“True friends stab you in the front” – Oscar Wilde

On the Internet and the Astral Plane, nobody knows you’re a dog

One has to be careful who they hang out with.  Like it or not, your friends are a reflection (although often a carnival mirror view) of who you are.  I’m not saying your friends are clowns, but even though the folks you choose to associate with may be nothing like you, the association is assumed to involve some kind of simpatico.  This makes the already strange world of investigating presumed paranormal phenomena a difficult place to reside.  Hard to tell the crazy-sounding from the outright crazy from the “crazy like a fox”.  Then again, doesn’t that pretty much describe all sufficiently esoteric fields of human inquiry?  This becomes a minefield when one looks into extraordinary claims, which I’m told require extraordinary proof.  If there is no other truth to human existence, it seems clear that any place one can make a buck attracts those primarily motivated by profit (money, fame, sex-symbol status), and a realm of inquiry where knowledge is fleeting and evidence confusing can more readily attract the showman, the con artist, and the dubiously sane.  Thus the problems of fraud and fantasy in anomalistics have loomed large, ever since some savvy natural philosopher noticed the incredible malleability of human perception, the need to bend history to our current cultural conception of the world, and both our ability and willingness to deceive, as well as practice self-deception.

If somebody is convinced Graham Hancock or Micah Hanks are loons or hucksters, and you choose to publically give their claims consideration, odds are it will be hard to avoid identification as a related species and the reptilian overlords will be laughing all the way to the bank, or the Soylent Green processing plant, or world domination, whatever their ostensible goals are presumed to be.  Personally, I think they just want to amass enough wealth for a regular schedule of beach vacations.  It must suck to be sentient and ectothermic.  This is more or less guilt by association, and especially when one makes claims far outside the mainstream, being labelled as a fraud or freak by default is hardly avoidable.  When in order to be considered worthy of examination, the evidentiary standards are set by physical science, one treads very lightly, or receives the dreaded appellation “hoaxer” or “pseudo-scientist”. Or worse, “head case”.

But we all have our crosses to bear.  For example, a study of scientific misconduct, examining papers in the PubMed article database (biomedical literature, you know, the stuff that directly concerns your health), found a tenfold increase in retracted papers between 1975-2007 with nearly two-thirds of the retractions attributable to fraud, rather than error.  Like I said, choose your friends carefully.  You never know who’s getting jiggy underneath the lab coat.

Such was the case in the 19th Century investigation of the haunting of Scotland’s Ballechin House by representatives of the Society for Psychical Research.  Despite a variety of well-attested hauntings, numerous witnesses, and a satisfying back-story, the involvement of discredited psychical researcher and medium Ada Goodrich-Freer (1857-1931) cast a shadow over the whole spectral affair, and everyone chose to forget the central point, at least in my mind, which was the transmigration of the soul of an East India Company Major into a black cocker spaniel, and the ghoulish results.

In 1806, Ballechin House of Perthshire, Scotland was built on a property owned by the Steuart Clan since the 16th century (although not on the site of the original manor house).  Robert Hope Steuart (11th of Ballechin) was born on Jan 7th, 1804, and turned out to be the last of the direct male heirs in the line of the Steuarts of Ballechin.  Robert enlisted as an officer in the Bengal Army (which belonged to the East India Company at the time), shipping out to India in 1825.  By the time he retired in 1850, he had risen to the rank of Major.  Major Steuart inherited Ballechin House in 1834, and officially resided there until his death in 1876, apart from his time overseas.  Apparently, the people around him found him a tad odd, as he picked up a few curious and decidedly un-Scottish notions like reincarnation in India.

“The old Major,” as he is still known at Ballechin, appears to have been a very eccentric person. He had a profound belief in spirits, and spoke frequently of his own intention to return after death. He was very fond of dogs, and kept a large number of them in and about the house; and often declared his belief in the transmigration of souls, and his intention of making his post-mortem reappearance in the body of a particularly favorite black spaniel (Harper, 1907, p117).

It seems nobody looked forward to the return of the Major as a dog.  I’m not sure what the estate law was at the time, but there’s always the possibility that issues of inheritance could get a little complex when transmigration is involved.  When the Major died in 1876, a nephew John Skinner inherited Ballechin House, and promptly assumed the name Steuart (but changed the spelling to Stewart).  It pays to be in the peerage, after all.  Skinner wasn’t messing around.  Just in case there was any danger of the Major reincarnating as a dog, he immediately had all fourteen of Major Steuart’s dogs, including his beloved black spaniel, shot.  This seems awfully uncharitable, particularly if Major Steuart just wanted to return as a spaniel, spending his days sunning himself and chasing rabbits.  Although, he did explicitly state that he intended to haunt Ballechin in the form of a dog.  And haunt it he did, suggesting that Skinner’s massacre just moved things along a little quicker.  I mean, its darned hard to get your haunt on as a dog unless you are first reincarnated as a dog, and then summarily executed in that form.  Not sure if that’s karma or dogma.  And it kind of seems like premeditated murder given the circumstances. Not long after, encounters with the spectral spaniel began.

The wife of the old Major’s nephew and heir was seated one day adding up accounts in the dead man’s study, when the room was suddenly invaded by the old doggy smell, and an unseen dog pushed distinctly up against her (Tweedale, 1919, p115).

This was said to be the initial contact made by the canine ghost of Major Steuart.  There were of course other spectral phenomena associated with Ballechin house including a parcel of phantom nuns dating to a time when nuns lived in a cottage on the Ballechin property, but sightings of the ghostly black spaniel were said to be frighteningly frequent.

The bowed and bent figure of a spectral hunchback, gliding up-stairs, seen by two witnesses, was unnerving, but the most startling phenomenon was undoubtedly the frequent appearance of a spectral black spaniel, seen alike by those who had heard the story of the old Major and by many who had not. One of these last was a guest who, suffering one day from a severe headache, was trying to pass the time with setting up a camera in one of the rooms. He, strange to say, had a black spaniel of his own in the house, and thought he saw it run across the room. It looked larger, he thought, than his own dog; and then he saw his dog run into the room after it and wag his tail and seem pleased at the meeting. Casual mention of the incident elicited the fact that there was no other corporeal spaniel in or about the place. For guests to be pushed and snuffled at by invisible dogs was a common occurrence, and sounds as of dogs’ tails striking, in being waggled, on doors and wainscots, were continually heard; while real undoubted dogs, with no suspicion of anything ghostly about them, would frequently be observed watching the movements of persons or things invisible to merely human eyes. But one of the most unnerving experiences was that of one of two ladies who were sharing the same bedroom. She was wakened in the middle of the night by the frightened whimperings of a pet dog sleeping on the bed, and, looking round in the direction of the animal’s gaze, she saw—what think you?—nothing but two black paws on a table beside the bed (Harper, p108, 1907).

Ballechin quickly established itself as the “most haunted house in Scotland”.  Which is saying a lot.  Scotland is pretty haunted.  Ballechin House was often rented out during the hunting season, and sometimes quickly abandoned by paying tenants who grew wearisome of the spectral shenanigans.  Enter John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, aristocrat, industrial magnate, scholarly antiquarian with an interest in the occult, and member in good standing of The Society for Psychical Research.  He and another SPR member named Lieutenant Le Mesurier Taylor convinced the Society to rent Ballenchin house with the express purpose of sending in investigators to conduct on the spot tests. A team was assembled including Lord Bute, Lieutenant Taylor, and Ada Goodrich-Freer and 35 guests who knew little or nothing about Ballechin or the Old Major’s afterlife plans and were simply told this was a country-house party, the object being to observe what happened to the guests.  Thus, their method was to send a bunch of unsuspecting folks into a haunted house and have savvy SPR moles observe and report.  Records of what ensued were published in a book compiled by Goodrich-Freer and Taylor called The Alleged Haunting of B– House: Including a Journal Kept During the Tenancy of Colonel Lemesurier Taylor, which was also serialized in The Times newspaper.  Lots of supernatural activity was described in these records, from the ghostly nuns to the phantasmagoric spaniel.  After the investigation concluded and newspapers picked up on the story, things got ugly.

In a lengthy article in the Times headlined “On the trail of a Ghost”, J. Callender Ross, one of the guests, made a sustained attack on the Society for Psychical Research, and as the main documenter of the events, by implication, Ada Goodrich-Freer.  Suddenly, a lot of facts pertaining to the questionable credibility of Ms. Goodrich-Freer emerged.  Most of her writings were published under the pseudonym “Miss X”.  I like her already, for obvious reasons.  She was a practicing spiritual medium and claimed to be clairvoyant.  She claimed to be from an aristocratic Scottish family, to be the first female fellow of the Royal Society (neither of which were true), and was sleeping with well-known womanizer Frederic William Henry Myers, the founder of the Society for Psychical Research.  When she was caught cheating at a séance, it was the final straw.  She was repudiated by Freer, and the Society for Psychical Research revoked her membership, and removed related material on the Ballechin investigation from their Proceedings.

Ballechin House went from being the “most haunted house in Scotland” prior to the investigation, to being more or less completely ignored.  It was uninhabited by 1932, and most of the house was demolished in 1963, after a fire, leaving only the former servants quarters and outbuildings.  Conveniently, folks chose to forget that a ghostly black spaniel, presumed to be the incorporeal version of the reincarnated Major Steuart, had often appeared prior to the ill-fated and dubiously-staffed investigation.  Baby.  Bathwater.  Enough said.  But what of Old Major Steuart?  We hope he was adopted by a kind ghostly human friend who understood that, as Milan Kundera once said, “To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace”.

Goodrich-Freer, A. 1865-1931. The Alleged Haunting of B– House: Including a Journal Kept During the Tenancy of Colonel Lemesurier Taylor. London: G. Redway, 1899.
Harper, Charles George, 1863-1943. Haunted Houses: Tales of the Supernatural. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1907.
Tweedale, Violet (Chambers), Ghosts I Have Seen And Other Psychic Experiences. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1919.