The Jewel House Keeper’s Ghost: A Spectral Bear at the Tower of London

It’s Halloween when people turn their attention to all things spooky and supernatural. With this in mind, Curator Alden Gregory explores one of the many ghost stories associated with the palaces in our care: the Tower of London’s Phantom Bear.

 A Frightening Beginning

“Oh and keep your eyes open for the bear; if you see the bear it’s likely that you’re about to die!”

I’ll admit that those were not the words I was expecting to hear in my workplace induction when I first joined the team at the Tower of London, but then the Tower of London is not your normal workplace.

I’d seen the magnificent sculpture of Henry III’s polar bear by the wonderful artist Kendra Haste on my way into the office that morning and had, so far, lived to tell the tale, but that was not the bear that my new colleague, a long-serving member of the team, had in mind.

There is, it transpired, an old story that the Tower of London is haunted by the grisly apparition of a bear; a sight so fearsome that those unfortunate enough to see it, suffer fatal consequences. It is, without doubt, one of the more unusual workplace risks.

Now, I’ll also admit that I don’t really believe in ghosts – although my job does take me to some pretty spooky corners of our palaces that I choose not to dwell in for too long! But, as a historian, I’ve always been fascinated by the origins of ghost stories and, whilst I’m not always keeping my eyes peeled for bears, I do keep a look out for evidence of where these beliefs began.

Sculpture of Henry III’s polar bear by Kendra Haste © Historic Royal Palaces

On Animal Magnetism

Flicking through some old newspapers recently as part of my research into something else, I stumbled across an article from 1888 recounting, in gloriously gothic tones, the story of the Tower’s spectral bear. It led me back to William Gregory’s 1851 book On Animal Magnetism, the first record, as far as I can tell, of this spooky tale.

In William Gregory’s telling – itself recounted to him by a friend – the events took place on a sultry evening in the year 1821. The Keeper of the Crown Jewels, at home with his family in their apartments in the Martin Tower, was suddenly alarmed by an apparition; a cloud of smoke which formed, in front of his eyes, into ‘a pyramid of dark thick gray [sic], with something working towards its centre’. Alarmed, the Keeper hurled his chair at the spectre, but it passed straight through and struck the opposite wall.

In that moment the cloud disappeared through the door and down the stairs, at the bottom of which stood a soldier on sentry duty. As he turned towards the door to investigate the commotion inside, he was alarmed by a ‘dreadful figure [that] had issued from the doorway, which he took at first for an escaped bear, on its hind legs. It passed him, and scowled upon him with a human face, and the expression of a demon’. The shock of this encounter was so severe that the unfortunate soldier collapsed on the spot. He died in the Tower’s medical bay just 48 hours later.

William Gregory, author of On Animal Magnetism © Wikimedia Commons

Physician, Chemist, Mesmerist

William Gregory (1803-1858), the author of this strange ghostly tale, was an eminent Edinburgh-born physician and chemist. He studied and later taught Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and was elected a fellow of both the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. William was, therefore, one of the leading scientists of his day and his book, On Animal Magnetism, was not a collection of throwaway ghost stories but a serious scientific tome on the, sometimes controversial, topic of mesmerism.

Like many scientists working in the early 19th century, William Gregory had been influenced and inspired by the theories of the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Writing in 1779, Mesmer had proposed the idea that all creatures and inanimate objects are possessed of a natural energy that can transfer between them and influence their behaviours. Mesmer named this energy animal magnetism. One of the effects of animal magnetism that Mesmer noted was that it enabled him to put his patients into a trance-like state; a condition later renamed by another Edinburgh-based scientist as hypnosis.

For William Gregory, stories such as that of the Tower’s ghost were proof of the existence of animal magnetism. The swirling grey pyramid and the form of the demonic bear-like creature were, for William, a manifestation of the natural energy contained in all objects and beings. He called this visible mesmeric phenomenon odylic light.

William was not, however, the first person to equate animal magnetism with spooky goings-on. Mesmerist ideas had also had a profound influence on artists and writers of the age. Authors from Mary Shelley – whose pioneering work of horror Frankenstein (1818) has characters falling into mesmeric trances – to Edgar Allen Poe, suffused their stories with themes of animal magnetism and, in doing so, created new genres of gothic literature. They were stories that tapped into, and encouraged, a widespread interest in spiritualism and the occult that, in turn, led to a Victorian craze for séances and the Ouija board.

The Keeper’s Tale

It is tempting, therefore, as the sceptic that I am to re-read the story of the Tower ghost in the light of those great works of gothic fantasy and to suggest that William Gregory had been duped by a master storyteller. Or perhaps, more worryingly, that he was duping us. Could the Tower’s bear be just another work of fiction in the ghostly footsteps of Shelley or Poe?

Perhaps. But there is a twist to this tale.

On 25 August 1860, a question appeared in the Victorian journal Notes and Queries: ‘Is there not a ghost story connected with the Tower of London? […] Has not the ghost, or appearance, been seen once at least during this century, and with fatal results?’. Two weeks later Notes and Queries published two replies. One was from a George Offor who, remarkably, claimed to have been present at the burial in a graveyard near the Tower of the soldier who had been terrified to death by the bear. The other, more remarkable still, was from Edmund Lenthal Swifte, the Keeper of the Crown Jewels himself; the man to whom the apparition had appeared in the Martin Tower.

Their testimony set the record straight and corrected William Gregory’s errors. The ghost had appeared in January 1816, not 1821 as William Gregory had claimed, and what Edmund had witnessed was not a grey pyramid but a floating ‘cylindrical figure, like a glass tube … its contents appeared to be a dense fluid, white and pale azure, like to the gathering of a summer cloud’. What all agreed upon, however, is that there had been a bear-like ghost and that the shock of it had proved fatal.

The Tower of London, host to strange goings on? © Historic Royal Palaces

Phantasmagorical Experiments

Edmund further revealed that he had not been aware of William Gregory’s theories of animal magnetism and had not realised that his story, albeit it with some errors, had been recorded for science and posterity. He also revealed another twist to the story; his own scientific explanation for the mysterious events of that tragic night.

‘Shortly before this strange event’, he reported, ‘some young lady-residents in the Tower had been … suspected of making phantasmagorial experiments at their windows’. To prevent further such pranks by his neighbours, he went on, the guard on the Jewel House had been doubled.

Quite what the phantasmagorial or phantasmagorical experiments undertaken by the residents of the Tower were, is left to the reader’s imagination but they seem to reflect the early 19th century interest in spiritualism, the occult and, of course, mesmerism. The term phantasmagoria was often used to describe illusions and tricks played with light and mirrors but Edmund Lenthal Swifte’s suspicions about his neighbours and the doubling of the guard suggest more malign intentions.

The emergence of two eyewitnesses to the creepy happenings at the Tower gives me pause for thought. Could it be that residents of the Tower were trying, and perhaps even managing, to raise the dead? That the demonic spectre of a bear has stalked the Tower since 1816 claiming its unsuspecting victims? Or were William, Edmund, and George all part of some elaborate hoax?

Whatever the case, I’ll probably be keeping my eyes peeled for bears, and perhaps you should too!

Alden Gregory
Curator of Historic Buildings
Historic Royal Palaces

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