The Spook Who Didn’t Sit by the Door

As regular readers may be aware, I like a good haunting tale. But as a sceptic, a good hoax will do just as well. And that’s what brings me on to the haunting of 132 Teesdale Street in Bethnal Green. The events are now largely forgotten, but in 1937 they were a constant source of tabloid excitement as they unfolded. Presumably everyone was bored waiting for World War II to start.

Two families inhabited this house – the Davis family and the Harrisons. They reported late in the year that they had been witness to a number of strange events. First, an intermittent tapping sound, described as being reminiscent of Morse code.  Then other strange noises – moans and crashes. Then objects around the house began to be disturbed, sometimes in front of witnesses. Grace, one of the Davis daughters, reported seeing a picture on the wall begin to twist on its own, and when she tried to readjust it, it was snatched from her hand and smashed on the ground.

The explanation, to the Davis family, was obvious. The previous year, Mrs Davis had died following a long illness. A somewhat jealous woman, she had developed the belief that her husband was having an affair with Mrs Harrison and it seemed that she was determined after death to make her displeasure known.

The families approached the papers, and during his stay in the house, the Evening Standard’s reporter himself heard the woman’s voice (unmistakably that of Mrs Davis, according to the family) and the overturning of furniture. Other papers covered the story, too, and eventually the matter reached the ears of the International Institute for Psychical Investigation. The Institute duly despatched Dr Nandor Fodor, Mr Laurence Evans and the Marquis des Barres to investigate (because that’s what they do). Incidentally, isn’t “the Marquis des Barres” the best name for a paranormal investigator you’ve ever heard?

Anyway, the investigators, including the Marquis of course, had a look around to see if they could figure out what was what. One or two curious points were noted about the facts as relayed by the individual family members, mostly the fact that they couldn’t agree on the details. The investigators noted in their report that there wasnothing that any of them witnessed, haunting-wise, that couldn’t be explained by more conventional causes. In particular, they noted that “Mrs Davis'” voice sounded uncannily like the Harrisons’ baby. Alternative suggestions were offered for some of the incidents, such as the picture being snatched from Grace’s by means of invisible thread (a common means of faking poltergeist activity, apparently). More damning still was a glass bowl, apparently moved by a ghostly agency which, despite its non-corporeal nature, left fingerprints.

Meanwhile, the Harrisons and Davises found themselves the subject of a great deal of media attention. In addition to the seemingly endless column inches devoted to the haunting in the papers, the radio got in on the act and it was even suggested that a television transmission be made live from the house. Cowds of up to 2,000 people gathered outside to get a glimpse of the supernatural, hindering the investigation in no small measure. Mrs Harrison comnplained loudly about the lack of privacy, yet strangely Dr Fodor’s offer of alternative accommodation was not taken up.

This latter part, as you might imagine, raised suspicions. As did the ghost’s failure to manifest when the rooms were sealed up to prevent human entry. Nevertheless, there were plenty of people who did take the matter seriously, and Fodor and co. found themselves inundated with suggestions. The most common was to hold an exorcism. Others pointed out that poltergiests tend to be attached to people rather than places, so maybe the families should be accommodated elsewhere to determine whether this was the nature of the spirit. A medium was brought in by the families, but as she was already friendly with them, Fodor’s team didn’t exactly take her proclamations seriously.

Also not taking things seriously, it seems, was Mr Harrison. He was rather evasive in his answers, and obviously not a very experienced liar. Apparently lacking the courage to go unreservedly with the paranormal explanation, but unable to simply come out and say “we lied,” Harrison’s attempts to find a middle ground make for interesting reading. I think my favourite moment of backtracking was when he tried to account for one incident by suggesting that their baby might have been throwing onions around in the middle ofthe night.

Fodor’s conclusion was that the haunting was a humbug. The only real mystery was the question of why the families had faked it. An early idea was that the Davises were the fakers and hoped to scare the Harrisons away (the same modus operandi would later be used by a whole generation of Scooby-Doo villains). The best guess, on later reflection, was that it was just a publicity stunt. However, despite his scepticism, he was quite convinced that there was some small basis in reality for the ghostly tricks. The opinion of the Marquis is not recorded. 

The whole thing died down, as many of these fads are wont to do, around February 1938. Not, however, before it backfired on its authors. Both families became utterly fed up with the attention, and made plans to move out. In 1956 the house was demolished to make way for a tower block and now there’s no sign that No. 132 was even there, let alone an spectral tomfoolery. Let this be a lesson to us all.

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