Who was William Jackson Crawford?

WJC just giving title

What do we know about William Jackson Crawford? Not as much as I would like. The man is truly a mystery in so many ways, largely because he’s been forgotten by all but the most determined fans of paranormal history.

He went from a boy in New Zealand to a teacher in Belfast, then to a renowned expert in the spirit world before rising to become a leading light in the new and exciting ‘scientific’ theory of ectoplasm, gaining the attention of Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the world’s leading scientific ‘psychical’ investigators.

However, by the end of his life and in spite of great support and encouragement from Light magazine, he was, to his detractors, a discredited man. Nonetheless, to spiritualists today, his experiments remain persuasive.

I wonder, did he believe himself to be discredited and might that explain his suicide?

Furthermore, is it fair to see him as the gullible victim of a cruel hoax or was he, in fact, the victim of a sceptical mob including world-famous scientists, political leaders, psychic investigators and the most famous scourge of fraudulent mediums: Harry Houdini?

What if he was no victim at all. What if he faked the seances and his findings himself, in league with Kathleen Goligher and her family?

What if none of it was fake and he really did find evidence for the existence of the paranormal?

We shall see.

Today, we know that William Jackson Crawford took his own life. We don’t know why but we do know he did it using potassium cyanide on the Pickie Rocks in Bangor. I have uncovered evidence from his work at the Belfast Technical Institute which would seem to show he would have had easy access to potassium cyanide powder, which was used at the time for developing early photographic plates. Furthermore, by looking at a floor plan of the Institute, it seems highly likely he would have known his photography colleagues well. What’s more…Kathleen or her sisters might even have studied in the dressmaking classroom right next to the photography lab.

I want to know more about William’s death but – more importantly – I want to know much, much more about his life.

Help me fill in the blanks!

William Jackson Crawford

WJC photograph headshot


William was born in New Zealand on or around the 29th February 1880 in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Dunedin was a Scottish Presbyterian settlement and William’s parents had moved there from Glasgow before starting a family.

William was the oldest of seven children. His mother, Agnes Elizabeth died (possibly in childbirth) when he was just 16. I make the guess that she died in childbirth because her youngest child was born that same year and – touchingly – the little girl was named Agnes Elizabeth after her mother.


Helen (1881-1965 aged 74 (mother of Dame Daphne, author, see ‘further information’ below)

Jessie (1882 – 1964 aged 72)

Edward (1886 – 1886 died aged 8 months)

Edith (1887 – 1894 died aged 7)

Ivy (1891 – 1917 died aged 26 a year after marrying Wilfred)

Agnes Elizabeth (1896 – 1914 died aged 18)

Grandfather (died 22nd April 1894)

Grandmother: ?

William’s father, Robert, lived until 1933, thirteen years longer than his oldest son, William and a full 37 years longer than his late wife.

William left New Zealand as a young man, appearing in the 1901 census in Glasgow as a student. There, he met and promptly married Elizabeth Bullock Jolly.


In around 1907/8, (I believe) he began working at the Belfast Municipal Technical Institute or, as the locals knew it, Black Man Tech (on account of the grime-stained statue at the front of the building) as an Assistant Lecturer in Engineering.

He was initially paid £180p/a but was seemingly either promoted or at least given a £10 pay rise in both 1910 & 11 taking his yearly salary to £200. It’s hard to say exactly how much that would be today but it certainly wasn’t a bad wage. See the table below from the Measuring Worth website.

So he was a pretty comfortable middle-class professional on a tidy wage. His clothes, food, transport, home and lifestyle must have been impressive to Kathleen Goligher who was from a relatively poor, working-class background.

William was also an ‘Extra-Mural Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering, Queen’s University, Belfast’ which basically meant he taught night classes to students whose qualifications would be granted by Queens, even though their studies had taken place at the Municipal Technical Institute.


Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 21.07.47

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 20.48.16

Wife: Elizabeth (Bullock Jolly)

Daughter: Margaret Elizabeth (1905-1946)

Daughter: Helen Winifred (1907-1950)

Son: Robert William (1908-1975)

Servant: Rose McCusker, Roman Catholic, 15yo in 1911

Lived: (1911) 6, Park Avenue, Belfast

Last residence: (1920) 1, Brookvale Terr Park Ave Strandtown


1914: Crawford starts investigating goligher séances at 92 Ormeau Road when Kathleen was 16. I don’t know yet how the two met or how Crawford came to hear of the so-called ‘Goligher Circle’. Recent correspondence with one of William’s descendants would imply it was his wife Elizabeth who first took interest in the supernatural and so it’s quite possible that his link with the family came through her. It’s also possible Mr Goligher or Kathleen’s brother-in-law, Samuel Morrison, or even the girls themselves attended classes at the Technical Institute where Crawford was a lecturer in Engineering. It may equally have been a newspaper article or simple word of mouth.

1914-1920: Crawford studied the ‘Goligher Circle’ with a particular interest in Kathleen (Katie) for, we are told, 4 years. Some research implies 6 however, so this requires clarification.

1916 – Sep: William Jackson Crawford publishes his first book on his Goligher research, titled, The Reality of Psychic Phenomena (Raps, Levitations, etc)

1918 – Oct: William publishes a second edition of The Reality of Psychic Phenomena (Raps, Levitations, etc)

1919 – Dec: William publishes Experiments in Psychical Science (Levitation, ‘contact’ and the Direct Voice)

1920 – Oct: (AFTER DEATH) Publishing of The Psychic Structures of the Goligher Circle (John M. Watkins, London)


He died on the 30th July 1920, aged 40yrs, on Pickie Rocks in Bangor. It’s thought he committed suicide possibly using cyanide or potassium, “self-administered while temporarily insane”, according to his death certificate.

Cause of death: Poisoning probably by cyanide or potassium

Buried: 3 August 1920 in Dundonald Cemetry

Will: In his will, granted 27 Oct 1920, he left £664, 8 shillings, 2d (pence) to his wife and children. By my reckoning on the Measuring Wealth site, that’s equivalent to anything between £49,000 and £292,000 today.

It certainly doesn’t seem William took his life because he had money worries…


Niece: It seems William’s niece was a Dame Daphne Purves Cowie who was the author of The Wombles. I love this fact.


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