Avery Gilbert’s What the Nose Knows previews the six stages of postmortem decay: fresh/bloat/active decay/advanced decay/dry decay/remains. Everything’s quiet at first, but by the second day the gut bacteria send out a skunky sulphur dioxide, which shifts to a sickly sweet smell once the organs start liquefying. Then you get protein breakdown which produces nitrogenous compounds like putrescine and cadaverine with a characteristic nitrogen ammonia reek. In the phase of dry decay, the body smells like “wet fur and leather.” Just in case you wanted to know, and you’ll impress everyone if you stumble across a rotting body.
But I’m more interested in the spirits of the dead, not the dead meat part. What do ghosts smell like? On all the current crop of paranormal shows, the medium has a chat with a dead relative and maybe describes what they look like but rarely do they say what they smell like (the technical term for a psychic smelling ability is clairolfaction.) Occasionally you will hear of someone describing something banal like Uncle Bob’s pipe tobacco, but it is not a big feature of modern day channeling or mediumship.
In the 19th century, during the heyday of Spiritualism, seance circles were full of mysterious raps and more flamboyant ghostly communications. Among the most spectacular phenomenon were phantoms that temporarily assumed a solid form, or “materializations.” William Moses was an Oxford educated minister, and one of the most scholarly and well-respected mediums of the 1870’s. During his seance circles, pearls and precious stones appeared from thin air, columns of light hovered over the sitters, and ethereal concerts played on invisible instruments. But a more unusual feature of his mediumistic sessions, was the spontaneous oozing of scented oil from his head, or the mists of perfume from the ceiling including beautiful rains of verbena, hay, musk, sandalwood and roses. He described some of these phenomenon in his notebooks:
“I find it difficult to convey any idea of the subtle odours that have been diffused through the room, or of the permanence of the scent. It is usually the first manifestation and the last. The perfume is sprinkled in showers from the ceiling, and borne in waves of cool air round the circle, especially when the atmosphere is close and the air oppressive. Its presence in a particlar place is shown to me by the luminous haze which accompanies it. I can trace its progress round the circle by the light… and can frequently say to a certain sitter: ‘You will smell the scent directly. I see the luminous form going to you.’ My vision has always been confirmed by the exclamations of delight which follow.”
“When we first observed this manifestation, it was attended by a great peculiarity. The odour was circumscribed in space, confined to a belt or a band, beyond which it did not penetrate. It surrounded the circle to a few feet, and outside of that belt was not perceptible; or it was drawn across the room as a cordon, so that it was posible to walk into it and out of it again – the presence and a sense of the odour and the temperature of the air which acompanied it being most marked…Within it the temperature was cool and the scent strong, outside of it the air was decidedly warmer, and not a trace of the perfume was perceptible. It was no question of fancy. The scent was too strong for that.”
“I have known the same phenomenon to occur in the open air. I have been walking with a friend, for instance, and we have walked into air laden with scent, and through it again into the natural atmosphere….I have even known cases where wet scent has been produced and showered down into the open air. On one special occasion, in the Isle of Wight, my attention was attracted by the patter of some fine spray on a lady’s silk dress, as we were walking along a road. One side of the dress was plentifully besprinkled with fine spray, which gave forth a delicious odour, very clearly perceptible for some distance round.”
“Great quantities of dry musk have been from time to time thrown about in the house where our circle meets. On a late occasion it fell in very considerable quantitites over a writing desk at which a lady was sitting in the act of writing letters. It was midday and no one was near at the time, yet the particles of musk were so numerous as to pervade the whole contents of the desk. They were placed, for no throwing would have produced such a result, at the very bottom of the desk, and between the papers which it contained. The odour was most prounounced, and the particles, when gathered together, made up a considerable packet.”
Other materializations were not always so lovely. For instance, a Polish medium named Franek Kluski, who was known for contacting animal spirits (often mediums were asked to produce the ghosts of departed pets, so they could be reunited with their owners) let things slip into high strangeness during one of his sessions in 1919. Apparently the forms of random stray dead animals and birds began to appear. In one case the spirit of a lion materialized and began to lick the sitters, “with a moist and prickly tongue, and gave forth the odour of a great feline, and even after the seance the sitters, and especially the medium, were impregnated with this acrid scent as if they had made a long stay in a menagerie among wild beasts.” It got even weirder at a later seance when an “apeman” appeared and began to carry sofas through the air, and press its shaggy head against people. One of the reporters said, “ A smell came from it like that of a deer or a wet dog. When one of the sitters put out his hand the pithecanthrope seized it and licked it slowly three times. Its tongue was large and soft. At other times we all felt out legs touched by what seemed to be frolicsome dogs.”