Sunday, January 20, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Mobbing the Ghost

Another month, another Fortean Times full of potential waiting to be developed.

This month, I find an article on "ghost mobs," detailing the common 19th-century English occurrence of huge mobs of people on the lookout for ghosts - in cemeteries, in supposedly haunted neighborhoods connected to infamous crimes, outside buildings plagued by poltergeists, and so on.

Clearly related to other forms of mass hysteria such as UFO or cryptid flaps, the significant features of these ghost mobs were that they were overwhelmingly made up of poor people, that they focused on ghosts, and that they caused a good deal of trouble to the police. When 2000 people show up outside a single supposedly haunted house, it's a serious hindrance to traffic even before people start picking each other's pockets, drinking, and jostling for the best view of nothing at all.

Of course very few of these people ever even thought they got to see the ghost that attracted them. In 1834, a party of men climbed over a wall into a cemetery to confront the ghost, which turned out to be a woman guarding her son's grave against bodysnatchers - which raises the question, What if some of those supposed ghosts were in fact bodysnatchers? Very bad for business, ghost mobs.

Some of the mobs happened in response to a hoax - the classic "kids in sheets" meme seems to have its origin here - and some ended in tragedy. In 1803, a bricklayer, dressed in his trade's traditional garb of white linen pants, white flannel vest, and a white apron, had to come and go from work through a supposedly haunted area and was molested by curiosity seekers, some of whom were deterred when he threatened to punch them in the head, but others of whom, in one of those terrible combinations of alcohol, guns, bragging, and mass psychosis, killed him. His killers were ultimately pardoned, which I can't help considering a gross miscarriage of justice, despite the undoubted truth that no one participating in such a mob can be said to be entirely in his right mind. No one made them bring a gun to a ghost hunt!

Ghosts or no ghosts, we have the makings of quite a head-spinning mystery or thriller here. Whether it's a historical depends on exactly which elements one finds most intriguing. We have plenty of mobs, mass hysteria, and tragic juxtapositions of guns and alcohol in modern times to work with, and bringing the bricklayer's case forward 200 years might be illuminating. However, what I see when I look at this article is an historical mystery, beginning with a couple of bodysnatchers serving the medical cadaver trade staging a haunting in one place to draw attention away from their areas of operation, and ending with one of them in the dissection theater himself, having lost control of his own hoax.

Because no one can ride a mob. The mob rides everyone.

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