Just what was the strange figure that terrorised the gaslit streets of Liverpool in 1894? Was it a vampire? Or just a crazed, bloodsucking lunatic? Read this and make up your own mind.

As related by Tom Slemen, a Liverpudlian paranormal investigator...


A Victorian Vampire Hunt
Tom Slemen

Before it closed its doors for good in the approaching shadow of the gargantuan Grosvenor Paradise Project (which resulted in the Liverpool One shopping complex), I was a regular visitor to Quiggins, and early in 2006, I happened to be browsing in a flea market in the building when I found a small book with a mildewed cover, containing old yellowed news clippings and handwritten notes from Victorian times. The theme of the book is Lancashire vampires, and the author is anonymous. From my own research I had long known about an alleged vampire being at large in Liverpool in 1680, when a blood-sucking farmer decided to kill himself after he had murdered his wife and drunk her blood. The authorities had his body buried face down at the cross roads of Rupert Lane, Breck Road (formerly Breck Lane), Heyworth Street and Everton Road. A huge wooden stake was driven through the corpse to ‘prevent him rising’. The staked skeleton still lays there today. The chronicle of Lancashire vampires mentions a ‘bloodsucking specimen of the Lost Race of Homo Sapiens’ that perpetrated a number of outrages around the time of the first siege of Liverpool in 1643, during the power struggles between Charles I and Parliament. The vampiric man was said to have bitten the necks of a number of women in the town, and was duly captured and transported in chains to Liverpool Castle (which stood where Derby Square is now situated). Alas, the weird-looking man somehow managed to slip from his shackles during the journey, and vanished into the night.

Flipping the pages forward we come to a Victorian vampire hunt which starts in the autumn of 1894 at Windermere Terrace, near Prince’s Park, Toxteth. A widow, referred to as a Mrs Penny, awoke in the dead of night, unable to move, as something bit into her neck and back. The widow felt blood being drawn and fainted. The next morning she remembered the terrifying incident and wondered if it was a nightmare, until she saw bloodstains on her sheets and pillow. She touched her neck, and felt wounds and clotted blood there. A doctor was summoned and saw four puncture marks, but was at a loss to explain them. His best conjecture was that a sadistic intruder had stabbed Mrs Penny in the neck and back, but the widow said she had felt lips against her skin and had felt the blood being sucked out of her body before she blacked out.

The mystery deepened on the following evening when screams where heard from the nearby Convent of the Faithful Companions of Jesus. Someone had tried to attack one of the nuns after climbing through a window and had fled through a second floor window after the nun had let out a scream. The police put more constables on the beat in the neighbour hood of the sinister attacks, but the blood-sucking assailant then struck in another part of the city.

The police believed the culprit to be a maniac, and never dreamt that the assailant at large was something that had been reported for thousands of years in every culture upon this earth – a vampire. Extra policeman were put on the beat around the Prince’s Park area, but the thing which craved blood struck in another part of the city on the night of Sunday 14 October. A full moon hung high in the sky that night, and at one in the morning, a jaundiced fog drifted in from the Mersey. At around 1.15 am, Mr Edward Blair, a cricket bat manufacturer of 79A Duke Street, was awakened by the sounds of women screaming somewhere nearby. He ran to his window and opened it in time to catch a glimpse of an amorphous black shape flying eastwards at treetop level along Upper Duke Street towards Canning Street, before it was lost to sight in the swirling fog. Minutes after witnessing this frightening spectacle, PC Tom Norris came up Duke Street on his beat and investigated the source of the screams he had heard from as far away as Hanover Street.

The hysterical women were the Davies sisters and their cousin Hannah Griffiths at 177 Duke Street. Hannah told the policeman an incredible tale to the young policeman that was backed up by the testimony of the Davies sisters. At midnight Hannah had awakened out of breath, and had therefore opened her window to let in the crisp night air, but by one o’clock the fog was infiltrating the room, so Hannah got up to close the window – and in a corner of the bedroom she was startled to see a woman with a pale ghastly face, large dark staring eyes, long pitch-black hair, clad in a strange black robe that ran to the floor.

Hannah screamed, and turned to run for the door, but the sinister female intruder darted across the room and seized Hannah in vice-like embrace. She threw her on the bed, bit into her neck, and was starting to draw blood when the Davies sisters burst into the room, alerted by Hannah’s screams. The sisters screamed in horror at the sight of the thing that was pinning their cousin to the bed. One of the sisters clubbed the eerie assailant on the head with a candlestick but she didn’t flinch. Hannah was trying her utmost to push the woman in black off her but the wiry looking female wouldn’t budge.

Elizabeth Davies, sensing the thing on top of her cousin was evil, rushed to fetch her bedside Bible from her room, and she returned holding the Holy Book before her. ‘In the name of Our Lord, depart!’ she screamed, and the fiend looked up to reveal its horrifying face. It’s features twisted, and blood dripped from its contorted mouth before it flitted away from the bed – and dived out of the window. A doctor treated Hannah’s neck wound – two neat puncture marks – but was unable to explain what had inflicted the injury. The strange case was passed into the hands of sergeants William Foster and Irwin McGhee, based at Lark Lane police station. Foster believed a demented female attacker was to blame for the assault on Hannah Griffiths, but Irwin McGhee was a devout Catholic and an avid student of the supernatural, and he believed a vampiress was at large. No two men so unlike one another in character had ever been forced to collaborate before, yet Foster and McGhee were required to work together in an effort to unravel the bizarre mystery that had been haunting night-time Liverpool that autumn in 1894.

‘A vampire is behind all this,’ said Irwin McGhee, sitting at his desk at Lark Lane police station, reading an old leather-bound volume by Dom Calmet, an 18th century authority on vampirism.

Foster’s sceptical reply was: ‘You know as well as I do McGhee, that Hannah Griffiths was lying; no one can jump out a second floor window without sustaining injury and run off. She was lying because a man friend inflicted those injuries, but what a cock and bull story to tell as a cover-up, and you believe it all.’

‘Then what about the nuns? Were they lying as well?’ McGhee queried. On the desk he had a crucifix, a rosary and small phial of holy water.

Foster took a swig of whiskey from his hip flask. ‘At the risk of insulting your Catholic mentality, nuns are only human like the rest of us, and when they heard about the blood-sucking maniac a few doors away they had to get in on the act, it stands to reason.’

‘How would it profit them? Wake up man,’ McGhee glared at his colleague. ‘Something is taking place on the streets of Liverpool that is beyond your everyday understanding, and unless you start taking this case seriously, you may as well go home.’

After a thoughtful pause, Foster said ‘Very well. What do you have there?’

McGhee explained the nature of the vampire, its history, and even local legends of the ancient sanguinarians. McGhee had studied the supernatural since he was sixteen, and he had heard some very eerie tales of vampires in Liverpool from his Irish grandfather. ‘At a cemetery in Everton there is said to be a female vampire,’ said McGhee solemnly. ‘I have seen the cover of her tomb disturbed periodically, and I think she is behind these recent attacks.’

Midnight found Foster and McGhee at the Everton graveyard in a thick fog – at the very tomb of the suspected vampire. McGhee waited with an iron spike and a hammer as the muscular Foster bravely lifted the loose slab and slid it across the tomb. A lantern was raised to reveal a disintegrated coffin from which a skeletal hand protruded. The coffin lid was slowly lifted by Foster. The head of the skeleton had been severed and lay almost at a right angle to the spinal stump of the neck. There was also a clean hole in the breastplate of the female corpse – where she had been impaled by an occultist – or perhaps even a priest - many years ago. The decapitation was another safeguard to stop the corpse being possessed by a vampire spirit. The slab was respectfully replaced, and McGhee made the sign of the cross and muttered “Rest in peace.”

The sergeants returned from their fruitless ‘vampire hunt’ at the Everton Cemetery and reached the station at 80 Lark Lane just after one in the morning. PC Blackburn dutifully brought the sergeants two hot mugs of cocoa and them told them a curious thing. A drunken man had come into the police station at half-past eleven, asking to see someone about the peculiar goings-on at Duke Street. The man said he had been sent by Edward Blair, one of the witnesses to the recent strange incident. The man had given his name as Edwin Thompson, but had been so heavily intoxicated, PC Blackburn had put him in the holding cells to sleep off his alcoholic stupor. Foster and McGhee hurried to the cells where the shabby-looking inebriate was stretched out snoring on a bench. Shortly after he was roused, he squinted at the sergeants, and gave his full particulars, which came as something of a shock, because he turned out to be an eccentric gentleman of considerable wealth who lived at 20 Canning Street. He told the policemen a remarkable tale. For the past month he had observed a ‘phantasm’ entering and leaving the house opposite his own after dark. That house – number 23 - was the residence of a rich gentleman named George Lawson, and night after night, Mr Thompson, his brother, and several servants had watched the eerie comings and goings of a shadowy, gaseous form that floated through the air and entered the roof of Lawson’s home. Sergeant Foster didn’t know what to make of the weird account, but his colleague McGhee believed Thompson had seen the vampire responsible for the series of nocturnal attacks in the city.

On the following morning, Foster and McGhee paid a visit to George Lawson and informed him that burglars had been seen on his roof, trying the skylight, and during the house call, he seemed very nervous, as if he was hiding something. That night, Foster and McGhee sat in a room at Edwin Thompson’s house, keeping watch on Lawson’s Georgian residence across the street. Just after midnight, both policemen saw what appeared to be a wisp of dark smoke drifting up from the slates of the roof. The vapour expanded steadily and rose up from the rooftop, leaving a faint misty trail in its wake. William Foster strained his eyes as he watched the apparition slant upwards into the night sky, heading north. It was soon lost to sight. The two sergeants looked at one another, stuck for words for a moment.

Minutes later, a quarter of a mile away, in Abercromby Square a widowed woman in her fifties named Magdalene Gee was startled out of her sleep when the veranda doors of her bedroom burst open. Before her eyes a dark mist rapidly condensed into the form of a woman in black. The stranger’s face was deathly pale, contrasted by staring, jet-black eyes. She hovered silently towards Magdalene, and the widow, sensing an aura of intense evil about the terrifying phantom, grasped the crucifix hanging from the chain around her neck with a trembling hand, then held it towards the supernatural intruder. The demonic female backed away, made an unearthly hissing sound, and bared long pointed teeth – then once again became a body of dark vapour which drifted out the window into the night air. Magdalene let out a shriek and ran out of the bedroom, and her screams alerted PC Fred Mattinson, passing by the house on his beat. At half-past twelve, Foster and McGhee witnessed the smoky form return to 23 Canning Street via its roof. The news of the sinister Abercromby visitation reached Lark Lane via the Dale Street Detective Office on the following morning. It was time for Foster and McGhee to pay Mr Lawson another visit. They called upon the millionaire just after 4pm as the purple shade of the October dusk was reaching over the western skies of the city.

Once again, the sergeants used the pretence of roof burglars being at large to explain their visit, but Mr Lawson was a canny man, and although he granted the policemen access to inspect the attic for signs of attempted entry, he had an idea what the visit was really about – the vampiric attacks on the women of Liverpool Lawson offered the sergeants a sherry, engaged in small talk, and seemed only too glad when it was time for them to leave. On the following morning at 11pm, Foster and McGhee called at the home of Edwin Thompson, the well-to-do but perpetually intoxicated gentleman who lived across the street from Lawson. A butler ushered them into the sitting room, and almost a quarter of an hour elapsed before Thompson appeared. He stood swaying before the fire and McGhee asked him if he had seen any unusual guests visiting Lawson’s home of late. Thompson leaned on the mantelpiece for support, spent a moment in agonised contemplation, then said that a woman in odd funereal black clothes had arrived at Lawson’s house one Sunday several months ago. He had never seen her before and what’s more, he had never seen her leave the residence. All of a sudden, Thompson pointed to the window and shouted, ‘By Jove! There! There she is!’

The sergeants ran to the window. A carriage had pulled up at the house of Lawson, and the millionaire and a strangely dressed woman in black – with her face covered by a dark veil – were descending the steps. Foster and McGhee flew out of the sitting room and were on the street in seconds. They hailed a hansom cab and instructed the driver to follow the carriage trundling down Canning Street. The pursuit stretched to the Pier Head, where, it transpired, Lawson and the woman intended to board a ship bound for Ireland.

Foster and McGhee confronted Lawson, expecting him to threaten them with harassment, but instead, he became melancholic, and told them a bizarre story. The woman with him was his lover, and she was pregnant with his child. Her name was Araminta, and she had been driven out of Hungary because she was the last of a line of vampires that had lived in the country since the days when it was a part of Transylvania. Araminta despised being a vampire, and no man she had loved had ever accepted her for what she was - until she had met Lawson. Now the couple wanted to settle in Ireland for a while before going on to America.

As George Lawson gave this eerie account, Sergeant Foster gazed at the pale ghostly face of Araminta faintly visible through her veil - and he was disturbed to see black tears drip from her eyes as she silently wept. The police sergeant reached for his service revolver, but McGhee seized his hand and said, ‘No William!’ ‘We can’t let them go somewhere else where this thing will suck the blood out of other innocent people!’ said Foster. His fear was driving him on to shoot the woman. He pushed McGhee away and aimed the gun at the woman in black, who stood there calmly, resigned to her fate. Lawson threw himself into the firing line of the revolver, and tried to throw a punch at Foster, but missed.

McGhee shouted ‘No!’ as Araminta suddenly climbed over the safety chain on the Landing Stage and jumped into the freezing October river.

Foster stepped over the safety chain and fired the revolver repeatedly into the waters, then McGhee pushed him aside and dived into the waves to save the woman – but only managed to recover her bullet-ridden clothes. Not a trace of Araminta’s body was to be found. Lawson stood staring into the Mersey, sobbing. Araminta was never heard from again. Had the self-tormented vampiress committed suicide, or had she simply made an escape? We will probably never know – unless Araminta returns to haunt Liverpool one day. You may find the aforementioned tale far-fetched, but it actually took place. The great French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing during the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, once stated: ‘If ever there was in the world a warranted and proven history, it is that of vampires. Nothing is lacking; official reports, testimonials of persons of standing, of surgeons, of clergymen, of judges; the judicial evidence is all-embracing.’

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