Sunday, November 24, 2019

50 Berkeley Square, London

In the late 18th century, a young woman lived with her uncle at the townhouse located at 50 Berkeley Square. Her uncle was a cruel and abusive man, and it was known that he was doing her harm, though the specific nature of that harm was never specified. One night, she opened the window of her top floor room, and flung herself out, falling to her death. Since then, her spirit has been seen in the upstairs of the house, and some say that simply seeing it has the power to frighten a person to death.

In addition to the young woman (or, in some tellings, in place of) the specter that haunts the top floor is said to be that of a young man who was kept locked in a room and feed through a hole in the door. In other tellings, it is the spirit of a little girl. And, in some stories, the ghost could be any of the three, or something else entirely, and takes the form of a horrifying vaguely human-shaped mist.

At some point, the house became the home of George Canning, a former Prime Minster who lived in the house until his death in 1827 (stories differ as to whether or not he was the abusive uncle). Canning, is is alleged, heard strange sounds in the night, from empty parts of the house, but never reported being especially frightened. After Canning's death, the house was then leased to one Miss Curzon, who lived there until she died at the ripe age of 90 in the 1850s*.

Allegedly, in 1840, a young man, reportedly a student, named Robert Warboys (apparently on his day off of defending the Citadel on behalf of Immortan Joe) was drinking with friends at a nearby tavern, and heard that the house at 50 Berkeley square was haunted. Filled with alcohol and testosterone, he accepted a dare to stay the night in the house. Arriving at the door, he made enough noise to wake the landlord, who rebuffed him. Warboys proceeded to make such a nuisance of himself that the landlord agree to let him stay in one of the more haunted rooms on two conditions - 1) Warboys be armed (whether the pistol he took with him was his own or was borrowed from the landlord is unclear); and 2) at the first sign of trouble, Warboys pull a chord in the room that would ring a bell and summon the landlord. After an hour, the bell began to ring frantically, and the landlord heard a pistol shot. On arriving at the room, the landlord found that Warboys was cowering in a corner, smoke coming from the barrel of his pistol, a bullet embedded in a wall, and nothing else. Warboys was clearly agitated, but said nothing, and fled the house (in some versions of the story, Warboys is said to have been dead, or catatonic, when the landlord arrived).

In 1859, Thomas Myers moved in, bringing in the dankness that every good haunted house requires, as well as a heaping helping of weird.

Initially, things looked bright for Myers. He was engaged to be married, and had bought the house and begun furnishing it to fit his bride and hopefully his future family. When his fiance jilted him, however, he is said to have become a recluse, keeping to himself on the top floor, going days at a time without speaking to anyone, and leaving his room only at night to wander the house by candlelight**. He allowed the house to fall into disrepair, neither cleaning the house nor carrying out maintenance. He died in 1874, allegedly quite mad (though some stories put his death in the 1880s).

During Mr. Myers time in the house, one incident of particular notoriety occurred. In 1872, George Lyttelton, a prominent politician and member of the aristocracy, arranged for a room at the house for one night. He brought with him a firearm, a shotgun by some versions of the story. Late at night, he fired at an apparition that he saw. When he went to look for it by the light of the next morning, he found his cartridges, but no sign of whatever he had shot at. Lyttelton is said that he shot at some creature with tendrils, brown in color. Whether the creature appeared in from of him, or he saw it enter the room, varies from telling to telling, but allegedly it led to Lyttelton declaring the house "supernaturally fatal to body and mind."

An article published in Mayfair Magazine in 1879 reported that a maid, who was working in the attic in the service of a family that had just bought the house, broke into a sudden, terrified scream. When the new owners made it up the stairs, they found the maid weeping on the floor, and murmuring "don't let it touch me". Allegedly, that was the last comprehensible thing that she said, and she died the next day in an asylum.

The maid was preparing the room for one Captain Kent, fiance to the family's daughter, for whom the attic room was being prepared. Despite the fate of the maid, he chose to stay in the room anyway, perhaps as a show of bravery. He went to bed, and 30 minutes later, his fiance's family heard him screaming, followed by the sound of gunshot***. When they reached his room, he was catatomnic, dying shortly thereafter.

A final story holds that, in 1887, two sailors were looking for lodgings, and decided to break into the now-deserted house to save money (or, according to some versions of the story, they did so out of strong thrill-seeking streak that one or both of them possessed). The men bedded down somewhere on the upper floors, and after a series of strange sounds, managed to fall asleep. One of the sailors woke in the night to see his companion struggling with...something. It was an amorphous, blob-like creature with tentacles that was strangling the man. In some tellings, the free sailor tried to attack the thing that was killing his colleague, in others he simply took off running in fear. Regardless of the specifics, the sailor being attacked by the creature died, and appeared to have circular wounds similar to suction cups on his neck and torso.

There is another version of the sailor's story, however, which does not discuss the creature. In this version, the sailors woke up, and one of them saw the ghost of Mr. Myer, who approached them threateningly - he woke the other sailor, and both fled, with the sailor who had seen the ghost tripping as he fled the house, falling, and dying from an injury from the fall (some versions hold that he tripped near a window, fell out, and was impaled on the metal fence that surrounds the house). 

One final version of the sailor story has it all occurring in 1943. In this version, the sailors broke in to the basement in order to obtain free lodging for the night. However, finding the basement to be dank and rat-infested, they headed upstairs to the attic room. They started a fire in the fire place, settled in for the night, and tried to get to sleep. They were awoken by the sound of a door opening, followed by a wet, scraping sound. The sailors saw and felt the tendrils of some strange creature touching them, and those appendages soon wrapped around the neck of one of the sailors as he was reaching for his gun. The other sailor, terrified, fled the room and the house, finding a police officer for help. When the sailor and the cop returned to the house, they found no sign of the other sailor in the room, but did discover his dismembered corpse, with the head turned in a manner clearly indicating a broken neck, in the basement, a look of terror on his face.

Stories from the 1870s onward (increasing int he 20th century) report people, often unnamed, seeing soemthign strange in or aroudn the house, described variously as a "shadowy mean," a slimy amorphous bag with tentacles, a "collection of writhing shadows" and more standard human-like apparitions.

The house was bought by an antiquarian book seller in the 1930s, and continued in that function until 2015. These owners said that nothing unusual has ever occurred there, even noting that they can demonstrate the flaws in each of the various stories and how those stories fail to comply with the documented history of the building. Many people point to the management (or, possibly, police) having, at least at one time, closed off the upper floors, where the haunting is said to be at its most severe. The owners, however, point to the building having been damaged during the London Blitz, and indicate that is the reason for the upper floors having been closed off for a time.

*This reminds me of Dudleytown, another allegedly horrifically haunted site where people nonetheless seemed to enjoy absurdly long lives considering the period of history.

**Okay, yes, the guy sounds miserable, and probably mentally unstable, but have you ever noticed that it's only the wealthy that can get away with this sort of spookiness. I mean, the rest of us have to get up in the morning and go to work.

***With all of the guns showing up int his story, I imagine that Victorian London was rather like modern-day Texas.

Commentary:  My mother, who was a fan of In Search Of and many of the various paranormal and New Age books and "documentaries" that peaked in popularity in the 70s and the first half of the 80s, would often give my sisters and I books filled with ghost stories, and this story was included in one of them. We lost the book eventually, and as a teenager and adult, I would try to find the story again. Every time I would try to look up ghost stories for England, I would find the Borley Rectory, the Brown Lady photo, and a handful of others, but none of them had the mist-like ghost or sailors being attacked by some strange tentacled beast. And so, I thought I would never track this story down, until I came across a Youtube video titled "The Unnamed Horror of Berkeley Square" - I didn't know it would be this story, but something about the title tickled my memory, I watched it, and it was the story I had spent so many years trying to track down - and now that I know that it was in Berkeley Square, finding additional information is remarkably easy.

I am, however, very happy to have found this story again - it was a formative one for me. I would likely have retained an interest in ghost stories regardless - the entertainment and creep factor alone is enough to pull me in - but this story really grabbed me at a young age. Where so many stories were over the top to a ridiculous extent, or were rather cookie-cutter and boring, this one was weird and disturbing in a rare way, and most of my interest in ghost stories ever since has been caught up in a search for that feeling.

That said, one of the things that surprised me as I became re-acquainted with the story is how many retellings are focused on a strange creature often said to be an octopus, when I remember it being focused on the ghosts, and even the creature being thought of as more of a ghostly manifestation than a physical entity. So, in looking at the articles and videos that I found on this subject, I was interested to find that most of the focus is on a discussion of whether the weird creature is some kind of unknown animal, often a mutant octopus that has adapted to live on dry land is suggested (and yes, I know how dumb that sounds). But, I am not certain that the people who began telling these stories in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would have seen it that way.

Now, admittedly, I am currently working under the influence of Paul Barber's book Vampires, Burial & Death, but he makes an interesting point in that book that may be applicable here. The book is primarily about vampire folklore, which is radically different from the vampires of literature, film, and pop culture, and tying that folklore in to actual observations made about decomposition (his thesis being that almost everything that is in the actual folklore for vampires is actually pretty neatly tied to elements of natural decomposition). Along the way, he makes the observation that most of the people who believed and spread this folklore didn't make a sharp distinction between supernatural phenomenon, and would have viewed vampires, ghosts, witches, werewolves, and all manner of other things as being inextricably tied to each other, often with the terms for different "types" of creatures being used interchangeably, and thus suggesting that the people telling these stories didn't make a distinction. And I have to wonder if the same thing may be going on here - the ghosts, the mist-like thing, and the slimy alleged octopus were all simply different manifestations of "weird" without a clear differentiation.

But, then, perhaps I am allowing my own views on how people of the past perceived the weird to color my views. So, you can take or leave my hypothesizing.

Another likely blow against my take on things is that most elements of the ghost story appear to date to the second half of the 20th century, and not the 19th. A few elements are probably earlier - Myers family members (including Lady Dorothy Nevill) and descendants point to his tendency to roam the house by candlelight at night having led to some ghost stories during his residence there. Additionally, many elements of the story appear to have been lifted directly from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1859 story "The Haunted and the Haunted." Moreover, as the house sat unoccupied for stretches of time, it was far more decayed and decrepit than neighboring homes, which always helps a haunted reputation. The Spiritualists of the late 19th century apparently tried to get access to the house, but never had luck finding an owner that would let them in. That said, many of the story elements became best known from 20th century writings - specifically the 1907 publication Haunted Houses by Charles G. Harper and the 1975 book Haunted London by Peter Underwood.

So, this is probably more a case of sensationalist literature throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks rather than a result of organic folklore development, as much as I may wish it were otherwise. There is certainly a shortage of verifiable facts among the more exciting claims, and many others seem to have more mundane answers.  More's the pity.

Fun fact - in researching this story, I came across a few examples of people claiming that Miss Havisham of the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations was inspired by Mr. Myer's over-the-top reaction to being jilted.

Sources: Bedtime Stories, Wikipedia, Haunted London, Lore Podcast, Mental Floss, ABC News, Strawberry Tours, The Evening Standard, Astonishing Legends (the blog), Mysterious Universe,

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