If you asked people what the worst natural disaster to befall Britain in the 20th century was (baring disease epidemics like the 1919 flu), most people will look at you and probably have no idea. It was actually in 1953 when a Spring tide combined with low atmospheric pressure led to an incredible storm and flood, and left 30,000 people homeless, and 307 dead on land, and over 224 at sea in the UK. Where I grew up it was known as the Great East Anglian Flood; however in the Netherlands they call it the Watersnoodramp, and Wikipedia calls it the North Sea Flood of 1953. Closer, but even that does not really cover the scale of the disaster – 28 died in Scotland, and the MV Princess Victoria a ferry doing railway duty on the Stranraer to Larne crossing sank with loss of 133 lives, with just 44 saved. Across the Low Countries and UK, over 2000 people died. 13,000 cattle drowned: a thousand miles of coastline flooded, and in modern terms did £941,000,000 in damages – that is £50 million pounds in 1953 money converted by purchasing power. This was nothing compared the Netherlands – there around 1,800 people perished.
The first casualties were on the MV Princess Victoria — a “roll on roll off” ferry. It went down around 2 in the afternoon, having been battered by the storms. The navy tried to reach it with HMS Contest and the lifeboat Jeannie Spiers; a few were saved by the heroism of the lifeboat crew of the Samuel Kelly and two merchant ships in the area. It was a day of heroes, and the valour of radio operator David Broadfoot who remained at his post till the very end sending the SOS was marked by his posthumous George Cross. Notably Captain James Feguson was last seen as the ship sank standing on the bridge, saluting: he went down with his ship in line with naval tradition, and all of the other officers were lost.
Despite the potential to notify those on the coast as the storm beat round Scotland, warnings were not passed on – many port offices were unmanned on a Saturday night, and the radio did not broadcast late enough. Some telephoned warnings did save lives, but everyone reacted as if it was a local problem. At least today modern communications technology would instantly notify almost everyone as to the impending threat.
Sixty years ago tonight. If the sinking of the Titanic was a defining moment in my grandmother Alice Bentley’s childhood, the Great East Anglian Flood is a memory that my parents told me of. They married in 1952 – I was not born for another 17 years, but they were living in Bury then. The memories of ’53 have conflated with a later East Anglian flood, probably ’64, when the Lark Valley flooded deeply apparently, as did many streets in town. I can’t imagine that had much to do with tidal surge — it has to have been rain run off, and one day I am going to go and find the Bury Free Press archive and take a look at the photos. Eastgate Street was flooded – and my father was amused by stories that he had been seen rescuing people in the road in a rowboat; it is the kind of thing one can imagine him doing. Well, he is a Viking! However, back to 1953…
There were heroes, like Reis Leming, one of those “oversexed overpaid and over ‘ere” US airmen who were part of East Anglian life for so. Reis died last year; but his heroism that night lives on. It is sad that Reis, who saved so many despite not being able to swim, could not be here for the 60th anniversary. All kinds of folk stories arose about the flood – but in Bury the effects were inconvenience and amazement, but not terrible tragedy as on the East Coast, thirty miles away. One of Alice’s friend’s husbands died; I recall sitting drinking tea in St. John’s Place and her telling me how she lost her husband, Mr Laytin that night, washed away and drowned near Felixstowe if I recall correctly. He was a coastguard or port official – I’m hazy on the details some thirty years on, but it was an awful thing to hear.
For all the stories I heard growing up, my knowledge of the event is limited to several articles and a single book I read years ago, that focussed almost entirely in the East Anglian aspects of this “perfect storm”. It is to my mind a very local tragedy — and everyone regards it this way. So despite some wonderful coverage today (and a decade ago) in the press, which seems to render any commentary from me redundant – after all witnesses like my parents are still alive and able to tell what they saw that night — I thought I’d comment here. If you want to see what it looked like, Pathe News have some footage here : http://www.britishpathe.com/video/east-coast-gale-disaster
It was not “a very local” disaster at all – it was a national disaster. Yet the scale of the losses on Canvey Island down in the Thames Estuary, which was devastated by the flooding with a huge loss of homes, was just as severe as in East Anglia, and the losses in Scotland and Lincolnshire grim too. So why is it recalled as such a local matter? This is what interests me — I actually wondered if there was an intentional cover up, given the late and ineffective government response, or whether it was just the local press primarily reported the story which was therefore perceived everywhere as a local matter, and for some reason the London Press played it down? This was post-war Austerity Britain – and the Coronation and Festival of Britain demonstrated a “move on, keep cheerful” (I nearly quoted that bloody poster) attitude that natural disaster would have been at odds with.
I think that is probably the truth — people were sick of doom and gloom, and while the disaster was noted, to London it was (despite killing one person) a fairly minor thing. In Lincolnshire, the Western Isles, the Hebrides, the Orkneys, East Anglia and The Thames Estuary as well as across in the Netherlands it was very big news, the papers never reported the big picture, and so it has gone down in folk memory as a local affair. Perhaps it is for the best, for such a perfect storm should occur again, maybe not for centuries, but inevitably, and then we will see if the flood defences built in the aftermath really do work…
Eight couples who had never experienced any ‘haunting’ activity in their houses and had no reason to expect they would experience ‘ghosts’ were asked by the author to keep a diary for one calendar month from 17th October – 17th November 2012 in which they recorded unusual experiences. 62.5% of the participant couples recruited completed the task and submitted the diaries for analysis. Of the five participant couples who submitted diaries, four reported at least some phenomena that met the criteria, and one couple reported no unusual activity at all. The study was a larger scale replication of Houran and Lange (1996). My findings are compared with those of the original study which featured only one couple.
UPDATE: Within 20 minutes of the first draft of this paper going live on my blog I was contacted by one of the missing research participants and was able to locate the couples data which had been submitted at the time but by Facebook message rather than e-mail. I have therefore revised the figures to take in to account the new material. It had no impact on the overall findings, fortunately.
Introduction: Houran & Lange’s 1996 Study
James Houran and Rense Lange have been the authors of a number of innovative studies in parapsychology. In this 1996 paper they were exploring if hauntings and in particular it would seem poltergeist cases were explicable in terms of a self-reinforcing-psychological contagion hypothesis. In essence the idea is that once one notices unusual anomalies in one’s home, and has ones attention drawn to it, more such anomalies are noticed. The paper is often cited (for example Wiseman 2011; Wiseman 2011b) as it provides an elegant psychological explanation for purported “hauntings”. The original paper is based on the experiences of one couple, mature students, who were requested by the researchers to keep a 30 day diary of unusual events in their home which was in no way believed to be ‘haunted’ before the study began. The small number of participants (one diary) troubled me: it seems dangerous to draw too many conclusions form a single innovative pilot study like this, and I could find no replications, yet the paper is repeatedly cited by sceptics without mention of this limitation. I therefore decided to replicate the study, on a larger scale.
The basic idea behind Houran and Lange’s paper appears simple. Imagine one day you come home and find your books are symmetrically stacked in the living room. You don’t recall doing it, and your housemate is never so neat! Later on, an egg starts to fry on your kitchen worktop, and then you hear an odd voice say “Zuul”. Your attention may now well be extremely focussed upon the weird things happening in your house – you probably approach the fridge with trepidation – and when the cat knocks over a flower vase later and the hot water system causes knocking in the pipes, you are only to quick to jump to the “ghost did it” conclusion. In short, ghosts are by this hypothesis merely a narrative we create to explain little mysteries (anomalies) in our daily lives. When my door keys go missing, I search and search and eventually find them on the shelf where I thought I had looked first, I may be more willing to blame a spook than my poor perception.
In the same year I suggested something similar (Romer; 1996); what did not occur to me was that such observations of purportedly paranormal phenomena would eventually die out. Houran and Lange argue this based upon
“the assumptions that (1) the environment provides a stable supply of events that can be interpreted as paranormal and (2) the probability of noticing an additional anomaly is directly proportional to the number of anomalies already noticed as well as the number of remaining potential anomalies. Under these assumptions, it can be shown that the cumulative frequency distribution of perceived anomalous events should follow the familiar logistic curve.” (Houran and Lange 1996: my emphasis)
So you notice something odd going on; you start to look for it as your attention becomes focussed on the “ghost” – that much seems straightforward. However I am slightly confused by the “number of remaining possible anomalies.” This implies there are a limited number of such events in the environment, and eventually you will reach a point where you have observed most potential anomalies, causing the number of new experiences observed to tail off. I am puzzled as to how Houran and Lange came to this conclusion. If perceptual mistakes give rise to some anomalies, and others are simple misunderstanding of mundane events, I see no reason for them to “run out” as suggested. What limits the “number of remaining anomalies”? Yet this is an important aspect of the paper, even if not explained within it. As has been pointed out, poltergeist type events usually run out if steam in a fairly short period – the “logistic curve” Houran and Lange hypothesise would explain this within their psychological explanation. Here is the graph of the cumulative experiences that were reported by one couple in their diary study. As we can see it neatly fits the predicted logistic curve.
Yet without understanding why the potential anomalies in any given environment (house) are limited in the time period, it is hard for me to understand. Why they predict the classic logistic curve above. I would have predicted an exponential rise in cumulative frequency: the problem is that while this neatly represents reports of ‘actual’ poltergeist cases, which trail off over time, I can’t see why it should be suggested in the first place. What limits the potential anomalies?
Replicating The 1996 Paper: A New Diary Study
Given the fact that people citing the original 1996 paper have at times drawn rather strong conclusions from this single diary study with only one couple involved, I decided to attempt a replication. I intended to recruit ten couples as participants, though that proved impossible. I wanted to see if the couples reported similar experiences to those in the original study, and if the puzzling logistic curve was borne out in the new data.
Recruitment was via volunteers through the authors Facebook account. 8 couples living in the UK volunteered to keep the diaries, and then again two days before the end of the study. Five couples mailed me completed diaries. No reason was given by the other three couples for failure to complete (though simple forgetfulness is one possibility). The couples were all aged between 30 and 50 years, though I did not ask for precise ages, marital status, or other personal information. Two of the couples have strong interests in the paranormal, and two in religion. This was not intentional selection, nor even a feature of the couples who initially responded to my request for participants, but it may be a reason why they stuck with the study till the end.
Of the four couples who submitted diaries, one had experienced nothing unusual which met the criteria at all in the time period, and a second had a relevant experience while staying in a place other than their own home (discussed briefly later.) So from the original eight couples, five participated and three had experiences that met the criteria. The fact three did not is in itself of interest. They were certainly aware of the study – Couple C reported several events which met the criteria, but which occurred while they were away from their home, hence were excluded. Couple D reported that no such experiences occurred in the time frame, though one partner had experienced anomalous experiences in the past. Couple E had one very striking experience.
Those who expressed an interest in participating were sent the following instructions (along with some introductory text and contact numbers for myself. No one called during the study). The instructions, and the 8 categories were based on those employed in the 1996 study – the categories they employed derived from an Lange paper on ‘Contextual mediation of perceptions in hauntings and poltergeist-like experiences’. (Lange et al. 1996) I attempted to replicate as faithfully as possible the original research. Here are the instructions I emailed out to the prospective participants.
“For the next month, until November 17th, please pay particular attention to any unusual occurrences in your residence. These occurrences may be emotional feelings, physical sensations, or environmental events in your residence. Please keep detailed and accurate notes, even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen. I will need the gender and age of adult occupants, and who had each experience noting. If you have children please do not discuss this with them. I have no desire to upset children! The types of unusual experiences I am interested include but are not limited to
* Visual – seeing things not there
* Audio – hearing stuff with no known cause *
Tactile – the feeling of being touched with no obvious reason
* Olfactory – strange smells
* Sensed “presences”
* Intense emotion for no apparent cause beyond that you might normally experience
* Object movements with no apparent cause
* erratic function of equipment.
At the end of the month I would like you to send me the file with your notes. Obviously the experiment requires the full consent and participation of your house mates. I’m asking for volunteers on my Facebook because I want people who I can trust and know. My final report will be anonymized to prevent personal details being shared, and will credit you by name if you wish in the credits. You can end participation at any time.
You can always contact me if necessary on (numbers removed). This is a very important piece of research and I’ll be hugely grateful if you can assist.”
The Phenomena Reported
Only two couples (labelled A and B for ease of reference) provided phenomena that occurred in their own homes. Couple C reported phenomena that occurred to their car, and a phenomena that met the criteria but occurred while she was working elsewhere overnight in the period in question, and while of considerable interest this had to be excluded as not occurring in their own home from this study: however it was still of great interest. Couple D reported no phenomena. Couple A reported 19 events, couple B 10, Couple E 1 – compared with the 1996 couple where in the slightly shorter period of 30 days (as opposed to 32 days in this study) 22 events were reported.
In this study the five couples reported an average of 6 experiences that met the criteria and were in their homes, but of course 50% of the participants reported none – so the actual figures are 0,0, 1, 10,19. Only on the 7th November did three events occur to the same couple on the same day: No more than 3 events are reported on any given day. Halloween (October 31st) gave us only one event – which rather knocks traditional beliefs in this respect!
The nature of the phenomena can be classified by the eight categories used in the original study. There was however a new category that emerged strongly. “Sense presences” were inferred by both couples by the behaviour of there cats seemingly staring at things not there and behaving unusually. Given that this is not a “sensed presence” by a human percipient, but certainly can be seen as building towards the narrative of a psychologically induced haunting, I included these in a new 9th category (which might be called Unusual Pet Behaviour in any replication). The single human “sensed presence” was of a deceased cat, sensed by the owner on November 3rd, and appears in the Sensed presences category as the percipient was human. A visual experience reported was also of a cat where no real cat was; this was from the other couple.
|Phenomena||Couple A||Couple B Couple E||Total (Percentage)|
|Visual||0||2 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Auditory||5||1 0||6 (20%)|
|Tactile||2||0 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Olfactory||1||0 1||1 (3.3%)|
|Sensed “presences”||1||0 0||1 (3.3%)|
|Intense emotion||0||2 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Object movements||0||8 0||8 (26.6%)|
|Equipment Erratic||1||4 0||5 (16.6.2%)|
|Cat Behaviour||1||2 0||3 (10%)|
One of the issues when tabulating the data was what to call an “experience”. For example, on one experience a cat was heard to jump on the sofa, and the black tail briefly glimpsed out of the corner of the eye – and no cat was there. (A very mundane common hallucination, any cat owner must be used to). As the two events followed each other in quick succession, I recorded them as 2 events – auditory and visual. However for a strange noise heard coming from a bookcase one night, I recorded it as one experience, despite it recurring a few minutes later. Such subjective judgements are unavoidable in dealing with diary studies.
So as we can see “un-haunted” houses can appear surprisingly haunted once we pay attention to the anomalies, just as the 1996 paper said, and as I argued in my (also) 1996 piece a cumulative narrative can be composed from non-associated and presumably non-paranormal occurrences. (We will return to this seemingly solid conclusion later however.) What is also clear is that while there are commonalities the specifics of our two haunts vary considerably, with Couple B reporting object movements and classic poltergeist “small object displacement” or “jottle” effects while Couple A report significantly more strange noises and auditory experiences. So we appear to have a general confirmation of expectancy/priming effects and focussing awareness leading to the development of a ‘ghostly’ narrative – though it is important to note neither couple actually reported their experiences in those terms, and both were aware that the experiment led to them paying attention to the anomalies obviously. Just to confound matter further Couple B included with their diary a query as to whether I was familiar with Houran and Lange (1996), the paper that I was attempting to replicate. While I trust them obviously this could colour their dairy, as they were clearly aware of the hypothesis I was testing. In this day and age finding “naive” subjects for any experiment is increasingly difficult while meeting the needs of informed consent!
The Logistic Curve
So what of Houran and Lange’s hypothesis that the experiences would follow a logistic curve? Let us firstly remind ourselves of what this looks like in the original study.
As I currently lack the software to plot the logistic curve all I can note is this looks more like a straight line distribution to me: it levels off , but if we just plot the experiences the effect of the curve is far from apparent. I see less evidence of the purported “running out of anomalies” effect, and given the tedium of keeping up a diary study, it is just as possible the whole logistic curve tells us more about the enthusiasm of research subjects for participation in a project than the nature of hauntings.
Let us move to Couple B. Here are there results, presented the same way. Firstly graphed as in the original paper.
Again, despite the levelling off in the middle, there is no resemblance to the logistic curve. I am fairly sure that if tested the relationship between the observed values and the expected values would be non-significant. Just to be consistent, here are just the cumulative experiences depicted.
Again we see as I hypothesised a fairly straight line progression. The evidence does not seem to support a logistic curve, and hence does not support a “running out of anomalies” factor. There is no apparent reason why in 32 days the effect should tail off – which is an important criticism of the idea that it explains why poltergeist events are short-lived and episodic, if the psychological hypothesis theory is correct. Let us finally combine all three couples results (with single experience of couple E included) and examine them.
The Logistic Curve is nowhere to be seen. Our couples did not “run out of anomalies” – they continued to find new odd occurrences to remark upon. The very nature of a diary study where the research participants may strain to find things to comment upon to “do their homework” and feel they are justifying their participation may lead to this result, but then one would have expected it to show up in the original study.
Comparing the Experiences
The original paper gives relatively little information about the actual phenomena reported. Equipment behaving erratically was the most common experience, with 16 of the 22 reported events, followed by 5 counts of object movement and one subjective experience. So in the 1996 study the phenomena classes described were far more limited than in this replication. Furthermore it is surprising to read in Houran and Lange (1996)
“Further, in agreement with the focussing effect described by Roll (1977), three out of the five objects which were found to have moved were the same, and all of the erratic functioning involved the same piece of equipment.” (emphasis mine)
If I had the same piece of equipment malfunction 16 times, I would suspect that there was something broken with it, not spooks. 72.7% of the phenomena reported in the original study were malfunctions of this one piece of equipment, the nature of which is not specified. I find this quite incredible. The pattern does not repeat in this replication – all object moved were unique, and Couple B’s 4 cases of erratically behaving machinery only involved two the same, both involving the lounge lamp, several days apart. There is no evidence to support the kind of effect seen in Roll’s poltergeist cases as cited in the new study.
UPDATE: re-reading Richard Wiseman’s Skeptical Inquirer piece gives additional information cited as from the paper, but not contained within the paper.
“Reporting the results in the paper “Diary of Events in a Thoroughly Unhaunted House,” he noted that the couple reported an amazing twenty-two weird events, including the inexplicable malfunctioning of their telephone, their name being muttered by a ghostly presence, and the strange movement of a souvenir voodoo mask along a shelf.” (Wiseman 2011b)
I am not sure what Richard’s source is, presumably the author’s themselves: however of the ‘amazing’ 22 experiences 16 (72.7%) involved the telephone malfunctioning.
Nonetheless the replication provides greater diversity and similarly impressive numbers in some of the 5 diaries. While the original study found a significant case for a ‘focal person’ as often found in poltergeist-like cases, who witnessed 16 of the phenomena while by themselves (72.7%) no such effect is apparent in the replication. It is impossible based on the ambiguity of the records regarding who exactly was present or first discovered an object had moved to tabulate exactly, but the experiences are generally framed from the author’s perspective (in both cases a female) but seem to have involved and been witnessed by their partners (both male) on several occasions, and in some instances the males was the percipient. Again, an effect found by Houran and Lange and common to the case history of poltergeists does not appear in this replication.
The greater diversity of experiences reported seems to me to strengthen the case for a psychological contagion effect, but it is important to note that a) the participants did not come to the conclusion they were being haunted and b) for those familiar with the Census of Hallucination (1894) research, I do not think any of the experiences reported would meet the exclusion criteria used there: object movements were not included in that study. To compare these experiences with say the witnesses at Enfield (Playfair 1980) or Cardiff (Fontana, 1991) or Andover (Colvin 2008) appears unreasonable. These experiences may well lead some people to believe their house is haunted, but with the possible exception of the object movements (none of which were witnessed moving, and for 60% of which the participants offered likely mundane causes) none of them are likely to cause resort to paranormal explanations.
So What Have We Learned?
The replication has provided significantly stronger evidence for the psychological contagion case than the original paper does, in that it shows that a wider range of “paranormal-type” experiences can occur in everyday life, with the potential to be misinterpreted and develop in to a ghost story narrative. Yet we must note several things.
Firstly, the phenomena involved would not I fear withstand an objective external investigator. The participants themselves repeatedly “explain away” the phenomena – after all, as in the original study, they were instructed to report such things even if “even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen.” Secondly, the study may simply show the priming effect of participating in the experiment.There is no reason to think the participants would have thought very much if at all about what occurred, let alone ascribed it to spooks, if they had not been participating in the diary study. It is important to note that 40% of those who responded, and quite possibly the other three participants who did not submit diaries, experienced no notable phenomena. If the three who had expressed willingness to participate but never got back to me had noticed anything similar occurring, you might have expected them to respond.
Yet I have no doubt that life is full of tiny anomalies: during the day it has taken me to write up this replication my partner has texted to say she had her sat nav come on while lying on her bedroom floor and make her jump by telling her to “turn right”; I myself thought I saw Cuddles my black cat sitting on top of a cupboard, but on looking again he was not there, and was still sleeping in my bedroom when I returned to the computer. Neither of us have jumped to the conclusion we are haunted: but I can see how it could well happen, and I think the psychological contagion hypothesis requires much more study, and am thankful to Houran and Lange for their pioneering and important work. Houran and Lange (1996) wrote
‘This resulting cumulative frequency distribution of event times closely follows a logistic curve… thereby providing strong support for our hypothesis that perceptions of anomalous events are an artefact of attentional contagion. This finding implies that explanations of anomalous events need not invoke such untestable notions as “discarnate agents” or “recurrent spontaneous psycho-kinesis”.’
This study found no evidence for the logistic curve – and the author is still confused as to why it was invoked, as it appears to be difficult to justify as a hypothesis. While the replication was relatively small scale, it was of course still larger in scope than the original study, and leads to the question as to why no one appears to have attempted to replicate it in the intervening sixteen years given the elegance and simplicity of the research design. Widely cited, and fascinating in its implications, the Houran and Lange study opens up new vistas for research in to people’s interpretation of ambiguous stimuli, but one must question whether it really demonstrates all that some sceptical proponents have made out.
Chris Jensen Romer, January 2013
Note: I would to acknowledge the kind assistance of Tom Ruffles of the SPR in helping me locate articles used in writing this piece. Participant Bryan Saunders has kindly agreed to be waive his identity, and I would like to thank him and Barbara for their faithfully maintaining their diary throughout the month and all their help. It is always pleasing to have some non-anonymous participants, as it it lowers the potential for fraud (I did not make up the results, but you don’t know that). I would also like to thank the SPR for their research grant support of my ongoing research.
Colvin, B (2008) The Andover Case: A responsive poltergeist, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 72, p. 1-20. Fontana, D (1991) A responsive poltergeist: A case from South Wales, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 57, pp. 385-402.
Houran, J. and Lange, R. (1996), Diary of events in a thoroughly unhaunted house, Perceptual & Motor Skills, 82, 499-502
Lange R, Houran, J, Harte T.M. & Havens R.A. (1996) Conceptual mediation of perception in hauntings and poltergeist -like experiences, Perceptual & Motor Skills, 82, 755-762
Lange, R., and J. Houran. 1997. Context-induced paranormal experiences: Support for Houran and Lange’s model of haunting phenomena. Perceptual and Motor Skills 84: 1455–58.
Playfair, Guy Lyon, (1980) This House Is Haunted: the Investigation of the Enfield Poltergeist, Stein & Day, London.
Roll, W.G (1977) Poltergeists in B.B. Wolman (ed) Handbook of Parapsychology, Jefferson, NC; McFarland p.382-413
Romer, C. (1996) The Poverty of Theory: Some Notes on the Investigation of Spontaneous Cases, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 61, 161-163
Sidgwick, Eleanor; Johnson, Alice; and others (1894). Report on the Census of Hallucinations, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 10.
Wiseman R, (2011), Paranormality, Macmillan, London.
Wiseman R, (2011) The Haunted Brain in Skeptical Inquirer 35.5 (available online at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_haunted_brain/)
Growing up in Bury St. Edmunds it is almost impossible to not know the story of ‘Maria Marten and the Red Barn’ one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. In essence a fairly tawdry tragedy, there are a number of features – including some overtly supernatural elements – that render it fascinating even to this day, but at the time the sensation it caused was vast, and it was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were reported, and even the English language.
I don’t have time to give a full account of the case, so I will quickly summarize it here. On Saturday 18th May 1827 William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family apparently set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two walked separately through the night to a barn, the now infamous ‘Red Barn’ on Corder’s property, Maria dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice. In the barn Maria change in to her women’s attire, and while changing met her death, and was buried by Corder within the barn.
Corder remained in the little village of Polstead, and informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but that to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth. She was unable to write because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London, and wrote to her father saying that Maria and he were now married, and living on the Isle of Wight, and very happy (and requesting that the father burn the letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P.). Yet he told others in the village during his visits many other stories, with little consistency, as to whether or not he was married, and where Maria was residing in the year before the discovery of her body.
A Sensational Case
Now Corder forms the archetype we are told for the “wicked squire” (the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks) and Maria the type for the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama, and certainly the story formed the basis for large numbers of plays, many still extant today, which were performed by travelling troupes all over the country. Local author Peter Haining informs us that these plays, performed in barns, gave us the word “barnstorming”. Certainly they were hugely popular, and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows all over the region and down to London depicting the murder, and in Bury a camera obscura show. A nonconformist minister preached to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn, which was dismantled by souvenir seekers, and in Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten, chipped away by curiosity seekers. The London papers sent reporters to the Inquest and Trial of Corder, and 7,000 people gathered in Bury on August 10th, 1828 to watch Corder hang.
The Background to the Crime
Yet all this sensation masks some of the story, which may have a bearing on what really happened on the fateful night. Firstly, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman who is referred to at the Inquest as Mr P. (His identity is known and was given in court, but does not matter for our purposes). As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardry, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not it seems a “burden on the parish”, and because the father made generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep. (Though actually only one appears to have been alive by the time of the murder, and was being raised by Maria’s parents).
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time as they lived in a fairly small village, and Corder and her went off to live in sin in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one by Corder, and again bastardy charges could have followed. The couple returned to Polstead, and the baby died; Corder took the remains off in a box, and told people they were buried in Sudbury, but he in fact buried the child in a field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and William remained lovers, despite the gulf in their social position (nowhere as great as that between her and her former lover Mr P however), and the apparent disapproval of his family. Corder’s father was dead; several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother died in what according to Haining was a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice in to the village pond. Mrs Corder suffered an immense amount of tragedy, and now William was heir, and helping to run the farm. Yet he still did not have control of the money, and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child from it. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder, who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardry charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder
Twice they prepared to elope, but Corder backed out, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life seems to have been troubled by the moral condemnation of her younger sister, who appears to have regarded her as a ‘tart’, and been particularly scathing about how she dressed herself up. The death of her baby seems to have effected her greatly, she had health problems, and now Corder told her she was about to be arrested for bastardry, using this to frighten and control her. On the fatal night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, and so she dressed in his clothes, and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They left by different doors the Marten’s cottage, and walked to the Red Barn – there she was to out of sight of any villagers change, and they would make off to marry by Licence, so no banns need be read.
Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, and what followed appears straightforward enough. Maria was changing out of Corder’s clothes in to her own when she was shot by a pistol in the head, and then perhaps stabbed twice with Corder’s sword, before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they left the Marten’s cottage, Corder went to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder claimed the boy was mistaken, and this was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who also wore a velveteen coat. (The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at the trial of Corder the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.)
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn
Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. There is one curious episode during these proceedings, when he offered one of his farm hands a £1 to cut his throat. The man thought he was joking, but it may well be that Corder was under a terrific strain.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) was rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. An illustration exists (below) but it is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds, and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight, but actually to perform far more extraordinary deeds in London. We will return to those shortly. However for the next eleven months Maria was to remain buried in the Red Barn.
Supernatural Interlude 1: The Discovery of the Body
‘Providence [[CJ: That is, God]] led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest; in fact the events which led to the discovery of the body have been a staple of supernatural books from then onwards, because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt where the body was buried, and thereafter managed to convince her husband (Maria’s father) to go look. Note that in most accounts it is Maria’s mother who has the dream – that lady was long dead it seems, and so it was the stepmother, not that it makes any difference. What we know from The Times, April 22nd 1828 is that the dream was Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and occurred for three successive nights.
Now the papers made a lot of this, but in fact in that era of great scepticism they also offered fairly critical comment as well; sadly from the viewpoint of a psychical researcher like me the evidence for anything supernatural being involved is very weak. Maria and William had always met (and one presumes made love) in the Red Barn – it was “their place”, and they were well known by all to frequent it. As early as immediately after Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ Maria’s parents were suspicious something had happened to her, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe near dawn on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the aforementioned difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife’s dreams, when finally convinced he must search the barn, he took the time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. To be honest, such deference by farm labourers and the rural poor towards big farmers and landowners is not uncommon even today, or was at least not when I was growing up.
So Mr Marten took a friend, Mr Pryke, and armed with a spade and a rake they set off to the barn, went immediately to the very spot indicated in the dream and quickly uncovered the remains of poor Maria, much decomposed, indeed mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was note there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged, apparently missing any target. As Corder habitually carried, and occasionally fired in to the Marten’s fireplace, a pair of percussion cap pistols, well it looked bad for him.
So the dream – was it supernatural? On the contrary, the bizarre way Maria who could read and write and was close to her parents had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of all too conscious anxiety on the part of the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband who had spent eleven months doing nothing but worrying actually go and check Maria was not in the Red Barn dead. Some modern sceptics have suggested the Martens were in some way involved to know where the body was: the Trial record makes a nonsense of that suggestion. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe it display any supernormal faculty on the part of Mrs Marten. We are not done with the supernatural — I shall return to other supernatural elements later — but the most uncanny thing about the discovery of the body is just how long it took. However, I do have a theory here – not only did Corder have the barn key, but until April the area where they body was buried was under a large amount of winter hay, cattle food I suspect. Only after the cows returned to grazing could it be easily examined. Perhaps the Marten’s were just every patiently awaiting that chance.
Peter Haining also points out that the barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. The Red Barn was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun, and such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. It is inevitable that there are stories of ghostly re-enactments of the crime, but none holds much substance and the Red Barn itself is long gone now.
William Corder’s Lonely Hearts Club Fan
During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria Corder was of course in Polstead for a long period, but eventually he set off purportedly for the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London, where Haining suggests he and Maria had a number of criminal associates. I don’t have Haining’s book here to check his sources (it is truly excellent and I do want to re-read it) but what we know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself, and quite quickly given his unwillingness fixed his eyes upon matrimony. He may have planned to leave the country – her procured a passport to travel to France, but never did – instead he did what has been described as ‘inventing the Lonely Hearts column’. He took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827 –
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement suggests Corder’s lonely hearts ad was not the first, but it certainly worked. He received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him, perhaps with the intent of immediate marriage, at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling, and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck, and attend a certain service where they would meet. Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left; he afterwards discovered the woman making enquiries for such a man was a high ranking lady with a large fortune, and he was planning to try and contact her again when he met his wife to be.
Corder met Miss Moore in a public place, and they immediately hit it off. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single state, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were wed. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy, and Mr and Mrs Corder opened a boarding school for girls at Grove House, Ealing Lane. It was there, living with his wife and a few pupils, that he was to be apprehended for murder.
After the discovery of the body it was quickly ascertained by missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse was Maria. There was only one suspect, and the village constable set off to London to try and find Corder. However London was outside his jurisdiction, so he went to a police station, where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took him fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London, quite an impressive achievement! If Corder had changed his name or tried to hide it would have been harder, but he was easily located, and Mr Lea entered his house pretending he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as he had Corder in his study, he told him the game was up and Maria Marten was found; three times Corder denied knowing the girl. Corder was arrested nonetheless, and his sword taken, along with a small black reticule, effectively a handbag, that was once the property of Maria Marten. Inside it were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder; his wife, believing the charge was bigamy at first, stood by him, and did so until their final parting the day before his execution.He was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester, and on the second night there transferred in the early hours to the Cock pub at Polstead, where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
By ten am The Cock was filled with interested persons and representatives of the London press. There was a dispute between the Coroner Weyman, and the press about whether notes could be taken for their articles – the Coroner ruled against them, so accounts of the proceedings were filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that already the sensation was great, and that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and had declared Corder the murderer, to great prejudice against him. There is a strong irony in this, as we will shortly see. Proceedings were they delayed by Corder’s representative asking he may come downstairs and witness the testimony – this was am inquest, not a trial, but the Coroner ruled against him and stated instead he may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
In fact this proved extremely difficult – she appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed — and at his trial, Corder was charged with all nine, so as to make sure one of them stuck. (‘Murder by pistol, murder by stabbing in heart, murder by stabbing in neck’, etc, etc). This legal nicety, like the fact everything in the charge must be valued (stabbed by sword (“worth one shilling”), buried in gravel and soil (“of no value”) seems a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined poor Maria had been murdered – and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
Corder’s Other Crime
Corder it seems had already stolen £5 sent by Mr P to Maria; and after her death eh continued to benefit this way. However as he was in prison in Bury he was accused of another crime that could have sent him to the gallows, this time fraud. Those guilty of fraud were shown no mercy at all under the law in 19th century England – while murderers might have their sentence commuted from death on occasion, fraudsters, no matter how innocent, were hanged.
We will never know if Corder was guilty of this crime, but it does appear likely. On the 14th April 1828 Corder had apparently arrived at the White Hart in Manningtree, stating he had business with the bank opposite, Messrs Alexanders. Making conversation with Mr Dale the landlord, he explained he was an agent sent to cash a cheque, and when the bank opened he presented a cheque for £93 on the Hadleigh branch payable to a Mr Cook of Wenlam-Hall from the account of Mr Atkins, butcher of Stratford. The banker Mr Taylor refused, as he knew neither party, but Corder explained he was Cook, and was well known in the area. The landlord of the White Hart helpfully said he knew Mr Cook by sight, so the money was handed over. The presumed Mr Cook was paid in local currency notes — I’d like to know more about what these were – and Cook/Corder dashed off to the Branch Banking Establishment at Ipswich where he exchanged the notes for gold and departed before the fraud was discovered that night. When arrested his wife found eighty pounds in gold in his drawer, and Corder never denied the charges, simply saying “I dare say they will try to make enough of it”. He appeared genuinely defeated and contrite when confronted by Mr Taylor and Mr Dale, both of whom identified him as the fraudster. It seems the crime was committed for the purpose of funding his move to Grove House and new boarding school.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life is he never seemed to have enough money. That is the fate of many of us, but Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead, and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – the Corders were locally important folk. Yet he hints time and time again at trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear he doted on his mother, she seems to have been unwilling to surrender any control over finances to him. She was very attached to him, and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles, but she may well have disapproved of Maria, if she knew anything of their relationship, and certainly Corder while a snappy dresser with expensive tastes seems to have been unwilling to seek financial aid from this obvious source.
The trial held at Bury St Edmunds continued the sensation. Chief Baron Alexander presided, and his orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos as the crowds milled around outside, and once his carriage arrived it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with murder on nine counts, to cover all possible ways he disposed of Maria, and was horrified and outraged to discover the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! As he complained, this meant the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything but reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – last seen with the victim, who was found interred in his barn, with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, and having lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder, and there was no evidence he planned to procure the promised marriage licence or actually elope with her; he appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site, and for the first time in his life kept the barn locked after the murder, and his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was certainly looked grim. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardry. Afterwards when he was supposedly living with her he had refused to give an address to her parents claiming the couple were in fear of Mr P (who whatever his moral failings, seems to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and keep an eye out for Maria’s welfare). The picture from the trial that emerges of Corder is of a weak, not very bright schemer, who lied constantly to cover up Maria’s fate. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him, and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for the fellow. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence, and indeed his wife and it seems Corder were convinced he would be acquitted – and perhaps today he would be, on technicalities.
So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect and try for a technicality, as he had been charged with all nine! His second chance was stronger: arguing the body was not Maria Marten. He however chose to admit it was, and the evidence was such there can be no doubt it was anyway. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner now being employed as the Prosecutor, and the Judge was certainly sympathetic to that, as he was to Corder’s point the notoriety of the case was such he had already been judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial began. However, Corder decided to argue the one strong argument he could make, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide, and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury, when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night – I was not clear from the trial evidence if it was on this night he did this, but the Martens certainly said he used to do this. If it was, Corder had the pistols when he left their house. However, we know the pistols were found in Corder’s School in what was essentially Maria’s handbag. Corder claimed she had the pistols that night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen by her family to be crying, and as she changed at the barn Corder asserted she began to abuse him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, he claimed that he told her if she spoke to him like this before they were wed how would she treat him once they were married?, and telling her he would not marry her he walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, and turned to see her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. (No explanation was given for the second bullet mark, on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left, if his account was in anyway true.) He panicked, and concealed the body, cleaned up the scene, went and borrowed a spade and then later returned with a pickaxe, and buried poor Maria in the barn. After that he did all he could to conceal her fate, and this was why he told so many lies and wrote so many untruths.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – this happened he claimed as he dragged her body to the grave — and how to account for the wounds made by a stabbing instrument, growing wider as it went in, attested to by three surgeons and attributed to his sword. Corder made an interesting defence — that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse. I’ll return to this later.
The End for Corder
The jury retired and spent over an hour discussing the case, before finding Corder guilty. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday, and was taken from the court in a state of near collapse. He committed to Bury gaol, and met twice more with is wife, who seems to have behaved with great courage and dignity, and offered him a lot of religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others sought an interview, but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the chaplain. Finally, on the morning of his execution, he wrote and had witnessed a confession. According to this the argument was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated Corder killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn they fell to fighting, and while struggling Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime, and events proceeded as above. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon and hanged in front of 7,000 witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs.
So Was Corder Guilty?
In recent years there have been a number of attempts to suggest Corder was not guilty of the murder. Given this appears one of the most open and shut cases I can think of, and that he confessed, it is hard to see any other possibility. There is however one possibility I think, well perhaps two. At the times rumours circulated Corder was also having an affair with Maria’s stepmother, who was not much older than Maria, and she was involved hence her knowledge of the burial site. I find that hard to believe. Other authors have mentioned Corder’s criminal associates, and even a gypsy fortuneteller lady, but all this strikes me as nonsense. Corder was there when she died, and covered up the death – but was he actually telling the truth about suicide? Maria seems to have been deeply disturbed that night, and perhaps she did have the pistols — if so, perhaps the handkerchief round her neck was irrelevant as Corder suggested. The “sword wounds” could easily have been made by Mr Marten as he found the body. As a child I can recall Suffolk farmers using unusual looking “mole spades” with long slender blades, not unlike those used for tree planting today. Mr Marten was a mole catcher. We know that Mr Pryce probed the ground with the handle of his rake, and found an iron spike, perhaps part of Corder’s pickaxe. The wounds in the heavily decomposed body could be many things. So did Maria shoot herself? I find it extremely unlikely, and think not. Corder must have realised if she had covering the matter up would only make things worse, and in an argument as described I find it hard to see why she did not shoot him instead. A second, slightly more plausible theory would be that actually there was some suggestion of a double suicide, and each discharged a pistol at their head, but Corder decided to live and fired his in to the wall. Possible, but there is no evidence for this at all, barring the curious bullet marks in the wooden wall of the barn. No, I am afraid I think Corder was guilty, but fired twice, trying to stop Maria in some kind of violent physical struggle, probably with the intention of scaring her – but maybe with the intention of murder. In his Confession Corder says this, and there seems little reason to doubt him, though he is at great pains to swear before God that he did not make the sword wounds alleged.
Supernatural Interlude 2: The Ghost of Corder
In Moyses Hall musueum today you can still see a collection of relics related to the infamous murder. These include a particularly grisly item, a book about the trial bound in the Corder’s skin!
For many years Corder’s skeleton was used for anatomy lessons at teaching hospitals. One doctor became fascinated by this grim artefact and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his nerves by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned. So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore I read in the 1980′s anyway.
On Thursday I’m Talking Ghosts At Skeptics In the Pub, Cheltenham Science Festival Fringe. Controversy May Ensue :D
A quick update seems in order. It’s Tuesday 12th June and The Times Cheltenham Science Festival is under way. I’m still wondering why the brochure appears to feature a perspex butt plug though? Or is it just Global Melting, like Global Warming but hotter? Anyway so far I have seen no events, simply because I have not yet got up and gone out except for a quick trip to acquire breakfast. Secondly, I have a talk to write!
No, the Festival organisers have not gone mad. Every year however Cheltenham Skeptics In The Pub run a wonderful Fringe programme – last year I saw the Festival of the spoken Nerd and Dr Harry Witchell on the Science of Dating. This year the programme looks just as exciting, and while it gets little attention the Fringe Events are excellent and well worth attending if you are in town for the Science Festival. I was thinking of going through the whole run down, from Dark Matters to Science Show Offs on Saturday, but the website does that better than I can. Also these events are all FREE, with a donations bucket being passed around if you want to give (Being Skeptics it’s a bucket not a collection plate – there may be some subtle symbolism I’m missing?)
So I am trying to write my talk on The Science of Ghosts for Thursday night…
Now most of my friends so far seem to respond with “there isn’t any!”. Given I have spent twenty five years studying it, I think there is — but as a recent row on the Rational Skepticism forum suggests, a lot of people think that when I say “ghosts” I mean “Dead Guys” ( & Dead Gals too). This is unfortunate, because it is all a lot more complicated than that. I could say I take a phenomenological approach, rather than making an ontological claim, but I think people would just look at me funny, and I don’t mean phenomenological in the sense of Philosophy they might also think I’m nuts. So just to be clear, I’m looking at how we study two things: the ghost experience, and the causes thereof. (“Tough on Ghosts, Tough on the Causes of Ghosts”? If you want to be really bored you can read my ASSAP conference talk here: this one will be faster, funnier cover very different ground and have more “science” whatever that means!
Anyhow this year my talk will be mercifully free of asides on the philosophy of science, epistemology and other big words too. In fact it will be a) light hearted, b) loud, c) visual (I’m using a lot of video or whatever you call the digital equivalent) clips and also very hands on. Yes I’m running some little experiments and audience participation events, because well, why ever not? So be prepared for Circle Dancing, Knocking On Wood, learning the Power of Expectation and Suggestion, and I’m even doing a little jokey tribute to Bem’s precognition research, which sounds deadly dull, but isn’t at all, at least in my version I hope.
So is there any Science of Ghosts? Yes, way, way too much to even just list the areas covered in the time I have, unless I over run by a week. I think the best way to go is to keep the first half light hearted and fast moving. I have been through loads of topics I could cover, and have thought about presenting on a little of everything, but in the end I have chosen just two topics for the first bit that I can present well upon and have never given a talk on before, one of which is very suited to hands on experimentation.
One thing that seems to confuse a lot of people is why I am talking at Skeptics In The Pub. Paranormal Believers often seem to regard Skeptics, or as us non-Americans usually call ‘em, Sceptics, as the enemy. (Why do we use the American spelling? Is it to prove we know Greek or something?) Skeptics/Sceptics think people like me who spend our time on parapsychology are all woos, unless they have heard of us (Chris French and Richard Wiseman are exempt from this it seems. Stuart J Ritchie probably still gets called a woo, as he is not yet a household name?). I’m desperately hoping that Professor Brian Cox might show to run a picket line and to tell people I’m an utter nobber, but sadly feel that highly unlikely.:D
Anyway why am I talking at a Skeptic’s meeting? Well I have always regarded myself as a sceptic. Yes I’m a methodological sceptic, and sometimes I come to conclusions that sit uncomfortably with other sceptics, but I do believe firmly that doubt and “rational sceptisicm” are the only way forward and are central to the scientific method, or rather most scientific methods, as I don’t think there is only one. It often amuses me that I am far less certain of many things than self-proclaimed forum sceptics who are absolutely rock solid in their beliefs where I have little more than an ever expanding list questions, a lot of data, and a few tentative, provisional conclusions. I encounter this time and time again on the JREF and other forums: people whose faith is stronger than mine.
Anyway, enough rambling. I have a talk to write. I’ll let others decide if I am a Fake Sceptic or not. Whatever you think about ghosts and parapsychology, the questions it raises for Science, how we do Science, how we communicate Science and what constitutes real Science are vital, or so I am inclined to think. I hope some of you will come a long and heckle, whether sceptic or believer!
Here are the talk details
Thursday, June 14 2012 at 7:30PM
40 Clarence St
What’s the talk about?
Ghosts don’t exist, all skeptics know this, right?. Yet even a skeptic can experience a “ghost”, and when one does all kind of awkward questions arise. That was what happened to CJ, and the story of how he became involved in parapsychology, spent twenty five years investigating hauntings and became embroiled in working in paranormal television for a decade before ending up with far more questions than when he started may amuse and hopefully cause you to question your own deep seated beliefs on the subject. Learn the inside view behind shows like Most Haunted, and why despite everything for CJ at least the serious research must continue.
So can Science really address the ghost experience? For 120 years scientists have wrestled with the question of what is really going on when people think they see ghosts, and in this talk CJ promises to present a whistle stop tour of the science that has been published in the field, good, bad and bogus. Can science finally exorcise our ancient fears of the unquiet dead, and explain the night hag? Are buildings haunted, or is it people? And what should you do if you actually see a spook? If that seems unlikely, come along, and find out how you could
The event is FREE, but we will be shaking the Skeptic-Bucket to cover costs
I like James Randi, a lot. He has had a rough year, and I wish him well – and I have long supported the JREF, despite endless objections to some of Randi’s videos. Long time readers of this blog will recall my annoyance, near apoplexy, at woo in the Nazareth Never Existed one, and his sceptical piece on man-made global warming (strongly suggesting he did not believe in it) shocked me, but hell I guess it’s good to question. If a difference of opinion with another sceptic OR parapsychologist stopped me talking to them, and far more importantly, listening and learning from them, I’d be both ignorant and friendless.
The JREF staff I have spoken to over the years have been unfailingly polite and helpful, despite my tendency towards accepting some “paranormal” beliefs, and my strong commitment to investigating these issues scientifically. I’m particularly a fan of the JREF forum, where I have made many friends, and can promise that though there are some acerbic and rather strident critics there, there are also some excellent sceptics, critics and thinkers. I learn a lot there. I have respect for DJ Grothe and Phil Plait, who have both been JREF Presidents, and usually enjoy my reading there.
However, often the JREF videos can be wrong, or misleading. Today I finally saw this years Pigasus awards, ofter spotting a mention on the SPR Facebook page, and went and watched it. The Pigasus Awards are basically Ig Nobel Prizes for the worst in some paranormal, psychic or parapsychological related field, a mock honour that highlights the worst out there. And I tend to actually be pretty pleased with some of the choices, and irritated by others. There is a good wikipedia page on the Pigasus Awards
Anyway this years Awards make for fun viewing, so here they are
Video (c) JREF 2012.
Now, the bit I have a problem with this year is the awarding of the Pigasus for Science to Daryl Bem for his work on habituative presentiment, that infamous study I wrote about a few weeks back – if you have no idea what I am on about best read that first. Given I don’t actually believe in psi, and find it hard to see how it can work — though clearly there would be vast adaptive advantage in precognition if such a thing could exist, so yes in evolutionary terms it would make sense — why am I so irritated?
Listen to the speech again.
“The winner of the Pigasus Award for Science is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research which has been discredited on many accounts, by prominent critics, such as Drs. Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, and Chris French.”
I had not actually read Steven Novella’s piece before today, but I do in my previous piece refer to the research he cites — Wagenmakers et al (2011) — and link to it and Bem’s response. I am curious as to why Novella was mentioned rather than Wagenmakers here, and even more striking omission is that while two of the researchers who performed the recent failed replication of Bem’s experiment are mentioned, Stuart J Ritchie the other author does not get a mention at all. I have seen lots of theoretical criticisms of Bem’s work – here is an interesting thread on the JREF Forum, and here is Bare Normality’s recent blog post. However to me the most important critique remains that of those who have like Galak & Nelson and Ritchie, French & Wiseman actually replicated the experiments. As I commented in my last piece on spin in science and the Bem affair, there have of course also been successful replications.
Now the use of the word shoddy to describe Bem’s work is to me highly unfair, given that Wagenmakers critique, if correct, is that the methods used by almost all social scientists and lots of “hard” scientists too for dealing with probability are flawed, and these are inherent issues in our statistical methodologies. I’m not going to get involved in a discussion of Frequentist versus Bayesian analysis, because I’m not qualified to do so — but if Wagenmaker’s et als critique as put forward by Novella is correct then it is a common and widespread issue effecting a centuries research across the sciences, not something specific to Bem. How is that shoddy? I don’t know if it is correct – Bem has responded, and I encourage interested parties to go back and read the papers and discussion, which are linked in my last piece. The use of the word “shoddy” however really needs some justification.
Let’s move on. Randi continues –
“such examination, shows very strange methods used by Bem, which ends up unproven, though the popular media of course have chosen to embrace it.”
I have seen some suggestions of methodological flaws, which I linked above, but the paper was published in a major peer reviewed journal and has generally been positively commented upon by many of those who have like myself been through the paper looking for such flaws to explain the bizarre results. As anyone who has read my last piece knows, I am dismayed by the media spin: but plenty of popular science magazines have also reported on the affair, and the failed replications.
The biggest problem is if strange methods were used by Bem, the same software, and the same methods have been used in the failed replications. So why did they fail? A failed replication speaks far more to me than all the theoretical objections folks have raised, and is no real scandal. People do research, get funny results, others try to replicate and if replication fails we then start to try and work out what the hell is going on. Now in this case Dr Richard Wiseman is maintaining a “file drawer” registry of replications, and will publish a meta-analysis later in the year or next, which will finally clarify what exactly the experiments say. I have plenty of time for French, Ritchie and Wiseman — but this assassination of character by implication and slur just annoys me.
The truth is Bem performed perfectly good science, and while the media hype that followed was a bit odd, over the top and regrettable, he will be vindicated or be proven wrong by perfectly good, and normal, scientific methods. The Pigasus Award seems to be an attempt to place Bem’s research firmly in the pseudoscience camp; I think that is manifestly unfair. I can’t see Ritchie, Wiseman and French condoning this, and have drawn it their attention: all it does is widen the gap between parapsychologists and their intelligent critics, and it’s simply misleading. It does also make those who bothered like the above British team to replicate and seriously take on Bem on the issue look like fools.
And here is the thing: Randi appears to think that Bem’s work is worthy as a Pigasus because it can’t be right. He has made an a priori assumption it will not be vindicated (as have I to some extent, I just don’t claim to know that until the evidence is in, it’s simply a personal prejudice…) but by the award of the Piagsus he goes much further, belittling Bem for taking the subject seriously enough to research it.
Randi seems to think he knows what science contains, and psi is clearly absurd. He ridicules those who use science to investigate these issues – if they happen to disagree with his prejudice, while praising those like Wiseman and French (and the not-to-be-mentioned Ritchie) who use exactly the same methodologies, yet find results he personally finds acceptable. This is not uncommon in an ideological struggle like the parapsychologicalist-believers versus sceptic struggle has been since the days of William James at least, but it is ultimately far more damaging and dangerous to real scientific inquiry than Bem’s research. Science asks questions, tests them, and falsifies hypotheses — and is conducted not by sneering and cheap shots, but by hard work and real research.
As usual the Daily Grail beat me to the story, and did it better, but anyway, enough. As usual, it is science that is the victim here, and the war of spin continues…
UPDATE: Just saw that Stuart J Ritchie one of the authors of the failure to replicate experiment wrote on Twitter “Should put it on record that I think James Randi giving Bem the Pigasus award is unfair, unhelpful and disappointing.”
I agree totally.
Right, a quick post today, which will cheekily incorporate in the second half a re-post of some material I posted years ago on this very topic, because let’s face it, no one is going to click on a link to read another entry. Many of you know I have great respect for the sceptic writer/researcher Hayley Stevens, especially as she constantly manages to actually get out there and do real research, and to write more than I can. I put it down to my age – “it’s never how it used to be/what happened to all that energy?” Today Hayley has written an interesting piece on a site for young atheists, skeptics and freethinkers, The Heresy Club. I had to have a nose, despite being neither young, nor as it happens an atheist.
As usual Hayley’s article is excellent, well written and informative, and deals with real issues – an issue I care deeply about, the damage that poor research ethics in amateur ghost groups can do when they are let loose in private houses or even businesses and upset or scare people badly. Now I’m not going to quote Hayley’s article in full, because I want you to go read it for yourself. Do that now. No summary I give would be fair, because she makes several points.
However I am notoriously contrarian (freethinking?) so I’m going to disagree with one fundamental thing Hayley wrote, which is at the heart of the article for me, as an Anglican and a “ghosthunter” of sorts. She writes –
Looking back now, on those early years, I can see that the whole culture surrounding ghost hunting that I became involved with was a mish-mash of religious practices and beliefs that were all geared towards convincing the people involved that their very soul was in danger from evil at all times, and that invisible enemies were around us just waiting for us to mess up so that they could attack us psychically.
Now given in the past I have suggested that ghosthunting groups do sometimes take on the attributes of a religious group, and in fact enjoyed once a great discussion on the phone with Jeff Belanger where we talked about this, I can’t disagree too strongly. However, s always I’m going to raise issues.
Number one is the fact that in the sociology of religion defining what a religion or religious group is really proves difficult. Patriotism, political parties and ideologies, even perhaps scepticism or atheism are defined by some as having the same kind of principles involved, and hence “secular religions”. I don’t mean by this the people who used to turn up to sneer on Richard Dawkin’s forum and say “Atheism is a religion: he is your guru.” I’m talking about serious academic sociologists desperately trying to pin down what defines something as a religious behaviour. I happen to have spent a lot of my life as an academic studying religion: so I’m not going to get sidetracked in to a huge discussion of this, which would bore everyone. However it raises another point, which Alex Gabriel has already highlighted in the comments much better than I ever could! We can clearly see the Roman Catholic Church, or the CofE, or various other religions denominations are “religious” because of what they do and their detailed creeds. Yet those groups inpose really strict behavourial codes and ethical requirements on their members, and while I may claim to be an Anglican, many Anglicans might say “hey CJ you are not – you don’t go to Church enough/have shabby morals/dabble in the occult” or whatever. We know what these groups stand for – they are authoritarian in a real sense, and people who don’t do the “right” things get kicked out, or told they are “bad” members of the group.
Now some religions have very little in the way of formal dogmas, theology, doctrine and imposition. Hinduism is incredibly diverse, and hard for me to comprehend as a religion cos I’m used to this rather more authoritarian structure, but there are core beliefs, and social measures to ensure consistency of practice as far as I can see. Wicca is perhaps the best example of a theological anarchy – the various “wiccan denominations” have core theological beliefs, but those outsoide of the formal coven-structures, which in the 90′s I think though do not know comprised most of the self-proclaimed adherents of the Wiccan religion could believe an incredible diversity of things about the nature of the divine, afterlife, and karma etc. This “folk wicca” ran the risk of being mistaken for the coven traditions, and just because a complete loony did something vile in the name of the religion, well it was not in any way the fault of any other adherents of that faith. As Alex Gabriel wrote
“You hear a lot from New Agers and ecumenicals, don’t you, that the coercive and oppressive elements of religion are all from the institutional structures? But this is a brilliant example of how bad beliefs themselves can be oppressive.”
Yes I agree totally, well said Alex, and I’m no fan of heavy authoritarian religion, but I am painfully aware of the dangers posed by liberty of conscience. I absolutely hold the principle of freedom of religious belief and non-belief, but as anyone who knows me know I distinguish between beliefs and practices/behaviours. If a practice is illegal, and damaging to others, your freedom of belief does not make it right in my mind. Still we could disagree on this and still we are no closer to my actual issue with Hayley’s article.
Many ghosthunting groups do adopt a sort of “folk spiritualism”, and in some cases other religious beliefs, In the USA we see a lot of very religious ghosthunters – they often term themselves demonologists, and look at things in terms of a very religious paradigm, because the base culture there is profoundly religious compared with the UK. Yet in all my ghosthunting experience nearly none of the participants have been Christian believers, or held to any of the other mainstream faiths — with the exception of David Carter-Green, and on the social and academic side David Sivier. And in fact, belief in the paranormal does not seem to map well to what most people would see as “religious belief” in any way — in fact quite the opposite.
Now years ago I wrote a piece I consider one of the most important ton this blog, called “Are Education and Atheism Enemies of Reason”. The title was half joking half serious, but it’s so directly relevant to what we are talking about here i’m going to reproduce it before moving on to discuss the implications…
“The majority of Britons believe in heaven and life after death, new research suggests.” The BBC News story here is well worth reading, and shows some interesting things. Firstly we are a lot less sceptical about New Age ideas and certain fringe practices like astrology and tarot cards than we used to be – what Randi’s people categorize as “woo”. However we are more sceptical about certain aspects of the supernatural than a decade ago in 1998 – in short popular belief in the supernatural is constantly waxing and waning; I think I could have told you that. The popular culture of the 1970′s was far more sympathetic to parapsychology say than the 90′s were – and yet the 2000′s saw a sudden interest in Spiritualism connected with certain TV shows.
I have a rather heretical thought about ‘paranormal’ beliefs, and their relationship to atheism. I originally posed a question on Professor Dawkins forum as it was inspired by his show The Enemies of Reason. I am sure the Professor has better things to do than answer my questions though, (and he didn’t) and so I have revised it and asked it here.
I had been reading The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983) by noted mathematician, science writer and skeptic Martin Gardner. In 1976 Martin Gardner was a founder member of CSI(COP), which has done a great deal over the years in debunking paranormal claims and fighting the rise of superstition. Many readers of this blog may have his enjoyed his Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science.
In Chapter 3 of The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener – “Why I am not a Paranormalist” – Gardner mounts a blistering attack on superstition. It contains many of the themes touched in Dawkin’s The Enemies of Reason, and one curious disagreement.
Martin Gardner, 1983 wrote:
As always with such manias, causes are multiple: the decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated, the resurgence of Protestant Fundamentalism, disenchantment with science for creating a technology that is damaging the environment and building horrendous war weapons, increasingly poor quality of science instruction on all levels of schooling, and many other factors…
I found that first bit fascinating. Now Gardner is not Fundamentalist obviously, he is not a Christian, though he is a Fideist rejecting all special revelation, but remaining a theist. Like most scholars he sees Fundamentalism as arising recently (within the last century pretty much) and a bad thing– but he regards the “decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated” as a key factor in the rise of pseudo-science, cults and superstition?
It in no way justifies religious belief, but it is very interesting as a claim. OK, so I doubted. Gardner is a theist – he must be biased. What are his sources? Luckily he references them. It is the article Superstitions Old and New by William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark in The Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 4, Summer 1980.
Gardner says they
…reported on their surveys of how beliefs in certain aspects of the current occult mania correlated with religious faith. They found people with no professed religion were the most inclined to believe in ESP and extraterrestrial UFOs. Paranormal cults were strongest in areas where the traditional churches were weakest.
Never trusting anyone’s opinions I have just been through the Sheep/Goat tests from my 1993 Paranormal Beliefs Survey of attendees at a lecture series in Cheltenham. The test used by the group was an early Sheep/Goat test which measured some religious claims as well as paranormal ones. Later we adopted the 1979 New Australian Sheep/Goat Test by Michael Thalbourne, but this earlier version suited my purposes. There were 83 respondents, and while I have not had time to perform a proper statistical test – the data is on stapled questionnaires, not in electronic format and it’s too late to type it all in tonight – there does appear to be a very strong correlation between non-belief in God and belief in UFOs as alien visitors, and between non-belief in Jesus as divine and belief in both ghosts & magic, to give a few examples. I recall now being once asked asked if many parapsychologists were Christian – and I said none at all that I knew of, they were all atheists. I have just looked at my “psychics” who I sometimes work with on testing – only one identifies as Spiritualist, two as atheist (Atheism is VERY common among Spiritualists following the example of Arthur Findlay – indeed Roll’s Campaign For Philosophical Freedom is an atheist organization which makes Dawkins look like a vicar) and seven “none”; six more are unclassifiable.
Not one professed belief in any “orthodox” faith. Now I’m sure Dawkins would regard my Anglicanism as just as much superstitious woo as does say crystal power, so this is a false distinction to him: but the evidence seems to suggest to me that the modern irrationalist supernaturalism is inversely related to traditional (non-fundamentalist) religious beliefs. I think whoever misquoted G.K. Chesterton was right, even if as is possible Chesterton never actually said it “when a man stops believing in God he does not believe in nothing: he believes in anything”. Correlation is not causality – and of course the better educated college students are more likely to believe in ghosts etc -
assuming the Skeptical Inquirer is cited correctly! So perhaps the increase in woo is just a by product of the decline of traditional religious belief, increased secularism and atheism, and better education? The evidence certainly seems to point that way???
I find this both interesting, amusing, and deeply ironic.
So I wrote a few years back, and I have discussed at length elsewhere the issues. What concerns me is that actually while Hayley as a rational sceptic may be an excellent investigator, “atheism” as a non-belief does not actually necessarily imply scepticism of any claim but the existence of a God. There are plenty of loony and not bright atheists, just as there are plenty of loony and thick as two short planks Christians out there. Furthermore, rationality does not always map to good personal ethics, as I think we all recognize, and even rational people make mistakes – though like the Christians who confess they are crap at it by definition (we are all sinners), they may spot the problem and be able to do something about it.
Still, it’s peoples right to believe what they like, and no one has a monopoly on how to investigate spooks etc, or say what we should believe. The actions/behaviours/practices which are damaging to others should however clearly be subject to scrutiny, and I’m absolutely in favour of higher ethical standards in the field. I just don’t think that religiosity, in the normal sense, is much to do with a lot of this — and I hope I have somehow made that point. Yes my personal research ethics may be terrible, as I often joke, but that stands completely independent of the actual religious framework I exist within (Church of England liberal, in case you wondered.)
So as Martin Gardner said, I think the decline of traditional religious belief may actually underlie, rather than be the opposite of, this explosion of popular ghosthunting. Still a great article by Hayley, and got me thinking as normal. Now I really must go do some work!