Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mary King's Close, Edinburgh, Scotland

A "close" is a narrow street, usually surrounded by high buildings. Mary King's Close, in Scotland, was one such street, surrounded by tenement houses, and once the main shopping street in the city of Edinburgh. The street is said to be named after Mary King, who owned a stall selling items such as lace goods, but this story is probably apocryphal. Being a medieval street, sanitation was poor, with the contents of night soil buckets and bedpans being emptied into the street in the mornings, and being a narrow street, quarters were tight. Although the bubonic plague was the most virulent disease to spread through this region, it's a fair bet that diseases such as cholera and dysentery claimed more than a few lives.

Photo from offbeattravel.com

It is said that in the mid-17th century, when the bubonic plague was laying waste to Edinburgh, Mary King's Close was sealed up in order to stop the plague-ridden from getting out. The story goes that, after a year, the close was re-opened and over 600 bodies pulled out, cut up by the local butchers, and disposed of in a mass grave (but see the commentary below).

In the 19th century, a new City Chambers was constructed in this area, using lower levels of the original buildings as foundations. The result was that Mary King's Close literally went underground, buried beneath the new buildings, but still accessible. The close, as well as other connected closes, was were shut off from the public and not accessible for much of the 20th century, but was re-opened again early this century. Now, guided tours are available, and both ghost story enthusiasts and history buffs go both to see a place that is both creepy, and a well-preserved example of a 17th century street.

Mary King's Close has since gained a reputation for being one of the most haunted places in Scotland. People report seeing shadowy figures, strange smells, and noises with no apparent source. Other sightings include the apparitions of people walking through the close and, interestingly, headless animals.

One particular spirit said to haunt the close is that of a 10-year old girl named Annie. She is said to inhabit one room within a house on the close, and those visiting the room report feeling her presence, hearing her voice, or in some cases even seeing her. Visitors often leave toys and candies in the room as offerings to Annie.

Photo from alltopmovies.net

Rumor holds that the ceilings in some of the rooms are made of the ash remains of plague victims - this sounds like B.S. to me, but I will look into it to see if I can find any confirming evidence. Until such time as I can find any information, I would assume that this isn't true.

One family is said to have had a larger amount of trouble than others with the ghosts of the close, and that is the Colthearts, who lived in the Close during the 17th century.

Legend holds that the Colthearts, having decided that the tales of hauntings were nonsense, moved in to the Close and set up their home. Mr. Coltheart was a legal advisor, and the location provided some benefits for him. One night, while reading to her husband (who was sick - raise your hand if you think that it might have had something to do with the raw sewage in the streets), Mrs. Coltheart looked up to see the disembodies head of a scraggly-haired old man staring at her. Mrs. Coltheart fainted, in the manner of all good 17th century middle-close stereotypes.

Some days later, Mr. Coltheart saw it as well, although there is no word as to whether or not he fainted. And after that, Mr. Coltheart was awakened by the spectral head at night. After waking up his wife (no doubt while saying that 17th century equivalent of "dude, check it out!"), he lit a candle and began to pray. This didn't do much good, because not only did the head not vanish, but a second one, this of a child, appeared, as did a disembodied arm (because the heads really needed a hand*). After a time, the various body parts vanished, accompanied by a load groaning noise.

Some years later, one of Mr. Coltheart's clients is said to have awoken to the sight of Mr. Coltheart, shrouded in mist, hovering above the client's bed. The next morning he headed to the Coltheart's house only to discover that Mr. Coltheart had died during the night.

*Thank you, I'll be here all week, tip your waitresses!

Commentary: This is a near-perfect ghost story. A buried street, ghosts from pestilence, and a city so afraid of plague that it sealed some of its own inhabitants away and let them die slowly and painfully (add to this that it is often mentioned that the doomed were primarily Catholics). The street is haunted, and the spirit of an innocent child is trapped in the dark amongst more sinister spirits.

When you hear a ghost story so perfect, you have reason to suspect that there is something more going on than simply a scary story. To get at that, we have to get into the actual history of Mary King's Close.

The common story holds that Mary Kings Close was especially hard hit by plague, and that it was bricked off, trapping the inhabitants inside and letting them die horribly, in order to stop the spread of the plague. The truth is that the close was never bricked up, and there is no verifiable information that indicates that it was any harder hit by the plague than any other part of Edinburgh. It died, slowly, as the economic and social realities of Edinburgh changed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some limited access and use was still allowed as late as the early 20th century.

The close went underground quite literally in the first half of the 19th century, when city government buildings were constructed over it, using the lower levels of the local buildings as foundations. This resulted both in making the place rather eerie, and in effectively removing is from view as a normal street. It is likely that the stories of the haunting of the close began, or at least became particularly popular, around this time. The inclusion of details regarding the bricking up of people and the poor treatment of their remains may come from the class system, and corresponding class animosity, that was prominent in 19th century Europe.

Since the end of the 20th century, the close has become a tourist attraction, with much of the focus of the advertising campaign on the ghost stories. Although much is made about the historical and archaeological research done on the area, this seems to come second to the money-making power of supernatural tourism.

I would provide a bit more discussion of my own, but I think that The BS Historian pretty much hits the nail on the head:

So I think what we have here is an interesting survival of a piece of folklore – the original ghost story was an emotionally powerful way of retelling the old myth that the mysterious mostly-abandoned Close was a) the result of the authorities’ disdain for common people and b) haunted as a result. And the MKC attraction perpetuates it despite the fact that their tours were designed specifically to debunk the myths of the Close, and even cites that research to enhance the “truthiness” of the story. As a money-making (though not for profit) company, it’s easy to see why they would retain such a great piece of marketing. Sex may sell, but so do ghosts! Even my misinformed tour guide later made noises to the effect that the Annie story’s veracity didn’t really matter – it was just an exemplar for the sort of short, brutish, poverty and disease-ridden lives that a majority of people in Edinburgh/Scotland’s history have suffered. And a way to raise money (see also here) for ill young children at an Edinburgh hospital. Needless to say, it also maintains the attraction of the place to a wider range of visitor types and therefore helps keep the funds coming in. Periodic ghost “sightings” and other press and media work must help keep heads above water too. But do these ends justify the means? Does misrepresenting facts of history and of science justify the money it brings in? Are we content to prostitute unique pieces of built and cultural heritage in order to help keep them going? I suspect the answer is “yes”, but we don’t all have to like it, and we should try for better.

Sources: Wikipedia, Edinburghdarkside.com, Stuck On Scotland, the B.S. Historian, Wisegeek.com, Edinburgh.org.uk, Offbeattravel.com

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Alexandra Hospital, Singapore

Singapore, a former British colony, was part of the Pacific Theatre during WWII. In February 1942, the British 1st Malaya Infantry Brigade retreated from Japanese forces, using Alexandra Military Hospital as an escape route. Machine guns were set up in the hospital to cover the retreat. A lieutenant sent under white flag to surrender all non-combatants was killed, and the hospital raided. Japanese soldiers reportedly killed 250 people, comprised of hospital patients and staff, and reportedly removed other patients and staff and lacked them in a bungalow, with some of them removed and shot the next day.

The Japanese soldiers claimed that Indian soldiers (the Malaya infantry had soldiers from Asia) had opened fire on them from the hospital grounds. Patients who had been left alive during the initial raid were reportedly left alone for 3 days without food or water, many of them dying.

Although it is tempting to use this episode to dismiss all Japanese soldiers as barbaric, it should be noted that similar things happened with other nationalities in other locations (indeed, some of the atrocities committed on both the Russian and German sides of the European eastern front made this hospital raid look downright tame). And the Japanese general in charge of operations, Tomoyuki Yamashita, was so shocked by the actions of his soldiers that he had the officer responsible and many soldiers executed for their role, and he personally went to apologize to the surviving patients, even making the point of personally opening food cans and feeding them.

Given this history, it's no surprise that the hospital has a reputation for being haunted. The haunting is said to take the form of creepy feelings, and some apparitions of people, presumably former patients, seen in the building. One person's account, posted on-line (ahhh, the illustrious internet) claims that the apparitions can interact with the living.

A man who claims to have psychic powers took his son to the hospital for a dental appointment, and claimed to have caught a photo of the ghost of a dead soldier looking out the window.

Photo claimed to contain an image of a dead soldier. It looks like a blotchy reflection to me. From spi.com.sg

Strangely, for a place that many English-language websites tout as one of the most haunted places in Singapore, there is little information regarding other hauntings.

Commentary: There are two things that I find interesting about this story. One is that many English-language websites have this hospital on lists of "Most Haunted Places in Singapore", and yet actual information regarding the symptoms of the haunting are scarce. The "Soldier Photo", a few message-board accounts of over-the-top ghost sightings, and frequent references to a "creepy feeling" are all that I was able to find. Now, Singapore has four official languages: English, Chinese, Tamil, and Malay, and if I could speak one of the other three (and some folks would say that I can't even manage English), then I might be able to find more information. But I can't, so there you go.

At any rate, this seems to be a case where many of the English-speaking, non-Singaporean ghost story enthusiasts, such as myself, chose this as a "most haunted place" not because it is clearly more haunted than anywhere else in Singapore, but because, due to the building's WII-era history, it's a place that seems like it should be haunted and it's more likely to be known to non-Asian history and trivia buffs than many other places in Singapore. So, it may be that it's simply the allegedly haunted place that English-speaking enthusiasts will have heard of, rather than being one that is deserving of a "most haunted" title.

However, if anyone can read stories written in other languages and can show me that there are more phenomenon said to occur at the hospital than I know of, I will be more than happy to revise this entry.

The second thing that I find interesting is a non-ghost (but nonetheless rather strange) story associated with this hospital. Every place that I have read about this hospital, there has been mention of a book that contained the names of all people killed during the massacre at the hospital. The book's whereabouts are currently unknown. I don't know why, but the missing book feels eerie to me, even though I don't know that it ever actually existed, and if it did, it's entirely possible that it was simply mis-placed.

Sources: Infopedia, Singapore Seen, SPI.com, The Illustrious Internet

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Haunted House in North Dakota

A co-worker of mine told me about a woman who he used to work with had the following experience during her childhood in North Dakota:

Every night, as she was in bed, she would hear whispers, as if they were trying to talk with her. The voices seemed to be trying to get her attention as she was trying to go to sleep. She was never able to quite make out what they were saying, but they were unmistakably human voices.

In this house, objects would also turn up missing only to appear again later. For example, her mother had bought her a pair of shoes for a dance recital, and one of the shoes went missing before the recital. She grabbed an old pair of shoes and left the new shoe in her room. On returning home from the recital, both of the shoes were sitting next to each other in the living room. On another occasion, a sweater went missing, and she went to the laundry room to look for it. On returning upstairs, she found the sweater folded in her drawer.

She was constantly afraid, but never got the impression that the force was evil or malicious. It just seemed to want her attention.

Commentary: Okay, I love these sorts of accounts. After he told me about his friend's experience, my co-worker asked what I thought. I explained that her experiences were very much classic "haunted house" experiences - they were eerie, but there was no clear "story" to them, they were just things that happened. Importantly, none of the events seem designed to creep out or frighten the story's audience, which makes them even scarier.

In his book Supersense, psychologist Bruce Hood describes elements that make religious stories memorable. Drawing from the Bible, he points to stories such as Jesus turning water into wine or feeding the hungry with a small amount of fish and bread. In each case, he points to the fact that the setting of the stories is mundane, and the miracle, while important, is small and easily understood by the reader, and importantly falls close-enough to "the possible" that it doesn't strain the credulity of someone hearing the story. In this way, he argues, these religious stories make their point, and are easily remembered and pondered by the audience, leading them to be particularly moving and important.

I think something similar may be at work in ghost stories such as this one. The story takes place in the most mundane of places - someone's home - and the symptoms of the haunting are not the high-pyrotechnics of many a Hollywood ghost tale, but rather are events that all of us can relate to and understand. Importantly, the symptoms of the haunting, while alleged to be un-natural, fall close enough to the mundane that we don't call the credibility of the person telling us of the events into question. This makes them more believable, and therefore more effective, and scarier.

Sources: Personal Account

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Church at Finney and Westwood, Salida, CA

I grew up in the small town of Salida, California. This story is once of the ghost stories that comes from my childhood.

At the corner of Finney and Westwood in Salida, there once stood a church. Now it is a parking lot and a large warehouse building for Salida Union school. But when I was a kid, it was an old church, the once-white paint now peeling and grey. The grass was patchy and sick looking. The interior lights were rarely seen turned on, though, as it was next to our school, we had little reason to see the church on Sundays when one would expect the lights to be turned on.

The church was surrounded by a grove of trees that that shed their leaves in the winter and looked like gnarled claws on trunks for a large portion of the year. Though the trees blossomed and were quite beautiful in the spring, this was not the image that stayed with us kids...no, we always thought of the church as being surrounded by evil leafless clawed trees, more creature than plant and malicious to the root.

We kids knew that the church was haunted. Some thought it was a Satanic church, others that it was an abandoned church on which evil had fallen, others that it was a church that had been abandoned and taken over by evil cultists, and others that it was a Christian church, but one built and pastored by an evil clergyman who was more interested in his own power than in religion (we were too young to understand or articulate it, but even as children we were aware of the corrupting nature of power, and it showed in many of the stories that we told each other). Our parents would assure us, usually while rolling their eyes, that the church was simply a building that had fallen into disrepair. But we knew better, we knew that it was haunted by something evil and corrupting.

The symptoms of the haunting, as far as my sisters and I ever felt them, were a vague sense of unease when walking by the church, and the occasional sense of being watched when near it. When one of us was feeling particularly brave, we might run up and touch the building, ensuring us both bragging rights and the (usually brief-lived) admiration of our siblings. Other kids told of tales they had heard - all of them second-hand of course - of sinister things inside the church. There were supposedly Satanic symbols near the altar, there was a painting of Satan that would kill anyone unwise enough to stare at it for more than 1 minute, and some stories said that the painting would leave the wall and float about the building of its own accord.

Of course, nobody ever entered the building to find out if these tales were true. No doubt we would have said that to do such a thing was foolish - suicidal even. But the truth is that this was part of our shared childhood folklore, and whether or not it we ever confirmed any of it was quite beside the point.

Commentary: As I said at the end of the story, this was part of our childhood folklore. We were frightened by the story, yes, but also thrilled by it. None of us ever looked for any evidence of the story - we never tried to get inside to church, we never inquired with people to find out if the church was still in use, and we never dared challenge someone who had come up with a new detail to the story. Whether or not it was true was beside the point. Walking close enough to touch the church was a test of bravery, and trading stories about the church was a favorite pastime.

When I was around 11 or 12, the church was renovated. The trees and lawn were tamed by gardeners, the white paint replaced with a fresh layer, and the doors were oftne left open on warm days, allowing members of the community to see inside the church. I don't know whether the church had ever been abandoned, but it had certainly not had the life that it would obtain during my teenage years. I never knew the pastor well, the church re-opened after my church-going years had ended, but I did know him at least in passing, and he always seemed to be a decent fellow and someone who was as concerned about his community as about his own church.

I don't know when the church was finally abandoned for good and torn down. It occured some time after I left Salida to go to college. By that time, it was no longer a terrifying edifece that harbored menacing spirits. It had become a part of the community. I wonder what the children in the area tell ghost stories about now.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

London Bridge, Lake Havasu, Arizona

Strange as it may seem, London Bridge (or at least, A London Bridge) is in Arizona. In the 1960s, it became clear that London Bridge was no longer structurally sound - increased vehicle traffic (and heavier vehicles) and an expansion of the bridge itself proved too much for the foundations, which had begun sinking into the Thames. Rather than simply demolish the bridge, the London government decided to auction it off. It was purchased by Robert McCulloch, who intended to use it as the centerpiece to a housing development and tourist attraction at the artificial Lake Havasu. A new London bridge was built in London, and the old one was moved (sort of, see the commentary below) to Arizona.

Ghostly happenings were reported as early as the bridge's opening ceremony. According to some witnesses, a pair of people, man and woman, dressed in Victorian clothing were seen walking along the bridge. One witness said that she had assumed that the two were actors hired to take part in the festivities, only to find out later that no such actors had been hired or requested. Since then, people in Victorian garb have been occasionally reported on the bridge, and those who report them claim that the apparitions vanish as soon as the witness tries to approach them.

Two other apparitions occasionally reported include a British police officer in the well-known "bobby" uniform who appears to be on patrol, and a woman in a black dress sometimes seen on the bridge at night.

Visitors to the bridge have also reported having been pushed by invisible forces, and witnessed glowing globes moving along the bridge. EVP enthusiasts* claim to have captured ghostly voices while on and near the bridge.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

*Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) is the term given to voices found on tape recordings that are said to come from spirits. These voices are said to be audible on the recordings, but not to have been heard at all during the process of making the recoding. The problem is that there are numerous ways that commercially available recorders can record voices (tape recorders are notorious for picking up and recording radio signals not audible to the person making the recording, for just one common example), and add to that that most EVP aficionados hold that you need to have white noise in the background, and you have a setting custom-made for false voices via pareidolia.

Commentary: Robert McColloch is one of the few people on the planet who has managed to elevate knick-nack collecting to literally monumental levels. When the sale of London Bridge was announced, he made the purchase and had the materials from the dismantled bridge delivered to the location of Lake Havasu City, his planned retirement community in the Mojave Desert. A reinforced concrete bridge was constructed in the shape of the 19th century London Bridge, and the masonry from London bridge pains-takingly arranged on the concrete bridge's exterior to replicate the appearance of the bridge that had stood on the Thames. So, technically, this is not the same London Bridge that stood in London, but is a new bridge clad in material from the original bridge.

The bridge connected an artificial island in the artificial lake to the city, and on the island stood "the English Village" - a mock village with an open-air mall, hedge maze, and museum (much of the "village"* has fallen into disrepair). For the record, having been both to England and to the Mojave Desert within the same month, I can think of no stranger juxtaposition than a mock English village in the Mojave.

That people have reported ghosts here should come as no surprise. London Bridge itself is among the most recognizable bridge names in the world (even if people frequently confuse it with Tower Bridge) due both to sharing it's name with one of the world's largest cities and the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is Falling Down." Within the United States, mention of London tends to conjure up images of Victorian London - the world of Dickens, and also of Arthur Conan Doyle - and so it is only fitting that the ghosts that people claim to see here also appear to date to this period of history. Alongside this image of London, most of us Americans view it as a busy, exciting city, and so the idea of people being bumped out of the way by the spirit of a Victorian commuter is also very much in keeping with the images that this bridge conjures in the American imagination.

Also, let's face it, having London Bridge in the middle of Arizona is going to create some weird cognitive dissonance in pretty much anyone, and is a situation that is literally begging for a ghost story.

Incidentally, I am a lover of B-movies, so one of my favorite facts about this bridge is the fact that it was the subject of a really cheeseball 80's horror movie starring David Hasselhoff. The movie, titled alternately Terror at London Bridge, Bridge Across Time, and Jack the Ripper in Arizona (and directed by a fellow with the marvelous name of E.W. Swackhamer) concerns the spirit of Jack the Ripper escaping from the brick within London Bridge in which it had been imprisoned, and only David Hasselhoff can stop the murderous ghost! The movie was just as good as it sounds, but it's a fun way to kill a Saturday afternoon nonetheless.

*I have an urge to visit this place and ask everyone where #6 lives.

Video Special: And because I love you all so very much, here's a chunk of cheesy goodness:

Sources: Examiner.com, Prairie Ghosts, Thriftytraveling.com, Haunted Bridges, Wikipedia

Saturday, September 4, 2010

London Bridge, England

This account is about the London Bridge site in London. I have to be specific, because the current London Bridge is not the one that stood there during the 19th century. That bridge that was bought by a developer and moved to an artificial lake in Arizona (no, seriously, it was, some stories are just too weird to not be true), and it is also said to be haunted. So, understand that I am talking about the London Bridge site that is in London, and not the bridge in Arizona. Okay? Okay.

Oh, and one other thing. Many folks confuse London Bridge with Tower Bridge. This is Tower Bridge:

This is London Bridge:

Photo from bigfoto.com

Alright, now on with the creepiness...

London Bridge crosses the Thames to the east of the Tower of London. A bridge has been in roughly this spot since 46 AD, when the Romans built the first wooden bridge near this location. That bridge was destroyed, and another built. That bridge eventually collapsed, requiring another wooden bridge to be built, which also eventually collapsed, which required another to be built, and so on and so forth - just go listen to the old nursery rhyme to figure out the rest. A stone bridge was constructed during the Medieval period, and this bridge not only allow transport across the river, but also held houses, shops, and a church dedicated to St. Thomas Becket on it's span. That bridge was replaced in the 1830s, and the 19th century bridge (which was the one sent to Arizona) was replaced in the 1970s.

During the Medieval period, and through the Renaissance, the heads of those convicted of treason were placed on spikes on the gates of the bridge. This includes numerous famous individuals (such as Sir Thomas Moore and William Wallace) as well as lesser-known offenders. Given the Medieval standards of jurisprudence, it's open to debate just how many of the executed were truly guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. It is unsurprising that ghost stories have been attached to this location.

It has been said that sounds of screams and crying come from the vicinity of the bridge. Sometimes these sounds are attributed to the spirits of a group of Jewish refugees. In 1290, the Jews of England were expelled - similar events occurred throughout Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, whether formal decrees pushing the Jewish population out of a country or violent pogroms that terrorized the Jewish population. A ship containing Jews expelled from England sank on the river Thames, drowning those aboard.

Another story for the origin of the screams and cries is that it comes from the spirits of the people who had been executed on the bridge and had their heads placed on spikes on the bridge's gates.

A few portions of the medieval bridge still stand. One is a portion of a wall on the south side of the Thames. It's not much to look at, but there is a story that people sometimes see a Roman soldier standing near it (why a Roman soldier would be near the remains of a wall that came 1,000 years after he died is open to question), and people sometimes report seeing shadowy figures out of the corner of the eye.

Naturally, many of the photographs taken of the bridge have the ever-present "orbs" and streaks of light, said by many enthusiasts to be spirit energy. Likewise, apparitions of people from many periods in time are said to be seen crossing or near the bridge.

Underneath the bridge's south footings are a series of tunnels, long disused. These tunnels were bought recently to build a facility called "The London Bridge Experience" which is described by The Londonist as:

Part museum, part CGI scare-fest, the LBE will take visitors on a historical tour of the 2000 year-old crossing, and down into previously disused catacombs beneath the bridge.

While working on the facility, workers uncovered a pit filled with human skeletons. It didn't take archaeologists long to work out that this was a plague pit (pretty much what it sounds like, a pit where plague victim's bodies were tossed for mass burial). After the plague pit was found, workers reported that strange things began to occur. Light bulbs would explode without any identifiable cause, tools began to disappear, and workers reported a general sense of being watched as well as the sounds of footsteps when nobody was present to produce the sound. After the initial discovery, even more skeletons were found, and workers reported that the initial manifestations increased and they began seeing strange figures out of the corners of their eyes, and shadowy figures were seen in the tunnels. It may be worth noting that some of the skeletons had holes in their skulls, possibly indicating an end from violence rather than disease.

The London Bridge Experience has become known as one of the top "fright attractions" in the U.K., with it's CGI baddies and animatronic beasts entertaining and shocking visitors. For those craving something a bit more, the company running the attraction allows groups to stay overnight to experience the paranormal. They even note on their website that overnight visitors might encounter two ghosts known as Emily and the Shadow Man, though no description of these two is given.

Commentary: There are alot of really fascinating things about the ghost stories surrounding this landmark. Let's start with just the basic history.

As noted above, the first London Bridge was constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. It was a pontoon bridge that was soon replaced by a piled bridge. This bridge was destroyed by Queen Boudicca in 60 A.D. After Boudicca was defeated, another bridge was built by the Romans. When the Romans left, the bridge fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed (or was pulled down - the history is unclear). Another bridge may have been built at some point after that but before the late 10th century. In the late 10th century, a Saxon king named Aethelred made use of a bridge at this location, and epic poems of the time indicate that this bridge was destroyed in 1014, though whether this is true or poetic license is not known. A Saxon bridge is recorded as having been at this location in 1016. After the Normans conquered England, they either built another bridge in this location or made use of the existing one, which was destroyed in 1091 by, of all things, a tornado (welcome to London, Oklahoma). The bridge was rebuilt again, and this time destroyed by fire in 1136. Really, you'd think that people would catch on that maybe the River Gods didn't want a bridge at this spot, no wonder the damn thing ended up haunted.

In the late 12th century, it was proposed that the wooden bridge (which had been partially rebuilt after 1136) be replaced by a stone structure. This was likely a move to support the pilgrimage to Canterbury (where the shrine to St. Thomas Becket was), which used the bridge, as well as a desire to have a more stable bridge and a monument of sorts. In the center of the new masonry bridge, a cathedral to St. Thomas Becket was constructed, providing a stopping point (and place to collect revenue in the form of tithes and offerings) from the Canterbury pilgrims. This bridge also had draw bridges and gates to allow for better defense of both sides of the river from invading armies (as well as to protect the facilities on the bridge). In 1209, King John allowed houses and shops to be built on the bridge as a way of raising revenue. However, this also resulted in many obstructions and distractions on the bridge, which slowed traffic and led to many people relying on the ferries and water taxis rather than using the bridge.

...and residents of my state think that Caltrans is guilty of bad planning...

Drawing of Medieval London Bridge

Although the bridge was built of stone, the houses and shops were made of wood, and the bridge was prone to fires, and several thousand lives were lost in fires from the 12th through the 18th centuries. In the mid-18th century, an act of parliament allowed for the removal of all houses and shops, as well as other modifications to the bridge, all of which was carried out by 1762. However, the bridge was still too narrow for the growing city, was an obstruction to river traffic, and was falling apart - as one might expect a 600-year old structure to do.

In 1799, a competition for designs for a new bridge was held. The engineer John Rennie won, and his five-arched stone bridge was adopted as the new design. The new bridge was built near the old bridge (which continued in use until it was demolished in 1831). The new bridge (which would eventually become known as the "old" bridge) was widened in the early 20th century, and this widening placed too much weight on its foundations, which began to sink into the river bottom. The bridge was placed on the market and bought by an American real-estate developer named Robert McColloch, who moved it to Lake Havasu, Arizona as a centerpiece for a real-estate development*. I'm not sure which is stranger, the London Tornado, or the fact that London Bridge ended up in Arizona.

The current London Bridge was completed in 1972, and has served as one of the busiest bridges in London. It has also had it's share of misfortune, such as a collision by the warship HMS Jupiter in 1984, but continues to serve nonetheless. It has distinctive red lights that were put in place in 2004. These lights were placed on many bridges within London as part of a Remembrance Day celebration event, but were left on London Bridge alone.

As to the ghost stories, let's start with the bridge. There are many events that occurred on the bridge to which the screams and cries could be attributed: numerous attacks, fires, executed traitors, and so on. And yet these cries are often attributed to the sinking of the Jewish refugee vessel. I find this interesting, as it may represent a manifestation of a national guilty conscience being expressed through folklore. It may be an acknowledgement that England committed a great wrong in expelling Jewish citizens, and the notion that this sin is permanently etched on a prominent part of the English landscape is interesting. Alternatively, it may simply be that, due to the religious and political nature of the Jewish expulsion, this is simply the most visible historic event in which numerous people died, even though a larger number of people died in at least one of the fires on the bridge. Either way, that many attribute the phantom sounds of agony to the sunken ship suggests a place of raw nerves in the English historical psyche.

Naturally, other people attribute these sounds to the spirits of executed people whose heads were placed on the bridge. This is probably a culturally safer place to put the blame for the sounds. However, when one considers both that at least a portion of the people convicted were likely not actually traitors (it was common for Medieval rulers to execute rivals both real and perceived as traitors), and others (such as Thomas Moore) are considered heroic by modern people, this is also a potentially culturally fraught subject. It may not have the sting of anti-semitism, but political oppression isn't exactly seen as classy behavior by modern people.

The appearance of apparitions from many periods of history on the bridge provides a classic type of ghost story. While I have little to say about this detail, I will say that I really like it. The appearance of the Roman soldier and the indistinct apparitions near the remaining Medieval wall is also classic, but I have little to say about them other than that I really enjoy these details.

The orbs and streaks of light in photographs are another story. The origins of these types of features on photographs are well known, and they are simply artifacts of the photographic equipment (and occasionally of careless camera operators). While it is common to hear paranormal enthusiasts claim that certain types of light streaks or orbs "can not have been caused by anything natural", close investigation of these claims routinely proves these claims false. Basically, if your evidence of a haunting is a weird light streak or an orb, you don't actually have any evidence at all. In fact, it's worth noting that orbs have become the spirit photo du jour in large part because general public knowledge of modern technology allows people to recognize false photos for the frauds that they are, preventing more impressive "spirit phots" from being accepted. It's similar to the way in which the rather more specific spirit mediums of the 19th and 20th century gave way to people such as Jon Edward, who appears to be playing charades with the spirits, given the vague and often silly things that he spouts during readings.

Okay, let's get on to the catacombs beneath the southern portion of the bridge. These were apparently built for storage, but have long been unused. During the construction of the London Bridge Experience, they were renovated, and it was in 2007 that the first skeletons from the plague pit were found. Although most of us think of "the plague" as meaning bubonic plague, there were many periods of deadly, communicable disease sweeping through Europe, all of which were referred to as "plague". This particular plague pit appears to date to the Black Plague of the 17th century, which was in fact bubonic. Reports of the time indicate that deaths were occurring at such a high rate there wasn't time for proper burials or even funeral rights**. Mass graves and anonymous burial were the order of the day.

On my other blog, I once wrote about the tendency that people in the United States have to blame alleged hauntings on "Indian burial grounds. In that entry, I asked what people in Europe blamed hauntings on. In researching London's plague pits for this entry, I got my answer. These pits are found throughout London, and are often associated with haunted places (and a few allegedly haunted places appear to be blamed on plague pits even when there is no evidence that one is nearby).

The stories associated with the plague pit opening are fantastic. This is the sort of stuff that great ghost lore is made of. What is interesting to me, however, is that, in reading the various media accounts of these hauntings, everyone mentioned the phenomena described by the London Experience personnel, but nobody ever mentioned the fact that these guys were building what is essentially a haunted house attraction, and these sorts of stories are good for business. Whether or not construction personnel experienced anything, I am sure that the management was more than happy to find real burials during construction - it's free advertising of the best kind for this sort of attraction. Regardless, it's also a good story, and a great entry into the already busy ghost story lore of London.

*There is an urban legend that McColloch thought that he was buying Tower Bridge. This is, in fact, not true. Records indicate that he knew precisely which bridge he was buying. Nonetheless, the story continues to be told.

**Interesting bit of information: These plagues had been sweeping Europe for centuries, due in large part to the close proximity of people and atrocious sanitation in cities and towns. Some anthropologists and historians think that these waves of plague in the cities and towns may have prepared the immune systems of the people of Europe, Africa, and Asia for general and regular attacks by pathogens, as well as resulted in the proliferation of strains of disease. This may explain why the Europeans entering the Americas were relatively unharmed by disease, while the native peoples were laid waste by viruses and bacterias.

Special Videos: The Londonist spends the night in the catacombs.

Sources: The Londonist, BBC, blog, Wikipedia, The Illustrious Internet, DayVisits, London Bridge Experience Official Website, and the ever-reliable (and highly entertaining) guide of the London Walks Ghost Tour.