The Spirit Stalker of Emma Hardinge Britten

Death, the "Poison-pen" writer.

Death, the “Poison-pen” writer.

Periodically we find cases of mysterious persecutions: threatening and untraceable letters are sent, homes are broken into and valueless items stolen or property destroyed. In rare instances there is a physical assault. It is difficult to know exactly how to class these incidents. They may have something in common with Phantom Shooter panics or poltergeist infestations. Upon reading the following account by Spiritualist Emma Hardinge Britten, my first thought was that she was somehow sending herself the letters–perhaps written in a dissociative state. However, the explanation tendered proved to be much more sinister.

Hitherto it has been my pride and pleasure to point to the DIVINE side of the great Spiritual movement, and record how often good Spirits come and do help us, both consciously and unknown to ourselves, to outwork the destiny that lies before us. In the following narrative I am about to call the reader’s attention to the dangers and abuses that may grow out of the practice of occult powers, when undertaken by ill-regulated minds, or persons who yield up the reins of judgment or conscience, to the alleged control of any Spirit, whether in or out of the mortal form. In a small pamphlet published by the late Mr. Stainton Moses, entitled “The Transcorporeal Action of Spirit,” there is a reprint from the New York Sun, bearing the inapt title of “Mrs. Hardinge’s Shadow.” Few persons glancing cursorily at this heading, would understand that the article treats of one of the most tremendous problems of Spiritual power, and relates to the action of the embodied rather than the disembodied soul’s possibilities. Ignoring the many garbled reports that somehow have crept into many of the American journals concerning the following two cases, I shall narrate them only from the facts of my own well-attested experiences. It was during the time when I was filling a lecturing engagement in New York that I received a letter signed “John Gallagher.” This letter, although addressed to me on the envelope, and commencing with my Christian name, was evidently, as it then seemed, sent by mistake to me, it being an enthusiastic love letter expressed in good enough language, but carrying in its context the idea of being addressed to a very dear and intimate friend of the writer’s. Coming, however, from a person whose name I had never even heard, and containing language which no human being then in America had the right to address to me, I could arrive at no other conclusion than that the writer, whoever he might be, had penned two letters at once, and put this effusion into the wrong envelope. Rational as this idea seemed, I was soon disabused of it by receiving another, and yet another letter of the same kind within about a week from the receipt of the first. Horrified at the possibility of such documents falling into any other hands than my own, and convinced that if they did, no sane person would doubt but that I was engaged in some secret intrigue, I resolved to show the letters to,and consult the friends with whom I was boarding, namely, Mrs. French and her assistant, a dear soul, popularly called in our household Uncle Culbertson. On reading over these letters, my confidants both came to the conclusion that some unfortunate woman of the town had assumed my name (a case that had happened before in the experience of a public lecturer), and that her correspondent had mistaken the party he meant to address for me. Even this vague idea we felt obliged to abandon when a letter followed of the same character, but commenting in the most extravagant terms on my previous Sunday’s lecture and the beauty of my costume, the description of which actually corresponded with that I had worn. “The wretch who writes is a madman,” I remarked. “That is impossible,” replied Mr. Culbertson, “the language is too good to be the work of insanity; yet insanity, if not something worse—it seems to be.” From this time, other letters of a similar character, letters too which referred so clearly to my lectures, dresses, and appearance, that it was impossible to doubt that they were meant for me, kept pouring in with such frequency that I resolved at last to consult the police in the matter. Hitherto I had begged my friends not to mention the matter to my mother, lest she should share with me the terrible distress that these missives occasioned. As, however, my permanent address was at my mother’s boarding place in New York, and during my lecturing tours I always commissioned her to open my letters, and only forward on such as required my personal attention, Mrs. French pointed out to me the astonishment and horror she would feel should such missives continue to be sent, and come into her hands without any previous preparation. Influenced by these suggestions, we took my mother into counsel, and she at once, with her clear strong sense, suggested that the whole thing might be the work of some enemy who would first assume the position that I was in correspondence with him, and then manage to have his letters fall into the hands of those whose interest it was to disgrace me. Plausible as this idea seemed, it was too repulsive to our sense of honour to permit such a proceeding to pass unnoticed, and so in sheer despair we consulted Mr. Matson, an old and experienced police magistrate, also a friend who was a shrewd lawyer. Neither could throw any light on the subject, but they pointed out that though the post mark was Boston, or some of the various towns in Massachusetts, the writer showed too intimate a knowledge of my doings in New York to be at any great distance off. As to the signature of John Gallagher, that might be, and most likely was, assumed; hence an enquiry into the whereabouts of all the John Gallaghers in the United States would reveal nothing. In a word, my official counsellors, like my friends, could offer no other solution to the affair than vague surmise, and thus the matter was left in profound mystery. I am not quite certain of the year in which this frightful persecution commenced. I believe it was in 1858. Certain it is, however, that from that time forth for a period of at least two years, these dreadful epistles followed me everywhere. In the Far West, through the Eastern States, and finally in the South, this abominable persecution continued. As time wore on, I commenced to realise a still more terrible infliction. I began to sense the near approach of these hateful letters, first by a feeling of cold chills, and not unfrequently by the realisation of some evil presence around me. Sometimes these perceptions were so powerful that I felt involuntarily impressed to place my chair close up against the wall, lest the dreadful thing which I knew had entered the room should get behind me. The only relief I experienced from these torturing sensations was to speak of them to the friends with whom I was visiting, and though I never found one single individual who could afford me any clue to the mystery, it was something to realise that friends sympathised with me. As to the Spirits, though I repeatedly questioned them on the subject, their only answer was, that the evil power around me was a human one, and for the time being was too far removed from their sphere to enable them to control it.All they could do was to assure me of their present protection and final release. As an evidence of the direct action of the invisible power by which I was beset, I may mention that during one of my month’s engagements at Providence, Rhode Island, I had agreed to give a week evening lecture at Pawtucket, a place only a few miles distant from where I was staying. My friends at Providence had arranged to drive me over to my lecture, and bring me back in a “carry-all,” a double-seated covered conveyance. The night was intensely dark and cold, and during the ride home, our driver determined to stop at a roadside house he knew of to borrow a lantern. Arrived at the halfway house, my three friends, a lady and two gentlemen, got out to warm themselves as well as to procure the lantern. I was too tired to move, when suddenly, sitting in the “carry-all” by myself, the horses began to rear as if frightened, and I felt a cold hand doing something to my head, on which I wore a cloud, or knitted scarf. I called out loudly to my friends, “Come here, some one’s in the carriage!” Instantly all was quiet: but again the horses reared, and my friends ran out with the lantern. No one was to be seen; but when we arrived at home and went into the sitting-room, to my friends’ astonishment and my own we found a spray of lilies of the valley stuck in my hair, which to my dying day I insist was not there when I left for the ride home. I told my friends then, and persist now, that we had no such flowers with us, and that some one or something got into the carriage and placed those lilies there. The next morning’s post brought me one of the terrible letters, complimenting me on wearing those lilies during my ride home, lamenting the presence of the strangers with me, and speaking of words I had said after my return. Passing over many terrible months fraught with similar mysteries, I now reach a period memorable in my changeful life as being the only occasion when I visited the Southern States of America, in which I had several engagements. It was in the winter of 1860 that I proceeded to Macon, Georgia, to lecture for two months, during which time I was the guest of Dr. and Mrs. Andrews. The doctor was a well-known and respected physician of the place, and though after the lapse of some thirty-three years I do not know whether this excellent couple are still on the earth side of life, I think there must be in Macon some friends who will remember my visit, and to many persons there I spoke of my abhorrent and mysterious persecution. One day, whilst sitting in my own room writing, the feeling of intense cold came over me, which heralded-in one of the well-known dreadful letters. I had hardly pushed back my chair against the wall, to prevent an unknown presence from stepping behind me, when Dr. Andrews himself knocked at my door, and, on being invited to enter, presented me with several letters, one from my tormentor amongst them. I had already apprised my good host of my terrible following, and, by way of proving my confidence in him, and the nature of the mystery by which I was surrounded, when I recognised the all too well-known handwriting, and the postmark of Boston, I handed the letter unopened to Dr. Andrews and bid him read it. He did so, and, giving it back to me, we found that some one in Boston had described the very scene that took place the evening before in my lecture hall in Macon, Georgia, over a thousand miles away! All talk on such a mystery, all conjecture was in vain. Dr. Andrews left me to attend his patients, whilst I sat down to write a letter to a Major Rhynders, then chief of police in Boston. In this official letter I enclosed several missives from this same “John Gallagher,” received at different places during the past few weeks, and, having a slight acquaintance with Major Rhynders, I told him I wanted him to trace this John Gallagher, or find as best he could the writer of those letters. I told him that in six weeks from that time I should be in Boston to fulfil a two months’ engagement, and that the entire of my fees— 200 dols.—and all that I could raise in addition if required I would pay to arrest and help prosecute the villanous author of these letters. I had just sealed and directed my packet to the Boston chief of police, when the voice of one of my best beloved Spirit friends, my sailor brother Tom, spoke to me, and. the following colloquy ensued: Spirit: “Who is Emma sending such a huge package of letters to, and why?” I answered, “You know; you will not or cannot help me, so I will help myself.” Spirit: “We will and do help you when we can; Spirits are not God, and cannot do all we wish or mortals demand.” Emma: “Perhaps so. Then I repeat I will help myself.” Spirit: “Emma’s fire is low, and the weather is chilly; pray make up your fire with those letters?” Emma: “I WILL NOT! and unless you give me some explanation of this horrible mystery those letters shall go to the Boston chief of police.” Spirit: “Poor Emma; how she will repent her work!” Emma: “What do I care? I have no one to help me. The letters SHALL go!” Spirit: “Will our Emma wait, for her own soul’s sake, and to please her Spirit friends, for six weeks?” Emma: “On this day six weeks I shall be in Boston. What then?” Spirit: “Wait till after the first Sunday to-morrow six weeks, when you speak at Boston. If you are not GLAD THEN that you did not send your letters to the police at that time, we will not remonstrate against your sending them or publishing them abroad in any way.” Emma: “I agree ; six weeks ONLY, remember… In six weeks from the date of this conversation I arrived in Boston, Mass. I had been travelling for eighteen hours, and arrived on a Saturday, about two o’clock in the day. The friend who met me took me to the house of Mr. Farrar, in Hancock Street, president of the society by whom I was engaged. Mr. Farrar was one of the most prominent and highly respected merchants of Boston, and his good wife, my esteemed friend, had arranged for me to stay at their house during my engagement in Boston. Retiring to my room, after a three o’clock lunch, I begged Mrs. Farrar to let me be entirely quiet, in the hope of gaining some rest prior to the six-thirty dinner hour. I had just prepared for my much needed repose, when Mrs. Farrar herself knocked at my door, and, on entering, besought me to give audience to two ladies who had implored her interest to obtain an interview with me on what they declared to be a matter of life and death. Overpowered as I was with fatigue, I could not resist my kind hostess’s pleading, so I descended to the drawing-room, only making the condition that, as I myself had no secrets, Mrs. Farrar should be present at the coming interview. We found awaiting me two ladies, the youngest of whom, speaking in a refined and graceful manner, said, “Allow me to say, Mrs. Hardinge, we are mother and daughter, both widows, and have come to you on a most singular and embarrassing errand. This is my mother, Mrs. Gallagher.” I need hardly say that I started as I heard this hated name. “Do you not know my brother, Mr. John Gallagher?” the lady added, anxiously. “Not personally,” I replied, “but,” I added, bitterly, “I have had some dreadful letters from an individual signing himself thus.” Then it was that, with many tears, in which the poor mother joined, the daughter explained that they had both been warm Spiritualists for many years. Her brother John, who was a custom house officer, in an excellent situation, and the sole support of both his mother and sister, had no belief in the cause until they persuaded him some two or three years before to go and hear me lecture. He became so deeply interested on that occasion, that he continued his enquiries, and most unhappily fell in with one of those self-styled mediums, who was always preaching as well as practising the doctrine of “Affinities.” Having soon discovered that her unfortunate visitor had conceived a sudden and violent infatuation for the first female lecturer he had ever heard or seen, the cunning impostor flattered her trusting dupe by pretending that “the Spirits” influenced her to say that I, Emma Hardinge, was this man’s “affinity,” but, that, in order to win me, he must direct all his actions under certain laws and rules. In league with this impostor was another of the same kind, a man (all too well known in Boston), who claimed to be an adept in East Indian Magic. This precious pair so wrought upon their victim, that after putting him on a régime of fruit and vegetables, and reducing him by fasting, etc., they commenced to teach him abominable Vaudoo arts, by which he could go out of his body and visit as well as follow me about as a Spirit. The ladies added, that he neither kept his infatuation or his practices secret from them. On the contrary, he showed them continually the book in which the records of his visits to me were inscribed. Therein was described the dresses I wore and what I did and said, and the houses I stayed at during my travels. The sister added, that when he found I was announced to come to Boston, he had besought his mother and sister to visit me, carry his book of records with them, show it to me, and if, as he believed it would be, found correct, they were to tell me how long and faithfully he had spiritually followed me, and entreat me to grant him an interview. When these ladies proceeded to show me the book of records, and I found how evidently I had been traced, my dresses described, the very pieces I had played on the piano named, and my walks followed, etc., etc., etc., I became almost frantic with rage and horror. “See him!” I exclaimed, “Never!” I added, what was true, that nothing but pity and compassion for his mother and sister prevented me from publishing his conduct to the world and holding him up to universal execration. The poor mother went on her knees to me, pleading that I would see and remonstrate with him, but grieved as I was for her, I sternly refused. Then came the terrible problem of what they should say to him on their return. Mrs. Farrar urged that they should tell him the truth, and represent the abhorrence in which I regarded his conduct, but, I, alas! in my blind rage counselled another course of action, and one which I shall ever repent of. I said what I then thought most truly, that the best, perhaps only way, to cure him of these dreadful fetish practices was, to allege that all he had recorded was wrong, fanciful, and false, and that no such powers as he claimed to possess appertained to humanity. I was sincere in my wish to serve these afflicted women, without considering that falsehood can never be right. Enough to say that the poor mother and sister left me deeply sorrowing, but most reluctantly promising to attempt a cure of the unhappy man’s infatuation by following my counsel. According to promise, they wrote to me in a few days, informing me that they had followed my directions, but the result was still more terrible to them than even his former unhappy practices. Whether under the belief that he had throughout deluded himself, or that the nature of his practices had destroyed his mental balance, none could say. It is enough to add, as the conclusion of this deplorable narrative, that John Gallagher’s widowed sister called on Mrs. Farrar one day during my absence, to inform her that she had just returned from the Worcester Lunatic Asylum, where she had left her hapless brother a raving maniac. Let me add, that in pity for the poor mother and sister, the only part of this sad narrative which I can recall with any satisfaction was the burning of all the maniac’s letters, especially of those I had intended to put in the hands of the police. As a duty that I owe to the noble cause of TRUE SPIRITUALISM, no less than as a warning to those who either dare to abuse its potencies or to insult its divine realities by misuse, I feel bound to say that the narrative I have written out in the preceding pages was not the only case in which I was made the victim of base attempts to put the horrors of Vaudooism upon me. In several other instances, additional to the one narrated in this chapter, my general successes, I presume, stimulated base attempts on the part of Vaudooists to drag me into the snares of their magnetic influences. Some of the most wicked of these, my persecutors, are already too notoriously known to the communities of the past thirty or forty years to need further publicity. But whilst I look back with horror upon my would-be captors, I am no less indignant with those traders who, under the pretence of mediumship, talk to their sitters of “Affinities,” and teach them the same arts and base attempts at the projection of mental influences as are common amongst the Fakirs of India and the Magi of most Eastern lands. Autobiography of Emma Hardinge Britten, Emma Hardinge Britten, edited and published by Mrs. Margaret Wilkinson (Her Sister and Sole Surviving Relative), 1900

I think we can all agree that this is a corking yarn. Yet, however riveting or earnest Mrs. Britten’s narrative may be, questions have been raised about her complete veracity. Two pieces in particular, Blue Ink and Emma and the Flying Soul, from the Chasing Down Emma blog by the meticulous researcher Marc Demarest discuss some of the problems. The blog’s subtitle: Resolving the contradictions of and filling in the gaps in, the life, work, and world of Emma Hardinge Britten is richly borne out by Demarest’s work in analyzing and annotating the medium’s writings, as well as filling in important details about her associates and other Spiritualist topics.

If Britten reshaped her story she did it in a way remarkably consistent with other stories of phantom stalkers. I look for patterns and it is intriguing to find disparate authors telling of the same experiences. In the wake of the New Jersey “Watcher” case, I shared an 1864 phantom stalker story. I’ve heard from several other bloggers and readers that they know of other, very similar stories and I hope that they will soon write them up to share with all of us. I have in my own files a particularly striking phantom stalker case that extended to dangerous levels of physical assault against a young woman. (While I hate to tease, that story will not be told for quite some time; there are family members still alive who might be upset by it.) The same elements appear: threatening letters, intimate knowledge of the victim’s doings, and the ability to melt silently away, leaving no traces.

Other historic phantom stalkers? Slip under the door of Chriswoodyard8 AT


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching