The Tenement House – a ghost story

The Tenement House

It was the February of 1909 when I came to the tenement building in Philip Street. Though it was little more than two low-ceilinged rooms 10 feet square — the sole entrance a narrow, dingy hallway that led from a “poor man’s road” to the rear tenement-house — it was the best I could afford, and possibly more than I could expect considering the ill-found fate I had so far incurred.

I had been the mother of two healthy, fit boys — the eldest a sanguine child of two years and seven months, the other a darling baby boy of eight months — but, on April 3rd, I noticed my little baby had died. He was a lovely, chubby baby, with a dimple in its chin and a dimple to mark each knuckle in its tiny fingers — a sweet a baby as ever was mourned by an agonised mother. And he, having given up life’s struggle after such a short time in this world, lay there, waiting next to me for someone to come and take his little body away. Sympathetic neighbours huddled in the little room and about the door, but they were as poor as I and could extend no helping hand. My eldest, round-faced but now so pale, stood by the cot and gazed first at his baby brother lying so still there, with a dainty sweet violet in his marble hand, and then at me, wonderingly.

The baby had been very sick, but the doctor, a good man, had tended him and he was all well till Sunday. Then his breathing appeared to take on an agonising tone, the air here being so bad. So, I took him down to the park, by the river, where he could get fresher air. We sat there on the bench for such a long time, baby sleeping on my lap.

Then, first I knew, he gave a cry, his little arms and legs drew up and I knew he was in a fit. I rushed him back home but I could not do anything, my baby was dead.

When it came to the funeral, a small number gathered with bowed heads, tears streaming from their eyes. I knelt, resting my head on the foot of the tiny coffin, the frame shaking with my emotion while the vicar spoke the words of the service.

The following days and nights I spent in the depths of despair and unable to repress my grief, I went to the cemetery four days after the burial. It was about eight o’clock in the morning. What added to my discomfort was that towards daybreak a disagreeable drizzle set in, one of those hideous rains, which dampens the very soul and makes one an easy prey to every gloomy foreboding. I stood just a short distance from the grave, when I was seized by a terrible coldness, and, in that instant, I became aware that at the edge of the plot was an object shifting to-and-fro upon its own weight. I stepped a little closer and saw it to be a cradle nestled within the boundary stone. At first I was horror-struck, but maternal affection getting the upper hand, I approached the grave. When I came upon the white stone, there was nothing of the cradle just the circulating pools of rainwater collecting upon its surface.

A wave of black depression fell upon me and, sinking to my knees, I was possessed to begin scraping at the soil. It was as if the physical separation of my hands from my mind gave unconscious animation to my clawing fingers and, with increasing ferocity, I attacked the loosening soil with an ever tightening resolve to find my baby. Finally, I had cleared the layers of earth and punctured the flimsy strips of coffin wood, and stripping back the sod-stained linen I exposed the tiny bundle of flesh. With my baby restored to my arms, I tried to give life back by massaging its face with my hands. The last thing I remember before the shadow of unconsciousness descended was the hard thud of a body pressing against me, wrestling the child from my arms.

I awoke several hours later, having been looked after by a kind neighbour. The lady had such sympathy for my plight and told me that she herself had lost several babies. She spoke of how such grief can turn one’s mind, to the point where it loses all proportion of rationality and craves to attempt the resurrection of what is lost. Continue reading

The Brooklyn Society for the Extermination of Ghosts and Dispelling of Haunted House Illusions

The Brooklyn Society for the Extermination of Ghosts and Dispelling of Haunted House Illusions

Following my earlier post that discussed Charles Dove and his ghost-thwarting league of Edwardian gentlemen, I was delighted to stumble upon a marvellous case of transatlantic parallel evolution. Four years prior to the founding of the English Society for the Extermination of Ghosts, the more cumbersomely titled The Brooklyn Society for the Extermination of Ghosts and Dispelling of Haunted House Illusions was established in New York. The key difference between the two societies, however, was the leaning of the Brooklyn agency towards fraud-busting and the considerably more cogent induction of its members!

The Times, May 21, 1905 .—

The spectres within a radius of a hundred miles of New York might as well quit, and haunted houses still the restless spirits that moan at midnight. Out of Brooklyn has originated the society which is to put an end to belief in ghosts and haunted houses. Its name is almost enough to do the work— The Brooklyn Society for the Extermination of Ghosts and Dispelling of Haunted House Illusions. After having spent several nights in an old Colonial house on Rockaway Road, in the outskirts of Jamaica Bay, the members of the society are about to give their attention to the house in Woodside, Long Island, in which Martin Thorn and Mrs. Nack killed Guldensuppe a few years ago.

The only difficulty the society has encountered so far is the shortage of haunted houses. Letters have been written to real estate dealers in various towns in New-Jersey, Westchester and further up the Hudson, offering to rent all the haunted houses offered. The society has just got track of one in New-Brunswick, which promises some exciting nights.

The membership of the society includes thirty young men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three, who live in the Bedford district of Brooklyn. None of them believe in ghosts, and they are willing to spend their time and money bringing other people to their way of thinking. If their theories should prove ill founded and a ghost should really confront them, they are prepared to make immediate capture. Every mother’s son of them has proved his bravery and courage by facing some “terrible terror” without flinching. On their ghost watches they parry revolvers and wear dark lanterns.

“We have already put one haunted house out of business,” said the president of the society, William Offerman of No. 277 Jefferson-ave, Brooklyn, yesterday afternoon to a Tribune reporter. The afternoon, it may be mentioned, is the only time one is sure of finding the ghost hunters, for their nights are otherwise occupied.

“It was an old Colonial house In Jamaica Bay, as spooky as you could find anywhere,” continued the youth who knows no fear. “The story goes that a butcher took his life with a razor in one of the upper rooms. People will not live in the house, because they said the butcher came back every night and cut his throat over again. We camped in the suicide room every night for a week, staying up until long after midnight, but there was never a sign of a ghost.

“The last few nights we tried out some fellows who wanted to join the society. A skeleton in the dark hall, rigged up on wires, with electric lights for eyes, was enough to demonstrate that one young man was unfit for membership. He ran all the way back to Jamaica before we could stop him. The other officers of the society are Arthur Pierson, No. 101 McDonough-st., vice- president; Arthur Weygant, No. 645 Bedford-ave., treasurer; Munroe Gallon, secretary., The treasurer, it is said, has plenty of funds to pay rent for the summer on all haunted houses that are offered!

The original Ghostbusters: The English Society for the Extermination of Ghosts (1908)

The original ghostbusters

In Edwardian London, if you had something strange in your neighbourhood then you would most likely call on the services of one Charles Dove. The establishment of the English Society for the Extermination of Ghosts, was borne out of several gentlemen having far too much time on their hands and a desire to find something more purposeful for their redundant athletic qualities.

Dove placed several advertisements in local papers at the time and was most surprised to be inundated with applications to join his team. However, despite the immediate allure, Dove promised each man signing up to the ‘Death on Ghosts’ brigade nothing more than an oak cudgel to lay the unsuspecting phantoms. And, although all the ghost warriors professed their disbelief in ghosts, I am reliably informed that Dove decided it wise always to send two hunters to lay away the reported miscreant spectre.

The Times, April 18, 1908.— There are two kinds of ghosts — good ghosts and bad ghosts. The bad ghosts are supposed to haunt houses and castles and belfries and make their appearances at uncertain and too frequent intervals. The good ghosts never unnerved anybody except by their absence. They make their appearances usually once a week, as the week’s work is drawing to a close. They are the most welcome of all guests and the majority of us would like them to show their faces every day in the week, instead of only on payday.

It is hardly necessary to say that the English Society for the Extermination of Ghosts, which has just entered upon its work, is concerned with the bad, and not the good ghosts. It offers to lay any of the former variety of ghosts for a fee. No matter how persistent, how terrifying a midnight visitor may be, the members of the organisation stand ready to lay in patient wait for him, or her, or it, and knock his or her, or its head off with a stout oaken stick.

The scheme is the idea of Charles Dove, formerly a commercial traveller, but at present proprietor of the Dew Drop Inn, otherwise known as The Ark, a diminutive resort for refreshments in one of the poorer districts of London. It seems that this establishment, hardly big enough for a good-sized man to turn around in, is the meeting place of a club of English athletes. That is, the members of the club called themselves athletes but their energies never took them beyond a perusal and discussion of the latest sporting news in the morning and evening papers, and heated arguments on the abilities of the cricket stars of the moment. Dove, who used to sit behind the counter and listen in resignation to the endless repetition of figures and facts and opinions finally hit upon the bright idea of converting all this hot air into physical energy.

Dove had thought a good deal about ghosts. His interests date from a night, many years ago, when he was a commercial traveller. He retired to sleep one evening in a cottage in Ramsey and was awakened in the middle of the night by a spectral figure of a young girl, with jet black eyes that pierced him through and through (he says), and long hair that hung in luxurious curls about her shapely shoulders. The figure stood at the foot of his bed. Slowly he arose so as not to alarm her and after pinching himself to see that it was not all a dream, made a spring to take the visitor in his arms. To his disappointment, the visitor vanished into space, so his arms closed around the waist that was not there.

Next morning when he related his adventure to the woman who owned the cottage, the latter told him that it must have been the ghost of her daughter, who had died in the same bed and the same room, twelve years before.

That was many years ago, yet Dove has never forgotten the haunting beauty (the words are his) of the young girl who visited him so strangely during the small hours of the morning. Many times he has been back to the cottage and slept in the same room in the hopes of seeing the figure and conversing with it, but in vain. Finally, he has come to the conclusion that it was all a humbug and it is this desire to prove that those who believe in ghosts are being bamboozled that he has entered upon his crusade.

Applications for his expert services came to him in basketfuls soon after his advertisement appeared. One of the letters revealed the fact that there is much more to the time-honoured mother-in-law joke than our humorists have imagined. The writer said that some years ago, the mother of his wife died and while not wishing to be unkind to the dead, he wanted to say at the outset he was relieved, to say the least, by her demise. Imagine his surprise and disgust when about a year ago, she again made her appearance in ghost form in the room in which she had died. Since then she has made pretty regular visits to the house. Could Dove and his brave assistants call around some evening and knock the ghost on the — I mean — that is — well, would they take the job?

Dove and his fellow sluggers made further enquiries, discovered the woman was 80 when she died and very feeble, and finally declared they were ready to have their bravery tested. No date for the event has been set, but is understood that as soon as they can get their oak cudgels cut, their nerves keyed to the proper pitch and can stop the chattering of their teeth (consequent upon the present cold spell), the exterminators will proceed to lay the grey-haired lady.

The Supernatural Possession of Inanimate Objects: The haunted cupboard

The haunted cupboard

“Again came the ominous knocks, louder, more insistent; but whether threatening or merely clamorous he could not decide. Now, with a veil lifted he approached the doors of the lobby with utmost dread and having fixed his eyes steadily on the drawer from which the tapping evidently proceeded, he saw what looked to be the knuckle-bone of a leg of lamb, about the size of a very small walnut, protruding and jerking repeatedly against the wood lying beneath its doors. At length the drawer opened further, and a naked human leg grinded its way through the fold. The foot arrived with a dense, deathlike sound to the floor, resting there for what seemed to the terrified man to be at least half a minute before the body to which it belonged was disclosed to his view.”

From ‘The Haunted Cupboard

The Haunted Cupboard (The supernatural possession of inanimate objects)

The Haunted Cupboard

“Now where was I? Yes — poppycock sir!” barked the older of the two gentlemen. “There is as much life in your peculiar theories as there is in the Dodo!”

“You may scoff sir but—”

“My dear boy,” interrupted the older gent, “there is, without doubt, a certain malignancy in everyday objects that we have no dominion over. Take the Lucifer match for instance. Nothing can be in its way more irritating than that small piece of wood. Who can tell when it will light, when it will refuse to light, when it will break in the middle, when it will snap off just at the top after lighting, and leave it a fiery head on one’s hand? But all this will go on no doubt even after the world has accepted the philosophical theory that the Lucifer is a malign and a capricious thing like some ill-conditioned gnome or sprite or imp. We cannot educate or convert or punish a match any more than we can a sprite or imp!”

The two gentlemen sit facing each other over their drinks; the older man having just returned from attending a call at the door of the club where they presently reside. In the gloom of the evening, the fitful gleams of the fire had suggested to the one just seated the idea of discussing the subject of ghosts, in particular the surfeit of reports regarding the supernatural possession of inanimate objects. The younger gent is a tall, slender, considerate sort of man with a voice that seems to carry with it the slightest hint of impatience, and altogether one of those persons who, we may be inclined to think is given to the supernatural fancies common to his age.

“But sir, you yourself said—” the younger chap stopped mid-sentence, appearing to calm himself. “Look, despite your propensity to pooh-pooh all that is other-worldly we are sat here discussing the theory all the same!”

At that the older gentleman quietened and took some time in pensive thought to consider his next words.

“The whole human race might,” he said, “be brought into that league of universal self-obliteration if it were for such a belief. Even the lower animals might be persuaded or coerced into the same arrangement.”

He raised his pipe and looked sharply at his fireside companion.

“The world began with the inanimate things, as we call them. They started the whole business, and then came the lower animals, and then came man.”

“Now suppose man were universally willing to extinguish himself — what guarantee could he possibly have from these inanimate things that the moment he had disappeared they would not start the whole machine of existence all over again. You cannot have a compact with the sands of the desert or the salt of the sea or the stone in a quarry. You cannot have a treaty with the dust of the highway or an alliance with the coals in a mine. Even if you could have such an arrangement, who could answer for its being carried out? Who could trust these things to keep their plighted words? The moment our backs were turned they would be sure to set the whole mechanism going again, just for the perverse fun of the business!”

The younger man took his glass from the top of a neighbouring cabinet and sighed. He was obviously losing patience with his companion who was intent on obfuscation. Continue reading

The Ghost Census of 1894

The Ghost Bureau

As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently researching the life and times of William Thomas Stead. I must say it is proving quite the impossible task, simply because of the scope of this man’s interests and fads, and the marriage of such diverse genres of pursuit. His communications with the ghost of William Gladstone, and other distinguished politicians of the era, via Julia’s Bureau – an agency he established for communicant spirits – at the time attracted much curiosity, ridicule and even indignation. Newspapers of the day were as fascinated as they were scornful of his endeavours but still they faithfully scrutinised and hung upon his every word.

My recent communication with Lenora, the author of the outstanding blog The Haunted Palace (where the macabre and the supernatural are expertly researched and documented), expands on these incongruent and eccentric pursuits:- ‘WT Stead is a great character – my best friend’s father was for years the ‘official biographer’ of WT Stead, endorsed by the Stead family. Unfortunately he died before he could finish is biography. As a journalist in the late 19th/early 20th Century Stead was well placed to be in the centre of everything interesting going on. He was always viewed as a bit of a maverick, and his spiritual beliefs including his Julia’s Bureau work (messages transcribed from the dead Julia) did make some people think of him as a bit of a crackpot. He was fascinating man though.’

Below is an article from 1894 which outlines Stead’s proposal for the establishment of an ‘official’ Ghost Census, backed by evidence from his fellow researchers and supporters at the Psychical Research Society. It is the concept of the ‘Ghost Census Enumerators’, staff hired to collect and collate data on incidents of supernatural encounter that, for me, would make such fascinating and enthralling material for a radio play – perhaps even a television series! (Once again, my usual disclaimer applies: the article has been hand-typed by yours truly, and thus is prone to typo! Unfortunately I did not have a legion of Stead-esque staff to rely upon….:)) Continue reading

Real ghost stories from the man who ‘foretold’ his own death

william thomas stead

Recently, I have been fascinated by the life and works of William Thomas Stead, the man who ‘foretold’ his own death.

William Thomas Stead was a writer who campaigned for social and political change. He also pursued an interest in the uncanny, in particular spiritual phenomena and the supernatural. In an eerie instance of foreshadowing, Stead wrote a fictional story about a ship run by a Captain Smith facing dangerous icebergs in the early 1890s. Stead died aboard the Titanic about 20 years later.

His collections of ‘real’ ghost stories, published in the late 19th century, were publishing sensations and contain a fascinating wealth of anecdotal evidence for the existence of ghosts, astral projection and the machinations of poltergeists and doppelgangers.

I present here an extract from his 1891 work, An Unknown Double Identified:

An Unknown Double Identified

[This was] forwarded to me by a correspondent in North Britain, who received the statement from a Colonel now serving in India on the Bengal Staff, whose name is communicated on the understanding that it is not to be made public:—

“In the year 1860 I was stationed at Banda, in Bundelcund, India.
There was a good deal of sickness there at the time, and I was deputed along with a medical officer to proceed to the nearest railway station at that time Allahabad, in charge of a sick officer. I will call myself Brown, the medical officer Jones, and the sick officer Robertson. We had to travel very slowly, Robertson being carried by coolies, and on this account we had to halt at a rest-house, or pitch our camp every evening. One evening, when three marches out of Banda, I had just come into Robertson’s room about midnight to relieve Jones, for Robertson was so ill that we took it by turns to watch him, when Jones took me aside and whispered that he was afraid our friend was dying, that he did not expect him to live through the night, and though I urged him to go and lie down, and that I would call him on any change taking place, he would not leave. We both sat down and watched. We had been there about an hour when the sick man moved and called out. We both went to his bedside, and even my inexperienced eyes saw that the end was near. We were both standing on the same side of the bed, furthest away from the door.

“Whilst we were standing there the door opened, and an elderly lady entered, went straight up to the bed, bent over it, wrung her hands and wept bitterly. After a few minutes she left; we both saw her face. We were so astonished that neither of us thought of speaking to her, but as soon as she passed out of the door I recovered myself and, as quickly as possible, followed her, but could not find a trace of her. Robertson died that night. We were then about thirty miles from the nearest cantonment, and except the rest-house in which we were, and of which we were the only occupants, there was not a house near us. Next morning we started back to Banda, taking the corpse with us for burial.

“Three months after this Jones went to England on leave, and took with him the sword, watch, and a few other things which had belonged to the deceased to deliver to his family. On arrival at Robertson’s home, he was shown into the drawing-room. After waiting a few minutes, a lady entered—the same who had appeared to both of us in the jungle in India; it was Robertson’s mother. She told Jones that she had had a vision that her son was dangerously ill, and had written the date, etc., down, and on comparing notes they found that the date, time, etc., agreed in every respect.
“People to whom I have told the story laugh at me, and tell me that I must have been asleep and dreamed it, but I know I was not, for I remember perfectly well standing by the bedside when the lady appeared.”

You can read more about ‘the man who forgot to look into his own future’ here:

http://venturegalleries.com/blog/he-forgot-to-look-into-his-own-future/

The subject of Stead’s demise on board the Titanic has also recently been the subject of a rather unconventional classical music concert, The memory of W. T. Stead.

http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/ra-magazine/blog/the-memory-of-w-t-stead,377,BAR.html