Archive for the ‘Ghosts’ Category

You might call it parapsychology’s greatest mystery. Did Catherine Crowe – sixtysomething literary stalwart of the mid-nineteenth century, passionate advocate of the German ghost story, and author of that runaway best-seller The Night Side of Nature (London, 2 vols.: Newby, 1848) – really tear through the streets of Edinburgh at the end of February 1854, naked but for a handkerchief clutched in one plump hand and a visiting card in the other? And, if she did, was it because she had experienced a nervous breakdown, or because the spirits had convinced her that, once her clothes were shed, she would become invisible?

Catherine CroweCrowe’s name may not ring too many bells today, but a century and a half ago she was famous. Born in 1790, she was noted as a novelist (she wrote Susan Hopley, an intricately plotted crime procedural that was some way ahead of its time) and as a friend of the great and good (she knew Thackeray, Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, among many others). Nowadays, however, she is best remembered as a pioneer parapsychologist – “a hugely important figure in the emergence of modern ghost-seeing culture chiefly because of her relentless calls for society to turn its attention to the unexplained phenomena in its midst and investigate them in an objective manner.” [McCorristine p.10]

Crowe’s Night Side was one of the publishing sensations of 1848. A two volume exploration of “ghosts and ghost seers,” intermingled with observations on phrenology, Mesmerism and the poltergeist phenomena, the book happily appeared just before the vast explosion of interest in communication with the dead occasioned by the dubious activities of the Fox sisters on the far side of the Atlantic. In consequence, Night Side ran through 16 editions in only six years, made its author moderately rich, introduced a large number of well-to-do Victorians to the world of the occult – and had an influence out of all proportion with its present reputation. Indeed, the book “marked the turning point,” Hilary Evans suggests, “in society’s relationship with the paranormal.” [Evans p.88]

With the publication of Night Side, Crowe herself [seen above left in the only known image showing her, from H. Douglas Thomson’s The Great Book of Thrillers (London: Odhams, nd c.1937)] became a semi-public figure, thanks in part to her then-unorthodox life-style – she had separated from her husband and gone to live on her own in Edinburgh, a most irregular procedure in those days. [DNB] She was chattered about by the likes of De Quincey and Hans Christian Andersen (who encountered her inhaling ether with another woman writer at an Edinburgh party, and scathingly described “the feeling of being with two mad creatures – they smiled with open dead eyes…”) [Andersen, diary entry – left – for 17 Aug 1847] All of this was quite startling behaviour for a woman who was not in the first flush of youth (she was 64 years old in 1854), and doubtless it helps explain why accounts of Crowe’s bizarre behaviour spread quite so quickly, and were believed quite so readily, as they were.

Charles Dickens was one of those who heard gossip regarding strange goings-on in Edinburgh, and in a letter to the Revd. James White, dated 7 March 1854, he gave what has become the standard account of the incident:

Mrs Crowe has gone stark mad – and stark naked – on the spirit-rapping imposition. She was found t’other day in the street, clothed only in her chastity, a pocket-handkerchief and a visiting card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went out in that trim she would be invisible. She is now in a mad-house and, I fear, hopelessly insane. One of the curious manifestations of her disorder is that she can bear nothing black. There is a terrific business to be done, even when they are obliged to put coals on her fire.

[Storey pp.285-6]

Dickens returned to the subject a few days later, in a letter to Emile de la Rue dated 9 March:

There is a certain Mrs Crowe, usually resident in Edinburgh, who wrote a book called the Nightside of Nature, and rather a clever story called Susan Hopley. She was a medium, and an Ass, and I don’t know what else. The other day she was discovered walking down her own street in Edinburgh, not only stark mad but stark naked too. She said the Spirits had informed her that if she walked out with a card in her right hand and her pocket hand kerchief in her left – and nothing else – she would be invisible. But she was not surprised (she added) to find herself visible, because she remembered that in opening the street door, she had changed the card into the left hand and the pocket hand kerchief into the right! She is now under restraint, of course.

[Ibid p.288]

Dickens was far from the only person to hear this outlandish tale – or to pass it along. It seems to have circulated pretty widely at the time (though never apparently with any sort of source, or eyewitness account, attached to it) and one still occasionally reads it today. The Dictionary of National Biography, for instance, reports the incident as fact, and adds that the author subsequently spent “a short stint in Hanwell Asylum.” [DNB] (I note that the Asylum’s papers, including registers of admissions, still exist, in the London Metropolitan Archives, but I have not yet had the opportunity to check them.) Shane McCorristine, in his new book on ghost-seeing, also mentions the affair, albeit in more neutral tone, and notes that the earliest published reference to it was a “gleeful” account in Zoist (v.12 p.175), a “prominent mesmerist/phrenological periodical.”

My hunt for the truth about Crowe’s madness, and her nudity, has been a fairly frustrating one. The story does not seem to have featured at all in the Scottish newspapers of the day, nor in any English ones until as late as the end of April, nearly two months after the Dickens letters suggest it was in oral circulation. Crowe herself, moreover, hotly denied that any such incident had ever occurred. Having belatedly stumbled across a newspaper “squib” recounting Zoist‘s report, she penned a comprehensive counter to the Daily News (29 April 1854):

Sir.– I am very sorry to trouble the public about my private maladies or misfortunes, but since the press has made my late illness the subject of a paragraph, stating that I have gone mad on the subject of spirit rapping, I must beg leave to contradict the assertion. I have been for some time suffering from chronic gastric inflammation; and, after a journey to Edinburgh and a week of considerable fatigue and anxiety, I was taken ill on the 26th of February, and was certainly for five or six days – not more – in a state of unconsciousness. During this aberration, I talked of spirit rapping, and fancied spirits were directing me, because the phenomena, so called, have been engaging my attention, and I was writing on the subject; but I was not – and am not – mad about spirits or anything else, thank God! though very much out of health and exceedingly debilitated. I have been residing in London for the last five weeks; and I am now at Malvern trying what hydrotherapy will do for me. I should feel greatly obliged by your insertion of this letter; and also, if those journalists who have aided in spreading the erroneous impression will assist in disseminating this corrected statement, which I should have made earlier, but the paragraph did not meet my eye til to-day.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,


Great Malvern, April 26.

Hmm. Who to believe?

Well, there’s no doubt that Crowe had every reason for denying so spicy and so embarrassing a tale, nor that her own version of events – with its confirmation that she raved of spirit rapping while in a delirium – comes perilously close to admitting that there was something, somewhere, in the story. The date that Crowe puts on events – the last couple of days of February 1854, and the first couple of days of March – also ties in pretty neatly with the dates of the Dickens letters. But I would have been inclined to give Mrs Crowe the benefit of the doubt, along with her feminist biographer [Ayres p.64], had it not been for a fortuitous recent discovery of what looks very much like confirmation of the Dickens version of events in the papers of Robert Chambers [below left], the renowned Edinburgh editor, publisher, evolutionary theorist and polydactyl.

Crowe was a neighbour of Chambers’s, and according to a letter Chambers wrote to his associate Alexander Ireland very soon after the supposed date of the incident, talk of her nude engagement with the spirit world was certainly true, even if it remained uncertain whether any bout of insanity was involved. Which is to say that Crowe – at least according to Chambers – had fallen somehow under the influence of spirits, and had had to be rescued by her friends from a “terrible condition of mad exposure.” [Chambers to Ireland, 4 Mar 1854, W&R Chambers Papers, Department of Manuscripts, National Library of Scotland, Dep/341/112/115-116] Note here, by the way, what looks suspiciously like confirmation of another of Dickens’s details: Crowe was discovered naked “walking down her own street” [Storey p.288]; Crowe and Chambers were “neighbours” [Chambers Papers].

Catherine Crowe: mad and naked? A Scottish jury might return the verdict of Not Proven. But, on the balance of probabilities, this Welsh one finds her guilty as charged.


Andersen, Hans Christian. Dagbøger 1845-1850. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gads Forlag, 1974.

Ayres, Brenda. Silent Voices: Forgotten Novels by Victorian Women Writers. Westport [CT]: Praeger, 2003.

Evans, Hilary. Intrusions: Society and the Paranormal. London: RKP, 1982.

King, W.D. ‘”Shadow of a Mesmeriser”: the female body on the “dark” stage.’ Theatre Journal v49 n2 (1997).

McCorristine, Shane. Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Storey, Graham et al (eds). The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1853-1855. Oxford: OUP, 1993.

Wilkes, Joanne. ‘Catherine Crowe.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre)Adam Sisman’s sympathetic new biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), the brilliant if acerbic historian, contains an unexpectedly fascinating passage on the great controversialist’s declining years that sheds a ray of light on the way in which witnesses perceive ghosts.

In his late 80s, Sisman notes, Trevor-Roper was diagnosed with glaucoma and then developed a cataract. Soon afterwards, he began to suffer some alarming hallucinations: “He would look up from his desk and see the trees in leaf in mid-winter, or the landscape whizzing by as if he were aboard a train… Once, as he went to put out the dustbin, he found himself lost in a cemetery of dead machines, surrounded by rusting combine harvesters, lorries, cranes and derricks. Inside, the house grew an extra staircase.” Other outlandish figments of the historian’s imagination included gigantic trees and even a complete train at a platform at Didcot Station (which Trevor-Roper attempted to board).

All of this eventually led to a diagnosis of Charles Bonnet Syndrome –  a little-known condition, first described well over 200 years ago, in which those suffering from failing vision unconsciously compensate by dredging up memories with which to populate the fading landscape. Typically these vsions are what are known as “Lilliput hallucinations” (in which the hallucinated objects appear on a reduced scale), but as Trevor-Roper’s own case shows, it’s also possible to experience the opposite, and also extremely realistic visions of human figures, even within one’s own home. An experience of the latter sort occurred to Trevor-Roper in 2002. As Sisman records:

He woke at three o’clock in the morning to find a woman beside his bed, statuesque and immobile. He tried to question her, but she did not reply, and slowly dissolved into the air. ‘Now I know all about ghosts,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen one now and solved one of life’s mysteries – and the rational world is restored.’

CBS is, of course, a pretty rare syndrome, and it would be wrong to suggest that, on its own, it can account for more than a tiny fraction of ghost sightings or other Fortean reports. Nonetheless, Trevor-Roper’s encounters, and the equally outlandish experiences of other sufferers from CBS, tell us a good deal about the astonishing power of the human memory and the interplay between mind and senses. Perhaps a very similar mechanism accounts for at least a proportion of strange visual experiences; certainly, the Trevor-Roper case suggests that when such phenomena do occur, even the most intelligent and sceptical of witnesses might readily be taken in.

Lord Dacre himself agreed. “It’s perfectly obvious to me that [ghosts]’re created out of the rubbish of the brain,” he told one interviewer, “in the same way as are the hallucinations of CBS. Ghosts are a sub-Charles Bonnet Syndrome.”

Source: Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Macmillan, 2010) pp.536-8

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Black Dog - not to scaleFor reasons that ought to become in clear in about a month, I’ve acquired a bit of an interest recently in Pierre Van Paassen, a Dutch-born Canadian journalist who enjoyed a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent during the 1920s and the 1930s. Van Paassen (1895-1968) [below], who wrote for the New York Evening World and the Toronto Star, led a pretty action-packed life, getting himself thrown into Dachau concentration camp – and later out of Germany – for criticising Adolf Hitler back in 1933, and going on to cover the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War before giving it all up to become a Unitarian minister. That need not concern us here, however. What does is that, long before any of this happened, in the spring of 1929, Van Paassen was living in France when he experienced – or said he experienced – a particularly peculiar series of encounters with a ghostly black dog. These events, so Van Paassen tells us in his autobiography, Days of Our Years (1939) pp.248-51, were corroborated by at least three other witnesses – one of them a priest – and also resulted in the death of a “police dog.” And, just to top things off, the priest eventually identified the source of all the trouble as a teenage girl living in the same property, thus suggesting the black dog case had some sort of links to the poltergeist phenomenon.

Pierre Van PaassenVan Paassen’s case, in short, is such a rich and complex one that one reads it wishing it was just a little better evidenced. None of the other witnesses, sadly, gave an independent deposition; in fact, neither they nor the girl at the centre of the case are fully named, and, more worryingly, the village where the strange events supposedly took place appears not to exist. Which is unfortunate, especially since Van Paassen himself failed to report the incident for well over a decade. In the final analysis, we only have Van P’s word that anything untoward ever took place, and we don’t know nearly enough about his background to understand how well read he was, for instance, in the folklore of the black dog, never mind how reliably he retold the case in an autobiography that was, after all, primarily intended as an entertainment. What we do know – and I’ll be returning to this point in a future post – is that he was an unreliable witness, prone to dramatisation and a sucker for a good conspiracy theory. So, not quite the ideal witness, then.

For all this, the appearance of so many varied and distinct motifs, in a case from a country scarcely known for its black dog lore, which at least claims to combine multiple witnesses with physical evidence, and which features the testimony of that ne plus ultra of “reliable sources,” a Catholic priest, makes Van Paassen’s tale an intriguing one, to say the least. Since it seems to have been pretty much forgotten, I paraphrase the details here from the pages of his autobiography. Further analysis, for once, I leave to others.

In the spring of 1929, Van Plaassen had taken lodgings in a private house in Bourg-en-Foret, France. One night he was startled to see a large black dog pass him on the stairs, and even more perplexed when the animal reached the landing and promptly disappeared. Van Plaassen searched the entire house, but could find no trace of the dog, and eventually concluded that it had been a stray that had somehow wandered in, then found its own way out again.

Van Plaassen did not mention the encounter to anyone before, a few days later, he left on a trip. When he returned, he noticed that the other members of the household seemed greatly upset. His enquiries soon revealed that, during his absence, several other people had also seen the dog, and always on the stairs. His curiosity now thoroughly piqued, Van Plaassen decided to wait up late in the hope of encountering the “animal” again, and he invited a neighbour, a Monsieur Grevecoeur, and his young son to join him as corroboarting witnesses.

Sure enough, the black dog appeared at the head of the stairs again that night. Grevecoeur whistled to it, and the dog wagged its tail in friendly fashion. As the trio began to mount the stairs towards it, however, the animal began to fade from sight, vanishing before they could reach it.

A few evenings later, Van Paassen decided to watch again, this time accompanied by his own two “police dogs” – perhaps a pair of German Shepherds. Yet again the ghostly animal materialised, and this time the dog came part way down the stairs before it disappeared. A moment later, so Van Plaassen writes, he saw his dogs seemingly engaged in a deadly tussle with an invisible adversary. “This,” he says, “led to a horrible scene. The dogs pricked up their ears at the first noise on the floor above and leaped for the door. The sound of pattering feet was coming downstairs as usual, but I saw nothing. What my dogs saw I do not know, but their hair stood on end and they retreated growling back into my room, baring their fangs and snarling. Presently they howled as if they were in excruciating pain and were snapping and biting in all directions, as if they were fighting some fierce enemy. I had never seen them in such mortal panic. I could not come to their aid, for I saw nothing to strike with the cudgel I held in my hand. Then one of my dogs yelled as if he were in his death-throes, fell on the floor and died.” Examination of the animal’s body failed to reveal any external signs of injury.

The death of the “police dog” was too much for Van Plaassen’s landlord, who summoned a priest to advise them. This man, named by Van Plaassen as the septuagenarian [= learned, wise] Abbé de la Roudaire, arrived and stood watch with the journalist next night. Once again the black dog appeared, but this time the priest stepped towards it. The beast gave a low growl and faded from sight once more, but the Abbé had apparently seen enough. He summonded the landlord and asked if any young girls were employed as servants in the house. The owner admitted that one was, and asked the Abbe if he thought there might be some connection between the young girl and the strange apparition. Shrugging his shoulders, the Abbé de la Roudaire agreed that there was sometimes an “affinity” between young people and various types of strange phenomena. The servant girl was dismissed – we’re not told on what grounds, and left to conclude that an employment tribunal might have proved interesting. Whatever the circumstances, though, the Abbé proved correct in his analysis. After the girl’s ejection from he household, the ghostly black dog was never seen again.

Some black dog literature:

Janet and Colin Bord, Alien Animals (London: Granada, 1980)

Theo Brown,  ‘The Black Dog.’ Folk-Lore v.69 (1958).

Simon Burchell, Phantom Black Dogs in Pre-Hispanic Mexico (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2007).

Ethel Rudkin, ‘The Black Dog.’ Folk-Lore v.49 (1938).

Bob Trubshaw, ‘Black dogs: guardians of the corpse way,’ Mercian Mysteries, August 1994.

___________, Explore Phantom Black Dogs (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2005).

David Waldron & Christopher Reeve, Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Case Study in Local Folklore (Bungay: Hidden Publishing, 2010).

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Ostrich Inn, Colnbrook

The new issue of Fortean Times contains an interesting essay on haunted inns by Alan Murdie which discusses, among several gory stories, the supposedly spook-infested Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire – where ‘a past landlord named Jarman is supposed to have murdered up to 60 guests on the premises, in either the 16th or 18th century’ [FT259:17]. The pub’s unusual name rang a bell, and after a short hunt I turned up a story about the same place that I clipped from the Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1989:

In the shadow of one of London’s ghastliest locations, one of England’s oldest pubs is on the market – together with a ghastly history.

The Ostrich Inn, a Grade II listed freehouse near Heathrow Airport, is said to date back to 1106 and was the scene of 60 grisly murders committed by 12th century landlord John Jarman and his wife.

After inviting wealthy travellers to sleep on a specially-made hinged bed, Jarman would say to his wife, “There is now a fat pig to be had if you want one.” She would answer: “I pray you put him in the hogsty till tomorrow.” The victim would then fall through a trapdoor into a vat of boiling water.

Present owner Derek Lamont, who has never boiled a guest in 25 years at the Ostrich, is retiring. The Business Sales Group, which is handling bids, expects historical interest to push the price over the £1 million mark.

So – a new, much earlier date, no ghost, a detailed method of execution… and a compelling commercial reason for promoting the Jarman tale. Everything seems to tie in to Murdie’s observation that there are two separate traditions here, a murder tale and a spook story, and that “the haunted status of The Ostrich is comparatively recent.” But is there anything more to the legend of the Ostrich Inn than this?

More digging reveals more details. The Victoria County History of Buckinghamshire (vol.3, 1925) pp.246-9, notes that the Ostrich probably dates only to about 1500. There are at least four competing explanations for the pub’s unusual name: that it is a corruption of an inn called Oyster Ridge (Forster Zincke, Some Materials for the History of Wherstead (1887) p.99), that it comes from the French pieds poudreux, meaning dusty-footed (Seabrook & Seabrook, Miniature Coloured Cottages (1996) p.85, that it was originally called the Eastridge Inn (the Country History of Buckinghamshire again), and that the place was originally known as the Hospice Inn (Henry Parr Maskell, Old Country Inns of England (1911) p.37). The latter seems most likely, since it ties in with the notion, reported by Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood in their estimable reference The Lore of the Land (2005) pp.38-9, that one Miles Crispin gifted the ‘hospice at Colebroc’ to Abingdon Abbey in 1106 and that this hospice occupied the spot where the inn now stands. That explains the notion that the inn dates back to the 12th century as well.

As for the murderous John Jarman and his hinged bed, that story can be traced back not to any factual source, but to one of Britain’s earliest novels, Thomas of Reading, a turn-of-the-seventeenth-century bestseller by Thomas Deloney, a Norfolk silk-weaver, originally published in 1602. The eleventh chapter of Deloney’s work tells how the novel’s hero, Thomas Cole – a wealthy clothier who lives in Reading – puts up for the night at the pub (then known, the author says, as The Crane), where the host is named ‘Iarman’ and where he is given the best room in the house – over the kitchen, with a bed that proves, oddly enough, to be nailed to the floor.

‘Moreouer,’ the tale continues,

that part of the chamber whereupon this bed and bedsteede stoode, was made in such sort that by the pulling out of two yron pinnes below in the kitchin, it was to be let downe… in the manner of a trap doore; moreouer in the kitchin, directly vnder the place where this should fall: was a mighty great cauldron, wherein they vsed to seethe their liquor…

Cole, inevitably, meets the horrible fate Jarman intends for him. But the clothier’s horse, meanwhile, escapes from the inn’s stable, and when it is recaptured and led back to The Crane the murder is discovered. Jarman’s wife is arrested, and the innkeeper is captured soon thereafter hiding in Windsor Forest. He confesses to the murder of 60 people and is hanged.

That would seem to be that – a fictional origin for an unlikely tale – but Westwood and Simpson beg to differ. “The circumstatiality of Deloney’s story,” they suggest, “and his own working habits, make it unlikely he made it up. As a travelling artisan, going from town to town, and county to county, he probably picked up local tradition and gossip on the way.”

If that is so, then it is possible that the original version of the story is the one told by Gordon Willoughby Gyll, the noted nineteenth century traveller, whose History of the Parish of Wraysbury (1829) p.271 notes the following piece of local folklore, which seems to have originated as a tale to explain the curious division of land between the neighbouring parishes of Horton in Buckinghamshire and Datchet, Berks:

Tradition, sometimes the channel of truth although disguised and garbled, avers that at one time, temp. Edward I [1272-1307 – MD], there were 13 bodies of murdered persons taken from this identical inn to be hurled in the Thames, one of which corpses slipped off the cart on a strip of land called Welly, now on the Horton side of the Fleet Ditch, which divides the parishes. Horton refused to bury the body, and Datchet buried it, and hence they claim a piece of land, and now receive rates for it. As the conveyancers, paid by the superintendents of the Ostrich Inn, were counting the corpses, they found only 12, and a Wraysbury fisherman, who had been laying eel-wheels, said, if you are so disconcerted about the loss, throw in one of yourselves, and that will complete the number. The conveyancers, dismayed, shot some arrows at the fisherman, and one pierced and lodged in his boat, and in a brief space he walked with the arrow, using it as a stick, to Colnbrook. A little boy at the Ostrich claimed the arrow as belonging to his father, and this was the proximate cause of the discovery of the assassinations, and the dissolution of the fell gang.

It remains only to note that that Deloney’s story of the Ostrich’s trapdoor leading a murder victim to his horrible fate – very well-known in its day – could have inspired the penny dreadful writers who equipped Fleet Street’s homicidal Sweeney Todd with a very similar contrivance… and to observe that the County History of Buckinghamshire supplies, without apparently realising it, one possible explanation as to how this strange bit of local folklore originated. For the Ostrich Inn, the History’s author explains, once lay on one of the main coach roads out of London, and, as late as 1925, visitors to the pub could view

in a room on the first floor … the remains of a curious arrangement whereby a flap could be let down from the window to enable passengers to enter the room directly from the top of a coach.

[Afterword:] A detailed history of the Ostrich Inn, by one G. Daniel, titled The Ostrich Inn, Colnbrook, Bucks: Its Place in History, apparently appeared in 1969, but there is no copy in the British Library and I have not been able to lay my hands on one elsewhere.

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Being an historian, I readily admit to a special fondness for that rarest of Fortean phenomena, the “timeslip” case. These are incidents in which a witness appears to travel back through time, in some unexplained and unexpected way, and is able to witness at first hand an event in the past. The proper name for the phenomenon is retrocognition, and by far the best-known example of it is the celebrated Versailles incident of August 1901, which involved two female English academics on a visit to Paris who took a fork in the path in the grounds of the palace of Versailles and became convinced that they had somehow begun walking through the gardens as they existed in the late eighteenth century, at the time of Marie Antoinette. In the course of their ‘adventure,’ the ladies remembered passing several structures which did not exist in 1901, and encountering a number of people, clad in convincing period dress, whom they initially supposed to be actors rehearsing a play. Their story has been the subject of considerable investigation, and though far from all of the results favour the ladies’ interpretation, the incident nonetheless still ranks among a surprisingly large number of researchers’ “classic cases”. There are, however, three or four other, much less celebrated, timeslip cases that follow a very similar pattern, and I want to have a look at one of those today.

Before we begin, it’s worth bearing in mind that practically all incidents of this type share some intriguing common characteristics, among which I would list the following: [i] the percipient(s) may be aware, at the time of the experience, that something unusual is going on, but typically the full strangeness of the event only strikes them days, weeks or even months later; [ii] often the ‘strangeness’ that is noticed is some sort of dissociation; there may for example be an unnatural stillness. This, of course, is characteristic of various altered states of consciousness; [iii] there is almost always an immersive element to the experience. What is seen is not a ‘vision’ but an apparently real environment through which the percipient(s) can travel and with which they can, in some cases, interact – but only very rarely does that interaction take the form of actual conversation, or physical contact with a person from the supposed ‘past’. This, again, is highly suggestive of various ASCs; [iv] historical research is generally brought to bear, and some discovery is made that appears to confirm that the percipient(s) saw or heard something they should not have been able to and could not have known about. Such discoveries are, however, usually controversial and it is in any case extremely rare for such information to be actually unknown at the time the incident occurred. Generally the information is dug out of some old book or manuscript and therefore it is always possible to argue that the percipient(s) acquired the knowledge either from seeing, hearing or reading some reference to it (a common explanation in cases of ‘past life’ regression), or even telepathically. Finally, [v] very unusually, among Fortean phenomena, multiple-witness cases are commonplace in this field – indeed they are the norm. Close examination of the casebook generally shows that the percipients have discussed the case in detail amongst themselves long before it comes to the attention of any investigator, and that there has been a process of mutual reinforcement in the course of which, it is reasonable to suppose, the ‘strangeness’ of the case often becomes magnified, the witnesses become much more certain that they have experienced something genuinely inexplicable, and any rough edges in their testimony are smoothed away.

Some of these characteristics (though not all) apply to the case before us, which the solitary witness came to believe was an experience of the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtansmere. This fight (popularly said to be depicted on a Pictish symbol stone, above) took place on 20 May 685 and is mostly forgotten today, though it was the Waterloo of late seventh century Scotland. The combatants were the indigenous Picts* and an invading army of Saxons commanded by Ecgfrith¶, King of Northumbria, who was by some distance the most powerful ruler in the British Isles at the time. The battle was, nonetheless, a Pictish victory, and it resulted in Ecgfrith’s death and the dispersal of his army – thus helping to secure the independence of Scottish kingdoms from Saxon overlordship.

For those alive in the 680s, it seems safe to say, Nechtansmere would have been one of the great events of the day. Nonetheless (this being the Dark Ages, after all), the battle is extremely ill-recorded. The most detailed description is given by Bede, writing in Northumbria some half a century later, though Ecgfrith’s violent end is also mentioned briefly in a couple of Irish chronicles and one Welsh one. Bede observes, in his Ecclesiastical History, that Ecgfrith “rashly led” his army north against the advice of his most trusted advisors, and that the battle occured when “the enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces,” but he sadly neglects to mention even approximately where the fight took place. That detail is supplied by the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach (both compiled, according to even the most optimistic estimates, several centuries later), which refer to the battle as “Dún Nechtain”, and by Symeon of Durham who – writing in the 12th century – called it “Nechtanesmere”. The idea that the battle was fought close to a body of water is echoed in the work of the ninth century Welshman Nennius, who called it Gueith Lin Garan, or ‘the Battle of Crane Lake’, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that the likely site was identified by another noted historian, George Chalmers, who (in his Caledonia, or, an Account Historical and Topographic, of North Britain) first suggested it had been fought at Dunnichen (below right), a shallow hill near Forfar, in Angus, which shares its name with a small nearby village.

Dunnichen HillSince the precise location of the Battle of Nechtansmere is central to our enquiry, it’s worth pausing for a moment to look at the manner in which Chalmers arrived at his conclusion. Alex Woolf of the University of St Andrews, author of the most recent study of the problem, says that he ‘based his identification on early forms of the name preserved in the cartulary of Arbroath abbey; Dunnichen comprised part of the abbey’s endowment and is described there as Dunectin or Dunnechtyn, which seems definitely to stem from Dún Nechtain.’ Chalmers’s conclusion has been generally accepted by scholars ever since, and though there is no longer any sign of a loch or mere near Dunnichen, a small stone monument in the village now commemorates the events of 685.

Fast forward 1,265 years to 2 January 1950, and a cocktail party held 10 miles away in the little town of Brechin. This party was attended by Miss E.F. Smith, a lady then aged about 55 who was resident in the village of Letham, under Dunnichen Hill. According to her own account, Miss Smith left the party late, having consumed an unspecified quantity of those delicious cocktails. Driving conditions were extremely poor. It was pitch dark, and ‘a fall of snow had been followed by rain.’ Two miles outside Brechin, Miss Smith skidded her car into a ditch. There was, she insisted,

no question of [her] skid having been due to her fainting, or other lapse of consciousness, nor [had she been] injured in any way, or concussed. She had to abandon her car, however, and continue her journey on foot – a distance of about eight miles. Her walk was along deserted country roads in a countryside with a few scattered farms. She had her little dog with her, but, for the last two miles of the journey, she had to carry him on her shoulder; and as she neared Letham, she must have felt fairly exhausted. She also felt ‘nervous’… for she deliberately refrained from taking a commonly used, and normally welcome, shortcut, because it would have taken her out of the open country and alongside a dark, wooded area.

The apparitional experience began when Miss Smith was about half a mile from the first houses of Letham village and it continued until she reached them. The time was getting on for 2am.

[Source: Andrew MacKenzie, Hauntings and Apparitions p.163]

In Miss Smith’s recollection, the first sign that something unusual was taking place came as she approached the crest of a slope from which Dunnichen Hill became visible. Peerng ahead, she saw a groups of lights moving in the distance which, as she walked on, gradually resolved themselves into a shadowy group of figures carrying flaming torches. A little later a second phase of the experience began when she noticed a second group to her right, about a third of a mile away. The third and most dramatic stage followed

as she watched figures even closer to her, in the field, on the right, about fifty yards away, in the direction of some farm buildings which, however, were not visible in the darkness.

At this stage, the dog started to growl. Miss Smith said, ‘he was sitting on my left shoulder and he turned and looked at the lights… and I thought, next he’s going to bark.’

Continuing as fast as she could towards her home, Miss Smith left the scene and the mysterious figures behind her and went straight to bed. Only on waking in the morning did she fully recognise how strange the experience had been.

It took another 20 years for the witness’s account of her evening to be recorded by a member of the Society of Psychical Research, Dr James McHarg, a psychologist who visited Miss Smith in September 1971 – it is not stated how he heard of her experience. McHarg found the witness still able to supply a detailed account of her encounter (one wonders just how much more detailed it had become in the intervening decades), and apparently quite credible:

Miss Smith said that at the beginning of the first phase, in the distance straight ahead, she saw… ‘quite a lot of torches.’ Miss Smith felt that what she was seeing had not suddenly started but that it had already been going on when she came upon it. Her recalled reaction was to say to herself, ‘Well, that’s an incredible thing.’… Speaking about the nearest figures of all, wPictish warriorhich she watched during the third stage of her experience, Miss Smith, ‘they were obviously looking for their own dead… the one I was watching, the nearest one, would bend down and turn a body over, and, if he didn’t like the look of it, he just turned it back on its face and went on to the next one… There were several of them…. I supposed they were going to bury them.’

When  asked about clothing, Miss Smith said ‘…they looked as if they were in – well, I would have said brown, but that was merely the light – anyway, dark tights, the whole way up, a sort of overall, with a roll collar, and at the end of their tunics there was a larger roll around them too. And it simply went on looking like tights until it reached their feet. I did not see what was on their feet. But they weren’t long boots.’

[Compare this description to the contemporary carving above, showing a Pictish warrior on a symbol stone at Golspie.]

… Miss Smith was asked about the torches the figures she saw were carrying. She replied ‘…they were carrying very long torches in their left hands… [the torches were] very red… Afterwards, I wondered what on earth they’d been made of – tar, I suppose. Was there tar in those days?’

[Source: Ibid pp.165-7]

Now, all this is very interesting, not least because it is very clear that, by the time Dr McHarg arrived on the scene,  Miss Smith had long come to the conclusion that she had somehow witnessed groups of Pictish warriors of the late seventh century. No other explanation for the experience seems to have been considered by her, and the psychical researcher Andrew MacKenzie, writing up the case, merely observes: ‘It was assumed that the scene Miss Smith described concerned the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtanesmere.’ Miss Smith herself freely admitted that she was aware of the battle, and knew that it was supposed to have been fought near her home village. (This is not surprising – most of the inhabitants of Letham, one imagines, were aware of this.) She insisted, however, that she knew nothing of the specifics of the fight, nor of its precise location, nor of the Pictish dress and equipment of the day.

Map of Miss Smith's experience

Dr McHarg, in analysing the experience, trod with considerable caution around the background to the whole affair – he asked no impertinent questions about how much Miss Smith might have drunk at her cocktail party, or whether her intake of alcohol had contributed to her crash, merely offering a brusque assurance that, in any case, an eight-mile walk would have ‘sobered her up’. Nor, since Miss Smith was not a patient, did McHarg feel able to question her regarding her health or mental state, though he did note that ‘I detected nothing of a medical (i.e. neurological or psychiatric) nature to suggest temporal lobe epilepsy or any relevant clinical condition.’ He also felt confident that the case was neither a fraud nor a hoax, though he gave no reasons whatever to back up that conclusion, and one is left with the rather definite feeling that he simply considered a woman of Miss Smith’s age and genteel background incapable of such deceit. McHarg did consider the possibility that the whole experience was a false memory of some sort, produced by long musing on some trigger event. His research, however, inclined him heavily to a third conclusion, that the experince had been real – and, furthermore, that it had most likely been a genuine instance of retrocognition, one that had probably occured in some sort of altered state of consciousness. (It was surely noteworthy, he remarked, that Miss Smith had been more worried about the possibility that her dog might begin to bark, and wake the village, than she had been frightened or intrigued by the bizarre scene she was witnessing.)

McHarg’s reasons for accepting Miss Smith’s experience as a genuine instance of retrocognition boils down to a couple of essential points. One concerns the flaming ‘torches’ that the figures seen that night were carrying, and which the witness supposed must have been dipped in tar – though, looked at closely, it is plain that there was a very great deal of assumption in the doctor’s thinking:

At the time of the interview McHarg assumed that Miss Smith meant that it had been the flames of the torches that had been unusually red, but she may equally have meant that it had been their shafts. Enquiries revealed that torches in Scotland used to be made from the resinous roots of the Scots fir which, in their natural state, do indeed have a distinctive red colour which would perhaps be enhanced by torchlight. Such roots would have been available at Nechtansmere, for Dunnichen Hill was crowned then, no doubt, as it is today, with the Scots fir of the Caledonian forest.

[Source: Ibid p.167]

McHarg’s second point, though, seems far more solid, for it concerns the activity of the ‘Pictish warriors’ reported by Miss Smith, and particularly the way in which, the witness concluded,

the nearer figures carrying torches were… quite obviously skirting the mere, because they didn’t walk, from where I was looking, straight across to the far corner of the field, they came round

This deviation can be seen on the map McHarg prepared of the site [above], where it is shown by an arrow curving around the north-east lobe of the mere.

McHarg seemed to be on especially firm ground here – at least so far as Andrew MacKenzie was concerned – because the little local loch, presumably once known as Nechtansmere, had – it will be remembered – drained centuries previously and been turned into farmland. No local knew exactly where the lake had been, and its likely contours were effectively disguised by the gently rolling nature of the landscape. Only a few years earlier, however, during the unusually wet winter of 1946-7, floods had partually refilled the ancient lake, and Dr FT Wainwright of Queens College Dundee – then one of the leading authorities on Dark Age Scotland – had taken the opportunity to map the vanished loch, a task he undertook with the aid of aerial photography. As MacKenzie points out, his results, published in Antiquity in 1948, ‘clearly showed a finger of the loch projecting in a north-easterly direction, round which people moving towards the east would have had to skirt.’

This, at first glance, seems to be precisely the sort of hard evidence a psychical researcher craves. Miss Smith was absolutely adamant that she had neither read nor even heard of Wainwright’s paper before she had her experience, and McHarg was equally convinced that no one but the most practised map-reader could have accurately transposed the contours of his map to the ground as it appeared on the night of 2 January. Yet – by his own estimation, at least – Miss Smith had accurately placed the north-east lobe of Nechtansmere as it would have been in 685. This, the good doctor thought, was evidence that something paranormal had occurred, though whether that was retrocognition or merely telepathy (in the form of psychically acquired knowledge of an unread paper) he would not hazard. It is worth noting, parenthetically, that – as his map clearly shows – the theory also requires the Northumbrian army invading Pictland to have been approaching Dunnichen from the north, the wrong direction.

That, anyway, is where the matter rested for a further quarter-century, Miss Smith’s vision at Dunnichen Hill seeming at the very least an interesting curiosity. Some progress was made with possible alternate explanations during this time – a book entitled Hypothermia and Cold Stress, published in 1986, introduced McHarg’s account (in my opinion almost certainly correctly) into a discussion of ‘the effects of cold and stress on cerebral function’ – pointing out, as McHarg conspicuously did not, that the entire experience might have been sparked by an hallucination, and that whether or not Miss Smith was drunk on the night of her experience, she almost certainly would have been rendered dangerously cold and completely exhausted by the shock of her accident followed by an unanticipated eight-mile walk in temperatures that must have been at or below zero, the last two miles of which were completed while carrying her dog. It was only recently, however, that a much more fundamental objection to the reality of Miss Smith’s “vision of Nechtansmere” was raised. This occurred – though Alex Woolf quite possibly does not know it – when he published a short paper in the Scottish Historical Review which argued that King Ecgfrith’s final battle must have been fought not beneath Dunnichen Hill, but at another site in the Cairngorms, miles to the north.

Woolf’s argument, which has met with an extremely favourable reception among historians of Dark Age Scotland, is based on simple geography. Surely, he suggests, no informant of Bede’s even remotely familiar with the terrain around Dunnichen, Angus, could describe the low, rolling hills there as ‘inaccessible mountains’, nor suggest that any cleft between them was sufficiently vertiginous to conceal a lurking Pictish army. And, as Woolf points out, there is in fact a second site in Scotland whose modern name derives, as does Dunnichen’s, from the ancient Dún Nechtan of the Irish annals: Dunachton, in Badenoch, on the shores of Loch Insh.

Monadh Ruadh mountainsWoolf’s argument is that the geography of Dunachton fits Bede’s description almost perfectly. It is a known Pictish site – an inscribed stone dated to the 6th to 8th centuries was discovered close by the church there in the nineteenth century – and the earliest surviving mention of the place (which dates to the 1380s) mentions the existence of a ‘chapel of Nechtan’ in the vicinity that could well have lent its name to the local loch. Dunachton, furthermore, lies at the foot of three passes which cut between mountains that rise to 1,100 metres [right], and which are vastly more suitable as likely ambush spots than the rear of modest Dunnichen Hill. The new site is also so much further north of the established centre of Northumbrian power than it much easier to imagine the luckless Ecgfrith’s advisors taking alarm at the idea of sending an expeditionary force to such a place.

Accepting Woolf’s persuasive arguments, however, still leaves us with the problem of what Miss Smith actually experienced that night in January 1950. The answer to that question is: a fantasy, surely, sparked by a hallucination or a simple misperception, exacerbated by exhaustion and incipient hypothermia, fuelled by local knowledge of the battle tradition, and embroidered on, most likely, over two decades before the witness ever encountered Dr McHarg – during which time, as Miss Smith freely admitted, she had located and read Wainwright’s influential paper.

All of which, I must say, is a shame.


* Readers of 1066 And All That will remember that “the Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa.” As the book’s authors, Sellar and Yeatman, stress, “It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).”

¶ Who was, of course, say Sellar and Yeatman, one of the “wave of Egg-Kings found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Egg-breth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable – except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Egg-beard, Eggfish, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.”


Lloyd, Evan. Hypothermia and Cold Stress (Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1986) pp.136-42.

McHarg, James. ‘A vision of the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtanesmere, AD 685’. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 49 (December 1978) pp.938-48.

____________. ‘A vision of Nechtansmere’. Scots Magazine January 1980 pp.379-387.

MacKenzie, Andrew. Hauntings and Apparitions (London: William Heinemann, 1982) pp.161-70.

______________. Adventures in Time (London: The Athlone Press, 1997) pp.104-05.

Woolf, Alex. ‘Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’. Scottish Historical Review 85(2), 2006, pp.182-201.

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HammersmithLate on the evening of 3 January 1804, a bricklayer by the name of Thomas Millwood left his home in Hammersmith, to the west of London. He was smartly dressed in the sort of clothes favoured by men in his trade: “linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him.” Unfortunately for Millwood, though, those clothes proved to be the death of him. At 10.30pm, while he was walking alone down Black-lion-lane, he was confronted and shot dead by a customs officer called Francis Smith – thus setting in motion one of the strangest, best-remembered and most influential cases in British legal history.

The Millwood murder is of interest to us because Smith’s motive for killing him was decidedly peculiar. Hammersmith, then a village on the outskirts of London, had been terrorised for more than a month by reports that some sort of malignant ghost or spirit was haunting the graveyard of St Paul’s chapel-of-ease. Today this cemetery stands in the shadow of the A4 flyover and right next to the busy four-lane Hammersmith roundabout, but 200 years ago it was considerably more isolated. St Paul’s was then still surrounded by fields, and the paths that ran past the graveyard were unpaved and unlit. It’s not difficult to see how, in the depths of winter (the Hammersmith ghost scare ran from December 1803 to January 1804), frightening stories could readily circulate, nor why several local men took it upon themselves to patrol the darkened streets in the hope of encountering and ‘laying’ the ghost. Milwood, in his all-white clothes, had been mistaken for the apparition twice earlier that same day. It was his bad luck that the third time the same mistake was made, the man facing him was not just nervous but armed with a shotgun.

Smith, when he realised his mistake, was horrified. He gave himself up immediately and was swiftly charged with murder and tried at the Old Bailey less than a week later. There, though, the prisoner’s hurried surrender and obvious contrition stood him in good stead. The prosecution accepted Smith’s version of events, and the jury was plainly anxious to show mercy; instead of finding the customs man guilty of murder, they returned a verdict of manslaughter instead. It was left to the judge to explain that such a verdict was not possible, and that the prerogative of mercy lay not with the jury, but the crown. Smith was promptly found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, then reprieved that same evening by the king. In the end he served only six months in jail.

The Hammersmith Ghost case featured prominently in the Newgate Calendar, and full transcripts of Smith’s murder trial can nowadays be found online at the exemplary Proceedings of the Old Bailey site, which covers pretty much every case heard in Britain’s senior court between 1674 and 1913. It seemed even then to be a peculiarly important case, and over the years it became celebrated for the influence it had on framing acceptable defences for murder; even today it crops up frequently in legal text books and in university law lectures. It is not, however, nearly so unique as writers on the subject have tended to assume. In the course of my own research into the ghost story, I have prodded around in search of some comparable cases and been startled to discover that a considerable number had been reported from all over the world. Upon reflection, though, is it really a surprise? Belief in supernatural powers, after all, has been endemic for millennia, in all countries and in all cultures. Is the Hammersmith Ghost case really that different, at root, from witch burnings, or even the activities of the Inquisition?

What turns out to be really interesting is the wide variety of ways in which a rainbow of beliefs interfaced with the law. From the fairy traditions of Ireland to tales of shape-shifting sorcerors in Africa, there turn out to be dozens of similar-but-different cases in which outlandish superstition was the best defence for murder. Here, summarised all too briefly, are a few of the cases I’ve collected over the years.

1826 Belief in the existence of changelings remained strong in rural Ireland in the nineteenth century. According to folklore, these sickly infant fairies were frequently exchanged for healthy human infants under cover of darkness, and the human child was taken away to be brought up by its abductors. It could only be recovered if the changeling was put in such peril that its fairy parents would return to rescue it.

A case of murder arising from these beliefs was tried at Tralee Assizes in July 1826, and reported in the London Morning Post, where it was seen by the folklorist Thomas Crofton Crocker (Crocker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (London, 1828) I, vii-ix):

Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age, was indicted for the murder of Michael Leahy, a young child, by drowning him in the Flesk. This case… turned out to be a homicide committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition. The child, though four years old, could neither stand, walk, or speak – it was thought to be a fairy stuck…

Upon cross-examination the witness said that it was not done with intent to kill the child, but to cure it – to put the fairy out of it.

Verdict – not guilty.

c.1850 A similar account, also from Ireland and published in 1852, noted that ‘About a year ago a man in the county of Kerry roasted his child to death, under the impression that it was a fairy. He was not brought to trial, as the Crown prosecutor mercifully looked upon him as insane.’ (WR Wilde, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) p.28.) The author of this brief note, Sir William Wilde, was Oscar Wilde’s father.

1875 John Hayward, an agricultural labourer from Long Compton in Warwickshire, stabbed an elderly fellow villager named Ann Tennant to death with a pitchfork on 15 September ‘under the delusion of witchcraft.’ The particulars of this case were that Tennant, who was 79, and Hayward, who was about 30, had both lived in Long Compton all their lives. Hayward, who was thought to be ‘weak minded’, and who certainly had been drinking on the afternoon of the murder, told Superintendent James Thompson of the Shipton-on-Stour police that he believed Tennant to be

the leader of a pack of witches who resided in Long Compton, and that she had bewitched him all day and prevented him from working. He said that he meant to kill her and would do the same to the other witches. He said he could see the witches in a glass of water he was given.

An inquest, held in the local pub two days later, recorded a verdict of willful murder and Hayward was sent for trial at the Warwick assizes, where his case came up on 15 December 1875. He was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, but sentenced to be confined during Her Majesty’s pleasure. Little provision was made for mentally ill prisoners in those days, and when Hayward died some months later he was still in Warwick jail. This case was extensively covered by the local Stratford on Avon Herald, and more recently has been reinvestigated by a couple of genealogists who separately discovered that Tennant was their great-grandmother.

Swift Runner, windigo murderer1878 A number of Native Canadian tribes firmly believed in the existence of the windigo or wendigo, a sort of vampiric spirit capable of appearing in human guise to ‘annoy and trouble’ their peoples, and in some cases to possess them with what is termed ‘wendigo psychosis,’ the compulsion to attack and eat other humans. The windigo was held in such terror that, over the years, several innocent men, women and children have been killed by assailants who firmly believed that their victims were possessed, and a smaller number killed by people who were themselves in the grip of the psychosis.

Instances of murder involving the windigo supposedly date all the way back to 1741, though the evidence that actually survives from that early date strikes me as extremely murky (below). Nonetheless, the best-known, and certainly the most spectacular, of these cases involved a Cree by the name of Swift Runner (left), who – apparently convinced he had been possessed by a windigo – killed and ate his wife, mother, brother and six of his own children over the winter of 1878-79. The case has been studied by Nathan Carlson, an Alberta anthropologist who described the windigo (an Anglicised form of the native ‘witiko’) as ‘the consummate predator of humanity – an owl-eyed monster with large claws, matted hair, a naked emaciated body and a heart made of solid ice.’ According to Carlson, the windigo is an unstoppable terror. ‘The more it eats, the hungrier it gets,’ he says, ‘so it just keeps eating.’ The Canadian belief is that, once possessed by such a spirit, the unfortunate victim becomes wild-eyed, ravenous and possessed of superhuman strength.

1741 windigo caseSwift Runner first came to the attention of the Canadian authorities in the spring of 1879, when he turned up alone at a Catholic mission station in St Albert. He told the priests there that he was the only member of his family to survive the severe winter, but his condition – the Cree weighed in at a hefty 200lbs – aroused suspicions, as did the ‘screaming fits’ and night terrors that Swift Runner experienced. When the police visited  the family campground near Edmonton, they found a site littered with bits of human flesh, hair, and bones that had been snapped in two so that the marrow could be sucked out. Swift Runner then confessed that he had shot and bludgeoned the other members of his family. He was tried, found guilty of murder, and hanged at Fort Saskatchewan in December 1879.

1884 In another Irish fairy changeling case, ‘Ellen Cushion and Anastatia Rourke were arrested at Clonmel on Saturday charged with cruelly ill-treating a child three years old named Philip Dillon. The prisoners were taken before the mayor, where evidence was given showing that neighbours fancied that the boy, who had not the use of his limbs, was a changeling left by fairies in exchange for their original child. While the mother was absent, the prisoners entered her house and placed the lad naked on a hot shovel under the impression that this would break the charm. The poor little thing is severely burned, and is in a precarious position.’ Daily Telegraph, 19 May 1884. CS Kenny, in Outlines of Criminal Law (London, 18th edn., 1962) p.54, mentions what seems to be the same case (he dates it to 1880) and states that a woman was ‘convicted and sentenced’ for the crime.

1887 In Empress v Hayat (Panjab record 1862-1919, no.11 of 1888), the prisoner, an Indian villager, ‘entertained a belief that a stooping child whom he caught sight of in the early gloaming was a spirit or demon, the child being in a place which the prisoner and his fellow villagers deemed haunted.’ He beat the infant to death before discovering his mistake, and, while acquitted on a charge of murder, was convicted under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, section 304A, which allowed for sentences of up to two years’ imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.

1888 On 30 January, Joanna Doyle, aged 45, was admitted to Kilkenny Asylum after murdering her son Patsy with a hatchet. Doyle was described as ‘a wild fierce Kerry peasant, scarcely able to speak English intelligibly,’ and her 13-year-old son variously as an ‘imbecile’ or an ‘epileptic idiot.’ The mother insisted that Patsy had been ‘not my son, he was a devil, a bad fairy.’ Belief that the boy was a changeling was apparently widespread in the neighbourhood; Doyle’s daughter Mary, 18, told the Medical Superintendent of the Dublin hospital where her mother was eventually sent that ‘I was not shocked when I heard my mother kill him, as I had heard people say he was a fairy, and I believed them.’ Journal of Mental Science v.34 n.148 (January 1889) pp.535-9.

1894 The Swift Runner tragedy is the only one known in which a man committed murder believing himself to be possessed by a windigo. More common are ‘windigo execution’ cases, in which potential victims convince themselves they are in danger from one of the vampiric spirits and kill the ‘possessed’ man in what they conceive as self-defence. Several examples of such killings exist in Canadian records. In a number of cases, those who believed they were turning windigo were reported to ‘go into convulsions, made terrifying animal sounds, and beg their captors to kill them before they started eating people.’  In Regina v. Machekequonabe (28 Ont. 309), a Canadian Indian of the Sabaskong tribe was tried at the Rat Portage (now Kenora, Ontario) assizes on the charge of killing his foster father. The facts, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press, 7 December 1896, were that

The band in which the trouble occurred was thoroughly pagan, possessed of a firm belief in the power of the Wendigoes, or evil spirits, to appear in the form of a human being to annoy and trouble the  tribe. For some time prior to the murder the Indians on the Sabaskong reserve were seized with the idea that a Wendigo was exercising an evil influence on their band and damaging their property They hid away their canoes, but apparently to no purpose. At length they decided to place armed sentries on the watch in order to capture the evil spirit. This watch was sustained continuously for eight days, the prisoner and the murdered man participating in the watch. On the eighth night the prisoner was on guard when he saw a mysterious figure flitting from one spot to another, with its blanket streaming behind it in a peculiar manner. He at once challenged, but received no reply; he challenged again, and yet again, and still receiving no answer he fired at what he was firmly convinced was the Wendigo. In the yell that followed the prisoner recognised the voice of his foster father, who for some reason or another had left his post and was probably hastening back to it. Mr Justice Rose charged the jury and declared the case to be without parallel in the history of law. Under his advice the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, and the prisoner was sentenced to six months’ hard labor pending the result of a reference of the case to his brother judges.

Rose’s sentence was later upheld by the Court of Appeal. [My thanks to John Adcock for locating the Free Press clip.]

The Cleary fireplace in which Bridget Cleary was burned1895 Regina v. Michael Cleary (National Archives, Dublin, Convict Records Misc. 1619/10) concerned the killing of a young Irish woman named Bridget Cleary, who lived in Clonmel, not far from Waterford. When Cleary fell ill with what was perhaps TB, or possibly pneumonia, her husband Michael and her other relatives became convinced that she had actually been abducted by fairies and a sickly changeling left in her place. They attempted to force her to drink a folk remedy – herbs boiled in milk – designed to force the changeling to flee, and then doused her with three or four pints of urine, another folk remedy supposed to rescue the victims of fairies; when she resisted, they dragged her over to the kitchen fire (left) and held her over it while they continued to question her; supposedly this, too, was part of the cure. Cleary’s questioning was severe and prolonged, in part quite possibly because her husband also suspected her of having a lover, but also because it began late in the evening and family believed that Bridget would be ‘lost forever’ if she was not recovered from the fairies by midnight. Eventually she began to answer questions more coherently, and the family congratulated themselves that their intercession had worked. Cleary had been severely burned, however, and died a few days later of her injuries. Her husband was subsequently tried and found guilty of manslaughter, and eight friends and neighbours were found guilty of wounding. Michael Cleary received a sentence of 20 years’ penal servitude, apparently because the judge in his case ‘was by no means convinced that all the talk of fairies was not a cloak for ordinary murder [and] he felt the evidence more consistent with murder than manslaughter.’ He served 15 years and, on his release, emigrated to Canada. The Bridget Cleary case was the subject of an excellent book by Angela Bourke, which places it firmly in the context of Irish folk belief of the late nineteenth century.

1906 A Cree shaman known as Jack Fiddler (his real name was Zhauwunogeezhigo-Gaubow, ‘he who stands in the southern sky’), who was headman of the Sucker people of Sandy Lake in northwestern Ontario, was a noted windigo fighter who claimed to have defeated 13 of the monsters during his lifetime. It was not until 1907, when Fiddler was about 70 years old, that the RCMP realised exactly what this meant; the shaman was arrested for the murder of his daughter-in-law, Wahsakapeequay, who had been brought to the Sucker encampment ‘very sick’ and there strangled by Fiddler and his brother, Pesequan.

Jack Fiddler seems to have impressed everyone who met him. ‘He is a quiet dignified man who has lived his life with a clear conscience,’ the Methodist missionary Joseph Lousley said, and the local police superintendent recommended mercy. Before the case could come to trial, however, Fiddler escaped from the constable guarding him and made off into the tundra, where he hanged himself. Pesequan was tried and found guilty by a jury that had been instructed by the magistrate: ‘What the law forbids, no pagan belief can justify.’ Despite the jury’s recommendation for mercy, he was sentenced to hang, but died of consumption on 1 September 1909, three days before an appeal overturned the capital sentence. Dictionary of Canadian Biography vol.XIII (1901-10). A book by a member of Fiddler’s family has been published on this case: Thomas Fiddler and JR Stephens, Killing the Shaman (Ontario, 1985).

1926 In Wayram Singh v. Emperor (AIR 1926 Lah554: 28 Cri LJ 39), the defendant was a man living in what is now Pakistan whose three children had all died young. It was suggested to his wife that she could safeguard the lives of any future infants by bathing on the tomb of one of her dead children. Singh’s wife took off her clothes and sat on the tomb while her husband poured water over her. As he did so, a figure appeared in the dark that the bereaved parents took to be a ghost. Singh beat the figure to death and was charged with murder, but acquitted on the grounds that if ‘he believed in good faith at the time of the assault that the object of his assault was not a living human being but a ghost or some object other than a living human being, he is not guilty of murder.’

1936 In the case of Sudan Government v Ngerabaya Jellab (unreported), the accused killed a neighbour named Tugu because he suspected him of murdering two of his brothers and a daughter by witchcraft. ‘When I killed Tugu,’ Jellab said, ‘I did not kill him for the purpose of revenge only. I was afraid of him and afraid for my own life and the lives of my family and dependents. It might be my turn next.’ In court, Jellab claimed that his relatives ‘had died as a result of magical spells cast by the deceased. The accused was tried for and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment even though his belief that the deceased possessed supernatural powers was shared by the rest of the tribe to which he belonged.’

1942 In Bonda Kui v. Emperor (Patna High Court 1942, 43 Cri LJ 787)), the accused, described as a ‘superstitious woman’ aged 50, was in her house in north-east India, accompanied only by a niece, when in the middle of the night she saw ‘a form, apparently a human form, dancing absolutely naked with a broomstick and a torn mat around the waist.’ Taking this bizarre apparition to be ‘an evil spirit or a thing which eats up human beings,’ Bonda Kui threw off her own clothes and attacked the figure with an axe. Having succeeded in hacking it to death, she told her niece she had killed ‘an evil spirit or witch,’ but, on investigation, the figure turned out to be that of her sister-in-law. What the sister-in-law was doing dancing naked in the middle of the night is not explained in the legal summary of the case, but we do know that Bonda Kui was protected by the Indian Penal Code, section 79, which stated: ‘Nothing is an offence which is done by any person with reason of a mistake of fact [who] in good faith believes himself to be justified by law in doing it.’ She was acquitted.

1959 In Sudan Government v. Abdullah Mukhtar Nur (Sudan Law Journal & Reports, 1959), the defendant, a 20-year-old farmer, was charged with murder after inadvertently killing an old woman. As in the Hammersmith case, stories had been circulating in Nur’s village that there was a ghost in the area. One evening, while searching for a missing cow, Nur encountered a tall figure dressed entirely in black and carrying a stick. He challenged the figure, and, receiving no reply, took it for the ghost and beat it with his own stick until it fell to the ground. It was only later that Nur discovered he had assaulted an elderly woman, who had died of her wounds. When the case came to trial, the President of the court ordered an acquittal on the grounds that ‘the accused acted in good faith and in the honest belief that he killed the ghost without any intention of killing a human being.’

It is interesting to speculate quite where all this leaves us in legal terms. Certainly it seems that under English criminal law a defendant who killed in the sincere belief that he was confronted with some supernatural menace would be unlikely to be convicted of murder. Whether he was sentenced for manslaughter, or acquitted, would seem to depend largely on the scale and imminence of the supposed threat – the law is highly unlikely to show mercy in cases of premeditated murder no matter what the killer himself believed – and the leniency with which a court would deal with cases with supernatural elements would almost certainly be based on its assessment of the ‘reasonableness’ of the belief. ‘If the belief is shared by the community,’ one lawyer concludes, ‘or even a section of the community to which the accused belongs, there is a strong presumption that such belief is reasonable.’

Plenty of related topics would repay further investigation. For example, in the southern Annang region of Nigeria, between 1945 and 1948, the police, press and politicians were all caught up in the investigation of a supposed ‘Man-Leopard Society’, said at the time to be the ‘biggest, strangest murder hunt in the world’. Almost two hundred men, women and children died in what appeared to be ordinary leopard killings, but were suspected to be the work of shape-shifting African sorcerers who had the ability to turn themselves into wild animals. (Similar apparently ritual killings had been reported from Sierra Leone since the 1860s and occurred in Liberia during the years 1930-1940 and 1944-1946, and these were attributed to a similar ‘Leopard Society’; eventually the head of a Christian mission in the country was arrested and tried for the Liberian killings.) The Nigerian Man-Leopard murders also resulted in a trial; an anonymous letter published in the Nigerian Eastern Mail, 10 March 1945, implicated a head court messenger who was arrested, tried and eventually executed in March 1946. According to another source, the unravelling of the case resulted in a total of no fewer than 95 murder convictions, of which only 16 ended in reprieves. For further reading on this subject, see David Pratten, The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria (University of Indiana Press, 2008); Pratten, ‘The district clerk and the “man-leopard murders”: mediating law and authority in colonial Nigeria’, in Benjamin N. Lawrance et al, Intermediaries, interpreters, and clerks: African employees in the making of colonial Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006); and L.O. Aremu, “Criminal Responsibility for Homicide in Nigeria and Supernatural Beliefs,” International & Comparative Law Quarterly (1980), 29 : 112-131

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Grey Dog isle

Photo courtesy of Iain Thornber

Mention of Loch Morar in my last post put me in mind of a legend from the same district that is not at all well known among Forteans, but which combines, in an interesting way, two distinct folklore motifs: those of the ‘loyal pet’ and the ‘harbinger of death’.

The Grey Dog of Meoble (which I have seen given, in the Gaelic in which the story was first told, as an cuth glas Meobhail or an cu glas Mheobail) is a gigantic, shaggy-haired Scottish deerhound whose preternatural appearances are said to presage death to members of the Macdonald clan in the south Morar districts where the tradition first flourished. Tales of the spectral animal’s appearances certainly date to the first half of the nineteenth century; we know that Caraid nan Gaidheal, a renowned Highland piper who died in 1867, had heard the legend (John Gibson, Old and New World Highland Bagpiping (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2002, p.318)). They come not only from the tiny crofting hamlet of Meoble (pronounced “Meeble”) – a settlement, now all but abandoned, in an isolated district a mile from the shores of Loch Morar – but from other parts of Scotland and even Canada.

Most tales of the Grey Dog concern the hound’s appearances to Morar MacDonalds who are on the point of death (the Macdonalds of the district, it’s well worth noting here, include the local MacDougalls – a variant on the same name – and several knowledgable local informants tell versions of the story in which MacDougalls, rather than MacDonalds, feature.) One typical tradition concerns ‘an old Highland lady who lived in Glasgow in the early 1900s and whose family were closely related to the MacDonalds of Meoble.’ According to this story, the old woman

‘lived alone and had been confined to her room for many years and a friend who lived across the street was in the habit of calling each day to attend to her needs. On one occasion as the friend was leaving the flat, a large dog, of a type she had never seen before, passed her on the stairs. She thought no more about it until the following day when, much to her surprise, she saw it again, this time lying on the old lady’s doorstep. With difficulty she pushed it aside and went in. In the course of the conversation, she happened to mention the dog. Her friend sat up in bed her eyes alight.

‘“Describe it to me,” she said in a low voice.

‘“Well,” replied the other, “it was very big – about the size of a Shetland pony, grey in colour, with a long curly tail.”

‘”Ah!” exclaimed the old lady with a smile of contentment on her lips. “The faithful friend – she came at last.” And with that she sank back on her pillow and passed away.’

The tale of the old lady of Glasgow features several of the characteristic motifs of the Grey Dog canon – the hound’s enormous size (‘the size of a Shetland pony’) and, for all its ghostly attributes, its distinct corporality. The Grey Dog’s other distinguishing features include an unearthly, wailing bark – in fact a vocal trait quite typical of real Scottish deerhounds, as is the ghost’s characteristic rough grey coat.

According to Alasdair Roberts, whose recent Tales of the Morar Highlands (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2006) makes mention of the tradition, the Grey Dog legend has morphed over the years, so that present-day Morar residents think of the hound as ‘a ghostly creature akin to a she-wolf – heard and even seen on stormy nights.’ In its original form, however, the tale is good deal more detailed than that, and bears retelling here.

It may be noted, at this point, that the Grey Dog tradition is something of an archival nightmare to pin down. It makes its earliest known appearance in a manuscript, dating to 1896, by the noted folklorist Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay; the first printed version that I know of features in a little book by a Morar fisherman named James Macdonald, published in Inverness in 1907 and entitled Tales of the Highlands, by a Mod Medallist. (A mod is the Gaelic equivalent of a Welsh Eisteddfod; Macdonald won his medal as a fiddle player at the Oban mod of 1906.) Only two copies of this work are known to survive: one of them in anonymous private hands, and the other in the tiny Heritage Centre in the fishing village of Mallaig. A second key source, detailing the Canadian parts of the tradition (numerous Morar Highlanders emigrated to Nova Scotia in the course of the nineteenth century), lies in a Gaelic manuscript preserved in the Sruth nan Gaidheal collection of the St Francis Xavier University library in Cape Breton. The most recent account of the legend, meanwhile, is in Hungarian, of all impenetrable languages (‘Skot Kisertetserok I: Szellemek’, in EPONA: The Journal of Ancient and Modern Celtic Studies in Hungary, no.1, May 2007). It’s with some relief that the English-speaking Fortean turns to what is, in fact, the best and most detailed source on the subject, Iain Thornber’s article ‘The legend of the Grey Dog’, published, relatively accessibly, in The Scots Magazine of Dundee in May 1982.

According to Thornber, a renowned Highlands historian who researched his article in the course of several years of hill walking and stalking in the Morar district in the late 70s,

the story of the Grey Dog dates back to the early 1800s at the time of the Peninsular Wars and is associated with a young Highlander by the name of Dugald MacDonald, who owned a magnificent deerhound of which he was very fond. Like many other men of his generation, Dugald went off to the wars and was away from home for several years. When at last he eventually returned he was told that his beloved dog had left home and taken up residence on an island in the middle of a small loch high among the hills and there had given birth to four pups. The pups were now almost fully grown, and he was warned that due to heir lack of human contact they were so savage that it was unsafe to go anywhere near them.

Lochan Tain Mhic Dhughaill & Lochan a Bhrodainn from the  summit of Glas-charnIgnoring the warning, Dugald set out to visit the hill-loch and on reaching its shores swam across to the island. The deerhound was away and her pups, on hearing him approach, emerged from their lair in the heather and tore him to pieces. When the deerhound returned and saw what had happened to her master, her howls of agony brought the folk of the glen to the scene. The pups were speedily hunted out and killed and Dugald’s body was laid to rest in the little burial-ground at the mouth of the Meoble River.

Here the deerhound began a lonely and pathetic vigil, frequently waking the neighbourhood with her mournful howling as she watched over her master’s grave, until one day she was discovered lying stretched out dead beside it.

For long afterwards the story of her watch over the grave was talked about through the district, but gradually, with the passage of time, it was largely forgotten, until one of Dugald’s brothers became seriously ill at Rifern, a small crofting township lying across the river from the grave-yard. One night the ghost of the deerhound appeared at his bedside. It looked at him for several minutes, then gave a terrible cry and disappeared. A little later the man died. The spectre of the Grey Dog had made its first appearance.

What makes Thornber’s account of the legend especially interesting is his identification of the mysterious island where the Grey Dog (MacDonald says the bitch’s name was Elasaid) made her lair. In some versions of the story, the isle is Eilean Allmha, in Loch Morar itself, but Thornber’s researches showed that the people of the district identify the spot as a nameless islet in Lochan Tain Mhic Dhughaill (‘the little lake of MacDougall’s cattle’), which lies, barely visited and well over a mile of rough ground from the nearest mountain path, in the shadow of Sgurr na Plaide on the north shore of Loch Beoraid, some three miles to the east of Meoble. Thornber became obsessed with the desire to see the spot and, eventually reaching it on a desolate New Year’s Eve, found a far more sinister place than the wooded Eilean Allmha:

Suddenly, spread before me, was the loch I’d come to see. In its centre stood the island, rising up like a large dark pyramid.

In my travels throughout the Highlands I have seen many hundreds of loch-bound islands, but none so dramatic as this one. Even at a distance, I had been struck by its shape and colour, but now, viewed so closely against a backdrop of bleak winter hillside, it seemed even more impressive. It was desolate, dismal and frighteningly gloomy and moreover it had an atmosphere which, in every respect, would conjure up a scene of some terrible tragedy even to those not familiar with the saga of the deerhound.

The loch was frozen over and finding a gap of only 50 or so yards separated me from the island, I stepped gingerly onto the ice. As soon as I set foot on the island I saw immediately why it had looked so dark. Not only was it composed almost entirely of peat, but it was also covered with a thick blanket of heather than had probably not been touched since the time of Dugald’s death more than a century and a half before.

Even in black and white, Thornber’s photo of the isle (reproduced at the head of this entry) gives a good impression of its unearthly appearance, and a modern aerial photo (below) confirms the place’s very unusual bulk in proportion to the lake in which it lies. A minor wrinkle, meanwhile, emerges from a study of the Ordnance Survey’s detailed 1876 map of the district, in impressive 1:10,560 scale, which shows that the lochan in question has, rather unusually, acquired a new name since the birth of the Grey Dog tradition: its nineteenth century title was ‘Lochan Feith a Mhath-ghambaa’. This, a Morar local and my trusty OS Glossary of Gaelic Origins of Place Names in Britain combine to inform me, can be clumsily translated as ‘the bog of the fine stirk’.

Tradition has it, anyway, that Dugald MacDonald’s grave still lies in the disused and overgrown Meoble cemetery near the south shore of Loch Morar, though it is so worn that its inscription is now unreadable and it is impossible to distinguish it from the other memorials there. And the strange black islet in the bleak lochan of MacDougall’s cattle is still thick with heather, and perhaps even unvisited since Iain Thornber stepped onto it more than a quarter of a century ago. The picture that he took of it to illustrate his Scots Magazine article was, the author recounts, ‘found to be imperfect. Although the light at the time had been brilliantly clear, the photographs showed an overall and uncanny blue tinge, which I have never seen before – or since. I wrote to the manufacturers, but they too were puzzled and couldn’t offer an explanation. Had the Grey Dog been closer to me than I had imagined? Perhaps. It is said that in this part of the Gaelic-speaking world the veil of the intangible is easily parted.’

Lochan Tain Mhic Dougaill from Meith Bheinn

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