Sunday, 5 November 2017

Ireland's Consulting Witch Detectives

Historically, being a witch in Ireland has always required a certain amount of versatility. You had to be good with animals as well as people, and as adept at curses as you were at cures. 
And you had to be able to solve crimes.
In 1916, PJ McCorry sought the help of a witch when his local police proved incapable of providing either clues or suspects in the short time they devoted to investigating a burglary at his home.
The thief had taken £50 while the farmer laboured in the fields in Aghadalgan, near Crumlin, County Antrim. It was a significant sum, and McCorry wanted it back.
So, he travelled to Belfast to meet a witch (unfortunately, her name is not given in the article). At their meeting, she not only produced an image of the thief on a mirror, she also told McCorry that his money would soon be returned to him.
On the morning after McCorry’s meeting with the witch, the local postman returned from his round to find that someone had left a parcel on a window ledge at the post office. The parcel was addressed to PJ McCorry. Inside was £45 10s.
Despite getting most of his money back, McCorry wasn’t entirely satisfied. But at another meeting, the witch reassured him that the balance would soon be repaid.
Regardless of whether or not McCorry got the rest of his money (I haven’t been able to find a follow-up), it was still a good result. This isn’t always the case, though.
In May 1867, when two dresses and a jacket were stolen from Margaret Martin of Lisburn, County Antrim, Martin employed the services of Moses Wilson instead of contacting the police. It didn’t end well.
The following exchange took place in Belfast Police Court on 19 August 1867.
Mr Orme - Why did you go to him and not to the police?
Plaintiff - Because it was said he could do such things (laughter).
Mr Orme - That he could work miracles?
Plaintiff - Yes; I asked him what he would charge. I said if he would cause the parties to carry my clothes back that took them I would give him 10s.
Mr Orme - That was a rise (laughter).
Plaintiff - I gave him a shilling, as part payment, on the 31st July. That day week I gave him 6s. 6d. He then asked me if I had any daughters, and if they could write. Having answered that I have two, he got them to write their names, for which he gave them threepence each. Three weeks after he went to Hillsborough. I inquired about the detainment of the clothes, when he told me that he would have to touch the pins on which the clothes hung (Laughter).
Mr Orme - Had he a staff or a wand in his hand? (Laughter.)
Mr Orme (to prisoner) - What object had you in getting the daughters’ names, or in touching the pins where the clothes hung - to make the persons return them?
Prisoner - That is a thing which I could not do, nor any man on earth (laughter).
Mr Orme (to plaintiff’s daughter) - I wonder that you, an intelligent girl, should allow your mother to be imposed on by a scamp.
So, Margaret Martin got conned. She lost some clothes and some money, and she was humiliated in court. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.
In August 1807, a cow kept by Alexander and Elizabeth Montgomery was producing milk that couldn’t be churned into butter. Local gossip helped convince Elizabeth that the cow had been bewitched.
A number of “spells” were recommended and tried. At one point, twelve local women encircled the cow and blessed it. Nothing worked.
The family were told to contact Mary Butters, a witch living in Carnmoney, County Antrim, who had a bit of a reputation. Butters arrived and tried a number of “cures.” Again, nothing worked. Unperturbed, she announced that, as soon as it became dark, she would perform a spell “that would not fail.”
Seemingly, this spell "that would not fail" would compel the witch responsible for the bewitchment to come to the Montgomery house - in her true form. It would require Alexander Montgomery and another man to wait with the cow in the cowshed - armed with a knife and a Bible - while Butters performed the spell in the house with Elizabeth; the Montgomery’s son, David; and Elizabeth’s friend Margaret Lee.
But, having spent the night, uneventfully, in the cowshed without being called by Butters, Alexander returned to the house, where he found his wife and son dead, and Margaret Lee dying. Only Butters survived.
At the inquest, the Coroner said: “It is the opinion of the Jury, that the deceased Elizabeth Montgomery came by her death from suffocation, occasioned by a woman named Mary Butters, in her making use of some noxious ingredients, in the manner of a charm, to recover a cow.”
Margaret and David, according to the Coroner, had died in the same way.
  • Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 5 February 1916
  • Caledonian Mercury, 29 August 1808
  • Dublin Daily Express, 21 August 1867
  • Larne Times, 3 May 1951

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Proofs of Immortality

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Belfast lecture was a big hit with all those who like that sort of thing, his presence here wasn’t universally celebrated. In fact, his visit triggered the sort of protests normally reserved for those trying to interfere with the flying of the Union Flag on public buildings.
Anyway, Doyle wasn’t scared, and he stayed to deliver his second lecture, “Proofs of Immortality,” on 14 May 1925. The following account is taken from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post of 15 May 1925.
Psychic Photography
“The Proofs of Immortality” was the title of the second lecture given last evening by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on Spiritualism in the Ulster Hall, Belfast.
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10068 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Mr. Joseph Irwin, who presided, said one of the most encouraging things at the present time was the spirit of enquiry that was abroad. They were, therefore, glad to have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with them, because he had specialised in the subject of psychic phenomena. Some people were satisfied to accept the assurances given them by religious teachers and what was in the Scriptures regarding immortality. But there was a great mass of people and, he thought, the thinking people, who found themselves quite unable to accept such assurances. They wanted a more solid foundation for their faith.
Sir Conan Doyle said he had received many questions, but he could not answer them at that meeting. He would answer one gentleman who was very anxious to know if there was such a place as hell. He could assure him that according to their knowledge there was no eternal institution, but those who did evil in this world would have to enter chastening circles for a time.
Proceeding, Sir Conan narrated experiments in what he described as a great science at its beginning. He related how ectoplasm, emanating from mediums, became an animate form. The substance had been chemically analysed, and it was found to consist largely of the constituents of the human body. One of the slides shown depicted the small house where in 1848, the lectures said, there took place occurrences which gave rise to the Spiritualist movement. A pedlar had been murdered in the house, and some years later a family named Fox went to reside there. Two girls in the family were mediumistic. Loud noises and rappings were heard, and one of the little girls said to the unseen spirit, “Do as I do.” The whole story was gradually received from the pedlar, whose spirit it was. Efforts were made to find the body, but without success, and this was quoted against Spiritualists. But in 1904 the house was taken away by Spiritualists - to be erected in another place - and they found beneath the foundations the skeleton of a man, and beside it a pedlar’s tin box.
The lecturer went on to speak of psychic photography, of which he showed several examples on the screen. Three French experimenters arranged a seance, and had ready a bucket of paraffin. They asked the spirit to place his hand in it, and he did so. They then asked him to place his hand on the table, and afterwards to dissolve. When the figure dissolved they found on the table a paraffin glove. Sir Conan said he was always prepared to admit the existence of a certain amount of fraud, but where sitters knew their business it would be impossible. Mediums should be tied in their chairs. The experiments made by Sir William Crooks with the medium Florrie Cook were described, and photographs shown of the spirit, a female figure, who said her name had been Katie King. After appearances extending over two and a half years she said her mission was finished. The spirit had come down, the lecturer declared, to manifest to people that immortality was a scientific fact. All this happened fifty years ago, but so misled was the human race that it would not accept the testimony.
In spite of cruel persecution and wicked falsehood they had some excellent psychic photographers. The ordinary standards of photography, Sir Conan added, should not be used to judge psychic photography. He described what took place at Crewe, where he went in the hope of obtaining a spirit photograph of his son. The result proved that spirit photographs were not emanations from the brains of persons present when they were taken. When the plate used on this occasion was developed there was a message welcoming “Friend Doyle,” and signed “T. Colley.” This was, the lecturer said, Archdeacon Colley, who had been dead ten years. He afterwards got a photograph of his son, but the likeness was not a good one.
Another photograph showed a tablet with writing upon it in some language.They eventually discovered it to be Singalese, and the words were the first two verses of St. Mark’s Gospel. This use of a practically unknown language, said the lecturer, showed how clever they were on the other side - they wanted to give a convincing proof. Two “ghost photographs” were then shown. Ghosts, the lecturer explained, were the earthbound spirits of human beings who died, but had not mounted up because they had been so engrossed in the tasks of the world. Having lost all spiritual sense they wandered for a time on the earth plane, until the time when through some agency they turned to more spiritual matters. In conversation with these undeveloped spirits he gathered that they do not realise they were dead. They saw people who, not seeing the spirits, walked on and took no notice of them. The spirits appeared, as it were, in a sort of nightmare. He knew one man who had been dead 76 years.
The lecturer showed a spirit photograph of Abraham Lincoln, who had been, he said, a Spiritualist, and had received help from the great fathers of the American Republic at a crisis in the American Civil War. Several other remarkable photographs were exhibited on the screen, and Sir Conan denied emphatically that spirit photographs taken at the London Cenotaph were faked.
The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 15 May 1925

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

In May 1925, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to Belfast. After visiting the Giant’s Causeway and the Dark Hedges and getting wrote-off in Fibber Magee’s [1], Doyle gave the first of two lectures at the Ulster Hall. 
The following account is taken from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post of 14 May [2].
The Best Gift of All
“The New Revelation” was the title of a lecture delivered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before a large audience in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, last night.
The Rev. Canon R. W. Seaver presided, and explained that he was there as a seeker after truth, and spoke for himself only, and not for any church or body. Personally he had never attended a seance in his life, but he believed that the great enemy of modern life was not Spiritualism but materialism. (Applause.)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was given a hearty reception on rising to speak, said that Spiritualism was by all odds the most the most important question to-day, and proceeded to explain how he came to take an active part in it. He first took it up in 1886, and during 38 years he had never ceased to read and investigate the subject. During the last nine years he and his wife had devoted almost the whole of their time to its study. His experience in thinking out detective work had enabled him to deal with many rascally camp followers.
He left Edinburgh University an agnostic, believing in the superiority of matter. Shortly after he started practice as a doctor his best patient asked him to come to seances he held. He went, stating frankly, that he had no belief in the thing and what he saw appeared childish and crude. But it arrested his attention and he began to read about the matter both for and against it. He mentioned a few of the great names who believed in it. It was impossible to put them all down as insane or rogues. He gradually found out that those who opposed the subject usually had never been to a seance to investigate it.
Altogether he had collected the names of about 100 professors at universities who had subscribed to the existence of psychical power. Some endorsed the phenomena, and some saw as well the religious implications. He could not see the meaning of it all.
When the war came the whole world was saying, “Where are our boys who went forth and disappeared? Are they still individualities? Are they alive, and what sort of life is it they are leading?” No clergyman or scientist could answer.
It was then, said Sir Arthur, he began to understand the futility of the Spiritualistic phenomena; they were only signals. It was as if there came a knock at the door and they discussed the knock without trying to find out who was knocking; as if they sat round discussing a ring on a telephone bell without attempting to take down the receiver.
The pattern was becoming clear, he continued, and he next described messages received through automatic writing from four young soldiers who were dead by a lady who visited his house. He watched carefully to make sure that there was no fraud or self-deception, and, finally finding none, decided that he would be a moral coward if he did not believe. The difference between believing and knowing, he added, was a great thing.
He and his wife decided to bring across to the race of men the message that was so important that beside it politics and economics sank into insignificance. It involved breaking up their home, dislocating their lives, and interrupting his literary career, but he never regretted the course he had taken.
Proceeding, he narrated certain experiences in Spiritualism. He told how his son came back a year after his death. He (the speaker) was at Southsea. A Mr. Powell, a Spiritualist, visited him, and with three friends there in the evening they tied Mr. Powell up with a rope, so that he could not move, in a corner of the room. Then they turned out the light.
He explained why physical seances were held in the dark. There was a material, he said, which was the basis of spirit phenomena, known as ectoplasm, which emanated from all people in the form of vapour. A medium was one who had a greater amount of ectoplasm than others. But ectoplasm was soluble in light.
Suddenly, went on Sir Arthur, there came from the dark his son’s voice and spoke to him of a thing known only to himself and his wife. The others present substantiated what had taken place. If they could not substantiate a thing by the evidence of people in the room, how could they substantiate any fact.
He related the true story of two boys on the South Coast of Australia who went out in a yacht and were never seen again. At a seance not long afterwards a medium went into a trance, which meant that his soul left his body for a space, so that another tenant might come, and one of the boys, through the medium, told the father that they had been drowned and that his brother had been eaten by a shark of a most unusual kind. Later, near Geelong, an unusual kind of shark was caught by fishers, and on being cut open was found to contain a watch and studs and some other small articles identified as those of the boy in question.
“What is the good of trying to explain the thing,” said Sir Arthur, “except that the boy did come back and tell his message through the medium.”
The real importance of Spiritualism for them, he continued, was that by getting into touch with higher spirits even than their dear dead ones Spiritualism gave them something more solid than faith. To get into touch with higher knowledge that explained the ordinations of God Almighty and the fate that awaited them, that was the pinnacle of Spiritualism.
Learning from messages he told them what they knew of death. Death was pleasant, like sinking into a sweet sleep; the illness before was often painful. On the other side those who loved them were drawn to receive them. Every man had a second body, an ethereal body, like the one he now had, with the same mind and character. He was first of all taken to a place of rest, where he passed a period in coma to give him strength to take up the new life.
The world there was like the world here reproduced on a higher plane, and each one lived with those most congenial to him. It was not what they believed but what they had done and what they were that determined their place in that world. If one died an old man, one became rejuvenated and a child, grew up to normal manhood.
That world, however, was not the final heaven. Everything was graduated, until ultimately they came to the final blaze of glory beyond the imagination. As they got higher desires they passed on until they reached them.
God was infinitely kinder than they had ever imagined. The majority of people, leaving out saints and criminals, passed on straight to that extraordinary happiness.
In the course of remarks on Christianity, Sir Arthur said that the New Testament was crammed with Spiritualism. Christ was the greatest of all psychics. All the gifts of the modern medium St. Paul took as signs of saintliness.
In conclusion, he said that death when they did not know where they were going was dismal and bleak. But once they knew they had no fear. Death was a glorious and beautiful thing. The best gift life had for them was the last gift of all. (Applause.)
The Chairman said that the speaker had given them a new idea of God. Spiritualism was largely Christianity as it ought to be expressed.
The meeting concluded with the singing of the Doxology.
A bouquet of flowers was presented to Lady Doyle.
1. Only one of these is true.
2. I have made no corrections to the text.
The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 14 May 1925

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Exploding Skies

There have been a number of occasions in Ireland when the sky just seemed to explode. I’m posting two here. While it would be easy – and most likely correct – to assume a meteor was responsible in each case, both incidents were preceded by some strange weather.
The first incident occurred on 7 February 1868 and was reported in The Cork Examiner.
The travellers by the evening passenger train from Dublin, which arrived at Cork at eight o’clock, p.m., on Friday last, were favoured with an atmospheric transformation scene, as remarkable for its unusual character as for its singular beauty. When the train had left the Limerick junction the sky which had since the setting in of night been clear with a bright moon, became suddenly overcast, with vast irregular masses of cloud of unusual density and darkness, and having strange livid edges of glowing red, the combined aspect being unearthly and awful. Some of the passengers, attracted by this unusual appearance while observing the threatening masses overhead, were suddenly dazzled by a glare of light which illuminated the entire heavens with an extreme brilliancy, lasting, some say, upwards of half a minute; others not more than ten seconds. It was entirely instantaneous in its appearance, and died out with the same suddenness. All concur in stating that no meteor or other aerial body was perceptible, and no one could account for the origin of the phenomenon. The recurrence of darkness was immediately followed by an extremely heavy down-pour of mingled hail and snow, which in a few minutes sheeted the country around. In a quarter of an hour the cloud itself had passed eastward, and left the night as calm and bright as before.
The second incident took place on 13 July 1908 and was reported in The Irish News and Belfast Morning News.
Since the hot weather cooled down we have had some strange meteorological experiences. On the 13th, while it was teeming at the Carlisle Circus, not a drop of rain fell at the docks. A few days previously, an extraordinary shower fell on the Lisburn Road. Between Melrose Street and College Gardens it rained as if it had been a cloud burst; from College Gardens to the Infirmary the road was as dry as powder; but from the latter point to Shaftesbury Square it was simply pouring. It would be difficult to explain this occurrence, which, though extraordinary, is not unique. Moreover, the sky was uniformly clouded at the time; there was no break in the clouds – not a trace of the blue.
But a much stranger thing happened on Wednesday during the progress of a prolonged rain storm. The whole sky was overcast. A drizzling sort of rain – not much more than a mist – was falling. It suddenly ceased, and people though the clouds were breaking; but in about two minutes, without warning, a terrific explosion was heard, which shook the windows of the writer’s house. A hissing noise followed, as if a fire were being extinguished, while at the same moment a blaze of fire opened out of a cloud somewhat in the shape of a cross. The illumination bore no resemblance to any kind of lightning, remaining much longer in the vision, and expanding itself right across the clouds. Citizens wondered what had happened, some thinking that it was an explosion of one of the gas mains, others a great conflagration in some part of the city. The area in which the remarkable event happened would be that part of the sky spreading over the Botanic Gardens, but it would be difficult to exactly locate the exact place. Certain gases may have formed in the clouds, and through their antagonistic properties had found vent in the nature of disturbing friction. In any case, this phenomenon has set some people thinking of the end of the world and so on.
Some time ago a similar occurrence took place near Crumlin. Some men were working in a field when they heard an explosion, and, looking in the direction from whence it proceeded, they saw an object falling in a corner of the field, and raising a cloud of dust. They inspected the spot where it fell, and found a large mineral mass embedded in the ground about a foot and a half deep. The stone was hot to the touch; they let it cool, and brought it to a house quite adjacent. The stone is now in the public library on the ground floor, and can be seen at any time.
Of course this stone was a meteoric one – at least this is the opinion of good judges in such matters. It appears there was no rain, nor was the sky much clouded when the Crumlin meteor fell, so that the circumstances are quite different in comparison to the incident narrated above. The Crumlin meteoric explosion took place in the middle of the day, whereas this phenomenon occurred in the evening.
  • The Cork Examiner, 10 February 1868
  • The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 17 July 1908

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Supposed Spectral Visits and Mysterious Sounds

 The following is a standard ghostly-goings-on-scare-a-family-from-their-home story that, for most of the newspapers that covered it, required only a couple of paragraphs to tell. Over at The Derry Journal, however, one journalist saw it as a chance to shine.
From time to time the Derry constabulary have had rather knotty problems submitted to them for solution, but it is open to doubt if they ever had placed before them a “case” so queer and uncanny as that which is presently having the attention of the acutest members of the Bishop Street Station force. It is often difficult enough, in all conscience, to get at the real root of disturbances happening in the open, during wide daylight, and usually traceable to a sudden ebullition of temper among a group of persons whom controversy causes to adopt dangerous methods. However, when the peace of a household is repeatedly disturbed and a certain measure of alarm is raised only in the gloom of night and only through manifestations of an occult nature, the difficulty of satisfactory investigation is ten-fold increased.
An extensive section of a thickly populated district in Derry city has been thrown into a state of consternation by a series of extraordinary and mysterious nocturnal occurrences. Faint rumours of peculiar noises having been heard within an inhabited house in the vicinity of the thoroughfare known as Hogg’s Folly made themselves felt about a week ago. At first they were discredited as being the outcome of  a practical joke. These reports of a man and his family being most strangely disturbed at night in their residence continued in circulation despite a general tendency among people in the quarter to set them down as childish and as not having foundation in fact. Still the rumours persisted, and when a neighbour spoke jocularly to a member of the family concerned about the alleged mysterious happenings in their house the answer given was in no humorous vein. Though the inhabitants of the house were for obvious reasons inclined to allay undue alarm, yet the prevalent reports were corroborated with circumstantiality. As a consequence, excitement in the neighbourhood increased and it became common knowledge, by this time, where the abode which caused all the commotion was situated.
The house which, by the way, within the past two or three days has been hurriedly vacated by the family who dwelt there stands, as the last of a street row, on a little eminence at the junction of two thoroughfares, namely Hollywell Street and Hogg’s Folly. It is a plain-built but substantial two-storied structure, having a frontage lighted by five windows. In exterior aspect its walls contrast favourably with those of some adjoining houses, since they are freshly and neatly whitewashed. In brief the building might be described on the view as a very suitable cottage for an artizan’s family. It seems that there is a cellar beneath the ground floor of the cottage, and it is from this cellar that uncanny noises have been for some time emanating nightly. Patient and cool attempts to trace the origin of this mysterious visitation were made but the investigators were baffled and yet remain so.
Not only have these inexplicable noises been heard by the inmates of the house, but the ghostly din manifested itself so loudly after midnight on two nights of last week that it reached the ears of neighbours dwelling on the opposite side of the street. Disquieting, as these incidents undoubtedly were, it appears that they alone did not determine the family to leave the place. On one of the nights the spectral figure of a woman was seen passing slowly from one apartment to another within the house.
This latter remarkable circumstance was among the particulars made known to the police when a report of the extraordinary affair was conveyed to them. The phantom female figure was described as been clothed in a flowing robe.
Then the question was put – “Of what colour?”
“Of pearl grey colour,” was the reply.
The house was visited on Saturday by Sergeant Quinlivan, Sergeant Morrow, and by other members of the Bishop Street constabulary who, indeed, owing to the information they got, have been pretty constantly in the neighbourhood for the past four or five days engaged in the language of the young lads living in the locality, “Watching for the ghost.”
Indeed the spectacle in the street of nights recently, was wholly uncommon and not without aspects of weirdness. A number of young men who heard the news of the mysterious noises decided to test the truth of the matter for themselves by waiting at a little distance from the house outside on the road till after the midnight hour. They appeared cheerful enough at the outset, but as twelve o’clock drew nigh loud talk gave way to low whispers. The more timid left before the clock chimed, while those who remained after twelve listened with bated breath. Some stated subsequently they heard no sounds from the house. Others asserted positively that they heard the sounds of “heavy footsteps in the cellar,” though at that time it was known that the cellar was absolutely unoccupied.
Each night the listening crowd assumed larger proportions, and towards the end of the week the thoroughfare was quite filled with people discussing the mystery for which no solution has yet been found.
From inquiries made it appears that the house was occupied by a tenant with his wife and three children till Thursday last. On that day they removed to another dwelling, but a good deal of their furniture was left behind until Saturday when it was conveyed to their new abode. The family declare they were quite comfortable in the house they left were it not for the mysterious nocturnal disturbances.
It is said that the family kept a dog in the cellar and on the nights when the strange sounds were heard the animal tore at the floor frantically with his paws so that quite a large hole would be found thus scooped out in the mornings. This incident suggested to some practical reasoners that rats might have been at the bottom of the mischief, but a very careful search since made in the cellar has failed to detect the slightest traces of these rodents.
It is now alleged as a curious coincidence that a previous tenant left the place less than a year ago. His decision was suddenly come to, and he declined to discuss – even with his wife – his reasons for leaving on the very day after he had arrived home late one night.
At present the “ins and outs” of the extraordinary affair form the chief topic of conversation for numerous citizens, especially those living in the vicinity of the place concerned.
One of Hood’s finest poems gives an exceptionally vivid description of an empty habitation, and the pedestrian passing along yesterday by the house under notice was reminded by the silent look of the place of the lines:--
“No dog was at the threshold, great or small,
No pigeon on the roof – no household creature –
No cat demurely dozing on the wall,
Not one domestic feature
No human figure stirr’d, to go or come,
No face looked forth from shut or open casement,
No chimney smoked – there was no sign of Home
From parapet to basement.”
A strange thing in much that is singular in these eerie occurrences, or imaginings plus the occurrences is the conduct of the house dog – a glut with a litter of whelps. The animal, usually gentle and quiet, suddenly develops intense excitement, and sets as if protecting its offspring, whilst there is no visible cause for its disturbed and anxious condition.
We give the case in its details as investigated, leaving our readers to form their own judgement between imagination and manifestation.
The Derry Journal, 10 August 1908

Monday, 7 August 2017

James McAnespie and the Fintona Fairies

Back in April 2016, I posted a short piece about the death of James McAnespie. McAnespie had gained infamy in April 1950, at the age of 72, when he failed to return home after leaving to collect firewood in the demesne near his home. A search was organised and McAnespie was eventually found, frozen to the spot where a fairy thorn had recently been destroyed. 
When the Belfast Telegraph reported on McAnespie’s death in January 1954, they recounted this incident.  The Telegraph gave the impression that Mr McAnespie just happened to be passing this spot when something very strange happened. But, according to this story from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post of 21 April 1950, it seems this wasn’t McAnespie’s first visit to the site. And he definitely wasn’t just passing by.
"The Wee Folk" are said to be angry out at Fintona (County Tyrone) because a 300-year-old fairy thorn has been bulldozed out of existence in a field just outside the village.  Villagers have not been surprised at this week’s queer happenings, because many of them forecast reprisals four weeks ago, immediately after the destruction of the fairies’ little sacred tree.
About a month ago, Fintona Golf Club were given permission by Mr. Raymond Browne-Lecky to carry out improvements and extensions to the golf course on his lands. He gave them permission, among other things, to cut down a thorn hedge, because it was in the way. But the men on the job made a mistake. They were using a bulldozer for levelling purposes, and they bulldozed the fairy thorn out by its roots.
This fairy thorn, set in the middle of a field in Mr Browne-Lecky’s Ecclesville Demesne, was planted by his ancestors over 300 years ago. Naturally, he was he was angry when the tree was destroyed. He told the Golf Club so – and so did many villagers.
“The people in the village are in a rage over it,” Mr. Browne-Lecky told a “Northern Whig” reporter last night. “For my part, however, the hatchet is buried, because it was apparently a mistake. I was not angry because because of possible revenge from the fairies – I’m afraid I don’t believe in them. But many people do, and that’s why the villagers are upset about it.”
Anyway, the “wee folk” are said to have begun their reprisals. Old-age pensioner James McAnespie – who is 72, lives by himself in a house opposite Fintona Police Barracks, and is a former hotel hand – bought some of the bulldozed tree to use as firewood.
That was two or three weeks ago. Mr. McAnespie took the wood home and started to use it regularly. And things (according to him) started to happen. He began to hear bells tinkling in his house, and he says he saw little things flying about in the air – little things like wasps, which he could not catch.
Last Sunday James McAnespie used the last of his firewood and decided to go for more. On Sunday night the people next door realized that he had not returned – and that was unusual for Jimmy McAnespie, because he is usually in house by about eight o’clock at night. So the people next door went out to search for him. They couldn’t find him, so they ran across to the Barracks and told the police. And a search party of police and civilians set out to find the missing pensioner. R.U.C. Sergeant Boland was in command.
The searchers called out at intervals, but never got a reply. They made their way through the demesne, still calling, still getting no answer.
Then at 11.30 p.m. – just 30 minutes before the witching hour – they saw James standing motionless at the very spot on which had been the fairy thorn. As they came near he walked towards them, then went back to the village with them.
And what does James McAnespie say about all this? He says he gathered sticks for firewood around the place where the thorn had been cut down. He tied the sticks to a rope, began to go home when it became dusk. And when he got to The Spot he was suddenly unable to move and unable to speak. That was why he could not answer the search party.
For two hours, he says, he stood there with all his powers dispelled. He heard bells ringing around his feet. He saw a sort of ditch all around him, and a big house, or perhaps it was a barn, with lights inside it. He saw two fairies – “wee fellows.” And his hands were absolutely closed tight on the rope.
Sergeant Boland bears out the fact that James McAnespie was found standing on the site of the bulldozed fairy thorn. But the sergeant is a disbeliever. He laughed last night and said: “I must say I heard no bells and I saw no house.”
  • The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 21 April 1950

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Mad Gasser of Mullingar?

In the autumn of 1917, a ghostly voyeur was disturbing the sleep of the good people of Mullingar. The Freeman’s Weekly Journal of 8 September 1917 reported:
Our Mullingar correspondent states that the inhabitants of that town are considerably exercised in their minds by stories of a spectral figure which roams the streets after dark. Opinion differs as to who or what he is. Some hold that he is an escaped German from an internment camp; others classify him as a wandering lunatic; and a superstitious section does not hesitate to allude to him as “The Ghost.”
The stranger, who is tall and thin, and dressed in grey, is never seen until darkness has fallen upon the town. Then his pale countenance is seen gazing into ground floor windows, and his gaunt form is to be dimly discerned hovering in the gloomiest corners. A number of unimaginative policemen are now engaged in trying to “lay” this “ghost,” which has annoyed the town for about ten days.
The Dundee Evening Telegraph also carried the story:
A ghost is prowling about the precincts of Mullingar, and the inhabitants thereof have got the shivers. Some think it is a lunatic, and others believe it to be an escaped German prisoner. If it be the latter, and an officer, you have Mr Churchill’s word that you need not salute him.
However, when the Freeman’s Weekly Journal returned to the story a few weeks later, it was because things had taken a sinister turn.
The Mullingar apparition has reappeared, and is no longer content with peering into cottage windows, but has forcibly entered houses, and in one case came to grips with the occupier.
About midnight recently a man named Miller, who resides in a cottage on the road at the corner of Mullingar Fair Green, was awakened by the noise of somebody moving about, and on going to the next room he was confronted by a powerful man, who had an open knife extended in his hand in a threatening attitude. Mr Miller sprang upon him and succeeded in gripping the arm of the man and deflecting the knife. A fierce struggle followed, and the two rolled over in grips on the floor.
Meantime, Mrs Miller rushed out to the door in her night attire and called loudly for help. On hearing her voice the assailant let go of Mr Miller, who, whilst on the floor, was conscious of his opponent using something in either a handkerchief or cotton wool which he believes to have been chloroform, and which, at all events, had a pungent odour and a somewhat stifling effect.
He describes the visitor as clad only in a soldier’s khaki trousers, stockings, and shirt, and the reason he had divested himself of the other portions of his clothing seems fully explained by the discovery subsequently made of his means of effecting an entry. This was through a small window protected by two iron bars, and which would only admit the body of a man with great difficulty. The bars were found to have been torn away, and Mrs Miller, it appears, as the intruder rushed past her in flying from the house, saw him catch up from the ground outside the door a cap, coat, and pair of boots.
On the same night, something later, it appears, the house of a Mrs Rooney, an old woman who resides with her daughter about forty yards from Miller’s – which is at an angle of the Fair Green and not far from the military barracks – was also entered, but on the alarm being raised the intruder made good his escape.
There was a lot going on in Ireland at this time, so it’s highly likely that these events had quite a mundane explanation that never got reported. However, the events in Mullingar do remind me of later events in Mattoon, Illinois [1], but on a very much smaller scale. 
If you can add anything to this story, please get in touch.
  1. See Loren Coleman's Mysterious America
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 September 1917
  • Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 8 & 29 September 1917