Playing the Ghost in 19th Century Australia

Playing the Ghost in 19th Century Australia

Did you know that in late 19th century Australia, ordinary people would dip sheets in toxic glowing paint and run around at night pretending to be ghosts?

Neither did we, but Chris dug up this oddball story from Jen’s home state of Victoria and was excited to tell Jen all about it! The story involves a angry mob chasing a preacher; a protective mom siccing her dog on a creepy dude; calls for vigilante justice; hallucinogenic moonshine and a “very fine” draper’s dummy; a lady dressed up in a glow-in-the-dark wedding dress and playing guitar on a rooftop, and more.
article called Thrashing a Ghost

Example of an article with illustration about a ghost hoaxer being thrashed in Connington near Perth, Western Australia, Sunday Times, 27 November 1898, p. 9. (from )



Episode Script for Playing the Ghost in 19th Century Australia

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • The year is 1882. The place: Victoria, Australia.
  • In the late 19th century, Australia didn’t have professional police, so there was a lot of shenanigans and “lawlessness”
  • There were a lot of ghost stories in 19th century Australia, particularly in central Victoria.
  • Particularly in places like Ballarat, which was considered a “haunted” city from its early days, and in the late 19th century became a hotbed of spiritualism and “ghost hoaxing”
  • In the 1850s, a lot of immigrants moved to the area to do gold mining, which brought a lot of new folklore and beliefs to the area,
  • In the 1860s there were a number of lectures given about how it’s so sad that science has vanquished the idea of ghosts, and we’re the weaker for it, having lost a sense of the sublime, etc.
    • One of them, ‘A Plea for Ghosts’, was given by David Blair of Melbourne, and it caused a stir–there were tons of letters to the editor and newspaper articles about it.
    • it seemed to really hit home b/c it resonated with concerns about the spiritual health of the area; there were tons of ghost sightings, exorcisms, and hoaxes at the time
    • there was a lot of tension between ideas of the church and spiritual world and the ideas of science
    • people wanted to know more about what happens after you die, etc
  • by the 1870s, Ballarat, Bendigo and Melbourne had become a flourishing centre for spiritualism
    • An editorial in the Argus said:
      • [i]t is a noticeable symptom of the reactionary movement against the materialistic philosophy so much in vogue at the present day that ghosts, after having been objects of contempt to the educated and intelligent classes for some generations, are beginning to grow again into favour. We are not now alluding to the phenomena of spiritualism, which some years ago threatened to make the spirits of the dead quite as common as, and a great deal more commonplace than, the persons of the living. But outside the obscure regions tenanted by this creed, there are distinct signs that ghosts, which we thought were laughed out of existence by the robust common sense of the eighteenth century, are creeping back into the world, revisiting again the glimpses of the moon, in these rather sickly times of the moribund nineteenth century.
    • In 1881, 400 people gathered at the the Galloway monument in Ballarat to listen to speakers discuss ghosts and spiritualism. However, when a preacher said that spiritualism was bad and ghosts were agents of the devil, an angry mob chased him down the street
    • There were tons of stories about headless horsemen, women in white, headless animals, and ghosts of murdered victims, and there was also more fiction written about those things as well.
    • By the 1890s, there were so many stories that ppl called it the ‘ghost nuisance’, b/c panics could waste public time and money, a use up police resources
      • some editorials suggested that armed constables and vigilantes patrol ruined buildings and cemeteries with orders to shoot any ghosts on sight with buckshot. they said that real ghosts wouldn’t be hurt, and pranksters would learn a lesson
    • Most of the articles about ghosts were tongue in cheek and sceptical
      • the story of a headless ghost animal revealed to be a cat with its head trapped in a lobster tin.
      • Another similar story was that of a Castlemaine stockman terrified of a female headless horsewoman ‘with a fine body’ that was later revealed to be a misidentification of an abandoned drapers dummy lying next to an old log
      • a lot of stories framed ghosts as hoaxers who were just trying to rob people and cause mayhem
    • And remember, this is a time where fast-growing cities like Ballarat wouldn’t have had street lighting everywhere, and flashlights weren’t a thing.
    • David Waldron is a folklorist and historian at Federation University in Ballarat, and this topic is his specialty
    • Playing the Ghost by David Waldron:
      • colonialism = evil, life in Australia = hard
      • Even in the Australian climate with its scarcity of water and blistering heat, people attempted to create a British environment. They wore formal suits, even in summer; they created English dinners; they imported English animals; and the Acclimatization Society of Victoria was formally established in 1861 to make the environment more familiar, more English (Gillibank 1986; Dunlap 1997). English building styles were used, even though totally inappropriate for the Australian climate, and British farming practices were introduced with disregard for the alien landscape, often with disastrous consequences (Tunbridge 1991, 20–21). Displacement was endemic, which made nineteenth-century Victoria a fertile environment for the advent of ghostly experiences and ghostly conjuring.
      • . . . Ghostly encounters serve to destabilize any neat compartmentalization of the past and present as secure and fixed entities; they call the dominant narrative into question and they defy any presumption of the future. Ghosts can therefore be seen as serving a displacement function (Wolfreys 2002, 5) and this happened in an environment (the nineteenth-century goldfields) where displacement was an integral part of the fabric of existence. The dark was being made visible and the unseen was being made seen, but it was a shadowy manifestation and often emerged in ways which expressed in a physical form the injury that was psychically present.
      • . . . The people who participated in colonial goldfields ghost hoaxing were often the representatives of the rational, respectable, and safe community: school-teachers, housewives, and public servants, even though they were described as riff-raff and working-class ‘larrikins’ in the print media. (‘Larrikin’ is a popular term used to describe mischievous working-class pranksters and troublemakers.)
    • the article compares the Australian ghost hoaxers to a group of young aristocratic men in England in the early 1700s, who prowled around London and attacked people (both men and women.) They were such a problem that in 1712, the royal court put a 100 pound bounty on their heads
      • This appears quite distinct from the populist perception of the ‘prowling ghosts’ of England from the same era, who in the public imagination were primarily young aristocrats. These perceptions had their origin in earlier panics surrounding the ‘Mohocks’—well-dressed, affluent, aristocratic young men with too much time, wealth, and boredom on their hands—who had been terrorizing the inhabitants of the cities in the gloom of England’s poorly lit urban streets (Middleton 2014, 91–92). The grievances which arose against the activities of these Mohocks went further than just an attack upon their actions. They were also entangled in popular critiques of the political and social system in which a disproportionate amount of power and wealth was vested in the aristocracy. The perceived irresponsibility of the Mohocks was used to fuel the contention that they did not deserve the influence they held. The apparent impunity they seemed to enjoy was exploited as an argument that electoral reform was urgently required (Middleton 2014, 91–92):
      • Australia was a world turned upside down. This was in part due to the gold rushes, but also because it was a country where emancipated convicts could rise in the ranks of government and become landowners, and where aristocrats could be found working the gold mines alongside emancipated convicts and commoners. It was also a collection of colonies dealing with the consequences of the challenge to British authority represented by the Eureka Stockade Rebellion, and massive multi-ethnic immigration and economic upheaval wrought by the gold rush. This was a situation which was viewed with considerable concern by colonial authorities.
    • Apparently ghost hoaxing became so common that it happened several times per week in Ballarat during its heigh
      • Violence and public disturbances were common over differences of belief regarding the fate of the dead. In one such event a local Ballarat preacher was chased up the street by a group of angry young men after opining that spiritualism and apparitions of the dead were no more than agents of the devil. While the details of the dispute were unreported beyond the anger displayed towards an attack on spiritualism, it nonetheless demonstrated significant public interest and anxiety over religious belief and the afterlife
      • . . . In such a climate, tales of hauntings and strange apparitions generated a great deal of energy and flourished in the popular culture and folklore of colonial Australia. Many of these stories were about apparitions and spirits, the nature of which would be very familiar to the people of British and European extraction precisely because they had migrated with these stories: headless horsemen, apparitions of women in white, animal spirits, and the ghosts of murdered victims. This ghostly mix of folklore and local legends also proliferated alongside an increased popularity of Gothic and ghostly fiction in popular culture.
      • . . . In many cases the reports were clearly presented with an eye for humour at the expense of the gullibility of believers. One example featured the story of a headless hound, revealed to be a cat with its head trapped in a lobster tin (Bendigo Advertiser, 24 August 1861, 3).
      • Another told the story of a Castlemaine farmer who returned to town in hysterics after an encounter with a terrifying headless horsewoman. The article repeated his claim of how the ghost was seen ‘with a fine body’ and then revealed it to be a misidentification of an abandoned draper’s dummy lying next to an old log (Ballarat Star, 27 September 1861, 3).
    • The draper’s dummy story turned out to maybe have to do with the witness having drank adulterated alcohol. Apparently at the time in the area, a lot of alcohol was poor quality and laced with opiates and toxic substances that could cause hallunciations. So some ghost sightings in the area were maybe people just tripping out
      • Other reports were treated in a more serious, although no less sensationalist, light, such as the ghost of a young man believed to be a Castlemaine murder victim (Singleton Argus and Upper Hunter General Advocate, 20 January 1877, 4). Similarly, the often-discussed tale of ‘Fisher’s Ghost’—in which a ghostly apparition was believed to have revealed the site of a horrific murder—has become an iconic piece of Australian folklore (Wagga Wagga Advertiser, 21 August 1875, 4). In Ballarat, the story of the ‘Burnt Bridge Ghost’ (Bendigo Advertiser, 8 July 1871, 3) was reported on relatively seriously as the case of a haunted house; the ‘Warrenheip Brewery Ghost’ was reported with ridicule in the Ballarat Star, but taken more seriously in reports by other newspapers (Ballarat Star, 17 August 1877, 2).
      • . . . There was another major feature of newspaper reportage of ghosts: the stories were often reported as examples of hoaxing or ‘playing the ghost’. These cases described the many occurrences of supposed hauntings as examples of larrikinism and using superstition as a vehicle to conceal incidents of robbery, battery, and sexual assault while disguising oneself as a ghost or monster. Stories of ‘playing the ghost’ were common in newspaper reports on south-eastern Australian goldfields in the late nineteenth century. Men, and to a lesser extent women, dressed in what could be quite elaborate costumes would make ghostly appearances with dramatic screams, sometimes assailing passers-by and even, in extreme cases, assaulting people. Many of these individuals displayed quite a theatrical flourish in their costuming and activities, leading to the characters receiving fanciful nicknames from the local press. One man was arrested by local police and fined two hundred pounds for damages after assaulting a police officer’s daughter while dressed as a ghost (Kerang Times and Swan Hill Gazette, 14 June 1878, 4). Another young man received the nickname of ‘Wizard Bombardier’ due to his costume of white robes with a tall sugar-loaf hat. He would scare workers and passers-by between Ballarat and Kilmore with eerie screams and rock-throwing, and seemed to enjoy the cat-and-mouse game with local vigilantes and authorities as they set off in pursuit (Kilmore Free Press, 22 June 1882, 3; Camperdown Chronicle, 24 June 1882, 4). He was, in the end, discovered annd beaten by two local residents in an act of vigilantism . . .
      • Many of the costumes of these ghost hoaxers made use of phosphorescent paint, which had only recently become available in Australia (Balmain 1882, 1). Its luminous appearance caught the imagination of the public and served as an ideal way to create the required ghostly effect. Sometimes the activity could be as simple as painting a skull and cross-bones around the town as a practical joke. There were similar occurrences with people painting angels and tombstones in Ballarat Old Cemetery. Perhaps the simplest trick was to soak a sheet in phosphorescent paint to create an eerie, glowing, green ghost, but there were also many examples of more elaborate regalia (Barrier Miner, 12 July 1895, 1; Adelaide Advertiser, 10 June 1889, 7; Bendigo Advertiser, 12 September 1903, 4). One man dressed himself in a knight’s costume with a glowing breastplate featuring the words ‘Prepare to meet thy doom’ (Horsham Times, 26 July 1895, 3). There were also examples of costumes that copied outfits from antiquity, with skins and claws being quite common accessories, although luminous paint was still a prominent feature (Register, 28 June 1904, 4; Adelaide Advertiser, 3 October 1895, 5; Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 March 1899, 22).
      • Phosphorescent paint is highly toxic, and poisoning can cause a myriad of severe symptoms including cardiovascular and respiratory disease, gastrointestinal dysfunction, diarrhoea, incontinence, blurred vision, hypertension, anxiety, tremors, seizures, ataxia, coma, and death. Ironically, by using phosphorescent paint to portray themselves as images of death, ghost hoaxers were courting the very thing they portrayed. They were unconsciously enacting their depiction.
    • B/c the paint could cause brain damage, some ppl may have actually had brain damage as a result of ghost hoaxing (and a number of them did get sent to asylums).
    • Later, they used radium paint instead, which of course was radioactive and caused cancer.
      • Quite often it seems that these pranks had a more sinister purpose—protecting the identity of criminals engaged in violence, robbery, and sexual assault. Most often these attacks were directed at young women. In one example, a former inmate of Ararat Lunatic Asylum stalked the streets of Ballarat in a costume consisting of black robes and smears of phosphorescent paint. His regular harassment of young women in the late evening inspired local vigilantism until he was arrested by police (Bendigo Advertiser, 27 May 1895, 3 and 29 May 1895, 2).3 In another case, a man described as having a skull and cross-bones painted on his bare chest above the word ‘Death’ was accused of exposing himself to passers-by at the Ballarat cemetery (Bendigo Advertiser, 26 May 1904, 5). In Bendigo, a man in a white overcoat with a glowing phosphorescent-soaked suit was accused of harassing young women late at night (Bendigo Advertiser, 23 July 1903, 3). In a more dangerous example, retired miner Frederick Parks was stabbed by a ghostly assailant who was attacking a young woman in Eureka Street, Ballarat. His costume consisted of white clothes with a coffin lid strapped to his back, his face and limbs covered in glowing phosphorescent paint (Barrier Miner, 10 June 1895, 3).
      • . . . One of the most famous of these ‘ghosts’ was Herbert Patrick McLennan, who was charged with indecent exposure and assaulting women in Ballarat in 1904 (Bendigo Advertiser, 14 July 1904, 5). Wearing a costume of high India-rubber boots with a long white coat and carrying a cat-o’-nine-tails, he regularly harassed women at night on Mair Street and Lydiard Street in Ballarat, often exposing himself and physically assaulting them (Adelaide Advertiser, 24 May 1904, 4; see Figure 2). Despite a reward of five pounds for information leading to his arrest, plus the use of police dressed as women, he eluded his pursuers for some time. A letter was also sent to taunt the mayor of Ballarat:
        • Dear Sir,
        • I see that you and your bally councillors have fixed a reward of £5 on my head, but you didn’t say whether dead or alive; and, furthermore, you said you would have me plugged with a lead on sight.
        • Mr. Mayor, I give you warning that the first man I see with his hand in his pocket, or otherwise looking suspicious, I will plug a bullet through him. I hope you will caution the ‘Rakebite’ portion of your council of my intentions.
        • Yours truly,
        • The Ghost.
      • McLennan was a well-known and respected elocutionist and senior clerk, and his arrest was discussed with considerable shock and taste for scandal in local newspapers. However, despite his well-respected social status the local police had long suspected him, but had felt compelled to wait until they had gathered sufficient evidence. Upon his arrest they also seized a number of theatrical props and costumes from his Drummond Street residence. In court he was convicted of assaulting young women by ‘wilfully and obscenely exposing his person and is therefore deemed to be a rogue and vagabond’.4
      • The act of ghost hoaxing, however, was not solely confined to men. While most of the hoaxes were conducted by men, there were nonetheless women who engaged in ‘playing the ghost’ as examples of larrikinism, but also to hide petty larceny. One woman wore ghostly attire to conceal the theft of poultry and eggs (Examiner, 3 January 1903, 6). 
    • One woman used to dress as a man and visit bars and chat with men before exposing herself as a woman. (she was charged with indecent exposure)
      • After spending time at the Ararat Lunatic Asylum, she began dressing as a monster in a hideous papier-mache mask and a white sheet soaked in glow-in-the-dark paint.
      • She would hide under the Peel Street bridge and jump out and scare people.
      • Dr Waldron says the woman would have been told she was a monster and a deviant in the lunatic asylum and by dressing as a ghost she was “in a sense, becoming this thing she was told she was”.
    • There was one woman who’d wear a glow in the dark wedding dress, paint her face an arms white, and then play guitar on the roof of a building
      • Another aspect of the ghost hoaxing phenomenon was the act of ‘laying the ghost’. This typically referred to vigilantism, debunking ghost claims, and active scepticism, although the term had its origins in older practices of rituals and exorcisms against spiritual activity. A retired soldier named Charles Horman, while patrolling the Ballarat cemetery, fired a rock-salt-loaded shotgun at the legs and buttocks of a man ‘playing the ghost’. On another occasion he went to the rescue of a young woman being assaulted by a man dressed as a ghost, attacking the ‘ghost’ with a cane (Argus, 18 June 1896, 4). A lady by the name of Mrs Date, after her daughter had been assaulted by a man dressed as a ghost, went after the man with her bull terrier. In one incident, a man in white phosphorescent robes was flogged by vigilantes after causing an elderly gentleman to suffer a heart attack in Buninyong (Colac Herald, 12 May 1913, 2). These stories were typically reported on favourably by Australian newspapers, and the practice of ‘laying the ghost’ was strongly encouraged in editorials.
    • Though the newspaper articles often depicted women as being helpless and passive in the face of ghost hoaxers, there were actually plenty of stories of women fighting back. For example, there was one story where a woman was being attacked by a ghost hoaxer, she fainted and played dead, and then when he came up to her she slashed him across the face so he could be identified and arrested.
      • . . . From a Jungian perspective there is a correlation between the phenomenon of ghost hoaxing and unbidden experiences of the paranormal. Both arouse the same feelings of weird strangeness and mystery. They also both rely on the sense of crossing boundaries and the freedom of breaching taboos, as was very obviously displayed in the case of McLennan. Ghost hoaxing creates psychic disturbance, a term which in Jungian parlance means that the psyche of the individual is troubled by that which it cannot fully comprehend. The experience of the uncanny involves a crisis of uncertainty with particular regard to the reality of who one is and what is being experienced (Royle 2003, 1). It also transgresses cultural taboos and integrates sexuality, death, and fear within the one grotesque display. . . .
      • While criminal motives in many of these cases were undoubtedly an issue, the act of ‘playing the ghost’ and the thrill of subversive success challenged intellectual certainty regarding contemporary attacks on superstition and ghost beliefs. It challenged the claim that the superstitious past was something dead, buried and supplanted by the values of Enlightenment reason. It offered a vehicle to challenge Victorian morality and respectability and served as a site of rebellion. By cloaking oneself in the symbols of a superstitious and Gothic past, one could gain a sense of empowerment and anonymity. Hoaxing occupied a liminal space in which a person could break taboos and engage in a carnivalesque inversion of morals, beliefs, and behaviours. It symbolically expressed the sense of displacement experienced in this world of strangeness and suppressed realities.
      • It is therefore unsurprising that many of these hoaxers inverted traditional gender roles and broke sexual taboos through dress, public exposure, sexual assault or harassment, and foul language. The care often taken in making costumes and the sense of theatre in their displays shows how much this sense of transgression meant to hoaxers who routinely risked arrest, exposure to highly toxic paint, disgrace, and vigilantism to ‘become’ ghosts. What better way to express displacement and challenge social and gender roles and condescending attacks on superstition than to become a symbol of death which could terrify people enough to shake their faith in scientific rationality. . . 




The Atlas Obscura article

Article on Victoria government site



Images Used in this Post

  • Example of an article with illustration about a ghost hoaxer being thrashed in Connington near Perth, Western Australia, Sunday Times, 27 November 1898, p. 9. (from )


Don’t miss our past episodes, like The Smallpox Hospital, aka Renwick Ruin, on Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 1 and The Renwick Ruin and Charity Hospital, Roosevelt Island, NYC – Part 2.