Elliot O’Donnell 1872-1965: the first great ghosthunter?
It’s hard to believe it is fourteen years since I wrote this piece, and it reflects my ideas at that time. I have however, with some embarrassment as some of my ideas have changed, reproduced it here. I hope it may amuse, and furthermore it will not offend!
Elliot O’Donnell was an extraordinary man, perhaps the first of the great media star ghost-hunters. His fame has been largely eclipsed by Harry Price yet he was in his day a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. His fifty plus books are still reissued today; no-one has ever managed to create a complete bibliography of his prolific works and there is no biography, (as of writing in 1995, see the wikipedia article for a partial list), but his methods did much to inform modern ghosthunting, for better, and for worse.
Born in 1872 in Bristol, O’Donnell’s first psychic experience was purportedly at the age of five when he encountered an ‘elemental spirit’. Terrified of ghosts and the dark, he grew up a nervous yet energetic child, intensely proud of his claimed descent from a noble Irish clan, and the family banshee (a banshee is a death-omen spirit whose wail heralds the passing of a clan member).
He was educated at Clifton College in Bristol, and then at the Queen’s Service Academy in Dublin where he claimed to be involved in another supernatural struggle, this time with a spectral strangler! On graduation he went to America, where he was a rancher in Oregon and collected tales of ghosts in the New World. By 1894 he had left the ranch and was working as a policeman in Chicago during the great railroad strikes and labour unrest. The brutality of the suppression of the strikes, the Haymarket Bomb outrage and the anarchist and IWW provide a colourful backdrop for a colourful character.
O’Donnell was by nature a raconteur; it is unsurprising that he found employment as a freelance journalist in both San Francisco and New York. Well so he would have us believe, for with O’Donnell it is hard to know exactly what to believe, and it may well be that some of his American exploits are as fictitious as his later ghost stories! By 1900 he seems to have returned to England, and taken up a career as a schoolmaster. This was merely however a means of support as he trained as an actor, and he soon left teaching to join a traveling repertory company.
Eventually he settled in St. Ives, Cornwall, and there wrote his first occult novel For Satan’s Sake which was published in 1905. Then O’Donnell struck upon the idea that was to make him famous – he would become a ghost-hunter! He had a few previous figures to model himself upon; the early SPR, already over twenty years old, and other collections of ghost stories (by folklorists such as Andrew Lang). Elliot collected stories, visited haunted houses, and pursued a distinguished career as an author, lecturer, playwright and broadcaster in both radio and later television. As previously stated O’Donnell was so prolific an author and writer of articles and columns that no-one has ever managed to create a definitive bibliography.
His books, primarily non-fiction, include his own experiences and those of a large number of his friends and acquaintances as well as famous stories from English ghost lore — such as the Berry Pomeroy castle White Lady. There is little doubt in the mind of any critical reader of O’Donnell that much of what he wrote has been, well, dramatized! Elliot was not a man to let the truth get in the way of a good story… (One wonders what he made of Harry Price?) EDIT: Some of his books are now available online through Project Guntenberg.
Should we therefore ignore O’Donnell? I feel not. There is almost certainly an element of truth underlying all his stories, and they afford fascinating glimpses into the beliefs in apparitions and folklore of a bygone age. Furthermore, he almost justifies himself, as when he wrote:-
‘Let me state plainly that I lay no claim to being what is termed a scientific psychical researcher. I am not a member of any august society that conducts it’s investigations of the other world, or worlds, with the test tube and weighing apparatus; neither do I pretend to be a medium or clairvoyant — I have never undertaken to “raise” ghosts at will for the sensation-seeker or the tourist. I am merely a ghost hunter. One who lays stake by his own eyes and senses; one who honestly believes he inherits in some the degree the faculty of psychic perceptiveness from a long line of Celtic ancestry; and who is, and always has been, deeply and genuinely interested in all questions relative to phantasms and a continuance of individual life after physical dissolution.’ (O’Donnell; 1964)
As the above quotation makes plain, O’Donnell believed his celtic heritage rendered him more ‘psychic’. It is interesting how common this belief that Romany and Celts are more ‘sensitive’ is. Is it a folk belief or is there some evidence for the assertion? The most likely reason why these races should be seen as imbued with greater psychism may lie in the binary opposition between Nature and Culture. The Celts and Romany are both geographically and socially marginalized within the British Isles; they are “Other”, and hence ascribed “other” values. They are also seen as “Ancient”; indeed the Celts are seen as almost aboriginal, and it is common to ascribe great wisdom to ethnically indigenous races, particularly if they are seen as closer to nature and natural rhythms and cycles – a notion of “the primitive” as “noble savage” which is potentially offensive.They are seen as aligned with Nature as opposed to Culture (by which I mean the “artificial constructs of civilisation”.) Their own culture (small ‘c’) is seen as natural, healthy, and spiritual. This seems to link with the post-Darwinian idea of progress and evolution. Could these races possess strange vestigial powers which have been lost to the rest of us in our struggle to become what we are? Victorian anthropologists noted that ‘primitive’ ( a value-laden term now thankfully obsolete) people quite commonly manifested psi-powers. Even if they did not possess them it was necessary for us to imbue them with them, giving them an Edenic existence and compensation for the excesses of the conqueror?
However if we are to consider Batcheldor’s idea of psi-resistance, by which we have an unconscious resistance to allowing ourselves to perform impossible psychic deeds, which may be overcome by certain methods, it becomes possible that a race or culture who believe they are psychic or allow for the possibility may become just that! They are “allowed” to, and it is simply not impossible or “satanic” to them. Religious folk and spiritualists who place responsibility for these manifestations on an exterior deity or spirit could theoretically also more easily break down this negative conditioning, and allow psi to manifest more easily, as could those who believe they have inherited “the Gift?”
There is no doubt that O’Donnell did not see things in this light. And why should he? The Celts themselves believed in their psychism; any suggestion that like the tragic association in Medieval Europe of money lending and the Jews the role of “psychic” was forced upon the Celts by outsiders he would have deeply resented. Eric Quigley and myself have recently completed (1995) a preliminary study of possible cultural traits in apparitional experiences in Britain. Amongst the oddities there reported are the fact that Scotland has a very high proportion of ghostly green ladies, and England prefers white or grey. Wales and Cornwall oddly enough follow the English distribution, with English Green Ladies mainly clustered in Lincolnshire. This research was suggested by our interest in Elliot O’Donnell. Does it tell us anything? Probably not!
What did O’Donnell make of the phantoms he purported to encounter? He classified them as belonging to one of four main groups:-
Created by high emotion, O’Donnell believed that “recordings” could be created which embedded themselves in the ‘ether’ and which replayed from time to time when the conditions were right. Unlike most of the post-war ghosthunters O’Donnell believed in anniversary ghosts, and many of his phantoms manifest at midnight. The recording was just that — not technically a ghost but an apparition, a scene replaying rather than a self-aware conscious entity (a ghost). The recording theory remains extremely popular with the intelligent public, though increasingly psychical researchers are dismissive of it. Today the emphasis is often on the idea that silica, the very stones, can be recorded upon, following Kneale’s famous Stone Tape theory.
2. Thought Projection
O’Donnell cites several incidents where the ghost turned out to be the ‘astral double’ or projected thoughts of someone who was dreaming or thinking intensely of a place. One anecdote he gives is quite amusing in that it involves the Rev. Wynn Wescott, one of the founders of the Order of The Golden Dawn who apparently appeared in the British Library when unable to keep an appointment, by doing so in spirit!
Today this form of telepathic communication or projection seems increasingly acceptable to some psychical researchers. Andrew Green gives a convincing case, and if we include crisis apparitions in this category the evidence is very strong. The SPR Census of Hallucinations found phantasms of the living more prolific than the spectral dead. Many ghosts may be nothing more than the wandering memories of living persons!?? (Edit: in 1995 when I wrote this I was unaware of how strong the theoretical framework for ghosts as telepathy was in the psychical research culture of the late 19th and early 20th century)
3. Ghosts of the Future
Not precognition as we usually understand it; or rather precognition manifesting in an apparitional framework. Here O’Donnell seemed to be closest to folklore; he cites several nights when visions of the future may be gained by certain charms or visiting supposedly haunted locations. These visions could be explained as the result of the attempts at scrying into the future breaking down resistance and allow precognition to manifest, or as the results of vivid imagination!
One of the strangest things about O’Donnell’s experiences is the number of times he encountered what he termed Elementals. These were usually hideous half-human, half-bestial entities which almost always seem to be malevolent. He believed that many poltergeists fell into this category, and felt they could be drawn to a location, family, object or individual by sentimental attraction or hatred. These strange pagan manifestations seem like pre-Christian satyrs, dryads or nymphs. Often they form the genius loci or spirit of a place, and they are the monsters of Celtic mythology. O’Donnell suggested that some were the thought projections of nightmares; others he felt were independent alien entities, intruders from ‘outside’ or possibly ‘beyond death’. Some of these entities could be profitably examined in terms of the new UFOlogy with its emphasis on psycho-social manifestations. (Edit: I think now that Arthur Machen’s fiction and the Celtic Twilight might give a better angle)
These are the major categories O’Donnell discusses. There remain two more which he implies and addresses from time to time. The first is the 5. Classic ghost -the surviving spirit of a deceased human being. He deals with several stories where the dead apparently manifest. The second is the 6. Death Omen- in O’Donnell we find a man who took the Banshee seriously, and his own family was haunted by one. Sadly we do not know if the banshee wailed before his own demise!
Throughout his life O’Donnell varied in his ideas as to what conditions were suitable for a haunting to occur. In the 1920’s he believed the months of September and August were the best times, and that either heavy rainfall or still calm conditions were ideal. Later he was to write:-
“I have found little seeming consistency in hauntings relative to the weather, but that may be due to my wrong classification of the phenomena… The idea that apparently ghostly manifestaions occur on still, moonlit nights is as fallacious as it is to believe that they invariably occur at midnight, and never in daylight. In my experience they occur in any weather, at any hour, and in all seasons.”
O’Donnell was one of the founding fathers of the spontaneous case investigation. Always witty and with an eye for a good story, he foreshadows Harry Price, yet in an odd way seems devoid of the occasional arrogance of the latter. His stories almost always are resolved by a coda or tail-piece, which tells us who the ghost was and why it haunted, and their construction is too neat for modern parapsychology. Yet just because his testimony is unreliable is no reason to forget O’Donnell, and I believe much could be learned by an examination of his works.
As information about Elliot is so scarce I would welcome any personal reminiscences or O’Donnell related material that readers could supply. Please write to the ‘Comments’ address at the end of this article