Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Master Ghost Hunter
Reading Master Ghost Hunter, a Life of Elliott O'Donnell by Richard Whittington-Egan. It is one of the very few biographies I've read where I find it almost impossible to trust the accuracy of any of its contents (the biography of Sax Rohmer Master of Villainy is another, although not to the same extent. It's possible that the two writers may have met, as they were both members of the Ham Bone club in Soho). O'Donnell would appear to have been the Arthur Shuttlewood (see The Golden Ram of Satan post) of ghost hunting, having been witness to literally hundreds of apparitions, some terrifying enough to scare one to death - if his accounts are to be believed. He also seems to have met a vast number of unlucky individuals who had their death foretold by a ghost and to have experienced a statistically remarkable series of coincidences and uncanny encounters. I even wonder whether he actually did spend some time in the United States, travelling around and working on a ranch, or whether this was yet another product of his over-fertile imagination. The book itself is well produced, with some nice glossy illustrations, some placed at the beginning of each chapter. A huge amount of the text consists of long quotations from O'Donnell's books and unpublished autobiography and footnotes do not identify where passages have been taken from. There is almost no authorial comment on what is being presented.
Only one tale includes a secret tunnel. In 1952 O'Donnell assisted a group of Bristol University students in a seance and treasure hunt. The alleged haunted house on St Michael's Hill, Bristol, was: 'built on the ruins of the convent of St Mary Magdalene, founded in 1174 and destroyed by Henry VIII. For the past seven years the woman who owns it has been troubled by strange happenings. Silent vibrations shake the walls at night. Doors slam suddenly. The daughter of the house frequently finds her nylon stockings mysteriously knotted next morning or the buttons of a coat or blouse done up, apparently by no human agency.'
O'Donnell was present at a seance in which the following information was received about the site: 'Sister Mary, a nun, killed Sister Angela at the corner of a secret passage beneath the convent. She buried jewellery under the floor there. Later, in remorse, she threw herself down another well. She has haunted the area since, can find no rest until her bones are recovered and buried and the treasure is dug up and sent to a church in Italy.' Some parallels with the nun of Borley here.
A group of students went down to the cellars and attacked the floor, excavating some of the well.
'There, in a dark cobwebbed corner of what must have been the crypt of the convent. the students, stripped to the waist, dug down into the clay and rubble that filled the old shaft. At the depth of five feet [they] struck brick. [Fellow students] laid bare what appeared to be a brick-and-stone wall. It had a hollow ring, and is believed to conceal the entrance to a secret passage ...
'After probing the brick surface, which seemed slightly curved, as if it were the top of an arch, the treasure-seekers decided to suspend operations until an expert could examine the brickwork.' (pp261-262). We are not told if the expert was consulted.
It is rather a mystery how O'Donnell earned money in his early years to pay for all his travels. It seems to me that he took up writing purely to make money and had to thereafter keep coming up with the sensational goods. He wrote of his activities:
'Let me state plainly that I lay no claim to being what is termed a scientific psychical researcher. I am not a member of any august society that conducts its investigations of the other world, or worlds, with test tube and weighing apparatus; neither do I pretend to be a medium or consistent clairvoyant - I have never undertaken to "raise" ghosts at will for the sensation-seeker or the tourist. I am merely a ghost hunter. One who lays stake by his own eyes and senses; one who honestly believes that he inherits in some degree the faculty of psychic perceptiveness from a long line of Celtic ancestry; and who is, and always has been, deeply and genuinely interested in all questions relative to phantasms and a continuance of individual life after physical dissolution.' (pp.3-4)
I've just discovered that Richard Whittington Egan died in September at the age of 91. He was an acknowledged expert on Jack the Ripper, whom he refers to here as 'Saucy Jacky' (?!) When I was writing Decadent London I tried to read his biography of Richard Le Gallienne, but was defeated by the orotund style. Master Ghost Hunter was published earlier this year. Obituary here.