The Extra-Special Talking Mongoose

Christopher Josiffe, author of the award-winning Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose (Strange Attractor Press, 2017) has written widely on the paranormal, esoteric and weird, and is news editor for Fortean Times magazine.

This second edition of his book was announced this week and it includes a few changes, some of which were made from specifically Manx advice from the first edition. Be sure to check out @CultureVannin on Twitter for more about the extraordinary Gef and his time with the Irving family.

He wrote the following for Gef when the book was first published:

I believe the reasons for Gef’s enduring popularity are twofold. Firstly, the case is regarded as wholly unique in the annals of ghosts, hauntings and mysteries. A talking mongoose! Secondly, Gef has a distinct personality.

Initially, I had believed him to be a complete one-off, but soon learned this was not entirely correct: there are other examples of loquacious, irreverent and foul-mouthed poltergeists, and several hauntings in which small animals had apparently manifested. 

Nevertheless, there are plenty of details that still exert fascination and bafflement. “I am a ghost in the form of a weasel”, Gef told the Irving family, “and I shall haunt you with weird noises and clanking chains”. But a ghost who ate and drank? The food left out for Gef by his hosts was not the sort of fare one might expect a weasel or mongoose to enjoy. Lean bacon, potato pie, boiled sweets… Gef “told the Irvings that his existence was physical and that he must have food to live”. He also said he was an “earthbound spirit”, but apparently a spirit susceptible to illness. “Jim, I have a goddamn cough! I have a hell of a cold. You will have to get me something”. Presumably cough medicine, or at least some cough sweets. 

He later revealed “I am not a spirit. I am just a little extra, extra clever mongoose”. Something of a bombshell, and yet, as I discovered, mongooses were not unknown to the Island. 20 years before Gef’s debut, the owner of nearby Eary Cushlin farm had introduced a dozen mongooses to control the rabbit population. 

Eary Cushlin is just 1.3 miles (2 kilometres) south of Doarlish Cashen, and had a sinister reputation. Gef, strangely, appeared to be frightened of ghosts, and challenged Jim Irving to walk through there at night. He could be affectionate and demanding. “If you are kind to me, I will bring you good luck”. Jim wrote in his diary of an occasion when Gef had annoyed his wife Margaret: “…she will not speak to him, and this upsets Gef. I heard him ask my wife…‘Do you like me?’” Later, he complained: “Jim, Maggie won’t speak to me”.

There was a malevolent aspect to Gef’s character. “I am not evil. I could be if I wanted. You don’t know what damage or harm I could do if I were roused. I could kill you all, but I won’t”.  Sometimes he appears bombastic and over-grandiose, like a spoiled teenager. “I’ll split the atom! I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!” 

A few locals (other than the Irvings themselves) claimed to have seen Gef. In the field behind Gordon Chapel, ten-year-old Will Cubbon recalled seeing “a little yellow animal, with fluffy fur and a black tip at the end of his tail… He was close to the hedge of the field and, running very fast”. On another occasion, Doris Cashin, 16, saw the animal “crossing the high road…She said he was light yellow, bushy tail, with black tuft at the end”. 

The story begins to get murky after ghost-hunter Harry Price, who had been investigating the case on and off for four years, insisted on proof. He had given Voirrey Irving a Kodak camera to snap her little companion, but the initial results weren’t convincing.

Price was then sent some fur samples Gef had allegedly removed from his back and tail, along with a long thin black hair. “I pulled it out of my eyebrow, and Oh, God! It did hurt!” Price also sent Voirrey some modelling clay which was duly returned to London, supposedly imprinted with Gef’s tooth- and paw-prints. These were all sent to the Zoological Society of London to be analysed. The paw-prints were dismissed on the basis that no known animal had such a disparity in size between its front and rear paws (Gef’s front paws were said to be large and human-like, with which he banged on the wall with his fist, struck matches, and stole small objects from neighbouring homes). His fur samples were given equally short shrift; the expert suggested they had been taken from a dog. Sure enough, when Price visited the Irvings in 1935, he secretly managed to snip a few hairs off Mona, their sheepdog. These proved to be identical to the ‘Gef’ fur.

Clear proof of fraud. And yet… Numerous people claimed to have heard Gef speak. The postman, who heard Gef’s “very high pitched” voice whilst in the kitchen with Jim Irving and daughter Voirrey, said:

“The first words were hard to understand, but once I got used to it I could follow every word. I would say that the voice is a full octave higher than the human voice…There is no doubt in my mind that I heard Gef. He did not use very nice language. ‘Put the bloody gramophone on!’ is a fair example of his choice bits”.

Harry Price’s investigator, ex-Naval officer Captain Dennis, visited Doarlish Cashen three times. On each occasion he believed he had witnessed something inexplicable. During one visit he heard Gef’s voice coming, it seemed, from behind the wainscoting in the front room. At the time, Jim and Margaret Irving were in full view, while Voirrey was visibly 100 feet away outside the house, in a stackyard feeding the hens. On another occasion, Dennis and Jim were outside, 80 paces from the house, knowing Voirrey to be indoors. Gef’s voice could be heard calling to them, close by.

I had begun researching the story of the Dalby Spook believing the answer would turn out to be a simple one. Hoax or genuine. Seven years on, I am still unable to say whether the Gef case was a haunting, a poltergeist episode, a prank that had got out of hand, deliberate hoax, folie à plusieurs within the Irving family, collective delusion that took hold of an entire district…

I believe some of these explanations are partially correct and may account for some of the reported phenomena, but no single one is satisfactory in explaining the entire case. And this is how I believe it should remain, as a wonderful and uniquely Manx mystery.

Whether fact or fiction, Gef has a definite personality discernible through his many sayings and doings. In this respect he differs from the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. Neither, to my knowledge, ever offered a tip for the Grand National, visited Ronaldsway airport to watch the planes, or dropped in on Peel’s bus depot (where he stole a driver’s sandwiches). A ‘Spiritualistic investigator’ lady flew all the way from South Africa, hoping to meet Gef. He refused to appear. Asked if he had anything to say before she boarded her plane for the return flight, Gef replied: “Tell her I hope the propeller falls off!”