Edinburgh mysteries: The chilling case of the Trinity poltergeist
Mrs Catherine Ann Crowe, the celebrated novelist and writer on the supernatural who lived from 1790 to 1872, came to Edinburgh in the 1830s, moving in literary circles and befriending Thomas de Quincey and Harriet Martineau.
In 1848, she published The Night Side of Nature, her bestselling study of the spectral world. One of the most astounding cases in Night Side of Nature deals with a long-forgotten Edinburgh spook, the Trinity Poltergeist.
In June 1835, Captain Molesworth, an officer stationed at Leith Fort, rented a comfortable semi-detached house in Trinity, then a village two miles from the city. His 12-year-old daughter Matilda had recently died and his elder daughter Jane was an invalid. After two months, Captain Molesworth began to complain of certain unaccountable and spooky noises, which he thought were made by his landlord Mr Webster, who occupied the other half of the building. Mr Webster retorted that he had no reason to damage the reputation of his own house by representing it as being haunted.But the uncanny noises continued: knockings, scratchings and rustlings, first on one side, then on the other. The Poltergeist, as we shall call the spectral entity infesting the house, sometimes was heard rapping to a certain tune, like if it knew music; it also seemed to possess some degree of intelligence, by answering questions such as ‘How many people are in the room?’ by the correct number of rappings. Sometimes these rappings were forcible enough for the wall to tremble.
There were footsteps of invisible feet, and at other times, the beds were heaved upwards, as if some person had been hiding underneath them. Captain Molesworth had the floorboards lifted in the rooms where the spectral noises were loudest and most frequent, and drilled a hole through the wall separating his residence from that of Mr Webster, but without catching the Poltergeist. Hoping to teach his spectral tormentor a hard lesson, the frantic officer even fired a rifle at the wainscot.Captain Molesworth next called in reinforcements: sheriff’s officers, masons, justices of the peace, and officers of the regiment stationed at Leith. Suspecting that some malicious outside prankster was at work, these ghostbusters formed a cordon around the house, but without any success. Suspicion next turned to the invalid girl Jane, who was tied up in a bag to prevent her from being up to mischief, but with no effect on the Poltergeist’s activities.
In the end, Captain Molesworth had enough: ill and worn out by the anxieties of the prolonged haunting, he quitted the house and moved away. The Trinity neighbours were gossiping that the ghost of Matilda had come to haunt the house, to warn her invalid sister that she was soon to follow her into a Better World; this happened just as predicted, Mrs Crowe assures us, probably as a result of the severe measures taken while Jane was under suspicion.
At the time Mrs Crowe was writing, no later occupant of the house had experienced any spectral manifestations. Since Mrs Crowe was not the most reliable of authors – in February 1854 she was observed walking naked through the Capital because the spirits had told her she was invisible, a stint in Hanwell Asylum followed – documentary proof is needed that Captain Molesworth and Mr Webster really existed.
Here, the ‘Deaths’ column of the Scotsman of June 3, 1835 provides an important clue: “At North Leith, on the 27th ult. Matilda Caroline, second oldest daughter of Captain Molesworth, Royal Artillery.”
The North Leith Old Parish Registers confirm this information, adding that the 12-year-old Matilda was buried on May 30 1835, presumably in the North Leith Burial Ground. This would seem to prove the existence of both Captain Molesworth and his deceased daughter. Inquiries at the Royal Artillery Museum reveal that there were two captains named Molesworth in 1835; regrettably, genealogical research excludes them both from having daughters named Jane and Matilda, although they had other children alive.
As for poor Jane, who had been so shamefully treated during the Trinity Poltergeist affair, there is no trace that she died in Scotland or England at the relevant period of time.
In her Night Side of Nature, Mrs Crowe further informs us that Mr Webster took Captain Molesworth to court for damage caused by the officer lifting the floorboards, boring holes in the walls, and shooting at the wainscot, as well as for “injury done in giving the house the reputation of being haunted, thus preventing other tenants from renting it.”
Mrs Crowe gives the source of the Trinity Poltergeist as facts communicated to her “by the gentleman who conducted the suit for the plaintiff.” He had spent many hours in “examining the numerous witnesses, several of whom were officers in the army, and gentlemen of undoubted honour and capacity for observation.”
In his 1860 book Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, Robert Dale Owen names this solicitor as Maurice Lothian, at the time of writing Procurator Fiscal of the county of Edinburgh. The suit was heard at the Edinburgh Sheriff Court on August 7 1837, and won by Mr Webster: Captain Molesworth was ordered to pay for the repairs to the house.The majority of haunted houses fit into five categories. Firstly, there are the houses presumed to be haunted by some famous personage who had once lived there. These stories are often intended for the consumption oftourists.
Then we have the ‘haunted site’ topos, like Mary King’s Close in the Royal Mile. Thirdly, it was not uncommon that houses of a very dilapidated and neglected appearance became notorious in the neighbourhood. They might fit into a ‘Miss Havisham’ legend and be considered the abode of some tragic recluse who had once been crossed in love.
Fourthly, there are the Victorian murder houses, which often developed a reputation for being haunted, particularly in London and if the murder was high-profile and/or unsolved, with ‘blood crying out for vengeance’. As I concluded in my book Murder Houses of Edinburgh, the people of the Scottish Capital tended to avoid these London excesses: even the most notorious Edinburgh murder houses, like Eugène Chantrelle’s house at 81A George Street, never developed a reputation for being haunted.Finally, what is a poltergeist? In her Night Side of Nature, Mrs Crowe introduced the word into the English language: “The annoyances appear rather like the tricks of a mischievous imp. I refer to what the Germans call the Poltergeist, or racketing spectre, for the phenomenon is known in all countries, and has been known in all ages.”
The rationalists have explained away poltergeist hauntings as deception or mass hysteria; the occult philosophers have considered them manifestations of the ghost of some recently deceased person or an unknown form of energy. Often a female adolescent is at the centre of the uncanny phenomena.
Edinburgh has not been spared the attention of the poltergeists, with Blacket Place, Learmonth Gardens and Hazeldean Terrace becoming infested by the spooks; the Trinity Poltergeist is the earliest, and most mysterious, of them all. In many respects, it represents a typical poltergeist haunting, being temporally limited and ended by the permanent expulsion of Captain Molesworth and Jane from the Trinity house of horrors.
Jan Bondeson is author of Murder Houses of Edinburgh, available from Troubador Press