Episode 66: Gun-Ghost Rides Again!

Aaron tells spooky, scary, ghost stories. Australian ghosts with trumpets even!

Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that gives you a proper fright… and that’s before we get to the ghost stories.

I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me is Shea!

I’m Shea, and this week I learned that people taking livestock medicine do so, because they want to be in stable condition.

This Week’s Beer

307 from Black Tooth Brewing

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We’re Ready To Believe You

Ghost Stories

Of the 18th and a half century… Duck Dodgers could only wish they were this cool.

The search for specters has long enthralled the world. That glimpse, however brief, beyond the vale. To rest assured in the knowledge that there is an afterlife — and that you can exploit it for quick fame and financial favor. To look upon the infinite unknown and say to yourself “yeah, I can probably use this to throw rocks at people”…

‘Tis a time honored quest you know.

And so it was in 18th century, in the Southeast Australian State of Victoria anyway…

Common amusements of the era, ghost stories became a cultural focus in Australia following a June 9th, 1860, lecture at the Mechanics Institute in Melbourne. A packed house had come to see Archibald Michie speak on the subject of ghosts and hauntings. He argued that while a man “may be wiser”, having “read physiology, … studied insanity and the various forms of delusion springing from morbid action of the brain” such a man,

has lost forever the supernatural shudder, the terrifically delicious creeping of the hair, and the heart coming up into the mouth, attendant on his listening to, or reading of, for the first time, a good authentic, and by justices of peace attested, ghost story. Waldron, 2014

Archibald Michie

Basically, his take was that, while only a credulous idiot would buy into such obvious superstition, ghost stories as campfire entertainment… well that was down right delightful.

Soon after, David Blair, also of Melbourne gave a talk titled ‘A Plea for Ghosts’. His take was significantly more… Ghost-Hunters meets Christendom.

He was followed shortly thereafter by Dr. Hickson at the Mechanics Institute on 2, September 1864, whose talk boiled down to a ye-oldie smart-guy’s version of “electricity is f*^&ing magic and might be ghost-force ya’ll”.

While I don’t know if he was part of an eco-terrorist cell, living in Australia during the terrible times definitely makes him tuff enough to join Avalanche!

Still, Mako energy aside, ghosts remained entirely the stuff if the imagination and the public was enthralled because even literally nothing is more fun that watching your milk leg curddle. Stories of ghosts, apparitions, and other unexplainable phenomenon ran rampant and were the cornerstone of any good evening or social gathering.

For example, the story of a headless ghost animal that prowled the night, stocking victims in lonely alleyways, intent on making them its next, gruesome meal… throat-meal I suppose, being headless and all. That is, until the fearless night-watchers finally capture the beast, revealing it to be a cat with its head trapped in a lobster tin, which, dispassionately, was only cursed by way of not being able to put the video to ye-oldie YouTube. [Waldron, 15]

Or perhaps you prefer the story of a Castlemaine stockman terrified by the night-time violences visited upon travelers by a rule-63 Headless Horsewoman “with a fine body” but, alas, she turned out to be a mannequin next to an old log long before Nessy made being an old-log-cripted cool.[Waldron, 16]

When reported most of these stories were skeptical of the nature of the event. Often preferring to explain things with the generally correct explanation: someone was “Playing the ghost” or “Ghost hoaxing” wherein people dress up as ghosts to mess with their friends… or, you know, get drunk and do crimes.

Mostly it was to do crimes.

Victoria was, at the time, a bit of a dust bowl. Not unlike the contemporary American west, people were board, poor, and kinda dumb. But they managed to get by with hobbies like cow plopping and, of course, “ghost hoaxing”.

While cow plops are fun in theory, they’re actually a really, sad, biting inditement of a local culture.

Cow crap is not a toy.

Back to ghosts.

The locals, having been at the shallow mercies of the “spirits” for some time, began watching for such apparitions. Night patrols were created, often consisting of any reputable local men with guns and nothing better to do. Of course, as soon as there was a posey, they needed someone—or something— to catch. Enter the much feared “Wizard Bombardier” who prowled in the night, attacking any so unfortunate as to make out its ghastly form.

Or so the legend goes anyway.

One of the more famous apparitions who haunted the region between Ballarat and Kilmore, the Wizard was often seen late at night wearing ostentatious outfits — which at the time I believe simply meant not covered in mud, flees, and horse stank, but I’m no wardrobe historian… or at all historian.

Draped in white robes and topped with a sugarloaf hat (think a garden gnome or Adventure Time’s Magic Man) the Wizard prowled the streets setting upon his victims with a blood curdling scream designed to disorient and terrify them, before throwing rocks at victims.

An effective scheme at the time as people had not yet evolved the ability to tune out their surroundings with Instagram, or desensitize themselves to sudden loud sounds, you know, like American school kids for example. Once out of rocks he would scamper back into the woods to find more debris to throw at passers-by.

Add to boredom the lack of any real authorities and you’ve got a perfect storm of ye-oldie kids those days. David Waldron, author of the article “Playing the Ghost: Ghost Hoaxing and Supernaturalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Victoria,” says that the lack of professionalized police meant that Australia had a particular “lawlessness.”

An article from the Australian Sunday Times, dated November 27, 1898, about a ghost hoaxer who “surrendered on being bailed up by a revolver.” NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA/PUBLIC DOMAIN

An article from the Australian Sunday Times, dated November 27, 1898, about a ghost hoaxer who “surrendered on being bailed up by a revolver.”


There was, of course, a technological component as well… depending on how you define technology, I suppose.

If these fools had managed to get their hands on drones they’d have been the leading cause of ye-oldie heart attacks.

As Waldron writes, the recent invention of phosphorescent paint meant they could be glowy ghosts. I didn’t find a source that said the paint was made of show-favorite glow-in-the-dark super-death, Radium, but really, if you wanted to make your ghost costume as scary as possible, adding a dash of over-the-air cancer is probably a good way to go.

Some ghost hoaxers, like overly excited ComicCon goers, took things a bit too far. One famous hoaxer in 1895 had made proper ye-oldie…-er Shining Knight armor. Except that where one might expect a coat of arms he had added the text “Prepare to meet thy doom” and, to ensure people were extra spooked, he carried a sword and offered to chop the heads off nearby 12-year-olds. So yeah, that probably freaked some folks out.

The ghost attacks were, sometimes, pretty serious. For example, a retired miner in Ballarat, Frederick Parks, was stabbed by a ghost. The white clad specter’s face and arms were soaked in phosphorescent paint and he had a coffin lid strapped to his back. According to newspaper reports Frederick tried to stop the ghost from assaulting a woman and was stabbed for his efforts. The ghost then jumped a nearby fence and ran away.

This was a fairly common form of ghost attack, apparently, keeping it in your pants is extra difficult when your dick is incorporeal. ¯\(ツ)

As the spooky, scary, Auzies became more and more popular, it became clear that something had to be done about the “larrikins” problem. Larrikins being, apparently, the old-timey Auzie term for “rowdy youths”, itself a ye-oldie term for dumb ass kids with too much time and no oversight.

So, obviously, they did what any rational group of drunk Australians would — they went full Minutemen and handled each supernatural encounter with the liberal application of extreme, vigilante, violence.

Despite the prevailing belief that they were young, bored, poors — because good and decent folks, by which I mean them whose got money and power, would never do this, right? — wrong. Per Waldron, it turns out that, once unmasked, “many if not most of those arrested” were “school teachers and clerks and the like and a small number of middle-class women.”

Realizing the jig was more or less up, the ghosts needed their edge back. And what’s the best way to the scare now-cynical population?

Of course, it’s dress up as a ghost… who carries a fucking gun.

“Ghost with a Revolver,” Illustrated Police News, October 10, 1885. © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/BRITISH NEWSPAPER ARCHIVE

“Ghost with a Revolver,” Illustrated Police News, October 10, 1885. © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/BRITISH NEWSPAPER ARCHIVE

Ghost hoaxer and guy who doesn’t understand the word “prank” Herbert Patrick McLennan, is a prime example. Most ghost hoaxers were out for a laugh, to “spook the normies” as it were, or to get into some misdemeanor level trouble. But not Herbert, no, he was out and about to properly terrify people… by way of sexual assault and horrible beatings.

In 1904, Herbert donned a top hat, frock coat, and boots (nothing special noted about the boots, I guess “not barefoot” was itself noteworthy at the time), completing the ensemble with his cat o’nine tails whip, which he had for some reason. Herbert would then set out into the night, dressed lazily as a ghost, to assault and whip any women he came across.

Taking a note from… well, TV shows about Scotland Yard anyway, I don’t really know for sure… Ballarat police began dressing as women at night to temp, and hopefully catch, the ghost. Eventually, a five dollar reward was put on his head, which in today’s money is roughly 60 million double-dollars, or whatever they used for money down there.

McLennan was none too pleased with the bounty, writing and open letter to the Mayor:

Dear Sir,

I see that you and your bally councillor’s nave fixed a reward of £5 on my head, but you didn’t say whether dead or alive; and, furthermore, you said you would have me plugged with a lead on sight.

Mr. Mayor, I give you warning that the first man I see with his hand in his pocket, or otherwise looking suspicious, I will plug a bullet through him. I hope you will caution the ‘Rakebite’ portion of your council of my intentions.

Yours truly,

The Ghost.

The Ghost

The reward worked though and he was arrested… only to be found out to be a powerful, influential, clerk and public speaker. So naturally, he was sent to jail and was out by dinner.

Some ghost hoaxers’ costumes were a bit much, one carried a coffin around with them to give the appearance of having risen from the dead. And points for prop-work, but lugging that thing around couldn’t have helped the “not getting caught” portion the exercise.

In 1889 a female ghost hoaxer went so far as to hire a hidden backup band to create creepy music while she ghosted about.

Aside from being spooky the ghosts presented a serious problem for locals in Victoria. The encounters ranged from mostly harmless frights and indecent exposure to assault and the for-some-reason-specifically-mentioned, egg theft.

We mentioned anti-ghost vigilantes, and in light of an ever-growing count of missing eggs, one man, Charles Horman, was particularly over it. He began carrying a whipping cain and a shotgun around with him and, depending on his distance to the specter, deployed either generously. He has at least one account of thinking he saw a ghost and immediately firing his shotgun into what turned out to the be the chest of a local, unfortunately baggy-clothed, youth. That said, he also shot the hell out of some ghosts. Dude was knocking ’em down as quickly as the spirit relm could lose them. Many, now actual ghosts, no longer plagued Victoria with their shenanigans. He was also known to use his cain to whip ghosts he could catch or who didn’t provide a clean light-of-sight shot, what with being a responsible gun owner and all…

Such Ghost-busting responses became the norm. Reports of parents loosing pit-bulls on ghosts for accosting kids, or in 1913, a mob of very-much over this BS folks chased and beat the living hell out of a man wearing a glowing ghost outfit for startling an older feller nearly to death.

By the 19-teens ghost hoaxing was well on its way out and it wasn’t long thereafter before WWI gave Australians a solution to their boredom problems. As Waldron says, the war showed that there were “far bigger issues at stake, and the symbolism of death [became] less amusing.”

There are examples after WWI, but they’re less fun.

Likewise, there are stories from all over the world at the time, though they are, typically, tragic. One set of contemporary stories we may do come from England, featuring more embellished characters you might have heard of, like Spring-heel Jack. If memory serves Jenn promised us some Jack-o-laughs this October! We’ll have to wait and see what jumps out at us eh…

  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ghost-hoaxing
  • https://prov.vic.gov.au/explore-collection/provenance-journal/provenance-2014/playing-ghost

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Ghosts, famously, aren’t fantastic communicators.

Often limited to raps on floors and walls, or flying dishes, their messages are often either good or bad omens and little else.

That is, until Victorian curiosity and innovation took up the cause… the era that is, not the Australian State we just left.

It was a complex time, science knew no bounds, yet belief in nonsense knew no test, and so it was no wonder that people accepted both the notion of communicative ghosts, as well as their own ability to make tools to test and aid that communication.

And so the brilliant minds behind mummy unwrapping parties and Mesmerism comes the newest innovation in death-yodels, the ghost trumpet!

The magician Harry Houdini, who sought to debunk spiritualists and their tools, speaks into a spirit trombone. PUBLIC DOMAIN
The magician Harry Houdini, who sought to debunk spiritualists and their tools, speaks into a spirit trombone. PUBLIC DOMAIN

A number of these trumpets can be seen at Cambridge’s Curious Things exhibit. And indeed, the list of curious things is… curious. They’ve got a bit of Darwin’s beard, these trumpet things, all kinds of Egyptian stuff that they’re totes McGoats gonna give back one day… it’s impressive.

The trumpets themselves are like ye-oldie megaphones you might see at pre-War Stark Expo or a Babe Ruth game… provided he was a black-and-white old-timey baseball guy and not just a candy bar. Spirit Trumpets were cheap metal, or often cardboard, cones open at both ends, one larger than the other. Basically, they were giant, poorly made, waffle cones.

Waffle cones!
Waffle cones!

The cones burst onto the séance scene in the late 19th century having been invented/popularized/maybe stolen by spiritualist medium Jonathan Koons. If that name is familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard the story of the Koons Spirit Room. Basically, he and his family built a crazy-tricked out séance room with all manner of steam-punk bullshit to trick people who came to talk to a dead loved one. Among their tools, was the séance trumpet, or spirit trumpet.

At the séance guests would gather around table to hold hands, sing songs, probably do an extraordinary amount of illicit drugs, and eventually, turn out the lights and get down to summoning some spirits yo.

The trumpet would be placed in the center of the table. Guests could see and interact with it, but when the séance began — and, of course, the lights went off — the trumpet would only be visible by its illuminated ends. Each end of the trumpet had a ring of illuminated paint — no idea if that was radium, but given the time and place… it was radium.

As the guests hummed and sang the spirits would make themselves known. First through the usual fair, raps on the floor, winds and moving this or that, then of course a persons chair might get bumped, before finally, the trumpet would rise into the air and, as if by far-way bullhorn, the ghost’s voice could be heard.

The party-goers were, I’m sure, enthralled.

The idea was that the trumpet could be used by the ghost as a shouting… horn… cone… thing, to make themselves louder. Of course, this came at a terrible price because ghosts, like stage actors, spit when they enunciate. And so, it was just as common for the ghosts to shoot ectoplasm out of the trumpet like the devil’s supersoaker.

The Cambridge Museum also has a bunch of that ectoplasm in the Curious Objectsexhibit too.

Finally, with the songs sung, drugs taken, and séance guests thoroughly slimed, the night could come to close and everyone could stumble back to their depressing hovels (I mean, it was ye-oldie times) sticky, but secure in the notion that life after death was so worth talking about one would even tolerate weaponized pea-soup to describe it.

  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/spirit-trumpets-dead-speak
  • https://www.collegeofpsychicstudies.co.uk/enlighten/spirit-trumpets-victorian-seance/
  • https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-SPR-TRUMPET/1


I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.

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