Top five hauntings in history

Tales of ghosts and ghouls have, for centuries, captured the imagination. Here, Professor Owen Davies from the University of Hertfordshire, a historian who specialises in witchcraft, magic and ghosts from the ancient world to the modern era, shares his top five hauntings in history.

This article was first published on 31 October 2013

Vintage engraving from 1877 of a man being haunted by the ghost of a young woman
Vintage engraving from 1877 of a man being haunted by the ghost of a young woman

16th century

Anne Boleyn, whose headless ghost is rumoured to haunt the vicinity of the Tower of London and other locations, may be the most famous ghost of the 16th century. But instead I nominate a literary hoax ghost.

Following the Reformation, Protestant theologians dismissed ghosts as Catholic inventions, delusions and frauds. A good Protestant should not believe in ghosts. 

Published in the late 16th century, John Scogan’s Scoggin’s Jests tells how the eponymous hero detected a fraudulent ghost while in Rome (of course!)

The hoaxer intended to frighten a wealthy widow into leaving her money. One evening he “came into her house & lapped himselfe in a white sheete, counterfetting a spirit, thinking she would run her wayes.”

Scoggin catches him and beats him with a cudgel.

17th century

During the second half of the 17th century, a profound intellectual debate flourished about the reality of ghosts and witches.

For some, the possibility of modern miracles, and as a consequence the very foundations of Christianity, were at stake. Ghost sceptics were denounced as dangerous atheists.

The haunting of the home of John Mompesson at Tedworth (now Tidworth), Wiltshire, during the early 1660s, was a much-cited case in the debate.

The haunting consisted primarily of mystery drumming noises, but other sounds and spectral evidence were recorded.

Rather than attributing them to the restless spirit of a deceased person, those who believed in their reality explained that they were caused by a demonic spirit sent in revenge by a drummer that Mompesson had convicted not long before.

18th century

This has to be the Cock Lane Ghost. Few other ghosts attracted so much notoriety at the time and in following centuries.

In 1762, in Cock Lane, not far from St Paul’s Cathedral, strange knockings and visions were reported to be emanating from the bedroom of one Elizabeth Parsons.

Communication was attempted with the spirit by a system of knocks – such as would be used in early spiritualism 80 years later. This apparently revealed that the source of the disturbances was the ghost of Fanny Lynes, the mistress of William Kent.

Fanny’s ghost confirmed rumours that she had been poisoned by Kent.

The case was a London sensation, attracting the attention of renowned literary figures such as Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole and Oliver Goldsmith. The sceptics argued that it was all an elaborate hoax to defame Kent, and indeed a defamation suit was brought to court.

19th century

In the age of the folklorist, medium and psychical researcher, there are so many cases to choose from.

I have plumped for a ghost that certainly never existed – the notorious and tragic Hammersmith Ghost.

During the dark evenings of the winter of 1803/04, word spread through the streets of Hammersmith that a ghost was molesting people. One rumour had it that it was the spirit of a suicide buried in Hammersmith churchyard.

On the night of 3 January a local bricklayer and plasterer named Thomas Milward was making his way home, dressed in the white linen clothes of his trade. He had already been mistaken for a ghost, and his mother had warned him about walking the streets at night in white.

On this occasion a drink-fuelled pair set out from a local pub to catch the ghost, and one of them, catching sight of Milward’s ghostly figure in the dark, shot him dead.

20th century

For much of the century no man was more associated with ghost research than Harry Price (1881–1948). He was a larger-than-life character who loved the media, and assembled a unique library of rare works on the occult and paranormal.

His most famous investigation was that of Borley Rectory, Essex, which came to be known as the most haunted house in Britain.

Apparently haunted by the troubled spirits of a medieval monk and nun, numerous poltergeist phenomena were reported, and ghostly figures were seen walking the house and grounds.
In 1937 Price rented the rectory, and advertised in The Times for “Responsible persons of leisure and intelligence, intrepid, critical, and unbiased, are invited to join rota of observers in a year’s night and day investigation of alleged haunted house.” 

The rectory was ruined by fire in 1939 (some say by ghostly hands), and the site continues to be a hot spot for psychical investigators.

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