Jumpers and the Killer Monk of Beachy Head.

Michael Goss
Magonia 55, March 1996

Go to the N19 district of London, ask someone the whereabouts of Suicides’ Bridge. Unless that person is a stranger like yourself, the chances are heavily in favour of your being directed there right away. No painful brow-furrowing or other symptoms of urgent memory-searching, no doubt or vagueness; the answer will be with you in an instant.

Everyone in this part of North London seems to know that the metal-railed bridge carrying Hornsey Lane over the A1 between Archway and Highgate is … Suicides’ Bridge. Look down from it into the vertically sided chasm below: you have the prospect of a long, straight drop onto a ceaselessly busy road and you will be inclined to agree that anyone who made the jump would be committing suicide. If the fall didn’t kill them, the traffic surely must… But perhaps you will be told the story I have heard on three occasions (and from three different people) concerning an unsuccessful jumper whom neither fall nor traffic accounted for. He plummeted onto the Al and lived. Lived on a permanent cripple, for he landed on his feet so that his legs were crushed and shortened concertina-fashion by the impact. It may be true, for all I know. More certainly the people who tell the story talk as if it was – and with a sort of macabre pride.

Suicides’ Bridge is remarkable chiefly because it is a high place with a sheer drop which an unusually high number of people in and around N19 are alleged to have selected as their point of exit from this world. Asking why so many have chosen this place and not somewhere else may seem redundant. It shares with other suicide venues dealt with in this article certain features that a suicidal person might regard as practical recommendations. Besides offering the aforementioned sheer drop to near-certain oblivion, it is accessible; you can get there easily – just walk onto it and once on you will find little or nothing (and probably nobody) to stop you from jumping off.

And once word gets around that a particular place is associated with an unusually high suicide rate – once this has passed into popular credence and perhaps, as in N19, into popular parlance, so that place will be colloquially known as Suicide Bridge, Pool, Leap or whatever – the likelihood is increased that would-be suicides will accept it in exactly these terms. Some will try to make use of its advertised facilities, thereby reinforcing the image. Given time and repetition of events, a species of suggestion might operate to which even persons uncursed by thoughts of self-destruction might succumb. Somebody finding him- or herself at this place might suddenly become oppressed by its associations – might spontaneously and without premeditation jump to their deaths.

Look down from it into the vertically sided chasm below:
you have the prospect of a long, straight drop onto a ceaselessly busy road and you will be inclined to
agree that anyone who made the jump would be committing suicide

Yet apparently it takes more than being in a high place with a sheer drop to endow a place with the nominal, popular title of being a Suicide venue. Dr Jacqueline Simpson, current President of the Folklore Society, tells me that in Worthing there are three very similar multi-storey car parks. One of these has been favoured by potential (or actual) suicides, logging by her guess perhaps a dozen over a twenty-year period; the other two, despite being to all intents and appearances just as suitable for that purpose, have no comparable record (either no suicides whatsoever, or at most just a few). [1] Similarly, I recall that at one time Waterloo Bridge stood out from all competitors spanning the Thames. If you wanted to jump off a London bridge, you went to Waterloo. Again: why?

“Why did he do it? He had everything to live for…” If suicide is an act from which we attempt to distance ourselves – as we do, not always but frequently; if we profess ourselves unable to understand why a particular person killed him- or herself; and if we mutter sadly that the reason is lost in that individual’s private self, then the mystery is magnifies when we see so many people committing suicide, at different times but in the same place. What looks in individual cases like a private psychological mystery may now appear a general, metaphysical one. So we may begin to speculate that there could be Something about those places that encourages – no, forces – folk to commit suicide.

Our forefathers would have understood this. They would have been able to attach a name to the entity who urges humankind to self-destruction; wasn’t it known that suicide could only come from the prompting and tempting of the Devil? That certainty declines alongside the decline of belief in a quasi-material Satan. One of the great ironies about Spiritualism’s rise in the 19th century was a revivification or refinement of the old belief that suicide was a product of external, disembodied influence, a phenomenon that occurred at the instigation of demonic spirits, savage revenge-bound ghosts and elemental forms which might or might not hold some relationship to the other, more tractable varieties.
“I have … touched on the power of suggestion by Elementals, who, when being the spirits of those who have committed suicide or have been murderers or particularly evil-livers, seek to lure to destruction anyone who comes under their malign influence”

wrote Jessie Adelaide Middleton. [2] Hers was a personal approach, but not untypical of what many Spiritualists believed. And suppose these murderous spirits, or something like them, haunted certain high and lonely places, mesmerising the susceptible – and perhaps the less susceptible, likewise – into acts of self termination! Wouldn’t this explain the way so many suicides seem to “cluster” at particular, notorious locations?

One of the finest exponents of this idea was Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965), author of more than thirty books of ghost stories. That total, by the way, ignores almost as many pieces of outright fiction and historical studies; it relates purely to what he claimed were true ghost stories. A goodly number of these starred a familiar hero, an endangered but undaunted investigator who rolled up his sleeves and took on the most malevolent phantoms imaginable in hand-to-hand combat. This sterling figure was none other than Elliott O’Donnell.

Vengeful, malevolent phantoms were an Elliott O’Donnell speciality and he had a particularly fine line in terrible elemental spirits who haunted pools, streams and crags, luring the unsuspecting to their doom. It is possible that he owed this preoccupation to an episode during his Dublin undergraduate days when, according to him, he was throttled by a homicidal phantom (not for the last time, either; O’Donnell seems to have suffered more than most ghost-hunters from spirits with a capacity for GBH). It is still more likely he copped it from the literary trend popularised by William Hope Hodgson in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1913) or Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, two elementally challenged occultist detectives whom O’Donnell appears to have been determined to act in real life. [3]

There is the chief and obvious difference between O’Donnell and Carnacki or John Silence: he was real, they weren’t. His first-person testimonies may have been as fictional as theirs – one hopes! – but they were no less amazing. And there is some magic about O’Donnell’s writing that has made people want to take him at face value.

I don’t dwell upon Elliott O’Donnell for the pleasure of contemplating his fascinating larger-than-life persona, nor yet for the fun of calling him a wonderful liar, which isn’t an appropriate term to use when you are dealing with one who valiantly extended the great tradition of the Victorian First-Person-Attested Ghost Story well past its sell-by date. In my case, it would be crass ingratitude to write of him like that; I can’t forget that at the age of fifteen I thought his Trees of Ghostly Dread the best book ever written. My motive is that for some time I suspected him to be the originator of a story which typifies the way that recurrent suicides are blamed upon occult influences: the Killer Monk of Beachy Head.

Jutting into the Channel near Eastbourne, Sussex, Beachy Head is a high place and one with a terrible reputation for suicides. The first time I ever saw it – as a child and in the misty distance – my parents solemnly informed me it was “the place people jump off to commit suicide”. That conditioned my feelings towards Beachy Head for ever more. It was only a matter of weeks ago when researching this article that I realised that I had never questioned this scenario. That Beachy Head had an unhealthily high suicide rate I didn’t and couldn’t doubt – but was it really as high as everyone seemed to pretend?

So I rang Eastbourne Police and asked – hesitantly: was it true that Beachy Head had or has a larger-than-usual number of suicides? The person at the other end plainly thought she was dealing with a fool. “Yes. A look in the newspapers will tell you that.” Not having the leisure to do so in any meaningful depth, I will quote some figures given by a journalist writing in 1976. According to him, Beachy Head averaged ten deaths a year, of which six would be ‘clear cases of suicide’; accidental falls, according to the same source, ‘are rare’, making the former figure a cautious under-estimate. [4]

The first time I ever saw it – as a child and in the misty distance – my parents solemnly informed me it was “the place people jump off to commit suicide"

Rising to some six hundred feet at its tallest, Beachy Head might need nothing else to recommend it to would-be suicides. Notwithstanding, the large number has been tentatively blamed on the vengeful spirit of a monk left homeless when his monastery was sacked by Henry VIII’s officers. Hunted down mercilessly, shackled and hurled from the cliff, he is now supposed to haunt the Head, malevolently enticing susceptible victims to leap to their deaths.

Just when the Killer Monk stepped forward to provide a supernatural explanation for the Head’s deadly consistency is hard to establish. He does not appear to figure in any of the great Victorian or Edwardian collections of “true ghost stories” and, as I said before, at one time I suspected him to be another of Elliott O’Donnell’s productions, carrying as he does that writer’s trademark by being a merciless, malevolent spirit who seeks awful revenge upon the living. The truth is, though, that the only reference to Beachy Head I have found in O’Donnell appears at the start of chapter XXXIII in Haunted Britain (Rider, 1948). This doesn’t deal with any malevolent monks but (c/o an account published ‘some years before the last war’ by the Sunday Chronicle) with a filmy-white female figure seen by four people in the act of precipitating itself from the cliff edge. ‘A remarkable feature in many of the Beachy Head tragedies, and one that has never been satisfactorily explained, is that when the bodies of suicides have been found, the left shoe has been missing,’ concludes O’Donnell. As far as I am aware, no other investigator picked up that detail. It could be the key to everything.

Had Elliott O’Donnell a better tale than this to tell, he would surely have told it. Had he known anything of the Killer Monk in 1948, he would surely have been on his case. Still, we are talking about an author of too many titles (and of too many ephemerally published ones) for most researchers to hunt down. I would not be totally surprised to learn that the Killer Monk managed to creep into one or two of them; as it is, I can only repeat I have found no sign of him and have to conclude therefore that he came from somewhere else.. .probably.

Significantly, though, at least two accounts from now-defunct popular magazines point to an episode that may have promoted the “Killer Monk” image. [5] I have not found this story elsewhere, but knowing how such magazines routinely go to previously published accounts for their material I suspect there exists a much longer version which theirs helped to “feed back” into wider circulation. For certain, the Killer Monk incident enabled these writers to dramatise the fierce and fatal image that Beachy Head evokes for press and public alike.

The story dealt with the climax of an exorcism on Beachy Head in 1953, an event attended by one hundred people who gathered beneath wooden crosses and then illumination provided by the flashing of the lighthouse below. The real drama came when medium Ray de Vekey cried out that he “saw” a “bearded man … with a flowing robe with a cowl, like a monk … He is calling us a lot of fools .. Fools, I will sweep you over!”

Mr de Vekey began to struggle towards the cliff edge and had to be restrained from going over it. Later he would allege that he had been pulled or lured to this certain destruction by an ‘elderly monk with black markings on his habit and his arms and legs in irons’. His consolation was a sure feeling that the evil influence had been driven from the place. Tragically and bathetically, just three weeks later the headland claimed yet another victim.

This incident alone offered to give useful form and substance to the as yet ill-defined and unnamed Horror of Beachy Head. The Monk was a comprehensible personification of evil; he assigned cause to a series of separate acts of self-murder which, inevitably, might otherwise have been self-contained mysteries. The legend’s internal logic showed that the putative Monk had a terrible motive for his actions; through him, the victims had a motive for theirs. It all made sense.

And yet he does not appear to have succeeded in establishing himself as a popular sort of folk-demon. By this I mean that the Killer Monk of Beachy Head never became a widely circulating story. Being unable to find more on it than I have used to write the foregone summary, I asked Jacqueline Simpson whether she had heard this or any other legend of the kind concerning Beachy Head. As a keen and informed student of Sussex folklore (not to mention being authoress of The Folklore of Sussex, Batsford 1973) she seemed well placed to comment, the more so as she resides about fifteen miles westward along the coast from the monk-haunted head-land.

Dr Simpson replied that she had heard no legends of any kind of ghost haunting Beachy Head – was unaware of any published reference to such – and added that none of the people to whom she had passed on my enquiry had heard of it, these including an enthusiastic collector of Sussex lore and books as well as a man with a long-standing investigative interest in the paranormal events of that county. Even allowing for the possibility that earlier folklore writers may have shunned placing so unsavoury a subject as suicide before their readers, she was inclined to regard the Killer Monk as a quite recent phenomenon, a quite-recently invented story and most likely no older than the de Vekey seance. The possibility that he was essentially invented by Ray de Vekey escaped neither Dr Simpson nor myself.

The Killer Monk of Beachy Head has all the indications of being a modern legend, then, but he cashes in on two antique motifs. The story is one of many exploiting the dramatic possibilities of the Dissolution with its cast of dispossessed monks and abbots. This epic drama has been a resource of folk-narrative for centuries; the Dissolution can be invoked as background for tales of tragedy and violence or more specifically as the rationale for a haunting. Most of all, it explores the belief that the injury and insult inflicted on the Church and its followers at this time would be sternly, strongly avenged. Usually this takes the form of a curse on those who usurp Church property; the new owners of the alienated abbey are prostrated by financial ruin, their children die in tragic accidents, the family line is extinguished etc. But here the revenge is more direct and a lot more physical.

In summary: the Killer Monk of Beachy Head is a modern legend whose precise source is unknown to this writer, but one which, on the evidence assembled here, was most likely a promotion of journalists around 1953. This nightmare-figure professes to explain the Head’s proven bad record of suicides, constituting itself around popular awareness that the place has such a record and the suspicion that it is sufficiently abnormal to require an abnormal explanation. In structure, it utilises a motif which is traditional (the curse of the Dissolution) but also literary – the latter by reference to concepts found in O’Donnell and most notably those relating to the immaterial existence of violent “elementals” whose sole pleasure lies in the destruction of humans. Ultimately, the Monk does not explain Beachy Head’s record, but testifies to the old credo that suicide is so aberrant an action that it must come about as a result of external and supernatural influences.
The Killer Monk is a symbolic expression of what we would like to blame suicide upon - an immaterial enemy who operates on a mental level, tempting victims to jump off a high place

We can call him a bit of a failure, too. Melodramatic as he is, the Killer Monk does not appear to have penetrated Sussex folklore, oral or printed, to any appreciably deep level. I would have little excuse for writing about him were it not for the way he fits into a pattern which traces a narrative trend in the visualisation of suicide.

The Killer Monk is a symbolic expression of what we would like to blame suicide upon. Like the old-time Satan, he is supposed to be an immaterial enemy who operates on a mental level, tempting victims to jump off a high place. But he is also a Maniac figure, a disembodied version of what can be found in more contemporary legends which also offer to solve the mystery of why certain places are contaminated by so many suicides. The London Underground, which according to a BBC documentary suffers a couple of reported suicides each week, [6] has or had its own Platform Maniac whose dark doings I described back in the May 1985 issue of Magonia and more recently in Folklore Frontiers. [7] The Platform Maniac is not depicted as a ghost or disembodied entity – far from it: he is made all the more horrible for being human (and utterly, psychotically insane). Yet in practical terms he is as insubstantial as a phantom. Even his penchant for shoving victims to their doom beneath oncoming trains is in full conformity with the muscular activities of the ghosts and “elementals” that O’Donnell wrote about. From traditional ghost to modern urban maniac is but a short … step. (I nearly wrote “jump” there.)

Then I am reminded of The Golden Gate Murders, a 1979 movie which has been shown several times on British television. Set around San Francisco’s most famous feature (which no one needs reminding is also infamous as one of the world’s most popular sites for suicide attempts) the film stars Susannah York as a nun who teams up with a detective to investigate the death of a priest. Like many before him, he is thought to have ended his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge; the nun insists that not even the most depressed Catholic priest would commit the deadly sin of suicide. In its unassuming way, the plot explores our reluctance to believe that anyone could do such a thing, even if we don’t regard suicide as a deadly sin in the heroine’s strict Catholic terms. it also airs our suspicion that when a particular place becomes notorious for the numbers who do so, what looks like self-murder is in fact murder by Entity or Entities Unknown.

Susannah York was right, as it turned out. I hope I’ll spoil the pleasure of nobody who has yet to see the film if I give away that the priest did not jump off the Golden Gate Bridge: like all too many of those who went before him, he was pulled or pushed off. And by a veritable urban maniac who resides in the secret; steely recesses of the great structure.

The suicidal were once thought victims of the Devil’s temptation. Your modern Maniac is no psychologist and doesn’t bother with enticement, suggestion, mesmerism or anything like that. He simply grabs hold and pushes.

  1. Personal communication (9 September 1995) from Dr Jacqueline Simpson, whom I would like to thank for information and comments on which I have drawn in this article. On the anomaly of why one of these car parks should be so distinguished Dr Simpson has no theory, although she notices that the fact it is opposite the offices of the local paper might influence the choice of someone wishing to exit with a certain amount of publicity.
  2. Jessie Adelaide Middleton, The White Ghost Book (Cassell 1916). The remark is made in context of (or advertisement for) the existence of similar suicide-ghost stories in her other books.
  3. Richard Dalby’s ‘Elliott O’Donnell’ in Book and Magazine Collector 22 (December 1985), pages 38-43, offers an excellent short introduction to the life of the man who was, despite formidable competition from the likes of Harry Price, Britain’s best-known ghost-hunter. Best of all, it gives what the writer claims is a complete bibliography of O’Donnell’s work – a canon of such vast extent as to deter the hope of ever finding, let alone reading, all of it.
  4. Anthony David (see note following)
  5. Anthony Davis. ‘Curse of Beachy Head’, Titbits, 29 January-4 February 1976; Paul Grant, ‘Is Beachy Head Haunted by a Killer Monk?’, Weekend (no date, but some time in 1975). Any discrepancy in my version is likely to have occurred as a result of combining these two accounts.
  6. I quote this figure – which I hope is an average – from a BBC documentary of the London Underground which was shown on 17 May 1989. The interviewee spoke of the investigation of these suicide reports as “a messy job but someone’s got to do it”.
  7. Michael Goss, ‘The Maniac on the Platform‘, Magonia 19 (May 1985), pages 3-6 and 22; ‘September 1994: the news isn’t very good‘, Folklore Frontiers 23 (October 1994), pages 3-6. The latter was inspired by a report in The Guardian (13 September 1994, page 3) of a belligerent and plainly deranged man’s attempt to push a woman under a train at London Bridge station. For a more free-ranging study of legendary assailants, see my The Halifax Slasher and Other ‘Urban Maniac’ Tales’, a paper originally delivered at the Perspectives on Contemporary Legend Conference, Sheffield, 1988 and subsequently published with revisions in A Nest of Vipers. Perspectives an Contemporary Legend Vol. 5, edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith (Sheffield Academic Press 1990), pages 89-111.