True stories, as told by Tom Slemen

The Darkness and the Fear

In April 1922, a 50-year-old Liverpool man named William Banks woke up in pitch darkness. At first he thought he was in his bedroom in the middle of the night, until he tried to stretch. He felt hemmed in. He tried to lever himself up by his elbows to get out of bed, when he realized to his horror that he was not in bed at all. Just inches above Mr Banks's head, he felt smooth satin. The same material was to his right and left. He realised why it was so dark. Mr Banks was in a coffin.

He muttered to himself, "Oh God they've made a mistake.'

He tried not to panic at first, then he realised that coffins aren't built with much air space. He shouted for help at the top of his voice and listened, but it was silent. As silent as the grave, he thought. He prayed that he hadn't been buried yet, and he tried desperately to push the lid of the coffin off, but it wouldn't budge. He started to think about being underground. He thought about the five feet of packed-down earth above the coffin lid. Hundreds of pounds of soil pressing down on the coffin. He screamed out again, and felt dizzy with anxiety, then wondered if the oxygen was running out. Soon he'd be choking on the carbon dioxide he was breathing out if he didn't do something, so he tried to calm himself down. He wondered how on earth he had ended up in the coffin. He struggled to remember the events that had led to the premature burial. He recalled drinking at a pub off Edge Lane. He had met a young woman named Blythe, who said she worked as a secretary in North John Street. He and Blythe had had too much to drink, and she and a man had hailed a taxi cab to take William Banks home, but he couldn't remember anything after that.

Time seemed to drag on and on. Banks wasn't sure if it was hours elapsing or minutes, but it felt like an eternity. He kept hoping it was all a nightmare and kept saying Hail Marys. Then he heard a faint pattering sound somewhere. It sounded like a rat. Imagination got the better of William Banks in the silent, pitch black darkness of the coffin, and he listened to the scurrying noise. He thought about the big red-eyed graveyard rats that were said to tunnel their way through graveyards. Maybe the rats could smell him, and were gnawing their way through the coffin. He imagined their bristly snouts nuzzling him and their sharp yellow teeth.

These horrible thoughts gave Mr Banks a panic attack. Then things got worse. He felt something crawl over his neck. Something long and slithery with a tail stroked over his throat. It squeaked. William Banks almost fainted with fear. A rat was already in the coffin. He felt it crawl over his chest and sniff at his left hand. William Banks yelled out and suddenly he could hear his heart pounding in his ears.

Time dragged by, and it felt as if he had been in the coffin for days. Then suddenly he heard footsteps and voices. Mr Banks screamed out "I'm not dead!"

The coffin shook, and he heard voices mumbling outside. Footsteps walked away, and Banks screamed for the people to come back. They did return minutes later, and he heard them attempting to remove the coffin lid. Banks pushed at the lid and kept saying "Thank God" then he felt the rat run over his face. He felt its claw dig into his cheek.

"Stop pushing the lid." A voice said, then moments later, the lid was wrenched off and a bright light shone down at William Banks. He shot up and gasped for air. Two policemen and a workman stood there in a cellar.
It transpired that someone had just sent a boy into Lawrence Road police station with a letter. The letter said that a man had been left in a coffin in a cellar in an empty house in Edge Lane as part of an April fool prank.

It was surmised that the secretary William Banks had been drinking with had drugged him and that her boyfriend had put Banks in the coffin as a joke. 'Blythe' was traced. Her real name was Alice Kent. She was actually the daughter of a Reverend from the Congregational Church in Marmaduke Street, but she and her boyfriend denied any involvement in the prank, and nothing was ever proved. Where the jokers got the coffin from was a mystery. They'd drilled a hole at the end of the coffin to ventilate it, and the rat in the coffin was found to be tame.

William Banks had terrible nightmares about premature burial for the rest of his life, and when he died years later, he was cremated, according to his wishes.

Copyright Tom Slemen 2001.
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Night Sherlock Holmes walked streets of city

with Tom Slemen, Maghull & Aintree Star

LITERARY giants such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Daniel De Foe have all stayed at our great city, and it is said that Shakespeare himself once performed just a stone's throw from Liverpool at Rufford Old Hall, near Ormskirk, in 1580.

Another celebrated writer who visited Liverpool on many occasions was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose greatest creation was Sherlock Holmes.

The most famous detective in the world visited Liverpool on several occasions under very intriguing circumstances.

No, I have not taken leave of my senses; I do know that Holmes was allegedly a figment of Doyle's fertile imagination, yet an aquiline-nosed man in a deerstalker cap and an Inverness cape, equipped with a magnifying glass and endowed with a superhuman faculty for forensic observation, once walked the fog-bound streets of Victorian Liverpool with his doctor friend in tow.

The doctor was not John H Watson, but Arthur Conan Doyle himself, and the extraordinary consulting detective was the man who had inspired Doyle to 'invent' Holmes - Dr Joseph Bell of Edinburgh - a pioneering forensic expert regularly hired by Scotland Yard.

Liverpool was well known to Doyle, who in his early days as a ship's surgeon, sailed from the Mersey on many voyages to West Africa.

Doyle had also visited the city as a child, and the port is referred to in many stories about Holmes, in such works as "The Cardboard Box", and "A Study In Scarlet".

Coincidentally, the parents of Basil Rathbone, who portrayed the Baker Street sleuth throughout the 1930s and 1940s, were from Wavertree, and there are other links with Liverpool and Holmes.

The popular Granada TV series which featured the most definitive Sherlock Holmes to date - played by the late Jeremy Brett - often used Liverpool's Georgian streets as a backdrop.

Furthermore, in 1901 at Liverpool's Shakespeare Theatre, actor William Gillette first brought the character of Holmes alive on stage in a collaboration with Doyle.

Now, back to the autumn of 1893, where we find Arthur Conan Doyle and the 56-year-old surgeon who taught him the importance of observing trifles, entering the Great North Western Hotel on a foggy, gaslit Lime Street.

An Irish criminal genius, said to be blackmailing two local lords, was finally traced to a room.

By coincidence, Doyle had been in Liverpool giving a lecture on Holmes when he happened to meet the old mentor who inspired the character.

Doyle accompanied Bell and two local detectives throughout the Liverpool underworld until the trail led to Munratty, a master criminal of the same calibre as the fictional Moriarty.

Bell took no credit for the arrest, and the case was kept out of the newspapers to avert a scandal which would have rocked the aristocracy.

Alas, further details are tantalisingly scant about the night Sherlock Holmes was at large in Liverpool.
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Night visitors cause terrors

with Tom Slemen, Maghull & Aintree Star

IN THE world of the paranormal, one of the most frightening entities is the 'incubus' - a malevolent being which manifests itself as a tangible spirit or sometimes a subtle force that appears in the bedroom of the haunted person.

People unlucky enough to be haunted by these creatures of the night often experience the sensation of something sitting on their feet as they lay in bed, and some may feel something pressing on the mattress, as if someone solid was sitting on the bed.

These are often the first signs which presage the start of what is known as the 'Night Terror' - where the sleeper awakes paralysed, often sensing a presence in the bedroom.

In extreme cases, people have awakened to the sensation of something heavy sitting on their chest, while others have opened their eyes to behold frightening and often grotesque shadowy beings on their bed.

The most famous of these night visitors is known as the Old Hag, which I have documented in this column before, but it would seem there are a variety of nocturnal female visitants which plague the sleeper.

At a house on South Drive, Wavertree, in 1970, a man named Rob, who had been staying as a guest of a couple, awoke in the wee small hours to see a girl of about 18, dressed in a long white gown, sitting across the room, gazing at him.

The girl's eyes looked huge and black, and she sat quietly on the bed of the couple who had invited Rob to stay with them for the night.

As the couple slept soundly, the girl came hovering towards Rob's bed down the other end of the room. Rob ducked under the covers in fear, then looked up gasping, only to see the girl was still there.

He squeezed his eyes shut and could sense her cold presence close to his face.

He started to pray, something he had not done since he was a child, and somehow, he managed to fall asleep.

In the morning he told the couple about the girl in white, and they became very uneasy. That girl still haunts the same house today, and has been seen sitting on the beds of various rooms, watching people as they sleep.

In Huyton last month, a man named Simon awoke at three in the morning to see a naked woman crawling over him in bed.

Her eyes were black, with yellow pupils, and she made a hissing sound.

The woman actually bit at Simon, who was so terrified he suffered an asthma attack. When he stumbled out of bed, he turned on the light and saw the blankets being thrown off the bed by something invisible. There was no sign of the woman.

After checking my files, I discovered there were two reports of night terror on the road in Huyton where Simon now sleeps surrounded by crucifixes and a Bible.

Also, on that same road a few years ago, a woman went up into her six-year-old daughter's room and saw what she thought was her little girl, sitting on the bed. Then through the bedroom window, the woman saw her daughter was actually playing in the garden.

The 'thing' she assumed to be her child started laughing in an adult voice, and as it did, it refused to turn around to face the terror-stricken mother. The mother ran out the house, grabbed her daughter, and stayed in her sister's house.

A month after that, the woman's daughter started to scream in the night, saying there was 'something horrible' in her room.
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Doctor invaded by deep space medical mystery

Local Mysteries with Tom Slemen, Maghull & Aintree Star

IN 1967, a thought-provoking science-fiction series called The Invaders came to our television screens.

The series began with a character named David Vincent (played by actor Roy Thinnes) driving into a seemingly deserted ghost town in the American mid-West during an exhausting car-journey home.

Vincent has a nap in the car, and intends to continue his journey in the morning, but is awakened during the night by the spectacular landing of a spacecraft from another world.

He subsequently discovers that this craft is carrying aliens from a dying world in space who are planning to take over our Earth by masquerading as human beings.

Vincent tries to warn a sceptical society that aliens have landed, and are infiltrating the human race, then finds to his horror that many of these outwardly human extraterrestrials are already among us, disguised as policemen, senators, refuse collectors, and so on.

Could such a nightmare scenario ever become a reality?

Well, we know virtually nothing about the worlds of space beyond our own derelict Solar System, so it's debatable, but, according to a respected doctor in his 70s, aliens may really be among us.

Last month a doctor wrote to me with an amazing story which he would allow to be printed on the grounds that his anonymity would be preserved.

I will therefore call the GP Doctor Jones.

In 1962, Dr Jones had a practice in Liverpool, and one afternoon he was summoned to a house on Waylands Drive, off Hillfoot Road in the Hunts Cross area.

Dr Jones was admitted into the house by the woman who had called him, and she took him up to a bedroom where her friend, a Mr Darby, was serious ill in bed.

Dr Jones put a stethoscope to the middle-aged man's chest, but could not hear the slightest beat, nor could the medical man find a pulse.

Mr Darby certainly wasn't breathing. He pulled back the inert man's eyelid and shone a pen torch gently into the eye - but the pupil did not even shrink. "I'm afraid he's passed away," said the doctor, and at this point he felt very unsteady on his feet. Then he blacked out.

Dr Jones regained consciousness sitting in his car, and found himself in an unfamiliar place, which turned out to be a secluded road overlooking the river at Otterspool, over three miles away from Waylands Drive.

The time was 3am, and try as he may, Dr Jones could not recall where he had been in the 12-hours that had elapsed since he blacked out. He returned home and found his young wife hysterical with concern. She had notified the police of the doctor's disappearance.

Eager to get to the bottom of the mystery, the doctor called at the house in Hunts Cross, but the woman there had no recollection of the doctor, and said she had never heard of a Mr Darby.

There the puzzling matter rested, until five years later, when Dr Jones was on holiday on the Isle of Man.

One day, the very same man he had pronounced dead in 1962 walked into the Manx Hotel where the doctor was staying with his wife.

Jones said nothing to his wife, as he thought she think him mad. Mr Darby however, noticed the doctor, and later appeared in his bedroom in the dead of night. The sinister man told the doctor he was from another planet, and would be returning to his own world soon.

" We are only here to observe," Darby explained, and he also apologised for the incident in 1962, saying it had been "a mistake". Mr Darby then left the room, and Dr Jones fell into deep sleep.

The next morning he discovered Mr Darby had checked out of the hotel.
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The devil has the best tunes

by Tom Slemen, Maghull & Aintree Star

PHANTOM music has been reported many times in the past.

In an office block called Wilberforce House, that once stood in Liverpool city centre in the 1970s, several clerks reported hearing the eerie piping tunes of a phantom flautist which drove some office workers to distraction.

The mystery deepened when a cleaner at the offices collapsed after allegedly encountering the source of the weird pipe music.

It came from outside the window. The cleaner opened the window and looked out, and saw a peculiar man dressed in black, walking UP THE WALLS of the building as he played a flute.

Strangely, around this time, there was another report of a supernatural incident that may be linked to the encounter with the bizarre-looking long-footed bogeyman.

In a subway beneath Lime Street, a poor busker was said to have been strumming his guitar, when all of a sudden, he became aware of the sound of a violin playing some Irish jig.

The music grew in intensity, and suddenly, a pale-faced man in an outdated black swallow- tailed jacket appeared beside him, playing a violin expertly.

Within minutes the busker's cap on the floor was bulging with coins, but when the music died and the crowds dispersed, the violinist had vanished.

The most intriguing case of what was termed 'devil's music' unfolded at number three Claribel Street, near Prince's Park, in 1893. This was the house of Frank Moynagh, professor of music.

In April of that year, Professor Moynagh was confined to bed with a virulent strain of flu, and was being cared for by his friends, Miss Rebecca Ellis and Sarah Darch.

One windy evening, as the women were tending to the ill professor, strange music was heard throughout the house.

When the musicologist recovered from his illness a week later, he jotted down the uncanny musical notes he had heard, then forgot all about the incident.

When Moynagh's manuscript was found amongst his books in a junk-shop 62 years later, in 1955, the composition raised a few eyebrows.

The sequence of notes and the dominant seventh chords showed Professor Moynagh had somehow heard rock and roll music in 1893.

One explanation would be that, through some type of timeslip, the professor and the two ladies heard the sounds of a radio or record player in the distant future.

Or rock and roll really is the devil's music . . . . . . . . . . .

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