The telephone call from the dead apparently dates back to 1964 and an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled: Night Call. It transpires that the freaky calls that a woman is getting are from the grave of her dead fiancé. Beach, however, recently ran across an earlier example that he wanted to share with readers. It appears in a great book that deserves better coverage Jason Semmens (ed), The Cornish Witch-finder (2008). The book includes a biography of a Cornish folklorist William Henry Paynter and a series of Paynter’s articles. The story in question is dated by JS to 1950 and probably appeared in the Cornish Times: there was just a clipping in the archive so sourcing is difficult. It is a rather long piece but here are some highlights. Vera and Jack are staying with the narrator in a hotel. Vera is upset because she has heard that her mother is ill. Jack drives off to find out what is wrong with his mother law and says ‘Expect a call from me round about ten o clock.’
As the hands of the old grandfather clock neared ten, she moved a little nearer to the telephone, but nothing happened. The clock struck and we both looked at the telephone. The minutes passed – 10, 15, 20, and then half-past. ‘I can’t understand why Jack hasn’t phoned.’
‘Perhaps he’s had a breakdown,’ I suggested. ‘Come let’s have a drink, Jack won’t let us down.’…
The telephone bell gave a slight tinkle. I did not take any notice, for it was not loud enough for a call. In fact, I thought I was responsible, for in the reaching for the whiskey, I moved the table on which the phone stood.
‘Hello! Dear,’ said Vera, picking up the phone. ‘Is that you Jack? Oh speak up, I can’t hear you, you seem to be thousands of miles away. What you couldn’t get through?’ At this point she turned to me and exclaimed: ‘I can only just hear him.’ ‘What Jack? Oh that’s lovely, give her my love. I’m glad it’s no worse.’ She then rang off.
A moment after the phone rings and there is a doctor. Jack died in a car crash about ten o’clock. The doctor who attended him as he was dying reported that he was desperate to speak to his wife about something. This is, of course, an old ghost motif: the dying man/woman who leaves something undone.
Can anyone bring the phone call from the dead further back: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
31 July 2015: LTM writes in with this title: Phone Calls From the Dead D. Scott. Rogo, Raymond Bayless Published by Berkeley Books, 1955 ISBN 10: 0425045595 / ISBN 13: 978042504559 “This book has been extremely difficult to draft since it concerns a subject upon which nothing was previously been written” note the writers in 1979 in their acknowledgments though this is actually not quite true: The first contacts from beyond via telephone were described in detail in a book entitled “Voices from Beyond by Telephone” written by the Brazilian Carlos G. Ramos under the pen-name Oscar D’Argonell in 1925.
However these two books seem to be the only ones written exclusively about an object that -among many others- gained the attention of writers who were involved in ADC [After Death Communication] phenomena and was included -wrongly to my opinion-in the research field of ITC. [Instrumental Trans communication] The cases examined by the authors in the book -without estimating the statistical details-are less than one might expect,about 10-15 but were analysed accurately and intensively.’
Thanks LTM! This seems to be the earliest book but it is not the only one…
31 July 2015: Chris S writes in with turn of century cognates: I found these four ghost stories. Two appear to have been in wide circulation (A Haunted Telephone and A Ghost Answers A Call) at the turn of the century. The ‘A Haunted Telephone’ may be pure fiction, but also may be the genesis of several urban legends. IMO the tale about the Korean king verges on racism.
The Morning Call, Page 17, February 24, 1895. New Things In Electricity, Telephony in Korea: In his newly published work, “Korea,” Henry Savage Landor tells a good tale of the telephone. Some months before he arrived in Seoul, a foreigner had visited the King, soliciting orders for installations of telephones.
The King, being much astounded and pleased at the wonderful invention, immediately, at great expense, set about connecting by telephone the tomb of the Queen dowager with the royal palace. Many hours a day were afterward spent by his Majesty and his suite in listening at their end of the telephone and a watchman was kept all night in case the Queen dowager should wake up from her eternal sleep.
But not a message, or a sound, or a murmur, even, was heard. The King was disgusted, and the telephone was condemned as a fraud by his Majesty of Cho-sen. He approves of electric light because it keeps off ghosts, and condemns the telephone because it does not “raise them.”
The Manning Times, September 18, 1901 Ghosts Use Telephone: A number of Spiritualists are intersted in ghostly voices over the telephone to Mrs. Mary F. Bringman, a medium who keeps a boarding house at Springfield, Ohio. The mysterious telephone is on the wall of a large room, and had been there for some time before the manifestations were noticed. One evening a visitor was startled by hearing the voices, and finally the story was spread through town. A well-known spiritualists has said that he had no doubt that the voices were from friends in the other world. ‘I have talked through the telephone in Mrs. Bringham’s,’ he said. ‘There can be no mistake in this matter, and it is not a subject to be treated flippantly.’
Freeland Tribune, September 22, 1902 A HAUNTED TELEPHONE: A young woman in oak park believes that her telephone is haunted, and some of her neighbors agree with her, and now the theory is being discussed with a suggestion that the instrument is a proper medium for ghosts, and credulous householders are afraid to answer the telephone bell lest some uncanny disclosure greet them.
No doubt when science has perfected the telephone we will find ourselves in long distance communications with Mars or other planets which have offered us neighborly overtures to which we could not respond. If the exploration of air w9ill lend all their faculties to the development of vibrations, condensing them to a focus for human intelligence, a world of wonder may open to our listening ears, and the sixth sense aid us to a knowledge of the gods. Then Tesla might gather in the telephone cup the power now lying dorman in the air shaft waiting for a liberator. The theory antedates the use of telephones.
Many years ago a Chicago young woman wrote a remarkable book called ‘The Automation Ear.’ It told the story of a man who was possessed with the idea that all the harmonies of earth, since the morning stars sung together for joy, were still centered in the air and could be reproduced if an ear could be invented to gather and retain them. So he invented an automaton ear which was a success, but the inventor had overlooked one condition. With the sounds of joy and the songs of harmony came the groands of discord and the wails of sorrow, and these so predominated that he went mad and died of disappointment.
When the busiest and most necessary official on the circuit in Oak Park was asked to come up to a certain number and find out what was wrong with the telephone, he sent in a sub who reported that it acted ‘crazy’ and would not ‘ring true’.
So David Campbell went there himself and found a distressed matron, who said mysteriously:
“I sent for you because I’m having trouble with my telephone.”
“So I understand,” he answered, “wires caught somewhere by the high winds most likely. I will soon find out the trouble, Mrs. Blanke. I am used to those difficulties.”
“I don’t think you are,” responded Mrs. Blanke, “and I am afraid that all your skill and experience will not help in this case. The truth is, my telephone is haunted.”
“Haunted!” the electrician gave a start; his Scotch ancestors had believed in a second sight, but a spook in a telephone, his business sense refused to harbor the idea. “Impossible! My dear madam, who ever heard of a ghost in a telephone?”
“I hear voices and am rung up to take strange communications,” persisted Mrs. B. “Take down that receiver and listen a moment.”
He did so, and heard the usual “Number, please,” much to his satisfaction, and then rung off and turned cheerfully to Mrs. B.
“You see, it is all right. What led you to think otherwise?”
“Several unusual experiences, but you will only laugh at them. The other night when the high wind blew I was out spending the evening with friends when I was called to the telephone. I distinctly heard the voice of my little son Theodore, whom I had left at home in bed. He said to me: ‘Please come home, mamma, I’m awfully afraid of the storm.’ I told him to go in and sleep with his brother, and I would soon be home. He said, ‘All right, mamma, goodbye.’ and rung off. When I went home he was sleeping where I had left him, had not been awake and did not even know it was storming. Yet it was my boy’s voice and no other.”
Mr. Campbell looked politely incredulous, and suggested that the boy might have telephoned in his sleep, but he could not convince the mother. Mrs. Blanke had another experience in reserve.
“I was thinking of a friend at a distance and wanting to hear from her, went to the telephone to call her up. As soon as I put the receiver to my ear I heard some one speaking, and asked who it was, and my friend answered, without being called. Now is that telepathy or what is it?”
“I think,” said the electrician, gently, “that the telephone has got on your nerves. Let some other members of the family answer for a while. You take these incidents too seriously, and even if you cannot account for them, they do not mean anything. It is a common event for telephone bells to ring mysteriously, but a crossing of the wires or a mistake in the number might easily be the cause. Might I venture to suggest that some roguish member of your family may be playing tricks?”
But Mrs. B. would not admit this for a moment, so the baffled electrician was obliged to leave the mystery where he found it, and the troubled matron went on losing weight every day and feeling sure whenever her telephone rang that some ghost was on the wires. Then a friend moved into her suburb and put herself into telephonic communication with the outside world. At an early date Mrs. Blanke called up Central and asked for her friend’s number.
“Fourteen hundred and ninety-two,” came the answer. It stirred strange memories in Mrs. Blanke’s mind. She called it up with an indefinite feeling that she had heard it in a former life. A weird voice responded.
“Who is this?” she asked, cautiously.
“Why, Christopher Columbus. I discovered America in 1492. Say, what do you want? P’raps you’d like to Ferd or Isabella. Hurry up. I can’t stand here a whole century. I’m tired.”
Mrs. Blanke recognized that voice. It was that of her own hopeful Theodore, who was visiting the small son of her friend. Both boys were in the early period of the American history and had struck the coincidence of the telephone number as an aid to memory.
Mrs. B. gave her hopeful a snubbing for his precocity and was permitted to talk with her friend. So one of her telephone ghosts had been laid, but she still persists that she is likely at any time to be placed in direct communication with the air as a medium of expression. — Mrs. M. L. Rayne, in the Chicago Record.
Bisbee Daily Review, page 8, October 13, 1908, Ghost Answers ‘Phone In Church He Haunts, Shade delivers messages when rector knows building is unoccupied. Philadelphia — Old St. Paul’s church, headquarters of the Protestant Episcopalian city mission has a ghost. It is an eccentric shade which whisks up stairways and disappears into nothingness, but it also is up to date. When the office force has departed and the quaint old building on Third street is secure against intruders with stout locks and bolts, the ghost answers the telephone, which conduct is so utterly foreign to the popular conception of ghosts’ abilities that it has dumbfounded Rev. H. Cresson McHenry and his assistants.
On Two occasions the strange visitor has answered the ‘phone when the office force was absent and the building locked. Its answers, although briefly made, have indicated the ghost is well acquainted with the movements of the staff. The shade informed a friend of Mr. McHenry that he “had just left the mission,” and to Mrs. George Somerer, wife of one of Mr. McHenry’s assistants, it imparted the information that her husband “would be home to supper.” Both persons who conversed with the unknown occupant of the mission declare that its voice was modulated to the softest tones. Mr. McHenry saw the ghost on July 4.
The office force had a holiday, but Mr. McHenry visited the church to open his mail. As he was unlocking the iron gates at the entrance to the churchyard he glanced up at one of the windows and was astonished to see what appeared to be a man standing on the stairway inside the building. The stairway leads from the offices of the city mission in the basement to the church auditorium. As Mr. McHenry opened the gate the figure glided rapidly up the stairway, disappearing from view. The minister entered the church, locked the door behind him to prevent the escape of the intruder, and searched the entire church from cellar to roof. He failed to find any trace of the visitor. Every door and window was locked securely and the desks untouched. Thanks Chris!
Filip G writes in ‘Not exactly the same motif, but here you are, from 1879’
If you want to push back farther in a different medium, I’ve collected some messages from the dead via telegraph.
Then Chris came in with this gem.
A Ghost at the Telephone: I heard a story not long ago of an undertaker who was called up in the night by a ring which the central office operator said was from one of the great cemeteries, and the voice that called him was so strange that it made him shudder. It was wonderfully distinct, and yet so slow, so cold, so far away, that it sounded like nothing else that he had ever heard. It uttered not a single word except a long drawn out ‘Hel—lo! Hel—lo-o-o! Hel—l-o-o-o-o-o!’ And the more he shouted back, the more that one ghostly call came over the wire to him. Dumbfounded at last, he hung up his telephone and sat down, but meditated uneasily, while the sound still rang in his ears. Then he jumped up and rang for the central office. ‘Give me No. –,’ he called out. That was the cemetery. Presently he had the connection.
‘Were you calling me just now?’ he asked. ‘Calling you? Certainly not. Haven’t called to-night.’ Then he objurgated the central office. ‘Certainly the cemetery did ask for you,’ said the operator, ‘and I made the connections.’ Next night the same call came, and the shuddering undertaker heard the same ghostly ‘Hel—lo-o-o-o’ until he could bear it no longer. Then the same colloquy with the cemetery office and the central operator followed. I am told that the undertaker grew almost insane with the ghost call, as he soon began to regard it, and had the telephone taken out of his shop to the great detriment of his trade, but that he afterward had it replaced, and, though he has not since been called up by the voice from the other world, he sits in nightly dread of it. Boston Post. Electrical World, Vol. 7-8, 4 December 1886, p. 275
Bast writes in, 30 mar 2016, ‘Another book re: phone calls from the dead: Telephone Calls from the Dead by Callum E. Cooper Paperback: 210 pages Publisher: Tricorn Books (January 31, 2012) ISBN-10: 0957107412 ISBN-13: 978-0957107410 It is actually somewhat of a follow up to D. Scott. Rogo & Raymond Bayless’ book Phone Calls From the Dead that LTM wrote in about.
Southern Man writes, 29 Sep 2017: been worrying about this post for a couple of years. I get that new technologies have paranormal reflexes. Remember all that nonsense about people communicating with ghosts and fairies by radio. But what about the internet? Has the paranormal managed to get in there: what about Twitter, Facebook etc etc.