The Mischievous ‘Ghost Hoaxers’ of 19th-Century Australia

To stave off
boredom, some people donned sheets and menaced the public.

In 1882, in the Southeast Australian
state of Victoria, repeated attacks on the general public were carried out by a
figure known only as the “Wizard Bombardier.”

This individual was known for wearing an ostentatious
outfit of white robes and a sugarloaf hat. The Wizard’s strategy involved
disorienting people with loud screams before hurling stones and other sorts of
missiles at them. Then the ghoulish individual made a quick dash and was gone.

Attacks like these, in which pranksters disguised as
ghosts would wreak havoc, came to be known as “ghost hoaxing.” There were many
cases and perpetrators in Australia from the late 19th century to the First
World War—to the point that rewards were offered for the apprehension of ghost
hoaxers.

In this era, Australia was the perfect location for
villains and rogues who wished to imitate apparitions for their own ends. Dr.
David Waldron, author of “Playing the Ghost: Ghost Hoaxing and Supernaturalism
in Late Nineteenth-Century Victoria,” says that the lack of professionalized
police meant that Australia had a particular “lawlessness.” An abundance of
leisure time and a lack of affordable entertainment options created an
environment ideal for ghost hoaxers who often used their own theatrics to
entertain themselves.

Technology helped make the ghost pranksters look spookier.
As Waldron writes, the recent invention of phosphorescent paint meant that
individuals could glow in the dark as they menaced others, which made their
outfits all the more believable and gave the hoaxers an otherworldly
appearance. Ghost hoaxers sometimes fashioned elaborate disguises—in 1895, one
prankster created a costume to resemble a knight and emblazoned the phrase
“prepare to meet thy doom” on his armor. To ratchet up the threat factor, this
“knight” also threatened people with decapitation.

Australia during this period was very concerned about the
threat of “larrikins,” who were rowdy youths out to cause mischief. Some of
these larrikins regarded ghost costumes as suitable devices with which to
commit crime and violence. A sort of urban warfare was fought, with ghost
hoaxers on one side and, on the other, vigilantes and armed guards who were
determined to shoot these pranksters with buckshot to end their mischief.

Waldron has identified that despite the ghost pranks
being associated with the working class, once the ghosts were apprehended,
“many if not most of those arrested” were in fact “school teachers and clerks
and the like and a small number of middle-class women.”

One unexpected ghost hoaxer was Herbert Patrick McLennan,
who in 1904 equipped himself with a glowing outfit that included a top hat,
frock coat, and boots. Most menacingly, McLennan carried a cat o’nine tails
whip and used it to assault women he encountered. When a bounty of £5 was
placed on McLennan, he proceeded to declare war on the authorities, threatening
to shoot anyone who came after him in a letter addressed to local leaders, in
which he referred to himself as “the ghost.” When McLennan was arrested,
however, it was discovered that he was a powerful and influential clerk and
public speaker. McLennan was sent to jail, but he was soon back out again.

Some ghost pranksters made their own custom disguises,
such as wearing a coffin strapped to their backs so as to give the appearance
of having risen from the dead, as in one case in 1895. A female ghost hoaxer
even incorporated music by playing a guitar while she skulked around near a
hotel, according to reports in 1880 and 1889.

One theme common to ghost hoaxers was the use of
pre-existing superstitions and locations that were regarded as haunted. Ghost
hoaxers often occupied sites that were already associated with death, such as
cemeteries, in order to double down on fear. Some hoaxers even painted a skull
and crossbones in a particular location to create fear before they arrived
wearing claws and animal skins to wreak havoc.

To the wider community, ghost hoaxers presented a threat
not just through fear but also via crime and violence, such as indecent
exposure, sexual assault, or even just stealing eggs. Not all citizens were
prepared to stay helpless in the face of this threat. In 1896, ex-soldier
called Charles Horman seemed to be a one-man army against the ghost
impersonators. He opened fire with a shotgun on one youth who was pretending to
be a ghost, while using a cane to attack another hoaxer who was assaulting a
woman.

Parents whose children had been physically attacked by
ghost pranksters also took the law into their own hands. One woman, Mrs. Date,
unleashed her pit bull on a ghost hoaxer who had assaulted her daughter. In
1913 a mob of vigilantes chased after and beat a man wearing a glowing ghost
outfit who had terrified an old man.

Eventually the phenomenon of the ghost hoaxers
disappeared, hastened by the arrival of World War I, which took the lives of
over 60,000 Australian soldiers. As Waldron says, the war showed that there
were “far bigger issues at stake and the symbolism of death becoming less
amusing.” With human mortality no longer a premise for pranks, ghost hoaxing
lost its spirit for good.

[Joseph Hayes, Atlas
Obscura
]