Beware the prowling ghost (Book Review)

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Middleton_spirits of industrial ageRegarding paranormal research, there is no comparison between the work that comes out in print (paper or digital) and the mostly crap posted online from paranormal groups or the media. You are hard-pressed to find anyone online who knows what they are talking about when it comes to solid paranormal scholarship and writes well. Here’s another example – A new book by Jacob Middleton called Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Imposture, Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society. It was available to borrow for free from the Kindle lenders library (if you have a Prime membership). So I “borrowed” it for as long as I wanted.

I’ve read a lot of paranormal books, a lot on the web, even “long-haired” academic-type books and papers but I must have missed the fascinating story about the prowling ghost phenomenon of the 19th century. I had an incomplete idea about these old-time spooks. As far as I knew, there was only one Spring-heeled Jack who harassed people of London for a while. I didn’t know his origins or his ultimate fate. (I’m still waiting for Mike Dash’s book to come out.)

In today’s paranormal pop culture, we seek haunted spaces. Middleton’s book describes a strange time where “ghosts” wandered the streets looking for people to frighten. They hid behind hedgerows and in dark alleys. They had no purpose except to be surprising and scary. People really did wear white sheets! (No mention if they said “Boo!”)

The prowling ghost was a well-known phenomena on the outskirts of the big towns in Britain. This book explores the particularly British phenomena in some of its more famous manifestations and how this related to society at that time. In several respects, it is an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking story not many American paranormal researchers know of.

People living in Hammersmith in the early 1800s half expected to meet a specter when out alone at night. There was no public lighting at this time so travel after dark was a serious hazard. The Hammersmith ghost manifested repeatedly in the 1820s and 30s – his identity (presumably multiple) was not resolved. This “ghost” and others like it sought out people to victimize. The goal seemed to be to elicit a good scare but in some cases, there was physical assault. Obviously, women were particularly vulnerable. There is not a lot of info about this aspect, given that the most lurid details were often left out of newspaper accounts, but there is ample suggestion that sexual assault was certainly perpetrated. Females were often targeted, their clothes ripped and skin scratched by long nails or claws of the “ghost”.

Depiction of the Hammersmith Ghost (Wikipedia)

Depiction of the Hammersmith Ghost (Wikipedia)

The tale of the Hammersmith ghost spread beyond the locals. This was not a normally behaved ghost. It seemed an obvious hoax; someone (or more than one) was deliberately doing this. The most common guess was that it was bored aristocrat boys who, if caught, were able to buy their way out of trouble. Besides, law enforcement was lax. Often, gun fire would not draw police attention since it was so common. As fear in the town increased, so did vigilanteism as the citizens had to take matters into their own hands.

The Hammersmith ghost activity came to a crescendo when it resulted in a mistaken death. Thomas Millwood was shot in what was judged to be a case of mistaken identity. He was mistaken for the ghost because he was wearing a bricklayers light clothing. The shooter, Francis Smith, was repentant, but was to be hanged. He was pardoned due to sympathy for the man who thought he was shooting the troublesome “ghost”.

Several more such tricksters appeared. The most famous off all these terrorizing characters was Spring-heeled Jack (1837 onwards). While this book contains excellent info about the Jack phenomena — such as documentation that almost all remarkable traits of Spring Heeled Jack (claws, flame, jumping, etc.) appeared to have precedent from earlier marauders — it is not a definitive book on Jack. What it does do is place Jack into the tail-end chronology of prowling ghosts of Britain.

The term “spring-heeled jack” eventually became a personification of any threat, attack, or display of aggression by an assailant. Even though some attacks were real, it appeared Jack was very much an early urban legend generating lurid tales for the newspapers and penny dreadfuls.

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Army barracks were often the reported locations of ghost sightings with armed soldiers reporting a “spring-heeled jack”. Guards would see apparitions in the night temporarily forgetting their fellow officers were not beyond playing tricks. Confronting a ghost was a brave act.

The bogeyman of Spring-heeled Jack was replaced in society by fear of a more notorious Jack in the late 1800s. The prowling ghosts disappeared as society evolved greater personal security measures.

If there is one concept that all paranormal researcher should understand is that ghosts are a product of their time. To those of us used to hearing about the transparent, amorphous, contemporary shadow person or ghost, the physicality of the Georgian and Victorian “ghost” descriptions are strange. They were solid, like people. Many of them WERE people. There were misperceptions, of course, sightings of people who were going about their business in the dead of night but in unfortunate clothing or circumstances for which they were mistaken as a paranormal marauder. Most people assumed they were hoaxes. But even when you know it’s a fake, the surprise encounter can be disarming and intimidating.

Speaking of surprising encounters, funnily enough, nudity was considered ghostly. Nude, likely disturbed, people running around in the night were mistaken for ghosts. In several instances Middleton points out that deviant sexual activity was conflated with the supernatural. Again, we see things through the lens of that time.

The book can be a bit wandering in places, the chronology was difficult for me to track, maybe because some ghosts made return appearances, but I learned so much that was new to me. The sociology of ghosts is fascinating; ghosts live off of human belief.

Expecting a low-quality amateurish piece like so many paranormal books out these days, Spirits of an Industrial Age is surprisingly well done. I enjoyed it so much that I purchased it as a Kindle e-book because I didn’t want to give it up!

If I could teach a class about paranormal history to today’s Dunning-Kruger suffering ghost hunters, I would include this book. An important addition to the cultural study of ghosts (as well as history and historical crime), it’s well worth the price for those of us that love real ghost stories. Ghost back in those days were WAY more interesting than the mists and floating balls of dust today. Ghosts then were far more exciting, but potentially more dangerous because they were “real”.

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2 thoughts on “Beware the prowling ghost (Book Review)

  1. Woody

    On a personal level, I get a lot from the skeptical community. An effort is made, however, to do more than be a helpful and interesting source for those like me who are interested.
    Online we still need to search.
    A place where religion seems to still be able to hold onto place and have a huge effect, in some countries anyway, is politics. The realities of scientific discovery gets mention, but skeptics can’t often find a political party that makes effort to appeal to them or specifically advance their cause. If I am wrong about this because I have paid so little attention to politics (foreign & local) then by all means tell me about the political group, in whatever country, that puts pressure on in the name of skepticism, critical thinking and respect for the scientific method.
    Spring-heeled Jack is an interesting one and I remember reading about it as a child. Skeptoid did a nice piece on it and all of the ingredients that make up the time and place and popularity of supernatural mysteries can be taken into account.
    The amazing feats of physical power that were reported remind me of Robert Augustus Delaney, who started the category called ‘cat-burglary’ in the early twentieth century. It was said that he could scale sheer walls although I can’t remember if that event specifically was reported by a witness. The reports I remember reading were more along the lines of describing a climber so good, so fast and agile, he seemed to climb up to the roof so fast and easy – like a cat.
    As physically amazing as Robert was, a good look at the data, witness reports and police investigation details tell a more believable story.
    He had lived in the area and was familiar with the common habit of a households occupants assembling down stairs in the dining room for dinner each evening. Robert, clothed completely in flawless black evening-wear used a length of silk rope with a light grapple on the end to climb to the second story window. He used a little custom designed tool to unlatch the window and silently went through peoples’ bedrooms in search of jewelry. He also slipped a wooden wedge underneath the bedroom door to ensure that even if occupants were alerted by an accidental sound, he had plenty of time to get back out the window and down the wall.
    Police had discovered evidence – that an unbelievable leap by Robert that had been described by a witness, from one treacherous point on a roof to an even more unstable perch on another, covering a distance that none believed a human could jump – had actually occurred, showing an amazing agility and strength in the man to be envied by acrobats everywhere.

    But still we can be easily amazed and find our thoughts leaping (excuse the pun) to the supernatural. When first beginning the job of demolition laborer, I was amazed at the speed and confidence of my work-mates when seeing them quickly climb to the roof of a house in order to start removing roof tiles (often the supervisor had not yet arrived with a ladder). But within a few days I was doing the same thing. It was confidence and practice. Often just a boot on the bracket of a down-pipe, one hand on the window ledge, other hand gripping a gutter-support, then a twisting leap and I was on the roof. It didn’t take long before the activities of the job were forcing me to adapt in particular ways to achieve simple things. This humble example is indeed humble but illustrates my point that we, all of us, can seem to perform incredible physical acts when they are viewed for the first couple of times.

    All the best,
    Woody

  2. Thank you for the review; it’s always a pleasure to find people reading and engaging with my work. The prowling ghost phenomenon is an odd one, in that it was an important strand of Victorian cultural life which has been almost completely forgotten today. I hope that I can help provide a little more exposure to this interesting aspect of what is, after all, relatively recent history.

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