Elliott O’Donnell is known as one of history’s greatest ghosthunters – or was he just a paranormal embellisher, says CHRISTINE MILLER
Even in death, O’Donnell continues to be a contentious figure in the paranormal world.
Born in Bristol in 1872, O’Donnell became fascinated by ghosts at a young age after an alleged paranormal experience when he was a child.
As a young adult, he began writing ghost stories before progressing onto paranormal investigations.
There have been numerous reports that O’Donnell overdramatised what he reported throughout his years as a self-titled ghost hunter.
Elliott O’Donnell died on 8 May, 1965, at the age of 93. However, his legacy continues to endure some 60 years after his death.
Elliot O’Donnell’s Foretold Death
Described by P.G. Wodehouse as “the Sherlock Holmes of the ghost world”, O’Donnell’s obsession with the paranormal was cemented when he was just a five year old boy.
What he experienced at this tender age, he claimed was an elemental.
Somewhat unsurprisingly after that, Elliott O’Donnell grew into being of a nervous disposition; the dark and the paranormal were the two things young Elliot feared above all else, yet he remained utterly fascinated by the latter.
As an adult, and after some years in America, O’Donnell made Cornwall his home, and it is here he wrote his first novel For Satan’s Sake, which was published in 1905.
Residing in England however, did nothing to quash his immense pride in his Celtic heritage, and of the supposed family banshee which would emit a bloodcurdling wail when one of his kinfolk was about to expire.
The story goes that when Elliott O’Donnell was only days old, his mother and the servants awoke to hear a stomach-churning screaming coming from just outside of the O’Donnell family home.
Bewildered, O’Donnell’s mother questioned to one of the servants what the noise could be, with the servant ominously replying that it was a Banshee who had come to tell of the death of one of the O’Donnells.
What was even more chilling was the fact that the wailing would, at times, transcribe into spoken word, but the collective group were wholly unable to understand what the screaming banshee was saying – only an O’Donnell by blood would understand what doom it was foretelling,
Sure enough, in the next few days, news soon arrived to the O’Donnell family that Harry O’Donnell had been murdered during a robbery in Abyssinia the same that the banshee visited.
Spooky fishing trip in Ireland
Another spooky experience Elliott O’Donnell had as an adult was on a fishing trip in Ireland.
He enlisted the help of a local fisherman to take him to a particularly scenic fishing point and agreed to collect him later that evening.
While fishing, O’Donnell claimed that the water began to separate and the distinct face of an old friend, who had drowned appeared to him.
Later when the fisherman collected O’Donnell, he asked him specifically if he had anything untoward occur during his afternoon down at the river.
When O’Donnell explained what he saw, the fisherman explained to him that his occurrence would be witnessed by anyone of Irish decent who would succumb to an unnatural death.
The paranormal, it seems, was never far from Elliot’s consciousness. This might have been to do with his deeply held belief that the Celts were a more spiritual people, and supposedly predisposed to sensing the paranormal around them.
While writing ghost stories, O’Donnell decided that he would also like to attempt to be ghost hunter.
Somewhat eclipsed by his contemporary, Harry Price, O’Donnell can however lay claim to being the first ‘celebrity’ ghost hunter. He was wanted up and down the country to conduct investigations and lay on talks about his work.
Was O’Donnell a hoaxer?
It has widely been thought that O’Donnell fabricated many paranormal events he claimed to have borne witness to as a ghost hunter, or at the very least embellish them with an additional pinch of spooky poetic licence.
His approach was not deemed to be objectively rigorous enough for the scientific community. Certainly, the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) never approached him to work with them, perhaps due to the added fact that he was at one time employing actors to actually stage hauntings.
One such legend that Elliott O’Donnell was said to have fictionalised was the now famous story of two sailors who, in 1887, stayed the night in 50 Berkeley Square, London, only for one to die as he fled the house in terror, while the one who lived to tell the tale, told of seeing an angry spectre approaching both men.
Elliot O’Donnell perhaps summed his life as a ghost hunter most effectively when he stated:
“I lay no claim to being what is termed a scientific psychical researcher. I am not a member of any August society that conducts its investigations of the other world, or worlds, with the test tube and weighing apparatus; neither do I pretend to be a medium or clairvoyant — I have never undertaken to “raise” ghosts at will for the sensation-seeker or the tourist.
I am merely a ghost hunter. One who lays stake by his own eyes and senses; one who honestly believes he inherits in some degree the faculty of psychic perceptiveness from a long line of Celtic ancestry; and who is, and always has been, deeply and genuinely interested in all questions relative to phantasms and a continuance of individual life after physical dissolution.”
The fascination with O’Donnell endures almost 60 years after his death.
His personal archives sold for £25,000 at auction in 2016, and included a lock of his own hair, and numerous private letters.
Somewhat surprisingly, this collection seems to suggest that O’Donnell had more of an appreciation for scientific research of the paranormal that has previously been suggested.
The auction listing lists O’Donnell as a “lecturer, broadcaster, rancher, criminologist, genealogist, Irish patriot, stage and film actor”.
Certainly, Elliott O’Donnell was a man of many talents, but whether or not he was as legitimate a ghost hunter as he might have liked to be been seen as, we may never know.
Here’s the collection of Elliot O’Donnell books:
- For Satan’s Sake (1904)
- Unknown Depths (1905)
- Some Haunted Houses (1908)
- Haunted Houses of London (1909)
- Reminiscences of Mrs.E. M. Ward (1910)
- Byways of Ghostland (1911)
- The Meaning of Dreams (1911)
- Scottish Ghost Stories (1912)
- The Sorcery Club (1912)
- Werewolves (1912)
- Animal Ghosts (1913)
- Ghostly Phenomena (1913)
- Haunted Highways and Byways (1914)
- The Irish Abroad (1915)
- Twenty Years’ Experience as a Ghost Hunter (1916)
- The Haunted Man (1917)
- Spiritualism Explained (1917)
- Fortunes (1918)
- Haunted Places in England (1919)
- Menace of Spiritualism (1920)
- More Haunted Houses of London (1920)
- Ghosts, Helpful and Harmful (1924)
- The Banshee (1907)
- Strange Disappearances (1927)
- Strange Sea Mysteries (1926)
- Confessions of a Ghost Hunter (1928)
- Great Thames Mysteries (1929)
- Famous Curses (1929)
- Fatal Kisses (1929)
- The Boys’ Book of Sea Mysteries (1930) Dodd, Mead & Company
- Rooms of Mystery (1931) London: Philip Allan & Co. Ltd.
- Ghosts of London (1932)
- The Devil in the Pulpit (1932)
- Family Ghosts (1934)
- Strange Cults & Secret Societies of Modern London (1934)
- Spookerisms; Twenty-five Weird Happenings (1936)
- Haunted Churches (1939)
- Ghosts with a Purpose (1952)
- Dead Riders (1953)
- Dangerous Ghosts (1954)
- Phantoms of the Night (1956)
- Haunted Waters, and Trees of Ghostly Dread (1958)
- The Unlucky Theatre
- Haunted Britain
Hi. Pretty much read all of his books and many articles, as well as spending quite a few years researching his life. What is glaringly apparent in most accounts of his life is the amount of falsehoods, deliberate or not, which many commentators repeat verbatim. I have to say that your own account is free from such canards. You say that O’Donnell was overshadowed by Harry Price. I’m not sure that this is entirely true. What I can say without hesitation is that he resented Price greatly, specifically with regard to Borley Rectory. Some unpublished comments by O’Donnell in my possession certainly verify that in very obvious terms. I enjoyed reading your nicely balanced piece and would recommend O’Donnell’s works as entertainment of the highest order,
Thanks Rob, we’re glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Many thanks for your comments and feedback, it’s greatly appreciated – especially from someone so knowledgeable about the great man.
IMO Mr. O’Donnell was a gifted horror writer on par with the likes of Pie and Lovecraft. I simply do not believe a number of his ‘cases’ but I certainly enjoy reading them!
Thanks Roxana, we love him too!
Thanks for leaving a comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. He sure was a gifted man.
The Notorious Servant Who Answers The Door and The Black Clock, both in O’Donnell’s Some Haunted Houses of England, are first class spine tinglers, best not read when one is alone in the house after dark. I can believe the first is based on an actual haunting, the latter not so much but both are well worth reading.
My first encounter with Elliott O’Donnell’s works was at the age of sixteen, a year after Mr O’Donnell had passed away. My father, who had experienced a few otherworldly entities in his own life, presented me with my first book of Elliott’s, and I was hooked. Every Christmas present was an Elliott O’Donnell ghost book. In fact, I couldn’t really wait for Christmas Day, and would sneak upstairs and read two chapters, and re-seal the tape back on the present afterward.
I believe, yes he did embellish some of his tales. But the man was both a prolific and clever writer, he had a way of Spell binding the reader as no one has ever had or will have.
I had no interest in Harry Price, who I felt lived on the past glories of BORLEY Rectory.
The only person who has come close to perhaps, if only lightly, of following in Elliott’s footsteps has to be Peter Underwood.
I don’t believe his tales, but I find them very entertaining, and , though I don’t believe in ghosts, his tales make me shudder with pleasure.
I came across Mr O’Donnell as a very immature teenager, and have to say his stories scared the wits out of me! M R James spoke truly when he said that a world under the control of O’Donnell’s ghosts would be a very uncomfortable place indeed. One thing which he did do was help me tell the difference between a made up story – which usually piles horror upon horror, as his do, and a possibly real one, where usually nothing actually happens. His stories sometimes are repeated, without question in ‘popular’ ghost books – their appearance being enough to make me dismiss the author out of hand!
Great article, thank you. I am just finishing my first book by Elliott O’Donnell. I’m really enjoying it, he writes very well. By the way it’s not in your list, it’s called ‘Haunted People’ and was published in 1955. I write ghost novels too and was drawn to this book in a charity shop. Will definitely keep an eye out for other books by him.