I’ve written before about the Usborne Supernatural Guides. When I read them now, I’m struck by the lack of verification for each story. Some of them are well-known cases of the paranormal, but many are not. So where did these stories come from? How did the writers decide which ones to include?
With this in mind, I attempted to track down the origins of one of the most interesting tales in the Ghosts, Spectres & Haunted Houses book: The tale of the Walsingham Ghosts. Boy, did this one scare me as a kid, especially with those patented Nightmare Fuel Usborne oil painting illustrations.
One particular image was so terrifying to me that I learned where it was in the book so that I could skip the page whenever I read it. I still loved the book even though I was scared of it, so this was quite necessary.
The story starts when a farmer called Walsingham moves into a new house in Georgia in the Deep South. According to the illustrations, it was a damn-creepy Gothic mansion, to boot. He finds a bunch of bones in the house and throws them out. Locals warn that they may be human remains, but Walsingham’s a tough customer and he doesn’t care, not even when hideous moans and groans begin to ring out through the house.
Soon, invisible forces begin to cause havok within the house. The artist chose to portray all of these as being the work of an evil-looking blue spectre. Here he breaks the neck of the family dog.
The family has a teenage daughter. One night she’s doing her makeup when she feels an icy-cold hand on her shoulder, but can see no reflection of it in the mirror- it’s that horrible blue man again.
An invisible bare-footed man follows Dad around in the garden one day.
Now things get serious- another family has come over for a dinner party, but the ghosts ruin things once again. A horrible moan is heard from upstairs, then blood starts to drip from the ceiling onto the dinner table, forming a huge pool. The Walsinghams run upstairs, but there is nothing to be found. They rip up the carpet, but there is no explanation for the blood that continues to drip onto the table. Next day, a reputable chemist examines a sample of the blood and declares that it’s human blood. This entire scene should be stolen to add to the best horror movie script ever.
The Walsinghams justifiably abandon the house, and according to locals, it sits empty for some time, as more moaning and screaming echoes from within. Then a guy called Horace Gunn agrees to spend a night in the house for a bet. He experiences a number of horrifying things, climaxing with this horrible image (the eyes, the eyes!)-
Brr. I’m glad that’s over. Horace runs from the room, but that old blue man is still hanging around, and ‘icy’ hands grip his ankles, knocking him to the ground and then trying to choke him. By the time he escapes, he’s reportedly wound up in an asylum. Poor, brave Horace Gunn. Hope he won some money for that.
So, what are we to make of this remarkable story? It’s been included in one or two potboiler books about ghosts over the years, though probably never as vividly as in the Usborne version. The earliest mention of it that I can find is in a book from the 1890’s called Real Ghost Stories, written by a guy called W.T. Stead. Stead seems to have cribbed it from an article in a San Francisco newspaper (a long way from Georgia), and there it seems the trail runs cold.
Except for the fact that W.T. Stead, as it turns out, is a character who’s absolutely fascinating to me, for lots of different reasons.
Stead was a prominent Victorian journalist and editor. He wrote intelligently about all the important issues of the day, and his lucid style is still fresh and readable now. He wrote fascinating character sketches on all the important characters of his day, too- King Leopold of Belguim, General ‘Chinese’ Gordon, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. Flashman, in his dotage, would almost certainly have met Stead.
Not only did he collect ghost stories, but he was a very prominent spiritualist, and he wrote extensively on this subject too (he was, inevitably, friendly with Doyle for this reason). He notes how a number of inexplicable events in his life eventually caused this rational man to accept the truth about the supernatural. He gives one of the more reasonable and convincing apologies for supernatural thinking that I’ve come across, anyway.
During his lifetime, he was most famous for an article called ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, in which he exposed London’s seedy child-prostitution racket. This seems to have shocked Victorian England to its core, and secured Stead’s lasting fame. The article details how, in order to prove that such a thing was possible, he ’bought’ a thirteen-year-old girl off her parents in modern London for five pounds. It was something of an organized publicity stunt that went wrong- turns out that because Stead had neglected to get written permission from both parents, they were able to report him to the fuzz. Stead spent one year living comfortably in jail, wearing his convict uniform out of choice and continuing to edit his paper from the inside.
In death he was also inadvertently involved in one of the great defining moments of the age- for Stead went down with the good ship Titanic in the small hours of April 15th, 1912. Stead had often claimed that he experienced precognitions of his own death, and torturous analyses of his last words before boarding- ‘I expect to be in New York on the sixteenth’- soon began to appear. Arguments also raged regarding his conduct during those last desperate hours- some survivors claimed that he’s accepted his death with quiet dignity in the smoking room, others thought that they last saw him bravely helping others onto the llifeboats.
Ever heard the story about the cursed mummy case on the titanic? A typical version of it goes like this (from World's Greatest Ghosts): An Egyptologist called Douglas Murray buys a mumy case in Cairo from a diseased America, who dies later that night. Murray finds out that it’s a cursed case, and shortly after his gun explodes during a shooting expedition on the Nile, and his arm has to be amputated. The case eventually winds up in the British museum in London after causing misery to a number of other owners, including a photographer who dies immediately after taking its picture. Also, some photos of the case show the priestess on the case scowling evilly.
Eventually, the bigwigs at the British Museum decide to secretly ship the case to a museum in New York. They load it onto the Titanic, and the rest is history.
Another tale frequently found in potboiler books about the supernatural, and another one that I took rather more seriously that I ought to have as a child.
Except that, thanks to a cracker of a write-up over at Snopes.com, I now know that this particular tale can be traced squarely back to none other than W.T Stead!
It turns out that Stead, alongside Murray, who almost certainly wasn’t an Egyptologist even if he did exist, invented a story about a cursed mummy that brought misery to its various owners in England. Later, they were inspired by the real-life coffin lid of the priestess of Amun-ra that’s still in the British Museum today to create another, similar tale. According to survivors of the Titanic disaster, Stead relished telling these stories to the other passengers during the ship’s voyage, even defying superstition by telling the tale during the midnight changeover of the 12th/13th April.
Eventually, the story of the Titanic (via Stead) became mixed up with the legend of the cursed mummy case, and from then on the two were inseparable. It’s such a disturbing, fascinating tale that it’s still doing the rounds, and it’s a fine example of how interesting things get once we try to find the origins for those old potboiler stories.