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Elliot O’Donnell and the Ghostly Internet Presence

December 22, 2008

December’s post is a departure from the normal subject matter of this blog. Instead of concentrating directly on a monster or theme from Celtic folklore, I’m going to be taking a look at an important writer in the field: Irishman Elliot O’Donnell (1872-1965), who has been described as Britain’s greatest ghost hunter. O’Donnell was a mysterious character indeed: he claimed to have seen a ghostly apparation covered in spots when he was five, and also to have been near-strangled by a phantom in Dublin later in life. But what’s really odd is how little information survives on the internet about this amazingly prolific and popular writer. I can’t even find a photograph of him online, although he lived until 1965…

O’Donnell was born in Ireland but travelled to the U.S. to become a police officer in Chicago, and was involved in the Chicago Railway Strike of 1894, at age 22. He later  served in WW1. In the meantime he travelled widely in the British Isles and Ireland seeking out haunted places, and began to publish books of stories and articles, primarily on ghosts and phantoms in Celtic countries, in 1904. He and continued to publish on an almost yearly basis throughout the war and then at a slightly slower pace up until 1939. After Ww2 he had a brief resurrection of his career, before publishing his final work in 1958. A full list of titles is here:

  • For Satan’s Sake (1904)
  • Unknown Depths (1905)
  • Some Haunted Houses (1908)
  • Haunted Houses of London (1909)
  • Reminiscences of Mrs.E. M. Ward (1910)
  • Byways of Ghostland (1911)
  • The Meaning of Dreams (1911)
  • Scottish Ghost Stories (1912)
  • The Sorcery Club (1912)
  • Werewolves (1912)
  • Animal Ghosts (1913)
  • Ghostly Phenomena (1913)
  • Haunted Highways and Byways (1914)
  • The Irish Abroad (1915)
  • Twenty Years’ Experience as a Ghost Hunter (1916)
  • The Haunted Man (1917)
  • Spiritualism Explained (1917)
  • Fortunes (1918)
  • Haunted Places in England (1919)
  • Menace of Spiritualism (1920)
  • More Haunted Houses of London (1920)
  • The Banshee (1926)
  • Ghosts, Helpful and Harmful (1926)
  • Strange Disappearances (1927)
  • Strange Sea Mysteries (1927)
  • Confessions of a Ghost Hunter (1928)
  • Great Thames Mysteries (1929)
  • Famous Curses (1929)
  • Fatal Kisses (1929)
  • Rooms of Mystery (1931) London: Philip Allan & Co. Ltd.
  • Ghosts of London (1932)
  • The Devil in the Pulpit (1932)
  • Family Ghosts (1934)
  • Strange Cults & Secret Societies of Modern London (1934)
  • Spookerisms; Twenty-five Weird Happenings (1936)
  • Haunted Churches (1939)
  • Ghosts with a Purpose (1952)
  • Dead Riders (1953)
  • Phantoms of the Night (1956)
  • Haunted Waters, and Trees of Ghostly Dread (1958)

The three books in bold are the ones I have read so far. In particular I have been looking at Werewolves from 1912, owing to an interest in a story about the Werewolves of Langavat, which I keep coming across on the internet, but whose source remained obscure until recently. (Suffice to say, it isn’t in O’Donnell’s book, but in a much more recent work called Scotland’s Ghosts and Appparitions by Terence Whitaker. More of that in February’s post.)

So, what’s O’Donnell like as a writer, then? Well, some of his works are pseudo-scholarly, in that delightfully amaetuerish antiquarian mode that only the British and Irish are able to pull off. Other works are straightforward books of short stories, but often written in the first person to suggest that Elliot, our man of the haunted road, was there in person to witness the horror and the mystery. If you like M.R James, or Thomas Crofton Coker, you’ll like this writer.  Here’s some of Werewolves

Here is another account of this type of haunting narrated to me some summers ago by a Mr. Warren, who at the time he saw the phenomenon was staying in the Hebrides, which part of the British Isles is probably richer than any other in spooks of all sorts.

“I was about fifteen years of age at the time,” Mr. Warren said, “and had for several years been residing with my grandfather, who was an elder in the Kirk of Scotland. He was much interested in geology, and literally filled the house with fossils from the pits and caves round where we dwelt. One morning he came home in a great state of excitement, and made me go with him to look at some ancient remains he had found at the bottom of a dried-up tarn. ‘Look!’ he cried, bending down and pointing at them, ‘here is a human skeleton with a wolf’s head. What do you make of it?’ I told him I did not know, but supposed it must be some kind of monstrosity. ‘It’s a werwolf!’ he rejoined, ‘that’s what it is. A werwolf! This island was once overrun with satyrs and werwolves! Help me carry it to the house!’

If you don’t like that, there’s little for you on this blog….

Anyway, O’Donnell’s works are mostly in the public domain and some of them have been put online at Project Guteneberg and elsewhere. But strangely, only a few of them are online, the same ones repeated in numerous places. I’ve indicated these in italics.

So, what’s up? Why have only a handful of these works been reproduced? Is it possible that his pre-ww2 work is his best, and that no-one is really bothering to reprint or archive the later works in the 20s and 30s? Or do I just need access to a better library?

Anyway, here are some links to get you started.

None of that gets me any closer to a copy of Banshees. Or a photograph of O’Donnell so I can see what sort of man I am dealing with. Was he a rakish fop, a befuddled antiquarian, a canny entrepreneur who preyed upon the gullible, or a hard-minded man of the people? 

If anyone has a photo, let me know?

S.J. McKenzie.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. S. Pearson permalink
    February 8, 2009 6:31 pm

    I can’t seem to find a photo either; but there are lots of copies of
    Werewolves available at http://www.abebooks.com

  2. sjmckenzie permalink*
    February 9, 2009 2:54 am

    No doubt. It’s also online for free, though.

    Anyway, ‘The Banshee’ is actually the book of his I am more keen on reading. It is at abebooks too, for only 395 dollars!

    Maybe this is how the myth of the banshee being a harbringer of death got started. People were so horrified at the cost of O’Donnell’s book that they collapsed and died. ;)

    Later,

    SJM.

  3. September 19, 2009 11:44 am

    I have been addicted to Elliott O’Donnell,s books, since buying one as twelve year old. that was Haunted Britain (only covering England!). I still think it’s his best. I have collected must of his books. He definitely recycled his stories over the years. Another book is Phantoms of The Night. These contain mainly stories given to him after talks etc. In the words of Spike Milligan of his War Memoirs, he jazzed them up a bit. You will see some of these stories on my web site

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