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The haunted telephone

An early Phelps telephone

Can spirits use technology to get in touch with the living? Many people believe this to be true, and this belief has endured throughout modern history, from the invention of the telephone to the invention of the cellphone and the Internet. The following is a rather interesting story that originally appeared in the New York Sun in January of 1879 under the title "A Haunted Telephone".

One of many remarkable statues at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery

Mr. John J. Ghegan, the night operator in the Newark office of the Western Union Telegraph Company, is agent for Professor Phelps' and Professor Edison's telephones and he has put up a large number of both kinds of the instruments in Newark. About three months ago he put up a Phelps telephone for Mr. J.J. O'Connor, the Catholic bookseller and publisher for the diocese of Newark. Mr. O'Connor is the agent for the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulcher, in East Orange, two miles from Mr. O'Connor's store and residence, at No. 103 Washington Street.

He frequently had occasion to send orders and other communications to Mr. Rowe, the superintendent in the cemetery; so he determined to have a telephone to connect his store and the cemetery, in order to save time and the expense of messengers. At the cemetery is a small building used as an office by the superintendent, and in this office Mr. Ghegan placed a telephone, which he connected with another telephone in Mr. O'Connor's house. No other telephone connects Newark with the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulcher.
Mr. O'Connor was delighted with his telephone. It was a novelty, and it worked like a charm. Mrs. O'Connor and her friends found amusement in conversing through the instrument with persons in the cemetery. The telephone was thus kept in constant use for several days. By means of it orders were could be sent at a moment's notice to the cemetery for the opening of a grave. Mr. O'Connor told Mr. Ghegan that he would not do without a telephone for any money.

At about four o'clock one morning, three weeks after the telephone was first used, Mr. and Mrs. O'Connor were awakened by a furious ringing of the call bell attached to the telephone in their room. Mr. O'Connor was surprised, because he knew that the office in the cemetery was locked every evening at six o'clock, when Superintendent Rowe and his assistants go home for the night. Mr. O'Connor thought, however, that some ruffians might have been caught defacing the monuments and tombstones, which had been done before, and that the police were wanted, so he answered the call and asked through the speaking tube what was wanted. He received no reply except a ringing of the bell. This was repeated several times, but no answer came through the tube. Mr. O'Connor finally concluded that either the wire was being tampered with or some person had gained access to the cemetery office and given an alarm in order to play a joke on him or to annoy him. So he told Mr. Ghegan the next morning of his night's experience.

Mr. Ghegan said that the call bell could not be rung unless some person turned the crank attached to the telephone at the cemetery office, neither could the bell be rung by tampering with the wire, because the bell is not run by a battery, but by a magnetic alarm. Mr. Ghegan questioned the men in the cemetery, but neither Superintendent Rowe nor any of his assistants had been in the cemetery after six o'clock on the previous evening. The little office was examined, and the windows and doors showed no evidence of having been opened, nor were there any indications that anyone had been inside. No one could account for the mysterious alarm, so Mr. Ghegan advised Mr. O'Connor to await future developments.

Several nights later Mr. O'Connor and his wife were again awakened by a furious ringing of the call bell of the telephone. Mr. O'Connor could get no answer to his questions through the speaking tube. He disconnected the wire, but the bell kept on ringing. His wife was so thoroughly alarmed that she demanded that the instrument should be removed from the house.

Mr. Ghegan and Superintendent Rowe then had the door and window of the cemetery office so secured that no person could enter and tamper with the telephone without leaving traces behind them. On that very night the call bell again rang in Mr. O'Connor's house. The workmen in the cemetery then said than an evil spirit was the cause of the trouble. Mr. O'Connor wrote a letter to Mr. Ghegan, in which he said:

"If you are in communion with departed spirits, we implore you to see that they will not disturb us at unnecessary hours."

Thereafter a watch was kept on the cemetery office at night, but Mr. O'Connor still complained that the call bell was rung at night at intervals. Superintendent Rowe, Mr. O'Connor, and Mr. Ghegan still cannot account for the mysterious signals. Some of the female neighbors of the O'Connors are sure it is the work of spirits.

Mr. Ghegan said to a reporter of the Sun: "I am not superstitious, but I confess that this thing puzzles me. A Spiritualist friend tells me he is certain a spirit has sent the signals to Mr. O'Connor. I know many persons who have telephones in their houses, and some of them are connected with others, yet I never received complaints from them. Mr. O'Connor's telephone has no connection except with the cemetery. I have investigated the thing for weeks, and I cannot even suggest an explanation of the mystery, for mystery it certainly is. If the instrument were run by a battery the mystery could be explained, but in this case I cannot understand it at all. I hope we will soon find out the secret for the sake of the nervous women."

A Massachusetts native, Anna Newburg is a freelance writer and co-creator of Journal of the Bizarre.

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