Ghost Hunters – The Phantom Schoolmaster

Now I've had a bit of experience tracking people down in the census. It's not easy, and you can see what you want to see when you're dealing with a common name (perhaps like Cook) - you think you've found people when you probably haven't. Plus "Keith" doesn't seem like a very Victorian name, but perhaps it is. You can see the alleged census in the link below. It could say Keith. Especially when you want it to.

The Wikipedia page for Ghosthunters (curiously one word, yet the title is clearly two words on the programme) suggests Fraudulence. It currently reads "It subsequently came to light that the case for "finding" the supposed schoolmaster in the official census of 1841 was based on fraudulently altered documentation." It doesn't offer any proof of that though.

However, it's very interesting that Ian Cashmore tells quite a different story on BBC Lincolnshire, to his position in Ghost Hunters. He says that a psychic medium came in and communicated the information about Keith - that it didn't come from a ouija board at all. That's quite a different kettle of fish. Not only is it a discrepancy in his story, which is a bit odd to say the least. But it also allows for the "psychic" to have obtained the information herself by ordinary means, and then passed it on as A Message From Beyond. And then of course Mr Cook could have been refound in the same mundane way. I'm not saying that's what happened. But it's certainly a possibility. It also makes Ian's little drama about 'looking up and seeing the words Free School' a complete nonsense, as he writes that the psychic told him the teacher had been working at the school a few hundred yards away from the 'haunted studio'. It's very unsatisfactory. One wants to believe that people in this documentary are at least telling their truth as they remember it. But in this case, Ian is lying or at least has a Very Bad Memory in  one or more of his accounts.

Eddie Burks, Psychic Medium: I draw a parallel between using a Ouija board, asking whoever’s there to respond, is rather like living in a city with a notice on the front door, ‘Everybody Welcome,’ ‘Anybody Welcome!’ Sooner or later somebody will come in and do damage.

Ian: One thing I found from doing Ouija boards before is that it doesn’t answer anything unless you ask the question, so you have to be very thorough, and make sure you’ve asked everything you need to ask. It wouldn’t necessarily go on and tell you ‘what he did, where he lived’. You’d actually have to ask the question. So it’s quite easy to miss things out. So the next question we asked was, how long had he been dead. And in a process of actually spelling out letter for letter, it said 150 years.

Narrator: Watford is an old market town that lies a few miles to the NW of London. It’s a town that goes back a long way. St Mary’s Church for example, dates from the middle of the 13th Century. Today it’s a typical busy crowded suburban centre with lots going on. Our story comes from a part of the town where the old and the new come together. The ancient church, a row of old Georgian houses, and a bustling modern shopping centre. In one of the shops, which is used as a studio, some of the staff began to notice some strange things going on. Nothing particularly frightening or alarming, but disturbing and nervous-making, mainly because they kept happening and they couldn’t be explained in any rational way.

Debbie: The staff were very edgy and walked round in twos, saying all these little stories about ‘things that go bump in the night!’ I thought someone was trying to wind me up. I’d heard little things but I didn’t think much was going on, because I hadn’t seen visual proof of what was happening. (Laughs) - It started pretty weird. The camera would sort of turn itself on and turn itself off, lights would go on and off, and I really thought there was somebody in the studio who was doing it to wind up everybody else.

Sharon: There was a lot of talk about the atmosphere within. There’d been lots of things happening, pictures flying off the wall. Nobody liked to be in the studio on their own, you know, after hours, because it was such a frightening atmosphere. So they tended to all, like scoot off together at the end of the day. They were scared, yeah people were scared.

Ian Cashmore, Consultant: Well what would happen is that we would lock up the studio at the end of the night. On the wall of the studio there were a series of portraits, because by the nature of the business we had lots of families and lots of groups of children in to be photographed. So what we would do is take a whole variety of shots, and then on the wall those would be reproduced as a series of portraits. So we’d have like mum and dad, then a family picture, two children picture, all from the same family, up on the wall. What would happen is that we would leave the studio, lock up and go, erm and we’d arrive in the morning and find that maybe the mother’s portrait would be substituted or switched with a mother from another group. Or we’d generally come in and find that the items in the particular groups had moved around.

Debbie: The camera’s actually set up onto a computer system so it’ll tell us when the film is finished, when the supply of film has run out, how many exposures we’ve got left on the tape, and how full the camera is really. And it would say only two exposures left when I knew there was a brand new film in the camera. So you’d have to stop and change the film, and then you’d do a family sitting, normally about seven or eight photographs. And then it’d tell you the film was empty, so you’d have to change it again. And after about the third go you just got fed up of it. So you’d just have to reset the camera and carry on going. Erm, but in the middle of sittings you’d turn round and say ‘Hang on a minute folks, I’ve just got to change the film!’ And it gets frustrating.

Narrator: Eventually, because these happenings seemed to be increasing, three or four people decided to hold a Ouija board session. It was all very light-hearted and inconsequential, more curiosity than anything else. But they wondered if they could learn something about what was causing the disturbances. The Ouija board is a very old device,  the ancient Egyptians used them to contact dead spirits. More recently in Victorian times they became immensely fashionable across Europe and America – all kinds of prominent people in society took part in Ouija board sessions. Today it’s become something of a party game. But there are many people who would claim to have had some kind of unexplained experience as a result of using them.

Perry: We set the Ouija board up, and within a few minutes the glass was flying across the board. About 10 o’clock that evening I decided to go home. I got in the car and I looked in the rear view mirror. There was an old lady sitting on the back seat. Very clear. Clear enough for me to describe her. When I turned around she disappeared. I didn’t think a great deal more of it until the following week when we did the Ouija board again. But this time I asked the Ouija board who it was in the back of my car. The board, and the glass, very clearly spelt out the name BEA, it then went on to say that this was my great grandmother, and she was in the back of the car with me all the time. Well I don’t know the name of my great grandmother, so I then the following day called my grandmother and asked for the name of my great grandparents. She told me that her mother’s name was Beatrice and that she was always known as Bea. This was kind of nice because there was the feeling that it was all true, that there was really something to it, that it couldn’t have been made up by the girls or something. The following week we did the Ouija board again, and I got in the car about 10 o’clock, looked in my rear view mirror and there she was again, just as clear as the time before. A short while later I was just approaching my home, and a very good friend of mine lived on the left hand side of some traffic lights, where I pulled up. I hooted, he came to the window, and he waved. He went away, he came back again within a few seconds, and seemed to inspect the car a little more closely, waved, and went away again. I went home and thought no more of it until the following morning… When he phoned me and asked me who was sitting in the back of my car. When I asked him why he did he ask that, he said - well did you not see me return to the window, because I knew you must be on your way home, therefore why would there be someone sitting in the back of the car? But whoever it was was waving at me.

Narrator: But for all its apparent casualness, those in the know about such things, particularly psychic mediums and parapsychologists who spend a great deal of time dealing with the after effects of psychic effects, constantly warn of the dangers of dabbling in the paranormal in this or indeed any other way. It can, they argue, have all sorts of unexplained and unwanted results.

Rev. Tom Willis: We find that often when people have been to fortune tellers or astrologers, or dabbled with the Ouija boards or tarot cards, that often what happens – the information to begin with is very good and interesting and factual. They actually find that the information is accurate. So after a while they begin to trust the source of this information. And then suddenly it seems to change tack and begins to feed them inaccurate stuff. Sometimes absolute lies. Sometimes threatening them with death or very serious accidents. Sometimes throwing doubt on other previously trustworthy relationships. In one case a brother, two brothers and the wife of one of them played with the Ouija board and it gave a lot of information that was accurate, and suddenly one day said ‘your brother is having an affair with your wife’. And they were all stunned by this. And luckily the husband knew there was no chance of this happening. And they took the board out of the house and burnt it immediately.

Narrator: The assumption behind this kind of warning, clearly supported by the experience of Tom Willis, is that there are spirits or entities or whatever involved in some kind of parallel existence, and if the channel of communication is opened up, they will make their presence felt.

Eddie Burks, Psychic Medium: The trouble with using Ouija boards as erm, as a means of satisfying curiosity, which young people often do, is that they go into it unprotected. And the, the – I draw a parallel between using a Ouija board, asking whoever’s there to respond, is rather like living in a city with a notice on the front door, ‘Everybody Welcome’ – Anybody Welcome! And so sooner or later somebody will come in that will do damage. And there are plenty of spirits of a fairly lowly sort, who are plain mischievous, who are able to mimic and pretend that they are much better souls than they really are, until they get you trapped in following their silly instructions. And by that time they’ve established such a rapport with you, or you with them, that you can’t let go - they can’t let go of you and won’t let go of you, and they can make your life a misery.

Colin Wilson, Philosopher: I was always fascinated by the experience of an American editor who had begun playing about with a Ouija board, until he found to his dismay that one of these damned spirits had got inside his head and was permanently talking! He said it was the spirit of a Nantucket sea captain who seemed to be envious of the fact that he was alive and the Nantucket sea captain was dead! Well he said, some friend of his who knew about these things got him to go along, and did something or other which he’s not described. He had to write with his hands – something took him over and his hand wrote: Each of us has a spirit while alive, do not mess about with the spirits of the dead. And he says, as this happened, he suddenly felt this spirit being pushed out through the top of his head. And he said, as he seemed to pop out of the top of his head like a cork he felt incredible relief, as you can imagine. And he said at that moment he could have told you anything about the future.

Narrator: In Watford no one it seems had any fears about setting up the Ouija board session, though it is noteworthy has wanted to repeat it since. And no one had any particular expectations. When they described it later on, much of what emerged  seems to have been pure gobbledegook. But to their complete astonishment, they did seem to get some coherent information about a particular individual, a former schoolteacher: a name, where he lived, how he died and when.

Ian: The first question we asked was, who was haunting the studio. And it came up with the name of Keith Cook. So the next question we asked was, how long had he been dead. And in the process of actually spelling out letter for letter it said 150 years. And we found out then that he taught at the free school. The next question we asked was why was he haunting the studio. And again the glass moved with our fingers and spelt out letter by letter that he wanted to be near the children. We asked him why he wanted to be near the children, and his answer to that was that he’d been involved in a fire when he’d worked at the school, and several of the children had perished in the fire and he’d actually lost his own life by going back in to save the kids. We were told by Keith Cook that he was a middle aged man, and he’d died during his middle age. He also mentioned that in addition to working at the school he’d also worked at the workhouse which was situated adjacently, and he actually resided at the workhouse. Apparently this was quite a common thing, and people who taught in one often taught in the other.

Narrator: It seems inconceivable that any of this information could have been in the heads of the people who took part in this session. None of it meant very much to them at the time. None of them knew anything about it. But it raised the most fundamental question: Did any of this extraordinary detail check out in the historical records? Nobody who attended the Ouija board session in Watford had any intention of following up the information they seemed to have gained from it. If anything the strange unexplained activity at the studio increased.

Ian: Almost directly after finishing the Ouija board, for the few days after and the weeks after that, the disturbances started to get more and more severe. We thought probably at the beginning that it had been because we knew a bit more about what had been going on. And maybe we’d become slightly more sensitive to the atmosphere that was obviously brewing up in the place.

Debbie: Things got pretty hairy then, it sort of happened so there was more frequency to when the events were happening. There was the backgrounds would still be changing round, things would still be moving, erm, you’d say ‘oh shut up George’ and half an hour wasn’t long enough, he’d be back in ten minutes doing something else. So I think he was really trying to get somebody’s attention, but there was nobody around who could really talk to him and find out what was going on. Or why he was still around.

Sharon: It was a very cold atmosphere. It felt almost dark, like something was kind of surrounding you. It was that heavy. You know, all the hairs on the back of your neck stood up. It was almost like you were being watched, covered. It’s hard to explain. Very heavy, a very heavy presence.

Narrator: But the story tugged away at Ian’s curiosity. There seemed to be so much detail. Could it be possible that Keith Cook, schoolmaster, had existed. But where to begin the search? Watford is a big place with dozens of old schools. But then one day, over a year later, passing a converted office just round the corner, he happened to glance up. His eye was drawn to a plaque on the wall. It contained the words ‘Free School’. Something clicked in his brain. That was how it had come out at the session. It launched Ian on a search that became an obsession. The school, he learned, had been funded as a bequest in 1709.

Ian: There’s an office building which is actually on the site of the old free school building. And on the outside of the free school there’s a plaque that makes reference to the history of the building. There is quite a bit of information written about the school. It had been the first school in the Hertfordshire area for the education of young children who couldn’t afford to be educated privately. The lady who actually started the school and arranged for the building had set aside an amount of money in her will, to make sure that the school always remained a school building.

Narrator: But there was nothing in all that long history that mentioned a master called Keith Cook, though when we looked into it there has been a complete record of minor paranormal activity at the school.

Sue: Myself personally, in the ten years that I’ve worked there, there have been a couple of times when I’ve felt extremely uncomfortable. But you hear the things about ghosts and then you think no, no, no, I’m being silly. But there was one occasion, and it was during the day – it wasn’t one of the late evenings that sometimes I work on my own, it was actually during a Saturday afternoon. On the ground floor,  I went through and I was working quite happily, and I went to go up the stairs. And I felt a sort of buzzing round my ear, and I thought maybe I had a wasp in my hair. And I was sort of brushing my hair and I realised it wasn’t that time of year. And all of a sudden there was this coldness around me. And I don’t quite know what it was, I can’t explain it, but all I knew was on Saturday afternoon I had to get out of that building. So I did no more, and set the alarm and go very very quickly!

Narrator: So where to turn to pick up the thread of Keith Cook. Right next to the school house there was a row of almshouses, or houses built for the poor, that had been there since 1721. Could they possibly have been related to the workhouse or the spirit or entity who had described himself as living 150 years ago. As it happens, the very first national census in this country was carried out just over 150 years ago in 1841. Ian set out to check the census records in Watford for that date, a task that proved much easier to say than to do. It was very difficult indeed to locate the right piece of microfische. But when it came, the result proved to be astounding.

Ian: I went to the Watford library, and looked through the rolls of microfilm they keep there for the census. And the first census they held there is for 1841. After several hours, two or three hours of looking through, and with assistance from the librarians, we found a listing for the Watford Workhouse. And a master was listed there by the name of Keith Cook.

Narrator: The fact of the 1841 census was an extraordinary coincidence. It proved beyond a shadow of a doubt the reality of the information revealed at the Ouija board session. There had been a Keith Cook. He was a schoolmaster. He had lived in the workhouses 150-odd years ago. When Ian checked the records for 1851, Keith Cook was no longer there. So how had he died? Where was the fire? When he went back to the school records, they showed that there was a strange gap in activities between 1841 and 1842. Almost as if it had closed down. But no reason was given. Then Ian discovered that it had in fact been rebuilt in 1842. Why would a school need to be rebuilt? Could this have been the fire that the spirit or entity had referred to? The Watford fire records didn’t go back further than 1868, so they didn’t really help.  But it looked as if, by some strange quirk of fate, Keith Cook had lived just long enough to be captured by the 1841 census, and then had died in a fire at the school just a few months later, trying to save the children.

Ian: I established the building had been rebuilt in 1842 because there’s a reference to it in a reference book that’s held in the Watford Library, that says that in 1842 the free school was rebuilt. All references prior to that were in the 1700s which would obviously have been the previous school. I can find no other explanation as to why the school would have been rebuilt, with no detailed records kept, other than there was a fire. When we finally found out that Keith Cook had existed I was amazed. After a period of several hours sitting in the library, it was amazing to find out that that person had existed. Until then, it was probably a period of two or three years when we had known name. But until I actually looked into the background of the story – it was an amazing feeling to know he had existed. And gradually, other areas of the story began to slot into place.

Narrator: The story of Keith Cook, Victorian schoolmaster, is undoubtedly an extraordinary one. From the extreme difficulty we had in putting together the details of this man’s life, it’s quite clear that none of the people who attended that single casual session in Watford could have had prior knowledge of his existence. The information that came across was quite remarkable in its detail. The name, his age, where he lived, how he died, even the kind of school he taught at. The fundamental question of course, is where did it come from? How is it possible? That a man that died 150 years ago was able to communicate information about himself to a modern audience. It’s a question that lies way beyond the bounds of conventional science. Like many other stories in this series, it raises the most profound questions about what happens to the human mind after death.

Tom Willis: Sometimes I think that death is so sudden that occasionally some soul refuses to believe that it’s dead. And is invisible, and nobody’s taking any notice of it, and it’s in a permanent nightmare. And it’s trying to say to people, I’m here, I’m here. Do objects fly about like that? You know. Erm, it tries first of all to say ‘Look I am here, do you realise you’re not alone? Now you realise something’s here, now I’ll try and let you know who I am’.

Montague Keen, Society for Psychical Research: One of the many puzzling things is that the capacity of these entities to transmit information – if only in order to prove who they are and that they’ve survived – varies enormously. In some cases it can be extraordinarily detailed, very specific in such a way so as to provide veridical evidence. I.e. evidence that is not known to or apparent to any of the people on this side. Not at any rate until the evidence is checked and found to be accurate. That’s the sort of thing for which there is a great deal of actual evidence which doesn’t admit to any denying.

Archie Roy: To make sense of it we have to step outside the materialist reductionist idea of what a human being is. A very complicated electrochemical physical mechanism. With the mind and the personality seated in the brain’s operations. And that when the brain dies, and is destroyed then that is the end of it. If those cases of apparitions, of information give n that was not in any living person’s mind, are authentic, then it would appear that there is a part of a human being that can operate independent of time and space. I am sure of that. And may even be able to operate independent of mortality.