In the late 1800s, an eighteen-year-old girl named Rose Despard became a Ghost Detective when she discovered that her house in Cheltenham, England, was haunted. From her first meeting with a ghost, Rose decided to prove that it was real, a process that took over two years.
The Despard family moved into an ordinary, twenty-year-old house in April 1882, long before electric lights were invented. Two months later, Rose, the second-oldest daughter, was in her room one night preparing for bed when she heard someone pushing against her door. She thought it might be her mother, who was an invalid and not very strong. When she opened the door, no one was there. Carrying a candle for light, Rose stepped into the hallway and looked toward the stairway. At the top of the stairs, shrouded in darkness, she saw a tall lady dressed in black. In a moment, the strange woman began to walk down the stairs. Rose tried to follow her, but her candle had burned too low and went out. She returned to her room, sure that she had seen a ghost. That night, Rose decided to become a Ghost Detective and not talk about the ghost to her family until she was sure that it was real.
The next time she saw the ghost, Rose followed her downstairs to the living room. The woman in black stood to the right of a large window, then left the room and walked toward the back door of the house, where she disappeared.
At first, Rose thought that she was the only person who had seen the ghost. Then she discovered that three other people in the house had seen the woman in black around the same time, though they did not realize that she was a ghost. Rose's older sister, who was married and visiting the family for a few days, saw the woman in black one evening before dinner. As she sat down at the dining room table, she wondered aloud who the nun was that she had seen walking into the living room. Since there were many visitors to the large house, no one was suspicious that the nun might have been a ghost - except Rose, who was sure that the nun was the same woman in black she had seen.
During the next two years, Rose wrote letters about the ghost to a close friend of hers, so that she managed to write a Ghost Report of sorts. During this time, she also began to prove that her ghost was real.
She fastened some thread across the stairs after everyone had gone to bed. She put pellets of glue on the ends of each thread and fastened one end to the wall and the other to the banister. Two different times, she saw the woman in black pass through the thread without disturbing it.
She also reported how the family dogs acted when the woman in black was around. One dog, a terrier, ran along the upstairs hallway, its tall wagging, as if to greet someone. It jumped up in the air, expecting to be patted, then suddenly scooted away to hide with its tail between its legs. Rose realized that the dog must have seen the ghost, although she did not see the ghost at the same time.
Another experiment that Rose carried out was her attempt to touch the ghost. This was impossible, for every time Rose tried to get close enough to touch the woman, she seemed to be 'just beyond Rose's reach. When Rose tried to trap her in a corner of a room, the woman in black simply disappeared.
By the end of the two years, Rose had seen the ghost six times and had learned that some of her sisters had seen the ghost, too. In fact, her sisters had heard the woman in black's footsteps so often that they were afraid to open their bedroom doors at night if they heard someone walking by.
For some reason, during the summer of 1884, the woman in black appeared almost daily and so scared Rose's sisters and the servants that Rose decided to tell her father about the ghost. Mr. Despard had no idea that a ghost was in residence and was surprised that Rose had waited two years to tell him. The next day, a neighbor who lived across the street stopped by to say that he had seen a tall lady in a black dress crying in the Despards' backyard. She was wearing a bonnet and a veil covered her face; the neighbor thought that one of the family was in mourning. Mr. Despard realized that the description matched Rose's ghost.
Who was the lady in black? Was she in mourning? Why did she haunt the house so regularly?
It wasn't long before Rose and Mr. Despard began to check the history of the house. Here is what they found. A Mr. Swinhoe built the house in 1860 - and he lived there for seventeen years. Sometime during his residence, his wife died. He took it badly and began to drink heavily. Two years after her death, he married again. His new wife, Imogen, tried to stop his drinking, and when she failed, began to drink herself. They fought frequently and their lives together were miserable. Early in 1876, Imogen left him. Shortly afterward, he died in the house. Two years later, Imogen also died, and her body was brought back to the town to be buried.
Rose continued her detective work. She was certain that Imogen Swinhoe was the woman in black, a sign that the ghost was a widow. Who else had a reason to be dressed in widow's clothes besides Imogen? To get more proof, she interviewed Imogen's stepdaughter, who told Rose that her stepmother's favorite room in the house had been the living room, the same room in which Rose had observed the ghost so often.
She also learned something else of interest: Mr. Swinhoe died in the month of July, his first wife died in August, and Imogen died in September. The woman in black was seen most often during those months, which might be explained by the dates of their death.
The most puzzling thing about the woman in black is that some members of the Despard family were never able to see her. One night, four years after the ghost had first appeared, Edith, one of Rose's sisters, was the last person to go upstairs. As she walked down the hallway to her room, two of her sisters called to her and said that they had heard some odd noises a few moments before. They had opened their doors and peered into the hall, and they saw the flame of a candle go down the hall as if carried by someone. But the person and the candle itself were not visible - only the burning flame. As the three sisters stood in the hall, holding their lighted candies, they heard footsteps approach them and then walk between them. As the footsteps passed, they felt a cold wind, but their candles were not blown out. The footsteps continued down the hall to the stairway.
After that experience, Rose had few other encounters with the woman in black. She wrote in a final Ghost Report, published by the British Society for Psychical Research, that by 1892 the woman hadn't been seen in three years, though her footsteps were still heard sometimes. By her dedicated research, Rose Despard provided good evidence that the ghost of Mrs. Swinhoe really existed - and, in fact, still exists. A number of sightings over the past twenty years suggest that Mrs. Swinhoe's ghost still haunts Rose's old house.
One more thing. Rose's research not only proved the existence of Mrs. Swinhoe but it prepared her for her future career. In 1895, Rose completed medical school, graduating with high honors. Not only was she among the first women doctors in England, she was definitely well prepared for the research, problem solving, and dedication that her profession demanded. Rose wanted to understand ghosts better.
As a ghost hunter and as a Ghost Detective, you should strive to do the same.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Originally published as part of Chapter 9 in How to Find a Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 1988). All rights reserved.