Ghosts of History: The Borley Rectory


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Keynard: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Editor Candace Gibson joined by fellow editor, Katie Lambert.

Katie Lambert: Hello, Candace.

Candace Keynard: Hi, Katie. I see you have a piece of correspondence in your hand.

Katie Lambert: I do. It's from Vince in St. Paul, Minnesota and he had a suggestion for us, which actually, he titled a burning question. And it says hi there, Candace and Jane. I am a fervent listener of your podcast and I have noticed Candace's pension for the McCabe. I thought of a cool topic for your podcast, the Borley Rectory in England. I remember reading about it in a book when I was in grade school and being utterly terrified. I severely enjoy your well-researched and thoughtfully recorded podcast so I know you will enjoy this topic. And we like that you severely enjoy this.

Candace Keynard: How could we say no and, again, a perfect addition to our ghosts of history multi-part series. We were delighted to cover the Borley Rectory and before we get into the history of the place, the most haunted house in England. We can start with the basics, defining rectory for instance, which is the residence of a clergyman. And, if you're anything like me, your interest may be peaked by the fact that a clergyman, a man of the cloth, a man of God, would be so spooked by a ghost. It just doesn't seem to add up but in fact there were several clergymen who were scared off by the notorious ghost of the Borley Rectory! And as I understand the diverging tales of the house, this is either going to be a ghost story about forbidden love or ghost story about spousal abuse.

Katie Lambert: And we'll start with the legend that the Borley Rectory was built where a monastery used to be and in the 13th Century, a monk and a nun tried to elope together but they were caught and he was hanged and she, worthy of an Edgar Allen Poe tale, was bricked up within the convent where she died. And the Borley Rectory was built on this place in 1863 for the Reverend Henry Bull who actually somewhat enjoyed the haunting and built a summer house so he could watch where the nun was supposed to walk while he was smoking his cigars.

Candace Keynard: And while the Bull family didn't mind the nun's ghost so much, others were really frightened by her. Her face would sometimes appear in windows and she got so bold as to walk across the lawn in broad daylight and when Henry's son Harry took over at the rectory, the haunting increased and she was seen more frequently and there were more strange noises and haunting-like things of this sort.

Katie Lambert: The Bulls weren't particularly popular either. There were rumors about the older Bull that he used a whip on parishioners when they were misunderstanding.

Candace Keynard: That's bull. Haha.

Katie Lambert: That he possibly was involved with a dalliance in a maid where she ended up pregnant and also that he was abusive. And he and his son both died in the blue room of the Borley Rectory which then became known as one of the most haunted places within the house.

Candace Keynard: So, it seems like the ghosts are multiplying in fact and in 1927, the Reverend Eric Smith took ownership of the house. And he'd heard that there were strange things that happened there so he consulted the paranormal investigator, the aforementioned Harry Price, to determine whether the hunting's were real or not. And we're going to talk about Price at greater length later but I wanted to just set up this character for you because he is such a character. He was known for being a prankster and showing off with his parlor tricks and he would perform magic tricks just to show people how they were done and call the bluff of someone who was trying to bluff him. So, in a time when people were capitalizing off of wartime tragedy to make money by claiming they could put people in touch with their dead relatives, he set out to call out who the frauds were and in June 1920, he was elected to the Society for Psychical Research. He wanted to make the business more honest; he wanted to clear up all the fraud and he exposed a lot of phonies, most notably, the spirit photographer, William Hope. And Hope had taken hundreds, if not thousands, of spirit photographs and Price was able to show people that this stuff was really fake. Back then, you had to mix all manner of chemicals and use all manner different types of light and strategies to create a photograph so it's quite simple to add a strange shadowy figure in the background of a plight. And another way to do it would be by having a photographer's assistant appear in the background of a picture because it took a full minute of sitting still with the shutter open for someone to be captured on film. So, it would be easy for someone to sneak in and dart out and create an apparition on film.

Katie Lambert: So, Price's personality was such that he loved this sort of stuff of cal ling people out and of making up stories. He was a bit of a sensationalist journalist and he thought poltergeists were, as he said, mischievous entities, he dabbled with it, he had great fun with it and he would spend 16 years, and the space of two books, documenting Borley Rectory.

Candace Keynard: And he came at the request of the Smith's who'd gone to a London newspaper and said, you know, there's some crazy stuff going on at the rectory, please come help us, including the wife of Reverend Smith found a woman's skull in a cabinet. They had a bunch of bells ringing when all the strings had been cut. There were lights and windows. There was a carriage and my favorite part is when a ghost whispered to Reverend Smith, "Don't Carlos, don't," as he was walking into the chapel. They also saw a stranger in a top hat. And when Harry Price came in June of 1929, he called the day 16 hours of thrills as a direct quote. Keys started shooting out of locks, there were bells, there were rocks everywhere, there were a bunch of wrappings, things markedly increased when Price came on the scene.

Katie Lambert: He stirred up the poltergeist for sure. And he arrived on the scene with his, now patented ghost hunter's kit, a tape measure, a camera, a fingerprinting kit, portable phones, he was there to call the bluffs. And he was convinced that these things weren't being faked.

Candace Keynard: The Smith's actually moved out; they'd had enough of all this ghost business in their rectory and Reverend Lionel Foyster's and his wife Marianne and their daughter Adelaide moved in.

Katie Lambert: And, for me, this is where the story gets a little bit creepy because of the violence inflicted on poor Marianne.

Candace Keynard: These events went on between 1930 and 1935 and it seemed that a poltergeist had definitely taken over the rectory. The Foyster's had water poured on them while they slept; Lionel was whacked in the head with a hairbrush; there were mysterious fires; there were bottles that shattered; Marianne was actually thrown from her bed at one point and almost suffocated by a mattress.

Katie Lambert: And strange writing began appearing on the walls. Things that said, "Marianne, please get help. Marianne, please light mass prayers." It seemed pretty obvious that someone was trying to communicate with her and her attempts to reciprocate the communication didn't work. But it's odd to me that someone who the spirits deemed sympathetic to their plight, would be targeted by such violence. And, later, the violence was even inflicted on the Foyster's child.

Candace Keynard: So, the Foyster's had the house exercised and, for a while, it worked but eventually it seemed like that just transferred the phenomenon to new places and new things.

Katie Lambert: They started hearing strange music coming from the chapel; they saw communion line turn to ink. My favorite part is in Harry Price's notes when he said that there were odors found, pleasant and unpleasant, --

Candace Keynard: Well, that's never good. I mean, you can get suffocated with a mattress but when stuff starts smelling bad, it's time to get out.

Katie Lambert: We're smelling good.

Candace Keynard: So, whether it was the being tossed from one's bed or the awful smells permeating the air, the Foyster's had enough and the house went unoccupied until 1937 when Harry Price moved in. And he advertised in the local newspaper for help conducting this study that he wished to undertake and I have a copy of the advertisement and I actually have to read it to you because it just tickled me and Katie to death really. Okay. Here we go. Haunted house; responsible persons of leisure and intelligence, intrepid, critical and unbiased are invited to join rota of observers in a year's night and day investigation of alleged haunted house in Home Counties. Printed instructions supplied. Scientific training or ability to operate simple instruments an advantage. House situated in lonely Hamlet so own car is essential. Write Box H.989. The Times. EZ4.

Katie Lambert: And we checked Craigslist for something similarly enticing today and could not find anything that was quite good enough.

Candace Keynard: Well, we found one in Atlanta but there's no compensation. If I'm going to live with the ghosty's, I want to be paid.

Katie Lambert: Well, and my favorite part was it said demonic haunting, etcetera, etcetera.

Candace Keynard: It doesn't get better than that but we digest. Back to Harry Price! So, he moves in, 1937, and he got so many responses to his advertisement, he couldn't take them all and he thought a lot of them were phonies or unsuitable was his word but he ended up choosing about 48 people to come live with him.

Katie Lambert: And my favorite part is where they all get out their version of a Ouija board called a planchette and tried to channel the spirits at which point a nun named Marie Lairre speaks to them and says that she left the convent to marry a man named Henry Waldegrave. And her husband strangled her and buried her remains in the cellar.

Candace Keynard: The spousal abuse we alluded to earlier. He was from a very wealthy family and the house was on the site where the Borley Rectory now stood.

Katie Lambert: A later séance actually had the woman, not as Marie Lairre, but Arabella Waldegrave, a steward spy and the wife of Henry Waldegrave.

Candace Keynard: But perhaps the biggest coo, if one could call it that, was the séance that revealed the house would burn to the ground in evidence of the nun's existence would be revealed. And, so, needless to say, everyone was waiting for the big fire to get started but that didn't happen until 11 months later. And that was when Captain WH Gregson had assumed ownership of the house. He was unpacking the books for his library, an oil lamp turned over and the fire started and burned the house.

Katie Lambert: And, right before that, one of my other favorite stories is a man named WJ Fithian, a different reverend who had also communicated with the spirits and he told Harry Price where to dig in the cellar to find the bones of Arabella Waldegrave or Marie Lairre and they did go to the cellar and dug part of a skull and a jaw bone along with some holy medals of Catherine Laberie and St. Ignatius.

Candace Keynard: And this was after the house had burned in 1943 and Price thought that he could put the spirits to rest by giving them, what he called, a proper Christian burial.

Katie Lambert: Did it work?

Candace Keynard: Supposedly not. Supposedly, even today, there is still supernatural phenomena observed in the churchyard near where the Borley Rectory used to stand and even when the house was being demolished, Life photographers from Life Magazine were there to capture what was happening and there's a strange photograph that exists with a spectral brick and people wonder if one of the spirits from the Borley Rectory raising the brick in the background to signify, we're still here, or if it was a prank pulled by a worker who threw it just as the camera flash was going off to give the illusion of their being a ghost or simply just to play around with the rebel.

Katie Lambert: And that's the question still about whether these things were real or faked. People are pretty sure that the notes that Marianne Froyster found are made up. They took it to a graphologist and he said basically that they were definitely Marianne's hand but some of the other parts of it can't be explained and while the Society for Psychical Research does say that most of it is probably exaggerated by our dear illusionist, Harry Price, some of it is still up in the air.

Candace Keynard: And if you don't believe in the ghost story aspect of the history of the Borley Rectory, you can at least recognize that this is definitely a point at which paranormal investigators start to gain some clout and people start to take what they say, if not seriously, at least give some credence to it and as a matter of fact, Harry Price broadcasted on radio one of the first paranormal investigations. And just think today about all the different TV networks and movies there are about paranormal investigators. You know, it is a part of our media today; it's a part of popular culture and some people buy into it and some don't.

Katie Lambert: So, thanks to Harry Price.

Candace Keynard: [Inaudible]. Thanks, Harry Price. And if you want to learn more about different parts of England and other historical ghosts and spooks, you can read about it on our website at howstuffworks.com.

Announcer: For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com. And be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the howstuffworks.com homepage.