“We are only tenants, and shortly the great Landlord will give us notice that our lease has expired” – Joseph Jefferson
To rent or own? I guess it largely depends on whether there are ghosts, poltergeists, or various and sundry things that go bump in the night, day, or whatever schedule such preternatural critters are obliged to adhere to, not to mention your tolerance level for paranormal shenanigans. Most leases do not include provisions for hauntings, and renter’s insurance generally doesn’t cover damages related to supernatural activity or the investigation thereof. Insurance companies don’t like risk, particularly of the non-quantifiable or Fortean kind. One wonders why actuaries as a group aren’t quivering lumps of existential dread as they are keenly aware of the statistical odds of being eaten, maimed, or otherwise dispatched from this mortal coil. Of course, since I’m not personally acquainted with any actuaries, I can neither confirm nor deny whether this is actually the case, although one must assume that it’s hard to be pals with somebody who is well-versed in calculating your life expectancy based on your various bad habits. In the stressful circumstance of trying to find a place to hang one’s hat in a new town, very few folks think to ask about whether a property has a history of hauntings. After all, real estate is about three things – location, location, and location, and if one of those locations happens to have footfalls in the boundary of another world, well, you just have to weigh the pros and cons. Maybe the drapes are particularly tasteful.
Soldiers go where the boss tells them to. Around March 1835, Captain Molesworth of the British Royal Regiment of Artillery found himself assigned to Leith Fort, an imposing citadel in Edinburgh, Scotland overlooking the Firth of Forth. Being a captain (and having a young daughter – his eldest daughter Matilda had recently died, and the surviving daughter Jane was an invalid), he was not obliged to reside in the barracks with the unwashed masses, and set about finding suitable lodgings. He found an acceptable domicile, renting a small semi-detached house in Trinity, two miles outside the city, from a landlord Mr. Webster, who lived in the adjoining house. After about two months of relative tranquility, Molesworth discovered his rental suffered from supernatural infestation.
in May or June, 1835; and when he had been in it about two months, he began to complain of sundry extraordinary noises, which, finding it impossible to account for, he took it into his head, strangely enough, were made by Mr. Webster. The latter naturally represented that it was not probable he should desire to damage the reputation of his own house, or drive his tenant out of it, and retorted the accusation. Still, as these noises and knockings continued, Captain Molesworth not only lifted the boards in the room most infected, but actually made holes in the wall which divided his residence from Mr. Webster’s, for the purpose of detecting the delinquent — of course without success. Do what they would, the thing went on just the same; footsteps of invisible feet, knockings, and scratchings, and rustlings, first on one side, and then on the other, were heard daily and nightly. Sometimes this unseen agent seemed to be knocking to a certain tune, and if a question were addressed to it which could be answered numerically, as, “How many people are there in this room?”, for example, it would answer by so many knocks. The beds, too, were occasionally heaved up, as if somebody were underneath, and where the knockings were, the wall trembled visibly, but search as they would, no one could be found (Crowe, 1849, p255-258).
This disquieting ruckus seemed a bit excessive to Captain Molesworth, who decided to solicit the help of acquaintances to ascertain the source, as the initial suspicion that fell on Webster did indeed seem a bit illogical. “Sheriff ‘ s officers, masons, justices of the peace, and the officers of the regiment quartered at Leith, who were friends of Captain Molesworth, all came to his aid, in hopes of detecting or frightening away his tormentor, but in vain” (Ingram, 1884, p74-76). It was noticed that the disturbing sounds prevailed wherever Molesworth’s daughter Jane was (although being sickly, she mostly kept to her bed), and the investigation briefly focused on her.
Mr. Webster declared that she made them: and it would seem that her father himself must, to some extent, have shared the suspicion; for the poor girl was actually tied up in a bag, so as to prevent all possible agency on her part. No cessation or diminution of the disturbance was, however, obtained by this harsh expedient. The people in the neighborhood believed that the noises were produced by the ghost of Matilda warning her sister that she was soon to follow; and this belief received confirmation when that unfortunate young lady, whose illness may have been aggravated by the severe measures dictated by unjust suspicion, shortly after died (Owen, 1861, p181-182).
Molesworth’s attempts to pinpoint the source of the spectral activity did a lot of damage to the house. “In the Edinburgh case, I835, the tenant, Captain Molesworth, did not try to have his lease quashed, but he did tear up ﬂoors, pull down wainscots, and bore a hole into the next house, that of his landlord, Mr. Webster, in search of the cause of the noises. Mr. Webster, therefore, brought an action to restrain him from these experiments” (Lang, 1894, p272). Apparently, Molesworth went as far as firing his pistol at the walls in an effort to root out his ghostly interlopers. He was an artilleryman, after all. Molesworth had just about enough, and decided to quit the lodging and find something less haunted, leaving behind substantial damages.
Suit was brought before the Sheriff of Edinburgh, by Mr. Webster, against Captain Molesworth, for damages committed by lifting the boards, boring the walls, and firing at the wainscot, as well as for injury done in giving the house the reputation of being haunted, thus preventing other tenants from renting it. On the trial, the facts above stated were all elicited by Mr. Lothian, who spent several hours in examining numerous witnesses, some of them officers of the army, and gentlemen of undoubted honor and capacity for observation (Owen, 1861, p181-182).
Webster’s lawyer, Maurice Lothian, who would later become Procurator Fiscal of the county of Edinburgh, did extensive investigations, and after a two-year trial (concluding on August 7, 1837), the courts ruled in favor of the plaintiff, Mr. Webster, demanding that Molesworth pay for the damages. Tenants inhabiting the house after Molesworth reported that they experienced no disturbances of any kind.
Since you still don’t really need a license to be a ghost hunter, perhaps when one undertakes an investigation of a haunting, it is best to leave it to the professionals, by which I mean well-insured, general contractors who have the skills to repair any damages that might ensue. But maybe you feel you have a calling for the spectral trade. If so, take the advice offered by Steven Pressfield, who said, “The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones”.
Crowe, Catherine, 1790-1876. The Night Side of Nature, Or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers. London: T. C. Newby, 1849.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain. London: W.H. Allen & co., 1884.
Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912. Cock Lane and Common-sense. New ed. London: Longmans, Green, 1894.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World. From the 10th American ed., with emendations and additions by the author … London: Trübner & co., 1861.