Mabel Smith was at death’s door.
Her husband Guy Eric Smith did what many of us would do in the same situation: he offered up his life to God in exchange for his wife’s. He was a man of his word. When Mabel recovered the Smiths left Kolkata and moved back to England, where he enrolled in a seminary. After graduating he accepted the post of vicar of Borley, a small village in Essex.
The cosmopolitan Smiths hadn’t quite realized how tiny, rural, and remote Borley was before they arrived on October 2, 1928. The couple resolved to keep a stiff upper lip, though even they couldn’t hide how disappointed they were in the state of their new home.
Built sixty years earlier by a previous rector to accommodate his enormous family, Borley Rectory was a red-brick monstrosity once described by a real-estate agent as “as ugly as the bad taste of 1863 could make it.” It had been vacant for years and was suffering from decades of neglect. The roof leaked, there was no central heating, there was no plumbing, there was no electricity. Many rooms, including most of the upper floors, had been abandoned because they were unfit for human habitation.
On top of all that, it was haunted.
A Bunch of Bulls
At least, that’s what their 15-year-old maid Mary Pearson claimed. Her sources were unimpeachable — Ethel and Millie Bull, the elderly sisters of the previous vicar, who had years of first-hand experience with the ghosts of Borley.
The Bull family had a long and complicated history with the region. They were distant kin of the noble Waldegrave family, who had owned most of the land since Elizabethan times, and had been the hereditary vicars of Pentlow for longer than anyone living could remember. In the 1860s two of the family’s sons became clergymen, and since they couldn’t both be the vicar of Pentlow, the eldest left and became the vicar of nearby Borley.
The Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull’s family quickly outgrew the converted farmhouse they were living in, so in 1863 they built Borley Rectory across the street. It was built overtop of an older rectory, which had in turn been built over an older rectory, which had been built over several other buildings including a Benedictine Monastery which was rumored to have secret underground tunnels running down to a nunnery in nearby Bures so the priests could get their wicks dipped.
The Bulls soon ran out of space again — hardly surprising, as they had fourteen children. In 1875 they added another wing to the building, which now took on a lopsided U-shape with a central courtyard.
Like many young Victorians, the Bull children were obsessed with ghosts. Henry encouraged them, sharing tales of his own brushes with supernatural — being tormented by faint whispers in strange voices, being stalked by shapes lurking on the fringes of his peripheral vision, almost being run over by a phantom coach driven by two headless coachmen, being startled by the ghost of a screaming girl who had once fallen off the Rectory’s roof. He even claimed to have encountered the spirit of Simon of Sudbury, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England who had been beheaded during the Peasant’s Revolt and whose relics were in a church just down the road.
When Henry died 1892, his son Henry Foyster Bull (who we’ll call “Harry” to avoid confusion) took over as vicar. Just like his father, Harry couldn’t escape the ghosts of Borley; over the next several years he ran into the phantom coach; the family’s fondly remembered gardener Amos, still hard at work despite being dead for a hundred years; and several other assorted spooks. On one memorable occasion he awoke from a nap and gave chase to what he thought was a poacher — until he realized that the “poacher” was just a pair of legs without a torso, arms, or head.
Harry’s younger sisters were the first ones to encounter Borley’s most famous ghost. While returning to the Rectory one evening they spotted the robed figure of a Catholic nun walking in the courtyard. The Bulls rushed over to greet her, but she had disappeared.
The phantom became a regular sight around the Rectory grounds and was eventually seen by every member of the Bull family as well as numerous friends and neighbors. She could always be found meandering down a garden path, later known as “the Nun’s Walk,” before vanishing into thin air. For some reason she could always be counted to make an appearance on July 28.
The Bull sisters had spirited debates about the nun’s true identity.
Some thought she might be Arabella Waldegrave, who had gone into exile in France with King James II and taken holy orders in Paris, finally returned to her ancestral home in Essex.
They eventually decided she was a young nun from the convent that had once stood on the Rectory grounds, who had fallen in love with a nobleman and tried to elope with him. Alas, the two lovers were caught trying to escape, the nobleman and his servants were beheaded, and the nun immured (which is to say, bricked up alive in the walls). They believed she returned each year on the anniversary of her death, pacing back and forth as she nervously awaited the arrival of her lover in his phantom coach.
When Harry Bull died he, too, became one of the ghosts of Borley. His sisters, who had lived in the house for a few months after his death, occasionally spotted him puttering about as if he were still alive.
That is a lot of ghosts for one house. [record scratch]
Or is it? Almost everything the public knows about Borley Rectory is either highly exaggerated or outright manufactured. Let’s start setting the record straight, one fact at a time.
Though have clearly been numerous buildings on the site of Borley Rectory — the foundations are still down there if you want to go digging — there’s no record of a convent or monastery ever existing on the property. Trust me, if there’s one thing the Catholic Church is good about it’s keeping records.
There are some underground structures nearby, but they are actually culverts and irrigation channels and don’t go anywhere near the Rectory. Even if they did, the round trip from Borley to Bures is sixteen miles and that’s an awful long way to go just to get a little on the side.
It’s not clear whether Henry Bull actually believed in ghosts. He never talked about it while he was alive, so we only have his daughters’ word for it — and Ethel and Millie Bull were both dotty old coots who had an agenda to push. His encounters all follow the pattern of generic legends not associated with any particular place; phantom coaches and screaming girls, in particular, are a dime a dozen. Simon of Sudbury is a little more unusual, though the Archbishop was looking for his missing head in Borley he definitely took a wrong turn somewhere on the A131. It seems more likely that Henry had a vivid imagination and liked to entertain his children with tall tales.
Now Harry Bull, he absolutely believed in ghosts. However, you have to everything he said with a grain of salt. Harry was a narcoleptic, and most of his encounters happened just after he was roused from a nap and maybe wasn’t thinking straight. It’s not clear how he supposedly recognized a gardener who died years before he was even born (and who should have been miles away haunting his cousins in Pentlow). The phantom legs sound scary but Harry’s own diary seems to suggest that there was an actual living poacher and he never saw anything more than their legs. That’s quite different from how it’s usually reported.
Ethel and Millie Bull just seem to have been unusually credulous children who grew up into silly old women. Their older siblings did not believe in ghosts, and described their childhood paranormal experiences as games that got embellished by unreliably memories. The ghost they spotted was at first described merely as a black blob with a whitish head, and only later became a nun because the sisters decided it sounded romantic. (What is it with teenage girls and nuns?)
Numerous locals did claim to see the phantom nun, but most of them did not come forward until years later when the Rectory had become a tourist attraction and sharing stories about its ghosts could get you your fifteen minutes of fame.
The story of the phantom nun is romantic but impossible for several reasons. There’s no record of a convent existing anywhere near Borley. Coaches didn’t come to England until the mid-Seventeenth Century, several decades after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The immurement of nuns is entirely ahistorical and only became widely reported after a fictional example was published by Sir Walter Scott in his 1808 poem Marmion.
Also, despite the claims that the phantom nun walks the grounds on the anniversary of her death, she almost never seems makes an appearance on July 28.
As for the ghost of Harry Bull… well, we’ll back get to him in a second. First, let’s get back to the main thread.
The Saturday Night Live Band
The Smiths heard these stories from their young maid and laughed. There was no such thing as a haunted house! They soon had cause to regret being so flippant. Strange and unexplainable thing happened around Borley Rectory on a regular basis.
They heard strange voices and whispers engaged in hushed conversation. They heard muffled footsteps and dragging noises in the attic. The Rectory’s call bells, disconnected decades earlier, would spontaneously ring at the strangest hours. They noticed that windows and doors would never stay closed. They saw eerie lights shining in the windows from outside, but could not find any light sources inside. They woke in the middle of the night to be tormented by sinister shadows lurking above them.
They also kept finding morbid little surprises in the strangest places. Once Mabel found a forgotten parcel on a shelf and unwrapped it to reveal a human skull. They had no idea whose it was, so G.E. buried it in the churchyard with all due solemnity.
Now, the Smiths were intelligent people who believed there were perfectly rational explanations for all of this, but eventually it started to get to them.
One night G.E. found himself wandering the halls in his pajamas, brandishing a hockey stick while he searched for the source of a loud noise which had roused him from his sleep. He realized he was half-believed that the Rectory really was haunted, and then worried that his parishioners fully believed it. Was that why they hadn’t been coming around? How could he help them with their spiritual problems if they were being scared off by ghosts? Clearly, he needed to prove that Borley Rectory wasn’t haunted.
But how? G.E. felt silly calling his bishop about this sort of problem, and performing an exorcism felt uncomfortably Catholic. He would have to make do with some sort of secular skeptic or psychic researcher. He had no idea where to find one, though, so he wrote the Daily Mirror and asked for help.
The Daily Mirror sent him Britain’s greatest ghost-buster: Harry Price.
Price was born on January 17, 1881 in Shrewsbury, the oldest son of a well-to-do paper manufacturer. After an uneventful childhood and a brief stint in the family business he retired to Sussex in his early forties. A life of leisure bored him, though, so threw himself headlong into some of his childhood hobbies. He published a few papers on numismatism, then spent a few years as an antiquarian and a gentleman archaeologist, before becoming obsessed with stage magic. He was never more than an enthusiastic amateur but won the respect of professionals, eventually becoming a member of the Magic Circle, the Magician’s Club, and the Society of American Magicians.
That interest in magic eventually evolved into an interest in the supernatural. That was hardly surprising. The horrifying tragedy of the Great War traumatized Europe and led many people to seek something greater than humanity and more enduring than death.
Stage magicians were also interested in the supernatural — interested in debunking it and exposing the charlatans who preyed upon the weak-minded. Their knowledge of stagecraft made it easy for them to sniff out hoaxes and frauds, which they did as sort of a public service.
Harry Price joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1920. His magical training made them one of their most effective paranormal investigators. He researched numerous phenomena, including mediums and spirit photographers; poltergeists; haunted houses, beds, bathtubs, and telephones; possessed Rumanian peasant girls; psychic Austrian farmers; and, of course, Gef the talking mongoose.
Now he was on his way to Borley Rectory.
Well, not immediately. First he had to throw together a travel kit with everything he would need for his task: post office seals, electric buzzers, walkie-talkies, string, a bowl of mercury, a fingerprinting kit, a flask full of brandy, Daily Mirror reporter V.C. Wall, and of course his nubile young secretary Miss Lucie Kaye.
Then he was on his way to Borley Rectory.
The Smiths had hoped that this could all be done quietly, and those hopes were quickly dashed. V.C. Wall stuck around for only a day, interviewed as few people as possible, and then published a sensationalistic article that presented local legends as fact and proclaimed Borley Rectory “the most haunted house in England.” The public’s attention was well and duly grabbed, and amateur ghost-hunters started turning up at the Rectory day and night.
To make matters worse the entire character of the haunting changed shortly after Price’s arrival. The silent phantoms of yesteryear were replaced with violent poltergeist activity. Stones were hurled through windows; small objects went flying across the room; keys popped out of their locks; residents were pelted by small showers of pebbles, coins, and curiously enough, Seventeenth Century religious medallions.
Price blamed himself. After all, he was a known magnet for poltergeist activity. He wasn’t bold enough to claim that he had some sort latent telekinesis, but it seemed spirits sensed his presence and skepticism and started to lash out. He would have to get bottom of this case quickly before it escalated.
The easiest way to commune with spirits is to hold a seance, but if Price wasn’t careful he would just be opening a path for malevolent dark forces. He decided to reach out to the only benevolent spirit he knew would be near: the Reverend Harry Bull. He assembled Ethel and Millie Bull in the Rectory’s “Blue Room” (which sounds sinister but just had a distinctive paint job) and they reached out to their late brother. What he revealed was so shocking that it was never revealed to the general public.
This was all a bit much for the Smiths. They sent Price packing and tried to get on with their lives, but spirits and ghost-hunters continued to harass them. Eventually they could take no more and moved out of the Rectory and into a rented house in nearby Long Melford. In April 1930 G.E. Smith accepted another position and left Borley forever. [record scratch]
The Smiths were right, of course. The phenomena they encountered were all perfectly explainable.
- The strange voices and whispers originated outside, and were either people walking along the road or the tenants of the Rectory’s garden cottage. Their conversations were picked up by the building’s weird shape and broadcast around the Rectory by its strange acoustics.
- The dragging noises and footfalls they heard were just mice scurrying in the walls. The mice were also getting tangled up in the call ropes, making the bells ring. (Also, it they later discovered that some of the call bells hadn’t actually been disconnected.)
- Some of their footsteps and whispers were local teenagers, who had started breaking into the abandoned Rectory to drink and make-out and hadn’t stopped after the Smiths moved in. The teens were also responsible for doors and windows that opened and closed seemingly without explanation.
- The mysterious lights in the windows were just the reflections of passing trains and automobiles.
- The dark looming shadows? Visual hallucinations that shouldn’t have frightened anyone other than a small child.
Any half-decent psychic investigator would have been able to put the Smiths’ minds at rest. Parishioners weren’t avoiding the Rectory because they thought it was haunted. They were avoiding the Rectory because they didn’t like the Smiths, who were outsiders and interlopers.
Unfortunately for the Smiths they didn’t get a half-decent psychic investigator. They got Harry Price.
Price was not born in Shrewsbury, but London. His father was not a rich paper manufacturer but a poor traveling salesman, and had only married Harry’s mother because he had knocked her up when he was 39 and she was 14.
Young Harry had only two goals in life: to own a Rolls Royce and to be listed in Who’s Who. He was not going to achieve either of those goals by selling quack herbal tonics and hosting gramophone parties (the 1900s equivalent of selling Herbalife and promoting your DJ career). He refocused his energies on wooing and marrying a rich woman, which he did. That got him the Rolls, at least.
After retiring he tried his hand at numismatism, publishing a few scholarly papers (plagiarized) before losing most of his coin collection under mysterious circumstances (insurance fraud). Then he became an antiquarian, unearthing a few Roman-era artifacts around Sussex (all poorly faked). Then he turned his attention to magic, and well, that part of the tale is mostly true.
Price was one of the most active members of the Society for Psychical Research, constantly flitting about Europe to investigate the supernatural. His background in magic did give him a leg up; he was able to easily see through simple tricks and misdirection that baffled other skeptics blinded by their own cleverness.
Ultimately, Price was little more than a fame-seeker who had mastered the art of pseudo-science: looking and sounding scientific without actually being scientific. Every once in a while he did have a trenchant insight, but more often than not he bluffed his way through his investigations by producing reams of meaningless data that made it hard to understand or refute his conclusions.
Several high-profile debunkings brought Price to the attention of the press, who soon realized he was a charming speaker with a knack for dumbing down complex topics for the general public. It wasn’t long before he was Fleet Street’s go-to ghost guy and an early infotainment celebrity.
The problem was that Price was more devoted to the “tainment” than the “info.” His ultimate goal was not to uncover the truth but to make himself rich, famous, and respected. He was happy to expose simple fraud, but he was also willing to milk a more complicated story for weeks, months, even years if it would keep his name in the papers.
Nothing better illustrates Price’s true nature than his fraught relationship with Austrian psychic Rudi Schneider. Price and the SPR subjected Schneider to numerous tests and proclaimed that the young man had genuine spiritual powers. The problem was that at the same time Price was also serving as Schneider’s British booking agent, an obvious conflict of interest. The two men eventually fell out over money and Schneider started looking for an agent willing to take a smaller cut of his earnings. Price struck back by publishing a series of photographs revealing how Schneider faked his act. He had known about the photographs for years, but sat on them until it was more profitable to expose Schneider than work with him.
Borley Rectory was the sort of phenomenon Price was always looking for. A protracted haunting terrifying an innocent family? And not just God-fearing Christians but an actual vicar? The public would eat that sort of thing up with a spoon. The only problem was that the haunting too old-fashioned to have legs. Poltergeists, though? He could keep that grift running for a long time.
Once you start poking under the hood “poltergeist activity” always turns out to be “someone throwing stuff while other people’s backs are turned.” In this case “someone” was Harry Price. He wasn’t even subtle about it. Mabel Smith, maid Mary Pearson, and other paranormal investigators all realized that poltergeist activity only happened when no one was looking directly at Price.
Eventually, he got too cocky. Journalist Charles Sutton was grazed by a poltergeist-thrown rock that drew blood and decided he had enough. Sutton grabbed Price and started emptying his jacket pockets, which were full of stones and pebbles. Price was at a loss to explain their presence, but brought the poltergeist activity end… at least for the day.
As for the seance, well, the problem with a seance is that you can’t learn anything from the spirits because spirits aren’t real. What you can learn from a seance is a lot about the people conducting the seance. In this case, Harry Price was about to learn more than he ever wanted to about the Bull family.
Their first attempt to contact the other side did not go well. After everyone joined hands and opened their third eyes, they heard slow, deliberate footsteps and muffled muttering in a deep voice. Price excitedly raised his eyes upward and asked, “Are you the spirit of Harry Bull?”
It was not. It was the handyman, who angrily shot back “He’s dead, and you’re daft!”
Price took a brief moment to re-compose himself, dimmed the lights again and started over. This time he got through to the Reverend Harry Bull.
Price had no idea what he was getting into. Ethel and Millie Bull may have seemed like sweet old ladies but under that façade they were filled with bitterness and rage. They were spinsters who had never worked a day in their life, and had been completely dependent on their older brother. When Harry fell in love with a young widow they tried to break up the relationship because they feared losing his financial support, and never stopped trying to break up the relationship even after they were married. Harry tried to keep the peace by letting his sisters live in Borley Rectory while he and wife moved into the house across the street, but it didn’t help.
After Harry’s sudden death, Ethel and Millie discovered they had been completely cut out of his will and would have to leave the only home they had ever known. Well. They knew who was behind that. They began telling anyone who would listen that their sister-in-law was a bigamist whose first husband was still alive, a gold digger who had only married their brother for his money, and a murderer who had poisoned him when she got tired of waiting for him to die.
When Price conjured up the spirit of Harry Bull during the seance his sisters saw a chance to get their side of the story in front of a larger audience, and they seized it. The spirit repeated their slanders verbatim. Well, not verbatim, through a series of coded knocks, but you know what I mean.
Well, crap. Harry Price couldn’t use any of that. It was too lurid, too personal, and slanderous to boot. He decided to cut his losses, bade the good folks of Borley a fond farewell, and slunk off back to London.
Just to be clear, the Smiths were hardly blameless in all of this either. Though their intentions were sincere they also enjoyed the attention they were finally getting. Or at least they did a few months, until it became clear people were laughing at them and not with them.
When they finally moved out of the Rectory it had nothing to do with the house being haunted, and everything to do with the house being barely fit for human habitation. Sometimes you just want a hot bath and a flush toilet.
Australian for Beer
After the Smiths’ departure the parish began searching for a new vicar. They eventually offered the job to Lionel Algernon Foyster, a distant cousin of the Bulls, and he accepted. Lionel moved into Borley Rectory on October 16, 1930 bringing along with him his beautiful young wife Marianne; her son Ian from her first marriage; and their adopted daughter Adelaide.
The Rectory had been vacant for several months, but the locals had noticed tell-tile signs that the haunting was still active: windows would open and close at random, mysterious lights danced behind the windows, that sort of thing.
When the Foysters moved in the level of activity spiked dramatically. Lionel Foyster kept a detailed journal of his time at Borley and the amount of paranormal activity he recorded is staggering: furniture moving about; doors locking unexpectedly; small household items being thrown at his head; food disappearing; long-lost items suddenly reappearing; whispering voices; strange odors and aromas.
The ghosts of Borley seemed to be especially drawn to Marianne Foyster. Crude handwritten messages began materializing on the walls, most of them simple variations on the phrase “Marianne please get help.” When no help was forthcoming, the ghosts got violent. Rocks were hurled through windows and small fires broke out in abandoned rooms. Marianne was thrown out of bed on multiple occasions and received black eyes, bruises, and cuts from items hurled by invisible assailants. Once the spirits locked her in a bathroom for several hours, and she was only freed when Lionel performed an impromptu exorcism.
In 1931 the Foysters invited Harry Price to see if he could set things right with the spirits, but Britain’s greatest ghost-buster was completely stumped and left after only a few days.
The next year the Foysters accepted help from a Spiritualist Circle in nearby Marks Tey, led by the wonderfully named Guy l’Estrange. During their visit to the rectory the Spiritualists were confused by mysterious slithering noises and ringing bells, assaulted by glass bottles that materialized next to them and exploded, baffled by ghost writing, and chased from room to room by sinister shadows. At midnight they retreated into the chapel, where Lionel broke out some relics of St. John Vianney and led everyone in a combination exorcism and seance.
The manifestations came to an end, this time for good. Lionel continued to note occasional poltergeist activity in his diary, but it looked like 1932 would be the high water mark of the haunting of Borley Rectory. [record scratch]
There is no evidence that anything happened while the house was vacant — who would have been around to see it? When the Foysters moved in they did find wine and beer bottles scattered all over the place, but that was almost certainly teenagers and not poltergeists.
As for the Foysters… where to even begin?
Their acquaintance began in 1906 when the 28-year-old Reverend Lionel Foyster baptized 7-year-old Mary Anne Shaw. Eight years later teenage Mary Anne married a much older man who abandoned her shortly after the birth of their first child. She gave the boy to her parents to raise and fled across the Atlantic to Canada. In New Brunswick she tried to reinvent herself; not through self-improvement, but through pretending to be an entirely different person. She Frenchified her name to sound more sophisticated and began telling everyone she was Marianne Monk, the daughter of a Chilean diplomat named Santiago Monk and the Countess Sarah Von Kiergraff of Schlewswig-Holstein. No one believed her and she developed a reputation as a pathological liar.
In 1922 Marianne was reunited with Lionel, who had also fled from some unknown scandal to Canada. The much older vicar was immediately smitten and proposed marriage to his one time parishioner. For some reason she accepted. I say “for some reason” because while Lionel worshipped the ground Marianne walked on, Marianne didn’t seem to like him at all. She was constantly putting him down and having affairs.
People have struggled to understand their relationship: some seem to think that it was a companionate marriage; others that it was purely business; or that Marianne was Lionel’s beard; or even that the old weirdo was into being cucked.
I should probably also mention that Marianne had never been properly divorced from her first husband, technically making her a bigamist.
By 1930 the Foysters were ready for a change. Lionel was starting to develop rheumatoid arthritis and thought that his condition might improve back in sunny old England. Marianne had slept with every himbo in New Brunswick and needed to go somewhere no one knew her. They were both looking to get their adopted daughter Adelaide into a more civilized environment where they could continue to ignore her.
Perhaps most importantly, the stock market crash had wiped out all of their savings. When Borley came looking for a new vicar, Lionel couldn’t say yes fast enough.
The community accepted them immediately. Or rather, they accepted Lionel immediately because he was local. They did not like the cold and haughty Marianne at all, and were not shy about telling her that to her face. It wasn’t long before she found herself socially isolated.
Desperate for company, the Foysters rented out the garden cottage to a lodger whose young son might be a suitable playmate for Adelaide. Marianne soon found out she and the lodger had a lot in common: though he presented himself as glamorous French-Canadian widower Francois d’Arles, he was actually regular old Cockney scoundrel Frank Peerless.
The two began a torrid affair based on their mutual love of lying and rough sex. The poltergeist activity started up at the same time as the affair. Draw your own conclusions.
Most of the phenomena recorded by Lionel can be attributed to his deteriorating mental state. He had always been scatterbrained, but now he was losing his mind. The disappearing and reappearing items were indications of short-term memory loss, and many of the other phenomena resemble the auditory and visual hallucinations frequently associated with early onset dementia. As for the aromas, well, Borley Rectory was downwind of Bush, Boake and Allen, England’s largest manufacturers of essences, perfumes, and flavor extracts.
Other phenomena seem to be Marianne and Frank using Lionel’s gullibility and the Rectory’s reputation to cover up their affair. The voices whispering Marianne’s name were Frank trying to find his lover in the big empty house; the disappearing food was Frank stealing a bite on his way out the front door; the locked doors were Frank covering a sudden exit out of the window; the household items thrown at Lionel’s head were thrown by Marianne, who had grown to resent her fool of a husband.
Harry Price immediately realized that Marianne and Frank were behind everything. (It takes one to know one.) The manifestations only took place when she was alone or unobserved. The capper was that the ghost writings on the wall were obviously in Marianne’s handwriting. Price put some basic controls in place and kept a close eye on Marianne, and guess what? The poltergeist activity stopped. A frustrated Marianne fainted, and was taken upstairs to rest. As soon as she was out of sight the activity started right back up, confirming his suspicions.
Price told Lionel that he was being punked by his wife and her lover, but the Reverend Foyster refused to hear a word of it. They argued, and Price left after agreeing not to publish anything about what he had seen. (An agreement he violated repeatedly.)
The visit had spooked Peerless, who started to worry that their little games were getting out of hand. He did not want anyone poking around or looking into his background and told Marianne that it was time to end it. The visit from the Marks Tey Spiritualist Circle allowed them to give the story some closure and make Lionel feel like a hero for once.
A year later Frank and Marianne left Borley to open up a flower shop in Wimbledon. Lionel was all for it, because quite frankly the Foysters needed the money. He was probably less keen on Frank and Marianne presenting themselves as husband and wife. He didn’t have to worry for long; the business eventually failed and Frank dumped Marianne for a 16-year-old.
In October 1935 Lionel collapsed in the middle of a sermon and was forced to retire. Desperate for money, Marianne tricked a traveling salesman into marrying her (making her a double bigamist) and also into supporting Lionel (by passing him off as her senile father). That lasted until 1940 when her third husband found out the truth, had a mental breakdown, and was institutionalized.
Lionel passed away in April 1945 and Marianne soon married for the fourth time to an American GI (triple bigamist). She moved to the United States and remained there for the rest of her life.
The Price is Wrong
After Lionel’s forced retirement the Church of England decided that Borley was too small to have its own vicar, and merged the parish with that of Liston. The vicar of the combined parish was not keen on country living and chose to stay in town instead. In 1937 Borley Rectory was put on the rental market, but due to its age and decrepitude there was only one person interested in renting it.
Harry Price’s earlier visits to Borley had ended poorly, but he felt the old place still had potential. The haunting was unusually extensive, and while the general story was widely known it could still be expanded on. Price figured that if he was the one expanding the story he could control its direction and use it to promote himself.
Price immediately realized it would be impossible for him to investigate the rectory on his own, so he went out looking for assistants. He was shocked by the number of people who offered to volunteer, and eventually winnowed the applicant pool down to four dozen truly dedicated individuals. Price gave them a boot camp on how to notice paranormal activity, set up a rota that guaranteed someone would be on the property at all times, then handed them field journals and set them loose in the Rectory.
The observers proved to be surprisingly thorough, and accumulated a truly staggering amount of data over the next year. Alas, the phenomena they observed were generally low-level and unremarkable: mysterious lights, strange shadows, cold spots, warm spots, ringing call bells, muffled footsteps, whispers, and other strange noises. Price only visited the Rectory a handful of times, but his visits usually corresponded with a spike in paranormal activity. (Remember, he was a poltergeist magnet.)
Price and his observers did make one extraordinary discovery. The walls of the Rectory were still littered with ghost writing from the Foyster years which had never been erased. They discovered that if they responded to the ghost writing by writing beneath it, some unseen spirit would eventually reply. The replies were often illegible and nonsensical, but they were something. The observers began noting the locations of ghost writing, and realized that they were continuing to appear at a truly startling pace.
Every now and then Price would bust out the ouija board and conduct a seance. On various occasions he called forth the spirit of someone named “Carlos” (later identified as Henry Bull); a maid named Katie Boreham, who claimed to have been impregnated by Henry and then murdered by him; Harry Bull, who revealed where the phantom nun’s body was buried; and the phantom nun herself, who spoke only in cryptic and unhelpful generalities.
Alas, just as price was starting to make real breakthroughs, his lease expired and he was compelled to leave Borley once again. [record scratch]
Harry Price’s observers were dedicated to the cause, but they weren’t exactly the cream of the crop. He made a conscious effort to eliminate scientists, skeptics and paranormal investigators from the applicant pool. The kind take is that he was trying to weed out people whose prejudice would color their perceptions. If that was the case, though, he should have been more careful with his orientation materials, which primed the observers to been on the lookout for two specific categories of phenomena: those which were abundant but not particularly supernatural, and those which could be easily faked by a dedicated trickster with a background in stagecraft.
Most of the phenomena observed at Borley Rectory fell squarely into the first category, visual and auditory hallucinations brought on by low-light conditions, loneliness, and boredom. The observers knew it, too, and were often able to identify the causes of what they observed. Price, though, would dismiss any mundane explanation out of hand with increasingly illogical arguments. He once claimed that scratching noises in the walls could not possibly be mice because the Rectory was completely free of vermin — as if that alone wouldn’t make it the most remarkable country house in England.
As for the second category, things that could be easily faked, well, guess what spiked whenever Harry Price was around.
That included the ghost writing. There were new messages, but it’s unclear exactly how many there were. Observers were instructed to mark them with a tick from their pencil, which could be easily erased or overlooked. There was also something off about them. It didn’t take a graphologist to realize that the new messages were not in the same handwriting as the old messages. Someone was trying very hard to mimic the first writer’s script but could not quite pull it off.
When I say “someone” I once again mean Harry Price. A BBC radio crew visited the rectory during his tenancy to do a story on the Rectory, and noticed new writing only appeared when Price was lagging behind the rest of their party and could not be seen. When they made an effort to keep him in the middle of the pack where he would be under constant scrutiny, well, the ghosts got writers block.
Seances are, of course, useless. Price seemed to use them to float new theories and see how his observers reacted, and to introduce local rumor and innuendo into the overarching story he was trying to construct. It had long been rumored that Henry Bull had impregnated and killed a serving maid named Katie Boreham, and Price had definitely heard those rumors before conducting his seances. There is no evidence Henry went by the nickname “Carlos,” which Price seems to have chosen to explain some hushed whispering heard in the chapel years earlier. When Harry Bull revealed the location of the phantom nun’s remains, no one made any effort to dig them up. The phantom nun had nothing useful to say.
By any measure Price had to consider his third go at the Rectory a rousing success, because his observers had generated reams of confusing and hard to interpret data. If anyone ever tried to refute Price’s arguments, he would make them counter every data point one by one.
Always Fresh, Always Delicious
After Price’s lease expired in the Fall of 1938, Borley Rectory was put up for sale and purchased by Captain William Heart Gregson. He and his two sons moved in and began extensive renovations.
The Gregsons did not see anything supernatural, but that may have been because they had to deal with all the looky-loos who came in droves to see “the most haunted house in England.” The curiosity seekers, souvenir hunters and amateur ghost-breakers still believed that the Rectory was abandoned and had no qualms about breaking and entering. They seemed intent on damaging the property faster than the Gregsons could repair it.
Gregson couldn’t complain too much because he eventually planned on exploiting that fascination with Borley Rectory. Once his renovations were complete he planned to convert the house into a haunted bed-and-breakfast and sell tickets for self-guided ghost tours.
He never got the chance. On February 27, 1939 — Gregson’s first full night in the house — he accidentally knocked over an oil lamp while doing some work in the library. When the lamp hit the floor the flame turned a bright blue and then suddenly exploded into a huge fireball. The furniture caught fire and books began leaping off the shelves to feed the flames. It spread quickly, faster than any normal fire should.
As the Gregsons and other locals shivered in the cold and waited for the fire brigade to arrive they noticed strange shapes moving around in the flames, and some of them witnessed a lady in gray walk out of the inferno and across the courtyard. The fire brigade eventually arrived to extinguish the fire, but it was too little, too late. A whole wing of the Rectory collapsed and had to be condemned. As he surveyed the damage Gregson noticed a single pair of footprints leading away from the smoldering ruins and down the Nun’s Walk… in one direction only.
The press had a field day, running headlines like “England’s Most Haunted House Commits Suicide.” [record scratch]
So, here’s the thing: while the fire did happen, almost none of the details reported in the popular press were true.
- It wasn’t Gregson’s first night in the house.
- The oil lamp did get knocked over but the flame didn’t burn blue or explode; flaming oil just spread everywhere.
- Books didn’t leap off the shelves to feed the flames.
- No contemporary report mentions anyone seeing strange shapes in the flames, gray ladies making their hasty escape, or footsteps in the snow.
Those details were only added by the Gregsons months later when they started giving interviews for money.
Gregson desperately needed the money. You see, the fire did spread faster than any normal fire should have and the fire brigade was late to respond. One of the reasons was the Gregson either had a panic attack and froze, or deliberately dawdled before calling it in. The insurance company concluded that the fire was a deliberate arson, and denied Gregson’s claim for £7,135. They had no proof, though, and eventually settled for a smaller amount. (They should have stuck to their guns — years later Gregson’s son admitted the fire had been set deliberately.)
Only one wing of the Rectory was destroyed in the fire. The other wing was potentially salvageable, but by now it was clear to everyone what Gregson had realized too late: the extensive renovations required to make Borley Rectory livable meant that it would probably be cheaper to tear it down and start over from scratch. The building was left as a ruin.
Gregson stuck around for a few years, giving interviews for money and charging a small fee to the dwindling trickle of ghost hunters who wanted to sift through the ashes.
One of those ghost hunters was Harry Price, who returned in August 1943 to poke around in the ruins of the cellar and finally try and locate the phantom nun’s remains. He unearthed an old cream jug and fragments of a human skull. Which was later revealed to be part of a pig skull.
The Most Haunted House in England
After the fire, Harry Price realized that he had a short window of time where he could exploit Borley Rectory, and that window was quickly closing. He pulled together his notes into the 1940 book The Most Haunted House in England, the definitive work on the haunting.
It’s awful. It’s a bad sign that one of the chapters begins with the phrase, “What is evidence?” Whenever a writer starts asking you what the definition of a word is, they’re going to try and shift your understanding of that word. In Price’s case, he redefines “evidence” to mean “data.”
In that vein, Price uses stilted language and highly specific terms to paint a vivid picture in your mind; but while his descriptions are all technically true, they are extremely misleading.
- When he says that a phenomena happened “in the presence of observers,” he does not mean that his observers were there and watched it happens. He means they were present on the property, even if they were far away.
- When an object “suddenly materialized” somewhere, he did not mean that it slowly faded into view like the TARDIS. He meant that it moved from one place to another and an observer did not see it happen.
- An object that “apported” across the room he did not teleport or levitate to its new location. It was thrown and the observer did not see what threw it.
- Any phenomena that cannot immediately assigned a cause is “ghostly” or “unearthly” or “unexplained” — though given Price’s failure to look for or consider mundane causes, a better adjective would be “uninvestigated.”
I won’t get into the specifics (we’ve covered most of the highlights already) but it’s worth noting that Price had so little material to work with the he had to throw in everything he had. The middle of the book is padded with meaningless bizarre anecdotes like “someone saw a weird insect in the garden once” which somehow manages to go on for pages and pages and pages.
At least Price saved the best for last, like the consummate showman he was. You see, something had happened during his time at Borley that had been sitting on until the time was right. During a seance conducted at the Rectory on March 27, 1938 he and several reliable witnesses received the following message:
Sunex Amures and one of the men mean to burn down the Rectory tonight at nine o’clock end of the haunting go to the Rectory and you will be able to see us enter into our own and under the ruins you will find bone of murdered wardens under the ruins means you to have proof of haunting of the rectory at Borley the understanding of which game tells the story of the murder which happened there
A series of further questions revealed that the fire would start “over the hall.”
A chilling prophecy, isn’t it? Too bad it’s meaningless.
Oh, there’s no reason to doubt that the seance happened as described, but let’s be honest: a prophecy that’s only revealed after it’s come true is no prophecy at all. And even if the prophecy was true, Sunex Amures (who ever that is) was wrong of all the particulars. He had the date wrong, he had the time wrong, he had the outcome wrong. He was right that the fire started “over the hall” but given the layout of the rectory that’s like saying “an important event will happen in the Western Hemisphere” — a 50/50 shot. The only thing he was right about was that the rectory was burned down, so of course everyone just focuses on that.
Anyway, The Most Haunted House in England was the right book at the right time. It became an international best-seller and made Borley Rectory more famous than ever.
So Price was none too happy when shortly after publication his former assistant Sidney Glanville wrote to him with the bad news that almost everything he had written about the history of the Rectory was wrong. There had been no convent or monastery in Borley or Bures. This… was problematic because the last half of the book was focused on retelling the legend of the phantom nun in its most sensationalistic form.
Fortunately, Price was able to revisit his notes and come up with an alternative theory, which was published in his 1946 follow-up The End of Borley Rectory.
The phantom was a Roman Catholic nun named “Marie Lairre,” who had left a Le Havre convent in 1667 to marry one of the Waldegraves and then had been strangled by him and buried at the site that would eventually become Borley Rectory. That would conveniently explain why there was a nun where there hadn’t been a convent, and also why there was a nun in England a century after Henry VIII got rid of them all.
There was just one problem: this was just nonsense, which had been revealed to a psychic during a seance and then elaborated on by a vicar obsessed with the hauntings. As usual no one could find historical documentation or evidence to back it up, so Price either manufactured new evidence or reinterpreted his old data in a more flattering light.
Some of the coins that had hurled about in 1929 were revealed to be religious souvenirs (basically pressed pennies for pilgrims), though it was not great that they post-dated Marie’s supposed murder. The fact that a French to English dictionary disappeared in 1885 and reappeared some fifty years later was offered as proof that the ghost had been trying to learn English so it could communicate with Marianne Foyster. (Because clearly only a ghost could lose something for fifty years.)
Once that became the new story it was amazing how quickly it caught on and Marie Lairre became a common visitor to seances. It was a lot like how all aliens became little grey man with big eyes after the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Anyway, The End of Borley is garbage. The sole purpose of the book is to get the revised nun story into print, and the other chapters are padded out with material that wasn’t strong enough to make it into the first book. Which is saying something because the first book wasted pages and pages and pages on a weird insect.
The End of Borley Rectory
The Rectory had been gutted by fire, but there were still occasional manifestations at the site. These were usually encounters with the phantom coach and nun, most of them witnessed by a single person and completely unverifiable.
Ghost hunters continued to explore the property (after giving Captain Gregson his due, of course). They unearthed relics and ruins and made wildly optimistic claims which always had to be walked back when actual archaeologists and historians took an interest.
A group of Spiritualists once claimed to have broken into the ruins, climbed up to the ruins of the “Blue Room” on the second floor and conducted seances there. They were almost certainly lying; the floor of the Blue Room mostly gone and the rest of the structure was highly unstable. It was a nice touch that one of the spirits they called forth was that of Harry Price, who had died in 1948.
After Price’s death the Society for Psychical Research went through his papers and realized that he had been pulling the wool over their eyes. They assembled a thorough report, The Haunting of Borley Rectory, detailing how he had exaggerated or manufactured most of the phenomena he had encountered. Price’s supporters fired back, correctly pointing out how SPR reviewers had done exactly what they accused Price of doing, leaping to unsupported conclusions based on on little or no evidence.
For two decades a debate raged back and forth on whether Harry Price was an honest if sometimes misguided investigator, or a charlatan faking psychic phenomena to increase his own fame. Which side you were on seemed to boil down to whether you already believed in the supernatural, which was never a good sign.
The argument was mostly settled by Trevor Hall’s 1978 biography The Search For Harry Price, which finally exposed the tangled web of lies that Britain’s greatest ghost-buster had spun around his private and public lives. Ever since then it’s been hard to take Price seriously, at least for scholars. True believers just act like the biography was never published and reflexively deny its evidence.
As for Borley Rectory itself, most of the ruins were leveled in the 1940s and the property was completely redeveloped in the 1970s. Nothing of the original structure remains. Paranormal activity and manifestations on the site seem to have completely ended, with no reports from long-term residents and only occasional reports from disturbed and over-excited individuals who have made the long trek out into the countryside and seem determined to have some sort of story to take home with them.
That hasn’t stopped crowds of amateur ghost-hunters from assembling each year on July 28 to see if they can catch a glimpse of the phantom nun. As usual, though, she only seems to show herself when there’s no one looking for her.
Borley Rectory is featured in Strange Stories, Amazing Facts (“England’s Most Haunted House”, p. 410).
For more hysteria over the entirely non-existent phenomena of nuns being buried alive check out our “Nuns on the Run” series (especially “Six Months in a Convent” and “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk”).
During Harry Price’s time in Sussex his hobby seems to have been unearthing ancient artifacts which he had actually forged himself at home; a past-time he shared with fellow Sussex resident Charles Dawson, best known for the Piltdown Man hoax (“Dawson’s Creek”).
The paranormal phenomena investigated by Price included spirit photography, which as you should know, got its start in 1863 with Boston photographer William H. Mumler (“What Joy to the Troubled Heart”).
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