Real-life story of Belfast girl many believed could communicate with spirits
A new play that's opening in east Belfast explores a strange tale involving seances, ectoplasm and levitating tables. Lindy McDowell delves into the background
In the early 1990s, in a humble terrace house in Artana Street in the Holy Land area of South Belfast, a series of unusual - to say the least - experiments were carried out by renowned engineer Dr WJ Crawford to prove claims by a local family that they were in contact with the spirit world.
The Goligher family - mother, father, four young daughters and a son-in-law - regularly organised seances in their home.
But it was 16-year-old Kathleen, the most "mediumistic" of the siblings, whose psychic powers (and possibly more besides) particularly intrigued Dr William Crawford.
Kathleen was a serious-looking, bespectacled young girl, her flowing locks tied back in long curls.
Her psychic party piece was the production of ectoplasm, which may sound like something dreamt up by the Ghostbusters movie-makers, but was actually the subject of heated debate in Victorian times - as far back as the mid-1800s.
It was around that period that a revival in spiritualism gripped the nation. By the time Kathleen was born, in 1898, seances involving levitation and spirit rapping, a crude form of ghostly communication, of which more later, were fairly commonplace.
Kathleen's family, although poor, did not charge for the seances held in their home. And reports of the young girl's psychic proficiency had obviously spread since they eventually attracted to the Goligher's door Dr Crawford, at that time a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Queen's University.
A respected academic, the New Zealand-born Crawford was author of two highly regarded text books then used in schools.
On the face of it, he did not seem like a man who would be taken in by fraud, trickery or supernatural viscous substances.
And yet, sensationally for readers of the day, having carried out his series of experiments, he was to write three books claiming that Kathleen was genuinely in touch with the spirit world, that she could levitate tables and produce the aforementioned ectoplasm.
Some 17 years older than Kathleen, it is hard to believe that he was only interested in her ectoplasm.
Many scientists and, interestingly, the magician Harry Houdini, had heard of Kathleen's "powers" but dismissed them as trickery.
The "rigorous" experiments Crawford carried out had to be conducted in low light. Conveniently enough, ectoplasm could not be photographed in bright light. Most mediums produced it through various orifices; the nose, the ears, the mouth.
In Kathleen's case, Crawford insisted the ectoplasm came originally from her womb. His photographs show the young girl seated with what appears to be a swathe of white gauze or muslin emanating from her skirt.
It looks like gauze or muslin, because it most likely was gauze or muslin.
At a later date a physicist, the impressively named Edmund Edward Fournier d'Alba, pointed out that during a seance with Kathleen which he had attended, he had noted a piece of muslin lying between her feet.
Another scientist who'd also studied the case wrote of "the superabundant exposure of the massive credulity and total defect of logical power displayed by Dr Crawford".
Which is a roundabout way of saying he thought Crawford was a bit gullible.
Or was it something more carnal?
The intelligent Crawford must have been aware that the ectoplasm, the levitation, the spirit rapping, were all trickery.
His reasons for playing along may have had more to do with his own strange proclivities. Apart from anything else, he was obsessed with underwear.
Tragically, he took his own life - his body was found at the rocks near the Girls' School in Bangor on July 21, 1920.
But before his demise he'd spent all his money on a massive consignment of underwear which he left to his family, ensuring, posthumously, that they would not be short of drawers for many years to come.
A year after his death, Kathleen's psychic powers were to be debunked by d'Alba and shortly after that she retired from the psychic business.
Her story ends well, however. She later married, becoming in the process a Lady G Donaldson.
It's a weird tale and, not surprisingly, the first story collected by writer and musician Reggie Chamberlain-King which inspired his book Weird Belfast (Blackstaff Press).
And this week, the ghosts of Kathleen and Dr Crawford walk again, so to speak, in a new play "A True and Attested Account" which is being staged nightly at the Engine Room, Portview Trade Centre in East Belfast until April 14.
The play's full, Victorian-esque title is "A True and Attested Account of Certain Mysterious Events which have recently Occurred at Mersey Street" and while it's a work of fiction by writer Fintan Brady, it draws heavily on the Goligher story.
Whereas my reaction to the tale was to sneer at the gullibility of all concerned, and the perhaps darker motives of Dr Crawford, Fintan points to a genuine human pathos behind the events.
"This was 1914", he explains, "the First World War had just broken out. There had been a massive flu epidemic. It was a difficult time. A time of great uncertainty. To some extent I think, yes, they colluded with each other. But there was a belief in the idea of experimentation.
"You have personalities that are fragile and delusional and they collude with each other and what you end up with are collusions in delusions.
"I don't think they would have necessarily seen the seance as a fake. It was more as a sort of comfort to people who, at that time, would be in need of and searching for comfort."
The main characters in Fintan's play, which stars Carla Bryson and James Lecky, are the fictional Ruth Gallagher and Dr George Dawson, and the action has been relocated across the city into Mersey Street in the east.
Fintan and the Partisan Productions team have spent the last 18 months developing ideas for the show and working on it with locals, in particular the Ballymacarrett Community Association.
"It's a very vibrant community and it's been great working with them," Fintan says. "Everybody has joined in. It's been a real community effort.
"The best stories", he adds, "are those that connect directly with people's lives, that surprise and delight them; stories they can relate to".
And amid this tale of ghostly doings, flying furniture and strange matter expelled from bodily orifices, there is a genuinely human story of vulnerable, kindly people trapped in their own, ever-more elaborate circle of self-deception.
"I don't believe they were out and out frauds," says Reggie Chamberlain-King, for whom the Goligher case was "pretty much the first story I happened upon when I was writing Weird Belfast".
Despite being poor, they didn't charge for the sittings, he points out. (One reason why Crawford was initially inclined to regard them as genuine.)
"They came from a background of Presbyterianism mixed with spiritualist faith and once they started with the seances they had to continue producing effects to keep it going."
Effects such as spirit rapping. This laborious method of contacting the other side involved repeating the alphabet until the spirit present would rap on the table to signal a particular letter. Then they'd have to start all over again for the next letter in the word.
They'd be there all night surely?
They had nothing else to do, says Reggie.
As musical director for "A True and Attested Account" he and his band will be playing some compositions written specially for the show, plus what he describes as "a rousing selection of hymns".
The cast have also been working on ectoplasm simulation, creating a spookily realistic effect.
The ghosts of Kathleen Goligher and Dr Crawford, should they be hovering around in the ether, would surely applaud.
A True and Attested Account by Partisan Productions is showing at The Engine Room, Portview Trade Centre, Newtownards Road until April 14.