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

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

In the late 18th century, "ghost hoaxers" donned costumes to terrify unsuspecting victims.
In the late 18th century, “ghost hoaxers” donned costumes to terrify unsuspecting victims. © The British Library Board. All rights reserved/Courtesy The British Newspaper Archive

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.

An article from the <em>Australian Sunday Times</em>, November 27, 1898, about a ghost hoaxer who "surrendered being bailed up by a revolver."
An article from the Australian Sunday Times, November 27, 1898, about a ghost hoaxer who “surrendered being bailed up by a revolver.” National Library of Australia/Public Domain

Technology helped make the ghost pranksters look more spooky. 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.”

"Ghost with a Revolver," <em>Illustrated Police News</em>, October 10, 1885.
“Ghost with a Revolver,” Illustrated Police News, October 10, 1885. © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/British Newspaper Archive

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.

"Some true stories about ghosts" from the <em>Illustrated Police News</em>, October 29, 1881.
“Some true stories about ghosts” from the Illustrated Police News, October 29, 1881. © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED./BRITISH NEWSPAPER ARCHIVE

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.