Elliott O’Donnell personal archive sells for £25000

by MJ Wayland

Elliott O’Donnell – Ghost Hunter and Hoaxer?

It is interesting to discover that Elliott O’Donnell’s personal archive recently sold for £25,000. Covering the majority of his working life and including a number of personal artefacts such as a lock of hair, would it have been a treasure trove for paranormal researchers and historians?

Elliott, a “ghost hunter” and writer who died in 1965, is both derided and loved in fairly equal measure, and there is no doubt that he was the first “celebrity” ghost hunter.  He was in demand across the country to give talks on ghosts and similar topics.  The archive details seem to imply that he had a love of science and took the subject of “ghosts” very seriously.

However, my personal view was that he was a hoaxer and a fabricator of ghost tales, during research of the classic haunting of 50 Berkeley Square, I discovered that Elliott had created a story attached to the building.  This was at a time when there was enough information and contemporary witnesses to either discredit the haunting or at least ignore it. Instead he created a story of two sailors breaking into the house and one of sailors falling to his death.  Just type “50 Berkeley Square sailor” into google to see how his fictionalisation of 50 Berkeley Square has been accepted as real by writers (such as Tom Slemen) and investigation groups.

His personal archive certainly would have been fascinating archive to obtain or at least scour.

I would be interested in reading “a five-page letter to O’Donnell from Lord Curzon, arranging an investigation of his haunted country house, Brockley Court by a party including Lord Eldon.” – it was during this investigation that O’Donnell and Curzon faked a ghost photograph, and for a while it was featured in many books and newspapers.  Strangely when Jessie Adelaide Middleton investigated the case, Curzon purposely left out that O’Donnell was a part of the ghost hunting party that took the photograph.  Maybe trying to protect O’Donnell’s reputation?

If you missed the listing on the “Richard Ford Manuscripts” website – here is the shortened listing.

Elliott O’Donnell’s Personal Archive [Ghost-hunter, prolific writer, Irish patriot inter alia]

Publication details: [1872-1965] Price: £25,000.00

Introductory: The Ghost Man’:

Elliott O’Donnell, Irish author (1872-1965); his personal archive:’Mr. Elliott O’Donnell’, P. G. Wodehouse declared in 1908, ‘is the Sherlock Holmes of the ghost world. He is no web-footed rube or pin-head, but a real husky spook-spotter from Spectreville.’ ‘Britain’s No. 1 Ghost Hunter’, O’Donnell was a phenomenon: lecturer, broadcaster, rancher, criminologist, genealogist, Irish patriot, stage and film actor. By the time of time of his death in 1965 at the age of ninety-three he had published around sixty books, with several more appearing posthumously (see appendix). O’Donnell ‘unique personality’ and astute use of publicity ensured a fame (reflected in the cartoon by ‘Jewell’, section 10B below) in some ways foreshadowing that of later media figures like the professional ‘psychic’ Uri Geller and the illusionist Derren Brown. In England a reviewer could declare in 1955: ‘In America, I am sure, he would be known as “Mr. Ghosts”‘; while in America, in a piece syndicated by Hearst newspapers, O’Donnell was reported to be ‘known in England as “The Ghost Man” because of his tireless researches in the world of “spooks” and his experiences there’. O’Donnell’s interests (much as those of Colin Wilson later) were not confined to the supernatural: in 1922 he published a bizarre article on ‘Sex Hatred. The Great Menace of Ultra Feminism’, and in 1939 – having previously claimed to know ‘more of the underworld of London than anyone else’ – a series of articles in the Sunday Sun on the ‘White Slave Traffic’. Elsewhere he was described variously as a ‘criminologist’, and ‘Special Representative for well-known papers in many great Crime Mysteries’. This collection of O’Donnell’s papers contains original articles, correspondence, notebooks, galley proofs, photographs, publishing agreements, reviews and interviews, as well as personal items such as a lock of O’Donnell’s hair cut by his mother when he was three, the luggage ticket for his return to England from America on the ill-fated SS Elbe, his ARP warden’s shoulder patch, and an original drawing of O’Donnell in late middle-age by the artist Katherine Gunton. Among the highlights are a copy of what would appear to be O’Donnell’s first published work, the 1895 short story ‘Legend of the Cascades’; a 1915 letter to O’Donnell from the Irish nationalist Maud Gonne MacBride, in which she praises O’Donnell’s ‘valuable work’ The Irish Abroad and discusses her position on the First World War; a manuscript assessment by O’Donnell of Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, in which he claims he attempted to intervene to prevent Casement’s execution; and a five-page letter to O’Donnell from Lord Curzon, arranging an investigation of his haunted country house, Brockley Court by a party including Lord Eldon. Among many other interesting items are correspondence from the novelist ‘James Blyth’, the cricketer and Hollywood star Sir Charles Aubrey Smith, and Lady Gwendolen Gascoyne-Cecil (daughter of prime minister Lord Salisbury). O’Donnell’s papers add to and amend the biographical accounts given by him. ‘Partly Celtic, partly English’, he claimed descent from ‘a family steeped in ghostly legendry’. His interest in his antecedents was keen [see item 3A], and in 1941 he boasted in the Evening World that ten years before he had called together the first meeting of the O’Donnell clan ‘since about 1591’ [depicted in a photograph in section 9A; see also section 8F, containing material relating to a planned gathering in America in 1934]. According to several accounts, O’Donnell’s ‘interest in the supernatural began when he was a child. It was awakened by psychic phenomena in his home after the death of his father’, whose ‘murder’ in Africa [see the account, with the explorer H. M. Stanley’s observations, in section 3A] and ‘the ghostly happenings associated therewith’ were ‘the cause of the keen interest he has always taken in investigating haunted houses’. O’Donnell received a patchy education at Clifton College and ‘the Queen’s Service Academy (Dr. Chetwode Crawley’s) Dublin’. In 1894 he travelled to the United States with the intention of turning his hand to fruit farming. Although the trip was brief [see section 1, nos. 7 and 8; and section 2 no. 5], the four months he spent in the country were to form a significant part of the O’Donnell legend, with newspapers describing how he had ‘ranched in the Wild West’ [section 10B]. A more accurate description of O’Donnell’s time at Storey’s Ranch, Eagle Point, Jackson County, Oregon (including forty entries by him on people encountered there), is given in section 3A. On his return to England, O’Donnell turned his hand to teaching. In 1895 the Daventry School magazine The Danetrian reported that, ‘As a chief result of the arrival of Mr. E. O’DONNELL a new and lively epoch has broken in upon the general humdrum and monotony of school life’. Section 1 no. 1 of this collection is a copy of that magazine, which contains what would appear to be O’Donnell’s first published piece of writing, a short story mentioned above. Around this time (1895-1900) O’Donnell engaged in a revealing correspondence [section 2 no. 9] with Lady Gwendolen Gascoyne-Cecil, daughter of the prime minister Lord Salisbury, in which she offered the self-professed ‘atheist’ O’Donnell advice on his religious and practical problems. During the course of the exchange an ‘inner change’ came over O’Donnell, with ‘brighter external prospects’. This was probably O’Donnell’s ambitious decision, around 1899, to turn ‘St. Ives schoolmaster’, founding and becoming principal of ‘a first-class boarding school of nearly thirty boys’, variously described as the’St. Ives Health Establishment and Preparatory school’ and ‘Clifton House School’ [see two reports in section 10B]. A little later O’Donnell’s life took yet another turn, when he began training, as one report has it, ‘at the Henry Melville [i.e. Neville] School of Acting in Oxford Street, London, for the stage, and after touring in a first-class London company he acted in several West-End productions. He was with Sir George Alexander in “The Aristocrat” at the St. James’ and in “The Loving Heart” at the New. He also acted on the films, appearing in “The Man’s Shadow [1912],” “The Lifeguardsman [1916],” and various other productions’. Material relating to O’Donnell’s theatrical career forms section 1 no. 15. O’Donnell now turned his hand to writing, publishing the first of several novels in 1904. In 1908, in a typically shrewd move, he mounted a publicity drive to promote his rebranding of himself as a ‘Spook-Expert’ [section 10B], with the publication of his first ‘supernatural’ work, Some Haunted Houses of England and Wales. That December, as various newspaper reports in section 10B show, he gave a lecture at the Eustace Miles ‘meatless’ restaurant, 40 Chandos Street, London – a meeting point for feminists and ‘free-thinkers’ – during which, showing his ability to tailor his material to his audience, he lectured on ‘Vegetable Ghosts’. This met with ridicule in some quarters, with a number of newspapers carrying a report lampooning O’Donnell – ‘the greatest ghost-hunter in Christendom’ – and his ‘buttered-bean tin’ elemental. [O’Donnell’s interest in the subject would appear to have been serious: see the galley proofs of his 1946 Occult Review article ‘Spirit Embodiment in the Vegetable World and Inert Bodies’, section 2 no. 41.] Despite the critical response, O’Donnell’s career now blossomed, and he began the long series of ‘solitary vigils in many haunted houses’ reported on in section 10C. Although initially a member of the Society for Psychical Research (he had contributed an account of ‘Incidents relative to death of my father’ in 1899) O’Donnell’s methods were more intuitive and instinctual than those of ‘scientific’ contemporaries like Harry Price. An early report describes his ‘usual method’. He would ‘sit in a room where a crime has been committed in order to get the “atmosphere,” and then, by means best known to himself, secure the hypothesis for tracing the criminal describes’. ‘I am a magnet of supernatural phenomena’, O’Donnell himself declared in 1912, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. [See sections 2 and 10A for articles with a more scholarly approach published by O’D in the Occult Review in the late 1940s (e.g. ‘The Dual Brain and the Psychic’ and ‘Intuition and Psychic Perception’).] Despite what the same reviewer described as ‘a voice somewhat lacking dramatic fire’ -surprising in a trained actor – O’Donnell was from the first in great demand as a lecturer and broadcaster, thus reinforcing his position as ‘the expert on occult matters’ [section 10B]. The extent of his success can be gauged from section 6, which includes material relating to BBC broadcasts, and to O’Donnell’s American lecture tour of 1933-4. An interesting feature of this archive is the particular interest in O’Donnell’s work shown by women. A reporter describing one of his lectures in Kensington in 1914 noted how ‘Forty-five fashionably-dressed ladies thrilled at each blood-curling [sic] story. Only two men were present.’ Another article, written twenty years later, describes how, during the American tour, O’Donnell was greeted by ‘Six hundred poker-faced women, who did not clap, did not thank him and did not even offer him a cup of tea’ [both section 10B]. Among those reported as present at a 1913 lecture in Chelsea on ‘Animals After Death’ is the artist and pioneer of women’s education Henrietta Ward (Mrs E. M. Ward), and four years before this O’Donnell is reported to have given a lecture at her Chester Studio in Belgravia. Mrs Ward was clearly more than an acquaintance, as O’Donnell’s edition of her reminiscences appeared in 1911. A 1936 feature on O’Donnell [section 10B] contains the claim that he ‘served with the forces during the Great War’, but despite his education at a Dublin military academy he did not see active service. His own biographical ‘Notes’ [section 6B] state that ‘Owing to varicose veins he was barred from active service during the First World War but served in the Home Defence in the United Arts Rifle Volunteers’ [see battalion orders, section 1 no. 13]. Twelve items relating to O’Donnell’s service as an ARP warden in the Second World War form section 1 no. 18. While O’Donnell’s papers show that he was proud of his Irish ancestry, his brother Henry was a Brigadier-General in the British Army [photograph in section 9A], and his own views were decidedly pro-British [see the article ‘Calling Irishmen’, section 10B], so it is interesting to see him corresponding with a heroine of the Irish republican cause, Yeats’s muse Maud Gonne MacBride [section 1 no. 11]. As early as 1908 the editor of T. P.’s Weekly, in a long attack on Some Haunted Houses entitled ‘The Haunters And The Haunted. An Appeal to My Readers’ (section 10D), criticised O’Donnell’s ‘sloppy English’ and ‘the lumbering affectation of science (falsely so called) in which the writer has dressed his stories’. Worse still, the article contained a direct accusation of fraud: ‘I do not for a moment believe that the sentence quoted by me at the head of this article was written in the year 1782, or in any one of the years between 1782 and 1882.’ Six years later Punch would dismiss O’Donnell more succinctly: ‘my flesh declined to creep an inch from the first page to the last’. Despite such critics, interest in O’Donnell and his writing has grown steadily over the last twenty years, and many readers would now rather concur with Stephen Potter, who declared in 1948 that O’Donnell ‘makes our flesh creep most deliciously’, and with D. B. Wyndham Lewis, who seven years later praised the ‘exhilarating’ nature of O’Donnell’s ‘rich array’. Included among O’Donnell’s papers is a large collection of letters, agreements and royalty statements, from a number of different publishers, dealing with the publication of many of O’Donnell’s books and articles, from his first novel ‘For Satan’s Sake’ (‘a commercial failure’ according to its publisher Arthur Greening, who declares he didn’t like it anyway) to an article published in 1961. Some of the material reflects the economic downturn of the 1930s, a period during which, we learn, O’Donnell was so ‘desperately hard up’ that he was forced to draw unemployment benefit. Section 7 contains around two hundred letters to O’Donnell on occult matters from many different correspondents. Written over seven decades and ranging across boundaries of class and gender, the letters provide a fascinating insight into numerous individual cases, and taken as a whole they show the extraordinary growth of interest in the occult in twentieth-century Britain and America. Notable items include the five-page Curzon letter, marked ‘Confidential’, as well as communications from other society figures including the 7th Duke of Newcastle (who shares O’Donnell’s ‘dislike of extreme feminism’, and is keen to join him in investigating a ‘haunted house in Chelsea’) and the Baroness von Alvensleben, who asks O’Donnell to tell her the ‘meaning’ of ‘things witnessed’ by her grandmother, ‘ Lady Walker widow of Gen[era]l Sir Beauchamp Walker’. The Hon. Everard Feilding writes in Wodehousian terms, suggesting that he ‘motor’ O’Donnell and a party ‘down to Sussex to hunt a spook’, and the film actor Norman McKinnel expresses his eagerness to go ghost hunting with O’Donnell when he is ‘out of shop’. Indicating the increasing commercialisation of the subject, one correspondent offers, in true Dickensian style, to reveal the details of a ghost story ‘for a consideration’, while the involvement of a ‘Mirror journalist’ in the case of a haunting in Chelsea in 1913 results in a letter of complaint to O’Donnell from the house’s owner. (It is clear from this collection that, while having a shaky grasp of copyright, O’Donnell himself was well aware of the commercial value of this material.) Women are very well represented (spurred on, perhaps, by the loss of loved ones in the Great War – cf. the seance scene in Hollingshurst’s The Stranger’s Child), with, for example, the two letters from the Hon. Juliet Gardner mentioned above, which describe in sensitive terms supernatural experiences at her home at Swiss Farm, Otley, and those of her grandfather Lord Carnarvon; and a packet of thirteen letters relating to the ‘Lex Hauntings’, 1914-1918, from the gutsy Winifred Bonsell (‘I […] fired point blank at him about 13 times with no effect, though I am a very good shot with a rook rifle’). The children’s writer Kate Whitehead Oxley provides a long account, attested by her husband Selwyn (pioneer in the field of the education of the deaf), of the ‘series of accidents or misfortunes’ attending an aged clergyman of their acquaintance over the previous decade. The theosophist and translator Frederick William Thurstan defends the ‘manifestations’ of the spiritualist ‘Mrs. Giddins’. The Rev. H. R. T. Brandreth writes in great detail concerning a haunting at the Presbytère St. Georges in Paris. One correspondent provides a transcript of his encounter at a ouiji board with a sixteenth-century seafarer named ‘Elks’, and three children write out accounts of their encounters with the Guilsborough White Lady. O’Donnell has also separated eleven items into a packet of ‘Mad letters’. Section 10 comprises a partial list of the newspaper and magazine cuttings contained among O’Donnell’s papers, from a wide range of British and American publications, divided into four parts. The first part lists 54 articles by O’Donnell himself, dating from between 1912 and 1960, a number of them marked up with revisions for republication. They include a bizarre piece from the 1920s titled ‘The Great Menace of Ultra Feminism’ [Manchester Evening News], and a 1939 series on ‘the White Slave Traffic’ [Sunday Sun]. The second part, containing fifty articles about O’Donnell, is headed by a hitherto-unnoted 1908 feature by P. G. Wodehouse on ‘the Sherlock Holmes of the ghost world’ for the magazine Ideas. (Another article states that O’Donnell played cricket for three years running with Wodehouse and Conan Doyle in the Authors’ Club team.) Containing a mass of biographical information, they range from a 1903 piece on O’Donnell’s boarding school in St Ives, to a 1964 feature on him by the journalist Adam Raphael. The third part lists articles with references to O’Donnell, including reports on hauntings investigated by him, and the last part contains reviews of O’Donnell’s work, ranging from a 1908 attack in T. P.’s Weekly on O’Donnell’s first ‘supernatural’ work Some Haunted Houses, to a 1964 News of the World review of the last book published in his lifetime, The Screaming Skulls. Also present is a section of correspondence from O’Donnell’s family, including letters from both his parents, his maternal grandfather and other family members, a transcript by O’Donnell of his father’s ‘Last letter’, and family papers. There are also two personal and genealogical notebooks, one containing an account by O’Donnell of his time on an Oregon ranch, as well as material relating to his father’s ‘murder’ in Africa [including H. M. Stanley’s observations, mentioned above]. Another section contains photographs, both personal and relating to the supernatural, as well as lantern slides used by O’Donnell in his lectures.

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