All posts by andywest1000

Writer, journalist, historian, TV and radio presenter

Phonographs and amazing discoveries

I’m sitting in the British Library reading William Jackson Crawford’s book The Reality of Psychic Phenomena (page 28) and I came across the name of Mr T. Edens Osborne who is described as a man “who deals in large quantities of phonographs, and who knows as much about such instruments as as any man in Belfast…”

book pic phonographs

This is a nice detail I’d missed before and it’s really useful for the chapter I’m writing today, where Crawford attempts to record some of the spirit raps and voices. If you read the chapter, it confirms that he carried out this experiment in the attic room as usual, at 8pm on the 11th of June, 1915. It looks like I’m going to have to change the location and the date to fit my story but we’ll see about that.

William writes about the experiment in some detail and, while he clearly didn’t feel it was the most important moment in his career as a spiritualist investigator, it certainly came to be a reference point for both his most ardent supporters and vociferous critics. It recieved coverage in the Irish Times, as William himself records in the same chapter of TRPP (bottom of page 32/full page33):

One of William’s most vocal critics, Joseph McCabe used this fateful experiment to open a particualrly scathing attack on William’s work in his essay, titled: “Is spiritualism based on fraud?: the evidence given by Sir A.C. Doyle and others.” You can read it here, and I would encourage you to do so, regardless of whether you believe in spiritualism or not. It’s just wonderfully bitchy and the section about William’s recordings is no different. His words dripping with sarchasm, he wrote:

Mr. Crawford talks of ” sledge-hammer blows ” and ” thunderous noises.” As the mediums were never searched, the raps may have been exceptionally loud, but Mr. Crawford naively gives one detail which puts us on our guard. He one night brought a particularly sensitive phonograph. The noises that night were ”terrific,” he says. He took the record to the offices of Light, and the editor of that journal can do no more than say that the noises were “clearly audible” (p. 32). So, when Mr. Crawford tells us of strong men being unable to press down the levitated table, we will take a pinch of salt.

William makes it clear that he wanted to prove that the raps were not a product of “collective hallucination.” In fact, this was one of his very first experiments; way before he started coming up with plasmic rods or measuring weight differentials. This wasn’t about trying to catch ghosts, it was just a way of disproving one common sceptical theory: that…actually, let’s quote William:

‘One line of argument against the reality of psychic phenomena is to ascribe them to false sense-impressions received during a species of hypnotic trance induced by the peculiar conditions of the seance-room. Its advocates have it that the brain of man is so complex, so relatively unexplored, and so subject to deception, that it is incapable of dealing in simple fashion with psychic occurrences. In other words, the raps, knocks, levitations and other manifestations are not objective but are hallucinatory effects produced on the subjective consciousness.’

It’s another example of Crawford eschewing drama or spiritual intrigue in his work; rather, he focuses from the very beginning on the need to prove that the phenomena are real and not imaginary.

Returning to T. Edens Osborne then, our Belfast phonograph expert. Thomas would not have needed to watch lots of Youtube videos (see below) on how to record on an old Edison Amberol as I did but I’m not complaining because I’m a geek and I loved it!

 

I didn’t really expect to find out much on Thomas so imagine how surprised I was to tap him into Google and get an instant hit, complete with marriage certificate, will and the exact address and description of precisely where William went to learn how to make his own recordings! Check it out! 

“p122 Osborne, Thomas Edens, Depot for Phonographs, Gramaphones, Musical Instruments (Mechanical), 39 Donegall Street.”

It’s this kind of thing that gets me so excited. I can go from William’s own book, making a passing reference to this Osborne guy in a chapter about making a recording that ended up being printed in Light Magazine and actually google streetview it and see exactly where it happened.

Now, this is Belfast, so naturally the building was knocked down to make way for something ugly (sorry Belfast, but you have zero respect for your architectural heritage) so we can’t see any sign of what was actually there. Still, it would have been more or less on William’s way home from work at the ‘Black man Tech’ on College Avenue. (So much to say about that, and I really need to add it all.)

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 16.32.15

Maybe you know more about T. Edens Osborne and you can email me with more information? I’d love to learn more. As it stands, he doesn’t actually appear in the novel because he’s not a crucial character but maybe that will change! For now, it’s just great to have another detail that helps me to get a feel for William’s world and who he got to know during his experiments.

I certainly don’t think Mr Osborne would have wasted his time teaching just anyone about recording on phonographs and William doesn’t imply that he actually bought anything from him. It seems he had the equipment or was able to borrow it and was only asking Mr Osborne to give his time as a fellow teacher/enthusiast. It’s another small sign that William was a respectable man to be taken seriously. At least, that’s what i make of it anyway.

Bringing Kathleen back to life!

It was an amazing moment. One of those moments when you literally sit back and topple sideways off your chair.

I’d found some old photographs of Kathleen Goligher and had shared them with my friend Andrew Goff who works as an animator and director in Central London.

He didn’t tell me what he was planning to do but he said he’d had an idea.

It followed a conversation in the pub (most of our conversations happen in the pub) when I’d been saying how difficult it is to see a character as a real person and not just a distant and static face in a black and white photograph.

We’ve all struggled, haven’t we? To see the soldiers in WW2 documentaries as more than ghosts of the past? Or to truly appreciate what it must have been like to talk to Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein.

In a world where we have increasingly real moving images of complete strangers, our ancestors can feel more and more distant and elusive.

I might have imagined Andrew was going to add a few filters and bring a realistic skin tone or hair colour to the images. I did wonder, knowing his sense of humour, whether he was going to animate some cartoon ghosts into the background just for fun.

I never expected a living, moving Kathleen to appear on the computer screen. She blinked, then smiled and for a moment, like Mona Lisa, she seemed to stare at me then look away.

Suddenly, that flat photograph had turned into a breathing, thinking human being. This young woman who plays such a strange part in my novel was sitting in front of me. I connected with her.

Andrew is now busily working on making her move even more in other photographs and a similar effect is being used on Wiliam Jackson Crawford. I can’t wait to see my mysterious main character turn his head and look at me. I will probably topple off my chair all over again.

For those interested in creating a similar effect with old photographs or even paintings, you can use an app’ on an iPhone (It doesn’t seem to be available on Android at the moment annoyingly and alternatives aren’t as good) called Mug Life. There are others but they seem to want to add puppy ears and all sorts of things onto the pictures and that’s not really what we’re after.

Andrew is using much more advanced techniques in a professional system called After Effects, layering particles of dust over the image and moving the ‘camera’ round Kathleen. Below is just an early version but I’ve seen a tiny glimpse of what he’s doing with old pictures of Belfast and it’s blown me away.

Watch this space. And, as always, please make sure you keep your ears to the ground and tell me if you see or hear anything that might help me tell this amazing story.

Andy

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!