CLOSE
Composite via Hulton Archive / Getty Images and iStock
Composite via Hulton Archive / Getty Images and iStock

6 Famous Figures, Past and Present, Who Claimed to Have Encountered Ghosts

Composite via Hulton Archive / Getty Images and iStock
Composite via Hulton Archive / Getty Images and iStock

Being rich, famous, or influential has plenty of perks—but escaping the spirit world's torments isn't necessarily one of them. Here are six prominent individuals, both past and present, who have either claimed or been said to have had close encounters with ghosts.

1. JOAN RIVERS

A photo of comedian Joan Rivers.
Astrid Stawiarz // Getty Images

Few people—either living or dead—likely would have wanted to mess with Joan Rivers. But when the late comedian purchased a swanky Upper East Side penthouse condo in 1988, she found herself facing a formidable foe: the ghostly niece of financier and banker J.P. Morgan.

Rivers’s new home was a Gilded Age mansion, which was converted into condos in the 1930s. When she tried to renovate her own digs, however, she noticed a peculiar presence: “It was just very strange,” Rivers recounted in a 2009 episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories, according to the New York Post. “The apartment was cold. I could never get any of my electrical things to work correctly.” She also recalled that her pet Yorkshire Terrier refused to enter the room for months, and she saw strange graffiti on the walls.

When the building’s elevator operator heard about the strange occurrences, he reportedly said, “I guess Mrs. Spencer is back.” Instead of going head-to-head with the specter—who reportedly still thought of herself as "the grande dame of the building," according to Rivers—the comedian called in a New Orleans voodoo priestess to cleanse the home of spirits, and Rivers reported that her dog finally came into the apartment. But the hauntings soon returned—until Rivers made nice with the ghost by hanging a portrait of her in the building lobby and leaving flowers out for her.

In 2015, less than a year after Rivers's death, a Saudi prince purchased the penthouse for $28 million. According to reports, he disliked her decorating style and planned to gut-renovate the apartment. No word, however, on whether he’s also personally experienced the ire of Mrs. Spencer.

2. KING GEORGE IV

The coronation portrait of George IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Raynham Hall is a palatial estate in Norfolk, England with a spooky backstory: It’s reportedly haunted by a ghost known as the “Brown Lady of Raynham Hall”—and it's said that King George IV once saw the spirit with his own eyes.

The Brown Lady (who gets her name from her brown brocade dress) became world-famous in 1936 after photographers from Country Life magazine allegedly took a photo of her floating down the stairs in Raynham Hall. She’s believed to be the spirit of Dorothy Walpole, the sister of Great Britain’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

An important noble family called the Townshends built Raynham Hall in 1620, and a member of the clan—Charles Townshend, an 18th century British secretary of state—married Dorothy Walpole. The marriage was rumored to have been a bad one, and in 1726 Dorothy died around the age of 40, reportedly from smallpox. (One alternate tale says that Townshend pushed her down the estate’s grand staircase and she broke her neck; another claims she died of a broken heart.)

Dorothy’s spirit lingered, and Norfolk legend says that when King George IV was the young Prince of Wales, he slept in the estate’s State Bedroom and woke to see “a little lady all dressed in brown, with disheveled hair and a face of ashy paleness.” The future king left Raynham Hall immediately, and swore he would never spend another hour in the cursed house again.

3. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

A picture of Arthur Conan Doyle with his dog.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

At the peak of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fame, the Sherlock Holmes author became obsessed with the paranormal. He believed in ghosts, wrote books about spiritualism and fairies, and attended séances. Sir Arthur didn’t believe he possessed supernatural powers himself, but in his 1930 book The Edge of the Unknown, he described several chance brushes he had with spirits.

In one anecdote, Sir Arthur described waking up “with the clear consciousness that there was someone in the room, and that the presence was not of this world.” His body was paralyzed, but he could still hear footsteps echoing across the room. Then, Sir Arthur said he sensed a presence leaning over him, and heard them whisper, “Doyle, I come to tell you that I am sorry.” Moments later, the mysterious visitor vanished, and Sir Arthur’s body unfroze.

Sir Arthur’s wife slept through the entire thing, but Doyle was convinced that the experience wasn’t a dream. He believed the ghost to be a “a certain individual to whom I had tried to give psychic consolation when he was bereaved.” The man had turned down Doyle’s offer “with some contempt, and died himself shortly afterwards. It may well be that he wished to express regret,” Doyle wrote. As for his sleep paralysis, the author believed that the spirit needed to borrow power from a living person to appear in the physical world, and it had chosen him.

4. STING

The musician Sting performing at a concert.
Nicholas Hunt // Getty Images for Cherry Tree

Fans of Sting know he’s no stranger to singing about ghosts. But in a few interviews, the ex-Police frontman claimed to have seen one, too.

At the time of his sighting, Sting had young children and owned a 16th century English manor house. One night, the musician awoke with a jolt at 3 a.m. He “looked into the corner of the room and thought I saw [my wife] Trudie standing there with a child—our child—in her arms, staring at me,” the musician recalled in a 2009 interview with BBC Radio 2.

Sting then reached over and noticed that Trudie was still in bed. He “suddenly got this terrible chill,” he said. “And she woke up and said 'Gosh, who is that?' and she saw this woman and a child in the corner of the room.''

The ghostly figure disappeared, but Sting’s spooky encounters were far from over: “A lot of things happened in that house, a lot of flying objects and voices and strange, strange things happened,” he said. “When you live in old houses, you get this energy there.”

5. ATHENODORUS CANANITES

"The Greek Stoic Philosopher Athenodorus Rents a Haunted House" by Henry Justice Ford

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Historians remember Roman magistrate and writer Pliny the Younger for his dramatic, first-hand account of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 CE, but he could also tell a good ghost story. Around 100 CE, the scribe wrote a letter recounting the time the Greek Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites stayed in a haunted house.

“There was in Athens a house, large and spacious, which had a bad reputation as though it was filled with pestilence,” the tale began. “In the dead of night, a noise was frequently heard resembling the clashing of iron which, if you listened carefully, sounded like the rattling of chains. The noise would seem to be a distance away, but it would start coming closer … and closer … and closer. Immediately after this, a specter would appear in the form of an old man, emaciated and squalid, with bristling hair and a long beard, and rattling the chains on his hands and feet as he moved.”

The home was eventually abandoned, and it remained empty until Athenodorus came to town. He considered buying the property, but was suspicious about its low price. The philosopher would soon learn that the house was haunted—but surprisingly, this made him want to buy it even more.

Athenodorus purchased the home, moved in, and stayed up late working, hoping to run into the ghost. Sure enough, he eventually heard the rattle of chains, looked up, and saw the old man’s spirit standing in front of him.

The philosopher pretended to ignore the ghost, but the impatient ghoul beckoned toward Athenodorus, motioning for him to come outside. He did, and the old man vanished—but the next day, Athenodorus ordered for the spot he disappeared on to be dug up. There, he found the ancient skeleton of a man clad in chains.

The bones were given a proper burial, and the ghost never haunted Athenodorus—or any other citizen of Athens—again.

6. DAN AYKROYD

Dan Aykroyd at a film premiere.
Frazer Harrison // Getty Images

Dan Aykroyd’s experiences with spirits aren’t limited to Ghostbusters. In a 2013 interview with Esquire, he claimed to have once lived in a Hollywood abode that was haunted by singer Cass Elliot, from American folk rock group The Mamas & the Papas, along with the ghost of a man buried under a hillside next to the house.

“I had several experiences,” Aykroyd recalled. “I saw things moving around on our counter, and doors opening and closing. The staff also had experiences, direct contact in terms of tactile touching, and then turning around and there's no one there.”

One day, Aykroyd claimed, one of the two ghosts crawled in bed with him while he was taking a nap. He woke up “in a trance," he said, and noticed that the bedroom’s previously closed door was ajar. Then, the actor spotted “a depression in the mattress, like somebody was getting in there,” he said. Not one to be afraid of no ghosts, Aykroyd decided to snuggle the spirit instead of screaming for help.

Additional Source: The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
arrow
History
7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.

1. THE MELBOURNE DART RIOT

The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).

2. THE LEICESTER BALLOON RIOT

In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.

3. THE TORONTO CLOWN AND FIREFIGHTER RIOT

Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.

4. THE BELGIAN NIGHT AT THE OPERA RIOT

A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.

5. THE NEW YORK DOCTORS' RIOT

Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.

6. THE BROWN DOG RIOTS

Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.

7. THE EEL-PULLING RIOT

Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain
arrow
Weird
9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
iStock

Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
iStock

Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
iStock

In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios