The Cheltenham Ghost, also known as the Morton Ghost, was one of the earliest cases investigated by the Society for Psychical ResearchThe Society for Psychical Research (SPR) is a registered charity founded in 1882 to conduct scientific investigations into psychic and paranormal phenomena. (SPR), and is considered to be one of the best-attested accounts of an apparitionA revenant is the spirit of a dead person returned to visit the living, the common conception of a ghost. . It appeared in the form of a woman, which members of the Despard family claimed to have seen between 1882 and 1889, in their home in Pittville Circus Road, Cheltenham, England; the family was given the pseudonym Morton in the SPR’s published report on the haunting. The psychologist Alan Gauld has called it the “most famous ghost of all”, and “without doubt the most curious case of its kind ever printed”.
The principal witness during the SPR’s investigation was Rosina Despard, then aged 19, but in total 17 people claimed to have seen the apparition, and 20 to have heard it. Rosina described the apparition’s appearance as
… that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand … a portion of a widow’s cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow’s weeds. There was no cap on the head, but the general effect of blackness suggests a bonnet with long veil or hood.
Rosina attempted to photograph the apparition without success, owing to the need for long exposure times in low light.
The house in Cheltenham, known as Garden Reach,[a]The house was built on a site previously occupied by a market garden. was built in 1860, and occupied by a married couple named Swinhoe. When the wife died her husband turned to drink, as did his second wife Imogen. Their turbulent relationship ended when Imogen left shortly before her husband’s death in 1876. The house was subsequently rented to Captain F. W. Despard, who moved in with his invalid wife and six children in 1882. It had been unoccupied for years earlier, and there were reports of it being haunted. One of the children, Rosina, claimed to have seen the apparition for the first time in June that year, three months after the family moved in.
In December 1884, Frederic MyersAn English poet, classics scholar, and a founder member of the Society for Psychical Research. of the Society for Psychical ResearchThe Society for Psychical Research (SPR) is a registered charity founded in 1882 to conduct scientific investigations into psychic and paranormal phenomena. received a letter from a third party informing him of the events at Garden Reach. Captain Despard was initially reluctant to give any account, for fear that the value of the house, which belonged to a friend of us, might as a result depreciate. But in early 1886 Despard appears to have relented, and Myers subsequently made several visits to interview the various witnesses. He described Rosina as “a lady of scientific training, now preparing to be a physician,” and judged the Despard family to be “unusually free from superstitious fears”.
After being shown a photo-album, Rosina identified Swinhoe’s second wife, Imogen, as most closely resembling the apparition. But Myers drew no conclusions from his investigation, published in 1892, except to note that the accounts of the witnesses were “very uniform in character”.
Until about 1886 the apparition was so life-like that it was often mistaken for a real person, but it gradually began to fade, and from 1889 was hardly seen at all. The house was subsequently converted into a boarding school for boys, and stories began to emerge of a lady being encountered in the corridors, on the stairs, and in the gardens. The paranormal researcher and crime writer Andrew MacKenzie has claimed that three people saw apparitions around Garden Reach between 1958 and 1961; the most recent reported sighting occurred in 1974.