The Ballarat ghost busters of the 1880s

BALLARAT had its very own ghost-busting forces in the last quarter of the 19th century, with the city council calling on police and vigilantes to stop both pranksters, criminals and deviants dressing up as ghouls, prevalent all the way to World War I.

Ghost outfts originally consisted of a white sheet and became more elaborate after phosphorescent paint became widely available in the 1880s.

There was a definitive split between the working class, who were inspired by English and Irish folklore they brought with them when they came to Australia, and the spiritualist movement, which was more the area of the educated middle class.

“There are numerous occasions where the ‘ghost’ would get beaten by a mob after scaring or hurting people. A brilliant example is that of Herbert P. McClennan, who harassed the prostitutes who gathered outside the station dressed in a glow-inthe- dark bodysuit and carrying a cat o’ nine tails whip.

Police stopped him by dressing in drag and waiting for him to come out, arresting him in the act,” said Dr David Waldron, an expert in anthropology and history from Federation University who has conducted extensive research into Ballarat’s occult history.

The council held public meetings in an effort to stop both the ghost pranks and criminal attacks, and found that harsher punishments were the only answer. They even offered a five-pound reward for McClennan, who had earned the nickname of “The Ghost.”

Dr Dave Waldron has discovered evidence of a spate of incidents of Ballarat residents in the late 1800's painting themselves with the newly discovered phosphorescent paint. PICTURE: JEREMY BANNISTER

Dr Dave Waldron has discovered evidence of a spate of incidents of Ballarat residents in the late 1800's painting themselves with the newly discovered phosphorescent paint. PICTURE: JEREMY BANNISTER

“The Ghost” did not take this lightly, threatening the mayor and his “bally councillors” that he would shoot any man he suspected as a police officer or vigilante. His unmasking as a well-respected man about town was shocking, according to Dr Waldron, because of the sexual nature of his crimes - sexual ‘deviancy’ such as his was usually kept for private clubs for the upper class.

McClennan, however, was a different breed to many of the other ghoul impersonators, and came in the last decade of their prominence.

Reports from the 1880s onwards - always written with a dramatic flourish - tell of men and women painting themselves and their clothes with the newfangled glow-in-the-dark paint to add to the ghostly effect, including one man who made quite an impact in 1904 when he painted “prepare to meet thy death” across his chest and frightened a young man so much he was “knocked down and stunned,” according to the report in The Argus.

Dr Waldron said people in Ballarat were taken with the paint, with one man in Peel St painting his entire house with it.

“People could see the house from blocks away, and the fire brigade was called because of the glow,” he said.

This was the era before non-toxic phosphorescent paint, however, and there were some serious side effects.

The phosphorous that gives the effect its name caused several different ailments, the least serious of which was called ‘phossy jaw’, which caused abscesses to form in the jawline, grotesquely disfiguring the lower half of the face. It also caused cancer.

More widely reported consequences centre on the charges handed out to people dressing as ghosts, as the substance hadn’t been identified as carcinogenic at the time. It was better than the key ingredient in glow-in-the-dark paint mark II, though: radium was used in the 1890s.

Dr Waldron has looked through judgements of the time for a research paper on the topic, and the non-violent offences were charged as “causing a public nuisance,” and in some cases sent to Ararat Lunatic Asylum.

A ghost sighting on June 15, 1886. Extract: The Ballarat Courier

A ghost sighting on June 15, 1886. Extract: The Ballarat Courier

Days later the "ghost" wrote a reply. Extract: The Ballarat Courier

Days later the "ghost" wrote a reply. Extract: The Ballarat Courier

An obvious Aradale candidate is an unnamed woman who moved on to ghosts after another unpopular habit.

“(She) would dress as a man, and then jump out from behind the Peel St bridge and show passers-by differently.”

She moved on from flashing, as detailed by the Sydney Morning Herald in June 1877:

“With a hideous mask and white sheet or robe, this adventurous female has been playing the ghost, concealing herself in the dark under the lagoon bridge...and stalking out upon the unwary passengers, has succeeded in more than one instance in establishing that state popularly described as being ‘frightened into fits’.”

More common were the younger people who frightened people for fun by jumping out of alleyways and the criminals who used a ghost outfit as a cover for misdeeds, like the man described as being “dressed in a white smock, with a coffin lid 6ft long on his back and his face smeared with phosphorous” in the NSW newspaper the Barrier Miner in 1895. He chased a miner’s wife up the street before stabbing the miner in the arm.

Dr Anne Beggs-Sunter said Ballarat was coming out of a depression in the 1870s, and death was a constant companion to the community, with high numbers of men killed in the mines and high rates of crime.

There was an industry around this, with exorcisms popular for houses where people had died violently, and seances conducted to speak with the dead.

“The (Catholic) priests would have come down on contacting on the dead,” said Dr Beggs-Sunter, although she said other churches in the area, like the Wesley congregation, were attended by spiritualist leader and wealthy printer James Curtis.

A priest speaking at an anti-spiritualist rally in town ran for his life when a mob chased him, according to Dr Waldron. Society came together, however, when the ghosts got violent. In what might be the most successful ghostbusting in Ballarat history, a man took down two separate ghouls. The now-defunct Delegate Argus and Border Post takes up the story from 1896:

“One of the breed of criminal lunatics who themselves by terrifying women and timid persons in the role of a ghost was disported himself in Ballarat last winter when he came across a militiaman named Charles Horman, who promptly discharged a gun at him and is believed to have lodged a quantity of buckshot in the legs of the ghost. The latter got clear away, however, but Horman has recently had another adventure.

When walking near Soldier’s Hill, at near midnight, he was confronted by an object got up in the most ghost fashion. Not having a gun handy he let fly with a heavy stick, striking the spook on the head and laying him in the gutter. His attention was then attracted by a sigh, and on examination he found a woman just recovering from a swoon into which she had evidently been frightened by the ghost."

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