The Talking Mongoose
The bizarre story of Gef, the talking mongoose who came to live with the Irving family in their lonely farmhouse on the Isle of Man was told in detail in The Haunting of Cashen's Gap: a Modern 'Miracle' Investigated, which Price published with R.S. Lambert in 1936. The following is the complete text of a condensed version of the case which Price wrote as Chapter VI of his Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, which was published by Putnam in the same year.
I have been asked to do some queer things during my thirty years' investigation of the alleged supernormal. For example, when lecturing in Paris, I was invited to take up my perch on top of the Eiffel Tower and investigate a 'haunted' kiosk, where ivories, cheap jewellery, and similar souvenirs 'simply vanished into thin air', and it was thought that the thief must be a psychic one. Again, a poor woman came to see me one day and stated that for three consecutive nights she had dreamt that a near relative, recently buried, was not dead, but in a trance. Could I procure for her an exhumation order and make some tests? Then there was the man who had secured a quantity of peyotl (1) (a plant from which an hallucinating drug is made) and suggested that, if I consumed enough of it, I could 'project my astral' and record my experience. Curious as these requests may appear, they are commonplace compared with one I received in the winter of 1932 from a lady in the Isle of Man. My correspondent informed me that a farmer friend of hers, a Mr. James T. Irving, had discovered in his house an animal which, after a little coaxing, had developed the power of speech, and was practically human, except in form. Would I care to interview the little beast? I replied that further data would be desirable before I decided to investigate the Manx prodigy. I wrote to the farmer.
I found Mr. Irving very helpful, and he confirmed all his friend had told me. In a letter he described the animal as being of a yellowish tinge, like a ferret. 'The tail is long and bushy and tinged with brown. In size, it is about the length of a three-
1. Echinocactus Williamsii.
parts grown rat in the body, without the tail.' The mongoose (for that is what the creature said he was when he became on friendly terms with his host) first became audible by making 'animal noises' behind the stained matchboarding with which the rooms in Mr. Irving's house are panelled. The noises consisted of 'barking, growling, spitting, and persistent blowing', which kept the family awake at night. Of course, this rather annoyed the farmer and he took steps to rout his unwanted guest. He used gun, trap, and poison in turn, but the knowing creature eluded them all.
About this period Mr. Irving had a bright idea. As the animal could make such curious noises, perhaps it could imitate a human being. So the farmer gave imitations of the calls of various creatures, domestic and others, and was astonished to find them accurately reproduced. 'In a few days' (I am still quoting from his original letter to me) 'we had only to name the particular animal or bird, and instantly, always without error, it gave the correct call.'
Mr. Irving has a daughter Voirrey, who, at the time my story opens, was about thirteen years old. It occurred to Voirrey to try the animal with nursery rhymes. This test was carried out and 'no trouble was experienced in having them repeated'. From that day onwards the 'talking mongoose' became an intimate and valued member of the Irving family. The voice is stated to be two octaves above the human voice, and very clear and distinct.
As time went on, it was quite obvious that the 'animal' (who is now entitled to quotation marks) had been capable of talking, laughing, singing, etc., from the day he took up his abode with the Irvings, and that the 'animal noises' and mimicking were intended as a humorous introductory 'leg-pull'. It is not quite clear whether the mongoose said his name was Gef, but that is what the Irvings called him and he said he liked it.
From a perch high up in the rafters, or from behind a con-
venient skirting-board, Gef told the farmer a good deal about himself. He said he came from India, where 'he had been chased by natives'. Apparently he belongs to the well-known Herpestes mungo family, first cousins of the ichneumons of North Africa. Some 'poor relations' in Egypt are known as 'Pharaoh's rats'.
When Mr. Irving and Gef became on more intimate terms, the latter mentioned the little matter of the shooting, etc. Mr. Irving explained that he thought Gef was just an ordinary animal out of the fields. Of course, he apologised; then they had a good laugh over it, and the incident closed.
A curious feature of the 'talking mongoose' case is that the creature is seldom seen by Mr. Irving. Very rarely, something dashes along a beam, or he glimpses the tip of a tail rounding a corner, and that is about all. On the other hand, his wife and daughter have often seen him face to face, and Voirrey has even attempted to photograph him. Once, Gef posed on the wall for her, but just as she was about to press the button, he darted off and was not heard for days. Gef explained that he is afraid of being caught - not by the camera, but by a trap. Hence his timidity. Sometimes Gef follows them to the nearest town when they go marketing, but always keeps on the far side of the hedge, though he chats gaily all the time.
Mr. Irving invited me to hear the phenomenon for myself, and kindly offered me the hospitality of his home during my visit. But I hesitated. In the first place, I was fully occupied with Rudi Schneider, (1) whom I was then investigating in my laboratory; secondly, the story I had heard sounded so preposterous that I simply could not take it seriously. Then I argued to myself that there might be something in it. After all, talking animals are fairly common - in print. The pages of
1. See 'An Account of Some Further Experiments with Rudi Schneider', by Harry Price, Bulletin IV of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, London, 1933.
A Thousand and One Nights, Æsop's Fables, Sir J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (1) and scores of books on mythology are full of talking beasts which are human in everything but shape. Today, the Australian natives believe that the wild dog has the power of speech; and the Breton peasants credit all birds with language, which they try to interpret. The bear in Norway is regarded as almost a man, and the Red Indians consult the native bear Kur-bo-roo when they are in distress, and the Iowas converse with serpents. Even in psychical research talking animals are not unknown. Who has not heard of the Elberfeld horses, (2) Muhamed, Zarif, Hanschen and Barto? Certainly, these equine wonders spoke with their hoofs, and not with their mouths - but they made themselves understood just the same. And poor blind Barto was said to be more intelligent than many who came to gape at him! Then there was Rolf, (3) the Mannheim 'talking dog', Black Bear, (4) the Briarcliff 'thinking pony', and many others. And we have all kept talking parrots. I came to the conclusion that perhaps a talking mongoose was not so very extraordinary, and decided to investigate. I asked a friend, Captain X - very shrewd and not easily hoodwinked - to make some preliminary inquiries on the spot.
X arrived at the Isle of Man on February 26, 1932, and in due course presented me with his report. It is an extraordinary document. On the first night he kept watch at the farm until about 11.45, and as there was nothing moving he decided to
1. See The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion, by Sir James George Frazer, London, 1911-25 (3rd edition, revised, in 12 vols.).
2. See The Unknown Guest, by Maurice Maeterlinck, London, 1914.
3. See 'Rolf of Mannheim: a Great Psychological Problem', by Dr. William Mackenzie, in Proceedings, American S.P.R., Vol. XIII., Aug. 1919.
4. See: 'The Briarcliff Pony', by J. Malcolm Bird, Journal of the American S.P.R., Jan. 1929, Vol. XXIII, pp. 26-31; 'Animal Metapsychics', by Arthur Goadby, Journal of the American S.P.R., April 1929; Does a' Thinking Pony' Really Think? by Alan Macdonald, New York, 1928; 'Thinking Animals', by Marius J. Zaayer, Journal of the American S.P.R., New York, Jan. 1929.
return to his hotel. He left the house accompanied by the farmer, but just as he reached the door he heard a very shrill voice scream out: 'Go away! who is that man?' Mr. Irving gripped his arm and said, 'That's it!' Then came some more talk, but X could not understand what was said. X decided to remain in the house, and returned to the other room, when the voice at once ceased. He stayed for another fifteen minutes and then returned to his hotel.
The next day X was at the farm early and was greeted with the news that Gef had been talking a lot since the previous night, and had promised to speak to him if he sat in a certain spot. Incidentally, Gef informed the farmer that he had taken a sly glance at X and did not like him! So X was told that he would have to shout out: 'I do believe in you, Gef!' if he wanted to hear the mongoose! X did this and patiently waited all day for the shrill voice. While they were having tea, Gef threw a packing-case needle into the room and it hit the tea-pot. X was told that Gef was always throwing things about.
At 7.45 there was a shrill scream from above-stairs, and X could hear Gef talking to Mrs. Irving and Voirrey. X shouted up the stairs: 'Won't you come down? I believe in you!' Gef replied, 'No, I don't mean to stay long, as I don't like you!' As the mongoose was still talking, X quietly approached the stairs and began to creep up to the bedroom. But, unfortunately, the top stair had a loose tread which X stepped on - and slithered down the staircase, making a terrible noise! Gef shrieked out: 'He is coming!' - and vanished. Nothing more happened, and X returned to London.
The most extraordinary part of this amazing case is that Mr. Irving has kept a sort of diary - in the form of letters – of Gef's doings, and it rivals the Arabian Nights in the fantastic improbabilities which the record contains. Before me are two hundred quarto typed sheets, and every page describes a miracle: I will mention some of the most interesting incidents.
In June 1932 Gef told the farmer that he had been chased in India by natives, and frequently shot at. In the same month Gef became tamer and allowed the farmer's wife and daughter to stroke him and feel his teeth - while he was on a beam. They fed him on bacon, sausages, bananas, chocolate, etc., but he would not touch milk and water. Then he began killing rabbits for the family. He strangled them and thoughtfully left them outside in a convenient position, with their legs in the air. During the next year or so, he slaughtered scores of them and the faunal equilibrium of the district was in danger of being upset! Then he commenced speaking a language supposed to be Russian. Ne pani amato aporusko was one sentence which was recorded phonetically. In August he sang two verses of a Spanish song, and recited four lines of a Welsh poem. Then he spoke Arabic, and revealed the fact that he could understand the deaf and dumb alphabet.
In 1934 Gef began making little trips to the nearest town and on his return told the farmer what certain people had been doing. This was proved to be correct. Then he became clairvoyant and told the farmer what was happening ten miles away - without leaving the farm. Sometimes he was seen out of doors. Questioned as to whether he was a 'spirit', Gef said: 'I am an earth-bound spirit.'
In June 1934 the farmer asked Gef if X could visit him again. 'Yes,' was the reply, 'but not Price. He's got his doubting cap on!' In July he began doing little tricks for the farmer's friends. A person would go outside in the porch and place some pennies on a stone. Gef, with his eye to a squint-hole, would then say whether they were heads or tails. Sometimes he was right.
In October 1934 another reference was made to me. Gef said he liked X, 'but not Harry Price. He's the man who puts the kybosh on the spirits!' In December 1931 he became so violent in his speech and in his threats towards Voirrey that the girl's
bed was moved into her parents' room. He became friendly again, and in May 1932 Voirrey returned to her own room.
In March 1935 X received some fur and hairs which Gef had kindly plucked from his back and tail. Having removed the hair, Gef deposited it in an ornament on the mantelpiece, and told the farmer where to find it. As the hair was sent for identification purposes, I forwarded it to Professor Julian Huxley, who handed it to Mr. F. Martin Duncan, F.Z.S., the authority on hair and fur. Mr. Duncan went to much trouble in an attempt to identify the hair. In a letter to me, he says:
'I have carefully examined them microscopically and compared them with hairs of known origin. As a result I can very definitely state that the specimen hairs never grew upon a mongoose, nor are they those of a rat, rabbit, hare, squirrel, or other rodent; or from a sheep, goat or cow. I am inclined to think that these hairs have probably been taken from a longish-haired dog or dogs.'
Mr. Duncan based his opinion upon a comparison of the hairs of various animals, including a wolf and of a collie dog. He found 'that both these, in the shape and pattern of the cuticular scales, and of the medulla, had a marked resemblance to the cuticular scales, and medulla of your specimens, sufficiently close to make me think that very probably yours are of canine origin.' Mr. Duncan also considered that they had been cut from the animal, as he 'could not detect a single hair showing a root-bulb'. Later, he kindly made some photomicrographs of Gef's hairs and, for comparison, some taken from a golden cocker spaniel and a red setter.
I could fill many pages of these Confessions with extracts from Mr. Irving's record, but what I have written is some indication of the amazing things Gef is alleged to have said and done. As he became acquainted with the family, he developed a wit which at times was a bit rude. He called Mr. Irving 'Jim' and nick-named him 'Pots'. When Gef was hungry, he would say,
'Well, Jim, what about some grubbo?' and his nonsense would sometimes keep the family awake at night. As his manifestations became so frequent, my friend X decided to pay another visit to the island. He arrived there on May 20, 1935. He heard Gef scream and say, 'Coo-ee! coo-ee!' in the dark, on the way to his hotel. Gef also did the coin trick for him. There were several other puzzling incidents, which X related to me on his return; so puzzling, in fact, that I decided I would see Gef myself.
Mr. Irving wrote that he would be delighted to see me and would make all arrangements for my visit. Unfortunately, on receipt of the letter announcing my decision, Gef suddenly disappeared. I waited for a week or so, but the mongoose was still missing. It was not an unusual occurrence for Gef to slip away for a few days, but an absence of two weeks was unusual. At the end of a month he was still missing, but I decided not to alter my plans and arranged to travel to the Isle of Man on Tuesday, July 30, 1935. As I wanted a witness in case Gef should put in an appearance, I asked Mr. R. S. Lambert, the editor of The Listener, if he would accompany me. He kindly consented.
We arrived at Douglas at 6.45 p.m. and were met by Mr. Irving with a car. After a long drive into the interior, we reached a famous beauty spot, where we found a comfortable inn and a welcome meal. During dinner Mr. Irving related the complete story of the talking mongoose, which, alas! was still missing. After our repast we decided to visit the haunt of Gef This was easier said than done, as Mr. Irving lives in an isolated farmstead seven hundred and twenty-five feet above sea-level, on the summit of what is almost a mountain. There is no proper road to the house, but after an hour's stiff climb up a precipitous and slippery mule track, we reached the desolate upland where Mr. Irving lives. It was almost dark, and had not Mr. Irving piloted us the entire distance, we should have been hopelessly lost. As we approached the house Mr. Lambert and I were
startled by an animal suddenly bounding into our midst: it was 'Mona', the Irvings' three-year-old collie sheepdog, who had heard his master's voice.
We at last reached the house and were introduced to Mrs. Irving and Voirrey - now a good-looking girl of seventeen whom we found very intelligent, shy, and rather quiet. Mrs. Irving is a charming and dignified lady who gave us a friendly welcome and asked us to make ourselves at home. The Irvings do not belong to the farmer class. Mr. Irving was a successful Liverpool business man who, at about the beginning of the War, bought the lonely farmstead, hoping to make a living by sheep-breeding, etc.
As we sat round the paraffin lamp in the small, dark-panelled living-room, we heard the Gef story all over again. Mr. Lambert and I plied the Irvings with innumerable questions concerning their prodigy, and received answers which invariably tallied with what Mr. Irving had recorded in his letters. The family was heartbroken at Gef's continued absence. Mrs. Irving was convinced that the mongoose was still about the house, probably listening to every word we were saying. She addressed a few words to him in the hope that her appeal would touch a sympathetic chord somewhere. There was no response. Then I addressed a little speech to the four walls of the room, hoping Gef would hear me. I pointed out that we had come a long, long way on his account and that we were entitled to some manifestation: a few words, a little laugh, a scream, a squeak, or just a simple scratch behind the panelling. I even invited him to throw something at me. But all to no purpose: Gef was definitely not in a talking mood. Mrs. Irving said she still thought he was about somewhere. Although he had not been heard for a month, about a fortnight previous to our visit a saucepan of water mysteriously fell off the range in the living-room and swamped Irving's shoes. No one was in the room, and it was thought that Gef was responsible. We heard a
good deal of Gef's doings: how he travels to the nearest town on the back axles of motor-cars and buses; how he gets to know the names of many of the drivers, and how he picks up bits of scandal which he hears in the town. We also learnt Gef's age: he was eighty-three on June 7, 1935. All these details of Gef's life - and many more - we heard as we sat round the oil lamp waiting for him to manifest. Then midnight struck and we decided to return to the village. By the light of two electric torches we groped and stumbled our way down the mountain path, again accompanied by Mr. Irving, and finally reached our inn.
Neither Mr. Lambert nor I slept very well. The mongoose problem obsessed our minds and made sleep difficult. Was the whole affair a fraud from A to Z? Was it a plot (lasting four years) to fool the countryside? If so, what was the motive? Were the Irvings engaged in a clever and picturesque conspiracy? Was there any sort of animal at all? Was there any real evidence whatsoever that Gef had been heard? These and similar questions raced through my brain. If a plot, then the Irvings were consummate actors. There was no apparent motive, and no financial gain. In the early days it was said that Voirrey was a 'natural ventriloquist' - whatever that is - and responsible for the Gef impersonation. But the Irvings state that Gef has been heard while Voirrey was under observation; in fact, the three members of the Irving family have, in turn, been absent from home while Gef was said to manifest. Irving himself is an amiable and very intelligent business man of about sixty years of age. Could any intelligent person remain in a house for four years without becoming aware of the fact that a hoax was being played on him and the public by another member of his household? I fell into a fitful sleep before I had answered one of these questions satisfactorily.
I awoke just before eight o'clock. I say' awoke', but actually I was in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking,
when a thin, shrill voice (which appeared to come from the end of the bed) said: 'Hullo! hullo! come along! come along!' and some chattering which I could not interpret. With thoughts of Gef still uppermost in my mind, the 'voice' startled me into complete consciousness. But, alas! it was only mine host's parrot whose matutinal mutterings had floated in through my open window from the kitchen across the road.
After a tour of the Island and a good lunch, Mr. Lambert and I again climbed the mountain in search of Gef. We reached the Irvings' home just before four o'clock and were able to take stock of the place by sunlight. The farmstead appeared even more lonely than it did by night. For mile after mile there was nothing to be seen except the undulating hills covered with short turf, scrubby gorse, and sod hedges. There were no trees and few birds - hardly a living thing (1) except an occasional hawk winging its solitary flight across the mountain. But the views were superb. To the west was a glorious vista of mountain, glen and sea, bathed in sunlight which made St. Patrick's Channel look like a sheet of glass. Still farther west, the Mountains of Mourne were silhouetted against an azure sky. A little above Irving's place is a prominence from which, without leaving the spot, can be seen England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. By daylight we saw that the house was a small two-storey affair, made of Manx slate slabs cemented together. The outside walls were faced with cement, which gave it a grey colour. A projecting porch, with a small, deep window, made the place seem larger. Inside the house the walls are panelled, with a space of about three inches between walls and woodwork. The ground floor consists of a small porch, a parlour, the principal living-room, and a pantry-kitchen. Upper floor consists of two bedrooms. There is panelling everywhere.
The Irvings were kindness personified, and did everything
1. There are no snakes, toads, badgers, moles, squirrels, voles or foxes in the Isle of Man.
for us - except produce Gef! However, Mr. Irving personally conducted us over the house and pointed out Gef's haunts. We saw numerous peep-holes; cracks through which Gef threw things at 'doubting' visitors; squint-holes through which the mongoose watches the Irvings and interrupts the conversation with facetious and sometimes rude remarks. We saw the runs behind the panelling by means of which Gef can skip, unseen, from one room to another, upstairs or down. In Voirrey's room we were shown 'Gef's sanctum', really a boxed partition, on top of which Gef dances to the gramophone and bounces his favourite ball. The fact that every room is panelled makes the whole house one great speaking-tube, with walls like soundingboards. By speaking into one of the many apertures in the panels, it should be possible to convey the voice to various parts of the house. Apparently, Gef does this.
We spent the evening with the Irvings; we took photographs and played with Mona, and walked round the outbuildings and the nearby fields, where we were shown the spots where Gef deposits the rabbits which he kills for his hosts - as some sort of recompense for his board and lodging! Speaking of Mona, it is curious that Mr. Martin Duncan thought that Gef's hairs had come from a collie dog. Is it possible that Gef surreptitiously clipped the hairs from various parts of Mona's anatomy, and foisted them on to the Irvings as specimens of his own hirsute covering?
About midnight we decided that Gef had no intention of coming into the open, and that we had better go home. We had spent many pleasant hours under the hospitable roof of the Irving farmstead, but we could not determine whether, in our róle of investigators, we had taken part in a farce or a tragedy. No dramatist could have invented a more amazing plot or a mise en scène better suited to the characters of the play which is being enacted on the windswept uplands of the Isle of Man. We have been told that we discovered nothing during our
quest of the 'talking mongoose'. But that is not true: we discovered why witches were hanged in the seventeenth century, and why Lord Chief Justice Hale publicly avowed his belief in broomsticks as a reasonable and usual means of locomotion.
Gef returned to the farm on the same evening as we left it - perhaps we passed him on our way down the mountain! He told Mr. Irving that, although he had 'had a few days' holiday', he was present at the house during our visit, and heard all we said. He gave various excuses for not showing himself, and one of them was that Mr. Lambert was a 'doubter'. He admitted knocking over the saucepan of water in the living-room. After our return home this clever mongoose made impressions of his paws and teeth in plasticine, and Mr. Irving sent them to me. He (Gef) also dictated to the farmer a complete description of himself, and from these particulars a drawing was made and published. (1) Our adventures created extraordinary interest in London and the B.B.C. asked me to broadcast the story. (2) As these Confessions go to press, Gef is still exchanging wisecracks with Irving; still dancing to the gramophone on top of his 'sanctum'; still screwing rabbits' necks for the Irving table; and, I am afraid, still impressing a number of rather credulous people.
1. For a complete, illustrated account of this extraordinary affair, see The Haunting of Cashen's Gap: a Modern 'Miracle' Investigated, by Harry Price and R. S. Lambert, Methuen, 1936.
2. Broadcast from the North Regional Station, Saturday, October 12,1935.
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