He was the first real Celebrity Ghost Hunter, popular and reviled in his day as some of our stars of current TV Paranormal Reality Shows. He did actually appear on both radio and early television
As you can see from stories on this website, I am a bit of a fan. I first came across a book by Elliott O’Donnell, when I was about 12 years old. It was what I think is his best work. Called Haunted Britain, which strangely only covered England. I brought it reduced at Woolworth’s, and I was hooked.
His first encounter with ghosts happened when he was the age of 13 months. His Reverend father had been diverted from a trip to Jerusalem by mysterious Colonel K to hunt for Lions and Leopards in Abyssinia, He died in Arkiko officially of sunstroke but believed by many that he had been murdered.
The day before he died at home in Britain was heard the screaming of a woman in torment and in sorrow. The O’Donnell family Banshee. The O’Donnells an old Irish family being allegedly descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages (the Irish King Arthur).
Later his sister saw a head floating top of the banisters of the landing. It was in the form of a terrible death’s head in a state of advanced decay
For six weeks his father’s voice was heard in the family home talking from behind a part opened door but so fast that no words could be made out .
His next brush with the superphysical as he called it was it the age of five. Lying in bed waiting to fall asleep one hot summer night. A strange nude six feet figure walked into the room. It’s body was covered with large yellow spots. After standing for a moment it just walked out. Elliott thinks it an elemental. His mother and the Irish family maid were always telling him ghost stories as a child. This started his interest in the subject.
His most memorable encounter with a ghost happened when he was in Dublin, in his lodgings. A figure stepped out of a wardrobe in his room climbed onto the bed. Moving up his body and clutching him by the throat, started to strangle him. He went through all the feelings on strangulation before passing out. When he woke in the morning figure was gone. His doors were still locked. He made sure he changed rooms that day.
Later while he was still in Ireland he was investigating a crossroad were fairies had been seen. While staying with a family near the crossroads at night, footsteps were heard. The footsteps had a slight metallic click and walked up to the door. This was followed by terrific knocks on the door. When the family opened the door no one was there. The mother of the family told Elliott that this had never happened before, and she was sure the ghost had followed him. They then asked him to leave. He believed that it was the strangling ghost following him.
He tried to get into Sandhurst and the Irish Police both times he was refused due to health problems. On the night that he failed the medical for the Irish police, he heard someone laugh in the darkness. Turning on the light he saw no one in the room, and opening the windows found the roads outside totally empty, but he still heard familiar running footsteps with the metallic click. This was the last time he heard the strangling ghost.
These failures left him with out a source of income. He decided to make his way to America seek his fortune there. He went out west to try his hand at ranching in Oregon, but was not successful. He did become briefly involved with policing the Chicago Rail Strike, and he collected a lot of American ghost stories.
Finally returning to Britain, he tried his hand at several jobs, journalism, acting and working as a teacher, eventually opening a small private school in St Ives Cornwall. By this time he was married, and needed a steady income. He hated teaching and was writing in his spare time.
His first published work was a novel, For Satan’s Sake. This was not a great success, but it helped him sell articles, and the following three novels. He closed the school and concentrated on the writing. It was suggested by his publisher you should concentrate on his “real” ghost stories.
These stories of haunting became the majority of his work. He had a very distinct form of writing almost could be called the Barbara Cartland of ghost stories. Often he would say that the stories were given to him after his talks by people, and “in their own words”. However it would continue in his very own distinct literary style.
This literary style used some very graphic effects. A tasty example: Between midnight and one o’clock footsteps were frequently heard in the hall. They bounded up the suitcase to the first landing, where they paused. There were then sounds like the winding of a clock, after which the footsteps were again heard bounding up the staircase to the top landing, where the door of the bathroom was heard to bang. Intent silence followed.
On one occasion a nurse who was staying at the in the house, on hearing the footsteps summoned up the courage to open a bedroom door and look out.
“What I saw,” she told me, “was a figure surrounded by a gruesome bluish-green light. I got the impression of something only semi-human, very gruesome a nightmarishly terrifying. It went past me with leaps, and I got a whiff of disgusting decay. I didn’t faint, but I was immeasurably shocked; I locked my door and kept a light on till morning.”
He was often using the same story time after time again. The story of the sounds of a coughing ghost re-enacting her murder. The owner of the house wishes it to be kept quiet. It’s first version came from his time in the States second version, it her was in Brighton. Then it was somewhere in Sussex. The scene where a ghostly hand comes out of the water, wearing a shining ring, after clutching at the air for a few seconds sinks back, is used several times in his books.
Some of his stories are in an obviously fictional story form. He at first believed that a lot of haunting were due to three different types of non humans, called Elementals. Vagrarian appearing as part human and part animal form he believed that they are the first life on the planet. Clanogrian they include Banshee’s and the Hag of the Dribble etc. who haunt families. Vice attracted to vice and encouraging vices in the houses that they haunt. These and other over fantastic claims are in the early books.
His later books are the best, becoming a lot little less sensational. Including classic stories like Glamis Castle, 50 Berkeley Square ( to which it is believed he added the story of the two sailors) Windsor Castle etc. He used news clippings and bits from a huge library of ghost lore and folklore, in these later works. These sources are as far as I have checked are accurate.
He did lone vigils at haunted houses, with the permission of the owner if he could, and breaking in if he didn’t.
He was a particularly Victorian man with all the prejudices of the Victorian era against foreigners, feminists etc . However he could still go out and speak to tramps and people living rough in London’s parks and was very sympathetic to them. He also had a thing about ladies hands always attracted to those with long taping fingers. A very complex character.
As he wrote nearly sixty books and later appeared on the radio and on early television. He did a lot of talks around the country, where people afterwards would give him their stories. He neither didn’t take their names or when he did he changed it to someone else. Making it impossible for them to be traced or researched.
He did also write about other subjects including Sea Mysteries, Disappearances, certain criminals, Strange Cults etc .He was a great joiner of London clubs, including The Freaks Club, Press Club, Whitefriars, The Savage Club (also used by two other famous ghost hunters Harry Price and Peter Underword) and many others.
Most of the stuff is very unreliable but very entertaining so read it all with a big pinch of salt. The references to classic stories and books and newspaper reports are useful. He was the most famous ghost writer of his time. Many of his books are available for download on the web, covered by US copy write not ours. Richard Whittington-Egan’s “The Master Ghost Hunter” uses O’Donnell’s unpublished autobiography and a lot of stories from his books for his biography of him. A good way into his work. I believe you will enjoy most of his works, but read them for entertain only