Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Spirit Photographer

Family historian Chris Paton delves into the psychic world to uncover an extraordinary experiment carried out by his great great grandfather in 1926…

I have always been fascinated by stories of the supernatural and of things that go bump in the night, but little did I realise that through my family history research I would soon discover that I was not the only one to share this fascination. In the case of one ancestor, such a belief had once led to an extraordinary experiment in an Irish cemetery which had created headlines across the British Isles.

Coming from both an Irish and Scottish heritage, as a child I was no stranger to hearing stories about the otherworldly folk known in Gaelic as the ‘Sídhe’, who were said to have inhabited the Fairy Mount on the golf course in Carrickfergus, and in particular the ‘banshee’ (bean sídhe), also known as the “White Lady”, who was supposed to haunt the nearby Lover’s Lane. Despite never believing such things, I would nevertheless still find myself walking quickly down the lane on a winter’s night when finishing my paper round, a nervous glance occasionally thrown over my shoulder to make sure that the banshee was not behind me, ready to wail uncontrollably at the forthcoming death of a family member.

Eventually I left Northern Ireland to attend university in Bristol, and from there I moved on to Scotland. An interest in Highland history developed, and I discovered the most amazing stories about Highland Scots who had the so-called supernatural gift of ‘an da shealladh’, or ‘second sight’, whereby they could see the spirit world and predict the future. On one particular occasion, on a return trip back home to Ireland, I mentioned this to my mum, to which she replied, “Och, my granny had that in Belfast”. Really?! Sensing that I didn’t believe a word of it, she sought to clarify the situation…

My mother’s name is Charlotte Harper Graham, named after her own grandmother, Charlotte Harper Montgomery, who was married to Ernest Graham. Both of her grandparents had apparently been very active in the Christian Spiritualism movement in Northern Ireland, attending a Spiritualist church on Belfast’s Shankill Road, and both were said to have been ‘gifted’ mediums. Ernest, a painter for Harland and Wolfe shipyard, died in 1942, but family tradition has it that this was not the last the family were to see of him! When my aunt Edna visited her grandmother at Esmond Street in Belfast a few years later, aged just three or four, the story goes that she was at one point found staring transfixed up the stairs to the landing at the top. When asked by my granny what she was looking at, Edna turned and said “Grandad is standing there, waving down to me”, to which my great grandmother gave an all knowing and enigmatic smile…!

Despite a few seconds of experiencing the heebie-jeebies upon hearing this, I cast it to one side as just a playful family myth, but a few years later I would learn that there was in fact a lot more to this alleged Spiritualism connection than even my mother knew!

I traced my mother’s Graham line back, through her father and grandfather, both called Ernest, to her great grandfather, Edwin Graham. All were Belfast born and bred, but Edwin was particularly hard to trace, as the Irish censuses before 1901 largely no longer exist. I was fortunate, however, to discover that he had in fact lived for a time in Barrow-on-Furness in England, and was thus recorded in the 1881 census as a 19 year old shipwright from Ireland.

Having placed what I had found on a website, I was delighted to be contacted some time later by Edwin’s granddaughter Renee Fisher, who still lives in Belfast. From her I learned that Edwin had regularly crossed the Irish Sea to take up shipbuilding work at both Belfast, Glasgow and Barrow-in-Furness, and had at one stage even travelled to Boston in the USA to find work, though had soon returned. Whilst I am descended from Edwin and his first wife, Florence Halliday, to whom he had married in Belfast just prior to 1883, Renee was in fact descended from Edwin and his second wife, Sarah Ann Stitt (nee Wilson), who he had married in 1915, with Florence having died in 1911. I managed to obtain a photograph from Renee of Edwin with his new wife Sarah, and having had such good luck, I did not think I would find out too much more about him.

It was not until I discovered that the Irish Independent newspaper had been digitised and put online at www.irishnewsarchive.com that I was to make a truly extraordinary discovery. Whilst searching for any articles that might name Edwin, I found a story from Wednesday, July 28th 1926, entitled “Spiritualism in Belfast”, about a funeral service held at the City Cemetery for a Mrs McDermott, under the auspices of the Belfast Christian Spiritualists’ Association, where almost a hundred spiritualists had gathered to conduct an experiment in the supernatural. With her son John leading the service, the attendees took photographs as her coffin was lowered into the ground, in order to try and capture images of the “spirits of the departed friends of those around the grave”.

This was remarkable enough until I read the next bit. “Mr. Edwin Graham, secretary of the Association, said it was a very hard thing to obtain spirit photographs, and he added that the plates would be developed in a day or two, and they would then see if they had been successful.”

Edwin had been their secretary! I was disappointed to find no follow up to the story in the Irish Times, but soon discovered that the Manchester Guardian newspaper, the Scotsman and the Daily Mirror in Britain had also covered the story, as had the Irish Times, which on August 18th also had an update to the story. The photographs had apparently been out of focus, showing ‘small white clouds’ over the people assembled round the grave, though this did not deter the spiritualists. “Mr McDermaid claims that in the photographs he can see the spirit forms of three departed relatives. Mr Edwin Graham, the Secretary of the Association, is convinced that he can see his brother. The Association invites inspection of the photographs.”

Keen to find out more, I searched for information on the Belfast Christian Spiritualist Association, and from their current website I discovered a potted history. It stated that Spiritualism in Northern Ireland had started amid the furore of religious and political activity surrounding the signing of the Ulster Covenant of 1912, where thousands of Ulster born Protestants had put their name to a document protesting at the possibility of Home Rule in Ireland (these signatures are available to see online at www.proni.gov.uk). As interest in Spiritualism had spread, the movement had often changed its headquarters over the next three decades until it was bombed in an air raid on Belfast in 1941. Again, I was to find a mention of the Grahams: “The Alliance then accepted an invitation from a group meeting at 45 May Street which was functioning well under the leadership of a truly excellent Medium of high spiritual character, Sarah Graham.”

I contacted the Association, but they were unable to provide any additional information. They put me in touch with a Liverpool based spiritualist association, as Edwin and Sarah had lived on Merseyside for a time, but again, I could find no further clues as to their spiritualist activities.

I did, however, make one further find. There is a wonderful Belfast based website called the Glenravel Local History Project (www.glenravel.com), and in the ‘Belfast Timeline’ section, which has stories from many local newspapers, a story about John McDiarmad showed that he had been prosecuted for fraud shortly after the experiment! As president of the Belfast Christian Spiritualist Association, he was charged that he “did pretend to tell fortunes to deceive and impose on his Majesty’s subjects.” He was put under bail of £10 for his future good behaviour.

Edwin eventually died in Belfast on February 2nd 1943, aged 80 years of age, and was buried in the very cemetery where he believed he had once photographed his deceased brother’s spirit. The next time I visit Belfast I intend to visit his grave, armed with my own trusty camera, as I may just be lucky enough to catch him standing nearby with his family, smiling at my humble efforts to find out exactly who he once was…!


About the author

Chris Paton is a professional genealogist and former BBC television producer. He has a Postgraduate Diploma in Genealogical Studies and runs the Scotland’s Greatest Story research service (www.ScotlandsGreatestStory.co.uk)

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