The Curious Frequency of Skeletal Remains Said to be Found at Sites Said to Be Haunted

Some weeks ago, I promised to blog about something I discuss more fully in Certain Nocturnal Disturbances: Ghost Hunting Before the Victorians. It’s the long tradition of linking a site allegedly haunted to human bones allegedly discovered on the grounds. I have a nagging hunch these stories owe much to the legend of Athenodorus, the great-great-great-… grandfather of ghost hunters. This legend was probably a century old when it was put to paper (or was it papyrus?) in the first century BCE. Briefly, Athenodorus investigates a house said to be haunted; he follows the ghost there to skeletal remains of someone buried in chains in the backyard; and once those bones are reinterred with due ceremony, the ghost is released from its earthly concerns.

There was renewed interest in this legend in Britain and the United States (and probably elsewhere) in the 1800s and early 1900s, and I’ll look at a sampling of prominent hauntings involving skeletal remains from those decades.

  • 1872: “A Hampshire Ghost Story,” published in Gentleman’s Magazine, presents Mary Ricketts’ account of the 1765-1771 haunting of Hinton Ampner. Supplementary documents are included, and in one of them, we read about how, when the house was demolished in 1797, “there was found by the workmen under the floor of one of the rooms a skull, said to be that of a monkey.” Regrettably, no inquiry was made into “the real nature of the skull.” In 1893, reporting on the case for the Society of Psychical Research, John Crichton-Stuart said it’s “suggested that the skull . . . was the head of a child,” since it’s “absolutely inexplicable that a monkey’s skull should be buried in a small box under the floor of a room.” The notion of keeping a child’s skull in a box under the floor doesn’t seem to strike Crichton-Stuart as equally bizarre, even one fitting his tenuous theory about an illegitimate baby having been murdered in the house. About fifty years later, examining the haunting again, Harry Price shouted: “Some say it was the skull of a baby!” (See Poltergeist over England: Three Centuries of Mischievous Ghosts [Country Life, 1945] p. 144). Thus, a monkey skull evolved into a human one.
  • 1898: The August 30th issue of London Standard reported on a farmhouse in Halton Holgate, where residents Mr. and Mrs. Wilson were said to have found “human bones” under the floor. This was presumed to be connected to “strange tappings having been heard” and “a ghost having been seen” by the couple. In the September 13th issue, the Standard said the ghostly phenomena continued and — with echoes of Athenodorus — “a London clergyman has written advising Mrs. Wilson to bury the bones in consecrated ground, then, he says, ‘the ghostly visitor will trouble you no longer.'” Below, I discuss an amusing follow-up investigation of this haunted house conducted by travel writer James John Hissey.
  • 1904: Newspapers from New York to Michigan and Arizona (and probably well beyond) announced that William H. Hyde unearthed bones beneath the cabin that had belonged to the Fox sisters about fifty years earlier. These were the famous Fox sisters whose 1848 claims of being able to communicate with spirits ignited a massive wave of interest in Spiritualism, and the 1904 skeletal remains corroborated their early allegation of having contacted a murder victim in that cabin. In contrast to the Hinton Ampner case, according to the New-York Tribune, “the arm and leg bones of a human being” were discovered and then “all the important bones of the body except the skull.” M.A. Veeder, a physician with an interest in such things, looked into the case for The Occult Review. (See page 52.) He concluded that the bones — which were mismatched and looked to be haphazardly assembled “by some one without a knowledge of anatomy” — had been planted in the cabin. Even more damaging, Veeder says he had since heard the confession of a prankster in a 1909 update for the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Although this debunking had appeared in prominent paranormal publications, believers still used the dubious bones to support Spiritualism. Franklin A. Thomas does so in Philosophy and Phenomena of Spiritualism (1922), and the same goes for Arthur Conan Doyle in Chapter 4 of The History of Spiritualism (1926). Bones, after all, are hard evidence of spirits.
  • 1918: Here, the haunting is far less famous than one of its investigators. Conan Doyle was on his way to rebranding himself — from the creator of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes series to a proponent of almost anything otherworldly — when his book The New Revelation was released. There, he discusses a poltergeist case he had investigated roughly twenty years earlier. He explains that, a few years after that ghost hunt, “I met a member of the family who occupied the house, and he told me that after our visit the bones of a child, evidently long buried, had been dug up in the garden. You must admit that this was very remarkable. Haunted houses are rare, and houses with buried human beings in their gardens are also, we will hope, rare.” On the same page, he then notes that “there was also some word of human bones” found in the Fox sisters’ cabin. After reading this, one might wonder just how rare haunted houses with buried bones are.

Sure enough, it’s fairly easy to find reports that combine ghosts with skeletal remains. As I discuss with greater detail in Certain Nocturnal Disturbances, I’ve come upon more examples from both sides of the Atlantic. And I continue to find them, the last one presented here. Often, reports of ghosts are better understood as folklore — that fascinating middle-ground between fact and fiction — and finding human bones to substantiate a haunting seems to be a recurring folkloric motif.

James John Hissey (1847-1921)

I dug up this topic because this weekend’s episode of Tales Told When the Windows Rattle features my reading of James John Hissey’s chronicle about trying to arrange a ghost hunt at Halton Holgate. Hissey was a frustrated ghost hunter, and — spoiler alert — his lifelong desire to witness a specter seems never to have been fulfilled. Nonetheless, he maintains a hopeful and humorous attitude toward his hapless history as a phantom finder. Well, mostly hopeful and humorous. Ride along with him as he journeys through Lincolnshire, England, managing to track down the haunted farmhouse and to chat with the Wilsons about their ghost — and those equally creepy bones — at the Tales Told YouTube channel. I also share the videos here, adding a downloadable copy of the audio along with links to some podcast sites carrying the series.

— Tim

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