Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
The life and death of RMS Titanic has spawned a publishing industry, tapping into a fascination that shows no sign of abating a hundred years after ship and iceberg came into such disastrous contact. Michael Tymn, author of The Articulate Dead and The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens after We Die, has, as the titles of his previous books might suggest, taken a different slant to the typical narrative about the ship’s brief history. As he says, it is about death and the dying, of both the ship and her passengers, but, more importantly, it is about what came next, and what it might all mean.
After giving some details about the ship and a timeline of her fateful voyage, Tymn examines the continuing fascination, why we still remember when worse maritime disasters have been forgotten. Naturally the 1997 film has played a role in maintaining interest, but there is something mythic about the Titanic which blends grand themes of technology and overconfidence brought low with more intimate themes of compassion, heroism and stoicism that address ideals now seemingly rarer in our own age. It is emblematic of a world that seemed safe, secure and prosperous, but which was to collapse in August 1914. The Titanic is a metaphor for that world of complacent self-assurance which was really so vulnerable, and so soon to end. The sinking resonates because it shows how fragile our supposed certainties are.
Tymn presents pen-portraits of a number of those on board, both those who lived and those who died, which provide a thumbnail sketch of the ship’s social composition. He describes the last hours and the various ways in which the passengers behaved – generally well in the circumstances. The most significant person who died that night for Tymn is William T Stead, the English journalist, editor, and campaigner for both social change and Spiritualism. In one way and another, much of the book revolves around him.
Some familiar literary oddities about the ship are rehearsed, such as Stead’s 1892 From the Old World to the New; or, A Christmas Story of the World’s Fair, 1893, which features a real vessel called the Majestic. In the story it is captained by Edward J Smith, who really did captain the Majestic, but after its publication, and then even more strangely was captain of the Titanic. To add to the coincidences, the Majestic sinks after hitting an iceberg in the north Atlantic (one wonders if the two men chatted about Stead‘s book at the captain‘s table as they steamed across the north Atlantic). Also well known are the parallels between the Titanic and Morgan Robertson’s story ‘The Wreck of the Titan‘.
Tymn samples the stories told of passengers booked on the Titanic who cancelled because of bad omens or otherwise foresaw the disaster, and adds cases of similar premonitions with other ships which were duly lost. One of the examples from the Titanic, a premonitory dream which J Connon (not Cannon) Middleton had two nights running, is taken from the SPR’s Journal of June 1912. Tymn quotes extensively from Middleton’s letter to the SPR, but the editing suggests that Middleton cancelled his booking as a direct result of his dreams, and that a business conflict gave him a ready excuse for something he wanted to do anyway, whereas a sentence omitted in Tymn’s extract shows clearly that Middleton cancelled his ticket because of a cable from America suggesting he postpone sailing for a few days.
Then we move on to the collision and its aftermath, as Tymn examines both telepathic messages received from those in crisis, and messages from individuals who had lost their lives which were received by mediums, telling of their new existence. Naturally, given his background as a vigorous promoter of Spiritualism, Stead’s involvement with the movement is scrutinised. A journalist, Julia Ames, had interviewed him, and after her death in 1891 he had begun receiving messages from her through automatic writing. Many of the messages were collected in Letters from Julia, and selections are included here.
Stead himself appeared at séances after the sinking, as did John Jacob Astor IV, and there are accounts of séances supplying details of what it was like to pass over when the ship sank, and how different life experiences affected the manner in which the victims reacted to their changed circumstances. (One survivor says that he saw Stead and Astor clinging to a raft together until succumbing to hypothermia, though Tymn adheres to the version which has Stead struck on the head by a funnel on deck.) Stead’s post-mortem appearances suggested that, because he had studied the evidence provided by Spiritualism during his life, he was able to move on more easily than others on the ship, the wealthy finding that earthly attachment to possessions hindered their transition.
This is not the first work about the paranormal aspects of the Titanic, in fact it is quite a well-worked area. To add to Tymn’s bibliography are Ian Stevenson‘s two papers in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, ‘A review and analysis of paranormal experiences connected with the sinking of the Titanic’ in 1960, and ‘Seven more paranormal experiences associated with the sinking of the Titanic’ in 1965; Rustie Brown’s The Titanic: The Psychic and the Sea (1981); Martin Gardner’s edited collection The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold? (1986); George Behe’s Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy (1989); John Wilson Foster’s ‘The Titanic Disaster: Stead, Ships and the Supernatural’, in The Titanic in Myth and Memory: Representations in Visual and Literary Culture (2004); and Bertrand Meheust’s Histoires Paranormales du Titanic, 2006. Robertson’s story was reprinted with commentary by Stevenson as The Wreck of The Titan: or, Futility; Paranormal Experiences Connected With the Sinking of the Titanic (1974). Fortean Times, May 2012, has an article by Carol Fenlon on paranormal aspects of the Titanic with the trivialising title ‘That Sinking Feeling’, relying heavily on Behe.
However, as the title suggests, Tymn’s book is not just about the Titanic, or even about Stead. The messages conveyed by those who lost their lives on the ship transcend this one tragic incident and, for Tymn, teach universal truths about the afterlife. He draws out similarities between the instances of paranormal cognition and mediumistic communication arising from the loss of the Titanic and similar examples in the wider literature of psychical research, and finishes with some observations on Spiritualism’s fluctuating fortunes. He is confident that mediumship, including the evidence from communications by those who died as a result of the sinking of the Titanic, demonstrates convincingly the lesson of our survival of bodily death.
Phantom Gramophone, part of The Miracle Factory, have produced a CD of radio programmes featuring Joseph Dunninger (1892-1975), who billed himself as the “Master Mentalist” and “The Master Mind”. In all there are sixteen digitally restored tracks in mp3 format, twelve a selection of Dunninger’s own shows from 1944. plus four others in which he makes a guest appearance. The result is more than seven hours of vintage radio.
Dunninger was a New Yorker, though you would not guess it from his refined tones. He appeared to be able to read the thoughts of his audience, achieving astonishing results with only a pad of paper and pencil as props. He said that he received mental impressions, and when he had identified the relevant person in the audience, he was able to tell them more about what they are thinking.
Typically he would throw out letters of the alphabet, a number or name and ask who was thinking about it, then when a person volunteered that it was his or her thought, he would give them other specific information such as names, addresses, bank note and social security serial numbers. He not only told one woman that a relative was a POW in Germany, but the name of the camp and his prison number (though she had to tell him it was her nephew). He stressed the need to be cooperative, otherwise, he claimed, there were no limitations on the information that he could obtain, talking of “tuning-in” to thoughts, and he claimed about 90% accuracy. It is worth remembering that these recordings were not post-edited to leave out misses and only include hits, so it is easy to see that this estimate is about right.
His performance was astonishing, and unlike many magic practitioners of the past, his secrets have remained secure. This was not a two-person act, like the Piddingtons; he stated that he did not use assistants or confederates, and offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he had secret help, a sum that was never claimed. Shows were broadcast from different cities, so it is hard to see how he could employ extensive local knowledge. One would still like to have seen the front of his pad as he sat on stage, though. He would say that any 3-year old could do what he did – with 30 years’ practice.
Some of his technique seemed to be cold reading, and there may have been social pressure to agree with what he said when he asked if a person was thinking of something, but that does not explain the quantity and range of information that he produced with which individuals concurred, many of whom clearly were not bothered about pleasing Dunninger by agreeing with him, and who occasionally told him he was wrong. He was able to divine statements written by Hollywood film stars, individuals not likely to be overawed by him, with an impressive degree of accuracy, so this is more than people conforming to social pressure.
He was quick to turn ‘misses’ to his advantage. For example, he told a woman the number of a bank note number in her possession, and when she said that the number he had given - 634 - was wrong, he promptly asked who in the audience was thinking of 634, without asking the first woman what her number was. Dunninger claimed that as the other individual was thinking of the number at the same time, it made it difficult for Dunninger to receive the correct one. He quite often complained that the thoughts of others were interfering with those of a particular subject on whom he was concentrating. He needed to “tune out” interfering strong thoughts from others, and these he said accounted for errors.
The procedure with audience members was fairly standard, however it was done, but he was ingenious in thinking up variations on the theme. He always had a panel of judges, generally a combination of celebrities and local worthies, and they were often involved in his “Brain-Buster“ experiments, as he called them, which showcased his talents. For example, one “Double Brain-Buster” required the judges to leave the room separately, and each to think of a four-digit number. Dunninger gave the studio audience and listeners a large number while the judges were out of earshot. They came back , he correctly told them the numbers they were each thinking of, and when added up, the sum came to the number he had given the audience, and which was written on a blackboard on stage.
There was more, however, as if that were not remarkable enough (the “double” part): on this occasion the well-known country music singer Roy Acuff was a judge, and Dunninger asked him, using the Chicago telephone directory (the largest in the US), to find the page number, column and entry corresponding to the figures of the total number, a procedure reminiscent of the Spiritualist book tests. Dunninger was able to give the name, address and phone number of the subscriber listed at that point. On another show judges formulated a murder mystery in and Dunninger worked out the murderer while the judges thought of the name.
A curious variation was the “Mental lie detector”. The subject was asked to concentrate on a false name, and Dunninger said he would be able to distinguish the conscious, which was trying to deceive him, and the subconscious, which cannot lie, reading the mind rather than the thought. Thus one subject was thinking of the incorrect date of his mother’s birthday, and Dunninger told him which was the date of which he was thinking, and which was the actual date on which she was born (though he seemed to have trouble determining which was which until told, which might reduce the value of his technique as a lie detector).
He would also encourage participation by the listeners at home by giving them a “projection”, for example he would “project” mentally the name of a woman’s military service, or the name of a character from Gone With the Wind, and listeners, given a multiple choice, would write in with what they thought Dunninger’s selection would be. The answer would be given on the next show. For a New York broadcast, 3,000 letters that had been sent in by listeners within a 100 mile radius of New York City were on stage. The judges chose two letters and concentrated on them. Dunninger was able to read the contents from across the stage, including the names of the writers. He could certainly think on his feet: in one show, guests told jokes to which he gave the punch line, with hardly a pause.
He could be topical, such as using the massively popular Gone With the Wind (appropriately the answer to that projection was announced in Atlanta, Georgia). Similarly he did a long-distance “mental miracle” suggested by Dick Powell, based on Rene Clair’s film It Happened Tomorrow. The editor of the New York Daily Mirror thought of a headline for the next day’s paper while studio guest Dorothy Kilgallen was on the telephone to him, but with him only thinking of headline, not telling her what it was. Dunninger wrote it down, and then the editor told Kilgallen the headline. It matched Dunninger‘s text.
In addition to Dunninger’s shows, the CD includes a number in which he himself made guest appearances. The earliest pieces are an interview given when Dunninger was visiting Norfolk, Virginia, and an anecdote broadcast on a show called We the People, both stated to be from 1940. The interview by Gene Abrams on WLOW Radio in Norfolk is sadly incomplete, but features Dunninger describing an interesting test which bears a resemblance to the sorts of ‘muscle reading’ exhibitions put on by Stuart Cumberland (subject of another Miracle Factory disc), though there is no indication that Dunninger used the muscle reading technique.
In this test, a newspaper was hidden by the mayor and city manager somewhere in Norfolk. Dunninger attempted to read their thoughts and locate the paper. He decided that they had hidden it at police headquarters so they all went there and he was able to tell them what the combination of the safe was, and retrieve the paper from it. Unfortunately he confessed to not being able to locate a missing husband, saying he was not a fortune teller, and stating somewhat irrelevantly that he could read thoughts but not predict the future. That inability would seem to include reading the thoughts of the missing husband.
The We the People item is not an interview but a story which sounds fictitious. It features a couple staying in a shack in the Adirondacks that belonged to the husband’s family but which had been empty since his father‘s death a decade before. In the way of these things, the place had acquired a reputation for being haunted. On cue, dad’s old guitar, hanging on the wall, started making strumming sounds in the night, stopping when the light went on. After a week of baffled nocturnal disturbance, they called in Dunninger who, apparently happy to visit the Adirondacks, quickly discovered what the hapless couple had failed to spot, that there were giant moths in the guitar which struck the steel strings as they flew about in the dark. Dunninger claimed, probably with much exaggeration, that he had investigated “hundreds” of haunted houses, and never found one that did not have a simple natural explanation.
He finished his contribution to the show by saying that he had codes with Houdini, Edison and Howard Thurston, but none had managed to communicate after death. As chairman of the Universal Council for Psychic Research, he said that he offered $10,000 to anyone who could demonstrate physical psychic or spiritualistic abilities that Dunninger was unable to explain or duplicate by natural or scientific means. This offer, he said, he had made for twelve years. He may not have been as close a friend of Houdini’s as he claimed, but he saw himself in the same anti-Spiritualist mould.
The other two appearances date from 1944. There is a short interview with Bill Stern, in The Bill Stern Colgate Sports Newsreel , in which he claims, somewhat improbably, to be a motor racing fan. The final item on the CD is a brief guest spot on The Lucky Strike Program starring Jack Benny. It takes a while before Benny gets to Dunninger, but he is very funny in the meantime. The encounter is based on Dunninger’s act, but is scripted.
As well as providing a liberal helping of Dunninger, the recordings are a window into a vanished age. Kem-Tone paint sponsored some of the shows, and was endlessly (and tediously) plugged, with Dunninger’s sidekick regularly stopping proceedings to supply rambling endorsements. It seems strange nowadays to hear tobacco products so shamelessly advertised, as done on the Jack Benny show, but more positively Dunninger included patriotic messages to help the war effort. In addition to the relentless messages from the sponsors, there were often songs to eke out the running time of the show, and add variety to the Dunninger formula.
Why is Dunninger of interest to psychical research? Assuming with some confidence that this was not real telepathy (ever the showman, he was happy to foster ambiguity about whether he could read thoughts paranormally), there seems to be little point in studying a stage act for insights into possible real telepathic processes. However, Dunninger demonstrates just how impressive a highly skilled but non-paranormal ‘thought reader’ can be. If he is able to achieve results like this, he becomes a benchmark against which other psychic claimants have to be measured, whatever the strengths of their performances. Tests have to be made in rigorously controlled conditions because it is always possible that a less scrupulous version of Dunninger might come along to try to trick researchers. The unwary could be easily, but falsely, persuaded that they had witnessed a demonstration of real psychic powers.
The radio show, which began in September 1943, was cancelled in December 1944 as audiences tired of the format and listening figures fell. Dunninger moved to television in the 1950s and 60s, until Parkinson’s disease curtailed his remarkable career. This is only a selection of his broadcasts, though the most complete available, and seems to have been taken from long playing records (of variable quality). The Miracle Factory have produced an excellent compilation of rare recordings, but it would have benefited from some contextual information (Barry Wiley who helped to compile the Stuart Cumberland CD for The Miracle Factory, has an informative article on Dunninger‘s pre-television career, ‘Psychic Radio: Dunninger the Mentalist‘ in History Magazine, Vol.10, No.6, August-Sept, 2009, p.47). But never mind, you can hear for yourself that Dunninger was a master mentalist. Listening to this fascinating collection, you really will be amazed.
Further details of the CD can be found at www.miraclefactory.net.
Timereel Studios compile DVDs using archive footage to tap into the nostalgia history market, and their list includes a couple of paranormally-themed discs, Tales of the Supernatural and Haunted London. Based in Norwich, they have strong links with the East Anglian Film Archive, the final resting place of Anglia Television’s recordings, hence Tales of the Supernatural has a distinctly East of England flavour (it was originally released as Ghosts of East Anglia).
The segments are linked by host Dick Glover – who bears a passing resemblance, probably coincidental, to veteran ghost investigator Peter Underwood – sitting in a cosy study with a crackling fire. The films he introduces include a wide range of individuals recorded by Anglia Television since it began operation in 1959 who had had brushes with what they considered the paranormal, plus the odd sceptic. An early example is an interview recorded in Sheringham in 1961 in which a witness describes a Black Shuck encounter thirty years before. This film is available on the East Anglian Film Archive website and, confusingly, according to their record the name of the witness was Leslie Goodwin, but on the DVD it is given as Tom Starling.
Films become more frequent as the years progress. In Fakenham in 1975, for example, a mother and daughter found that their house had a sinister atmosphere, the mother was attacked by a force that tried to strangle her with her crucifix, and both they and their next-door neighbour saw apparitions. The King’s Head at Diss the following year was the scene of a ghost with which the landlord’s young daughter communicated. Her parents attributed it to her imagination, until the landlord himself saw a green hazy ghost. They were all remarkably unfazed by their experiences. A feisty George Davey at Halesworth in 1982 awoke to see what he thought was an intruder in his bedroom. George grabbed the shotgun kept conveniently near his bed, doubtless for such emergencies in crime-ridden Halesworth, and challenged the figure, whereupon it vanished, leaving its shoes and socks for a moment before they followed after.
Borley is the subject of a very brief 1960s featurette, but the details are sketchy and include nothing substantial. Another well-known case, from 1966, is that of the photograph Gordon Carroll took in the parish church of St Mary’s, Woodford, in July 1964, showing a figure apparently kneeling before the high altar. Unfortunately the impact of the colour slide is lost in a black and white film, and Carroll himself is not interviewed.
There are some recent interviews describing strange experiences, the dates of which are not given and which were presumably filmed for the DVD, such as the lady near Norwich whose house was built on the site of an old burial ground and who woke one night to find the heads and shoulders of three men staring down at her for several seconds before disappearing. Another concerns Peter Yaxley, who was walking on the flats near Stiffkey (mispronounced on the film as “Stiff-key” whereas it is actually “Stukey”) when he spotted a figure in the distance walking a large dog. Uncannily, the figures left no traces in the damp sand. Locals thought the sighting matched the recently deceased ‘Jack’, but it would be nice to think Mr Yaxley saw the shade of Stiffkey’s “prostitutes’ padre” Harold Davidson, taking Black Shuck for a run.
In another section, a more standard-issue clergyman than Davidson pops up to confuse the viewer with a diatribe indiscriminately blasting mediumship, séances, witchcraft, the occult and black magic as aspects of Satan’s snare. A rather more sensible-sounding cleric, Fr Paul Maddison, describes seeing an oven light itself, and a kettle boil while disconnected. Cambridge does not feature much, surprising given its rich paranormal history, but there is a 1997 Anglia News interview with the assistant butler at Peterhouse who said he and a colleague had seen a ghostly figure in the Combination Room, and the interviewer noted that knockings had been heard there.
There are many similar films of people telling their stories and they form an interesting collage, but for SPR members, the most intriguing parts are probably those featuring the late Tony Cornell, a hugely experienced investigator and the author with Alan Gauld of the classic Poltergeists (1979). Tony features in two segments, one the investigation of Hannath Hall, near Wisbech, the other Morley Hall, near Wymondham. Tony and Alan wrote an article on Hannath Hall in the September 1960 issue of the SPR’s Journal: ‘A Fenland Poltergeist’.
Morley Hall figures extensively in the longest section on the DVD, in a documentary called The Unknown which Anglia Television transmitted on 24 August 1964. Tony Cornell acted as advisor and was asked to demonstrate a typical spontaneous case investigation. The atmospheric Morley Hall, a large sixteenth-century building which was being restored, was chosen by the television company for the purpose. Tony is prominent, and there is a rather lovely sequence in which he is shown walking around the labyrinthine building. It’s all about as far from the histrionics of Most Haunted as you can get.
The Morley Hall investigation has achieved some fame, because this is the recording which caused several viewers to contact the station to say that when Tony was being interviewed, they could see a hooded monk behind him. The interview was broadcast again, and more people wrote in to say that they could see the figure. Cornell and Gauld wrote the story up in the March 1969 Journal, as ‘A “Ghost” on Television’, concluding that the shape was an illusion caused by the pattern of markings on the background stonework. Tony also covered the monk ‘sighting’ at Morley Hall in his 2002 book Investigating the Paranormal. Unfortunately this sequel to Tony’s interview is not mentioned on the DVD.
In addition to the archival content there are dramatic reconstructions, such as the Hannath Hall story, the legend of Brother Pacificus who is said to haunt Ranworth Broad, and the account of the police constable who in November 1956 heard a bell tolling in a church. When he went to investigate found the church empty but the rope swinging. This was tenuously thought to link to the death of the owner of nearby Foulden Hall on the same date ten years before. Another police-related film recorded a visit to Haverhill police station, presumably in the 1970s, when a heavy cell door slammed on its own, and a typewriter was heard operating in the middle of the night when that floor was unoccupied.
Tales of the Supernatural is a fascinating record for anyone interested in ghost stories, or interested in seeing a bygone age and what it did with its hairstyles and wallpaper. People are certainly far more comfortable on camera now than they used to be, and some of the earlier interviews are notably stilted (though Tony Cornell always comes over as very relaxed). In terms of spontaneous case investigation, the kit may be more complicated nowadays, but the essential elements – intelligence and empathy – are the same today as they were fifty years ago.
But while it makes enjoyable viewing for those wanting to wander down memory lane, it does have drawbacks for anyone wishing to use the DVD for research purposes, the major one being that there is inadequate signposting between different archive films – it is not always clear where they begin and end – and between archive films and sequences shot for the DVD. There is also trimming of footage. The Leslie Goodwin/Tom Starling interview on the disc is missing the first shot; admittedly this is just him hoeing his garden, but it casts doubt on the integrity of the rest. According to Cornell and Gauld’s ‘A “Ghost” on Television’ article, The Unknown ran for half an hour (probably slightly less with advertisements), but the length on the DVD is a mere 18 minutes, and cuts off abruptly at the end of the interview with Tony. One has to wonder what has been edited out of the films.
The linking commentary usually, though not always, provides the year a film was made, but no further information, so notes setting out the dates of transmission, and for short magazine items, the programmes in which they first appeared, would have made the package even more useful. Despite these flaws, it is good to see old films retrieved from the vaults. Anglia Television is to be applauded for not discarding them, and Timereel Studios for making them available to a wide audience. There must be more of a similar nature sitting in regional collections, and further DVDs on the theme from around the country would be welcome, perhaps compiled with a closer eye on the integrity of the source material.
Geoff Holder is one of the most interesting authors of paranormal guidebooks, combining as he does a deep knowledge of the subject and sensitivity to the historical context with an engaging writing style. He is unusual in that he is as much concerned to clear away myths and folklore (or “fakelore”) that accumulate round some factual kernel – or sometimes no substance at all – as he is to try to establish a paranormal aspect to a story. As a result, some long-lasting and no doubt cherished local legends are subjected to a critical analysis and found wanting. There is a great deal of historical background to the city included in passing, and as with the best gazetteers, you learn a lot about the place’s history while reading about its ghosts, whether they are convincing or not.
He has found a substantial number of accounts by combing newspaper archives, journals and websites, a quantity all the more surprising given that Holder himself points out that Dundee has been generally ignored by earlier writers. As well as presenting historical cases, he includes modern ones resulting from an appeal for people to tell him their experiences, some of which were rather unpleasant for the experients. It turns out that the city has a lively spooky history, and its exposure is long overdue.
Some of Dundee’s ghosts are standard-issue. For example, it has a wide selection of White Ladies, with a Black Lady for contrast, and some ‘hot spots’ linked to historical figures. More unusual are the ghost stories associated with the two famous ships which reside in Dundee, Discovery and Unicorn. The former is most closely associated with Captain Scott, but Holder rightly points out how difficult it is to determine an origin for paranormal reports, and how a link with a famous person can be spurious given the number of candidates for a ghost. Other highlights include a Spring Heeled Jack panic in 1883 and the paranormal heritage of the Tay Bridge disaster. The book concludes with a couple of descriptions of ‘fetches’, or doubles, taken from W T Stead’s Real Ghost Stories.
You would expect to see such material in this type of book, but Holder goes deeper and mulls on the problem of distinguishing what is ‘out there’ from what is ‘in here’, the extent to which people’s brains may be creating the experience, and he discusses various interpretations of ghosts, not all of which support the survival hypothesis. “Neuroscience is now the cutting edge of paranormal research” is not the sort of sentence one often reads in regional ghost guides, and it leads neatly in to a discussion of the work of Dundee psychiatrist James McHarg as set out in papers in the SPR‘s Journal.
McHarg identified two separate issues that bedevil any psychical researcher: apparent psi phenomena which turn out to be subjective and not paranormal, for example those claimed by schizophrenics or individuals experiencing hallucinations; and a smaller category, in McHarg’s estimation, of genuine psi phenomena arising from mental distress (but which might of course be misconstrued as subjective and not paranormal). This discussion should make the reader interested in the nature of ghosts want to look up McHarg’s papers in the SPR’s publications.
While open to the possibility that some experiences recounted are genuinely paranormal, Holder is keen to provide a normal explanation where the facts as known seem to warrant it, more so than some similar guides which uncritically present stories with no attempt to dig underneath to find out what might have happened. He is not a debunker, however, and if there is some aspect that defies explanation, he is happy to say so. That makes him a sceptic in the true sense of the term.
History Press’s production values are always good, and Holder has included a couple of maps, a list of places open to visitors, with access information, a very extensive bibliography, and an index, making this an excellent package. The book is well illustrated, mostly by the author’s own photographs, though sadly it turns out that one haunted corridor looks much like another. Haunted Dundee is a companion to Holder’s 2000 Paranormal Dundee, which had a broad Fortean remit, whereas the new book focuses more on ghosts. Each is fairly short, but together they provide a detailed ecology of weirdness that should satisfy the most demanding Dundonian.
Lorn Macintyre, who gave the opening talk to the SPR’s 2011 conference in Edinburgh on Pitmilly House, has produced a pamphlet containing information about this large residence and the strange occurrences that were said to have taken place there in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is a useful supplementary background source for anyone interested in this enigmatic case, but unfortunately it has not drawn on the file held in the Society for Psychical Research’s archives which contains much relevant information that has never been published. The case was initially investigated by Lord Charles Hope, and the extensive, if barely legible, notes he sent to the SPR’s Research Officer, C V C Herbert in 1940 are a key resource for anyone delving into the Pitmilly affair.
Pitmilly House, which stood between St Andrews and Kingsbarns in Fife (tel. Boarhills 30), had long been in the Monypenny family, but their declining fortunes obliged them to let it to tenants, including the rakish Sir William Gordon Cumming and his unhappy American heiress wife Florence. It was bought in 1930 by Captain John Arthur Jeffrey. He and his wife Alison had two children, Thomas Ivan, born in 1915, and Mary Elizabeth, born in1924. At the time the poltergeist outbreak became publicised, the family was living in the house together with a couple of elderly female servants (Hope is vague about the help as he discounted their involvement), a Swiss governess and a Danish daughter-in-law, Vibeke (or Vebike, Hope cannot make up his mind). Thomas was in the forces and mostly away from home at the time.
The large number of poltergeist-like phenomena which occurred in the house during the Jeffrey years, were recounted by Ivan (as Thomas called himself) in a programme on the brand-new Radio 4 in 1967. The first, when he was “comparatively young”, was a piece of coal which appeared on the table in the middle of dinner. According to Hope’s notes, the phenomena started in about 1936 (escalating in late 1939), but Ivan was 21 in 1936, so if Ivan’s memory is accurate, events began earlier. When on leave during the war he saw a Chinese bronze ornament sail across the hallway and hit him in his “tum-tum”, as he quaintly put it. Other events he recalled included valuable ornaments discovered upset or broken, pictures falling off the walls, items falling off mantelpieces, and things disappearing that failed to return. A wardrobe crashed to the floor, hot coals appeared in random places and set fire to curtains. Fires started in several different places at the same time. Visiting psychics also experienced phenomena and an “exorcism” carried out by a visiting clergyman had no effect.
In March 1940 an extensive fire broke out, affecting some twenty rooms, and the claim settled by the insurers was later used as evidence that the insurers had recognised poltergeist activity. Phenomena were not though confined to the family. From 1942 to 1946 the house was requisitioned, and soldiers had odd experiences, not least seeing the ghost of Captain Jeffrey, who had died in July 1941. By now word was getting out and an article appeared in the American Weekly in the US in July 1942 entitled ‘No Rest in the Mansion’. While not named, this was clearly about Pitmilly House. Yet there seemed to be no long-established history of paranormal occurrences because Charlton Monypenny, the previous owner, was contacted by the press and claimed in ambiguous terms that “since my grandfather went there no-one has seen or heard anything except fancy on the part of someone”. That may mean that there were suggestions of strange happenings that were attributed by the sceptical Monypennys to imagination. Even if there were, they would not have been on the scale of those reported during the Jeffrey period.
James Herries, a Spiritualist and reporter on The Scotsman, wrote an article for Psychic Science, published in the October 1942 number, in which he referred only to “a Scottish mansion house”. He had visited Pitmilly House on 19 March 1940, staying overnight and adds the details that there were a couple of affable dogs in the house. He conducted interviews, and while he gives a useful overview of events, Hope in his notes calls him “very gullible”. Herries held a séance with a Glaswegian direct voice medium, Mrs McCallum. There were some strange voices, but no other results.
Hope visited the house on 28 April 1940, but before this he had had discussed Pitmilly extensively with the Jeffrey family lawyer, Gilbert Hole, of Gillespie and Paterson in Edinburgh. Hole was acting for the family in the insurance claim and had himself witnessed events, including vases in mid-air, which had scared him. Herries’s article also refers to “an Edinburgh professional man” who had given him information, and this is Hole because both Hope and Herries recount a story (Herries without naming his informant) in which Hole was sitting in an armchair with an ashtray containing several used matches, and when he looked down he found that these were arranged along the arm of the chair.
As a result of Hope’s lengthy account, Herbert asked W H Salter, the SPR’s Hon Secretary, if it would be worth going to Pitmilly House himself, as Hope was keen for him to make the trip. Salter thought it would be, if Herbert could be there at the same time as Hope (despite wartime conditions Hope employed a chauffeur, who did a bit of sleuthing for his boss on the side), but there is no further correspondence on the matter so it looks as though Herbert never made it.
Harry Price devotes a chapter to the case in his 1945 book Poltergeist over England. To maintain confidentiality he calls it “Poltergeist Manor”, which gives Macintyre his subtitle, though the way Price phrases it suggests that the sobriquet was coined earlier (it is not used by either Hope or Herries). Price refers to a “professional man”, who had given him full reports, the first in 1940, and this again is Hole, as the matchstick story is reused, with the information that prior to the matches being arranged on the arm, Hole had been thrown to the floor with the chair on top; presumably he had picked up any fallen matches so would have known that they were in the ashtray when he sat back down. Hope’s less dramatic version is that at some point prior to the lined-up matches incident, Hole had been sitting talking to a policeman when he was pushed over. For a solicitor, Hole seems to have been astonishingly indiscreet, and one has to wonder if he egged things on in order to be at the centre of attention.
Price too lists an extensive range of phenomena. Incidents included furniture sliding around by itself; ewers of water in bedrooms constantly emptied onto the beds; heavy fire-irons rattling themselves and when tied up managing to jump apart, leaving the string knotless; a heavy wardrobe tilting at an angle of forty-five degrees but not falling over, in defiance of gravity (presumably on the occasion Ivan Jeffrey recounted, gravity won); and a heavy bronze vase which once shot through the open front doorway “at an incredible speed“, changed direction through ninety degrees, and came to rest in the garden, all in front of witnesses. If this was the object that hit Ivan in his “tum-tum” and it was going at any speed, he would have known about it as according to Price the vase weighed about 15lbs. There were numerous fires, but conversely on one occasion the owner thought he saw a fire on his bedroom carpet yet after beating it out found no trace of damage. ‘Exorcisms’, to use Price’s term, were conducted unsuccessfully by both Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy (the latter according to Herries an Episcopalian who merely held “some kind of service”). Price said at the end of the chapter that he hoped to be able to follow up the case personally, and Macintyre suspects that the result would have made a companion piece to The Most Haunted House in England, as The Most Haunted House in Scotland. Macintyre speculates that it may have been Price who leaked the story to American Weekly. Price was certainly aware of the article as he cited it in a footnote.
The Jeffrey family sold the house and it became an hotel in 1947. It was finally demolished in 1967-8, at the time of Ivan’s broadcast. The Monypenny and Jeffrey families and their relatives and friends had a stock of stories from the house’s heyday, like the bishop who came to conduct an ‘exorcism’ on a cold day sitting in front of the fire and having his hat leap from his lap into the flames. A woman dressed in green was seen in and around the house. One particularly bizarre story had a pair of gloves being held up to a fire, as if filled by invisible hands. The same witness, walking down the stairs, saw the portraits lift on their chains and rotate. During the period of the hotel, bottles of sealed alcohol mysteriously emptied, the seals left intact.
The house was referred to by G W (not F W, as Macintyre has it) Lambert in a 1964 paper in the SPR’s Journal, ‘Scottish Haunts and Poltergeists II’, calling it “Pitmillie” (which he probably took from Hope’s notes, which also refer to “Pitmillie”) and noting its proximity to the Ochil fault. He links the bulk of phenomena at the house to the sorts of effects that occur with earthquakes, there having been a number of them locally in the period 1936-40, the very years in which events at the house were at their height. Lambert famously proposed hydraulic pressure caused by underground water action as a mechanism for poltergeists and was here seeking another type of natural explanation, though rotating paintings and levitating gloves would have been beyond its scope.
Macintyre notes that Frank Harvey Junior’s 1947 play The Poltergeist and the 1948 film based on it, Things Happen at Night, have their origin in Pitmilly House (the film was not a Hollywood production as Macintyre states, but was made at Twickenham). The film acknowledges Price in a preamble: “The characters and incidents in this film are entirely fictional, although all persons interested in poltergeist phenomena must necessarily be indebted to Mr Harry Price for his research work in that field.” Coals feature extensively in the film, something particularly associated with Pitmilly House, and an insurance investigator is a major character. A psychical researcher, presumably a version of Price, is the most authoritative person present, directing the investigation. Events at ‘Hilton Grange’ in the film, largely played for laughs (supposedly), go beyond even the most outlandish aspects of Pitmilly, culminating in the sight of Alfred Drayton discharging buckshot at flying vases, of which there seem to be an unfeasibly large number on the premises. (This was not Drayton’s only brush with the paranormal, having been a guest at The Halfway House in 1944, an establishment kept by ghosts) There is a poltergeist focus at Hilton Grange, a school-age daughter based on Mary, though despite the uniform she looks as if she probably left her school days behind a good few years earlier.
There has been surprisingly little written about Pitmilly House since the 1940s. Apart from Lambert’s mention in JSPR, Alan Gauld and A D Cornell include it in the appendix to their 1979 book Poltergeists, as Case 429, but do not discuss it. Sadly, it seems unlikely that a complete explanation for Pitmilly House will ever emerge at this late stage. Eyewitnesses attested to remarkable events, but are now beyond further interrogation.
Herries was convinced that the poltergeist was genuinely paranormal, with an intelligence behind it. Hope’s verdict was much more tentative, and was essentially ‘open’. He did not think there was collusion, yet no one person seems to have been present during all of the events. Hope thought the “easiest” solution was that Captain Jeffrey began it, and Vibeke was frightened, then realising he was responsible, when he was away she also faked events to get even, which frightened him in turn. Surprisingly, given that he was supposed to have witnessed paranormal events, Hole told Hope that he thought that Captain Jeffrey had faked some. Presumably Hole would have told Herries and Price the same thing, but neither mentions it as it would not have suited the ‘genuine poltergeist’ narrative.
However, even this, Hope thought, was not satisfactory, and a scenario to cover all of the phenomena would require at least one more participant, or self-deception by large numbers of people. Hope adds the titbit that Mrs Jeffrey was not positively disposed towards her husband, who drank heavily. Captain Jeffrey had seen ghosts in a previous house and his wife considered him to be psychic. On the other hand, Hope speculated that Mrs Jeffrey might be a focus, torn between duty to husband and a desire to be away from him. There certainly seem to have been a lot of emotions swirling around, perhaps including Vibeke’s for her largely absent husband.
Macintyre wonders if Mary was responsible as the poltergeist focus, and she was an obvious suspect given her age. Price certainly saw a parallel with the Amherst Mystery, which featured fires, though Mary at Pitmilly House was never as obvious a focus as Esther Cox was at Amherst. Price also mentions a maidservant at Pitmilly who seemed to be associated with some of the outbreaks of fires, but this may relate to Vibeke, who was accused by a fireman. Some of the events occurred when Mrs Jeffrey, Vibeke and Mary were living in the Dower House, away from the main building, but Hope states that the poltergeist had followed them, and they were reporting activity there as well. That hints at possible fraud by at least one of them, and Hope had both of the younger women in mind as possible fakers though he also more charitably thought that they might be so “nervy” in the Dower House that they were misinterpreting normal occurrences as “supernormal”.
Ivan does not seem to have been regarded suspiciously at all, and was in France when things were particularly bad. Even so, one would expect a bit more precision for such a significant event like coal appearing suddenly on the dinner table than that he was merely “comparatively young”, if it had actually happened. He may have been covering for his wife by suggesting that phenomena had occurred before he met her.
Although Price claimed that all of the descriptions of activity in his book were contained in signed witness statements in his possession, Macintyre notes that there appears to be no sign of these in Price’s methodically preserved archives. Items have certainly disappeared from the Harry Price Library over the years, but one wonders if the reason for the lack of documentation is that Price eventually came to the conclusion, given the florid nature of the communications from Hole, that despite the numerous signed statements, he had been hoaxed. He did not visit the house himself, though as he died in March 1948 perhaps he simply never had the opportunity. Presumably then all of the statements in his possession were gathered by Hole on his behalf, and perhaps he concluded that his initial trust in his contact’s probity was misplaced. His categorising of the house as “Poltergeist Manor” was certainly premature.
The reports gathered by Hope, Herries and Price seem to suggest some paranormal element, but once a narrative gets going, it is easy to misinterpret innocent events as paranormal, and later reports could have been stimulated by the place’s reputation, or there could have been opportunistic mischief-making. As far as someone giving the story to the American Weekly is concerned, its article appeared on 12 July 1942, but Price refers to stories in the British press about the insurance pay-out earlier than that – the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail carried the story on 8 April 1942, and .it appeared in other papers as well, so it is possible that the American Weekly picked up the story from one of those, though that begs the question who leaked the story to the British press. Or, rather than Price give the story to the American Weekly, as Macintyre suggests, it could have been Hole, who seems to have been willing to tell anybody about it; the story was certainly common knowledge in the area.
There has been a great deal of confusion over the insurance claim, how much damage was done, how much was claimed, how much was paid out, and what it signified. Hope put the cost of damage at some £600 and wondered if the family would make an insurance claim as this might prompt the police to investigate it as arson. Hole it would seem was, ironically, concerned that a lawsuit might involve unwelcome publicity, but considered that a failure to claim might be tantamount to a confession of arson. In the event a claim was made, and Price stated that the insurance claim was settled for £400, reduced from a whopping £800.
However, an article in Psychic News, dated 16 December 1967, was published to coincide with the demolition of the house. It said that Herries had stated in a lecture that £400 of damage had been done (indeed the figure given in the Psychic Science article), and this had generally been assumed to be the amount of the claim. In the event, according to Psychic News, the claim was for only £50, which may have meant that the insurers did not bother to look into the matter too closely.
Price considered payment an acknowledgement by the insurers that poltergeists existed, as it was conceding that the fires were not started accidentally, but were not started by the occupants either. Without seeing the insurance report, though, it is impossible to know what the insurer paid out for, and why, leaving us with hearsay as to the grounds for payment. That the company could not assign a cause, if that is what happened, did not entail endorsement of a paranormal agency. All that the payment signified was that the insurers did not consider the family responsible, because they would have instituted an arson investigation if they had. As so often, Price overstated the situation.
It would be interesting to learn if the insurer’s report still exists so that these questions can be settled. As such loose threads suggest, there is still some mileage in this fascinating old case, even if ultimate explanation is elusive. Discussion of the poltergeist activity actually takes up only a very small part of Lorn Macintyre’s well-illustrated 26-page booklet , but he brings together some details about the house and its various occupants, and gives a name to Poltergeist Manor for readers of Price‘s rather ill-titled Poltergeist Over England.
Archives of the Society for Psychical Research, Poltergeist file P4, 1940/1967.
‘Fife’s Fiery Ghost’, Psychic News, 16 December 1967.
Gauld, Alan and Cornell, A D. Poltergeists, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
Herries, J W. ‘Poltergeist in a Scottish Mansion house’, Psychic Science, Vol. 21, No. 3, October 1942, pp.88-92.
Lambert, G W. ‘Scottish Haunts and Poltergeists II’, JSPR Vol. 42, March 1964, pp.223-7.
Price, Harry. Poltergeist Over England: Three Centuries of Mischievous Ghosts, London: Country Life, 1945.
Erich Goode is a sociologist who retired in 2003 from the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology. The Paranormal is a revised version of his 2000 book Paranormal Beliefs: A Sociological Introduction, a vintage reflected in the date of many of the references. It does not aim to supply answers about the reality of paranormal phenomena, but rather to examine why people believe the things they do. Goode discusses how such beliefs arise and are maintained, despite a culture which prizes scientific rationalism. His analysis has a United States focus, though he does use survey data from other countries. In any case, the points can usually be extrapolated to other western societies to an extent, though he points out that the US is atypical of western societies in the depth of its religious devotion.
The first part of the book describes the popularity of paranormal beliefs, how these differ from the standard scientific approach to handling evidence, and why they are worth studying. He also examines how scientists reason, how this differs from everyday ‘common sense’, and how they employ the criterion of falsifiability in a way that many paranormal adherents do not. He considers paranormal beliefs to be “deviant” as they contravene the predominant epistemological view, but they are psychologically normal (or at least not abnormal).
Part 2 examines a variety of “belief systems”: astrology and psychic predictions, including Nostradamus; creationism; parapsychology, and ufology. Part 3 looks at how the paranormal is embedded in society, religion, the media, and political and social life. The final chapter is a brief overview of how paranormal beliefs satisfy personal needs in a way that science does not, and how they make sense in terms of our misplaced reliance on faulty common sense. These ideas can form a network that needs to be examined holistically; they may seem strange to the majority, such as belief in abduction, but appear logically consistent to the claimant, in this example correlating with a belief in far-reaching government conspiracies.
Goode has a flexible definition of the paranormal and it includes a collection of subjects which few are likely to endorse in its entirety. He distinguishes between paranormalism and pseudoscience, the latter still contrary to general scientific thinking, but not paranormal, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. In principle they could exist, but the evidence is sketchy (much like parapsychology, some would argue, showing how slippery these definitions can be). More doctrinaire sceptics are often quick to dismiss the lot (often accompanied by the derisive cry of ‘woo’) with no further thought, but on the other hand, just as sceptics often fail to distinguish the fine detail of what can loosely be termed paranormal and fringe beliefs, so often also are sceptics seen as cut from the same cloth, when there is an assortment of attitudes within scepticism as well. Goode provides a handy table to distinguish types of paranormal belief, and to help sceptic-spotters identify their quarry in turn. Goode himself is a moderate constructionist, considering that analysing who believes in paranormal claims, and why, is more important than assessing those claims’ validity; that is, refuting paranormal claims is not his primary goal.
He sees scientists as homogeneous, as on the whole they tend to share the same world view. This causes him a problem when assessing the work of parapsychologists, who adopt the same methodological approach as their mainstream colleagues, despite Goode’s opinion that their research is almost certainly flawed, and he does tend to treat it as a separate category to many of the subjects he scrutinises. At one point Goode argues that a “radical revision of contemporary science would be necessary if [creationism], parapsychology, astrology, and the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs were valid”. Apart from lumping in disparate subjects with undoubtedly different degrees of plausibility (for example, creationism would seem to have no scientific merit – and only gets so much coverage here because of its prominence in the US – whereas parapsychology at least allows for meaningful argument), a response might well be: “and your point is?”, because one is put in mind of the timidity Rupert Sheldrake ascribes to contemporary science in The Science Delusion. A bit of radical re-visioning might do scientists some good. It could be argued that they have, or should have, better things to do, but there is the risk of a Type-II error in missing something important that could have benefits for us as a species.
Unsurprisingly, however, Goode finds that in general “the paranormal” does not conform to scientific canons of evidence. He acknowledges that people will have anomalous experiences, but their interpretations go beyond what is justified. They are likely to see cause and effect at play in what sceptics dismiss as chance occurrences, and are subject to a range of well-known cognitive biases. He intersperses the chapters with first-hand accounts taken from a student essay assignment which show how individuals’ beliefs operate as part of a network of assumptions about how the world operates. They may be coherent, at least as far as the holder is concerned, but still erroneous.
While Good makes it clear that he holds a sceptical viewpoint, this is not the debunking tract that might be expected from Prometheus. He does though spend a lot of time arguing that a sociological study of the paranormal is important, which he may not have felt obliged to do for another publisher. He is not dismissive entirely of paranormal claims, and while he covers the usual psychological explanations for belief in the paranormal, he leaves some room for the possibility, however faint he sees it, that the paranormal could be valid. In fact, he is surprisingly critical of the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry (though still calling it CSICOP, which it hasn’t been since 2006), using terms like “self-righteousness” and “sanctimoniousness” in connection with Skeptical Inquirer.
This is a thoroughly readable and insightful book, but despite his subtitle he does not demonstrate convincingly why paranormal belief matters, other than to the person holding it. His conclusion is that as such beliefs meet personal needs, and provide a handy way to interpret the world, science will have a difficult job in showing the convinced that they are wrong. People often use a two-tier system in tandem, he argues, depending on the situation: paranormal-based strategies when the situation is fuzzy and the outcome uncertain, but more conventional methods when clear-cut decisions are required. If something seems to work, then even if the sceptic can convincingly demonstrate that it is wrong there will be no incentive to discard it. Goode seems rather pessimistic about the chances of science, and scepticism, to roll back the tide and build a rational utopia in which no longer do newspapers print astrology columns and idiotic school boards try to adopt Intelligent Design textbooks. The notes may change, but the song remains the same.
A review of Volker Anding's film, with supplementary material, can be found on Scribd:
Dr Ian Rubenstein, a full-time General Practitioner in Enfield, North London, is also a practising medium, an unusual combination. While you might expect a doctor to keep such extra-curricular activities quiet, Rubenstein is far from coy in publicising his dual role. In 2009 he appeared in a Channel 4 documentary called Talking to the Dead, about Vestry Road Spiritualist Church, Walthamstow, which he attends, and he has now written what I suppose we might characterise as a spiritual autobiography.
On the face of it, someone from the hard sciences does not seem likely to become a medium giving stage demonstrations at a Spiritualist church. Rubenstein had no strong religious beliefs growing up, coming from a secular background, and no particular interest in the paranormal, though he had had a couple of strange experience when younger which may have indicated exceptional sensitivity.
The most dramatic of these occurred at the age of 19 and involved seeing a woman’s face transfigured into that of some kind of “snow queen”, a kind of guardian spirit of the person, which he felt was somehow able to see into his soul and divine his ignoble motives. His younger sister, who was present, saw something odd happening as well, weird enough to make her scream. She later confirmed that some kind of change had occurred in the person’s face, supporting Rubenstein’s experience and perhaps raising the possibility of a genetic component to the experience.
But these episodes he put to one side, and concentrated on his career and family life. Then one day a patient came in to have his blood pressure checked, and proceeded to tell Rubenstein that the doctor’s deceased grandfather was present and had a message. There followed a twenty-minute session with Rubenstein being told numerous things about himself and his family in conditions which, if described accurately, would seem to suggest limited scope for cold reading. But then, to undermine the strength of the message, he is told to expect a visit that evening from his brother who had grown up in the spirit world after their mother miscarried him. The brother does not show, leaving Rubenstein uncertain what to believe.
Despite this uneven contact with mediumship, there was enough there to intrigue him. Rubenstein gradually became convinced that he too had paranormal abilities through intuitions, and the book details his journey exploring them, and finding out how to use them to best advantage to help people in conjunction with his more conventional role as a doctor. This is a steep learning curve, and a time-consuming one, so all credit to his wife Punam for her tolerance of the amount of effort he has to put in on top of a busy career and many trips to the gym.
Throughout he has tried to keep an open mind, and not dismiss out of hand his experiences, and those reported by others, however odd. He joined a development circle at the Spiritualist Church, and while not embracing the religious component of Spiritualism, he did become open to a reality beyond that our senses can perceive, developing to the point where he was able to stand on a stage himself and transmit messages from the departed.
His burgeoning psychic abilities were indicated by odd little circumstances, for example a feeling that his keys would be stolen from his office and his car broken into, which it duly was; the lesson, listen to your intuition when it’s talking to you, and don’t bat it away Being mediumistic and working in a medical capacity though led to a blurring of boundaries which he was acutely aware could lead to problems (I was expecting him to state at some point that a complaint had been made to the General Medical Council by a scandalised patient with whom he had been too forthright about the source he claimed for his information). However, it is clear that he does not rely on his spirit guides to help him with diagnoses, though they do help with counselling patients.
In addition to his involvement as a stage medium he recounts his interest in the paranormal more generally, describing visits to Stansted Hall and a conference run by the Scientific and Medical Network, and conversations with researchers Maurice Grosse and Gary Schwartz. He admits he has no full answers despite his lengthy investigation. He was though able to go to the aid of friends and sort out a poltergeist that was bothering them, but then the interpersonal skills that he already possessed are a large part of dealing with such incidents.
As well as an exploration of his own spirituality and development of mediumistic abilities, the book is an affectionate portrait of those in the Spiritualist movement on the terrestrial plane with whom Rubenstein comes into contact. There is a chalk and cheese element to this as he is accused by them of over-thinking his situation, when, rather than doing too much questioning, they argue that he should just accept Spirit. He takes a sceptical stance all the way through to his experiences, such as trying parsimoniously to attribute his spirit guides to his own subconscious, much to the bemusement of his mentors at the Spiritualist church, who take an uncomplicated view of their reality. Such unwillingness to probe too deeply into matters of evidence many outsiders find difficult to accept, and makes Consulting Spirit rather different to much Spiritualist literature. Where others would have embraced the strangeness uncritically, he is seen to challenge it, and look for alternative explanations.
There is always the issue of whether he uses his conventional sensitivity based on longstanding clinical experience, merely attributing it to Spirit, but a good example of how this could not have been the case was when he became convinced that a child who had swallowed a pen cap had it lodged in her lung, without seeing her and without any indications in her behaviour that this is what had occurred. Despite initial reports that the child was fine, the cap was indeed found in her lung, and safely removed. His readings on stage were often similarly highly accurate according to his account, though there with the benefit of having the person for whom he was doing the reading in front of him.
One thing that does grate, at least to an English reader, is the use of American English vocabulary which makes for some curious language, given the London setting, not least Rubenstein’s description of himself as a “primary care physician”, not a term much used in Enfield I’ll be bound. But that seems to be our fault – he could not interest a UK publisher in his story and the manuscript was snapped up by Anomalist Books, for whom he changed the text to suit an American audience.
Despite the language issue, this is an extremely readable book. Its author comes across as completely honest, with no position to defend, but taking the reader where he sees the evidence leading him. As a person he seems very nice, sociable, and much more open about himself with patients than the doctors I have come across. There is a sense that his willingness to try new things provides a flexibility which can assist him to integrate his spiritual life into his everyday one more easily than would be the case with a person more mentally rigid.
It has to be said that while he does try throughout to examine the evidence, there is nothing here that will trouble the sceptic, who will be happy to dismiss it all as anecdotal, and make the usual accusations of possible misperception, selective memory, ignoring of misses, cryptomnesia, exaggeration, etc. Rubenstein’s good faith is certainly not in doubt. This is not his career, and he has nothing to gain, not even status or self-esteem, by telling lies. As a well-paid GP he is certainly not in it for the money. Those willing to entertain the possibility that something really is going on here will find Consulting Spirit (a great punning title) an unusual but very useful case study.
Given that there are so many ‘how to’ guides for the paranormal investigator on the market, potential purchasers are bound to ask why they should buy this one and not some other. Rich Newman, founder of the group Paranormal Inc, asks the same question and supplies a number of answers. Firstly it is aimed at the beginner, and is laid out is a clear, logical manner. Secondly it uses scientific methods. Thirdly, it is based on the author’s extensive experience, making it reliable. So how does the book measure up to these claims?
Well, it will not go over the beginner‘s head but while it is straightforward, it is not patronising. We begin with some definitions, and. while his categorisations are fine at this level, the idea of demonic infestation is controversial, though fortunately not an issue many groups are likely to run across. There is some background on why the paranormal is so popular, and a very brief history of ghost hunting. He clearly points out that ghost tourism is a commercial activity and that ghost-hunting reality shows have more to do with ratings than the paranormal – important points for the would-be investigator to appreciate. In his view, while the TV shows are entertaining (debatable in mine), they are not suitable models for groups.
The heart of the book is a practical guide on how to carry out investigations, sprinkled with case studies, many Newman’s own, to illustrate points. He deals with the basics of good practice and emphasises the need to rule out normal explanations before assessing an event as possibly more (though, as always, one is left wondering how one ever knows if something was truly paranormal rather than misperception or equipment-generated artefact). He stresses the need to adopt a neutral approach to cases rather than have preconceived ideas, and to be sensitive to the situation and beliefs of the client/host.
There are several chapters devoted to equipment, broken up into audio, video, photography and environmental monitors. These sections are very useful, and emphasise the importance of experimentation, trying new approaches and discarding what does not work. This is all generally sound, though he does not indicate that the use of EMF meters is controversial. He cautions against the use of mediums – not recommended as they provide false information that confuses the situation – and has sensible advice on the use of Ouija boards.
Newman’s methodology is encapsulated by the acronym DICE – Detect, Interact, Capture, Escalate, After the pre-investigation research stage and once a vigil is in progress, you first detect your ghost; interact with It if possible; capture evidence; and finally escalate the interaction by generating energy, giving the ghosts a source on which to ‘feed’ in order to manifest more clearly. These are not discrete steps but indicate the necessary elements of a successful investigation. He finishes with advice on forming a group and putting a website together. Appendices cover suggestions for equipment to take, a short step-by-step checklist for an investigation, recommended books and websites, and a glossary.
The book is clearly written and will be of use not only to beginners but older hands as well, though anyone with some experience will soon want to supplement it with a more detailed guide. The equipment chapters are particularly useful, full of tips for the novice on a tight budget wondering how to prioritise purchases. Ghost Hunting for Beginners is definitely a good place for anyone wanting to give field work a try to begin, setting out the need for professionalism, sensitivity and good practice above all else. There is one error I must correct though – in describing the Toronto ‘Philip’ experiment, Newman says that the scenario included Philip serving in the American Civil War. It was of course the English Civil War: ‘he’ fought at Marston Moor.
The History Press and Amberley Publishing continue to produce high-quality books of interest to the paranormal enthusiast. Under review are three that deal with the ghosts and folklore of Wales.
Richard Holland, editor of Paranormal magazine until its demise, and several earlier books on aspects of haunted Wales including the amusingly-titled Wales of the Unexpected, has produced a model of what a ghost gazetteer should look like. He has ranged widely in the antiquarian literature, and has traced each story back to its source. To allow the reader to follow up his entries he has included references and an extensive bibliography.
Accounts are restricted to those originally collected before the Second World War, to keep the book to a manageable size, and he has bypassed later versions written up by undependable authors. One result of this policy is the omission of some well-known stories that he has not been able to track back to reliable early sources and where he does not trust more modern ones. Given the extensive quantity of stories that he could have included, he has confined himself to English-language sources, though he adds that many of the Welsh-language accounts have been ably translated into English anyway.
He begins with an overview of the categories of paranormal he has included. Despite the title, it is not restricted to ghosts, encompassing apparitions of the living and of animals, poltergeists, and all sorts of folkloric beings. There is a section on ghosts’ motivations for haunting, and one outlining the major collectors on whose work he has drawn. The bulk of the book comprises a well illustrated county-by-county tour (taking a rather eccentric clockwise route beginning in Flintshire and ending in Powys) which is well-written and clearly laid out, making the text easy to navigate. The current (at time of writing) county boundaries have been adopted.
Very welcome is the presence of an index, a rarity in this kind of book, divided by named ghosts and places. Also included are a glossary of Welsh unfamiliar terms used and a thematic index which allows the reader to find with ease topics on, say, headless ghosts or links to fairy lore. Perhaps the book should have been called Haunted Old Wales, considering the absence of post-war accounts. There is a complementary volume to be written on more recent ghost stories (and possibly one examining untranslated Welsh-language accounts), but within its terms of reference it is doubtful if this one could be bettered.
Peter Underwood’s Haunted Wales might sound as if could be that complementary volume detailing recent cases, but despite the confusingly similar title to Holland’s book, this is actually an almost straight reprint of Underwood’s 1978 Ghosts of Wales with a few minor editorial adjustments. No material has been added, and the only item in the bibliography published after 1978 is the author’s own 2009 Haunted Gardens as it includes two Welsh locations which appeared in the earlier work. Haunted Wales is organised alphabetically by place-name, with the county added, and the result of a more or less straight reprint is that he has fallen foul of the Welsh predilection for altering boundaries. That quibble aside, Underwood always writes elegantly, and is a pleasure to read. Given the large quantity of material from which they had to choose, it is unsurprising that there is not much overlap between this and Holland‘s book. Both are worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone interested in Wales’s paranormal heritage.
Richard Holland expresses surprise that Anglesey has such a paucity of ghost stories, and speculates that this is perhaps because it keeps its secrets. That has not been a problem for Bunty Austin, who has now written three books on the island’s ghosts. Being based there helps, and Bunty bach, as she is often affectionately called, is clearly gregarious, able to encourage people to open up to her and tell their stories. This makes More Anglesey Ghosts far different in style to the other two books, being chatty and full of direct speech most probably reproduced from memory.
The author, an ex-head teacher, crafts each account with an eye to its narrative structure, and that is a problem for anyone hoping to use the book as a guide. The chapters are essentially anecdotes, and it is disconcerting to read the line “Those are the facts that I took to Peggy (padded out a bit by me to make a good story).” Another account given to her which she transcribes she has been told is “embellished a little”. Such throwaway statements make the reader wonder how much the incidents recounted might have been shaped in the service of telling a “good story“. Whatever the status of the contents, it is an extremely enjoyable read, though of limited use either to the researcher or to visitors, and rather out of place in the Amberley range of ghost guides.
Amberley also publishes Anglesey Ghosts, by Bunny Austin. The History Press publishes Haunted Swansea and Beyond; Haunted Cardiff and the Valleys; and Hunted Newport and the Valleys, all by ‘South Wales Paranormal Research’.
Todd Karr of The Miracle Factory, in collaboration with Barry Wiley, has produced a CD devoted to a range of works by Stuart Cumberland (1857 – 1922). Born Charles Garner, Cumberland was charismatic, an enthusiastic traveller, an author, and seemed to know everyone who was anyone. He is mostly remembered today as a proponent of ‘muscle reading’, often called “Cumberlandism”, but as the works on the CD demonstrate, he achieved more than that.
Muscle reading takes advantage of ideomotor action, in William James’ terms a movement immediately following the idea of it, and defined by William Carpenter as muscular movement independent of volition. Cumberland himself talked of “exalted perception of touch”, using the unconscious muscular cues of the subject. He caused confusion by talking of “thought reading”, which suggested a paranormal transfer of information from one mind to another without the operation of the known senses, but clearly there was nothing paranormal in this “mechanical transfer of impressions”, as Charles Mercier put it. Indeed, Frank Podmore saw the skill being “due rather to long practice and careful observation than to any abnormal extension of faculty.”
Even so, Cumberland was able to obtain amazing results from what seems at first glance a limited skill. He was able to locate persons, and hidden objects as small as a pin; reproduce pictures thought of; determine secret words, even when not in English; state the serial number of a hidden banknote; he could announce numbers merely thought of but not written anywhere. Most dramatically, perhaps, an independent volunteer would act out the killing of a subject in gruesome detail while Cumberland was out of the room, and upon his return Cumberland would, blindfolded, find the ‘victim’ in his seat, take him back onto the stage, and reprise the actions of the ‘’murderer’ (a variation on the theme was ‘robbers and Queen’s Messenger’). He was also proficient at reproducing the sorts of phenomena produced fraudulently in the séance room.
Cumberland travelled widely with his muscle reading act, and according to his own accounts mingled with large numbers of top-drawer people: royalty, aristocracy, eminent politicians and society figures, as recounted in A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts (1888) and People I have Read (1905). The name-dropping can be forgiven considering that access to elite social circles was important as part of his marketing strategy. He was adamant that he did not work for a fee when in such exalted company, which meant that, at least in his own eyes, he was treated as an honoured guest rather than a hired entertainer. He was though well rewarded in kind for his efforts.
His relish in recounting his social successes entails a certain amount of repetition across his books as he describes how impressed they all were by his act, and he is keen to share his observations on both the personal and national characteristics of those he met and the countries he visited. As indicated by his photographs, he portrayed himself as a clubbable man of the world. You get the impression that for Cumberland the anecdote was all, as indicated by the relish with which he recorded that when he had exposed spirits in America, they had threatened to “shoot at sight” in retaliation, and there is a sense that he was prone to some exaggeration. Even his first subject just happened to be the Dean of Lichfield (unfortunately pages 3-4 of A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts, covering these early attempts, are missing).
Cumberland’s social success is all the more surprising since he came from humble origins, the son of a clerk to a butcher in Oxford. He had worked as assistant to Washington Irving Bishop (1856-1889), who was not above name-dropping himself, but struck out on his own. Bishop resented his erstwhile employee’s ascendency, to judge by an amazing article from the New York Times, included on the CD. It reproduces a circular Bishop had had printed in London, warning the public about Cumberland and giving details of his real name, parentage and origins. Bishop charges Cumberland with abusing his trust – ingratiating himself with Bishop’s friends and then effectively stealing his act. The disloyal Garner had changed his name to “the more euphonious and aristocratic name ‘Stuart Cumberland’.” The clear charge was that Cumberland was an arriviste worthy only of contempt, ignoring the debt that they both owed to John Randall Brown, who preceded them. Cumberland shrugged off this petulant diatribe and flourished.
Unsurprisingly there was much interest in Bishop and Cumberland among the members of the newly-fledged Society for Psychical Research. It was keen to distinguish muscle reading from telepathy, the latter requiring complete lack of contact. The sceptical Cumberland did not have much time for the SPR. In A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts he claimed that he had fooled both those (unnamed) Spiritualists who saw him as a medium, and the SPR, whose members saw what he did as telepathy. In reality the SPR was fully aware of muscle reading and the necessity to avoid contact in telepathy experiments.
The long article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 24 May 1884 (‘Muscle-Reading by Mr Stuart Cumberland: A Reception at the “Pall Mall Gazette” Office’) has not been included on the CD, but a follow-up letter by Cumberland has, in which he takes issue with Edmund Gurney of the SPR. While not present at the Gazette demonstration, Gurney had written to say that muscle reading was commoner than supposed, and some friends of his were rather better at it than either Bishop or Cumberland (indeed, the first volume of the SPR’s Proceedings, 18 July, 1883, contains a note by the Rev. E H Sugden of Bradford describing achievements remarkably similar to Cumberland’s; and the following year he gave a practical demonstration of his skills at a conversazione held by the Society in London).
Gurney made the reasonable point that people seeing muscle reading in action could easily go away with the erroneous assumption that they had witnessed thought reading. Cumberland’s reply is derisive of Gurney, charging that for Gurney, Cumberland’s performances “do not sufficiently savour of the supernatural.” He counters the charge that his demonstrations lead to the confusion of muscle and thought reading with an exultant “So be it!”, arguing that his mission is to demonstrate that nobody has “supernatural” powers, and that non-contact thought transference as conceptualised by Gurney is nonsense, as indicated by the fact that whenever “mental picture-readers” had attempted it in his presence, they had failed. Bishop and Cumberland became bêtes noires for the SPR, particularly William Barrett, who had already contributed an article on ‘Mind-reading versus muscle-reading’ to Medium and Daybreak in 1876, and was moved to write a brief article on ‘Pseudo Thought-Reading’ in the first volume of the SPR Journal, February 1884.
As his dismissal of Gurney suggests, Cumberland was on good terms with anti-paranormal scientists. He was vocal in his denunciations of both Spiritualism and psychical research, making the arguments more palatable by dressing them up as entertainment. Even so, as happened later with Harry Houdini and Conan Doyle, protestations that nothing paranormal had occurred might not necessarily convince those with the will be believe. William Gladstone, an honorary member of the SPR and one of Cumberland’s subjects, seemed to be unsure about the extent of Cumberland’s powers, and he should have had some familiarity with the early literature on telepathy that had appeared in the SPR’s Proceedings. (Roger Luckhurst in his The Invention of Telepathy reprints the front page of The Illustrated London News, 28 June, 1884, which features the historic encounter, entitled ‘Politicians at Play: “Thought-Reading” at the House of Commons’.)
Cumberland’s travel books (a label that can be extended to his muscle reading reminiscences) show him to have been an enthusiast of Empire typical of his age, though with compassion for the native populations in North America which had suffered under white expansionism. He is always ready to opine on national as well as individuals’ characteristics, in particular the dastardly Russians, criticisms of whom appear regularly in his books. In The Queen’s Highway he travels Canada by rail from Vancouver to the Atlantic, marvelling at the achievement of a line running from coast to coast, opening a new route to Australia entirely through Empire territories. He takes every opportunity to sing the praises of Canada compared to its southern neighbour, with a few sideswipes against the French-speaking inhabitants, happily “no longer slaves of an oppressive feudalism.”
What I Think of South Africa is an altogether angrier book. He is dismissive of the black population, whom he considers generally “good-natured, simple-minded”, though he rates those in Natal (including the Zulus) more highly. Naturally he was a great admirer of Cecil Rhodes. But a large part of the book is devoted to a splenetic examination of the Boers, and in particular to Paul Kruger. He saw the British ascendency over the Boers as inevitable, and a good thing too. Ultimately though, he shows that, however much he thought he knew a place, he was not a sound forecaster. There is no sense that the Second Boer War would begin three years after publication, and his long-term prediction was that the whites would eventually simply turn their backs on South Africa once its enormous resources had been exhausted.
Yet another string to his bow was as the author of “shilling shockers”. He wrote three of these (a fourth was announced but does not seem to have appeared). The Rabbi’s Spell is included on the CD, and shows Cumberland to have had a facile pen and a sense of dramatic movement (though given the subject-matter, a romance set against the persecution of the Jews in Russian-occupied Poland, unsurprisingly the sense of humour on display elsewhere in his books is absent). It is a work designed to pass an hour on a train journey, while allowing him to vent his feelings about the untrustworthy Russians.
For someone who prided himself on his rationalism, it is also surprisingly mystical, particularly where the Rabbi himself is concerned. The Rabbi carves a curse in Hebrew on the tree where the central murder occurs, and it is fulfilled later, at the climax of the story. The murderer, unhinged by guilt, fear of discovery, and by having been the subject of a demonstration uncannily similar to Cumberland’s own murder simulation, hangs himself on the same spot. The curse translates as: “He who hath done this bloody thing shall on this very spot render up his own life”, and the Rabbi sees its operation as divine intervention. It seems curious that someone who was so sceptical of paranormal claims should be happy to employ such devices in his fiction, but as ever, Cumberland had an eye for the market.
There is a more significant supernatural element in A Fatal Affinity (1889), sadly not included on the CD. This features women being stabbed to death on their twenty-first birthdays, and as well as taking inspiration from the recent Whitechapel murders, draws on a topical interest in eastern religion (it turns out that an astral-plane travelling Hindu assassin is responsible, the victims all having family connections with India, their deaths part of an initiation rite). Cumberland wrote a play with a Theosophical theme called An Adept (he was on record as having “a supreme contempt for Mme. Blavatsky”). This he said he had sent to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, only to find it had been plagiarised by Robert Buchanan as The Charlatan in 1894 and performed at The Haymarket, a theatre managed by Tree. If it was any consolation to Cumberland, The Charlatan was not a success. His own play, retitled The Wonder-Worker, was performed later that year in Margate, to establish the copyright, and was then to be put on in Berlin.
Cumberland retired from performing, comfortably off, in 1910. In 1918, and again the following year, he returned to castigating Spiritualism, vigorous once more because of the catastrophe of the First World War. He had begun his career with an open mind, he said, but found that the reports he read did not reflect his own experiences when attending sittings. He became convinced that mediumistic phenomena were a combination of trickery and self-deception. As he scathingly put it, he did not himself possess second sight, but he did possess common sense.
His anger at mediumistic “chicanery” shines through, and he argues that if the vulnerable cannot protect themselves, then they must be protected “against their own folly.” While he is happy to tilt at Conan Doyle and Sir William Crookes, he surprisingly has more time for Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir William Barrett, whom he considers less credulous. Among his subjects he tackles the use of séances as an intelligence-gathering device in wartime and the Indian Rope Trick, for which he finds no evidence. He is clear that he has no issue with Spiritualism as a religion, his objection is to deception of all kinds, though he does think that there might be a short step from Spiritualism to Satanism, a phenomenon in the realms of mental disorder.
Cumberland’s willingness to put up £1,000 as a token of his confidence that William Eglinton would not be able to produce paranormal phenomena in the presence of a committee of sceptical scientists, matched by a similar amount from Henry Labouchère, makes the offer the ancestor of James Randi’s ‘Million Dollar Challenge.’ The CD includes biographical details of Cumberland extracted from David Price’s 1985 Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurors in the Theater, and Price notes that Cumberland “placated Henry Labouchere” and handled him “delicately”. But Labouchère (a rather disreputable MP best known as the author of the Labouchère Amendment which criminalised all male homosexual activity) provided support for Cumberland through his weekly paper Truth, so no placation was required. Cumberland in That Other World (1918) refers to Labouchère, who died in 1912, as “one of my most enthusiastic supporters in my crusades against shams and impostures, and endeavours to advance scientific truth.” Spiritualism – The Inside Truth (1919) is dedicated to “Truth”, which may be a reference to Labouchère’s journal as well as a noble endeavour in its own right.
In addition to Cumberland’s books, there is a small selection of articles and letters by and about him on the CD, ranging from a long two-part letter on ‘Illusionary and Fraudulent Aspects of Spiritualism’ published in the Journal of Mental Science in 1881/2, to one written to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1919, recounting his disappointment at not being able to find a genuine occurrence of “Hindoo magic” in India, including the Indian rope trick. Also included is his obituary in the Times, which would probably have irritated him, as it not only devotes a large amount of its space to describing the early work of the SPR, but suggests that Cumberland may well have possessed genuine powers of thought transference.
Not much is known about his personal life over and above what he chose to include in his books. According to Todd Karr, in a biographical note on the CD, he was married to Phyllis Bentley (known as “the celebrated antimagnetique”), a stage performer in her own right. However, in People I have Read, he refers to "my wife, my relative, Miss Phyllis Bentley, and myself", and Phyllis is described variously in the press as his sister-in-law and niece. He also said that he had a son at Cambridge. A copy of Cumberland’s 1887 acceptance form for Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society is included on the CD.
Also on the CD, sounding like a provincial paper, is the 8-page Cumberland News, subtitled “An Illustrated Journal of World-wide Interest”, a promotional newspaper with details of his and Bentley’s activities, naturally focusing on the regal, aristocratic and society figures with whom he had been in contact (the two columns on the first page are headed ‘Court News’ and ‘Illustrious “Subjects”’ respectively). He seems to have accumulated a large number of honours from his royal patrons, along with numerous “souvenirs”. The newspaper shows his enterprising nature, listing his books and describing his and Bentley’s acts, suggesting that in the modern world he would have had his own website. Bentley is referred to merely as his “relative” (her name appears in the South Africa book, but in passing in a list of performers, without even mentioning that they were connected; a curious relationship).
This is not a complete collection of Cumberland’s works (and The Miracle Factory does specialise in publications relating to magic, so there is no reason why it should be), though there is a bibliography, compiled by Barry Wiley. In particular it is missing his 1889 novels The Vasty Deep, reviewed rather unkindly by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette (even though he had supplied the half-time entertainment during the Pall Mall Gazette tests in 1884), and A Fatal Affinity, which is discussed by Luckhurst in The Invention of Telepathy. It would also be useful to see his dramatic works if they still exist: The Wonder-Worker and a one-act play, A Question of Conscience. Some of the books included here are available elsewhere, either online or as reprints, but it is useful to see so much Cumberlandiana gathered handily in one place, and this is a feast for the enthusiast.
Cumberland has been neglected in recent years, with the notable exception of Luckhurst’s essay ‘Passages in the Invention of the Psyche: Mind-Reading in London, 1881-4’, in the 2002 collection Encounters: Transactions Between Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century. He has also figured peripherally in the never-ending debates over the identity of Jack the Ripper as he claimed to have seen the murderer’s face in his dreams three times (and incorrectly predicted the killer would be captured after his ninth victim). This CD represents a welcome opportunity to reappraise aspects of Cumberland’s career. There is though much more to find out, from whether he was or was not arrested in Bohemia for allegedly ridiculing the Austrian flag, to an examination of The Mirror (for part of its life Stuart Cumberland’s Illustrated Mirror), the weekly he ran from 1889-92. It is to be hoped that this collection will stimulate further scholarship examining his life and achievements.
Charles Colbert, author of A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America, here turns his attention to Spiritualism and its relationship to American art in the nineteenth century. Given that the artists he discusses did not depict Spiritualist themes overtly, it is easy to overlook the profound effect that the religion had on artistic practitioners of the period. As he notes, such beliefs are likely to influence one’s entire outlook, artistic products as much as any other sphere of life. Artists it seems were particularly susceptible to the messages of Spiritualism because of their sensitivity to the world around them and a desire to delve beneath a surface appearance to find its essence. Colbert sees the intertwining of Spiritualism and art as a response to the stresses of a mechanistic worldview, the narrow perspectives of Protestantism, the aesthetic restrictions of Puritanism, and in general “the demons of modernity.” He stresses that for these artists, their work was not a substitute for religious feeling, but rather “a place where religion happened.”
In what is itself a large canvas, he takes a chronological approach, split into pre- and post-Civil War sculptors, painters and critics, and brings the story into the early twentieth century, when the link between art and Spiritualism began to break down under eclectic modernist influences. Some of the artists discussed had had profound spiritual or paranormal experiences which inclined them to Spiritualism, others simply found it a congenial belief system. Either way, they saw both art and Spiritualism as possessing transformative aims. Thus William Sidney Mount and George Innes in their landscapes attempted to capture a sense of the invisible ether in which all life is immersed and which forms a bridge to the afterlife. The style known as Tonalism was particularly suited to this type of ethereal image, and we can catch oblique glimpses of an idealised world that shades imperceptibly into the Summerland.
In addition to Spiritualism, ideas such as phrenology, clairvoyance and psychometry informed artists’ practice. For example, Hiram Powers was influenced by phrenology when producing sculptures designed to express aspects of character. Even where these were idealised depictions rather than real individuals, viewers often saw a resemblance to deceased family members, in the same way that spirits in the séance room were often taken to be persons known to a sitter, despite their generic appearance.
In a sense, it could be said, looking at art was itself like participating in a séance; it was considered a bridge between the here and the higher realms. Works were consumed with an “awed reverence” – paintings and busts frequently arranged to form shrines within the house, objects of contemplation and veneration. The spiritualising effect worked at a subliminal level, using clairvoyance and intense engagement to absorb the energies imbued in the piece by its maker. Viewing was akin to psychometry in that a reciprocal relationship between the observer and object, in which things could become thoughts, but thoughts could become things. For this process to work, having the original was crucial because it allowed the viewer to make a direct connection with its spiritual content that a copy did not allow.
The thrust of Spiritualism was a gradualist connection between matter and spirit, which made the contemplation of art an activity commensurate with other modes of spiritual development. The idea of the ‘temple of art’ expanded the gallery as a place of conspicuous consumption and connoisseurship into one where the values imbedded in the work by the artist could be absorbed by the act of viewing it. Far from being a passive or dilettantish activity, scrutinising at art was seen as an activity that would encourage people away from the pleasures of earthly life to a contemplation of more elevated standards.
Artistic production did not operate in a intellectual vacuum, and in addition to sketching in the standard history of Spiritualism from the Fox sisters on, Colbert traces some of the philosophical underpinnings of culture at the time, notably the Spiritualist ideas of Andrew Jackson Davis and the long-lasting ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg This nexus of art and spirituality can also be seen in the philosophy of William James, who was aware of the wider importance of aesthetic experience, and whose emphasis on continuity resonated with the tenets of Spiritualism.
It is a pity that the publishers, in such a well-produced volume, could not have found the budget to include some colour plates. The book has numerous reproductions, but they are all in black and white, which is unfortunate when much of the discussion hinges on the role of tone to evoke the paintings’ numinous character. It would also have been useful to have had some comparison with European painters who hinted at the transcendental in their work, such as Henri Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich (there were no Gothic trappings in these New World paintings), and perhaps an idea of how Spiritualist influences on art intersected with ideas of the sublime within Romanticism.
However, that would have made a long book even longer, and Colbert has given us a rich pudding which brings a raft of lesser-known (with the exception of James McNeill Whistler, who was based in England for most of his career) but clearly significant American artists to greater attention. He has done a wonderful job in explicating influences that are not obvious at first glance, but which expand our understanding of the artworks and the milieu in which they were produced. As he rightly says, “Sometimes a painting must become a little strange before it can become familiar.”
Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) is one of the most famous, and controversial, of the physical mediums. She is probably best known in the English-speaking world through the classic 1909 paper in the SPR’s Proceedings by Everard Feilding, William Wortley Baggally and Hereward Carrington, ‘Report on a Series of Sittings with Eusapia Palladino’, and Carrington’s book Eusapia Palladino and her Phenomena. The first of these was given a new lease of life through the controversy ignited by Richard Wiseman’s analysis of the sittings in his 1992 SPR Journal paper ‘The Feilding Report: A Reconsideration’, in which he suggested that a confederate may have removed a panel in the door at the back of the ‘cabinet’ used in the séances, in order to fake phenomena.
Hitherto largely unknown outside Italy (and apparently not much better known in it) is Filippo Bottazzi’s account of sittings with Palladino, Fenomeni Medianici, osservati in una serie di sedute fatte con Eusapia Paladino. Published in the same year as Carrington’s book and Feilding et al’s paper, it has been translated into English by Antonio Guiditta and Irmeli Routti. as Mediumistic Phenomena, Observed in a Series of Sessions with Eusapia Palladino. The new edition has been issued by ICRL Press, the publishing arm of Brenda Dunne and Robert Jahn’s International Consciousness Research Laboratories.
The translators have added very brief biographical sketches of Palladino, Bottazzi, and themselves, and Guiditta’s foreword explains how he came across the neglected book through a friendship with Bottazzi’s grandson. Bottazzi (1867-1941) was an eminent physiologist, falling neatly into that band of scientists in the Victorian and Edwardian periods who brought their expertise in the physical sciences to bear on the subject-matter of Spiritualism. He claimed that he began as a sceptic of mediumship, insofar as he thought of it at all, a view which he said was reinforced by allegations that Palladino had resorted to fraud. Disdain for the séance room seemed to be common among professional colleagues who had never attended a sitting, he added, which was hardly encouraging.
Despite this negative climate of opinion, he was intrigued by newspaper accounts of Palladino’s séances (which indicates how well known she was to the Italian public at the time), and he decided to take a closer look, examining her in his laboratory with the same dispassionate gaze that he would use for any other scientific investigation. He therefore organised tests of Palladino at the Royal University of Naples in 1907, sessions which are the subject of his book. Bottazzi notes Palladino’s dislike of innovation, preferring a familiar set-up, which meant that he had to overcome some resistance from her to using the laboratory as she had wanted to meet in a private house, but he eventually won her over.
His goal was to obtain superior documentation to that of previous investigations, and the variety of instrumentation he employed indicates a high degree of ingenuity in constructing devices. His rationale for using a range of these was that doing so would provide stronger evidence than endorsements based only on eyewitness testimony, which were open to dispute. The investigation would adhere to the standards of any other scientific research programme, recording events automatically and objectively. That, with the possibility of fraud excluded, would carry much more weight than earlier accounts, and also give more fine-grained (and permanent) detail than would be possible with sitters’ recollections. People can disagree in good faith over an event but technology does not, he thought. Critics, presented with unbiased documentation, would not be able to claim that there was misperception or misinterpretation on the part of the sitters. If such critics still carp, Bottazzi loftily argues, their opinion is not worth entertaining because of their lack of scientific education. True to his word he reproduces photographs of equipment, traces from recording cylinders, and a couple of action shots taken during a session.
Bottazzi sets out the conditions under which the experiments were made, the laboratory being amenable to his control and making it possible to record without Palladino being aware. The intention was to conduct both proof and process experiments, to demonstrate the genuineness of the phenomena, and attempt to understand how they occurred. However, he does not appear to have examined Palladino’s person, which was a major weakness. Also, the curtains and rings used for the cabinet were provided by Palladino. These were too long by about 10cm and were folded on the floor. Palladino insisted that this was necessary, and although Bottazzi confessed he did not know why it should be, he was happy to accommodate the medium.
Palladino was generally agreeable to the suggestions for sitters that Bottazzi made, except that she showed a “keen desire” that one individual, Prof De Amicis, be included in the sessions. The rest, chosen by Bottazzi, were novices in the séance room, though with scientific credentials and a high degree of discretion. They were mostly at professorial level and with impeccable track records in science. Eight sessions are described, lasting from 17 April to 5 July 1907. Bottazzi wrote detailed reports shortly after each one to go with the instruments' output, all discussed with the other sitters to obtain a final account. Events occurred too quickly to allow for contemporaneous notes to be made, and there was no secretary, but Bottazzi is at pains to stress that his recollection was clear and vivid, his reports accurate in every respect.
Complete darkness was used only rarely – the room was usually illuminated by a lamp with a heavily-painted red shade, light enough to see Palladino’s hands and upper body. This proved to be too bright still, so Bottazzi had a rheostat fitted to allow the illumination to be reduced further without being extinguished entirely. Palladino’s urine was collected and analysed before and after several sessions, and details of the analysis are supplied, though what paranormally-relevant conclusions might have been drawn from this procedure are unstated.
Séances got off to a slow start, but phenomena increased in frequency and impact as Palladino became familiar with the set-up. There was a certain restlessness in the room; Palladino herself was noted for this, but it extended to other participants, who often left the circle in order to observe events from a distance, free, as they saw it, of the medium’s influence. During the fourth session they attempted to lure Palladino into obvious fraud by placing objects inside the cabinet within her reach, but she passed the test to their satisfaction.
The sitters experienced a wide range of phenomena with Palladino being controlled, some while a participant was standing with his arms around her shoulders. There were levitations, rappings outside the cabinet and movements within. A chair was shunted about 40cm with Bottazzi sitting on it (total weight about 93kg), a feat a colleague found difficult to replicate by main strength. A mandolin moved on its own and was strummed. Faint lights were seen. More dramatically, flames appeared to emanate from Palladino’s head. Current of air of unknown origin moved the curtains of the cabinet. Invisible hands were felt by the sitters.
There were ‘materialisations’ of some shape, hard to discern among the shadows in the dim light, which could have been a head or a large fist. At other times the spirit hands were visible, while Palladino‘s own hands were being controlled. These spirit hands had the same sensitivity, Bottazzi says, as her physical ones. At one point they were apparently simultaneously beating a tambourine and a table, on another the table, tambourine and a telegraph key, again while her physical hands were held, on yet another occasion they depressed a balance plate (Palladino had been standing close to it when this occurred but Bottazzi considers and discounts the use of a hair to produce the effect, as she had been caught using in previous experiments).
There were instances of the hands grasping those of the sitters from inside the cabinet, well above Palladino‘s head, while her own were being held. The spirit hands felt real, but could not have been Palladino’s. Yet a Wiseman-style theory that a confederate could have entered the building surreptitiously (not an hotel as in the Feilding sessions, but a university building in which a stranger would have been more likely to be challenged), and crept into the cabinet from the adjacent room through the door at the cabinet’s rear, is not tenable as equipment was piled behind it with tubes going through the door to apparatus inside the cabinet. This arrangement could not have been disturbed without the experimenters noticing it.
Occasionally Palladino touched the curtains, but never put her own hand inside the cabinet, even though her invisible spirit hands apparently did enter it. Palladino never inspected the cabinet herself at any time, but Bottazzi says that she had no need as she did so with her invisible limbs during the sessions. He attributes the ease with which Palladino’s ‘spirit hand’ was able to lift and move furniture, compared to the fine motor skills needed to press a key, to the fact that force was easier than skill, and her invisible hands required training in the same way that her visible ones did, improving as the sessions progressed.
Despite the remarkable proceedings in his laboratory, Bottazzi acknowledged that Palladino’s powers were waning because of her advancing age and ill-health, and he expressed the hope that younger mediums, of which he was convinced there were many, would be amenable to testing, to allow the conditions to be explored more fully. All of the sitters were convinced that what they experienced was genuine, but the meaning was open to dispute. Though Palladino’s spirit control ‘John King’ was heard inside the cabinet, Bottazzi remained convinced that ‘John’ was an aspect of Palladino’s personality, whether conscious or unconscious. He felt that a spiritualistic explanation for the results was less likely than that Palladino’s powers emanated from within herself, in some form analogous to a split personality but that was both physiological and psychic. Bottazzi refers to the way the phenomena synchronised with muscle contractions of the medium’s closely controlled limbs, which to him suggested some direct (ie psychokinetic) effect: the effects could not have been hallucinations, as Palladino’s movements corresponded with events further off that were perceived acoustically or visually by the sitters. Fraud was naturally ruled out.
An issue which Bottazzi does not confront was that the network of investigators was quite small. Bottazzi and his circle knew Charles Richet (who furnished a letter of introduction to Palladino) and Cesare Lombroso, for example, and as Richet and Lombroso were on good terms with Palladino, there was a disincentive for Bottazzi to attempt any procedure which might have annoyed Palladino. It may well have been that she was happy with the arrangements while they worked to her advantage, and Bottazzi did not appreciate how much flexibility they provided her to cheat. Unusually for a scientific author he acknowledges the emotional aspect, and it is clear that the sitters were caught up in the excitement of the project. His belief that the arrangements were rigorous may have led to complacency, and he considered Palladino to be of low intelligence, surely a dangerous assumption. As with other investigations of working-class mediums, there is the possibility that the professors underestimated the ability of Palladino to manipulate the situation.
The translators and publisher are to be congratulated on making this text available to non-italophones, though a fuller introductory discussion would have been welcome. While unlikely to shift established opinions on the subject at a distance of a hundred years, Bottazzi’s entertaining and very readable account is seemingly immune to the sorts of ad-hoc accusations levelled against the work with Palladino carried out by Feilding and Co. It is a valuable addition to the literature on this enigmatic and fascinating personality, one who still arouses fierce debate on the value of her mediumship.
The Scole experiment continues to be of enormous interest since sittings terminated in 1998. To add to the books, articles, presentations and blog posts comes Tim Coleman’s professionally-produced film which, while not just about Scole, does make it the focus. Most valuably, the film incorporates some of the material generated by the Scole group. They assiduously documented the phenomena generated in their collaboration with a spirit team. There were a vast number of these; according to the group’s reckoning more than in any other experiment in the history of the paranormal.
All four of the primary living participants – Robin and Sandra Foy and mediums Diana and Alan Bennett – were interviewed by Coleman, and the points they and other interviewees make are illustrated by original recordings, supplemented by reconstructions, clearly labelled, to indicate what the experiences would have been like for the sitters. The Afterlife Investigations has clearly been a long time in the making as there is footage taken within the cellar where the bulk of the activity occurred, and the Foys have not lived there for some time. There are two short extras on the DVD: contributions from some of the interviewees on what the afterlife might be like, and what appears to be a deleted scene on direct voice at Scole.
The viewer certainly gets a flavour of what participants witnessed during the five years the group sat. There were temperature changes and breezes. Intelligent-seeming lights flashed around the room, bouncing on and seeming to go through the table, touching sitters on request and even seeming to enter them. There were patches of light forming human faces, a disembodied hand and other materialisations. There were levitations of objects. Amazing images were recorded on 35mm film, faces, glyphs, diagrams, verses, texts in various languages. Some eighty apports were received, a good selection of which are displayed in the film. The best had to be the postcard with the caption, “If living please write, if dead don’t bother” which indicates a sense of humour on someone’s part.
In addition to the spectacular light shows and images, there were a thousand hours of spirit communication. The personalities coming through were consistent, sometimes answering questions before they had been asked. Tapes in a recorder with the microphone removed still captured voices and there were other voices which emanated from different parts of the room, referred to as ‘extended voice’. Sadly there is a gulf between the sometimes astonishing visual products and the general dullness of the verbal communications. The culmination of the work was ‘Project Alice’, an experiment using a video camera and mirrors angled to so that it recorded its own viewfinder. The set-up produced amazing images, including faces, colours, otherworldly scenes, and what seemed to be some kind of ’inter-dimensional doorway’, none of which could be explained by it being simple feedback of the camera’s own output.
In a welcome spirit of openness many outsiders were invited to sessions, some of whom are interviewed for the film. In addition to sittings in Norfolk, the group went overseas, to the Continent, Ireland and the United States. The implication is that the larger the number of sitters, the harder it would have been for fraud to occur. Naturally much time is devoted to the investigation by senior members of the Society for Psychical Research, and there are interviews with Montague Keen and David Fontana, with archive footage of the third SPR investigator, Arthur Ellison, who died in 2000. There is an interview with Rupert Sheldrake, who attended a sitting and was impressed by what he saw. Fontana is clear about Scole, that it is paradigm-changing. He believed that when you had sittings as successful as those at Scole, you saw “miracles”, inexplicable by the normal laws of science.
Miracle is a word also used by Ellison of one rather startling display during which a crystal, illuminated internally by the spirit team, levitated and settled in a Pyrex bowl. Ellison was invited to pick it up, which he did. He was then asked to try again and found that his fingers went through it. When asked for the third time, he was once more able to pick it up. Robin Foy explains that this was designed as a metaphor for our lives, the earthly body giving way to the incorporeal, only our essence remaining when the physical is removed. Keen added that Arthur was close to the bowl with his head over it to prevent a hand or mechanical device reaching in. It is at such points as these that possible scenarios for fraud are stretched their utmost - assuming of course that the witnesses were accurately describing what was happening, rather than what they thought was happening.
In answer to the question why the production of such a mass of material was deemed necessary, Keen explains that put together it comprises a complex puzzle which makes the case stronger, as the more difficult it is to solve, the less easily can it be attributed to the Scole group. He always emphasised the ‘bundle of sticks’ argument, that is, pieces of evidence were stronger when combined than they would be taken in isolation. This though seems a double-edged method when assessing controversial data. While the enormous range of events at Scole could be taken as mutually reinforcing, on the grounds that to fake them in front of large numbers of independent witnesses without being caught would tax the resources of the faker beyond breaking point, the critic can retort that a bundle of nonsense is still nonsense. It is clear that the amount of effort required to decipher a puzzle is unlikely to be equivalent to the effort required to compile it, given access to obscure sources by the compiler.
The obvious issue of whether there was fraud at Scole is mentioned, in particular the issue of séances being held in the pitch dark and the reluctance of the team on the other side to allow infrared. This was asked for, particularly by Keen, but the sitters were told it would interfere with the energy. The insistence on total darkness is obviously the fatal flaw for some critics, but the commentary suggests that criticisms were satisfactorily overcome by the strength of the controls. Appeals to the scientific credentials of the SPR investigators are bolstered by saying that the SPR has long experience of exposing fake mediums, and its investigators are not easily fooled. One likes to think that this is so, but there are no guarantees. The three main SPR investigators saw themselves as guests, and while they searched the cellar, and never found anything suspicious, they never searched the mediums themselves, a distinct weakness in the investigation.
Chris French is wheeled on for an opinion but he merely gives his standard statement that the evidence for life after death is not strong, and he does not tackle Scole specifically. He did not attend any sittings there and was not involved in the debates when the Report was published so he can hardly count as an informed critic (though to be fair he is balanced by parapsychologist Charles Tart talking about quantum connections with psi, and Tart did not visit either). French’s unwitting role is to indicate that opposing views to the genuineness of Scole are not strong, but actually Coleman was asking the wrong critic. It is a feature of this case that the scrutiny given to it by the sceptics has been thin indeed, presumably because they had already made up their minds without having to bother with it (Sue Blackmore and Richard Wiseman, who were invited but didn‘t make the trip certainly appear to have done so). Instead it was SPR members who engaged industriously with the evidence, finding alternative explanations.
The film’s commentary slips over such opposing views by saying that there have been discussions of how individual events might have been faked, but that the principal investigators were still convinced they were genuine. Fontana is bullish about fraud, saying to the critics that if they think if something was faked, then they should duplicate it (and not hypothetically from an armchair, as so often happens). Keen says that the images on film had either been projected by spirits in some way we cannot recognise, or they were all fakes. He plumps for the former but it is curious that he does not admit the possibility of the sort of mixed phenomena that investigators thought they saw in Eusapia Palladino‘s mediumship, genuine and fake together. There is a brief discussion of whether the phenomena could be attributed to action by the minds of the living participants rather than discarnate entities, but the conclusion is that on a balance of probabilities, given that micro-PK effects tend to be very small, they were more likely to be caused by spirits.
There were some omissions in the film. Given the numbers visiting the Scolehole over the years, more of them could have been interviewed. There is a reunion of sitters who attended sessions in California, but nothing similar was done for the more numerous Norfolk participants. No dissenting first-hand witnesses are included, though there were certainly some. The film does not allude to the material compiled by critics (Donald West, Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell) at the back of the SPR‘s Scole Report. Much is made of a supposedly tamper-proof wooden box constructed to hold film securely, but there is no reference to the controversy over whether it was amenable to opening, and if it could be so under controlled conditions. Instructions for building a machine for facilitating communications, the diagram of which was put on film, was found to have Edison’s initials, but the film does not say that when Ellison tried to build it, it did not work.
Sheldrake, Fontana and Robin Foy talk about lights going through objects and bodies. LEDs, which Sheldrake suggests, and promptly dismisses, as an obvious candidate for these, would not be able to do that (though West had agreed that a demonstration by Cornell using an LED resembled what he had seen when he attended a sitting), but it does raise the question how one can be so sure in the dark, despite the protestations from the principal SPR investigators that the darkness sharpened their other senses.
The most obvious omission is an explanation for the cessation of the sittings, which will play havoc with anyone’s boggle threshold. This involved entities from the future, who were attracted to the energies being generated at Scole, interfering with the laws of time and space by creating an “interdimensional time wave pattern“ which violated the “Cosmic and Interdimensional laws relating to time and space”, thereby severing contact with the spirit team. Naturally this brought the experiment to an abrupt end, on 6 November 1998. It is understandable why Coleman should think this would confuse the viewer, but he has left a significant element out of the story.
In addition to Scole, the film interweaves three other strands: the long-running work being done in Italy by Marcello Bacci, a bereaved mother‘s use of EVP to contact her son, and an attempt by a medium to contact Monty Keen, who died during the making of the film. Bacci uses Direct Radio Voice, voices that come through vintage valve radio sets and can hold conversations with sitters. These voices are fairly distinct, unlike many EVP recordings, though responses in English seem to have a bit of an Italian accent. It has been found that Bacci can still get results with his equipment in a Faraday cage, and switched off with the tube removed. Irrespective of how it is done, he clearly has a devoted following.
The film follows a visit by the Foys to see Bacci in action. Robin asks to speak to Manu, the major control of the Scole spirit team. They receive a response from Manu, and Harry Oldfield for the Scole Group is able to ask some questions which satisfy the participants. A brief glimpse of a Bacci séance in Italy is in total darkness but is recorded using a “nightshot camera”, ie using infrared. If only the spirits at Scole had been so accommodating, one inevitably thinks. Fontana is probably right in saying in his letter in the SPR‘s Journal, October 2010, that even this would not have satisfied hard-core sceptics, but it would have ruled out some of the more obvious hypotheses revolving around fraud which rush to fill an explanatory vacuum. In Italy the infrared captures a table rising into the air after the film-makers had been asked to turn the camera off. Apports, in this case flowers, are shown arriving, or at least landing at the sitters’ feet.
The other strands are dealt with more quickly. A distraught Vicky Talbot uses EVP to receive messages from her son who died twenty years earlier. Celebrity medium Allison DuBois is tested at the University of Arizona attempting to contact the discarnate Keen, who died in January 2004. Despite being optically blurred, one of the Arizona researchers is clearly Gary Schwartz, so this took place before he and DuBois fell out in 2005. He is shown sitting with a colleague a few feet behind DuBois while she gives her reading. Schwartz had known Monty and was aware how he had died, and his significant movements in his chair - he leans forward eagerly when DuBois is making statements pertinent to the circumstances of Keen’s death - could provide assistance. It is surprising that a researcher with Schwartz’s experience should use such a poorly-controlled set-up.
This is a frustrating film to assess. On the one hand, because Tim Coleman had the cooperation of the Scole group and the surviving SPR investigators, and was able to interview some of the visitors, he has produced a succinct condensation of what occurred in several hundred séances over five years, and a welcome opportunity to see some of the recordings made by the group. On the other, there is no real sense of the critiques to which Scole has been subjected, and the newcomer to the subject could easily go away believing that any counter-arguments to the survival interpretation have been safely dispatched as having been fully assessed and found wanting by Keen, Fontana and Ellison.
The situation is more complicated than can be indicated in a ninety-minute documentary, and the subtitle - “The definitive investigation into life after death” - is somewhat exaggerated. But for anyone interested in the evidence for survival, and in particular physical mediumship, this is highly recommended, even if by itself it is unlikely to shift already-held opinions. Scole will put most outside observers such as myself, who never visited and now have to assess the products second hand, in a quandary: impossible to accept all of it, difficult to reject some of it. It is possible that we will never come to a definitive conclusion over what happened in that Norfolk cellar, but for anyone willing to make the effort to tackle the case’s complexities, this film will have a worthy place alongside the SPR’s Scole Report and Robin Foy’s impressively detailed blow by blow account in his Witnessing the Impossible.
Colette Shires has produced a fascinating account of persistent paranormal phenomena which she says plagued her family from 1958, when they removed to a house in Grant Street (now demolished), off Roundhay Road in Leeds, and even after they were forced to leave it in dramatic circumstances nine years later. The experiences, a huge number in total, ranged from the strange – a baby crying where there wasn‘t one, footsteps, objects disappearing and only sometimes turning up again, for example – to the bizarre and frightening, including several full-form apparitions.
The most striking of these was a ghastly episode when Colette was trying to take a dress out of her wardrobe but meeting some resistance and, putting her hands in, felt “something soft but solid” which when she pulled the clothes to one side turned out to be the ghost of a man in a striped jacket crouching among them. It says something for her self-control that she could still go to a works’ do and, as the photograph taken that evening which she includes suggests, act as if nothing untoward had happened.
These unsettling incidents culminated in August 1967, when the house partially collapsed early one morning. Nobody was injured but the house was uninhabitable and Colette’s parents had to be rehoused. They moved to Potternewton in Leeds, but the ghosts followed. Later Colette’s mother’s had a terrible accident and eventually lived in a number of residential homes where she had the company of what seemed to be an invisible friend that followed her as she moved from home to home – until another resident claimed to have seen her too. At the same time Colette’s father, now on his own in the Potternewton house, still encountered paranormal phenomena, and remarkably suffered a similar problem with the floor to the one that had caused the catastrophe in Grant Street.
The paranormal events were clearly person- rather than place-centred, as they followed her parents when they moved, leaving Colette wondering where they might turn up next. Ordinary objects – a tin trunk, a display cabinet – came to be regarded with suspicion as possibly acting as carriers for some kind of paranormal contamination. There is also no sense of closure, in that there is always the feeling that the ghosts, not having a defined reason for appearing in the first place, could return without the family knowing why. More to the point, once present, there seemed to be no way of getting rid of them. Her mother’s Catholic faith was not enough, and blessings by clergy proved ineffectual.
Running alongside the ghost story is also the story of Colette’s transition from child to young woman in the Swinging 60s, the ups and downs of marriage and the confidence that comes with managing her own life. It is a warm portrait of a closely-knit Anglo-Irish family getting on with their lives, and not allowing their strange experiences to dominate them, unlike many families in similar circumstances. The ordinariness of domestic life makes the paranormal aspect all the more unnerving.
Nothing here is going to convince a sceptic, but it is a straightforward and sincere narrative. The author employs a lot of dialogue that has to be approximate, but it seems authentic enough. A couple of statements from family members have been included, but there are no contemporaneous notes, nor independent witness statements, leaving the reader no way to assess the accuracy of Colette’s story. The family tried to keep the thing to themselves, which is understandable if they feared neighbours’ gossip, but it does mean that the reader has to accept Colette’s memories going back over fifty years. The way it is told seems credible, which makes it all the more frustrating that there is so little corroboration.