1908: A Somerset Haunting

On March 30, 2016, I first made note of the following photo, which was appearing all over the internet as a generic 'ghost photo' example, generally with no actual notes other than an assertion it was a 'true ghost photo.'

A strange photo. [Picture sources here]

        In the few English language websites that had a description for the photo it was said to be of a monk, while one Russian posting of the image claimed more specifically it was "A monk from the Museum of the Holy Church in Palermo."

        But here's the reason it attracted my attention: I personally knew I had seen this particular image in a book about ghosts in a school library in 1980, hence I knew it existed pre-internet and that I should be able to track down it's original tale. I set it's date as 'pre-1980' and went digging... but, much to my surprise, I couldn't find any better clue about it's origins using the Internet!

        In August 2018, however, while tracking an unrelated ghost photo, I found myself holding the book I had once seen the photo in... Ghosts, by Janet Bord [1974]. Even better, Bord's book said where it had found the photo; so, after one more purchase, I finally found myself holding the original story of the unidentified ghost photo. Chalk one up to Luck!

A Somerset Haunting

        Elliott O'Donnell [1872-1965] wrote many books about 'true' ghost stories, and became famous as a ghost hunter who would spend the night in haunted houses anytime he could. Around 1948, O'Donnell published a collection of his experiences with haunted houses and the results of some of his investigations in other odd topics, entitled Haunted Britain; and it is in this book that the story of a certain Somerset haunting was told.

        According to O'Donnell, in the late summer of 1908 he received a letter from a Mr. A. S. Palmer who stated he had heard of a haunted house in Somerset, and wanted to know if O'Donnell would be willing to do an overnight vigil there with him. At the time O'Donnell was busy, and so wrote back to tell Palmer that he couldn't do the overnight, but also encouraging him to write back if he did the stay and anything developed.

        A short time after O'Donnell received another letter from Palmer... one that had a photograph in it.

The Full Photo
A. S. Palmer's photo from the Somerset house. [Larger version here]

        In the letter accompanying the photograph, Palmer said that he had gone to the house one night accompanied by an army officer he knew. The house was quiet until around 2:45AM, when both men saw a strange light in the room. Palmer took a camera he had brought, and took a flash photograph of the area in the room with the light... and when the film was developed, the figure above was seen. Palmer ended his letter by asking O'Donnell what he thought of the photograph, and whether he was now free to join him in another night at the house.

        O'Donnell had some mis-givings about the matter, which I will discuss shortly. He did, however, agree to accompany Palmer on a second visit to the house, on the condition that Palmer expressly got permission from the owner of the house... the content of Palmer's letter led O'Donnell to believe that he hadn't bothered getting said permission before his overnight there previously. Once that permission was obtained, Palmer, O'Donnell, and the army officer who had attended with Palmer previously, all along with a footman who once lived in the house and a dog, all went to the house to see what they might see.

        The men all first searched the building top to bottom, to make sure no one else was hiding inside to begin with. With that particular matter settled, everyone went to the room that the photo had been taken in, closed up the shutters on the windows, turned off the lights, and sat down to wait in the dark through the night.

        About 2:45AM, everybody saw a faint glow in a cylindrical form on the right side of the room; it seemed to emerge from the wall. O'Donnell, on the chance that this light represented a ghost of some sort, stood up and asked that if there was a spirit present, if it could speak, rap, or give some other sign of its intelligence. No such sign was given; and after a short while the light vanished after moving some few feet more. Nothing else happened that night.

Going Viral, 1908 Style

        O'Donnell didn't think much about the visit past that point, not being very impressed by the odd light. He was a bit surprised, therefore, when a few months later an exaggerated accounting of the visit appeared in a London newspaper devoted to psychic topics.

        The account in the paper, sent in by a female correspondent, roughly described the start of the event correctly... though it only listed Palmer, O'Donnell, and the footman as attending, leaving out the army officer and dog. According to this version of the story, at 2:45AM the ghost appeared and was quite plain for all to see; and this spirit then continued to appear throughout the rest of the night off and on. The ghost was described as having "an immense height" and glowing bright enough to display the boarding on the floor. The account went on to claim that all three men "agreed that it [their visit] established the ghost's existence beyond all doubt."

        Speaking for himself, O'Donnell felt that what he had seen might have simply been a light caused by decayed vegetable matter either behind the wainscoting or under the house, or some other natural cause; the footman had pretty much concluded the same. The newspaper soon received a letter from Palmer protesting the publication of the account without his permission; O'Donnell stated that while he did not know how the female correspondent had heard of the visit to the house, he had some suspicions about how it happened... and I suspect they matched mine, though O'Donnell never details them. Quite simply: if Palmer had told a young woman about his adventurous night at the Somerset house with well-known ghost hunter Elliott O'Donnell and showed her his ghost photo at the same time, she would likely have concluded the photo was taken on the same night... as she told the paper later.

The Re-Investigation

        Having the story appear in the newspaper this way made O'Donnell curious as to whether or not his assessment of the matter was right. Soon after, he attained permissions from the owner of the house to spend the night in the possibly haunted structure alone... but when the night came it was wet and stormy, and O'Donnell had some second thoughts about having to walk to the house through this weather and then sit in the creepy place alone. Luckily, he remembered that there was a young man who lived nearby who had asked if he could go on a ghost hunt some time; so O'Donnell gave him a call. This young man arrived with two of his friends in tow, and O'Donnell and the three young men -- and a dog -- all headed off to the house to sit in the dark in the same room that O'Donnell had sat in before, after doing the usual search for intruders of course.

        At 1:00AM, there was a disturbance... but not of the spectral kind. Another friend of the young man, who lived further away, had ridden his bike through the rain to attend the ghost hunt, and had only just arrived. O'Donnell asked this new attendant to sit on watch in the corridor just outside the door to the room the rest of them were sitting in; and then the vigil continued in the dark.

        At 2:00AM, the man in the corridor screamed. To quote O'Donnell: "I fondly hoped he had seen a ghost, but to my disappointment he had only seen one in a nightmare." Now fully awake, the new man decided he'd rather sit in the room with the others for the rest of the night.

        By 4:00AM, the young man who had initially been interested in a ghost hunt was ready to call it a night, as nothing had happened. But as he was suggesting they end the visit so he could get home early, he suddenly yelled "Oh, God, there it is!" O'Donnell and the others saw nothing, but as the young man was clearly distressed O'Donnell lit a candle to check on him. The young man asserted he had seen a "dreadful figure" in the room opposite where was sitting, which was not visible in the candle's light.

        With the young man's permission, O'Donnell blew out the candle, ushering back the darkness. Less than a minute later, the young man announced the strange vision was back; but all O'Donnell could see was a faint red glow in the area, which he admitted might have been more due to eyestrain and expectation. Nonetheless, he stood and asked that if an entity was there, that it should give them a sign or indication. None came. Shortly after that all agreed they were done for the night, and the terrified young man was happy to leave.

        The young man later sent a description of the monstrous figure he had seen to the owner of the property, who said that, by way of spooky things claimed about the house, it was new to them. For how frightened the young man actually was, O'Donnell had no doubt that he had in fact seen something that night, though there was no clue what.

        O'Donnell revisit the house two more times in 1908, once with the Hon. Everard Fielding, and a night or two after that with Fielding and one of Fielding's friends. Nothing happened on either night.

Further Investigation

        O'Donnell made three more visits to Somerset house, all in 1913. In the Summer of 1913, O'Donnell was asked if he would like to spend a night in the Somerset house by Lord Curzon of Kedleston. Thus O'Donnell, Curzon and a few of his friends, as well as a professional photographer (who thought they were nuts) all went and sat in the dark of the house for the night. The camera was kept exposed in the dark... but nothing in the least degree appeared in the developed picture.

        Sometime during this night, one of Curzon's guests who was "intimately acquainted with the house" asked O'Donnell to speak in private; and so the two of them adjoined to a different room from everyone else. O'Donnell states that "under the promise of secrecy on my part, he told me something which threw an entirely new light on the alleged haunting of the house and considerably strengthened my belief that what my Bristol friend had seen five years previously was not a ghost in any way associated with the place." In context, it seems likely that O'Donnell was told that the initial rumors about a haunting being in the house had been falsified for unstated reasons.

        Nonetheless, O'Donnell returned to the house the very next night with Curzon and his group of friends, and again nothing happened.

        O'Donnell made his last visit to the house a few weeks later. On this occasion, he had four companions with him. The group split up, and O'Donnell and two of the people sat in the room that Palmer claimed he had taken the ghost photo in. O'Donnell states that during the night he saw nothing; but at a certain point both of his companions claimed that they saw lights moving in the room, and one of them took a flash photo. When the picture was developed, there was some curious markings in it which O'Donnell stated might have been the lights that the people had seen... but, on the other hand, O'Donnell also felt they could have been just a defect in the film or some other naturally caused phenomena.

A Ghost Hunter's Opinion

        When O'Donnell first received the photo above from Palmer, he initially thought it was likely a fake; but he decided to give Palmer's claim a chance, thus visited the Somerset house with him. Previous to Palmer's contacting him, O'Donnell had heard rumors that the Somerset house was haunted by a phantom monk... and he was reasonably sure that Palmer had also, which is a good indicator of how far the story had spread before O'Donnell decided to visit the structure.

        O'Donnell's previous experience with people trying to photograph ghosts had led him to be pretty sure it couldn't happen; and the fact that Palmer's photo was so clearly exactly what was rumored -- an ancient monk -- made O'Donnell even more suspicious. After seven separate dark vigils in the very room the picture was said to be taken in, coupled with the statement from a person "intimately acquainted with the house" that brought question upon the whole matter of the haunting to begin with, O'Donnell was convinced the photo had been faked.

        Visually speaking, the photo clearly appears to be a classic double exposure of a man taken in a dark setting followed by a second photo of the wall, letting the wall fill in areas that were dark in the earlier picture of the man. But there is a strange point to all this, especially if the photo is a fake. In Palmer's letter to O'Donnell, he had claimed the picture had been taken after a phantom appeared at 2:45AM in the room; it's a strange coincidence then that on O'Donnell's first visit to the house, he saw a strange light appear in the room at 2:45AM as well!

        Had Palmer visited the house previous to inviting O'Donnell, and known that something was appearing there at 2:45AM? If so, Palmer might have faked the photo to get O'Donnell interested in visiting the house. Alternatively, did Palmer just get incredibly lucky when he chose 2:45AM as the time to assign to the likely faked photo? If so, then the coincidence is still remarkable, even if O'Donnell felt what he saw on the next visit had natural causes.

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