Where does our story begin?

Welcome to The Crawford Mystery blog!

Firstly, thank you for joining me on this adventure back in time. It’s extremely enjoyable and exciting but also hard and expensive work getting together all the information I need, especially from here in London, so any help you can offer is very gratefully received.

You might be wondering: what’s the plan, Andy? So in this first post, I’d like to explain how I came to ‘meet’ William Jackson Crawford and what led to my becoming obsessed with his very odd and rather unnerving story.

Where should I begin? I could start with my love of ghost stories as a boy…or my lack of faith in ghosts as a man. I should say at the very beginning that I don’t currently believe in ghosts.

If you tell me you have seen a ghost I won’t believe you…but I will be very jealous.

I hope that doesn’t offend anyone, though it may well surprise a few, considering my fascination with this story.

I would give anything to see a ghost. I would love to feel, for a moment, absolutely sure that it wasn’t an old door or a vibrating pipe or the wind…but that I had spent even a precious few seconds in the company of a spirit.

It could be dull if it liked, though you never hear of ghosts annoying people with a constant drone about rock formations, TV quizzes or motorway traffic. A friendly, engaging ghost would be nice but again, they tend to be more mysterious than that and it would, far more likely, be a miserable soul, such as a tiny child clutching a headless doll or a hanged man, his head flopped over onto his shoulder like a tennis ball in a sock.

Regardless of its form or personality, I would just like to see a ghost. Unfortunately, however, for some reason, I am unpopular with ghosts. I would venture it’s because they don’t exist but I am faithfully assured that the spirits disagree with me on that point and feel so aggrieved at my dismissal of them that they refuse to appear before me. Ghosts, it seems, only appear to those who believe in them, which is – to put it mildly – mischievous.

I remember visiting Warwick Castle when I was a little boy. If you haven’t been you must go. To my mind it’s the grandest, best-preserved castle in England, offering visitors a chance to wind their way up its dark spiral towers and reappear high above the courtyard, transported centuries back in time. Then there are the grand lodgings, halls, parlours and bedrooms which are carpeted and wood-panelled with heavy oak and gilt furniture, linked – though you might not see it – by secret doors and passageways. I’m excited just thinking about it now but imagine how thrilling it was as a young boy to imagine the people who lived there hundreds of years ago!

And then on one visit an elderly man, keeping a beady eye on tourists passing through one of the towers, told me there were ghosts often seen lurking in the shadowy corners of certain rooms and stalking the battlements.

I seem to remember giving him a doubtful 9-year-old nose scrunch but as soon as I was beyond his view I stared up at the battlements looming into the grey sky, willing a spectre to appear; gazing there, endlessly, going dizzy and almost falling back as I craned my neck, just in the hope of snatching a glimpse of a caped man with his grey face staring back at me from another dimension. Yes, there are supposed to be various ghosts in Warwick Castle but I have seen none.

But what I wouldn’t give…

I digress. Four years ago, while working as a BBC news reporter and presenter in Belfast, I was watching a TV drama about the legendary escapologist and magician, Harry Houdini, starring Adrian Brody.

It didn’t get great reviews, but I loved every second of it and was instantly fascinated by Harry Houdini and his obsession with spiritual mediums. It seems Houdini wanted to make contact with his dead mother but quickly became frustrated and angered by the fake mediums who promised to connect him to the ‘other side’. Houdini claims to have seen through them almost instantly and was enraged that people should be profiting from the grief of others. This was, after all, around the time of ‘The Great War’ and there were an awful lot of dead people to be communicated with by the grieving loved ones left behind.

And so began a quest that would last for the rest of Houdini’s life; a quest to expose the psychic frauds.

I jumped straight online and bought Houdini’s own personal account of his efforts to debunk the alleged charlatans: A Magician Amongst The Spirits. I wasn’t disappointed. Every page was filled with fake voices, hidden doors, magic tricks, spring-loaded shoes, mirrors, illuminations, ectoplasmic apparitions, disembodied voices, floating furniture and more. To put it simply, I was hooked on it all: the subterfuge, the smoke, the theatrics, the bravery, the skulduggery and the haunting, creepiness of those darkened rooms filled with…well filled with what? Actors, hoaxes and fakes? Or ghosts?

I would highly recommend the book to you, regardless of where you stand on the issue of the afterlife because, even today, those searching for real spirits must be careful not to be fooled by the same tricks employed a century ago.

me and my Houdini book

Then, near the very end of the book, I read something that almost knocked me off the sofa. Harry Houdini was casting his questioning eye on Belfast! Right where I was living at that moment. It felt very spooky.

Even though his reference was short, it was absolutely damning. A certain Mr W.J. Crawford had taken an interest in some spiritual mediums called the Golighers in Belfast and had, as far as Houdini was concerned, been duped by them. And yet, this Crawford man had been a Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering…so he couldn’t have been so much of a fool…could he?

shot of Houdini book on wjc

I read on with interest and soon discovered that Houdini had met the man himself in London and had concluded that Crawford was – to quote – ‘mad’.

I thought at that point, Houdini was about to move on to some other poor victim in his breathless account of his crusade, but then something happened in this strange story that arrived on the page like a slap in the face.

Have you had that moment, when reading a book, where the whole world is sucked into a page and you feel like your eyes have grown the size of tennis balls and your skull has rolled upside down on your neck? I first experienced the feeling whilst reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy; a literary hero of mine ever since that first encounter, who seems to be able to mix into his novels an equal measure of joyful sunshine and crashing, soul-deadening, hopeless doom. To explain, that first bestartlement with Jude was caused by the revelation that his eldest son had…had…have you read the book? Read it, it’s too shocking to spoil here. Reading Houdini’s book gave me the same feeling; a feeling of complete shock.

William Jackson Crawford killed himself.

As a somewhat insincere Houdini (he had, after all, just described the man as ‘mad’ and implied he was a fool) puts it: “Poor Dr. Crawford! He comitted suicide in Belfast in 1920…”

Poor Dr Crawford indeed. I looked at those words and felt, very deep down, that I wanted to know more about this man.

Surely, he wasn’t fooled so easily, was he?

He couldn’t have believed in the Golighers without truly testing them with all of his highly-trained and educated ingenuity as a Dr of Engineering?

What was it, in the end, that caused him to take his own life? Who and what did he leave behind?

Had Dr Crawford discovered the tricks being played on him by this young girl, Kathleen Goligher and her family? Or had he witnessed something altogether more terrifying?

It is possible he was simply depressed or exhausted or guilty after being involved in an elaborate and ultimately doomed hoax? Perhaps he’d simply contracted some kind of disease from a local prostitute and his marriage was about to collapse or he’d run up hidden and insurmountable debts or discovered (forgive my speculation) his wife in bed with the coalman.

I remember going to sleep that night, haunted (yes I use that word quite happily) haunted by a thousand questions and possibilities.

Well it’s taken four years of dipping in and out of the story to get here but now, finally, I am throwing myself into my endeavour to try and fnd out what was really going on between William, Kathleen and the many other characters living and breathing in that noisy, soot-cloaked city of Belfast 100 years ago.

If you can add anything to what I’ve discovered, contact me and tell me about it!

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