Was Harry Escott — Founding Occult Detective and Vera Van Slyke’s Mentor — a Real Person???

I introduce this weekend’s episode of Tales Told When the Windows Rattle by reading a few lines from a lengthy obituary about author/poet Fitz-James O’Brien. The obit writer remains anonymous, but I’d bet a nickel it’s O’Brien’s buddy and editor William Winter. Anyway, that writer turns to “The Pot of Tulips,” the first of two tales featuring O’Brien’s founding occult detective, Harry Escott. Apparently, some of the original readers of this adventure responded to it with resolute belief:

The plot is wrought out with great skill, the marvelous dénouement being narrated in the most matter-of-fact manner. To the story was appended a postscript, to the effect that any person ‘who wished further to investigate the subject might have an opportunity of doing so by addressing Harry Escott, care of this Magazine.’ Scores of letters, and not a few personal applications, were received, asking for the means of communicating with Mr. Escott. I remember one young man, who called so often, and was so firmly convinced that in this narrative lay the germs of some great revelation, that I was compelled to tell him that the whole was an effort of pure imagination. Unfortunately, he would not believe me.

I then ask my listeners: “What if that young man — and those scores of letter writers — were not wrong? What if Harry Escott was real?

This photograph — identified only as “Vera’s Harry” on the back — was among my great-grandaunt’s memoirs. Is this Harry Escott?

Indeed, Vera Van Slyke identifies Harry Escott as her ghost-hunting mentor in a chronicle titled “Houdini Slept Here.” (As fate would have it, I’ll read this in the next episode of Tales Told.) Van Slyke is asked why she never used her journalist skills to recount her own paranormal investigations for publication, and in her explanation, she suggests how Escott’s path crossed with O’Brien’s. Van Slyke says,

Early in his career, [Harry Escott] had granted permission to an aspiring writer to pen a couple of his experiences. That writer took the liberty of presenting both cases as if recorded by Harry himself, perhaps for the dramatic effect that goes with firsthand accounts of the supernatural. They were published in this manner. . . . You see, spectral encounters are better related by a reporter who brings some objectivity to the subject. By impersonating Harry himself, the writer inadvertently prompted many readers to view my mentor either as a liar or a lunatic. 

Apparently — and predictably — there were skeptical readers along with those scores of letter-writing believers. Van Slyke then suggests that it would be better if her own ghostly mysteries were penned by her friend and my ancestor, Lida Bergson, née Prášilová. (Adding the “ová” suffix to a woman’s surname is a long-lived but now dying tradition in Czech and other Slavic cultures.) And that’s what happened, though Lida’s chronicles weren’t published until I inherited them.

After years of trying to sort out what’s real and what’s “an effort of pure imagination” in the Van Slyke chronicles, I’ve had only very limited success. Despite rumors to the contrary, the Internet does not answer all our questions, and in this case, neither do the Prasil family stories. I have resigned myself to letting my readers decide for themselves.

And you can take a step toward making that decision by listening to “A Pot of Tulips,” attributed to Fitz-James O’Brien, this weekend at the Tales Told YouTube channel or on this page. Learn more about the Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries series here.

— Tim

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