Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Parnell Ghost - part 1 of 2

Late November 1893, the middle of a balmy summer night in Auckland.  Despite the late hour there are three hundred people crowd in a street, spilling onto the road and chattering noisily.  All eyes are focused on one house.  It has been the same for the last two weeks.  First it was a few gawkers who had read the Auckland Star article on the 11th of November, quickly rising to around a hundred just two days later.  Reports of a ghost will sure bring in the crowds.  Smartly dressed men in suits, and women in the latest dresses, chatter with some of the poorer boarders and workers from the general area.  You can tell the Parnell women, eyeing each other to catch who has been following the latest London and Paris fashions through the pages of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Journal.

Some are fresh from the latest parliamentary debates that are rocking the country - this will be the first experiment in giving the woman the vote, and the men in the crowd have taken care to educate their wives in the analysis of critical speaking, even taking them to some of the local town hall meetings.  In the Parnell electorate the career politician William Shepherd Allen has challenged Frank Lawry, appearing all around the city and giving passionate speeches, but most feel he needn't have bothered.  Lawry, the dapper old cattle man, is well known and liked in the area and seems like a shoe-in for the Parnell electorate.  Never one to miss an opportunity, Lawry is here in fact, weaving through the crowd and shaking hands with his people and ignoring the jeers of some of the older folk who are standing in a group to the side.  These are some of the Prohibitionist set, having finished their march through the city and passing by this street on their way home.  The movement is gaining momentum in the country and it looks like they will have some real influence on government policy in the next few years.  Some of them whisper loudly and tut-tut under their breath as Lawry passes.  They know an ideological enemy when they see one.

"There!" a voice shouts.  "I can see the ghost!  Coming out of the chimney!"

The crowd presses forward, jostling for a good view.  It is hard to make out even the silhouette of the chimney against the night sky.

"I see it!" shouts someone else.  "It's getting bigger."

"No" someone else's voice, a man's near the front.  "It's getting smaller.  It's going back in."

"He's right... no, wait, there it is again!"  This goes on for some time as different people claim to see moving shapes in the darkness above the house.

"Lawry," says someone, "you're the persuasive one, why don't you appeal to this poor lost soul."

"A ghost? now that's taking suffrage a little far isn't it!" someone says in a stage whisper.  Ignoring the heckler, Lawry straightens his suit jacket and steps forward to appeal to spirit world on behalf of his constituency.

Well... let's take a step back ourselves and see what's going on.

Late 1893 seems like one of those turning points in New Zealand.  As you can see above the country was gearing up to give women the vote for the first time, and in the Waikato the British were positioning themselves for what was to be the bloodiest battle on record (Rangiriri) against the local Maori tribes.  In parliament, the prohibition movement was finally gaining ground and seemed like it could make some real progress.  In short, the tiny British colony down the end of the globe was finally getting an idea of what its identity could be as a country of its own, not one that had to be a carbon copy of the land they had left behind.

So what else to create shock and gossip, to create some light drawing room entertainment, as well as to cement the young town as a "real" and established city, than to lay claim to your very own ghost stories? It may seem a jump in focus but bear with me.  Claiming to have ghosts is to assume your town has interesting and compelling stories, and that there is some kind of 'history' you are looking back on.  Ghosts speak of tragedy, love, passion, mystery.  The person telling the ghost story wants the others to think the location and the story are worth the "ghost" thrill.

So this is what I think the Observer was talking about when on 18th November 1893 it claimed Parnell was rejoicing in the possession of "a genuine hall-marked spectre, who has taken up her (or its) abode in a desirable family residence."

What the Observer was referring to was an article the previous week in the Auckland Star.  Here is the story in a nutshell.  The house was rented frequently over the years.  Recently one of the girls was practicing the piano when she felt a presence in the room and saw an apparition in white.  This spooked ( ;) ) the family who left soon after.  The next residents' children often saw a woman in white in the room.  They moved on.  Next group had a guest staying over who saw a female enter his room when he was sleeping.  Like I said, this resulted in people doing the 19th century equivalent of "cruising by" to check out the haunted house, around 100 people on the 13th of November.

The next step in this tale was that a local claimed he was walking past the house at night and was shocked when he felt the ghost jump on his back.  The only information I can find is that the claimant was a portly man by the name of Mowbray who was well-known in racing circles.  The Fretful Porcupine column in the Observer - clearly a bastion of investigative journalism at the time - gives some more clarity to the story on the 25th of November, when it says the crowd of onlookers had swelled to 300.  A late tenant says the ghost walked through his closed bedroom door.  Another tenant says the ghost entered the room and passed through the floor.  The Observer writer says "it is said the ghost is that of a young girl (a former inmate of this house) who disappeared very suddenly some years ago and the mystery surrounding whose fate has never been cleared up."

The short-lived Parnell Ghost craze culminates in a handy Observer article on the 2nd of December, illustrated with pictures describing the highlights of the gossip-worthy story.  Seymour Thorne George, nephew of Sir George Grey and close confidant of Richard Seddon, makes an appearance in the illustrations, claiming Lawry was using the ghost story to his political advantage (shock, horror).  I can't find anything in writing about this claim, but if you read this article you can see the two were clearly on opposite ends of the political arena at the time, and that Lawry wasn't above some dirty tricks.

Like any short piece of gossip the story dies down quickly after as the tea and scones set moves onto the next scandal.  The Observer says on the 9th of December that the Parnell haunted house has a rent-free tenant, a "hard-headed party who doesn't believe in spooks but keeps his revolver handy in case of any fooling."  I keep on picturing Mr T in a waistcoat.

On the 13th January 1894 the Observer reports, to the relief of the nation, "that the Parnell ghost is 'laid' at last".  No reports on whether Lawry took the credit for that one.

Finally, in terms of this particular Parnell Ghost (more in part 2 of this blog), the Observer decided to resurrect (groan) the Parnell Ghost one last time for its Christmas Annual edition of 1904, in a story entitled "The Spectre Bride".

Although a piece of schlock fiction, it gives some interesting clues as to where the house could have been.  As I will go into later on, I have had a hard time tracking down how this story has panned out over the next 100 years.  Anyway, according to the writer - who obviously had an idea of a "Parnell ghost" reported by his/her own paper ten years previously - the house was "not a hundred yards from the busiest part of the Manukau Road, in Parnell, an old-fashioned, "eerie-looking structure, which still boasted some pretension to architectural style, it had probably been built in the days when Auckland was the capital city of the colony and Parnell the centre of local military and official and consequently, fashionable society."  As you may have seen, the previous reports only said that the house was not near a cemetery but it was near a church.

Unfortunately the Christmas short story goes downhill from this first paragraph and "The Spectre Bride" culminates in a beautiful ghost girl in a white veil standing next to a headless man "in gay military uniform, and from the severed neck blood fairly spurted."  It gets worse.  According to the author of the short story the headless man fought in the battle of Rangiriri, having his head blown off during the gunfire, but fortunately reunited in the afterlife (wet, spurty afterlife) with his betrothed).  Obviously 11 or so years having passed it was no longer "too soon" to start telling Christmas ghost stories about the Rangiriri engagement.

Oh, and to save you clicking, the battle of Rangiriri was on the 21st of November 1893, over a week after the first Parnell Ghost report in the Auckland Star on the 11th November.  So the story should have been entitled "The Time Travelling Spectre Bride."

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