The Psychical Researcher's Tale -
The Sceptical Poltergeist
by J. D. Beresford
THE PSYCHICAL RESEARCHER'S TALETHE SCEPTICAL POLTERGEIST
From The New DecameronVolume III.
By J. D. Beresford
There was once a time (he began) when I decided that I was a fraud;
that I could not be a psychical researcher any longer. I determined to
give it all up, to investigate no more phenomena nor attend another
séance, nor read a word about psychical research for the remainder of
my life. On the contrary, I planned an intensive study of the works of
the later Victorians, of that blissful period in the history of Europe
when we could believe in the comforting doctrine of materialism. Oh!
I thought, that one had a Haeckel or a Huxley living now to console us
with their beautiful faith in the mortality of the soul! The
Neo-Darwinians failed to convince me; the works of H. G. Wells left me
I will tell you the events that brought me to this evil pass.
It is not likely that anyone here will remember the Slipperton case.
It attracted little attention at the time. In 1905 there was still a
little sanity left in the world. A few even of the London dailies were
nearly sane then, and refused to report ghost stories unless they were
known to be untrue. And the Slipperton case had hardly any
publicityan inch in the Daily Mail, headed Family Evicted by
Ghosts, was the only newspaper report that I saw; though there may
have been others. In these days the story would be given a couple of
columns opposite the leader page; and the Sunday papers...
I was connected with the thing because Edgar Slipperton and his wife
were friends of mine; quiet, old-fashioned people who believed that
when you were dead you were dead, and that that was the end of
The phenomena that drove them out of their house at last were of the
ordinary poltergeist type that date back to the days of John Wesley.
The Slippertons had a fat and very stupid cook, whom I suspected of
being an unconscious medium; but they were so attached to her that they
refused to give her notice, as I strongly advised them to do. They told
me that although she was constitutionally unable to grasp a new idea,
such as the idea of a different pudding, she was entirely dependable,
always doing the same things in the same way and with the same results.
And while this confirmed my suspicions that she was a spiritualistic
medium, I recognised that she might have useful qualities as a cook.
The Slippertons stood it pretty well for a time. At first they were
only mildly inconvenienced. Things used to disappear mysteriously, and
turn up in unexpected places. Slipperton's pince-nez, for example, were
lost, and found inside the piano. And Mrs. Slipperton's false front
would be moved in the night from the dressing-table to the brass knob
of the bed-post, even after she took to pinning it to the toilet cover.
Things like that; irritating, but not really serious.
But the trouble increased, grew to be beyond endurance in the end.
The poltergeists, with that lack of imagination which always
characterises them, started to play the old trick of pulling off the
Slippertons' bed-clothes in the middle of the nightone of the most
annoying of the spirits' antics. And they followed that by
experimenting with the heavy furniture.
I was out of England when the trouble came to a head, and I heard
nothing of the later developments until after the Slippertons had left
the house. I happened to meet Slipperton by accident in the Haymarket,
and he took me into his club and gave me the whole story. Naturally, I
was glad of the chance to investigate, although I thought it very
probable that the phenomena would cease with the departure of the cook.
I determined, however, to go down and spend a week in the house, alone.
I was not dismayed by the fact that I should be unable to get any help
with my domestic arrangements, owing to the superstitious fears of the
villagers. I rather enjoyed cooking my own meals in those days.
It was fine weather in late May when I went down, and I regarded the
visit as a kind of holiday rather than as a serious investigation.
Nevertheless, from force of habit I carried out my inquiry in the
scientific spirit that is so absolutely essential in these matters. The
Slippertons' house was on the outskirts of a small town in
Buckinghamshire. The shell of the house dated from the early
seventeenth century. (You will find it described in the Inventory of
the Royal Commission on Historical Monumentsthe second volume of
the Buckinghamshire survey.) But the inside had been gutted and
replanned to suit our modern requirements, such as the need for making
each bedroom accessible without passing through other bedrooms, the
necessity for a fitted bathroom, and so on.
I found the house as Slipperton had warned me that I should, in a
chaotic condition inside. Everything movable seemed to have been
movedwithout any definite intention, so far as I could see, but just
for the sake of upsetting the decent order of the household. I found a
frying-pan, for instance, hung on the hook that was designed for the
dinner-gong, and the gong inside one of the beds. A complete set of
bedroom ware had been arranged on the drawing-room table; and
apparently some witticism had been contemplated with a chest of
drawers, which had become firmly wedged into the angle of the back
staircase. In short, the usual strange feats that characterise
I touched none of these misplaced things with the exception of the
frying-pan, which I needed to cook the sausages I had brought with me;
but after I had had my meal, I went through all the rooms and entered
the position of every article in a large note-book, making plans of
each room, besides a full list of the furniture and ornaments it
contained. Later, I went up into the roof and disconnected the water
supply, afterwards emptying the cistern and all the pipes. And before I
went to bed I turned off the electric light at the main switch. All
these precautions, as I need hardly tell you, were absolutely
essential. It might appear difficult to explain the moving of a large
chest of drawers by the sound of water-pipes or the fusing of an
electric wire; but the critics of psychical research have essayed far
more difficult tasks than that, to their own entire satisfaction.
I went up to the bedroom the Slippertons used to occupy, a little
before eleven o'clock. I had with me a couple of spare candles, a new
notebook, and a fountain pen. I was even at that time, I may add, a
highly trained researcher in every way, and was quite capable of taking
a full shorthand report of a séance. I tried my pulse and temperature
before getting into bed and found them both normal. So far, there had
been no sign of any phenomena; and I was not at all nervous. Indeed, I
may say that I have never been nervous with spirits.
I had brought the Pickwick Papers upstairs to read in bedit
is always as well to choose some book that has no kind of bearing on
the subject of one's investigationand I was in the middle of the
Trial Scene when my attention was caught by the sound of something
moving in the room. I had left both windows wide open and the curtains
undrawn, and I thought at first that an unusually large moth had flown
in and was fluttering against the ceiling. I laid down my book, sat up
and looked round the room, but I could see nothing. The night was very
still, and the candle on the table by my bed burnt without a flicker.
Nevertheless, the sound continued; a soft, irregular fluttering that
suggested the intermittent struggle of some feeble winged creature. It
occurred to me that a wounded bat or bird might have flown into the
room and might be struggling on the floor out of sight near the foot of
the bed. And I was about to get up and investigate when the flame of
the candle sank a little, and I became aware that the temperature of
the room was perceptibly colder.
I picked up my note-book at once and made an entry of the
circumstances, and the exact time.
When I looked up again, the sound of fluttering had ceased and the
candle was once more burning brightly; but I now perceived a kind of
uncertain vagueness that was apparently trying to climb on to the rail
at the foot of the bed. When I first saw it, it could not be described
as a form. It had rather the effect of a patch of dark mist, with an
irregular and changing outline, that obscured to a certain extent the
furnishings of the room immediately behind it. I must confess, however,
that my observations at this point were not so accurate as they should
have been, owing to the sudden realisation of my stupidity in not
having brought a camera and flashlight apparatus. The Slipper-tons had
prepared me for poltergeists, and I was, at that moment, distinctly
annoyed at being confronted with what I presumed to be an entirely
different class of phenomenon. Indeed, I was so annoyed that I was half
inclined to blow out the candle and go to sleep. I wish, now, that I
The Psychical Researcher paused and sighed deeply. Then producing a
large note-book from his pocket, he continued, despondently:
I have got it all down here, and when I come to material that
necessitates verbal accuracy, I should prefer to read my notes aloud
rather than give an indefinite summary. In the first place, however, I
must give you some idea of the form that gradually materialised; of the
form, that is, as I originally saw it.
It took the shape, I may say, of a smallish man, grotesquely
pot-bellied, with very thin legs and arms. The eyes were
disproportionately large and quite circular, with an expression that
was at once both impish and pathetic. The ears were immense, and set at
right angles to the head; the rest of the features indefinite. He was
dressed rather in the fashion of a medieval page.
(The professor was heard to murmur, The typical goblin, at this
point, but made no further interruption.)
He sat with his feet crossed on the rail at the foot of the bed and
appeared able to balance himself without difficulty. He had been
sitting there for perhaps a couple of minutes, while I made various
entries in my note-book before I tried the experiment of addressing
Have you a message? I asked. If you cannot answer directly, knock
once for 'No,' and three times for 'Yes,' and afterwards we can try the
To my great surprise, however, he was able to use the direct voice.
His tone was a trifle wheezy and thin at first, but afterwards gained
power and clearness.
I can hear you fairly well, he said. Now do try to keep calm. It
isn't often that one gets such a chance as this.
I will now read my notes.
Myself. I am perfectly calm. Go on.
Spirit. Will you try to answer my questions?
The Researcher looked up from his note-book with a frown of
impatience after reading these two entries, and said:
But perhaps I had better summarise our earlier conversation for you.
There was, I may say, a somewhat long and distinctly complicated
misunderstanding between myself and the spirit before the real interest
of the message begins; a misunderstanding due to my complete
misapprehension of our respective parts. You see, it is unhappily
truehowever much we may deplore the fact and try to guard against
itthat even in psychical research we form habits of thought and
method, but particularly of thought. And I had got into the habit of
regarding communications from spirits as referring to what we assume to
be the future life. Well, this communication didn't. The spirit with
whom I was talking had not, in short, ever been incarnated. He was what
the Spiritualists and Theosophists, and so on, call an Elemental. And
to him, I represented the future state. I was, so to speak, the
communicating spirit and he the psychical researcher. He was, I
inferred, very far advanced on his own plane and expecting very shortly
to pass over, as he put it. Also, I gathered that he was in his own
world by way of being an intellectual; keenly interested in the
futurethat is, in our present state; and that the Slipperton
phenomena were entirely due to the experiments he had been carrying out
(on strictly scientific lines, he assured me) to try and ascertain
the conditions of life on this plane.
Perhaps I can, now, illustrate his attitude by a few quotations from
our conversation. For example:
Spirit. Are you happy where you are?
Myself. Moderately. At times. Some of us are.
Spirit. Are you yourself happy?
Myself. I may say so. Yes.
Spirit. What do you do? Try and give me some idea of life on your
Myself. It varies so immensely with the individual and the set in
which one lives. But weoh! we have a great variety of what we call
'interests' and occupations, and most of us, of course, have to work
for our livings.
Spirit. I don't understand that. What are your livings, and how do
you work for them?
Myself. We can't live without food, you see. We have to eat and
drink and sleep; protect ourselves against heat and cold and the
weather generally, which means clothes and sheltergarments to wear
and houses to live in, that is.
Spirit. I have inferred something of this very vaguely from my
experiments. For instance, I gather that you put on hair in the
daytime, and take it off when you arewhere you are at the
present time. Also, I have noticed that when the coverings which at
present conceal you are pulled away, you invariably replace them. Am I
to deduce from that that you try to keep your bodies warm and your
heads cool at night?
Myself. Well, that's a trifle complicated. About the hair, you
understand, some of us lose our hairit comes out, we don't know
whyin middle life, as mine has, and women and some men are rather
ashamed of this and wearerother people's hair in the daytime to
hide the defect.
Myself. Oh, vanity. We want to appear younger than we really are.
The Researcher bent a little lower over his notebook as he said:
I seem to have written Damnation at this point; but so far as I
can remember I did not speak the word aloud. You will see, however,
that I tried my best to be patient in what were really the most
exasperating circumstances. But I will miss the next page or two, and
come to more interesting material. Ah I here:
Spirit. This thing you call death, or dying? Am I to understand
that it corresponds to what we call incarnation?
Myself. We are not sure. Some of us believe that our actual bodies
will rise again in the flesh; others that the body perishes and the
spirit survives in an uncertain state of which we have very little
knowledge; others, again, that death is the end of everything.
Spirit. In brief, you know nothing whatever about it?
Myself. Uncommonly little.
Spirit. Do you remember your lives as elementals?
Myself (definitely). No!
Spirit. Then where do you suppose yourselves to begin?
Myself. We don't know. There are various guesses. None of them
Spirit. Such as?
Myself. Oh, some of us believe that the soul or spirit is a special
creation made by a higher power we call God, and breathed into the body
at birth. And some that the soul or spirit, itself eternal, finds a
temporary house in the body, and progresses from one to another with
intervals between each incarnation.
Spirit. Then this being born is what we should call dying?
Myself. Quite. It makes no difference. And, as a matter of fact,
the overwhelming majority of usthat is to say, all but about one in
every millionnever bother our heads where we came from, or what's
likely to happen to us when we die, or are born, as you would call it.
I have a note here that after this we were both silent for about ten
Spirit (despondently). I wish I could get some sort of idea what
you do all the time and what you think about. I thought, when I so
unexpectedly got into touch with someone in the future state, that I
should be able to learn everything. And I have, so far, learnt
nothingabsolutely nothing. In fact, except that I have been able to
correct my inferences with regard to one or two purely material
experiments, I may say that I know less now than I did before. And, by
the way, those things over therehe pointed to the washstandI
noticed that at certain times you go through some ceremony with them
upstairs, and as I wished to discover if there was any reason why you
should not perform the same ceremony downstairs, I moved the things.
Well, I noticed that the spirit who was here before you was apparently
very annoyed. Can you give me any explanation of that?
Myself. Our bodies become soiled by contact with matter, and we
wash ourselves in water. We prefer to do it in our bedrooms.
Myself. We use a certain set of rooms for one purpose and another
set for other purposes.
Myself. I don't know why. We do.
Spirit. But you are sure of the fact, even if you can give no
Spirit. I wish I could prove that. One of my fellow-scientists, who
has recently been able to press his investigations even further than I
have up to the present time, has recently brought forward good evidence
to prove that spirits are all black, wear no coverings on their bodies,
live in the simplest of dwellings, and, although they have a few
ceremonies, certainly have none which in any way corresponds to that
you have just described.
Myself. He has probably been investigating the habits of the
Spirit. What are they?
Myself. Men, or, as you would say, spirits, like us in a few
respects, but utterly different in most.
Spirit. Have you ever seen them?
Spirit. Or met anyone who has?
Spirit. Then this account of them tallies with nothing in your
Myself. No, but they exist all right. There's no doubt of that.
Spirit. I question it. In any case, I could not accept your word as
evidence, seeing that you have neither seen them yourself nor met with
anyone who has.
And so on, you know (the Researcher muttered, flicking over the
pages of his note-book).
He was infernally sceptical about those aborigines. It seems that he
had had a tremendous argument with the other investigator about the
possibility of spirits being black and naked, and he was dead set on
proving that he had been right. I think, as a matter of fact, that what
I said tended to confirm him in his theory. He put it that if there
were such spirits on this plane, I must have seen them or have had some
quite first-hand evidence of their existence; and when I said that I
had seen black people, Indians, and so on, he cross-examined me until I
got confused. You see, I had to confess that they weren't, strictly
speaking, black, that they wore clothes, and washed, and lived in
houses; and he got me involved in apparent contradictionsyou have no
idea how easy it is, when you are trying to be very lucidand then he
changed the subject with the remark that I was a very poor witness.
It was about this time that I began to lose my temper. It was after
three o'clock when we got to that point, and I was getting very tired,
and, strange as it may appear, curiously doubtful about my own
existence. I had for some time been coming to the conclusion that he
did not quite believe in my reality; and after he had dismissed my
account of the black races as being untrustworthy, he said, half to
himself, that quite probably I was nothing more than an hallucination,
a thought projection of his own mind. And after that I got more and
more annoyedpartly, I think, because I had a kind of haunting fear
that what he had said might be true. When you have been talking to a
spirit for over three hours in the middle of the night, you are liable
to doubt anything.
But it was foolish of me to try and prove to him that I had a real
objective existence, because obviously it wasn't possible. I tried to
touch him, and my hand went through him as if he were nothing more than
a patch of mist. Then I got right out of bed and moved various articles
about the room, but, as he said, that proved nothing, for if he had an
hallucination about me, he might equally well have one about the things
I appeared to move. And then we drifted into a futile argument as to
what I looked like.
It began as a sort of test, to try if my own conception of myself
tallied with his; and it didn'tnot in the very least. In fact, the
description he gave of me would have done very well for the typical
goblin of fairy-tale, which, as I told him, was precisely how I
saw him. He laughed at that, and told me that, as a matter of
fact, he had no shape at all, and that my conception of him proved his
description of me was the correct one, because I had visualised myself.
He said that he would appear to me in any shape that I happened to be
thinking of, and naturally I should be thinking of my own. And I could
not disprove a thing he said; and when I looked at myself in the cheval
glass, I was not at all sure that I did not look like the traditional
Well, I assure you that I felt just then as if the one possible way
left to demonstrate my sanity, my very existence, was to lose my
temper; and I did it very thoroughly. I raved up and down the room,
knocked the furniture about, chucked my boots through him, and called
him a damned elemental. And although it had no more effect upon him
than if I had been in another worldas I suppose in a sense I actually
wasthat outbreak did help to restore my sanity.
Perhaps you may have noticed that if a man is worsted in an argument
he invariably loses his temper? It is the only means he has left to
convince himself that he is right. Well, my temper did that for me on
this occasion. I could not prove my existence to that confounded spirit
by any logic or demonstration, but I could prove it to myself by
getting angry. And I did.
The Researcher glared round the circle as if challenging anyone
there to deny the validity of his existence, then slapped his note-book
together and sat upon it.
I do not expect you to believe my story (he concluded, with a touch
of vehemence). Indeed, I would much sooner that you did not believe it.
I have been trying to doubt it myself for the past eleven years, and I
still hope to succeed in that endeavour, aided by my intensive study of
the comforting theories of the later Victorian scientists. But I must
warn you that there was just one touch of what one might call evidence,
beyond my own impressions of that nightwhich may have been, and
probably were, a mixture of telepathy, hallucination, expectancy, and
auto-suggestion, that found expression in automatic writing.
This rather flimsy piece of evidence rests upon a conclusion drawn
from the end of my conversation with the spirit. I was still banging
about the room, then, and I said that I had finished with psychical
research, that never again would I make the least inquiry with regard
to a possible future life, or any kind of spiritualistic phenomenon.
And, curiously enough, the poltergeist precisely echoed my resolve. He
said that that night's experience had clearly shown him that the
research was useless, that it could never prove anything, and that,
even if it did, no one would believe it. For if, as he pointed
out, we who were in a manner of speaking face to face, were unable
to prove our own existence to each other, how could we expect to prove
the other's existence to anyone else?
It was getting light then, and he faded out almost immediately
But it is a fact that there were no more poltergeist phenomena in
that house, although the Slippertons went back to it a month or two
later and still have the same cook.