In 1913, Elliott O’Donnell – the author of more than fifty acclaimed titles on spooks, spectres, and supernatural mysteries – penned the classic title Animal Ghosts, which included in its pages the decades-old story of a phantom baboon-like animal seen in a large, old, imposing country house-style abode near the English town of Basingstoke, Hampshire. In O’Donnell’s own words: “A sister of a well-known author tells me there used to be a house called The Swallows, standing in two acres of land, close to a village near Basingstoke. In 1840 a Mr. Bishop of Tring bought the house, which had long stood empty, and we went to live there in 1841. After being there a fortnight two servants gave notice to leave, stating that the place was haunted by a large cat and a big baboon, which they constantly saw stealing down the staircases and passages.”
O’Donnell continued: “They also testified to hearing sounds as of somebody being strangled, proceeding from an empty attic near where they slept, and of the screams and groans of a number of people being horribly tortured in the cellars just underneath the dairy. On going to see what was the cause of the disturbances, nothing was ever visible. By and by other members of the household began to be harassed by similar manifestations. The news spread through the village, and crowds of people came to the house with lights and sticks, to see if they could witness anything.
“One night, at about twelve o’clock, when several of the watchers were stationed on guard in the empty courtyard, they all saw the forms of a huge cat and a baboon rise from the closed grating of the large cellar under the old dairy, rush past them, and disappear in a dark angle of the walls. The same figures were repeatedly seen afterwards by many other persons. Early in December 1841, Mr. Bishop, hearing fearful screams, accompanied by deep and hoarse jabberings, apparently coming from the top of the house, rushed upstairs, whereupon all was instantly silent, and he could discover nothing.
“After that, Mr. Bishop set to work to get rid of the house, and was fortunate enough to find as a purchaser a retired colonel, who was soon, however, scared out of it. This was in 1842; it was soon after pulled down. The ground was used for the erection of cottages; but the hauntings being transferred to them, they were speedily vacated, and no one ever daring to inhabit them, they were eventually demolished, the site on which they stood being converted into allotments.
“There were many theories as to the history of ‘The Swallows’; one being that a highwayman, known as Steeplechase Jock, the son of a Scottish chieftain, had once plied his trade there and murdered many people, whose bodies were supposed to be buried somewhere on or near the premises. He was said to have had a terrible though decidedly unorthodox ending – falling into a vat of boiling tar, a raving madman.”
In closing, O’ Donnell asked the important questions: “But what were the phantasms of the ape and cat? Were they the earth-bound spirits of the highwayman and his horse, or simply the spirits of two animals? Though either theory is possible, I am inclined to favour the former.” There ends the story. Interestingly, however – and directly connected to O’Donnell’s questions about earth-bound spirits returning to our plane of existence in animal form – there existed a deep belief in the English counties of Staffordshire and Shropshire in the 19th century that sightings of a creature that became known as the Man-Monkey, of the Shropshire Union Canal, were linked to the death of a man who had drowned in the waters of the canal shortly before the sightings began, in January 1879
Are restless human spirits really returning from the depths of the grave and manifesting in the form of marauding, ghostly monkeys and apes? Just perhaps, they are.