Weird Musical History #4 ~ The Cat Organ

In 1549, a huge pageant was held in Brussels in honour of the entry of King Phillip II of Spain into the city. The musical highlight of this spectacle was a moving float upon which a live bear played tunes on an organ. But it wasn’t just any organ. It was a cat organ, sometimes referred to by its German name the Katzenklavier.

The instrument the bear was playing consisted of twenty cats confined in narrow spaces so they could not move and with their tails sticking out. Their tails were attached to the organ keyboard by cords and the poor animals were arranged in order of the pitch of their meows. Every time the bear pressed a key, it pulled a cat’s tail, leading it to meow the desired note. Also on the float were live dancing monkeys and mechanical dancing wolves and deer.

But the cat organ was the star of the show. Even Philip II, not renowned for his sunny disposition, could not resist a smile at the spectacle.

The Katzenklavier

The cat organ makes a few appearances in historical records. The strange story below is taken from the Halifax Comet of 16 September 1893.

In Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century, mystery surrounded a run down garret on the east side of town. Strange and fearful noises were heard emanating from the building and many thought it was haunted by a dismal ghost. One day the caretaker was nearly scared to death when a dozen screaming hissing fiends shot past him in the dark. As the creatures escaped the building into the light, the caretaker realised they were black cats.

An intrepid reporter (whose name we are not given) decided to investigate the mystery, so he waited until dark and then climbed the stairs to the garret and waited. It wasn’t long before he heard a low mournful wailing sound that soon rose to such uncanny intensity that his hair stood on end.

He realised that the infernal howling was actually playing something that resembled a tune he knew: ‘Home Sweet Home’. Then the caterwauling seemed to play some Wagner and other ‘symphonies of a wild and weird nature’.

A light was coming from the keyhole, so the reporter knew there was someone home. He knocked on the door and eventually it was answered by a cruel looking old German man with an ashen face and long grey hair. He was wearing clothes that belonged in the previous century.

The old man suspiciously agreed to let the reporter in to see his ‘machine’ – the cat organ. The instrument resembled a church organ, but had several wooden stalls within each of which was a cat. In the bottom of each stall was a sharp pin attached to a keyboard, and as the inventor took his seat and ran his hands over the keys, strains of a Beethoven melody could be heard in the cats’ unsettling howling.

Badenis_Katzenmusik_(Gustav Brandt)

The inventor paused his playing and produced a jug of beer and some cheese for himself and some milk for the cats. He poured the milk into a trough that ran between the stalls so each cat could drink. Once he had succeeded in getting cats into the organ, the inventor said, he did not let them out again. The last time he had, they immediately turned on him in a ferocious assault nearly ripping him to pieces before fleeing to freedom (and terrifying the caretaker in the process).

As might be imagined, the inventor complained that it took a long time to arrange the cats in a scale according to the pitch of their meow.

A Cure for Madness

The article in the Halifax Comet seems pretty far-fetched, and it’s certainly thin when it comes to names and sources. But I think I may have identified the origins of this tall tale and who the mad scientist and inventor of the cat organ was based on.

Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813) was an influential German anatomist and psychiatrist. In fact, he invented the word ‘psychiatry’ (in German) and founded several scientific journals. In 1803 he published his oddly titled book Rhapsodies about applying the psychological method of treatment to mental breakdowns, an early classic of German psychiatry.

And this is where the cat organ comes in. He recommends it as a cure for madness. In particular, as a treatment for someone who is lacking in attention or in a constant reverie. This is how he described the instrument:

[The cats are] arranged in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard fitted out with sharpened nails would be set over them. The struck cats would provide the sound. A fugue played on this instrument-when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expressions on their faces and the play of these animals-must bring Lot’s wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.[i]

It’s not entirely clear if Reil was joking or being ironic. One of his other treatments was to dunk the unsuspecting madman into a tub of live eels![ii]

However, it seems likely to me that the odd story recounted in the Halifax Comet is based on, or is a dim recollection of, this odd German psychiatrist.

The whole idea of a cat organ seems rather implausible, and historians are not at all sure one was ever constructed or if the whole conceit was just a joke.[iii] You can imagine how hard it would be to secure enough cats into wooden boxes arranged into a musical scale if you’ve ever tried to get a cat into its carry case for a visit to the vet.

For more on musical cats, see my post about the amazing Cat Orchestra:

[i] Robert J. Richards ‘Rhapsodies on a Cat-Piano, or Johann Christian Reil and the Foundations of Romantic Psychiatry’, Critical Enquiry, Spring 1998, pp.700-701

[ii] Ibid p.721

[iii] Ibid p.722

Sweary Mary ~ The Clonmel Ghost

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


Talking Cats

People of a certain age may remember Prince the talking dog who appeared on the BBC show That’s Life in 1979 demonstrating his vocabulary. Prince would growl while his owner manipulated the dog’s jaw to produce just about discernible words, including what would become his catchphrase – ‘sausages!’

However, Prince’s feats pale when compared to those of some gifted felines.

How Many Lives Does a German Cat Have?

In 1912, Peter the talking cat made the headlines when he was exhibited in Hamburg. He apparently caused a sensation among the public and scientists alike by his ability to say ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!’ as well as the names Anna and Helene.[i]

Peter was also able, we are told, to sing a few words from a popular song, though we are not informed what that was.

Peter’s owner, a dentist called Frau Sutoris, said that she became aware of Peter’s talents when she accidentally stood on his tail and he yelled ‘Nein!’

Another German speaking cat made an appearance at the Vienna Exhibition of Cats in 1932.[ii] This six year old tom cat named Murri could pronounce ‘ja’, ‘nein’, and the name Anna as well as sing two nursery rhymes to a piano accompaniment.

We are not told who played the piano, though I’m assuming it wasn’t the cat. However, for more on musical cats, see my post about the amazing cat orchestra here:

Let Me Alone and Shut Up!

German is not the only language gifted cats can speak. Surgeon Vincente Quintana was one of over twenty witnesses to a talking cat in Santander, Spain in 1946.[iii] When the cat’s owner died, the surgeon and others present said the cat lamented her passing mournfully for ten minutes, repeatedly crying ‘Let me alone and shut up!’

The surgeon thought the cat was probably imitating something it had heard an old family servant say, though if most cats learned to speak I’ve no doubt this phrase would be heard pretty often.

Peter Pan Becomes Wendy

However, the prize for the best vocabulary of a supposed talking cat goes to a British moggy called Peter Pan who lived with his owners Major and Mrs Webber in the Wellington Hotel, Seaford, Sussex.

The story begins when two BBC employees, Stephen Grenfell and Bernard Lyons (appropriately enough) were sent to report on collapsed sea defences on the Hampshire coast in 1946.[iv] The two commentators were on the beach when they realised they had been cut off by the rising tide and had no option but to dive into the waves, whipped up by a 60mph wind, and swim for the shore, where two local journalists pulled them to safety.

The freezing and soaking BBC men were taken to the Wellington Hotel where they met the Webbers and Peter Pan their cat. Mrs Webber told the cat to ‘tell the gentlemen we are in great danger from the sea’ to which the cat replied (in an ‘unclear but rhythmical’ voice) ‘Wot! No sea wall, chum?’ I can’t help suspecting that what the cat actually said was something along the lines of ‘Meow meow meow meow meow’ with enough minor variations in the vocalisation to allow the humans to imagine they heard an English sentence.

However, Peter Pan gained a reputation as Britain’s only talking cat, and his cockney pronouncement about sea defences became his catch phrase, though it lacks the pith of Prince’s calling card ‘sausages’, it at least demonstrates a wider vocabulary.

Sadly, Britain’s only talking cat died the following year. Curiously, the cat’s obituary, which was widely reported, uses the name of Wendy rather than Peter Pan.[v] It’s not clear where the confusion over the cat’s name and sex came from, but somewhere along the line, Peter Pan the talking cat who uttered the immortal lines ‘Wot! No sea wall, chum?’ became Wendy.

Whatever the cat’s name and pronouns, it’s not recorded if the creature ever uttered anything other than the warning about Hampshire sea defences or whether he/she was just a one-trick pony…

[i] Hamilton Daily News, 16 February 1912

[ii] Nelson Leader, 3 June 1932

[iii] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 12 July 1946

[iv] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 21 September 1946

[v] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 20 June 1947

Slippery Sam ~ Yorkshire’s ‘Nessie’

During the 1930s Britain’s north coast was regularly visited by a mysterious sea monster. At least, this is what many witnesses attested at the time, including a former lord mayor and two well-known Labour politicians. The press loved this recurring silly season story and the creature was dubbed The Humber Monster and the Withernsea Visitor by various newspapers, though the folk of the Yorkshire coast also called him Slippery Sam, perhaps because of the large variations in eyewitness descriptions of the beast.[i]


In early January 1934 reports emerged of something strange off the coast of Filey, North Yorkshire – a sea monster. One witness described what he saw from Filey Brigg: ‘a huge body with numerous humps and a small head’. A search was made of the bay, though nothing was found.

However, further north in Gristhorpe Bay, the monster was seen again 200 yards from the shore. It must have caused a lot of excitement as a line of humps appeared in the water, but it proved to be a false alarm – the row of humps suddenly separated and turned out to be some porpoises swimming in a line.[ii]

Head Like a Horse

The reports by fishermen of a strange creature off the coast of Yorkshire near Redcar and the Humber mouth continued into February, 1934, according to press reports. The Leeds Mercury, for example, claimed that the Yorkshire Monster resembled that of Loch Ness for fearsomeness. It had ‘a head like a horse, with big eyes and a broad snout’.[iii]

Two witnesses were fishermen Jack Thompson and his brother Jim, who were out in a little rowing boat about a mile east of Redcar. Checking their nets as day broke, they were stunned to see a huge creature in the sea. This is how Jim described the monster:

‘It had a head like a horse or hippopotamus, big eyes and a broad snout. We watched it for about a quarter of an hour. It approached the boat but when it got near it plunged under the water and we saw it no more’.[iv] In all their fifty years of fishing they had never seen anything like this creature.

Further down the coast, a fisherman in a boat near Cleethorpes was examining the fishing lines when he shocked his shipmates by shouting in fear and falling back into them. He could only point in speechless horror to what he had seen in the water. His mates rushed to the side to see the water swirling and a huge black shape that vanished into the depths.[v]

The monster seems to have taken a break in 1935, but would back with a splash the following year…

The Mayor Meets the Monster

In early August 1936 the monster was seen by three prominent political bigwigs. Herbert Witard, former lord mayor of Norwich, was with Charles Ammon (Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell North) and his wife and children and Archibald Gosling, a former Labour MP at Eccles on the Norfolk coast. This is how Witard described what he saw in the sea on that day:

Herbert Witard Courtesy Norfolk Record Office

‘The creature looks like a huge snake. It was at least a mile out to sea and swimming parallel with the coast. Its speed was terrific. From 90 to 100 miles per hour would not be an exaggerated estimate. It disappeared very quickly on the skyline in the direction of Happisburgh.’[vi]

Charles Ammon, MP, added that the creature was ‘about 40 feet long and different parts of the body rose in and out of the water with the movement of an eel’.[vii]

Witard dismissed the idea that they were mistaken and had misinterpreted a line of porpoises: ‘The suggestion that we mistook a shoal of porpoise for a serpent is ridiculous. I am an old sailor and I know something about the habits of porpoise.’[viii]

Courtesy Eastern Daily Press

These prominent witnesses made front page news in the UK, and in the weeks following their reports, more sightings occurred up and down the east coast of England…

Slippery Sam

Sightings of a monster off the Yorkshire coast continued in the first few weeks of August, 1936.  Mr J. Barkley, owner of the Cliff Café at Sewerby was an official coast watcher for the Board of Trade. He told the Leeds Mercury that he had watched the creature through a telescope  from the top of Sewerby cliffs for twenty minutes: ‘After lying on top of the water it would rush and dive as though feeding on something below.’ He described it as being between fourteen and twenty feet long and looking like a huge black fish.

Mr J.G. Twigy, a member of East Riding of Yorkshire county council also saw something off the coast of Withernsea. At first he thought it was a speedboat, but then realised it was moving three times too fast for that. He improbably claimed, as did Witard, Ammon and Gosling, that the creature was moving at around 100 miles per hour.[ix]

As sightings continued, thousands of visitors flocked to the coastal towns of Yorkshire in the hope of catching a glimpse of the monster, and many did. Six witnesses at Roker saw what appeared to be a huge black fish which cavorted and jumped out of the water for fifteen minutes. Sightings also occurred in Scarborough and further north in Sunderland.[x]

The factor that can bring disparate and conflicting eye witness accounts together is a recognisable name. Strange shadows, movements or shapes occurring on Loch Ness can coalesce under the banner of ‘Nessie’. However, the newspapers of the day were remiss in not deciding on a definitive name for this creature. It was sometimes given localised names such as the Humber Monster or the Withernsea Visitor, but the monster seemed to roam up and down the east coast, so these names did not really stick.

Among the thousands of monster hunters scouring the Yorkshire coast, though, the creature had been given a much more appropriate name – Slippery Sam.[xi] This name reflects the fact that the witness descriptions of him are very varied – like a huge fish, like a serpent, like a horse, like a hippopotamus….

And the fact that descriptions were so varied leads to the obvious question: were people witnessing the same thing?

Cleethorpes Catches the Monster!

A number of explanations were offered in the press for the monster sightings. Some suggested porpoises swimming in a line would give the impression of humps near the surface.[xii] Although former Lord Mayor Witard dismissed this explanation, looking at his sketch, it could plausibly be seen as the backs of a line of porpoises. Others suggested it might be a shark.[xiii] Another explanation offered was that witnesses had actually seen a flock of birds flying close to the surface of the sea, looking at a distance like a long undulating creature. Seals were another explanation, though these would be rather too slow to explain most sightings of our speedy monster.[xiv] However, the claims that the creature could swim at a hundred miles per hour must surely be an exaggeration!

The differing descriptions and different locations suggest that witnesses had seen or misinterpreted a number of different creatures for the monster, but perhaps the most likely explanation for a majority of the sightings was a whale.

In mid-August 1936 a party of campers saw what they thought was an upturned canoe on the beach near Cleethorpes. On closer investigation, it turned out to be a stranded whale. The Hull Daily Mail crowed that ‘Loch Ness and other resorts may claim to see monsters, but Cleethorpes catches them!’[xv]

Other papers pointed out that a whale with part of its body and tale above the surface of the water takes on the appearance of a classic sea monster, with the tail being the monster’s head and the body of the whale being the monster’s hump.[xvi]

How a whale might be seen as a sea serpent (Leeds Mercury)


Slippery Sam’s star witnesses and the thousands strong monster hunt off the Yorkshire coast marked the peak of the creature’s fame. Although the beached whale may have been the origin of some of the sightings, it can’t have been the only cause as sightings continued in the summer of 1937 when bus driver Joseph Shepherd stopped his bus on the promenade near Withernsea to watch a jet black twelve foot long creature move through the waves like a speedboat.[xvii]

Sea monster sightings in the 1930s were very similar to UFO sightings later in the century – they occurred in ‘flaps’ (or perhaps more appropriately ‘waves’). Early media reports result in more people being hyper-vigilant about their environment, scouring the sea or the skies and noticing and misinterpreting mundane objects that they would not normally see or pay attention to, and perhaps that’s what happened with Slippery Sam. And of course, the numbers of visitors looking out to sea in search of a monster would be much higher in the tourist season when these flaps occurred.

It’s pretty clear that the newspapers didn’t take the sea serpent stories seriously, though. The Leeds Mercury referred to the monster as an ‘annual August sensation’. It went on to say that ‘the sea serpent is one of the great stock jokes of the British race, like mothers-in-law and Wigan Pier.’[xviii]

The Louth Standard, after reporting a 1936 sighting of a monster near Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire that was forty feet long and racing like an ‘express train’, commented that ‘we should love a real life monster here. The children would love to ride on it. So much more thrilling than a donkey ride.’[xix]

The world probably seemed a dark place in the mid-1930s at the height of monster mania, and these silly season stories no doubt provided some relief. The Ballymena Observer commented:

‘We are fed daily horrors, satiated with the deeds of desperate men. But here, rising from the sea like Venus, with the action of a worm and the pace of a speedboat, is our old friend, escaped once more from Eden and showing himself more of a dove than a serpent, to remind us that the holidays have begun.’[xx]

Perhaps it was the darkness of those years leading to the outbreak of World War Two that prompted the Yorkshire Post to suggest that ‘if the sea serpent is wise he may well prefer to maintain his anonymity until the human race has advanced a little further towards civilisation’.[xxi]

In any case, the nature of human perception means that if we look hard enough, we will see monsters, whether they are there are not.

[i] Sunderland Echo, 13 August 1936

[ii] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3 January 1934

[iii] Leeds Mercury, 5 February 1934

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] News Chronicle, 8 August 1936

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Portsmouth Evening News, 8 August 1936

[ix] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936

[x] Sunderland Echo, 13 August 1936

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936

[xiii] Sunderland Echo, 13 August 1936

[xiv] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936

[xv] Hull Daily Mail 19 August 1936

[xvi] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936

[xvii] Leeds Mercury, 10 July 1937

[xviii] Leeds Mercury, 13 August 1936

[xix] Louth Standard, 15 August 1936

[xx] Ballymena Observer, 14 August 1936

[xxi] Yorkshire Post, 17 August 1936

Yorkshire Cave Girl Mystery!

In the summer of 1924, a shroud of mystery descended on the West Yorkshire village of Eldwick, near Bingley. Rumour had it that a beautiful but excitable young woman whose only companion was a grey cat had taken up residence in a cave in the nearby popular beauty spot of Shipley Glen. On her visits to nearby villages, she couldn’t or wouldn’t reveal any details about herself beyond that her name was Florrie, and it was assumed that she was suffering from memory loss and how and why she came to be living in the cave was a matter of much speculation. The mysterious cave dweller and her plight hit the headlines around the country, and strange and romantic stories were told about her, her cat and a certain tall young man who had been seen visiting her at unearthly hours. And then she vanished…

Florrie All Alone

Florrie All Alone (as the villagers of Eldwick dubbed her) was thought to have started living in her cave in Shipley Glen in the July or August of 1924.[i] The Cave Girl came down into the village on occasion and kindly local women befriended her, though they could get no more out of her than her name being Florrie. Florrie was described as being in her early twenties with dark hair. She wore a ‘smart brown costume’ and had a ‘somewhat excitable disposition’. She was ‘passably good-looking’ according to the Leeds Mercury, though the Daily Mirror described her as a ‘pretty cave woman’.[ii]

As the stories about the ‘pretty cave woman’ spread, local youths searched Shipley Glen to try and find her cave, which they did. On entering, they couldn’t find her, but suddenly became aware that she was sitting at the back of the cave reading a paperback novel and laughing at them, which either embarrassed or scared them, for they left immediately. Another local boy saw her in her cave at 8pm one evening, and another Eldwick resident saw strange lights when crossing the Glen at around 1.30am one night. He assumed that the cave woman was responsible for this.

Shipley Glen (courtesy of Tim Green)

Eldwick shopkeeper Mrs Holgate described how the strange woman had rushed excitedly into her shop one day unwashed and dishevelled and asked for a comb, saying she needed it because she was going to Leeds the next day. Mrs Holgate provided her with one, but noted that a mysterious tall man was waiting for her outside the shop.[iii]

But perhaps the villagers who got to know the mysterious troglodyte best were owners of Eldwick’s tea shop, Timothy Bruce and his sister. One Saturday afternoon, Mr Bruce heard a banging at the door of his shop and was surprised to see the bedraggled cave girl standing there, soaked by the torrential rain. She asked for a cup of tea, but because the shop was closed and the fire was out, he took pity on the woman and brought her to his house where he gave her tea and a meal, which, to his surprise, she insisted on paying for. Mr Bruce was even more surprised when she asked for and smoked ten cigarettes, which she described as her only comfort.[iv]

It was a stormy evening and the woman, who introduced herself only as Florrie, asked if she could stay the night. When Mr Bruce agreed, she then asked if she could fetch her cat, her only friend. She said the cat had come to her when she was in the cave and slept with her, helping her to keep warm by snuggling up to her. Mr Bruce agreed to the extra guest, and Florrie disappeared, returning soon after with her faithful companion, a fine grey cat.

The tea shop owner was touched by Florrie’s kindness to the cat, and offered her a trial period of employment helping him in his business. Florrie agreed. It seemed the unfortunate woman’s luck had turned.

Florrie told Mr Bruce that she had been employed as a nurse to a Bradford man for two years but that he had died leaving her destitute and forcing her to seek the shelter of the cave on Shipley Glen.[v]

On the first day of her employment, Florrie left early to open up the tea shop. Mr Bruce followed a little later to find the shop open and the grey cat snoozing in front of the fire. But Florrie was gone, never to return. Mr Bruce put the cat outside so that it could, he supposed, go after its mistress.[vi] Why she had left so suddenly and without her faithful cat was a cause of much speculation.

Cave Girl Vanishes!

The local police were informed that a young woman, apparently suffering from memory loss, had been living in a cave in Shipley Glen and had disappeared and officers from Baildon and Bingley police investigated. They found the ‘cave’ Florrie had been using – it was actually a hollow called Fox’s Hold under a large protruding rock rather than a cave. They found some discarded women’s shoes and a glove, along with empty cigarette packets and toffee papers. They also discovered a lurid ‘twopenny novelette’ – a melodrama about an arranged marriage called The Man Who Bought Her.[vii] The floor of the ‘cave’ had some bracken spread over some old carpet, which was assumed to be Florrie’s bed.[viii]

Who was this strange but beautiful Cave Girl? Who was the mysterious tall man she had been seen with? What had happened to her and her faithful feline companion? What clues did the objects left in her cave provide?

The ‘lurid’ novel the cave girl was reading before she disappeared

Cave Girl Found!

Florrie was discovered soon after her disappearance in Eldwick village by a constable and taken to Bingley police station. At the time she was found, she was with a young man from Leeds. Her name was confirmed as Florrie, though her full name was not reported. She was a native of Derbyshire.

It turned out that she was not, in fact living in the cave, and never had been.[ix] She had spent some time there eating meals she had bought from local shops or reading trashy novels, which had perhaps inspired her to make up the story of her being destitute and living in the cave. She had also shown the cave to her male friend, the tall man of mystery the villagers had been speculating about.

There were no charges against Florrie, so she was released. She had, though, fooled the villagers and the local and national press into imagining strange and romantic stories of a mysterious cave girl who had lost her memory and was forced to hide out on the Yorkshire moors with her only friend in the world being a little grey cat.

And I’m afraid, we have no idea of what became of the cat.

[i] Daily Mirror, 29 September 1924; Evening Dispatch, 29 September 1924; Halifax Evening Courier, 29 September 1924

[ii] Leeds Mercury, 29 September 1924; Daily Mirror, 29 September 1924

[iii] Hull Daily Mail, 29 September 1924

[iv] Yorkshire Evening Post, 29 September 1924

[v] Hull Daily Mail, 29 September 1924

[vi] Yorkshire Evening Post, 29 September 1924

[vii] Leeds Mercury, 30 September 1924

[viii] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 30 September 1924

[ix] Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 September 1924; Shipley Times and Express, 3 October 1924

Attack of the North Sea Monster!

Fishermen are known for their tall tales, but few are as tall as the tale told of the gigantic fire breathing sea serpent that attacked a Scottish trawler in 1903. Reports of sea monsters were fairly common in the newspapers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the desperate battle between the crew of the Glen Grant and the North Sea Monster is one of the most exciting.[i] The account below is based on supposed eyewitness accounts described in the British press.

In the early hours of Tuesday 8 September, the steam trawler Glen Grant was heading away from Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire towards its fishing grounds. In charge of the vessel and the nine man crew was Captain Joseph Carter, described as an ‘old and tried seaman’.

An Enormous Monster with a Head Like a Chinese Dragon

At 5am, those on deck became aware of a roaring sound accompanied by a seething turmoil in the water. It was assumed that this was caused by whales, but the crew looked on in disbelief as ‘an enormous monster with a head like a Chinese dragon’ rose up from the sea.

The size of the monster was estimated to be around 200 feet – twice as long as a blue whale, with an improbably long 50 foot neck standing up out of the water. The serpent was described as dark in colour with a head like a sea horse (or a Chinese dragon in some reports) and with a long fin or mane running down the back of its neck. Its eyes burned with a terrifying green fire and glistening teeth were visible in its cavernous mouth. Around the mouth were great tusks and whiskers that ‘stood out like topsail yards’.

The strange creature ploughed through the waves towards the Glen Grant with a strange swaying motion and most of the terrified crew scrambled to various hiding places. The monster then ‘rested his chin reflectively on the truck of the mainmast’ while the few crew that remained on deck watched unable to move.

Fiery Breath

The creature’s attention was caught by the open skylight of the cabin, and he thrust his head through the opening. Inside, Captain Carter, the ship’s mate and the steward were about to take their morning coffee when ‘the awful looking head swung across the table’. The Captain and the mate, being strict teetotallers, knew this was not a hallucination and dropped their coffee mugs and fled. The unfortunate steward, though, found himself cornered and unable to make his escape.

The monster slowly inspected the inside of the cabin before scorching the steward’s whiskers and the cabin’s paintwork with his fiery breath. The creature then removed his head from the cabin.

Back on deck, one of the crew hurled a belaying pin (a metal rod used in ship’s rigging) at the monster. The noise it made when it hit the creature ‘sounded as if an iron tank had been struck’. The monster then disappeared into the sea with a strange hissing sound.

Headline from The Dundee Courier 12 September 1903

Lifted by Some Giant Hand

Their ordeal wasn’t over. The serpent dived under the Glen Grant and the vessel found itself lifted out of the sea as if by a ‘giant hand’. They hung in the air for a few seconds with the waves foaming below them before being plunged down with such force that everything on deck was swept away and the cabin and engine room were flooded.

The horrified crew watched as the monster swam some distance away from the Glen Grant. Then, to the crew’s utter consternation, it turned and began to head back towards the trawler at a furious speed ‘as if he was resolved to crush the ship to pulp’.

At this point, one of the crew – a fisherman called Wiseman – dashed to retrieve his gun from below deck. When the monster was about 15 yards away he aimed and fired. It’s not clear if the shot was accurate, but in any case the monster hesitated before diving beneath the waves showing a ‘long sinuous body’. They watched the creature through their glasses as it undulated under the water, but it did not attack again.

It took the crew some time to recover their senses after the sensational events, though they eventually turned to pumping out the ship and pulling in their nets before steaming back to shore. The Captain, we are told, was reluctant to come forward with his testimony but was persuaded to do so by his crew, who were all natives of Aberdeenshire.

How Long is a Sailor’s Yarn?

So how plausible is this 200 foot long, green-eyed, dragon-headed, lion-maned sharp-toothed, whiskery fire-breathing sea monster? Well, although the account was widely reported in 1903, the press treated the story with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Many pointed out that tales of mysterious sea serpents cropped up every year and treated this report as an unlikely but thrilling yarn. The monster’s size – twice as big as the world’s largest animal, the blue whale – is certainly implausible, and fire-breathing is an unlikely superpower for an underwater creature.

However, the Glen Grant was a real trawler. Furthermore, the crew of another steam trawler, the Montrose, had reported a much less dramatic encounter with a sea serpent off the eastern Scottish coast a few days before. This creature was estimated at over 100 feet long and raised its head 5 or 6 feet above the water. It moved in a ‘snaky’ fashion and ‘humps’ also protruded from the waves in stereotypical Nessie style, though no other details were given, and there were certainly none of the fantastic elements attributed to the much more impressive monster that supposedly attacked the Glen Grant.[ii] The Montrose sighting is consistent with a misperceived whale, perhaps, but was widely reported as being the same creature that attacked the Glen Grant.

So what happened to the crew of the Glen Grant? Did they have an ambiguous encounter similar to the men on the Montrose and then decide to add some colourful details? Or were the exciting events invented by sensation hungry journalists hoping to fill in some column inches? Were the whole crew of the Glen Grant in on a monster hoax? Or is there really a fire-breathing monster – the biggest on earth – inhabiting the North Sea?

Some of the improbable details – the size, the fire-breathing, the metallic clang the monster made when hit with the belaying pin, the way it rested its chin ‘reflectively’ on the ship – makes me feel someone is pulling our leg, but if hoax it is, it’s a delightful one and deserves to better known. It would make a great monster movie.

But this wasn’t the last time that a monster from the deep visited our shores. Stay tuned for the story of Slippery Sam – the Yorkshire Sea Monster….

[i] Dundee Courier, 12 September 1903; Westminster Gazette, 14 September 1903; Derry Journal, 16 September 1903; Northern Scot and Moray and Nairn Express, 19 September 1903

[ii] Dundee Courier, 7 September 1903; Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin Review, 11 September 1903

Monster Fly Attacks Yorkshire!

A monster fly three feet in length and with an 18 inch dagger like tongue caused mayhem when it escaped from a laboratory and went on the rampage in Yorkshire in February, 1932. This is according to a contemporary Bulgarian newspaper and reported by Reuters in several British papers several months later when it created quite a buzz. It was not reported immediately, as it was feared the killer fly would cause panic in London if the populace knew.[i] Or so we are told…

A giant fly killed by Dr Who in 1973

The story begins in Tanganyika, modern day Tanzania. An investigator from a British expedition into the jungle found three 26 inch long eggs that were unknown to science. The eggs were put in an incubator and shipped back to England where they were taken to the laboratory of a ‘learned Society’.

One night, the laboratory caretaker was woken from his sleep by a loud roar that sounded like an aeroplane taking off. This noise was followed by the barking of his dog, and then silence.

The caretaker rushed to the laboratory to find his dog was dead – ‘pierced as if by a rapier’. Two of the mysterious eggs were on the floor, while the third had apparently hatched judging by the fragments of shell it had left. Furthermore, the laboratory window was smashed and the monster – whatever it was – had escaped.

A professor was sent for and examined the remaining eggs and pronounced they were from a large bird. However, when one of these eggs was smashed open, it revealed a huge fly that was three feet long with an 18 inch dagger like tongue. The professor duly reported this to the Home Office and the police were instructed to hunt down the monster insect.

The fly then made its way to Yorkshire, where by day it hid in the trees but at night feasted on several hapless sheep, killing many before it was eventually traced.

As police approached the monster in armoured cars, it flew up in the air with a deafening roar and then escaped out to sea. However, the British Navy were called and after pursuing the fly managed to shoot it down.

The Bulgarian source (according to Reuters) said the story originally came from the British newspaper Daily Step, though I can find no reference to this publication, and it seems an unusual name for an English language paper. One can only assume it was a giant hoax by Bulgarian newspapers (or Reuter’s Sofia office).

Let’s hope so, because if not, then one of those monster eggs is still unaccounted for and may be frozen somewhere in a London laboratory waiting to be thawed, hatched and unleashed on an unsuspecting population. Perhaps the boffins should prepare for this eventuality with some gain of function research  – genetically engineering a giant spider to catch the giant fly…

But of course, nasty things like that would never escape from a modern laboratory…

[i] Sheffield Daily Telegraph 12 December 1932; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer  12 December 1932

What did the atheist philosopher see when he returned from the dead?

In June 1988 atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer was recovering in hospital after a bout of pneumonia. Not wanting to eat hospital food, one of his lady friends had smuggled in some smoked salmon for him, and when he carelessly dropped some of this into his mouth it got stuck in his throat and he choked to death. Or at least his heart stopped for four minutes.

A mysterious public domain picture

The medics successfully revived him, and on coming round he said, ‘You’re all mad!’ Ayer was not sure what he meant by this, but this atheist philosopher – the philosophical iconoclast who introduced logical positivism to Britain – had been on a four-minute journey to the other side. This philosopher had written the notorious Language Truth and Logic (the Never Mind the Bollocks of philosophy books) in 1936 where he argued that we can only understand the meaning of something if we understand how it can be verified – proved true or false by observation. This is the verification principle, the central tenet of logical positivism. Whatever can’t be verified empirically was worse than merely false. It was meaningless.

Alfred Jules (Freddy) Ayer

So according to Ayer, all pronouncements about ethics, beauty, religion, metaphysics and God were not wrong. They were simply gobbledegook. They may at times be gobbledegook that we like, but they are gobbledegook nonetheless. Yet now Ayer the arch sceptic had been brought back from the dead, and he had had a vision. This is what he saw.

After crossing a river (perhaps the river Styx of Greek mythology), Ayer described seeing a painfully bright red light which he felt was governing the universe. He also saw two ‘creatures’ that he took for ministers responsible for regulating space. These ministers, Ayer believed, had just carried out an inspection but had failed to notice that space was slightly ‘out of joint’, and that this meant that the laws of nature weren’t working properly.

Ayer assumed that this problem with space and the laws of nature was the reason for the painful red light. He felt it was his responsibility to put all this right and that if he did so, the red light would go out.

Ayer knew that physics since Einstein viewed space and time as one, and so he thought that by operating on time, the problem with space being out of whack could be fixed. He tried to communicate this to the ministers of space, but they couldn’t hear him or ignored him. Ayer then had the idea of walking to and fro and waving his wristwatch above his head. This, he reasoned, would direct their attention to the idea of time. However, this didn’t work and Ayer felt more and more frustrated.

And then he was brought back from the dead.

So what impact did this experience have on Ayer? Summing up his thoughts on his ‘death’, he wrote: ‘My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.’[i]

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

What happened to Ayer was a Near Death Experience or NDE. These experiences frequently include floating above the hospital bed and watching medical staff working to save the life of the experiencer; passing down a tunnel towards a bright light; meeting dead relatives or religious figures; there may be intense spiritual feelings; finally, the experiencer returns to his or her body, often reluctantly, to carry on living. Many survivors report being transformed into better, more compassionate or more spiritual human beings by their experiences.[ii]

It’s not possible to know how common these experiences are on the point of death because, well, we can only know about them if the person returns to the land of the living. For those who remain dead we’ve no idea what they experienced, if anything. However, most research on patients who have come near to death suggests that less than half of them (perhaps much less than half of them) undergo a Near Death Experience.[iii] The majority of people who nearly die have no such experience.

Ayer’s description of what he saw is quite atypical, with its odd scientific themes of space-time and regulation of the universe. Perhaps this was influenced by the fact that Ayer had been reading Stephen Hawking’s bestseller A Brief History of Time in his hospital bed.

Many were surprised that the irascible old atheist had said that his experience had ‘slightly weakened’ his belief that there was no life after death. Even more surprising, one of the doctors claimed that Ayer had said to him, sheepishly, ‘I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.’[iv] Perhaps some people of faith were hoping for a miraculous conversion with the notorious unbeliever finally seeing the light…

However, Ayer soon wrote a retraction of these words (despite him saying it was not a retraction – it clearly was) called ‘Postscript to a Postmortem’.[v] Here he wrote that his experience did not weaken his conviction that there was no afterlife. The experience just gave him, he said, a less inflexible attitude toward that belief. However, he stressed the best explanation for his odd experience was that his brain was still active during those minutes after his heart stopped.

And of course, there is a huge philosophical problem with the argument that NDEs are evidence for life after death. The problem is that Near Death Experiences are only evidence that people have Near Death Experiences. It’s a leap of faith from that to an afterlife. Furthermore, the experiencer was not really dead. If they had been really dead, they wouldn’t be able to tell us about their Near Death Experience. As far as we know NDEs only happen to the living.


In any case, Ayer supposedly became a better person after his ‘death’. His wife said ‘Freddie became so much nicer after he died… He was not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.’ He also began to appreciate scenery, saying while at his villa in France, ‘I suddenly stopped and looked out at the sea and thought, my God, how beautiful this is… for 26 years I had never really looked at it before.’[vi]

The detail about Ayer choking on a piece of contraband smoked salmon is a nice touch to the story, though there is some reason to doubt it. One of the doctors who revived Ayer examined his throat and found no trace of salmon and he suspects that this fishy detail was invented by Ayer to add a little colour to the story.[vii]

I can’t help thinking back to the time in the late 1980s when as a student I chaired a philosophical discussion with Anthony Flew, another notorious philosophical atheist who also supposedly found God in his last days. The debate was about life after death and the possibility (or not) of evidence for it. When the President of the student Christian Society demanded of Flew how he could be so sure there could be no life after death, he replied that of all the people who died when the Titanic sank, none of their names appeared on the list of survivors.


[i] A.J. Ayer ‘What I Saw When I Was Dead’ In Paul Edwards, Immortality (pp. 269-275), (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1997)

[ii] Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences (New York: Prometheus Books, 1993) p. 7

[iii] Ibid, pp.34-35

[iv] William Cash ‘Did Atheist Philosopher See God When He ‘Died’?’ National Post, 3 March 2001

[v] A.J. Ayer ‘Postscript to a Postmortem’, The Spectator 15 October 1988

[vi] Cash, 2001

[vii] Ibid

Weird Musical History #3 ~ The Elvis Presley Séance (1979)

Two years after Elvis Presley died, a seance was arranged in a North London Spiritualist Church. The aim was to contact the King of Rock and Roll from beyond the grave. The event was recorded and released as a vinyl LP by Shadow Records in 1979.

Front cover of The Elvis Presley Séance (1979)

The event is narrated by the softly spoken Radio One DJ Stuart Colman, and the séance was also attended by fan club member Theresa Currie (whose job it was to test the medium by asking questions only someone who know Elvis could answer), some tabloid journalists and a few other witnesses.

As side one of this odd record progresses, the medium, Carmen Rogers, arrives. She is, the sleeve notes tell us, a ‘nationally known medium of exceptional talent’. Carmen organises those present into a semi-circle with her at the front.

When the spirit of Elvis enters the building, there is little fanfare. Carmen mutters ‘the fella’s here,’ and tells us that Elvis is getting annoyed. Carmen then describes the King’s nervous habit with his fingers and his stuttering, which she claims he always did before a performance. Carmen also sensed that Elvis suffered from terrible headaches and was taking drugs (not LSD, Carmen clarifies, but ‘medicated drugs’).

Back cover and sleeve notes

Then Elvis, through his medium, asks those present: ‘Who’s got the music?’ It seems the spirit Elvis is unhappy about someone messing with the arrangements of one of his songs for a commemorative concert. Perhaps it’s someone called Lenny who’s doing the messing, Carmen says, before moving on to say that there is some argument between two performers as to who will sing at the concert.

Here Stuart Colman interrupts and suggests the spirit Elvis may be referring to a 1979 movie by John Carpenter which starred Kurt Russell as Elvis but had vocals recorded by country singer Ronnie McDowell.

Carmen is having none of this. She is adamant the performance she’s talking about is some kind of posthumous award.

As the séance progresses, Carmen says Elvis drank a lot. When this is met with silence, she adds that it wasn’t alcohol but something else. Theresa from the fan club suggests it’s Gator Aid. The medium claims she can taste it in her glass of water.

Next Carmen offers some comments on Elvis’s autopsy. He had a problem with his throat and was losing his voice, she claimed. No, answers Theresa. Undeterred, Carmen goes on to observe that the King’s feet were terribly big….

But now comes a killer question from Theresa: ‘What kind of magazines did Elvis read?’ Carmen answers that he didn’t read much, mainly trade papers….

Which is not at all true. He apparently took trunk loads of (mainly spiritual) books on tour with him.

But with that clanger, side one draws to a close. I was disappointed that the medium did not try to speak in Elvis’s voice and that the spirit Elvis didn’t sing us a song. In fact, the whole affair was rather tawdry and dull, and I only listened to side two so you don’t have to…

So here we are on the Other Side. The séance continues where it left off. The fan club member asks the medium what Christmas gift Elvis gave to Lisa Marie Presley in 1976 that she still uses. Carmen answers that it was a silver car, though it was in fact a golf buggy. ‘Was it silver?’ Carmen asks repeatedly with a touch of what sounds like desperation in her voice, though the fan remains non-committal.

Theresa from the fan club asks Carmen what happened to Elvis’s blingy TCB (‘taking care of business’) ring after his death. Carmen says it’s in a bank or safe, which doesn’t enlighten us much, though when pressed says it’s in the possession of a female family member. From what I gather, Elvis had more than one such ring. In fact, one of them (given by Elvis to one of his backing singers in 1969) was sold at auction in 2020 for over $400,000.[i]

However, this leads Theresa to ask the question of what happened on Elvis’s last day. Carmen clearly doesn’t want to answer this. ‘You don’t really want a description, do you?’, carmen asks. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply.

And so Carmen describes how Elvis was unshaven and in his dressing gown after just getting up. He felt a blinding headache and a choking sensation, as well as feeling heavy as if he was drunk. He heard a door slam and the ringing of bells before he lost consciousness. Carmen’s account seems devoid of detail and pretty far from the official narrative, it has to be said.

In reality, it seems Elvis died on the toilet on the evening of August 16th. His death has been variously blamed on the cocktail of prescription drugs he was taking, heart problems, allergy to codeine and Valsalva’s manoeuvre (in other words, straining to poo too hard).

Anyway, soon after, Carmen intones that ‘he’s away…. He’s away….’ The spirit of Elvis had left North London… Somehow the medium resists the temptation to say he has left the building, though I can’t.

Side two finishes with interviews and discussions with the participants, all of whom think (or at least say they think) that Elvis had really been present.

The participants believed that the medium had successfully identified the present Elvis had bought his wife as a silver golf buggy, though the medium actually said a silver car. And the golf buggy, as far as I can tell from photos, was actually cream. Several other of the medium’s comments were also deemed correct, though the misses were not discussed, or were reverse engineered to fit. One example of this is Carmen’s claim that the ghost of Elvis was unhappy with a commemoration performance where the organiser (‘Lenny’) was planning to alter his musical arrangements, and that there was a disagreement between two singers as to who was going to sing an Elvis song. Stuart Colman is pretty insistent that this is referring to John Carpenter’s TV movie, though this is a rather a stretch as the medium herself insisted she was referring to a performance at an award ceremony.

The record finishes with the revelations that several of those who attended had heard Elvis songs on the radio or a juke box shortly before the séance… Hardly unlikely as the séance was recorded as the second anniversary of his death was approaching.

This record promised high weirdness, but instead delivered a dull performance of supposed mediumship to gullible attendees, and is likely to convince no one. Perhaps I’ve just got a suspicious mind!

I’ve seen this crappy album go for £30 (apparently only a few thousand were pressed, which is more than enough!). It’s worth picking up for a quid or so (as I did in a Haworth charity shop), if only for the moment when a fan is allowed to ask the disembodied Elvis any question she likes about life, death and the great beyond. She asks what magazines he likes reading.


Needle-Spiking Hysteria ~ A Brief History

Imagine sinister predatory men armed with syringes dripping with date rape drugs stalking nightclubs and festivals hunting for unsuspecting young women. The hapless victims may know nothing of the attack when it happens. Or they might notice a slight pricking sensation somewhere about their body. Soon, they feel dizzy, nauseous or intoxicated. They may pass out and the rest of the night is a blur… They wake the next day with no memory of what happened to them, but there is often a tell-tale sign – a bruise or puncture wound on an arm or leg where they had been injected with a powerful but mysterious drug. This is needle spiking.

However, needle spiking is a myth born from anxiety related to covid, lockdowns, vaccination concerns and fear of contamination.[i] It’s an example of what used to be called mass hysteria, though we might nowadays prefer a less loaded term such as social panic. Whatever you want to call it, needle spiking is a delusion, and in this article I’ll explain why. I’ll also summarise the recent flap of spikings before an exploration of some weird historical precedents for this bizarre phenomenon which actually goes back more than a century.

Getting to the Point

The first reports of needle spiking incidents in recent years were in the UK in the autumn of 2021. This was a time when lockdown restrictions were easing, students were returning to campus and nightclubs were opening again. By October, news and social media were filled with shocking accounts of young people being drugged by sinister but elusive needle wielding maniacs. Police received 1,392 complaints of needle attacks between October 2021 and January 2022.[ii]

By Christmas 2021, there were multiple cases of similar attacks with syringes in Australia. By May, there had been 300 reports in France.[iii] In the Netherlands on 21 May 2022, six people at an outdoor party in Kaatsheuvel presented to the first aid post with symptoms of suspected needle-spiking.[iv] On the same day in Belgium, women at a football match started collapsing in the stands one after another. As emergency services rushed the victims away, more began to collapse. Fourteen people in total were suspected to have been targeted in a mass needle-spiking attack.[v]

Still in Belgium, on 25 May 2022, the Hasselt Festival was halted as 24 girls suffered from nausea, hyperventilation and headaches. Some of the victims had felt something prick them…[vi]

However, despite the sheer number of attacks no perpetrator has been caught or charged. Toxicological tests have typically found nothing. And consider this: it’s pretty much impossible to pull out a needle in a crowded place, inject someone through their clothes and hold the syringe in place long enough to inject the drug before removing and hiding the needle without the victim realising, all without being seen.

This is not to say that drink spiking never happens, nor that people who fear they have been spiked should not be taken seriously. It’s more that our reaction to – and uncritical acceptance of – these accounts will increase anxiety and create the conditions where more and more people interpret the symptoms of anxiety and alcohol intoxication as a needle-spiking attack, when in fact it isn’t. This is exactly what is happening across Europe at the moment – a mass panic.

Poison Needle Outrages

The phenomenon of needle spiking hysteria is actually nothing new. In the early twentieth century there were reports in the USA of ‘poisoned needle outrages’. In these attacks, a young woman (invariably described as ‘pretty’) would be approached by a sinister stranger and then surreptitiously jabbed with a hypodermic needle. It seems the plan was that as the victim fell under the spell of the narcotic, the stranger would pretend to be a friend or relative of the incapacitated woman and guide her to a waiting vehicle where she would be whisked away to a life of sex slavery in South America, or some other dismal fate.[vii]

Image by Mo Costandi, Wiki-commons

A typical example of one of these drug needle panics occurred over several weeks at the end of 1919 and early 1920 in London. Young women had been approached by an apparently benevolent old man with a friendly smile who won their trust before patting them on the shoulder in a seemingly friendly manner, though in fact he was injecting the victim with a hypodermic needle. He would then disappear as the drug took effect.[viii] In many of these reports, the victim is not named and the events described often have the whiff of urban legend about them.

This can also be seen in some nice examples widely reported in the press from the early 1930s.

In one story an unnamed girl was looking in a shop window in Holborn, London when she was approached by a well-dressed woman. The woman touched the girl’s arm and said that there was a pin sticking out of her coat. The woman then appeared to pull something off the girl’s sleeve and throw it away. The woman left, but then returned a short time later claiming that she felt unwell, and asked the girl if she would escort her to a nearby car. However, as something didn’t feel right, the girl made an excuse and hurried off to the office where she worked. No sooner had she arrived, than she collapsed and was unconscious for three and a half hours. The verdict of the doctor was that she had been drugged with a needle. Had she escorted the woman to the waiting car, she would no doubt have been bundled inside and taken who knows where. All the other young women in the office were given a stern warning about this menace to their safety and virtue.[ix]

In a similar example from 1932, a sinister old lady dressed in black approached a 16-year-old female student near Victoria Station, London and asked for help crossing a road. As the girl helped the mysterious lady to the other side, the woman suddenly hit the girl on the shoulder. The woman apologised as if it had been an accident and the girl ran and jumped on her bus home. She began to feel ill and when she got to her house she collapsed. On her swollen and bruised shoulder were three puncture marks from a hypodermic needle.[x]

And these evil needle druggers could strike anywhere. In 1935, many believed that women were being targeted in cinemas or other darkened places of entertainment. The fear was that the nefarious villain would take a seat next to or behind a (pretty, of course) young woman and inject her with a soporific drug before escorting her away, never to be heard of again. And it was claimed that just such a thing happened to many women, though in the newspaper reports the frequently anonymous woman just manages to evade kidnapping and the mysterious villain is frustrated.

The concern was such that managers of a major UK cinema chain were sent circulars warning them to beware of such attacks and to report them to police if they occurred. However, even then some were skeptical. One cinema manager in London’s West End, perhaps worried about the effect the drug needle panic was having on his business, said ‘I think it extremely unlikely that any woman could be injected with drugs from a hypodermic syringe without her knowing about it.[xi]

In fact, the panic over these mythical attackers was such that the media speculated that there was a sophisticated drugging gang consisting of both men and women working for a mysterious organisation, drugging and kidnapping pretty girls to nefarious ends.[xii]

Phantom Attacker Panics

What these stories from a century ago demonstrate is that needle-spiking panics are nothing new.

What we’re witnessing is a strange social phenomenon known as a Phantom Attacker Panic. There are many examples of these hysterical episodes where an imagined assailant attacks innocent victims seemingly from out of nowhere and always evades capture. The attacker can never be caught because he doesn’t exist. The victims may have imagined or made up the attack, or lurid urban legends may have been taken too literally.

A classic example of one of these phantom attacker panics is the Halifax Slasher. In the November of 1938, reports began to emerge of a razor blade wielding maniac roaming the streets of Halifax, Yorkshire and mounting violent and terrifying slashing attacks on his mostly female victims. The fear of this attacker led to vigilante mobs roaming the streets, businesses staying closed and widespread fear and panic. The attacks escalated beyond police control and then, strangely, the horrible assaults spread across the country….

… Until Scotland Yard arrived in Halifax and began to re-interview the victims. One by one, the victims admitted they had slashed themselves and made up the story of the mystery attacker. The Halifax Slasher of 1938 is, like the dastardly Phantom Needle Spiker of today, an imaginary bogey man.[xiii]

Of course, a bogey man serves as a warning and a threat – be good, or he’ll get you. The drug needle panics of the 20s and 30s perhaps reflect anxiety about women being independent and outside the home, or God forbid, having fun. This can be seen in the fact that the attacks were often reported as happening to women going to work, attending dances or visiting the cinema or other places of entertainment. This is what can happen to you, girls, if you go out and enjoy yourself… Next thing you know, you’ll be a drug-addled sex slave in a South American den of iniquity.

In the needle spiking hysteria of today we can also see a prudish morality tale. This is what happens to you if you go drinking, dancing and cavorting in a nightclub when there’s a pandemic going on.

There have been many other phantom attacker panics: Spring Heeled Jack scared the wits out of Victorian London with his supposedly supernatural leaps and fire-vomiting. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon was a sinister anaesthetist who released toxic gas into people’s homes in 1940s Illinois. The Phantom Sniper of Esher who took pot shots at passing motorists with an air rifle in 1950s Essex. The Delhi Monkey Man from 2001 was a hairy creature with red eyes, a helmet and sharp claws that attacked sleepers in their beds and could leap from building to building…

Police Sketch of the Delhi Monkey Man, 2001

All of these monsters turned out to be imaginary bogey men. It’s just a fact that we as humans are prone to these panics and it’s easy to be swept up in them.

Rather than warning young people about the imaginary danger of needle-spiking, we should be discussing the signs and symptoms of hysterical mass panics so that when they occur they can be recognised for what they are – delusions.

[i] Robert E. Bartholomew and Paul Weatherhead ‘The British Needle-Spiking Panic’, Psychology Today (2022)

[ii] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Spiking: Ninth Report of Sessions 2021-2022. Available at: 





[vii] Manchester Evening News 14 April 1914

[viii] Dundee Evening Telegraph 5 January 1920

[ix] Taunton Courier 23 December 1931

[x] News Chronicle 16 January 1932

[xi] Daily News 11 March 1935

[xii] The Daily Herald 25 January 1932

[xiii] Paul Weatherhead, Weird Calderdale: Strange and Horrible Local History, (Hebden Bridge: Tom Bell Publishing, 2021)

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