William F. Barrett: A Solid Ghost Hunter

A Physicist Exploring the Borders

By trade, William F. Barrett (1844-1925) was a physicist. He taught the subject at Ireland’s Royal College of Science, and his professional accomplishments earned him places in organizations ranging from the Royal Society and the Institute of Electrical Engineers to the Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of Literature.  If you wish to get a sense of the state of physics at the close of the 1800s, you might take a look at Practical Physics: An Introductory Handbook for the Physical Laboratory (1898), which Barrett co-wrote.

However, Barrett is probably better remembered today for his explorations on the borders of the physical realm: telepathy, Spiritualism, even dowsing. In addition, he was a key figure in the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in both the UK and the U.S. Like his fellow scientists on both sides of the psychical pond, he was accused of gullibility — of being too eager to believe in the phenomena he was investigating. Nonetheless, such accusations seemed not to deter his desire to extend scientific study into these fringe subjects.

Barrett’s 1877 Ghost Hunt

To this end, his chronicle of a ghost hunt he conducted concludes with a bit of a homily about how, despite living in an age of skepticism, reports of ghosts persist and how we should, at least, entertain the idea that such hauntings might be evidence of human spirit existing beyond the body. Published in the Dublin University Magazine, this chronicle is titled “The Demons of Derrygonelly” (1877). Despite the rather dramatic and alliterative title, Barrett describes ghostly manifestations that seem more like the work of a poltergeist than a demon. Still, it’s a nicely written article, one that illustrates well the operations of a Victorian ghost hunter.

Barrett opens the article by describing how the ghost hunt was almost a secondary consideration of a man who invited him to explore the caves near Enniskillen, Ireland. From there, he and his host journey to a purportedly haunted cottage in Derrygonnelly. The two spend the night and are witness to a series of rappings and scratchings. Despite their best efforts, they are unable to trace the source of these noises.

The Knocking Phantom Complied

Barrett maintains a skeptical — or, at least, cautious — attitude as he scouts around for evidence of trickery or some other physical explanation for the noises. The most inexplicable experience of the evening is when he invites the phantom to knock a specific number of times. And it does so correctly! Even when the physicist spoke the number more quietly and more quietly, the phantom is able to show it understands. Barrett goes on:

At last, I mentally asked for a certain number of knocks: they were slowly and correctly given! To check any tendency to bias or delusion on my part, I thrust my hands in my coat pockets, and said, 'Knock the number of fingers I have open.' The response was at first merely a loud scratching, but I insisted on my request being answered, and to my amazement three slow, loud knocks were given, — this was perfectly correct.

Barrett says he was able to repeat the test a few more times, and each time, the ghost discerned and communicated the correct number of fingers.

The Loss of a Wife and Mother

Perhaps more compelling is the story of the peasant farmer in whose cottage these noises had been heard for weeks. The manifestations, he explains, began after his wife died, leaving him with four daughters and one son. The ghostly activity seems not to be the dead woman’s spirit, though. Grieving, one senses, is a better explanation for the phenomena. Specifically the eldest daughter, Maggie, seems to be the catalyst for the poltergeist, particularly when she sleeps. “One morning,” the farmer explains, “we found fifteen or sixteen small stones had been dropped on her bed.” Meanwhile, the phantom also plays pranks on the family, such as playing hide-and-go-seek with their boots.

Barrett ends his narrative with neither a solution to the ghostly mystery nor a resolution to the poor cottager’s predicament. Instead, he ends with that plea for further exploration of such hauntings that I mention above.

Barrett’s Other Ghost Hunts

Barrett conducted additional ghost hunts, some of which are noted in the “Hauntings and Poltergiests” chapter of his book-length survey titled Psychical Research (1911). His chronicle of a 1914 investigation struck me as material for very distinctive dramatic reading, and in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I asked some actor friends to join me in treating it as exactly that:

Similar to the 1877 case, Barrett ends this outing with the Unsubstantial remaining elusive and, well, unsubstantial. Nonetheless, he exhibited solid abilities in paranormal investigation and a solid track record in such endeavors.

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