A Ghost Hunter Overshadowed
George Albert Smith (1864-1859) is someone I should’ve known about long ago. Not only did he conduct an extensive ghost hunt — lasting over a year — in Brighton, England, he went on to make some of the very earliest movies, some featuring ghosts. Those are two of my favorite subjects for the price of one! As it turns out, though, there’s not a lot of information about his important ghost hunt. It gets overshadowed by the far more controversial investigation of Ballechin House, which was conducted about eight years afterward. (There’s more about these later events on my page about Ada Goodrich-Freer.) At the same time, Smith’s exploits as a stage mind-reader and hypnotist — and especially his accomplishments as a film pioneer — both overshadow his short tenure as a ghost hunter.
With this in mind, I’ll focus on Smith’s dealings with haunted houses. He conducted a fairly routine investigation in Norwich in late 1884. In his report for the Society of Psychical Research, Smith says the couple residing in the house repeatedly heard tromping footsteps and a jiggling doorknob, all inexplicable. One night, as the clock began striking midnight, the husband observed the apparition of “a respectable old gentleman of about 60.” Dressed in black, the specter stood perfectly still while “staring intently at him,” and then sunk through the floor as the final knell sounded. Though the husband kept quiet about his frightening encounter, the phantom noises continued to be heard — even by a servant, who also claimed to hear “subdued voices and other vocal sounds.” These sounds grew into sighs and a moan, and finally the husband heard a woman whisper, “Hark! the master of the house has returned; we must depart,” followed by sobs and wails. That was enough. The couple moved out the very next day.
Smith then reviews his examination of the house and his interviews with witnesses and neighbors. “I, myself, heard strange sounds,” he says, “but could account for nearly all of them.” He points to the people next door, especially a woman with a hoarse cough, and nearby pedestrians and street traffic. With these factors in place, Smith diagnoses the haunting as a product of imagination and nerves, augmented with the wife’s religious fervor. Kind of disappointing conclusions, I guess, but not entirely unexpected.
A More Intensive Investigation
It’s Smith’s far more intensive investigation of a better-documented haunting in Brighton that earns him a place in the Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame. After all, the more than thirteen months he lived at the spooky site shows dedication! (Or, perhaps, it shows a guy enjoying free rent, since the SPR footed the bills.) The main source of information about this case is an article titled “Phantasms of the Dead from Another Point of View,” written by Frank Podmore and published in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. Podmore opens by saying that few members of the SPR still cling to the “crude” notion that “‘ghosts’ are the spirits of deceased persons.” The society’s preferred theory was, in a way, even creepier. Spectral encounters are
essentially hallucinatory, but it is suggested that the hallucinations are in some sense due to the agency of a deceased person, that they are possibly a reflection of his uneasy dream; or, if that conception should be found too definite, that they represent in some way the fragmentary thoughts of a decaying personality.
Podmore wants to explore a third option. He’s especially interested in ghostly encounters that have been shared by witnesses because he wants to find evidence of “thought-transference” between the living. In other words, do those who claim to have observed a “ghost” telepathically communicate that experience to others with them and/or to others who follow them? This, then, is the framework in which he presents Smith’s investigation (amid several other cases).
The Haunting Sequentially
The events of the Brighton haunting are told by Podmore a bit out of order. But I like things to be properly sequential. And so here are things properly sequential, thank you very much:
March 28th, 1879
A 42-year-old woman living at the Brighton residence committed suicide. According to a newspaper report, her body “was discovered hanging by a skipping-rope to a peg behind the door to a top back bedroom, quite dead.” Podmore reproduces this newspaper article, but says the tragedy’s “connection with the apparition and noises is not very clearly established, and does not, I think, make very strongly for the hypothesis of post-mortem agency.”
October of 1882 – December of 1886
Miss L. Morris and Miss E.M. Morris, sisters, resided at the house. A chronicle written by L. describes unaccountable footsteps and the apparition of a woman “heavily robed in deepest black from the head to her feet; her face was intensely sad and deadly pale.” The doorbell rang repeatedly — and there were knocks at both the front door and L.’s bedroom — but no one was ever there. Doorknobs jiggled and doors opened, and no one living in the house claimed responsibility. Admirably, the sisters remained until the end of the lease, but L. notes, “I never knew one happy day in it.” She adds that she attributed the weird events to “the fact of a woman a few years back having hung herself there.”
Podmore’s interview with the sisters reveals that the previous tenant never reported any such problems and that, after the sisters left, the house remained empty until a “Mrs. G.” moved there.
November of 1887 – April of 1888
Mrs. G. was a widow with two children. After a couple of weeks there, the mother heard a moan one night. She checked her sleeping children, then went back to bed herself. A heavy thump made her sit up. Next, “to my horror a voice (and a very sweet one) said, ‘Oh, do forgive me!’ three times.” The moaning and thumping resumed. Over time, the children started to experience strange things, too, including “a dreadful white face peeping round the door!” Curiously, when Mrs. G. spoke to the neighbors about her experiences, she was told “a very wicked servant” had lived there. Afterward, Mrs. G. learned from the landlord about the woman who hanged herself. Then one of children “saw a man by the window staring fixedly; blue eyes, dark brown hair, and freckles.” A search revealed nothing. The manifestations continued, some of which were witnessed by visitors who stayed the night there, and Mrs. G. left the house after only five months.
May of 1888
Mrs. G.’s experiences became known throughout Brighton, and Podmore explains that, “when the house was empty, a party of three gentlemen obtained access to it, on two separate occasions, for the purposes of investigation.” A bell and a crash were heard without immediate explanation, and a phantom figure was glimpsed. One of the party was a clergyman, who performed an exorcism.
August 17, 1888 – September 27, 1889
Smith and his new wife, Laura, occupied the house, financed by the SPR. In an Appendix, Podmore includes Smith’s report. To tell you the truth, there’s nothing spectacular there. Even Smith admits, “During our tenancy we were not disturbed by any startling or violent manifestations, nor did we see any apparitions.” One could, I suppose, attribute this to the exorcism conducted by the previous ghost hunters. A more mundane explanation is that Smith, despite his background as a stage performer, took his role as a level-headed investigator seriously. In contrast, a ghost-hunt chronicle by, say, Ada Goodrich-Freer can seem exaggerated or downright fabricated.
An Invisible Guitar Player?
As Goodrich-Freer would in the later Ballechin House investigation, Smith hosted additional investigators. 39 people, he says, came and went, but with lackluster results: “In one or two cases, these visitors heard noises during the night which they could not quite account for; but in most instances the sounds were so trivial that little importance was attached to them.”
Nonetheless, maybe that exorcism wasn’t fully effective because the Smiths did hear some noises that weren’t all that trivial. Laura heard a zinc pail being rattled and, perhaps, moved. What sounded like fireirons crashed. They both heard a whip-crack sound. George heard hammer knocks. The doorbell rang, and no one was there. The maid heard footsteps. A guest heard a rustling as if of a silk dress. None of these could be explained, and neither could what was possibly the oddest sound. In the sitting room, a guitar hung on the wall. George had gone to bed in the adjacent room, but Laura had remained in the sitting room to say her prayers. Smith writes:
In the midst of the quietness which ensued I suddenly heard the guitar play pung, pang, ping — pung, pang, ping — here my wife called out in a loud, awe-struck whisper, ‘Did you hear that?’ whilst even as she spoke a third pung, pang, ping sounded clearly through the rooms. I immediately sprang out of bed and rushed in to her. . . . My wife told me that she had been distracted once or twice by a noise like someone sweeping their hand over the wallpaper. . . . She said that when the guitar sounded its chords (in arpeggio) for the second and third times she was looking straight at the instrument, and such critical observation as she had at command under the surprise of the thing satisfied her that there was nothing visible near it, and that it made no perceptible movement.
The Smiths’ Contribution to Ghost Hunting
The invisible guitar player was about as freaky as it got. Still, this investigation is important less for what was discovered and more for the duration and method of discovery. This wasn’t a one- or two-night probe like Smith’s handling of the Norwich haunting or like those Brighton gents who performed the exorcism. Such short-term outings were standard procedure and remain so in the 21st century. In contrast, Smith’s investigation appears to have been one of the earliest long-term, multi-participant ghost hunts. Over 13 months. 40 ghost hunters, including Smith. Impressive.
A final note: Podmore’s article never mentions Smith by name. The case is summarized in a 1920 book with the amusing title Psychical Research for the Plain Man, and Smith isn’t identified there, either. Much later sources claim Smith conducted the ghost hunt, including a book review on the SPR site. Another such source, which I recommend, is the chapter titled “The Strange Case of George Albert Smith: Mesmerism, Psychical Research and Cinema” in Murray Leeder’s book The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). It makes perfect sense that Smith is the fellow who signs his name “X.Y.” in Podmore’s article — but how do we know that it was him? For certain?
With that minor mystery left floating, please enjoy one of George Albert Smith’s movies. It stars his wife, Laura, and it ends with a . . . well, you’ll see. Tragically, his films titled “Photographing a Ghost” and “The Haunted Picture Gallery” are presumed lost.