It is hardly surprising that hospitals are home to ghosts. Though of course many good and happy things happen in hospitals, and many people go home in better health, it’s an undeniable fact that more people die in a hospital than almost anywhere else. And maybe Britain has such a rich tradition of hospital ghost stories because of its many very old hospitals.
A moral message
The stories are typically the preserve of the nurses. Probably more of the ghosts described are of nurses rather than patients, and most of those who see them or report them are also nurses. Stories are passed down by word of mouth through generations of young doctors and nurses, and many of the stories have a moral message.
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A common story is of a nurse who made some terrible error that harmed a patient, who then remorsefully took her own life, and now appears as a “woman in white” or “grey lady”, to warn others.
A typical version was told at the Mother’s Hospital in Hackney, in the East End of London. Nurses who found themselves drowsy and nodding off on night duty said they’d be startled awake by a tap on the shoulder, but would see nobody there. The legend was that a nurse, many years ago, had been bottle-feeding a newborn baby, when she fell asleep, slumped forward and smothered the baby. In penitence she killed herself, and ever since walked the wards, tapping young nurses on the shoulder to keep them awake while on duty.
A similar tale was told at University College Hospital, London, where patients reported seeing a nurse in a blue-grey uniform when the screens were pulled around a bed at night, She was believed to be a nurse who had given a morphine overdose to a patient by accident, and then poisoned herself.
These phantoms are not always harbingers of doom. At the Scunthorpe General Hospital, for instance, when a baby was very ill, a nurse in long dress with a pungent smell of violet perfume would appear. Afterwards, when she had left, the baby would recover.
Some of the ghosts are very ancient, like the grey lady of the 264-year-old Royal London Hospital, and Rahere, the robed monk who founded St Bart’s Hospital in 1123. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, was involved with the building of what became St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital which opened in 1745, and has been seen wandering the wards many times throughout the centuries.
Why do we tell these stories?
Are these sightings and experiences “real”? It’s difficult to say, but they’re certainly not lies! They’re legends, sincerely believed by many people. Hospitals, especially really old hospitals, particularly at night, can be creepy places, with scary shadows and sounds, easy to interpret as shapes and sounds you’ve been led to expect. As the tales spread, they create a form of bonding, of camaraderie among the hospital workers, a reinforcement of the sense of belonging to an ancient tradition, while emphasising basic lessons of the need to be careful and vigilant.
A common variant of these stories is an interesting one: Witnesses see a nurse walking along the corridor in an old-fashioned style of uniform, and then they notice that they can’t see her feet, or anything from the knees down. Then it strikes them that it’s an old hospital that’s been re-built and renovated over the years, and that the floors have been raised – and that the nurse is walking on the old, lower, floor level.
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Nurses, the originators and spreaders of most of these stories, having to face death so often in their work, may need a reassurance that there is, after all, an after-life. And for all who tell tales or listen, there’s the sense of being part of a long historical tradition.
For many of us it was simply a way of passing time. When on duty, we often spent hours sitting around, waiting for something to happen. We needed to remain awake and alert and needed something to talk about.
I recently discovered a great website with pictures of hospitals that have been demolished or become derelict and unused. I wonder what becomes of the ghosts when this happens. They might remain in an abandoned building, but what do they do when a building is demolished? I found one report of a ghost from an ancient hospital, now in ruins, who was seen in a nearby Tesco supermarket. Another ghost, when her hospital closed and merged with another, moved to the new hospital.
In the East End of London, where new homes have been built on the site of the old St Andrews Hospital, one of the inhabitants reported a ghost who dislikes noise and who turns down the volume of TV sets, and even wakes up snoring sleepers with a loud “Shhhh“.
At the exceedingly old St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London there’s been disagreement over the story of a ghostly nurse. In one version she killed herself after giving an accidental overdose to a patient, and in another she was murdered in a lift by an insane patient. It’s said that the lift never worked properly thereafter – but there are many dodgy lifts in old hospitals that have not been the site of a murder.
'Dead body train'
There’s supposed to be a certain haunted lift within a stairwell. When staff get into it at night, even though they might push the button for a higher floor, the lights go out and the lift insists on taking them down to the gloomy basement. There it remains until they get out and climb the stairs, when it starts moving, following them upward. Some call it the “coffin lift”, and believe its behaviour is caused by the ghost of a nurse who was murdered in it.
Some ghost stories are benign and some don’t even involve hauntings. In Glasgow, a number of years ago, a doctor, running to a ward to deal with a cardiac arrest, was stopped by a patient asking for the way out of the hospital. He pointed him in the right direction, continuing to run to the ward. When he got there, he found the patient had died in the meantime – and recognised him as the man who had just asked for directions.
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There’s even a ghost train, said to rumble through a tunnel between the Royal London Hospital and Whitechapel Tube train station (near the territory of jack the Ripper), known as the 'dead body train'. A train had run that route briefly in the early 1900s before the tunnel was bricked up. The rumour is that rooms under the ticket hall of the station were used as a temporary morgue when the hospital mortuary was full.
The oddest spectre with a medical connection is the phantom chicken in Pond Square, Highgate.
Sir Francis Bacon was a brilliant figure, a politician, philosopher and author who had a great interest in scientific experiments. He was a pioneer of the idea of refrigeration to preserve meat and in the bitter cold of January 1626 he tested his theory by buying a chicken from an old woman on the street. He killed it, plucked it, and stuffed it with snow.
Ironically, Sir Francis caught a severe chill during this event, and died soon afterwards. But while nobody has ever reported seeing his ghost, there are frequent reports of the ghost of a plucked chicken, flapping round the square. It has appeared to stray pedestrians, a driver whose car had broken down, and a courting couple whose kissing was disturbed when the bald bird dropped onto them.
South African hospital ghosts
There seem to be far fewer such ghost stories in South Africa, and I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who can report some examples. A web search doesn’t turn up much except for a large number of thoroughly daft stories about the Kempton Park Hospital (briefly called the Kyalami Hospital). If there’s a ghost there, it must be the ghost of common sense. The excellent and rather new hospital, filled with expensive equipment, was stupidly closed and abandoned in 1996. Apparently beds, equipment and files were also abandoned and later looted.
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In Port Elizabeth, patients at the Provincial Hospital are said to be visited by the ghost of an old nun. In the paediatric ward, a shabby old man is seen at the bedside when a child is dying. In Cape Town there are reportedly several ghosts at Groote Schuur, including a man without pants. And there’s a grey lady at the children’s ward at the Addington Hospital in Durban.
Pretoria has some medical ghosts of its own. When I was a child, there was a large deserted house nearby which we all believed to be haunted. Known as Merton Keep, it was one of the large, early grand homes of Pretoria, nowadays the French embassy. We were told it had been used as a hospital during the Anglo-Boer War, and that subsequently a safe had been found, containing human skulls with bullet-holes.
The old State Museum at the National Zoological Gardens was once used as a military hospital, and is said to be haunted, with screams and groans from soldiers, and the ghost of a uniformed nurse with a scalpel. At the Eugene Marais Hospital Pretoria, there’s said to be the ghost of a blood-stained man in bandages, and the Pretoria Academic Hospital boasts a blue-eyed nurse in white veil . . .
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Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.