The year is 1892, and I am blessed to be interviewing Frank Podmore of the Society of Psychical Research and co-author with Frederick Myers and Edmund Gurney the book “Phantasms of the Living” – one of the cornerstones of psychical research. The 1880s saw a second huge surge in interest in ghosts, mysticism and the paranormal. 1892 is the year that WT Stead published his second volume of “Real Ghost Stories”, adding only more fuel to the fire. The Society of Psychical Research was established in 1882 but rather than celebrate ten years of corporation, the society was lampooned and ridiculed by the British media – yet usually they offered the only sane voice during the wave of claims of the newspapers and mediums.
I met Frank at his occasional accommodation in the Malverns, he was welcoming, calm but focused throughout the interview. As we drank tea, I asked if there was a corporate view of the Victorian S.P.R?
“We have no corporate view, we are a society of investigators.”
You’ve had ten years on the track of ghosts, have you come to sort of working theory about ghosts?
“I cannot say so much. Our chief investigators are all agreed as to the methods; but room is left for considerable divergence of opinion as to the inference. Of course, I speak solely for myself.”
I have read “Phantasms of the Living”, but are you sceptical to the existence of ghosts? I am sure my website’s visitors would be interested to know.
“My position, is roughly, that which is set forth by Gurney in the book you mention. There are certain purely subjective phenomena, of the nature of waking dreams, which are known to psychologists as hallucinations. Some of these hallucinations, as we have demonstrated, coincide with the death of the person whom they represent, or with some other external event. Such coincidental hallucinations – what you call “ghosts” – I regard as started by an impulse received from some other mind – that of the dying man, for instance. They are still, in my view, hallucinations, that is , they are simply ideas of unusual vividness and intensity; but they owe their origin not to some slightly abnormal state on the part of the percipient, but to an external impulse or brain-wave. The process by which that impulse is transferred from another mind has been named by F.W.H.Myers ‘telepathy’. Similar apparitions are occasionally seen representing dead persons; but I do not think that there is at present any evidence, in such cases, of the continued action of the dead. I am inclined to attribue the results to thought-transference from the living.”
In the last years there have been a rise in reports in newspapers about ghosts and similar sightings. Do you see the works of say, WT Stead who merely collects ghost stories for publication as being little worth?
“No, no! you must not put words into my mouth. Our society is most grateful to Mr Stead; not only for his generous and ungrudging appreciation of our work, but also for the magnificent boom – is not that the newspaper term? – which his widely circulated Christmas Number (special edition newspapers usually with ghost stories) has given us. There, at one stroke, is an audience such as our own efforts could not have reached for years to come. We, of course, could not have made such an appeal – but that does not imply any disparagement of Mr Stead’s methods. The aim to to get at the truth; it is the standpoint and the methods which differ. He approaches the subject as a professed believer in things spiritual – we do not. We, as experts, submit for the verdict of the public only the results of our labours in fairly complete form; Mr Stead concerned only to make out a ‘prima facie’ case for investigation, is at liberty to put his matter in whatever way he thinks best adapted to enlist the public’s interest and co-operation. His stories are a first-class ground-bait to attract more stories.”
It is well known that WT Stead ‘borrowed’ stories from the S.P.R collection, do you still think the stories have evidential value?
“Mr Stead viewing them rather from the, well, the dramatic, than from the scientific, point of view, quotes them, not, as they appear in their final form in ‘Phantasms of the Living’ cumbered with much evidential discussion and deduction, but as they originally appeared in our Proceedings, some years previously, when our standard of evidence was less exacting.”
Why is the society so protective of it’s cases, you value the evidential value of any story in inverse proportion to its merits as a “chiller.”
“I fear that is apt to be the case, especially when the story is secondhand and the events happened long ago. Deception and impositon apart, and we have met with little of either, it is extraordinary how much mere mis-recollection will do – and unintentional exaggeration. A story is bound to get altered as it passes from mouth to mouth; and you may be sure it does not get altered for the worse in point of interest. The imagination delights in dramatic unity as much in a ghost story as in a novel or a play. Mistakes of hour and date are not uncommon. One gets to distrust from sad experience the triumpant phrase, “At exactly the same moment, allowing for difference in longitude” etc However the evidence falls apart when we obtain the corroborative evidence of letters, diaries etc and the witness of persons who were present or who were told before fulfulment.”
So S.P.R. ghost stories go through a debunking stage?
“Many of the stories from WT Stead are in their first crude stage. The correspondents have not been interviewed; corroboration is yet lacking; diaries and registers have not so far been examined; dates of external events have not been verified; some of the stories are even second or third hand. Others have no coincidence or other characteristic to distinguish them from purely subjective hallucinations; and such they presumably are.
What are your thoughts on clairvoyance and psychics? Recently (in the late 1880s and early 1890s) there have been stories of people finding buried treasure or tracking murderers in day-dreams that penetrate walls etc. Do you think clairvoyants who deliver such minuteness of detail, make a mere “guess” a mathematical impossibility?
“Where the details had been noted down at the time and before the event – possibly yes. But where this has not been done (the usual state of the case) you can be sure of nothing. Nothing is more difficult to preserve the details of a dream or waking vision in a distinct form, and the attempt to make a sketch from the clairvoyant’s description would often prove the extreme haziness of the picture seen. But after the event, where the details are known – when for instance, the murderer has been otherwise discovered – the tendency is strong for the memory to fill in the picture unconsciously. Of course, some cases are better than others, but my own view is, so far as our investigations have yet gone, that clairvoyance without the possibility of telepathic transference of the idea from another mind cognizant of the facts is not yet sufficiently proved. I see not need yet to adopt any such theory as that Mr Stead calls “the cosmic camera,” retaining, as it were, photographs of past events taken by ‘astral light.’ Such a theory is fascinating, but hardly called for by the facts.”
Reading through many newspapers of this time, and especially of Mr Stead’s statements, he claims that the Society is engaged of a Census of Ghosts – is that a correct description?
“No, the census is a very different project from our ordinary work. We have undertaken to present to an International Congress of Experimental Psychology, the results of a systematic inquiry into the nature and relative frequency of non-morbid hallucinations. We have already obtained answers from about 11,000 persons. Of these over 11 per cent are in the affirmative. But the result does not mean that more than eleven persons in a hundred have seen ghosts. The great majority of these experiences are hallucinations simply, having as little connection with ‘ghosts’ or external events generally as dreams may be supposed to have; and probably due to the same cause – the revival and reconstruction of previous sensations. In fact, when people talk about ‘ghosts’ as inexplicable on any known laws, I would reply that most cases neither more nor less explicable than dreams – those less fitful and capricious visitants which we have nearly always with us. An apparition coinciding with a death is no doubt a marvellous thing; but the marvel lies in the coincidence, not in the apparition. We are still only at the threshold of a vast and momentous investigation. To admit of any certain conclusion being attained, more and yet more evidence is required.”
For the next eighteen years Podmore continued to be active in psychical research publishing a further eight books, seven of which on psychical theories. His untimely death in 1910 cut short a brilliant mind that would have delivered further works in this subject. If you have never read ‘Phantasms of the Living’ or Podmore’s “Studies in Psychical Research, then hunt them down, they are as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.
Reference: Frank’s interview originally appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette, January 26, 1892. All Frank’s replies are exactly as referenced in the newspaper.
While exploring the archives there are many tales of students, groups of gentlemen and spiritualists investigating haunted homes and ghosts.
One such house that came to the attention of national newspapers was a “Haunted House” in New Hall Lane, Preston. The area has long since been levelled and redeveloped, the likelihood is that where once the house stood, now stands an Aldi superstore or student accommodation.
However in December 1934 the house opened its doors to ghost hunters and spiritualists. The owner George Moss did not believe in ghosts and had lived there for twenty years, “without seeing anything queer”.
“A workman is positive he saw a ghost, and other were scared badly during an all-night vigil in the house at the weekend…..as a sequel to the workman’s story of a woman in a long white shroud rising from the floor of the room, four men kept watch on Friday night,” wrote The Evening Telegraph on December 17th 1934.
The newspaper continued, “a spiritualist was chosen to command the proceedings, he mentioned that before he came a feeling of strangulation came over him, and one of his spirit guides had told him that the women they were going to see met her death with strangulation.”
The spiritualist’s guidance continued to influenced the proceedings and at midnight the spiritualist claimed he could see the ghost of the woman. She was between 42 and 43, with black hair coiling over her shoulders. Others in the ghost hunting party got a shock when they were told to concentrate on a dark corner, for the medium’s body seemed to disappear, while his face changed into that of a woman. (“Over-shadowing? An alleged phenomena where a spirit inhabits a medium’s body and changes facial features.) One of the ghost hunters told the newspaper that the woman was middle-aged, while another said that she was very old – confirming that this was a case of suggestion and pareidolia.
“Later young men ruined the atmosphere by flashing lights into the room from the street outside. The expert went home and the others remained some hours longer but saw nothing.”
George Moss told a reporter that two of his staff has been scared during the vigil, but “nevertheless, my own view is that the ghost is a myth. I feel convinced that what the workman saw was a weird shadow caused by the lights of a passing motor.”
After rereading David Taylor’s article, Spaces of Transition (At The Edge Magazine No 10 1998), I began to explore to points highlighted by both articles.
David Taylor makes some keen observations on how as investigators we approach the archetypal haunted house. Hopefully the standard approach is to interview the witness and listen to “the claim” before even any research or investigation has taken place. Most investigators will then clarify the haunting with a very nuts and bolt methodology that seems as prevalent as it were in 1998, when David wrote the original article.
However often the personality and the psychology of the witness’s relationship with the house is not even taken into account, David uses this reference to make his point, “To the new occupant, the “incomer”, the haunted house has a “history” or a “reputation” in a personal, almost sexual way. The house is not a “virgin”. It has been violated by the presence of other human activity . . .’ (ROGERSON, Peter, 1987, ‘And the dogs began to howl’, Magonia No. 27 p7–10.)
As an ex-inhabitant of a “haunted house” I can vouch how paranoia can increase after the first “incident”. At first my family scrambled to find some sort of explanation, and almost instantly it was ascertained it was a former inhabitant, without any further research or discussion with neighbours on the matter.
Instead of concealing the experiences and our own thoughts on the ‘ghost’, we asked very leading questions of our neighbours, and indeed it seemed that an “old man” once lived in the property. The majority of my family believed that our house was haunted by this man – and yet looking back thirty years later it is hard to accept that we took the word of neighbours who never even met this “old man” or what his interests or appearance was actually like.
David Taylor talks further about a case he investigated,
When I visited them it was clear that the present occupants believed that a past resident, who they believed had died in the house, was responsible for the phenomena. These occurrences, they believed, had apparently also been experienced by previous occupants of the house – with the result that no one ever stayed long in the property. An hour in the local records office soon showed that, despite what the neighbours had told them, a normal number of families had stayed in the house over a reasonable period of time and, even though past occupiers may have died, there was no evidence to suggest that they had died in the house. This I feel illustrates the point: faced with apparently unexplained phenomena the family believe that the only explanation can be the ‘spirit’ of a past resident who died in the house. Their belief is reinforced by neighbours who appear to have ‘invented’ a history of the house.
Our story developed further with the over-active mind of my mother – she believed the “old man” had dabbled in the occult after they found a broken up ouija board in our garden. I have investigated many other “haunted houses” and not analysed (enough) at how the witness related to their own, direct surroundings. It is to easy to say that a location is “haunted” because of the stereotypical reasons, but how many times do we say that it could be a case of psychology and local folklore?
their neighbours certainly seem to have projected their concerns onto the house. The house had become a sort of psychic scapegoat. We can then get entangled in a chicken and egg situation. Rumours that a house is haunted could lead the family to turn normal ‘bumps’ and ‘bangs’ into a tormented ‘spirit’, and before you know it the entire family is convinced the house, which prior to the rumours everyone was happy to live in, is haunted.
And this is not a recent phenomenon. During my research of “ghost hunters” in Victorian Britain, many deserted houses were classed as being haunted with large crowds gathering nightly to witness the “ghost”. The famed case of “50 Berkeley Square” has it’s origins in a case of mistaken identity. During the 1870s when it was rented or used as a part-time residence, it slowly gained a reputation of being haunted – one that has stuck even until day. Yet in the 1890s, and also by the work of Jessie Adelaide Middleton, it was ascertained the property was inhabited during the time of the alleged appearances of “ghosts”.
I certainly plan on investigating further how the appearance of a house can affect the inhabitants, Most people know or have a story about a house that has bad luck, haunted or has a “strange feeling” – I would like to explore what aesthetics can enhance the witness’s thoughts to come to these decisions.
David’s article is well worth checking out – you can read it here:- http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/edge/spaces.htm
Another trip down memory lane and this time to 1970s Birmingham and to the demolished factory of Thomas Haddon and Stokes. One witness I interviewed said, “There was a chap who worked in the stores area in the basement. One day he was walking to the lift when he saw an oddly dressed man step into the lift, the chap shouted “I will come up with you” but when he reached the lift no one was there.”
The following is an ATV/Central News report when a reporter visited the factory of Thomas Haddon and Stokes, Birmingham (since demolished) to discuss the ghostly sightings of a man believed to be Protestant martyr John Rogers, who was burned at the stake on this site February 4 1555. Was he really the shoe factory ghost?”
The year is 1892, and I am blessed to be interviewing Frank Podmore of the Society of Psychical Research and co-author with Frederick Myers and Edmund Gurney the…
Is Richland County the U.S.’s most haunted area? And if so why? Headless Kate. The Black Dog. Deadman’s Run. Ghost stories that have captivated the inhabitants of Richland…
While exploring the archives there are many tales of students, groups of gentlemen and spiritualists investigating haunted homes and ghosts. One such house that came to the attention…
“Rumour is going about that the Psychical Society has at last found a ghost.” The Society for Psychical Research, one of Britain’s longest running psychical and paranormal research…