This Halloween, try to solve the mystery of a Victorian poltergeist that haunted two ladies in a house in Kensington. The story is taken from a report in The Standard, 23 January 1868; it is one of several historical ghost stories anthologised by Richard Sugg in his forthcoming book, A Century of Ghosts Stories: 100 Original Ghost Cases from the 19th Century Press.
Throughout today we’ll be posting replies on social media that are actually letters written by readers of the time, speculating on the causes behind this spooky tale. Do share your ideas as well, either below or on twitter via #KensingtonGhost.
The Standard, 23 January 1868
Since the middle of last October a very singular system of persecution has been going on in Kensington, which has hitherto baffled all attempts to discover the author, or the means by which the annoyance complained of is effected. Some years ago it would have been put down to a ghost or perhaps to his Satanic majesty himself, but since the great Spiritualistic bubble of the Brothers Davenport has burst, there is nothing left but to puzzle on til the trick, clever as it may be, is found out. Unfortunately, in the present case, the trick, though clever, is becoming cruel and heartless.
In a small house, about twenty yards from the main road, live an old lady, 84 years of age, and her daughter, with one servant. They have lived in the same house for nearly twenty years without any annoyance; but for the last few months they are being constantly startled by a sharp, loud knocking upon the panel of the street door. Upon opening the door, however quickly, no sign of any one is to be discovered. No sooner are the ladies quietly settled again than, rap rap rap! comes upon the door. And this is repeated at irregular intervals through the evening. For some time it was attributed to some young imps of school-boys, who are always ready for mischief, and but little notice was taken of it; but the continuance of what was only annoying became at last a serious nuisance. The most nimble efforts were made without success to “catch” the offenders; but until a few nights ago the attacks were so arranged as never to take place in the presence of male visitors; consequently the ladies received much pity, but little sympathy, from their friends. After a time they became nervous, and at last really frightened.
On Thursday evening a gentleman, the son of the old lady, called, and found them quite ill from nervous excitement, and was comforting them as well as he could, when a quick rap rap rap! at the front door made him jump up. In two seconds he was at the door, and rushed out, looking in every direction without discovering a sound or a trace of any human being in any of the adjacent roads. Then, for the first time, he was able to understand from what his mother and sister had suffered, and set to work to examine the approaches to the door, inside and out, and to solve the mystery, if possible. No sooner had he gone back to the little dining room and placed a chair in the open doorway with a big stick to “trounce” the perpetrator the next time, and begun to discuss what it was, than rap rap rap! sent him flying out into the street, to the astonishment of a passing cabman, who must have thought a madman had just escaped his keeper. This happened four or five times more; in fact, only ceased about a quarter to eleven.
He went round to the police station and had an officer put on special duty opposite the house for the next day, and spent the following morning in calling upon the neighbours and carefully examining the gardens and walls which abutted upon the “haunted” house. Not a mark of any sort was to be found, and he was quite convinced that by no imaginable device could the door have been reached from any point but right in front from the street. There is no cellar or drain under the house. The more carefully the examination was continued the greater the mystery appeared. In the evening he took a friend down with him, and two more of his friends looked in later. The ladies were found in a painful state of nervous fright, as the nuisance had already been going on, and the maid-servant was crying. Altogether it was a scene of misery.
In the course of conversation the following facts came out. It began on a Friday, the 18th October, and has never missed a Friday since then. It has never been heard on Sunday, seldom on Saturday. Never before the gas lamps are lit, never after eleven. Just as all were talking at once, rap rap rap! In an instant all four gentlemen were in the front garden; the policeman was quietly standing opposite the door; the lady of the house opposite watching the door from her portico, and another gentleman from the leads. All declared that not a living creature had been near the house for at least a quarter of an hour.
The whole thing seems inexplicable, and has created quite a sensation in the neighbourhood. The cruel part of the trick is the effect produced upon the venerable lady, whose age makes a change of residence a serious difficulty, and whose nerves are likely to give way altogether if some means are not discovered to put a stop to the annoyance. The police are doing their best to discover the plot, but hitherto without success.
Viewed from one angle, the Haunted House at Kensington was a case study in poltergeist detection, when practised by some of London’s richer and more influential citizens. Notice how long this had been going on before it reached the press. If it had stopped sooner, would we have heard about it at all? In terms of any possible hoax, the perpetrator would seem to have required superhuman powers (and bear in mind that Wells’s invisible man was some years distant at this point). The cabman who watched the son hurtling out the door saw no one else. Later, neither the policeman directly opposite, nor the neighbour, nor the man on the roof, saw a thing.
Next, there is again the question of timing. Always on a Friday, never on a Sunday… And never after eleven o’clock. If we assume that the maid is the unwitting agent (as the daughter’s age, perhaps 40 or more, makes her less likely), then the eleven o’clock curfew may have been the time by which she was asleep. Poltergeist agents very rarely cause events when sleeping – this again probably being connected with the biological energy involved. Friday is much trickier. Had something traumatic happened to the girl on this day? Did she have on that day a particular duty which set her nerves on edge? More on Sunday below, as it crops up again in one of the many letters prompted by this story. Many of these, as you will see, were penned by woefully amateur armchair detectives.