow them to run about and suffer in that condition until death came to their relief.”
Hubbell’s book purports to be an intimate portrait of the Teed/Cox milieu, but at times he is betrayed by his prose: At one point Esther went to live at a neighbour’s, after claiming that she could see the ghost (though nobody else could). She declares in melodramatic tones (though this has surely been heightened for effect – there are slight differences between the 1879 and 1888 versions of her speech, neither quite what one might expect from a semi-literate teenager) that she has to leave the Teeds’ immediately:
‘“Look there! Look there! My God, it is the ghost! Don't you all see him, too? There he stands! See, his eyes are glaring; and he laughs, and says I must leave this house to-night, or he will kindle a fire in the loft under the roof and burn us all to death. Oh! what shall I do ? Where shall I go? The ground is covered with snow, and yet I must not remain here, for he will do what he threatens; he always does. If I were dead—” Then she fell to the floor, in an agony of grief and fear, weeping aloud for a moment, and then all was still.’ (1888)
The style was undoubtedly successful, because in 1916, after Esther’s death, Hubbell brought out a further expansion, the title page proclaiming it the tenth edition and the fifty-fifth thousand. This was the same text as the 1888 edition, padded out with correspondence and testimonies. Hubbell must have made quite a sum out of Esther, but Norris and Thompson describe her living in poverty in later life, taking in laundry, which suggests that she never saw any money from Hubbell’s best-seller.
There were two significant additions to the literature on Esther Cox prior to Norris and Thompson’s book. Hereward Carrington visited Esther in 1907 and included a chapter on her in his Personal Experiences in Spiritualism (1913). He was inclined to think that Esther was innocent of hoaxing as she was the chief sufferer, underestimating the lengths to which some individuals will go to in their efforts to be the centre of attention. He had a long conversation with Olive who stuck by Hubbell’s account, and Carrington found this convincing as well, on the grounds that the family would have been more likely to confess to a hoax as time passed, especially as Esther was then living in Massachusetts.
A further interpretation was provided by Walter Franklin Prince, who took a different tack. He published an article in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research in August 1919, ‘A Critical Study of the Great Amherst Mystery’, in which he reviewed the evidence. He was critical of Hubbell’s approach, particularly the vagueness of the witness accounts (with which verdict Norris and Thompson agree), and the elaboration of Hubbell’s original record in the various editions of his book. Prince concluded that Esther was responsible, not consciously but in a dissociated state as a result of her “psychological abnormality”, the shock of her traumatic experience with Bob having caused a secondary personality to split off.
What is one to make of all this? At the time opinion was divided between those who believed that Esther was the victim of a malevolent spirit and those who took it for granted that she was being wicked. Clearly hoaxing is a distinct possibility for much of what occurred. When she was away, or ill with diphtheria, the ghosts were quiet, and when she moved to a new place it took a couple of weeks for things to start up, perhaps, as Norris and Thompson suggest, while she got the lie of the land. In other instances we are forced to choose between a hoax by Esther, possibly in collaboration with Jennie and even some of the other siblings; or a paranormal explanation, albeit mixed with exaggeration and misperception in the telling.
Norris and Thompson concentrate on personality issues that make hoaxing more likely. They suggest that she suffered from an anxiety disorder. A close relationship between Esther and her grandmother, with whom she lived when she was small, gave way to a home in which her nephews were the focus and she was peripheral. Esther said that she had spoken to her dead mother while in trance, so perhaps she had issues to work through regarding bereavement and fear of abandonment. Her life was centred on unskilled chores in a crowded house, with step-siblings perhaps generating hormonal tension, and her relative unattractiveness compared to Jennie may have caused jealousy. A combination of such factors could have resulted in attention-seeking behaviour. Norris and Thompson note that when Esther discovered automatic writing, some of the sentences were “wicked” and ”profane”, the sort of thing a bored teenager might cook up to get a reaction.
Esther may have been acting out trauma resulting from sexual abuse, or alternatively from frustration. It is possibly not a coincidence that her sister Nellie married and moved out of the overcrowded Teed household only a few days before the events began. Some of the secondary literature assumes she was raped by Bob, though according to the account in Hubbell, he pulled a pistol on her but heard someone coming and took her home at a furious pace in the pouring rain. We only have Esther’s word for any of this though. Perhaps she consented, or he completed the deed by force, and she was ashamed, or he could have rebuffed her advances. The whole thing could have been a fiction.
To add to the Amherst Mystery’s significance, Norris and Thompson highlight the link between Amherst and Borley, as Lionel Foyster spent a couple of years as rector at Sackville, just a few miles from Amherst. Eric J. Dingwall, Kathleen M. Goldney, and Trevor H. Hall, in their important paper ‘The Haunting of Borley Rectory: A Critical Survey of the Evidence, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume 51, 1956 (pp.79-81), provide a table which lists nineteen points of comparison between Esther Cox and Marianne Foyster, as well as noting the use of ‘Teed’ as a pseudonym in Lionel’s manuscript ‘Fifteen Months in a Haunted House’.
Norris and Thompson have done psychical research a great service in their re-examination of the Amherst Mystery and its possible causes (though in reaching a verdict of hoaxing they do not consider the, admittedly unlikely, possibility of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, even though Esther would seem a typical poltergeist focus), and in supplying details on the family members, their complicated histories, and what happened to them afterwards. Haunted Girl puts Hubbell’s account(s) in perspective, and allows the reader to cast a fresh eye on this absorbing case.
Trevor Hamilton is best known as the biographer of Frederic Myers, a significant figure in the history of the Society for Psychical Research (Immortal Longings: F.W.H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death). This is a scholarly work with the impersonal approach implied by that term. Tell My Mother I’m Not Dead is very different in tone. It is a brave book in which Hamilton explores the evidence for the survival of bodily death following the loss of his son Ralph in a car crash in 2002.
The book splits neatly into two parts. The first talks about Ralph and the effect of his death on Trevor, his wife Anne, and Ralph’s brother, as they go through the grieving process. Embedded in these personal reflections Hamilton describes a series of ten visits to mediums, of varying quality, over a nine-year period, describing the experience, listing the statements, and subjecting these to close analysis. An appendix tabulates the statements, and in the best session the correct ones accounted for 90% of the total made.
During visits Hamilton was alert to issues of body language, fishing, cold reading, generalisations, even the law of large numbers, and factored these into his assessment. Along with the low incidence of errors, he found very few examples of a scattershot throwing-out of names and assertions in the hope that something would stick, and while some of the statements could apply to a large number of people (the Forer/Barnum Effect), many were precise in relating to his situation. The consistency of a number of the readings constitute, he feels, a kind of replication, so often elusive in paranormal research.
The second part opens out the discussion by assessing the evidence for survival of bodily death arising from his personal experiences, set it in the context of investigations of many kinds undertaken by researchers around the world. He draws on a wide range of sources, and the result is a fascinating case study which also acts as a useful summary of the current state of research. He finds much of value, but all too often underreported and ignored by the wider scientific community. The discussion is broken down into eight main headings, useful questions for anyone with an interest in the subject to consider:
1 How accurate was the information the medium provided and how much of it could have been obtained by prior research? (the latter of course is becoming an acute issue in the internet age)
2 What other explanations (apart from the paranormal) could there be for the provision of accurate information?
3 Can a sitter replicate phenomena across a number of mediums and does this support or weaken the survival hypothesis?
4 Are there any examples of high quality historical and contemporary performances by mediums, under acceptable conditions, that would support the survival hypothesis?
5 Are there converging lines of evidence from other sources that would support and corroborate the survival hypothesis?
6 Given positive results from the above lines of enquiry, does this necessarily mean that the source of the information is a discarnate personality?
7 Is it possible to identify those conditions which make for successful sittings and what are the implications of this for the guidance and training of sitters, mediums, and researchers?
8 What does evidence from mediumship tell us about the nature and experience of the ‘we’ that might survive, and are there any lessons we can draw from this as to how we should live our lives here and now?
Hamilton goes into all of these issues, and he spends some time examining the super-psi alternative (gaining knowledge by telepathy or clairvoyance) as an alternative explanation to the survival hypothesis. The book concludes with a useful glossary of terms and an extensive list of references.
He is fully aware that the death of a loved one can affect perceptions (the family occasionally thought that they could smell Ralph’s cigarette smoke at home, and an electric light behaved oddly; it would have been easy to read these as signs of Ralph’s presence). Obsessively visiting mediums can become an emotional crutch, and Hamilton is always careful to remain level-headed and not let his personal situation cloud his judgement. He is conscious of the pitfalls, the tricks mediums can use to persuade the sitter that the messages are genuine, and the danger of projecting meaning onto their utterances. He has had to navigate the twin dangers of being overly-sceptical and overly-credulous, and for anyone contemplating travelling the same route, there are valuable lessons here in how to go about it, and how to interpret what you are told.
It is clear from this overview that we need to know more about mediumship and its validity. Hamilton bemoans the small volume of scientifically rigorous research being conducted, and the paucity of funding available. The situation has improved somewhat in recent years and he hopes that resources can be found to enable research to proceed at a faster pace. This effort should be multi-disciplinary, he argues, encompassing scrutiny of the implications of altered states of consciousness, mediumship training to obtain the optimal conditions, and including other aspects of survival research such as Instrumental Transcommunication, near-death experiences, after death communications, and reincarnation.
Hamilton’s tentative conclusion from the strands he examines – the historical record (much of it accumulated by the SPR), the current state of play in psychical research, and his own interactions with mediums – is that while some are stronger than others, there is good evidence that the personality can survive the death of the body; though what form the afterlife might take is unclear. The book is very readable, aimed at a general, non-technical audience, a worthy addition to the studies analysing mental mediumship, its drawbacks and benefits. It is an absorbing discussion of what light can be thrown on the survival of the human personality following bodily death.
The title sounds like one of those programmes Channel 4 used to put on where you spent all evening counting down the titles reckoned to be the best of something according to a viewers’ poll. So, why these, rather than some other hundred ghost stories? No criteria are provided, other than that Gillian Bennett has collected them and rates them highly. Of course these things are subjective anyway, and every compiler of such an anthology would produce a different selection, albeit with some overlaps.
While favourites may be missing, this is still a pretty good hundred to introduce readers to the literature. Most are taken from printed collections, though Bennett does conclude with a few she collected orally in the early 1980s, nearly all of which appeared in a slightly different form in her 1999 academic study “Alas, Poor Ghost!” Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse.
The organisation is different to that of the typical paranormal guide. Rather than being presented geographically, the stories are arranged chronologically in four parts, covering the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, and are designed to be representative of their respective periods. Each century is prefaced by some remarks on its distinctive features, and on continuities.
The accounts range in length from a few lines to several pages, all with short introductions. Bennett is a member of the Folklore Society and former editor of its journal, so she has a good grasp of the wider context of the stories she presents, and is able to draw out motifs running across a number of seemingly independent accounts. Even though apparently anchored in a specific locale, the fact that similar stories often pop up in different places shows that they can migrate within an oral tradition.
If you thought that ghosts were timeless, the arrangement shows that they are not, or at least the way they are treated isn’t. Grouping allows the reader to gain a sense of how narratives reflect social and religious developments. The shortest entry in the book, taken from John Aubrey’s Miscellanies of 1696, is worth quoting in full to show how things have changed in three hundred years: “Anno 1670, not far from Cirencester, was an apparition: being demanded, whether a good spirit, or a bad? Returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and a most melodious twang.”
Not many ghosts these days seem to twang, melodiously or otherwise. On the other hand, there are continuities, for example the popularity in the nineteenth century of a form of ghost tourism, though more in the nature of flash mobs turning up at premises where they had heard there were ghosts, than the organised, and profitable, activity we know and love today. Poltergeists are as annoying as they ever were, and ghosts still return to complete unfinished business, reproach or comfort the living, or just stooge about for no apparent reason.
Bennett has produced an entertaining and useful collection which, assisted by the lengthy bibliography, will guide readers keen to know more to her sources. Despite the chronological organisation, a handy index of places means that the reader who wants to check on a particular location can find it with ease. Whatever one’s opinion of our haunted heritage, it is certainly varied, and behind this set of the hundred best British ghost stories is another hundred, and another, and another...
After collaborating with Peter Underwood and Eddie Brazil on The Borley Rectory Companion and Shadows in the Nave, Paul Adams has gone solo and produced two books in quick succession, Ghosts & Gallows and Paranormal Luton and Dunstable. Ghosts and Gallows brings together two subjects that make natural bedfellows under the heading of mystery, and Adams presents a selection of British cases that illuminate various aspects of true crime as it relates to the paranormal.
These range from murdered Sergeant Davies in 1754 returning to tell a shepherd where his body lay on a remote Cairngorm hillside, to the sad death in 1991of twenty-year old Kousar Bashir in Oldham (an unlucky place to live if you are female it seems), killed because her parents thought that her depression was actually possession by a jinn. Some entries are well known, such as the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder in the Red Barn, medium Robert Lees’ involvement in the Jack the Ripper case in 1882, the psychic circus that surrounded the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, and the career of Gerard Croiset.
Others are less well known outside the specialist literature, such as Mrs Tombe seeing in a dream where her dead son Eric had been dumped (just as Ann Marten had seen the fate of her stepdaughter Maria), the mysterious death of Netta Fornario on Iona in 1929, and the involvement of medium Estelle Roberts in the murder of ten-year old Mona Tinsley by Frederick Nodder. Not all of the ghosts are those of victims; the murderers are often unquiet as well. Hawley Harvey Crippen is said to have appeared close to his Kentish Town home. Ethel Major, who gave her abusive husband strychnine, apparently haunts Hull Prison, where she was the last person to be hanged.
Of particular interest to SPR members will be the chapter on the Jacqui Poole case which was investigated by Guy Lyon Playfair and Montague Keen and written up in the SPR Journal in 2004 as ‘A Possibly Unique Case of Psychic Detection.’ Medium Christine Holohan gave police a large number of accurate statements about the murder, though the conviction came much later and, as so often happens, from advances in DNA technology. What is almost as interesting as the accuracy of the statements is the fact that while psychic mediums frequently state that they have given invaluable assistance, but with no corroboration by the police themselves, in this case Keen and Playfair received the full cooperation of the officer most closely involved in the investigation.
Other interventions are somewhat less impressive. Adams rates Nella Jones’s involvement in the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, for example, but she was subjected to scathing scrutiny by Melvin Harris in Sorry – You’ve Been Duped . He noted that many of her statements – conveniently forgotten – were wrong, while others were reasonable inferences from what was already known. As he concludes: “It can be said with certainty that at no time did she supply a single name, location, address, or description connected with any of the murders that was of any use to the police.”
To add context, Adams discusses other cases, such as the currently popular Black Monk of Pontefract, Enfield, and the peculiar occurrence at Ealing that nearly robbed the world of Andrew Green in 1944 when he was pulled back by his father as he was about to step off the parapet of a tall tower, compelled by a mysterious force. Adams gives Benson Herbert of Paraphysical Laboratory fame some well deserved coverage, and introduces us to the singular literary style, if you can call it that, of Frank Harrison, who murdered his wife and stuffed her body in the understairs cupboard. From there she whispered to her friends in their dreams, but in the end Harrison was undone by the terrible smell.
To illustrate the care with which Adams presents his material, he has included a useful bibliography, an index of names, and index of phenomena. The last gives a good indication of the book’s scope, divided as it is into apparitions, black magic and occultism, exorcisms and possessions, hauntings and haunted houses, levitations and psychic forces, mediumship and spiritualism, poltergeists, psychic detection, and prophetic dreams.
As he notes, there is a parallel between criminal detection and psychical research. Both involve a search that takes the investigation, or should at any rate, where the evidence leads, then assesses it impartially to try to determine the truth. Yet while the paranormal component of many of the cases recounted may not convince, and this is a field with much that is unsubstantiated and doubtless untrue, there is still much to, well, entertain us if we are brutally honest. George Orwell bemoaned the decline of the English murder, yet many of us are happy to put our feet up on a Sunday afternoon, as Orwell envisaged it (even if not with the News of the World these days), and read about appalling deeds, time and nostalgia blunting the edge of the horror. Ghosts and crime: Paul Adams is on to a winner.
Haunted Luton and Dunstable is an entry in The History Press’s series of regional guides. As a local resident, Adams is well placed to write about the paranormal side of the Luton area, and an extra strength is his wide knowledge of the history of psychical research (also demonstrated in Ghosts & Gallows), which allows him to sketch in the broader context of the cases he is describing, as well as finding parallels elsewhere that lend support to them.
It’s much briefer than Ghosts and Gallows, with chapters covering strange happenings on the road, pubs and other haunted buildings, open spaces and UFOs. Packed in are stories about mediums with a local connection (including Helen Duncan’s daughter), phantom hitchhikers, a wide variety of ghosts, including one in black, another in cricketing white, and most startling of all, a bizarre 8-foot tall Owlman-type entity with glowing yellow feet seen by a group of children near a wood close to Luton in 1979.
Well illustrated, as all of the volumes in the series are, many of the photographs were taken by Eddie Brazil, who has contributed his usual gloomy scenes with overprocessed skies, aiming at a ‘Gothic’ feel. That aside, the book is well presented and informative. There is a useful bibliography and an excellent index, allowing access to a particular item in moments, and a suggested walk taking in many of the sites mentioned in the text. Authors of similar guides should study this example of the genre and try to emulate it.
We often hear how psychic detectives have passed valuable information about a case to the police, or how they were brought in when one became too difficult for conventional techniques to solve. Judging by their own claims, they have had some remarkable successes. Edward Olshaker’s idea was different: take a set of real-life mysteries, present them to a group of psychic detectives, each working in isolation, and see what happens. It’s a great idea, but it shows some of the problems of gaining information by such unorthodox means.
In Witnesses to the Unsolved, first published in 2005 and now updated, half a dozen psychic detectives (not all of whom regard themselves as mediums, hence the sub-title) gave readings to Olshaker. These were Bertie Marie Catchings, Robert Cracknell, Janet Cyford, Betty Muench, Nancy E Myer and Philip Solomon. Olshaker himself is not active more broadly in psychical research, but is a freelance journalist writing about historical issues and current affairs. Before we get going, Colin Wilson, author of the 1984 The Psychic Detectives, supplies a foreword, as he did for Cracknell’s autobiography The Lonely Sense, also published by Anomalist Books.
Olshaker asked his team to look afresh at the mysteries surrounding Bill Clinton’s boyhood friend and White House staffer Vincent Foster; US Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown; Kurt Cobain; activists attempting to determine the truth about US servicemen left behind in Vietnam; the deaths of environmental campaigners; the deaths of actress Mercedes McCambridge’s son John Markle and his family; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr; and the disappearances of the CIA’s William Colby and John Paisley. The examples he has selected have an American focus, and some are much better known than others. A lot of the political speculations thrown up in the readings involve convoluted conspiracies, which means that for a non-US reader some of the detail can seem obscure and complicated.
Olshaker, as a journalist, is good on the background to each case study, and he could undoubtedly have written a fascinating narrative minus the paranormal speculations. But he is vague on the protocols he employed with the psychic detectives, how much information they were given, or what opportunities they had for research before he asked for their impressions. Thus discussing grunge musician Kristen Pfaff who died only two months after Kurt Cobain, he says that he took a photograph of Kristen and description of the case when he visited Janet Cyford, although she did not know in advance he was going to ask about Kristen’s death on that day.
A number of times he quotes from readings where he is asked for information. On Kristen: “‘Do you know whether she had a boyfriend?’ Cyford asked. ‘Because she’s talking about a young man there…’”, and a page later: “‘How many years to we go back with this?’ ‘1994,’ I replied.” So there were opportunities for fishing, and perhaps more cold reading occurred than he realised. This does not rule out the possibility that the readings were supplying genuine information, but such vagueness about the process weakens the impact.
Leaving aside these problems, for those inclined to take psychic detectives at their own estimations, this may prove a disappointing read. One always hopes that they can warm up cold cases, prodding an official re-examination, but while these ones come up with some interesting speculations that may be proved true in time, there is little here that has been verified since 2005 as adding to or altering current knowledge. Wilson refers to it as “investigative journalism“, but the psychic detectives do not offer proof, and no breakthroughs have been made by the police as a result of their findings so far.
In particular, it frustrating that no-one says “yes, so-and-so did it”, or provides conclusive information on previously unknown suspects, even though the verdicts of the psychic detectives are often some distance from the accepted versions of events. One can understand that the psychic detectives and Olshaker might be wary of libel writs, but the chapter on Markle, for example, casts definite suspicion on colleagues at his firm – Stephens, Incorporated – to the extent that if the nefarious activities alleged did happen there, a fairly small pool of suspects were involved. Naming the guilty would spare the innocent.
Yet concrete information that would allow a police breakthrough is always tantalisingly out of reach. Why is this? Added to the difficulties of transmission and reception of information by either side, which leads to differences of interpretation by the various psychic detectives, we are told that those in the beyond are not interested in revenge, but rather there is a “universal law that allows the wrongdoers to exercise their free will to make amends on their own”, hence a reluctance amounting to distaste by those passed over in discussing the identities of malefactors.
One can understand that earthly concerns might seem of little consequence considering the magnitude of the changes that have happened to them, but while those who have died may be unconcerned with earthly notions of justice, there is a regrettable indifference to the suffering of those left behind who need closure to move on with their lives. Historically the departed have not been so indifferent, and one wonders why they have changed their attitude to justice, relying instead on karma to restore the balance. With such restrictions on the quality of intelligence imposed by those in the Afterlife, you wonder what use psychics are for crime detection, over and above perhaps to locate missing people and bodies.
Quite often there was agreement between the psychic detectives, but as these were not controlled tests, it is impossible to know whether their readings were paranormal in origin or extrapolations from the information given which ran along similar lines. It would certainly be interesting to see a rigorous experiment in which psychic detectives applied their abilities to real-life problems with no such ambiguity surrounding the outcomes. Despite this drawback, Olshaker has made a fascinating attempt to apply psychic abilities to some intractable mysteries of recent years, and has definitely highlighted very strange goings-on, whatever the explanation. He and his collaborators are to be applauded for their efforts, and this book should be read by anybody interested in psychic detection.
Timed to coincide with the centenary of W T Stead’s death on the Titanic, W Sydney Robinson’s biography tells the story of his complex life and career as a self-promoting editor and investigative journalist. Stead was energetic and prolific, packing an astonishing amount into his life, and this is an entertaining and lively, though by no means definitive, portrait.
William Thomas Stead was born in Northumberland in1849. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Stead was moulded by this non-conformist background. He felt that he had a moral purpose in life, and combined devout belief in a very personal God (always referring to Him as the “Senior Partner”) with indignation about injustice and a sense of personal mission to rectify it. This reformist zeal mixed ambition with a thick skin and no sense of personal embarrassment. Robinson brings out his eccentricities: as a child he was nicknamed “Queer Bill” as he was careless of dress and had a habit of running anywhere. He was, by his own account, considered “daft”, and he retained odd habits throughout his life. Yet he was taken seriously by monarchs and politicians, ready to overlook his personal defects.
In his early years he was extremely successful, thanks to his energy and supreme self-confidence, famously elevating himself above the Prince of Wales in claiming to have “the best position in the Empire”. He began on Darlington’s Northern Echo, of which he was editor at 22, and even in London, running the Pall Mall Gazette, had the air of an outsider. As a newspaperman he was innovative, for example running the first 24-point headline, using sub-headings and maps, and promoting, though not creating, the newspaper interview (for which Stead relied on his memory, dictating the conversations afterwards).
As a result of these innovations and a willingness to take risks, the Gazette achieved an extraordinary influence. Stead was a muckraker, certainly, but there was a lot of muck to rake. Yet his own boots were not pristine. He could be unscrupulous with the truth, ready to distort the facts to serve his purposes. Stead is the perfect antidote to any notion that today’s scumbag tabloid journalists have somehow regressed from some higher standard to which their forebears adhered. Opportunistic and often cavalier with details, he was flamboyant, but gauche and frequently naive in dealings with power-brokers. He often over-estimated his capabilities as a key player, as much manipulated as manipulator.
He considered that ends justified the means, if they were his of course, but he was a loose cannon, frequently a cause of despair even to his sympathisers. Sometimes he was a clear force for good, such as his 1876 exposé of Turkish atrocities against the Bulgarians, his fulminations against urban poverty, or the campaign for world peace that permitted him extensive foreign travel. Often, the outcome was more ambiguous. Like his mentor William Gladstone, he was obsessed with prostitution, and he is most famous (apart from the manner of his dying) for his 1885 exposure of child prostitution to expedite the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, by conspiring to purchase a 13-year old girl.
‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ highlighted in the most sensational way possible a very real social evil, while simultaneously exploiting and terrifying the girl and thoughtlessly creating chaos which led to several imprisonments, including his own. And apart from the boom in the Pall Mall Gazette’s circulation he achieved, the results were mixed. The age of consent was raised from 13 to 16, so while the means were dubious, the ends were of enduring value to subsequent generations of young girls; while an unintended consequence was the criminalisation of male homosexuality for the next 80 years. Thus it can be difficult to determine the overall value of a moral crusade, even if Stead always regarded himself as a martyr to the cause, to the extent of annually marking the anniversary of his conviction by proudly wearing his prison uniform (it has always struck me as odd that he was allowed to keep it, and one wonders if he had a duplicate run up afterwards).
Whatever the verdict, the ‘Maiden Tribute’ campaign was the high point of his authority, after which the muckraking among the private lives of the rich and famous took precedence. It is easy to accuse him of hypocrisy, campaigning about loose morals in others while not possessing particularly tight ones himself. Perhaps more charitably, however, he could be characterised as a man of principle, who, possessing profound religious beliefs, was only too aware of his original sin, and therefore his excusable, if lamentable, failure to adhere to those principles.
Always ready to flout public opinion to make a point, he was brave in his opinions, however unpopular, for example his quixotic support for the enemy during the Second Boer War, though to indicate his inconsistency, this came after a close, and lucrative, relationship with arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Unfortunately his journalistic ambition often outran his political and business sense. As he grew older and more eccentric he lost his touch, and with it his powers of persuasion, even when his judgements were sound. Eventually he became a figure of fun in the industry. His death on the Titanic stopped the slide of his reputation before he could damage it further, while making him part of one of the biggest stories of the century.
From a psychical research point of view, Stead’s chief interest is his Spiritualism, and alas this is one area which Robinson treats rather lightly – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the focus on journalism indicated by his title. There are, however, some references, and these can be set in the context of his character as drawn by Robinson, so the book is still useful to those whose primary interest is in Stead’s extensive involvement in the paranormal.
His outrageous flirtatiousness, present from youth, eventually morphed into a serious obsession with attractive young women, and Robinson refers to the “nubile staff” employed during his later years on the Review of Reviews, with hardly any other men in the office. This, Robinson feels, linked to his interest in Spiritualism as his young acolytes competed for his attentions by demonstrating their psychic abilities, and persuading him that he possessed them as well. They clearly imposed on him financially, so there may be some truth to this, his desire to associate with attractive females allowing them to play on his gullibility. Marie Belloc said of him that he was a “credulous man, inclined to believe anything he was told”, to which Robinson appends, “– at least by a woman.”
Julia’s Bureau, a messaging service linking this world with the next which opened in early 1909, naturally gave him the opportunity to associate with women on intimate terms. But Robinson sees the motivation for its inauguration not only in Stead’s fascination with the deceased journalist Julia Ames, the ostensible promoter of the scheme from the Other Side, but also in the death of his son Willie in December 1907. Robinson also thinks that Stead’s interest in automatic writing gave him the means to express repressed emotions, and perhaps, less persuasively, betrayed symptoms of schizophrenia (though a case could be made that Stead's general behaviour exhibited symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome).
Of Stead’s children, apart from Willie there is not much sign. Robinson says that the children “rebelled against him”, which is a considerable surprise given the warm, affectionate tone of his daughter Estelle’s hagiographic My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (a good source of information on Stead’s automatic writing and on Julia’s Bureau), a book which Robertson has used as a key source.
Ada Goodrich Freer features heavily in his section on Stead’s Spiritualistic interests, though Robinson relies on Trevor Hall’s unsympathetic biography for his background. He does give some information on their business arrangement in setting up Borderland, the first issue of which was dated July 1893. Goodrich Freer was appointed co-editor on a salary of £200, and a promise that she would be given full ownership from 1900 (“once all initial risks and expenditure had been made by Stead”, Robinson acidly remarks). As the magazine expired in 1897, the transfer never took place.
Apparently there was some gossip at the office that they were having an affair, which is why Goodrich Freer insisted that Borderland should have its own office in Pall Mall (rented at considerable expense) rather than share the one used by the Review of Reviews. Intriguingly, a footnote adds that when Frederic Whyte was preparing his biography of Stead (1925), Estelle told him that “it would mean a great deal to my mother” if he were to omit any reference to Goodrich Freer. She had taken the same line herself in My Father, which has no mention of the adventuress. It is unclear whether the two actually had an affair – it seems unlikely – and similar ambiguity surrounds Stead’s close relationship with Annie Besant, trade unionist and later prominent Theosophist.
With its pacey narrative, Robinson gives a clear overview of Stead’s career and the forces that motivated him, and Muckraker will assist those who may have wondered why this Stead who went down on the Titanic was so noteworthy. There is much more to say, though, especially about his Spiritualism, which was such a significant element of his life. For all his flaws, it says something for Stead’s personality and achievements that he is remembered today, which is more than can be said for most other Victorian members of the Fourth Estate, and his name will live on after today’s hacks have filed their last copy.
Cambridgeshire’s paranormal heritage
Cambridgeshire has had a number of ghost books devoted to it, as well as appearing in many national gazetteers. For those visiting the county, the following volumes may be of interest. I have given fuller information on a couple of recent titles.
Having written Paranormal Hertfordshire and Paranormal Bedfordshire for Amberley, Damien O’Dell tackles Cambridgeshire in the same series, and he has packed a lot of information into his sparsely-illustrated pages. About a third of the book actually deals with Cambridge itself. The first chapter looks at Marshall’s, a major Cambridge employer and a location O’Dell has thoroughly investigated. The colleges are present and correct, of course – Jesus, Girton, Sidney Sussex, Emmanuel, Corpus Christi and Peterhouse.
Some of this will be familiar from previous efforts, but additionally O’Dell has had the benefit of being able to use cases collected by the Cambridge Paranormal Research Society (CPRS), in particular describing their investigation of the BBC radio studio in Hills Road. Other town locations are included, the best known of which is probably Abbey House, which was investigated by the late Tony Cornell and Alan Gauld of the Society for Psychical Research (the Buddhists who now own it have occasional open days, and a visit is highly recommended, though no investigations are allowed). O’Dell pays generous tribute to the SPR, which has roots in Cambridge, and in particular to Cornell, one of the Society’s best-known investigators of spontaneous phenomena.
Moving out of Cambridge, other sections cover the Huntingdon area; Ely (including Oliver Cromwell of course, who is also mentioned earlier as his head is buried at Sidney Sussex); the Fens; South Cambridgeshire, including Duxford and Linton, the latter the childhood home of Matthew Manning; and Peterborough, in addition to many other locations across the county. Peterborough has quite a long section, including a report of a 2003 CPRS vigil at its museum.
Some frequently asked questions are answered, and there is a glossary and information on investigation techniques. This is a well-written and useful guide, of particular use to those who venture outside the environs of Cambridge itself to explore the county’s fascinatingly varied geography.
O’Dell refers to Stuart Orme when discussing the Peterborough museum as Orme works there and participated in the CPRS investigation which O‘Dell describes in some detail. Orme has his own book on the city out, Haunted Peterborough, published by The History Press. This might not appear at first sight to be a promising destination for the ghost aficionado, and Orme himself meets head-on the charge that Peterborough doesn’t have a lot going for it. In fact, as he points out, it is very historic, with far more than the shopping centre (though the inclusion of a useful sketch map shows the extent to which Queensgate dominates), and with enough spooklore to be able to support a ghost walk, which Orme devised. Having said that, the book is well under 100 well-illustrated pages, and some of those are taken up by an afterword on ‘What is a ghost?’, a decent bibliography and (a very rare but welcome inclusion in this type of volume) an index.
As the Peterborough Museum is billed as the city’s most haunted building, quite a lot of space is devoted to it, though there is only a brief reference to the CPRS investigation; O‘Dell covers it much more fully. Other chapters deal with the cathedral, the city centre, the railway, military ghosts, and the ‘Greater Peterborough’ area. The author’s background means that he has interwoven a great deal of local history into his ghost narratives and like O’Dell he writes in a crisp unadorned style. If you ever thought that Peterborough was only good for shopping, this book will put you right.
Other Cambridgeshire titles
Some other relevant publications focusing on Cambridgeshire include the following:
Daniel Codd’s Mysterious Cambridgeshire (2010) covers a variety of ghostly, folkloric, and more generally Fortean material. Similarly broad in scope is Polly Howat’s Ghosts and Legends of Cambridgeshire (1998). Cambridge itself has been well served by paranormal guidebooks. The best of these, Robert Halliday and Alan Murdie’s Cambridge Ghosts, has gone through two editions and is written by a local historian and paranormal expert respectively. Rupert Matthews has produced a pamphlet, Haunted Cambridge, (1994). Geoff Yeates looks at one aspect of the city in his Cambridge College Ghosts: A Gathering of Ghosts, Ghouls and Strange Goings-On (also 1994). David Curry’s The Men That Never Clocked Off: Ghost Stories from Cambridge Airport (2004) is cited in O’Dell‘s chapter on Marshall‘s, but is worth a look in its own right.
Elsewhere in the county, Margaret Haynes has produced a second edition of Haunted Ely (2003), originally written in collaboration with Vivienne Doughty in 1996. A D Cornell’s Investigating the Paranormal (2002) is not just about Cambridgeshire, but many of the cases Tony investigated are located there.
There are a couple of DVDs worth checking out. Tales of the Supernatural (2008) is a compilation of historical films with an East Anglian bias, and there are a couple of Cambridgeshire stories on it. Tony Cornell is shown at Hannath Hall, near Wisbech, and the assistant butler at Peterhouse is interviewed, talking about a ghost in the Combination Room. Both of these are included in O’Dell’s book. Richard Felix has produced a DVD of Ghosts of Cambridgeshire (2008).
One of my favourite non-Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is his 1913 ‘The Horror of the Heights’, which features jellyfish-like creatures living in the upper atmosphere. It is easy to think that the sky comprises a habitat with its own ecology, and Neil Arnold shows that it indeed forms a separate continent; one that, on the evidence he presents, is largely terra incognita. The Big Sky, as Kate Bush put it.
Arnold seems to have been impressed by Conan Doyle’s story too, as he mentions it in connection with actual flying ‘jellyfish’ that have really been reported from time to time. These are merely one kind of the more outré inhabitants of a realm that is chock-full of Fortean weirdness. Naturally UFOs, whatever they may be, loom large, with Arnold’s first British example dating from 1783, but in addition he provides a good sampling of high strangeness in our skies.
There is much on phantom airships, of which many were reported in British skies prior to the First World War. Phenomena such as ball lightning, lights in the sky and mystery hums, vie with falls of frogs, fish, and all sorts of odd stuff (including – yuk – faeces) dropping on bemused witnesses. There are naturally phantom aircraft and airmen, though despite the book’s title you only need an association with the sky to be included, you don’t have to be airborne at the time of the sighting, as witness the famous stories of a deceased Freddy Jackson turning up in a group photograph at RAF Cranwell, and David McConnell appearing to his roommate at Scampton after he had fatally crashed in fog. There are aerial armies and battles, and sundry mothmen, owlmen, bat-winged monkey-birds, winged snakes, horses (!), and beasts for which no name has been coined.
Naturally with such a broad title the sky’s the limit, so Arnold has had to be selective and has, on the whole, done a good job. I would take issue with the statement that while orbs are to be considered artefacts of digital photography, “Ghost hunters disagree and claim that orbs signify the presence of a spirit...” Many ghost hunters (though they may not approve of that term, and call themselves something else) are among the most vocal in dismissing orbs as merely photographic, rather than paranormal, anomalies. Not all ghost investigators are credulous.
Also, there is not much consideration of the role hoaxing plays, for example in sightings of the airships and the Brentford Griffin, and probably a lot else here. However, there have been suggestions that the Griffin, while started as a hoax, effectively took on a life of its own, and Arnold talks about tulpas, phenomena which begin as creatures of the imagination but then attain reality. Maybe so, but you could of course talk equally about contagion, cued misperception and bandwagon-jumping jokers. The maxim “You’ve got to believe it before you can see it”, as the annoyingly fey child tells Ted Danson in Loch Ness, is unreliable science.
This volume is one of a series of Shadows in the ... from The History Press, the others featuring churches, railways, and canals and waterways. Unsurprisingly its breadth means that depth has been sacrificed. Some topics are relatively less well covered elsewhere, but Shadows in the Sky will not replace Bruce Barrymore Halpenny’s classic Ghost Stations series (Halpenny receives a single mention, and is referred to as Halfpenny, but he must get that a lot), and it will not satisfy the reader whose primary interest is in UFOs.
Sadly, our troposphere is somewhat duller now than in days of yore, when dragons could be seen disporting themselves over London and the home counties (if only maps nowadays had “Here be dragons” marked on them, and there were instructions for avoiding them on Sat Nav!). Even so, the best advice seems to be: keep watching the skies, but be prepared to take evasive action.
PS Shortly after posting this review, the August 2012 Fortean Times arrived. The cover story is ‘The Sky is Alive’, by Scott Deschaine. His thesis is that the skies are a habitat in the same way that the oceans are, indeed, land, sea and sky are part of a single system. He argues that UFOs and other unexplained aerial phenomena might actually be misidentifications of living creatures, and that the appearance and behaviour of many of them share similarities with those of marine invertebrates.
The issue’s editorial column, entitled ‘Giant jellyfish from outer space!’, is devoted to the article, and as well as discussing the history of such speculation back to Charles Fort (somewhat undermining the cover’s bold headline: “Could UFOs be living creatures? A new theory of aerial phenomena”), talks of the atmosphere as a “Super-Sargasso Sea”. Naturally it refers to Conan Doyle’s story.
Darren W Ritson and Michael J Hallowell, authors of The South Shields Poltergeist and The Haunting of Willington Mill, as well as many other books on paranormal themes written separately, join forces once again to present their researches into haunted pubs in the north east of England, of which there are a great many (actually this is a reissue of the authors’ 2009 Ghost Taverns: An Illustrated Gazetteer of the North East). Pubs as a social setting have traditionally been a natural venue for storytelling, and this collection shows how varied, and yet often how similar, those stories can be.
Before getting to the haunted taverns, there are musings on the history of drinking and smoking (the two activities until recently heavily intertwined), a list of pubs and brewers in South Shields in 1834, and another of pubs in Jarrow in 1900. The gazetteer contains short entries interspersed with longer ones, some of the latter recounting investigations with local ghost-hunting groups at significant venues. A number of the pubs have appeared in Hallowell’s Ales and Spirits and Ritson’s Ghost Hunter and In Search of Ghosts, but are updated here. Normally such guides are well illustrated, but this volume has almost no photographs, apart from a small selection on a single page. This is fine though, as it allows more space for text.
Each entry is graded with a rating from 1 to 10 as an estimate of how significant the establishment is, not as a pub per se, but as a haunted site. The authors acknowledge that the criteria are flexible and subjective; however, the grades are not of course based on how haunted the place is, but how haunted it is claimed to be, that is, whether there is a good story with perhaps some grounding in reality – though with ghost narratives it is hard to tell the point at which truth ends and fiction begins. This is particularly so with commercial establishments, where there is often a suspicion that exaggeration and even invention is at work to attract punters (to be fair there are a couple of pubs in the book which have been given pseudonyms, so they can’t be accused of overegging their paranormal puddings).
Ritson and Hallowell know their stuff, but as so often with this type of book, little help is given to the reader who wants to employ it as a field guide. Premises are listed in alphabetical order, irrespective of location, so if you want to check which ones are in a given area, you are obliged to thumb through the lot. It would have helped to have had them grouped geographically, or at least provide an index with locations included.
As with Ritson and Hallowell’s other works, this is very readable, though with a frequent waggish reaching after ‘stylish writing’: books aren’t “books” when they can be “tomes”, and drinks are frequently “beverages” which are “ingested”. To be French is, naturellement, to be “of Gallic extraction”, etc etc. Sometimes their tongue-in-cheek prose leads them astray. “Roman legionnaires” is what happens when the authorities in the Italian capital don’t keep their water tanks clean; it’s Roman legionaries.* Mike’s brain structure appears to be peculiar: for him, the association between pubs and ghosts (to be precise, “the relationship between drinking establishments and denizens of the netherworld”) grew naturally, without him noticing, in his cerebellum. I think perhaps they mean in his cerebrum.
The authors certainly know how to amuse. They say of the South Shields Police Club that “the bar was popular, but so too were the toilets, for obvious reasons”. I think they are saying that drinking a lot requires frequent visits to the lavatory, but there could be other – equally obvious – reasons for the toilets being popular. The agog reader is left wondering exactly what a Saturday night at the South Shields Police Club looks like. One pub does a cracking “stake and ale pie”, which could be handy if vampires drop by while in the middle of dinner (or partaking of one’s repast, as Darren and Mike might put it).
Despite the eccentric use of language, if you ever have cause to go drinking in the area, this is a useful handbook to take with you. It is jammed with information which combines affection for the area with enthusiastic first-hand enquiry. The result is a deep knowledge both of alcohol, and the local boozers which have an interesting story attached.
Over the centuries the number of pubs in England has declined, and the trend has accelerated in recent years. At the same time the character of many of the survivors has altered, a bland homogenised uniformity often taking over from the homely spit and sawdust of the past, as landlords and landladies are replaced by managers employed by chains. But many pubs with character still exist, and there is no doubt that ghost stories will continue to emerge, especially while publicans find that they help to attract customers.
Given the amount of on-the-spot research carried out, it seems unlikely that the authors will make a great deal of profit from their tome, but on the other hand presumably they are in the enviable position of being able to offset their expenses against tax. Subsidised eating and drinking sounds rather attractive, and Ritson and Hallowell are to be applauded for finding such an elegant way to combine business and pleasure.
*To be fair to Darren and Mike, shortly after I wrote this review I heard Jack Dee on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue also refer to "Roman legionnaires". It must be infectious. Even though Shelley used the term “legionaires” in relation to the Roman legions, it seems poor style.