I’ve been researching and collecting historical cases of ghost hoaxes, and so I was pleased to find this great example from my mum’s home town of Clonmel, Tipperary. The ghost doesn’t have a name, so I’ve taken the liberty of calling her Sweary Mary for reasons that will become obvious.
Unspeakably foul language
The story starts in the spring of 1906 in two adjoining houses above shops in O’Connell street, Clonmel. Tenants in both houses started hearing strange rappings around the midnight hour, as well as ‘unspeakably foul language’ in a female voice. We’re never told what exactly the ghost said, so you will have to imagine the kind of profanities you’d hear from a lady Irish ghost in 1906.
As well as the filthy language heard seemingly from nowhere, furniture was tipped over, made beds were messed up and water thrown on them. Soap was placed in the kettle and salt was put in the teapot. The heathen ghost would also defile statues of the saints and pious images and drop mysterious anonymous letters through the letter boxes of the two houses.[i] Not only that, locked doors were mysteriously unlocked and the meat safe was somehow opened and all the meat scoffed leaving only the bones. There was certainly something ‘carnal’ about this ghost.
As the antics and foul language continued, the residents made a number of attempts to catch the potty mouthed spook. One tenant watched the front door for three hours to catch whoever was putting the letters through the letter box but saw nothing. As soon as he gave up, a letter plopped onto the door mat saying ‘There is no use in your watching, you won’t catch me.’[ii]
The tenants suspected that a prankster might have been accessing the house through the chimney, so set a trap. The ghost, always one step ahead, failed to fall into it.[iii]
By Tuesday 29 May, news of the sweary ghost had spread throughout Clonmel and hundreds of people gathered outside the two houses. A large number of police had to be deployed until late at night to move the crowds on, and by this stage the authorities were taking the situation seriously.[iv]
District Inspector Tweedy and Head Constable Brady were in charge of the investigation. It seems that unbeknownst to each other, Tweedy and Brady both visited the houses at about the same time but were each on the opposite side of the adjoining wall. They both heard strange noises and salty language, though each thought it was coming from the opposite side of the wall.[v]
As soon as the police officers left, a letter came through one of the letterboxes giving details of the conversations the officers had had and asking sarcastically why they had not been offered a cup of tea (or a ‘wee drop of potcheen’ in some accounts).
The report of the sweary Clonmel ghost was widely reported in Ireland and in Britain as well. Most accounts were tongue in cheek and seemed to enjoy the profane nature of the ghost. It was the bad language that made this ‘haunting’ unique. The English paper the Globe after first boasting that ‘a more self-respecting, high-minded class than our British ghost does not exist’ goes on to speculate that the rest of the ghosts in Clonmel are probably giving the foul-mouthed ghost the cold shoulder. Perhaps Sweary Mary could learn from the ghost of Hamlet’s father who was, the Globe continues, ‘the model of deportment to young spooks’.[vi]
In early June the police announced the mystery had been solved, though unfortunately did not provide any more details.[vii] However, one of the houses concerned received the following note through their letterbox:
‘I am sorry for all the trouble I have caused you, I beg your pardon, and I promise I’ll never do it again. Yours truly, the Ghost.[viii]
The ghost of Sweary Mary had finally learned some manners. It’s not clear who the culprit was, though one would suspect that it was one or more of the residents of the two houses, and often in poltergeist type hoaxes like this a teenage girl is involved. From the many historical accounts of ghost hoaxes I’ve collected, female ghost hoaxers tend to (but not always) fake poltergeist like phenomena, while male ghost hoaxers tend to don a white sheet or a scary costume and jump out on unwitting passers-by.
More noisy spooks
Similar events to those in Clonmel had occurred the previous year in Portmadoc, Wales. For six weeks a butcher’s shop was plagued by ghostly activity. Things were thrown about and a great amount of damage was caused such that the police also got involved, yet no one could catch the culprit behind the spooky phenomena.
Finally, one night a tin can clattered into the yard as if from nowhere, and when it was inspected, it was found to contain a message saying the ghost would trouble the occupant no more. The police examined the handwriting and found that it belonged to a servant girl, Mary Hughes who confessed to being the ‘ghost’ and throwing the can through a skylight window.[ix] The girl was fined for malicious damage.
Of course, these cases may also remind us of the Fox sisters from nineteenth century New York who fooled people into thinking the cracking of their toes were spirits communicating from beyond the grave, eventually leading to the creation of the Spiritualist religion. Ghost hoaxes have a long and rich history.
Sweary spooks like the Clonmel Ghost have been back in the news, though. Several newspapers and ITVs This Morning show ran pieces on the white lady of the Quantock Hills in Somerset that according to a ‘ghost hunter’ is telling visitors to F*** off![x]
See my accounts of some other ghost hoaxes here:
[i] Irish Independent 29 May 1906; 31 May 1906; Belfast Newsletter 31 May 1906
[ii] Irish Independent 29 May 1906
[iii] Belfast Newsletter 31 May 1906
[iv] Irish Independent 31 May 1906
[v] Irish Independent 29 May 1906
[vi] The Globe 31 May 1906
[vii] Irish Independent 5 June 1936
[viii] Irish Independent 15 June 1906
[ix] The Sunday People 26 February 1905