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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > September October 2017 > Australia’s Storied Ghosts

Australia’s Storied Ghosts

Joe Nickell, PhD, is now well into his fifth decade as an investigative writer. He has investigated numerous hauntings in his books that include The Science of Ghosts (2012).

Whenever someone relates his or her ghost encounter, a story is born. And, as folklorists know well, stories tend to evolve in the retelling—changing and becoming embellished by others over time. Thus are created variants, evidence of the folklore process at work. When a writer creates an imitation tale, the product is called “fakelore,” but, ironically, even this can become subject to the oral tradition that produces variants, and that can provide an entirely made-up tale with the appearance of having a basis in truth.

What follows are three of Australia’s most, well, storied ghosts, those linked to history or legend. But beyond their themes of murder, strange encounter, and lost treasure, are they something more than literary tales? Let us see if investigation can help winnow the evidential wheat from the imaginative chaff.

Case of the Gesturing Specter

Australia’s most celebrated ghost is, hands down, the alleged specter of Frederick Fisher, attracting such notables as Charles Dickens (who published one version of the story in his journal Household Words [“Fisher’s Ghost” 1853]) and magician John Pepper (who made it the subject of his sensational “Pepper’s ghost” stage illusion in a circa 1879 performance in Sydney [“Illusionist” 1984]). The tale has been related in poems and songs, plays and operas, books, countless newspaper articles, and other venues, as well as being the inspiration for a movie and the focus of an annual festival in Campbelltown—all this, even though the ghost reportedly appeared “to just one man on one occasion” long ago (Davis 1998, 16).

In 2000 on my first tour Down Under, I investigated the case on-site (Nickell 2004, 304–310), generously assisted by magic historian Peter Rodgers (with whom I shared other detective adventures [Nickell 2004, 289–295, 331–334]). We naturally began with a trip to Campbelltown, where the historical events transpired.

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