In the early days, the dead were enthusiastic early adopters of those new-fangled technologies, the telephone and the telegraph. I’ve written of a shape-shifting boggart who called at the Cape Town telephone office to speak with a switchboard operator, of the dead Mr. Miller, who had an assistant ring up a friend who had just attended his funeral, and the Rev. Dr. Richard R. Schleusner and his Temple/Church of Modern Spiritualism, where, rather than communicate through old-fashioned rappings, the spirits spoke via wireless.
Today I’ve borrowed the title of the Spiritualist newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph (1852-1860) to dash off a few stories of spirit communication via the telegraphic instrument. The first story is found in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales.
A WEIRD EXPERIENCE
A TELEGRAPHER’S REMARKABLE MESSAGE FROM A SPOOK
DOTS AND DASHES OVER AN INSTRUMENT WITH
NEITHER WIRES NOR BATTERY
A STORY TOLD BY A MAN WHOSE VERACITY IS VOUCHED FOR
A FRIGHTENED OPERATOR
One of the wildest, weirdest stories of the supernatural that has ever come under the experience of mortal man is told by R.H. Field, the Big Four telegraph operator at South Side station.
Mr. Field is a very intelligent and conscientious man, and he relates his fearful experience with a candor and earnestness that almost make one believe it in spite of its extreme improbability.
“I have been a telegraph operator for twenty-two years. I have told my story to at least a hundred people, and I have never met one yet who would believe that it was an actual fact. I know that it will be a severe test on your credulity, but my experience is Gospel truth. I want you to understand that I have never, and do not now, believe in the supernatural. I have never attended a spiritualistic séance in my life, and am rather inclined to accept the philosophy of Colonel Ingersoll.”
Mr. Field was quite reluctant about telling his story for publication, but finally consented to do so. He is an entertaining talker, and related the great event of his life with an ease that showed that he had told it before. “It was several years ago,” he began, “when I was much younger than I am now. I was assigned to night duty at a little station called Evansburg, in Pennsylvania, on the New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio railroad. I hadn’t been around the world very much, but flattered myself that I had a good deal of mechanical genius. The office was in charge of an old fogy sort of a fellow named Jones. The telegraph instrument got out of adjustment, and I knew something about repairing it. Jones suggested that I take to my home an old-fashioned relay box and fix it up.
“Glad of the opportunity to show what I could do I carried the box to my boarding house one morning and put it on a shelf in an old cupboard and went to bed intending to fix it after my sleep was over. I had been in bed but a few minutes and had not got to sleep when, to my surprise and astonishment, the armature, or what is otherwise known as the lever, on the instrument began ticking. I was perfectly amazed and thought there must be some mistake. To satisfy myself that I had not been carried away by my imagination, for the ticking was faint and subdued, I got out of bed and with fear and trembling opened the cupboard door. I took the instrument in my hand and it continued to work. I put it on the table, but the sound it made was unintelligible. I turned the spring so that there would be less resistance, and then, in as clear and perfect Morse as I ever heard, the invisible person, spirit or whatever it was wrote:
“‘Do you get me?’”
I was so overcome that I involuntarily answered, ‘Yes,’ without putting it on the instrument. The unknown heard me, for again, in the beautiful writing, it continued.
“‘Thank God, at last! My name is Charles Blake. I am an old timer. My parents, who reside in Mount Pleasant, Ia., have lost me. They don’t know what my fate has been. I want you to write to my father, Homer Blake, at Mount Pleasant, Ia., and inform him that I died at Shreveport, Tex., of yellow fever, on’–. I have forgotten the date, but it was several years prior to the date of this communication. I was frightened to death. My hair stood on end. My boarding house was two miles from the telegraph station, and there was no battery nearer than the station, and there was no telegraph wire of any kind in that vicinity. I was a little dubious about the communication, from the other world or somewhere, I will not undertake to say. Before venturing to write to Homer Blake as directed I picked up a Western Union tariff book which I had in my room to see if there was such a town as Mount Pleasant, Ia. I found that there was such a place, a fact that I did not know before, and that it was located on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad.
“To satisfy myself and not be taken in, I wrote a letter to the postmaster at Mount Pleasant and asked him if he knew of anyone in that vicinity named Homer Blake and to give me what information he could without telling him what I wanted it for. A few days later I received a reply, and I have his letter somewhere among my effects, in which he said that Homer Blake had lived in Mount Pleasant some years before, but that he had moved away, to what place he did not know. Blake, he informed me, had two sons, one of whom, Charles, was supposed to be dead, and the other was a grain merchant in the far west.”
“Did you not pursue your investigations further?”
“No, I did not. The truth is I was scared to death. I worked that wire for eighteen months. Every time I took off the relay it made the same peculiar noise and worked in a sputtering sort of a way, and to show that there must have been some hidden or occult force it crossed the other wires. Every once in a while I used to ask Jones if he heard the noise, and he laughed at me. He never believed my story, although the reply from the postmaster at Mount Pleasant somewhat staggered him. I was actually so afraid to take the relay off that my hair used to stand on end, and I never had any further communication with the hidden force that called itself Charles Blake. I shall never forget that experience as long as I live. People look so incredulous and are so apt to believe me a crank when I tell it that I never relate it any more unless I am asked to do so.”
Mr. Field lives with his wife at South Side. He is well known in this city and has the reputation of being a truthful and sensible man. There is no doubt in the world that he sincerely thinks that he was talked to on that old instrument without wire or battery, and he declares most solemnly that it could not have been a matter of fancy.
This article first appeared in the Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer, 31 July 1892: p. 17. This version appeared in the Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 8 September 1892: p. 6
Colonel Ingersoll was Robert G. Ingersoll, 19th-century lawyer, orator and agnostic, dubbed “the most noted of American infidels.”
How much of this next story is actually the result of misunderstood technology? Or was it an early form of EVP?
Barre Excited Over “Electric Ghost”.
Barre, usually staid and phlegmatic, is greatly excited over an “electric ghost,” which has made its appearance at the railroad station and refuses to depart, says a Barre dispatch to The New York World. It has attracted the attention of several prominent railroad men and electricians and each has a theory for a series of sounds that still mystify the investigators.
The “ghost” made its appearance one night when C.A. Brown, a clerk, was alone in the office containing the telegraph instruments, safe, and various articles of furniture. He was quietly at work balancing his books when he heard a voice over his shoulder. Several words of French were spoken and Mr. Brown looked up. No one was in the room and the clerk investigated every nook and cranny to ascertain whence the voice came. He was unsuccessful, but while he was hunting he again heard the voice, this time in English, but indistinct. He located it, and a chill crept up his spine as he made the uncanny discovery that the words came from the metal relay box connected with the telegraph instrument. The instrument was working at the time and the clerk admits to having been well frightened.
For five minutes the one-sided conversation was kept up, and Mr. Brown made out enough to understand that some one was talking of a business deal. Answers to questions put by the voice could not be heard, and altogether it sounded like a telephone conversation. However, as no telephone was in that part of the building, the sounds were not connected with that instrument.
The clerk was so upset that when A.A. Stebbins, his chief, came in, he made no reference to the matter. Soon after he went out Stebbins got a scare that made his hair rise. He was almost leaning on the relay box when a voice shouted “Hello!” almost in his ear. A rapid conversation followed, but he was too frightened to take note of what was said. As he was afraid of being laughed at, he kept his own counsel until the next day when he and Mr. Brown heard the same voice. They then compared notes and quietly called in the head lineman.
The lineman thought a telegraph wire had become crossed with a telephone line, but this proved not to be the case, and F.W. Stanyan, the general superintendent of the road, who has had twenty years’ experience with telegraph equipment, was notified. He made a careful investigation and was at a loss to account for the phantom voice. While he was making his investigations he heard two voices emanating from the box. They spoke of different subjects and had nothing in common. Part of the time whole sentences were plainly spoken and other times only a word or two was distinguishable.
The story got about town and many persons have listened to the sounds. Among the number were many spiritualists, who are of the opinion that the messages are sent from another world. Expert electricians believe that the sounds are the result of some undiscovered law in the field of electricity, and that this law can be worked to advantage when the cause is discovered.
St. Albans [VT] Daily Messenger 8 June 1905: p. 3
It was convenient that the witness in this story had been a telegraph operator. If she had not, she might have identified the sound as the clicking of the Deathwatch Beetle.
MESSAGE FROM THE BORDER.
I would like to relate an incident in connection with the death of my mother, which occurred nine years ago and the facts of which I am positive of.
“My mother’s only sister lived in Denver, Colorado, and she had not been apprised of her serious illness.
“We sent her a telegram about 9 A.M. on the morning of her death, which she received about noon. Upon her arrival here, two days later, we asked her, if the news had been a shock and she told us that on the morning that mother passed away, she sat down to sew, but could not keep her mind upon it. She then heard the click of a telegraph instrument, the sound apparently coming from a closet in the room. As she had been a telegraph operator in her younger days, she realized it was a call and going to the closet, listened. It stopped as suddenly as it started and she sat down again. The call was repeated twice after this and each time she went to the closet to listen. She was then convinced it was news she would receive and inside of thirty minutes, a boy rang the door bell and delivered the message announcing the death of my mother.”
I had no reason to doubt her statement for there had always been a sort of mental telepathy between these sisters, separated by so many miles.
Dayton [OH] Daily News 17 January 1914: p. 7
While the first part of this last story suggests a practical joke, it quickly slides into a folkloric tale of a Palmer Lake lineman, who is still on the line and not only wants to tell someone how he died, but to get that damned telegraph pole off his chest.
Please give the Kansas Democrat the entire bake-shop for the following:
“A ghost telegraph operator has been having a picnic with the boys on the Colorado circuit. At a certain hour every night call comes along over the wires for “AZ.” Now, there being no AZ”, and the call being regularly repeated, the officials were somewhat at loss to account for it. The superintendent, however, answered the call, and asked what was wanted. Back came the message in a jiffy, with “rush” prefixed. This was all well enough in its way, but no one could read the message when it was received. After much time, and ciphering, the ghost was telegraphed for the key. This he immediately gave–one to three read backwards. The message was then read, which stated that many years ago a telegraph operator had been killed on the continental divide, near Palmer Lake; that a telegraph pole ran right into his grave, and the end of it was resting on the breast of the corpse. He could not rest in his grave until he had informed somebody how he had died. This was indeed a strange affair. And upon the threat of the ghost operator of raising hades with the wires every night, till they hunted him up, and verified his statement, a search party was organized. Three linemen stopped at the divide, picked out the probable pole and sat down to eat their lunch, before commencing to dig. In a minute they were paralyzed. Right before them stood the ghost operator with a ‘ticker’ in his hands. He jumped up to the wires, sent a message into Denver and then vanished. The linemen dug, found the grave, and when they returned to Denver they found that a message had been received there mentioning their arrival, that the ghost was satisfied, and that both he and Gould’s servants could now rest in peace.”
Coldwater [KS] Enterprise 28 March 1891: p. 3
To be Relentlessly Informative, “Gould’s servants” refers to Jay Gould’s controlling interest in the Western Union telegraph company.
While we still hear stories of telephone calls from the dead and even the occasional text or e-mail message, somehow the Dead do not seem to be fully taking advantage of Instagram or Twitter.
Other stories of ghosts on the wire?
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chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
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 hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.