THE PSYCHICAL RESEARCHER'S TALE
or THE SCEPTICAL POLTERGEIST
From "The New Decameron"—Volume III.
By J. D. Beresford
There was once a time (he began) when I decided that I was a fraud; that I
could not be a psychical researcher any longer. I determined to give it
all up, to investigate no more phenomena nor attend another sťance, nor
read a word about psychical research for the remainder of my life. On the
contrary, I planned an intensive study of the works of the later
Victorians, of that blissful period in the history of Europe when we could
believe in the comforting doctrine of materialism. "Oh!" I thought, "that
one had a Haeckel or a Huxley living now to console us with their
beautiful faith in the mortality of the soul!" The Neo-Darwinians failed
to convince me; the works of H. G. Wells left me cold.
I will tell you the events that brought me to this evil pass.
It is not likely that anyone here will remember the Slipperton case. It
attracted little attention at the time. In 1905 there was still a little
sanity left in the world. A few even of the London dailies were nearly
sane then, and refused to report ghost stories unless they were known to
be untrue. And the Slipperton case had hardly any publicity—an inch
in the Daily Mail, headed "Family Evicted by Ghosts," was the only
newspaper report that I saw; though there may have been others. In these
days the story would be given a couple of columns opposite the leader
page; and the Sunday papers...
I was connected with the thing because Edgar Slipperton and his wife were
friends of mine; quiet, old-fashioned people who believed that when you
were dead you were dead, and that that was the end of it.
The phenomena that drove them out of their house at last were of the
ordinary poltergeist type that date back to the days of John Wesley. The
Slippertons had a fat and very stupid cook, whom I suspected of being an
unconscious medium; but they were so attached to her that they refused to
give her notice, as I strongly advised them to do. They told me that
although she was constitutionally unable to grasp a new idea, such as the
idea of a different pudding, she was entirely dependable, always doing the
same things in the same way and with the same results. And while this
confirmed my suspicions that she was a spiritualistic medium, I recognised
that she might have useful qualities as a cook.
The Slippertons stood it pretty well for a time. At first they were only
mildly inconvenienced. Things used to disappear mysteriously, and turn up
in unexpected places. Slipperton's pince-nez, for example, were lost, and
found inside the piano. And Mrs. Slipperton's "false front" would be moved
in the night from the dressing-table to the brass knob of the bed-post,
even after she took to pinning it to the toilet cover. Things like that;
irritating, but not really serious.
But the trouble increased, grew to be beyond endurance in the end. The
poltergeists, with that lack of imagination which always characterises
them, started to play the old trick of pulling off the Slippertons'
bed-clothes in the middle of the night—one of the most annoying of
the spirits' antics. And they followed that by experimenting with the
I was out of England when the trouble came to a head, and I heard nothing
of the later developments until after the Slippertons had left the house.
I happened to meet Slipperton by accident in the Haymarket, and he took me
into his club and gave me the whole story. Naturally, I was glad of the
chance to investigate, although I thought it very probable that the
phenomena would cease with the departure of the cook. I determined,
however, to go down and spend a week in the house, alone. I was not
dismayed by the fact that I should be unable to get any help with my
domestic arrangements, owing to the superstitious fears of the villagers.
I rather enjoyed cooking my own meals in those days.
It was fine weather in late May when I went down, and I regarded the visit
as a kind of holiday rather than as a serious investigation. Nevertheless,
from force of habit I carried out my inquiry in the scientific spirit that
is so absolutely essential in these matters. The Slippertons' house was on
the outskirts of a small town in Buckinghamshire. The shell of the house
dated from the early seventeenth century. (You will find it described in
the Inventory of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments—the
second volume of the Buckinghamshire survey.) But the inside had been
gutted and replanned to suit our modern requirements, such as the need for
making each bedroom accessible without passing through other bedrooms, the
necessity for a fitted bathroom, and so on.
I found the house as Slipperton had warned me that I should, in a chaotic
condition inside. Everything movable seemed to have been moved—without
any definite intention, so far as I could see, but just for the sake of
upsetting the decent order of the household. I found a frying-pan, for
instance, hung on the hook that was designed for the dinner-gong, and the
gong inside one of the beds. A complete set of bedroom ware had been
arranged on the drawing-room table; and apparently some witticism had been
contemplated with a chest of drawers, which had become firmly wedged into
the angle of the back staircase. In short, the usual strange feats that
characterise poltergeist phenomena.
I touched none of these misplaced things with the exception of the
frying-pan, which I needed to cook the sausages I had brought with me; but
after I had had my meal, I went through all the rooms and entered the
position of every article in a large note-book, making plans of each room,
besides a full list of the furniture and ornaments it contained. Later, I
went up into the roof and disconnected the water supply, afterwards
emptying the cistern and all the pipes. And before I went to bed I turned
off the electric light at the main switch. All these precautions, as I
need hardly tell you, were absolutely essential. It might appear difficult
to explain the moving of a large chest of drawers by the sound of
water-pipes or the fusing of an electric wire; but the critics of
psychical research have essayed far more difficult tasks than that, to
their own entire satisfaction.
I went up to the bedroom the Slippertons used to occupy, a little before
eleven o'clock. I had with me a couple of spare candles, a new notebook,
and a fountain pen. I was even at that time, I may add, a highly trained
researcher in every way, and was quite capable of taking a full shorthand
report of a sťance. I tried my pulse and temperature before getting into
bed and found them both normal. So far, there had been no sign of any
phenomena; and I was not at all nervous. Indeed, I may say that I have
never been nervous with spirits.
I had brought the Pickwick Papers upstairs to read in bed—it
is always as well to choose some book that has no kind of bearing on the
subject of one's investigation—and I was in the middle of the Trial
Scene when my attention was caught by the sound of something moving in the
room. I had left both windows wide open and the curtains undrawn, and I
thought at first that an unusually large moth had flown in and was
fluttering against the ceiling. I laid down my book, sat up and looked
round the room, but I could see nothing. The night was very still, and the
candle on the table by my bed burnt without a flicker. Nevertheless, the
sound continued; a soft, irregular fluttering that suggested the
intermittent struggle of some feeble winged creature. It occurred to me
that a wounded bat or bird might have flown into the room and might be
struggling on the floor out of sight near the foot of the bed. And I was
about to get up and investigate when the flame of the candle sank a
little, and I became aware that the temperature of the room was
I picked up my note-book at once and made an entry of the circumstances,
and the exact time.
When I looked up again, the sound of fluttering had ceased and the candle
was once more burning brightly; but I now perceived a kind of uncertain
vagueness that was apparently trying to climb on to the rail at the foot
of the bed. When I first saw it, it could not be described as a form. It
had rather the effect of a patch of dark mist, with an irregular and
changing outline, that obscured to a certain extent the furnishings of the
room immediately behind it. I must confess, however, that my observations
at this point were not so accurate as they should have been, owing to the
sudden realisation of my stupidity in not having brought a camera and
flashlight apparatus. The Slipper-tons had prepared me for poltergeists,
and I was, at that moment, distinctly annoyed at being confronted with
what I presumed to be an entirely different class of phenomenon. Indeed, I
was so annoyed that I was half inclined to blow out the candle and go to
sleep. I wish, now, that I had....
The Psychical Researcher paused and sighed deeply. Then producing a large
note-book from his pocket, he continued, despondently:
I have got it all down here, and when I come to material that necessitates
verbal accuracy, I should prefer to read my notes aloud rather than give
an indefinite summary. In the first place, however, I must give you some
idea of the form that gradually materialised; of the form, that is, as I
originally saw it.
It took the shape, I may say, of a smallish man, grotesquely pot-bellied,
with very thin legs and arms. The eyes were disproportionately large and
quite circular, with an expression that was at once both impish and
pathetic. The ears were immense, and set at right angles to the head; the
rest of the features indefinite. He was dressed rather in the fashion of a
(The professor was heard to murmur, "The typical goblin," at this point,
but made no further interruption.)
He sat with his feet crossed on the rail at the foot of the bed and
appeared able to balance himself without difficulty. He had been sitting
there for perhaps a couple of minutes, while I made various entries in my
note-book before I tried the experiment of addressing him.
"Have you a message?" I asked. "If you cannot answer directly, knock once
for 'No,' and three times for 'Yes,' and afterwards we can try the
To my great surprise, however, he was able to use the direct voice. His
tone was a trifle wheezy and thin at first, but afterwards gained power
"I can hear you fairly well," he said. "Now do try to keep calm. It isn't
often that one gets such a chance as this."
I will now read my notes.
Myself. "I am perfectly calm. Go on."
Spirit. "Will you try to answer my questions?"
The Researcher looked up from his note-book with a frown of impatience
after reading these two entries, and said:
But perhaps I had better summarise our earlier conversation for you. There
was, I may say, a somewhat long and distinctly complicated
misunderstanding between myself and the spirit before the real interest of
the message begins; a misunderstanding due to my complete misapprehension
of our respective parts. You see, it is unhappily true—however much
we may deplore the fact and try to guard against it—that even in
psychical research we form habits of thought and method, but particularly
of thought. And I had got into the habit of regarding communications from
spirits as referring to what we assume to be the future life. Well, this
communication didn't. The spirit with whom I was talking had not, in
short, ever been incarnated. He was what the Spiritualists and
Theosophists, and so on, call an "Elemental." And to him, I represented
the future state. I was, so to speak, the communicating spirit and he the
psychical researcher. He was, I inferred, very far advanced on his own
plane and expecting very shortly to "pass over," as he put it. Also, I
gathered that he was in his own world by way of being an intellectual;
keenly interested in the future—that is, in our present state; and
that the Slipperton phenomena were entirely due to the experiments he had
been carrying out ("on strictly scientific lines," he assured me) to try
and ascertain the conditions of life on this plane.
Perhaps I can, now, illustrate his attitude by a few quotations from our
conversation. For example:
Spirit. "Are you happy where you are?"
Myself. "Moderately. At times. Some of us are."
Spirit. "Are you yourself happy?"
Myself. "I may say so. Yes."
Spirit. "What do you do? Try and give me some idea of life on your plane."
Myself. "It varies so immensely with the individual and the set in which
one lives. But we—oh! we have a great variety of what we call
'interests' and occupations, and most of us, of course, have to work for
Spirit. "I don't understand that. What are your livings, and how do you
work for them?"
Myself. "We can't live without food, you see. We have to eat and drink and
sleep; protect ourselves against heat and cold and the weather generally,
which means clothes and shelter—garments to wear and houses to live
in, that is."
Spirit. "I have inferred something of this very vaguely from my
experiments. For instance, I gather that you put on hair in the daytime,
and take it off when you are—where you are at the present
time. Also, I have noticed that when the coverings which at present
conceal you are pulled away, you invariably replace them. Am I to deduce
from that that you try to keep your bodies warm and your heads cool at
Myself. "Well, that's a trifle complicated. About the hair, you
understand, some of us lose our hair—it comes out, we don't know why—in
middle life, as mine has, and women and some men are rather ashamed of
this and wear—er—other people's hair in the daytime to hide
Myself. "Oh, vanity. We want to appear younger than we really are."
The Researcher bent a little lower over his notebook as he said:
I seem to have written "Damnation" at this point; but so far as I can
remember I did not speak the word aloud. You will see, however, that I
tried my best to be patient in what were really the most exasperating
circumstances. But I will miss the next page or two, and come to more
interesting material. Ah I here:
Spirit. "This thing you call death, or dying? Am I to understand that it
corresponds to what we call incarnation?"
Myself. "We are not sure. Some of us believe that our actual bodies will
rise again in the flesh; others that the body perishes and the spirit
survives in an uncertain state of which we have very little knowledge;
others, again, that death is the end of everything."
Spirit. "In brief, you know nothing whatever about it?"
Myself. "Uncommonly little."
Spirit. "Do you remember your lives as elementals?"
Myself (definitely). "No!"
Spirit. "Then where do you suppose yourselves to begin?"
Myself. "We don't know. There are various guesses. None of them
Spirit. "Such as?"
Myself. "Oh, some of us believe that the soul or spirit is a special
creation made by a higher power we call God, and breathed into the body at
birth. And some that the soul or spirit, itself eternal, finds a temporary
house in the body, and progresses from one to another with intervals
between each incarnation."
Spirit. "Then this being born is what we should call dying?"
Myself. "Quite. It makes no difference. And, as a matter of fact, the
overwhelming majority of us—that is to say, all but about one in
every million—never bother our heads where we came from, or what's
likely to happen to us when we die, or are born, as you would call it."
I have a note here that after this we were both silent for about ten
Spirit (despondently). "I wish I could get some sort of idea what you do
all the time and what you think about. I thought, when I so unexpectedly
got into touch with someone in the future state, that I should be able to
learn everything. And I have, so far, learnt nothing—absolutely
nothing. In fact, except that I have been able to correct my inferences
with regard to one or two purely material experiments, I may say that I
know less now than I did before. And, by the way, those things over there—he
pointed to the washstand—I noticed that at certain times you go
through some ceremony with them upstairs, and as I wished to discover if
there was any reason why you should not perform the same ceremony
downstairs, I moved the things. Well, I noticed that the spirit who was
here before you was apparently very annoyed. Can you give me any
explanation of that?"
Myself. "Our bodies become soiled by contact with matter, and we wash
ourselves in water. We prefer to do it in our bedrooms."
Myself. "We use a certain set of rooms for one purpose and another set for
Myself. "I don't know why. We do."
Spirit. "But you are sure of the fact, even if you can give no reason?"
Spirit. "I wish I could prove that. One of my fellow-scientists, who has
recently been able to press his investigations even further than I have up
to the present time, has recently brought forward good evidence to prove
that spirits are all black, wear no coverings on their bodies, live in the
simplest of dwellings, and, although they have a few ceremonies, certainly
have none which in any way corresponds to that you have just described."
Myself. "He has probably been investigating the habits of the Australian
Spirit. "What are they?"
Myself. "Men, or, as you would say, spirits, like us in a few respects,
but utterly different in most."
Spirit. "Have you ever seen them?"
Spirit. "Or met anyone who has?"
Spirit. "Then this account of them tallies with nothing in your
Myself. "No, but they exist all right. There's no doubt of that."
Spirit. "I question it. In any case, I could not accept your word as
evidence, seeing that you have neither seen them yourself nor met with
anyone who has."
And so on, you know (the Researcher muttered, flicking over the pages of
He was infernally sceptical about those aborigines. It seems that he had
had a tremendous argument with the other investigator about the
possibility of "spirits" being black and naked, and he was dead set on
proving that he had been right. I think, as a matter of fact, that what I
said tended to confirm him in his theory. He put it that if there were
such spirits on this plane, I must have seen them or have had some quite
first-hand evidence of their existence; and when I said that I had seen
black people, Indians, and so on, he cross-examined me until I got
confused. You see, I had to confess that they weren't, strictly speaking,
black, that they wore clothes, and washed, and lived in houses; and he got
me involved in apparent contradictions—you have no idea how easy it
is, when you are trying to be very lucid—and then he changed the
subject with the remark that I was a very poor witness.
It was about this time that I began to lose my temper. It was after three
o'clock when we got to that point, and I was getting very tired, and,
strange as it may appear, curiously doubtful about my own existence. I had
for some time been coming to the conclusion that he did not quite believe
in my reality; and after he had dismissed my account of the black races as
being untrustworthy, he said, half to himself, that quite probably I was
nothing more than an hallucination, a thought projection of his own mind.
And after that I got more and more annoyed—partly, I think, because
I had a kind of haunting fear that what he had said might be true. When
you have been talking to a spirit for over three hours in the middle of
the night, you are liable to doubt anything.
But it was foolish of me to try and prove to him that I had a real
objective existence, because obviously it wasn't possible. I tried to
touch him, and my hand went through him as if he were nothing more than a
patch of mist. Then I got right out of bed and moved various articles
about the room, but, as he said, that proved nothing, for if he had an
hallucination about me, he might equally well have one about the things I
appeared to move. And then we drifted into a futile argument as to what I
It began as a sort of test, to try if my own conception of myself tallied
with his; and it didn't—not in the very least. In fact, the
description he gave of me would have done very well for the typical goblin
of fairy-tale, which, as I told him, was precisely how I saw him.
He laughed at that, and told me that, as a matter of fact, he had no shape
at all, and that my conception of him proved his description of me was the
correct one, because I had visualised myself. He said that he would appear
to me in any shape that I happened to be thinking of, and naturally I
should be thinking of my own. And I could not disprove a thing he said;
and when I looked at myself in the cheval glass, I was not at all sure
that I did not look like the traditional goblin.
Well, I assure you that I felt just then as if the one possible way left
to demonstrate my sanity, my very existence, was to lose my temper; and I
did it very thoroughly. I raved up and down the room, knocked the
furniture about, chucked my boots through him, and called him a damned
elemental. And although it had no more effect upon him than if I had been
in another world—as I suppose in a sense I actually was—that
outbreak did help to restore my sanity.
Perhaps you may have noticed that if a man is worsted in an argument he
invariably loses his temper? It is the only means he has left to convince
himself that he is right. Well, my temper did that for me on this
occasion. I could not prove my existence to that confounded spirit by any
logic or demonstration, but I could prove it to myself by getting angry.
And I did.
The Researcher glared round the circle as if challenging anyone there to
deny the validity of his existence, then slapped his note-book together
and sat upon it.
I do not expect you to believe my story (he concluded, with a touch of
vehemence). Indeed, I would much sooner that you did not believe it. I
have been trying to doubt it myself for the past eleven years, and I still
hope to succeed in that endeavour, aided by my intensive study of the
comforting theories of the later Victorian scientists. But I must warn you
that there was just one touch of what one might call evidence, beyond my
own impressions of that night—which may have been, and probably
were, a mixture of telepathy, hallucination, expectancy, and
auto-suggestion, that found expression in automatic writing.
This rather flimsy piece of evidence rests upon a conclusion drawn from
the end of my conversation with the spirit. I was still banging about the
room, then, and I said that I had finished with psychical research, that
never again would I make the least inquiry with regard to a possible
future life, or any kind of spiritualistic phenomenon. And, curiously
enough, the poltergeist precisely echoed my resolve. He said that that
night's experience had clearly shown him that the research was useless,
that it could never prove anything, and that, even if it did, no one would
believe it. For if, as he pointed out, we who were in a manner
of speaking face to face, were unable to prove our own existence to each
other, how could we expect to prove the other's existence to anyone else?
It was getting light then, and he faded out almost immediately afterwards.
But it is a fact that there were no more poltergeist phenomena in that
house, although the Slippertons went back to it a month or two later and
still have the same cook.
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