Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof

Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof

by Roger Clarke


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A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

"Roger Clarke tells this [the story that inspired Henry James' The Turn of the Screw] and many other gloriously weird stories with real verve, and also a kind of narrative authority that tends to constrain the skeptical voice within… [an] erudite and richly entertaining book." —New York Times Book Review

"Is there anybody out there?" No matter how rationally we order our lives, few of us are completely immune to the suggestion of the uncanny and the fear of the dark. What explains sightings of ghosts? Why do they fascinate us? What exactly do those who have been haunted see? What did they believe? And what proof is there?

Taking us through the key hauntings that have obsessed the world, from the true events that inspired Henry James's classic The Turn of the Screw right up to the present day, Roger Clarke unfolds a story of class conflict, charlatans, and true believers. The cast list includes royalty and prime ministers, Samuel Johnson, John Wesley, Harry Houdini, and Adolf Hitler. The chapters cover everything from religious beliefs to modern developments in neuroscience, the medicine of ghosts, and the technology of ghosthunting. There are haunted WWI submarines, houses so blighted by phantoms they are demolished, a seventeenth-century Ghost Hunter General, and the emergence of the Victorian flash mob, where hundreds would stand outside rumored sites all night waiting to catch sight of a dead face at a window.

Written as grippingly as the best ghost fiction, A Natural History of Ghosts takes us on an unforgettable hunt through the most haunted places of the last five hundred years and our longing to believe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250053572
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

ROGER CLARKE is best known as a film-writer for the Independent newspaper and more recently Sight & Sound. Inspired by a childhood spent in two haunted houses, Roger Clarke has spent much of his life trying to see a ghost. He was the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research in the 1980s and was getting his ghost stories published by The Pan & Fontana series of horror books at just 15, when Roald Dahl asked his agent to take him on as a client.

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A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof

By Roger Clarke

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Roger Clarke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5786-5


My Haunted Houses

O death, rock me asleep,
Bring on my quiet rest
Let pass my weery guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.

– said to have been written by Anne Boleyn, in the Tower of London before her execution

There was a dead woman at the end of the passageway. I never saw her, but I knew she was there. The passage was at the top of the stairs, leading to the left, to the spare bedroom and my parents' room. The end was always in shadow. Even at the height of summer I greatly disliked it. Returning from the village school in the mid-afternoon, I was alone in the house. Every day I delayed the rise up the stairs until it became a mad dash to my bedroom, eyes clenched shut, hands cold.

We lived in a seventeenth-century former rectory, a thatched cottage with roses rambling up its west side and garden walls of great antiquity. It was the 1960s, and on the Isle of Wight it was still an England Thomas Hardy would have recognized. It was immemorially rural. The village school had a holiday for the annual agricultural show. Many of the children had parents working on farms.

At school, the dinner lady used to tell us stories. I absorbed a certain amount of them – there was the ghost of a Roman centurion in a wood on the approach to Bembridge, and a spectral horseman who foundered in the marshes near Wolverton, a place cut through by a clean-running stream where we would go on nature walks.

I began to devour books on the subject. Among the most intriguing things I learnt, as it was repeated many times over, was that there were more ghosts per square mile in England than in any other country in the world. But why should this be the case?

My mother, noticing my growing fascination with the subject, mentioned that she had seen a ghost at the end of that passage at the top of the stairs. A friend, visiting, had seen her too. The ghost had entered the spare room while she was lying in bed. At breakfast, the question was asked: 'Who is she?' Whoever she was, her energies seemed to dissipate when alterations to the house were made.

Still, she hung in my mind.

* * *

When I was fifteen, we moved to an even older building, a manor house that had once belonged to a Norman Abbey; it too was haunted. The last pagan king of the Isle of Wight was buried in the woods on the hill nearby. By the pond, an old yew tree had grown against a millstone, like a finger swelling round a wedding ring. There was decayed panelling in one room. Smugglers' marks in the form of sailing ships were carved in the chalk of the medieval dovecote.

You could hear the ghosts – a man and a woman – talking inside the house sometimes; it was as if someone had put the radio on. The dogs growled at a particular spot in the kitchen. There were ghosts outside too. My father's horse shied at the chalk pit a few hundred yards away, in the lea of Shalcombe Down. A flying boat had crashed there in 1957, on the way to Majorca, full of honeymooning couples. Forty-five people died. Horses still don't like the chalk pit, I'm told. At the top, near the line of fir trees, lies a scree of twisted metal under the forest grass.

The spare bedroom wasn't a good place to sleep. Bodies from the wreckage had been brought up via the stone steps outside, and for a day or so it served as a temporary morgue.

I thought about ghosts and ghost-hunting all the time. There were lots of books about people seeing ghosts, but almost nothing about what ghosts might be. Some ghosts seemed aware of the living, and others did not. I began to correspond with the people whose books I read with such passion.

One was the ghost-hunter Andrew Green. He believed that ghosts were either caused in the brain by electrical fields or were electrical fields. A humanist, he was noted for his good-hearted scepticism, and became the literary archetype of the doubting boffin assailed by genuine ghosts in which he does not believe. I also corresponded with Peter Underwood, author of dozens of books on ghosts, who ended up quoting some of my theories in his autobiography, No Common Task (1983). I found myself as a teenager in the acknowledgements of books by both Green and Underwood, then the two best-known ghost-hunters in England. I became the youngest member of the Society for Psychical Research when I was fourteen, proposed by Andrew Green.

I still hadn't actually seen a ghost, though. It was becoming tiresome.

* * *

Between 1980 and 1989 I visited four places said to be haunted: the Tower of London, Knighton Gorges on the Isle of Wight, Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire and Bettiscombe House in Dorset, famous for its screaming skull.

The Tower of London is and was a death zone. It reeks of death, at night. The severed head of a mythical king rests beneath it. The original White Tower, built with forced labour in 1077, was an edifice of malice intended to intimidate the population of London. For a large part of its history, the Tower of London was a royal residence; then it became a prison, particularly for those convicted of treason, with graded cells, from Anne Boleyn's quarters to a notorious cell called Little Ease, where you could not stand and you could not lie down. In medieval times, a husband-and-wife blacksmith team lived there; he made the torture instruments and she the shackles and manacles.

By day, it's a kitsch tourist venue of great popularity; by night, a high-security establishment guarded by members of the regular British Army. Ghost sightings are common among the small community living there. In 1957, a young Welsh guardsman named Johns saw a shapeless form on the Salt Tower at 3 a.m. which slowly bloomed out of the cold damp air with the face of a young woman. An officer from his regiment later commented, 'Guardsman Johns is convinced he saw a ghost. Speaking for the Regiment, our attitude is "All right, so you say you saw a ghost – let's leave it at that."'

There is only one book written on the Tower of London ghosts, and that book was written by a Yeoman Warder named George Abbott. Abbott spent thirty-five years in the RAF as an NCO before donning the Tudor 'undress' uniform of the warders in 1974. He wrote four books on different aspects of the Tower, the best known of which is on torture instruments, and after he retired he was occasionally to be seen sporting a resplendently long warderine beard and dropping chilling, dry facts into documentaries about torture.

One autumn evening in 1980, aged sixteen, I found myself at the Middle Tower just as the last of the hundreds of daily visitors had left and the gates were closing. George Abbott was waiting for me there, and we went in. It was dark. The Tower had a kind of airy vastness about it I hadn't expected. Without tourists, it hovered in time. Near the Bell Tower, we were challenged by a sentry to identify ourselves before entering through the heavy bolted door of the Bloody Tower. We were in a version of darkness, with no light bar that from the white phosphorescent security lights on Tower Green, which cast a magic-lantern show of trees moving in the wind against the old walls. Abbott pointed to a darkened corner where the little Plantagenet princes had lain, perhaps, before their assassins entered from the battlements. I kept looking at the door. It seemed about to open, all the time. So much of the ghost story is the anticipation.

I had the same feeling of anticipation when we were outside on one of the walkways, and Abbott showed me the spot near the Martin Tower where the ghost of a bear once rose from behind the door of the Jewel Room to confront a sentry. I gazed at it, half expecting the show to start. But nothing happened. The wind was in the trees and the pitiless lights continued, much like the floodlights of a 'killing field' sports arena, the neat grass covering a bed of mass murder. In the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, a technician was tuning the organ. It gasped a succession of unruly notes, and the effect was one of gathering gothic intensity.

In the crypt, Abbott showed me a tomb the size of a minibus built into the side of an entire wall. Most prisoners from the Tower were taken outside to be executed, but that still left a great many disappearances unexplained. The silhouette of Abbott's beard fell against the polished stone, like the image of Ivan the Terrible in the Eisenstein movie. 'Every time someone planted a rose bush the police had to be called,' he told me. 'There were always human remains. So a while ago we decided to excavate a large area and have done with it, and the ton or so of bones they found were all gathered together here and given a Christian burial.'

Anne Boleyn, after her execution only yards away, was buried under the altar of this chapel. In 1882, a book was published by someone under the pen-name 'Spectre Stricken' which included a story of another soldier seeing lights burning in the chapel of St Peter. Rather than going in (he'd obviously heard the stories), he found a stepladder and climbed it to look down into the chapel, which he found illuminated by some kind of spectral radiance: 'Slowly down the aisle moved a stately procession of Knights and Ladies, attired in ancient costumes; and in front walked an elegant female whose face was averted from him, but whose figure greatly resembled the one he had seen in reputed portraits of Anne Boleyn. After having repeatedly paced the chapel, the entire procession together with the light disappeared.'

In another incident, in 1864, a sentry challenged a white shape walking towards him, which was also seen by two people looking on from the Bloody Tower – luckily for him, since the sentry was court-martialled, on the charge of having been asleep on the job. As he lunged at the shape with his bayonet, he received a shock that knocked him senseless. Other sentries have been spooked by headless women outside the Bloody Tower, and by a nameless thing following them up and down their beat from the Sally Portal entrance from the River Thames. In 1978, two were bombarded with stones from battlements which were sealed and impossible to access.

One Saturday night in October 1817, there was a dinner party held in the Martin Tower by the Keeper of the Regalia, Mr Edmund Lenthal Swifte, whose saturnine portrait by John Opie can be seen on the Tate Britain website. A Tower functionary, promoted by the Duke of Wellington, he was a former Irish barrister and a published minor poet who married four times and had twenty-eight children. He was also fascinated by ghosts.

That night, at what he fancifully called 'the witching hour', the three doors to the room were firmly closed and the curtains drawn as the keeper sat down in the company of his wife, sister-in-law and seven-year-old son. The room, its walls nearly nine feet deep, was said to have been the prison cell of Anne Boleyn. The fireplace projected far into the room, and an oil painting hung over it.

Swifte sat with his back to the fire and, as he raised a glass of wine to his lips, his wife cried out, 'Good God – what is that?' Hanging above the oblong table was what he described as a translucent cylinder about three inches in diameter, and within it a bluish and a white colour commingled in constant flux. It moved behind his wife and she shrank away from it, exclaiming, 'Oh Christ! It has seized me!' Swifte, shocked into action, jumped up and hurled his chair towards it just as it crossed the upper end of the table and vanished into the recess of a window. He dashed out of the room and summoned the servants. 'Even now when writing I feel the fresh horror of that moment,' he wrote later. 'The marvel of it all is enhanced by the fact that neither my sister-in-law nor my son beheld this appearance.'

The Tower was a focus of death and torture for a thousand years, and it is perhaps unsurprising that its fabric has drunk this in. At one point in the reign of Edward I, for example, six hundred Jews were crowded together in various dungeons, even in the menagerie. Some of the Tower's ghosts are more subtle – a baby crying; a hand on the shoulder while sitting in a bath; the smell of incense and horse sweat coming from nowhere; the sound of a monk's sandals slapping against a carpeted floor as he walks across it – but the rest make up a tableau of blood. As recently as the 1970s, screams were heard, emanating, it is suggested, from the ghost of Elizabeth Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who ran around the scaffold on Tower Green pursued by the headsman, who eventually hacked her to the ground.

* * *

Another haunted house was closer to home. At about the same time I was corresponding with George Abbott, I became very preoccupied with a site a few miles away from my home. I rode over the hills on my red Suzuki motorcycle and, in minutes, there I was at the derelict gateposts of Knighton Gorges. This house wasn't just haunted, it was the ghost: an ancient manorial building that had been demolished in the early nineteenth century in an act of spite.

This was the story I grew up with. Originally, the house, a Saxon hunting lodge used by Earl Godwin before the Norman Conquest, had a mossy tiled roof made from thick slabs of Bembridge limestone. It was shrouded in ivy. A tower stood at its north-east corner which contained a haunted room known as the 'Room of Tears'. It was here, in the fourteenth century, that a nobleman from a neighbouring house had died of his wounds after battling the French incursions which made the Isle of Wight almost uninhabitable during that period.

I loved that story, but it turned out to be not remotely true. Knighton certainly had a history: it was originally owned by one of the knights who killed St Thomas Becket – Hugh de Morville, a Templar, Crusader and ex-communicant who is buried at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The estate descended to the Dillingtons. They renovated it, and built the rusticated gateposts topped with their heraldic lion crest, before Knighton fell into the hands of youthful rake George Maurice Bisset in the 1780s.

Bisset became even more notorious when he ran off with the wife of the governor of the Isle of Wight. Legend has it that when his daughter married against his wishes, he vowed that she would never set foot in the house again, and made sure of this by removing the house altogether. In 1821, syphilitic, mercury-poisoned and deranged, he had his bed removed to a gardener's cottage and called in the dilapidators, watching with satisfaction as they knocked the house down.

It's another good story, but in reality the house burned down between 1815 and 1816. It may well have received severe structural damage when a huge landslip caused an earthquake on the south coast of the island a few years earlier. It was not rebuilt. After its destruction, Bisset moved first to Shepton Mallet and then on to the Bisset family seat near Huntly, Aberdeenshire, which he had lately inherited. He was buried in the family vault in Lessendrum, and his daughters were never disinherited.

Many aspects of what most people accept as the classic story were first described by Ethel C. Hargrove, author of two guidebooks to the Isle of Wight. Ethel had two experiences at Knighton Gorges – one on New Year's Eve 1913–14, when she heard at midnight 'a marvellous aural manifestation of a lady singing soprano ... lastly came some very dainty and refined minuet airs'.

Two years later, she held the same New Year vigil, settling again at the old gates and waiting to see what would happen, with a friend who claimed to be able to see a 'square white house with ivy covering the lower part', and guests arriving, and a man in eighteenth-century dress leading a toast to the new year. Music seems quite a theme for the apparition, along with the sounds of dogs barking and carriage wheels. As it happened, the original house was never a white Georgian affair; furthermore, the main room, where any party would have been held, was on the first floor, not the ground, and there were no bay windows, as described. Whatever her companion saw that evening, it certainly wasn't the house seen in popular prints.

Two local vicars gave the story some more pep. Francis Bamford, who was an enthusiastic antiquarian, made up a similar story of a time-slip concerning a girl called Lucy Lightfoot, who fell in love with the statue on a Crusader knight's tomb in Gatcombe Church and, during a fearsome electrical storm, managed somehow to slip back in time to be with him. The real wooden effigy on which he based his story almost certainly comes from descriptions of the demolished medieval chantry at Knighton. The other storytelling man of the cloth was one R. G. Davies, in a paper published by the Hampshire Field Club which mentions the Room of Tears, and the tradition of phantom music.

The details of the 1916 Knighton ghost sighting echo a famous ghostly experience written up by two Edwardian academics, Charlotte Anne Moberly (1846–1937) and Eleanor Jourdain (1863–1924), and called An Adventure, published only five years earlier. They believed they had slipped back to the time of Marie Antoinette, and gave an account of an experience at Versailles where they interacted with characters and vanished buildings. (More on this in the next chapter). The widely believed story of the Angels of Mons, in which archers from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt appeared to help the beleaguered British Army in 1914, was another kind of time-slip. The mid-war timing of the Knighton experience is also significant; as we shall see in later chapters, wartime does seem to increase a tendency towards belief in ghosts, and especially at this point in the First World War.


Excerpted from Ghosts by Roger Clarke. Copyright © 2012 Roger Clarke. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
List of Illustrations,
My Haunted Houses,
A Taxonomy of Ghosts,
The Visible Couch: A Brief History of Ghost-Hunting,
The House That was Haunted to Death,
A Kind of America,
The Devil of Mâcon,
Entering the Epworth Scale,
The Ghost of Mrs Veal,
The Ritual of the Ghost Story,
Miss Fanny's New Theatre,
Bloodletting and the Brain Mirror,
On the Vulgarity of Ghosts,
The Thrilling of the Tables,
Angels in the Skies and Demons in the Deep,
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,
Murder at the Parsonage,
The King of Terrors and Other Tales of Technology,
Most Haunted,
A Chronology,
Further Reading,
Picture Credits,

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