A College Mystery has become a staple of the folklore concerning Christ’s College, Cambridge.
The edition under consideration was published by Black Heath Editions in 2016. Black Heath Editions republishes lesser known works of supernatural fiction from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Kindle format for incredibly reasonable prices. I would not have even heard of many of these authors (and their works) had it not been for Black Heath Editions. However, I would be remiss if I did not point out what I consider to be a major failing of this version. This Black Heath kindle edition does not contain any of the five (or six) illustrations included in the 1918 (or 1923) editions. In my opinion, this absence takes away from the willing suspension of disbelief necessary for such a tale.
A College Mystery was A. P. Baker’s only work of fiction ever published. W. Heffer and Sons Ltd of Cambridge published the First Edition in late 1918. This was followed by a Second Edition in 1923. To the best of my knowledge, the only difference between the two editions is a slight change on the front cover-board; as well as the possible inclusion of one additional illustration in the 1923 edition.
Arthur Ponsford Baker was born in Cape Colony (what would later become South Africa) on the 6th of September, 1873. His father was a colonial merchant. By 1881, the Baker family had returned to England. Arthur grew up to attend Christ’s College in 1892 with the idea of gaining a medical career.
In 1895, Arthur suffered a crippling sports injury. As a result, he had to leave Christ’s giving up on his medical career ambition. However, he returned to Christ’s in 1903, this time seeking a degree in History which he received in 1904; becoming a lecturer in History at Christ’s College thereafter.
A. P. Baker was greatly admired as a lecturer and as a supporter of Christ’s College especially by the students. On 20 March 1919, Arthur Ponsford Baker died at the too young age of 45.
My thanks are due . . . to the Provost of Eton for reading through the manuscript of this little book and for kindly comment . . .[i]
In the Preface to A College Mystery, Baker stated unambiguously, in the quote above, that M. R. James, the acclaimed writer of ghost tales (as well as then Provost of Eton) was familiar with A College Mystery. Not only that, he had read and commented on it as well.
A College Mystery is a variation on the “found manuscript” horror tale and is presented to the audience in several layers. Baker, as the narrator, initially relays to the reader several reports based upon reports of a wandering ghost at Fellows’ Garden, Christ College, Cambridge. Baker then comments that he has come into possession of a collection of papers of one Simon Goodridge.
These papers were grouped into three parts:
The first was the “Record of Christopher Round.” Being a close friend of Round, this initial and largest section of the collection was bequeathed to Goodridge following Round’s death. Written by Round, thirty years after a dark deed, the narrative detailed the circumstances which conspired to turn what was a years-long personal enmity with a man named Collier into professional contention. Then, their professional rivalry expanded into envy; and then into jealous, indignant rage. Until finally, this rage became murder.
The second part was comprised of two newspaper articles reprinting 1) the coroner’s inquest into Collier’s death and 2) Collier’s Will. The inquest established Collier’s death as accidental. This exonerated Round of any wrong-doing as well as casting doubt on Round’s recollection of the events leading to Collier’s death. As events would have it, Round was never informed of the inquest’s judgment.
Collier’s Will detailed the motivation behind his actions leading to the final collision between Round and himself. The document innocently explained away Round’s misconceptions regarding Collier’s intentions. Round’s subsequent deed was made all the more tragic. This would haunt him the rest of his days . . . and beyond.
The final part, Goodridge’s personal statement, provided an outsider’s perspective on the Round / Collier rivalry; including the events leading up to Collier’s death. Aware of the events’ impact upon Round’s health—physical and mental, Goodridge’s comments only deepened the reality of the tragedy.
And, as a postscript, Goodridge included a few reports of the supposed haunting. By the date and location of the haunting, he was able to link the unquiet spirit to Christopher Round.
There are numerous reviews and commentaries on A College Mystery found on the internet. For the most part, each covers the same points and say roughly the same things. However, some articles say it better than others. The Haunted Library, a blog, posted on 10 November 2014 a masterful review of A College Mystery. Summarizing the story, it stated that “Baker's ingenious little book purports to be a true account of the events which resulted in there being a ghost in the Fellows' Garden at Christ's College.”[ii] A little further on, the blog-post continues:
A College Mystery is a work of fiction, but Baker did such a skilful job of putting his book together, adding weight to his story by creating newspaper articles that read as utterly genuine and adding footnotes, that his account of the Fellows' Garden ghost has been accepted by many over the years as true.
I find this comment to be very interesting. When I began researching A College Mystery for this posting, I was struck by how many sources treated the story as factual. In other words, that there really is an unquiet spirit haunting the Fellows' Garden at Christ's College and that Baker, in essence, was attempting to clarify the origins of this paranormal phenomenon.
This was incredible! I am not sure why, but of all the tales of haunting written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, A College Mystery was one of the extremely few that was actually believed to be true! On the blog, Ghost Cities, Ani Balan wrote “Although it was ostensibly a work of fiction, it has since come to be widely accepted as true.” A little later in the same article, Balan went on:
The fictional story of Round and Collier has become so firmly attached to the ghost at Christ’s that it is impossible to say whether Baker invented that too, or whether there really were sightings of a strange figure in the Fellows’ Garden around which he wove his fiction.[iii]
Rupert Matthews’ Little Book of the Paranormal, published in 2010, treated the incident in A College Mystery as a true haunting. The entry on Christ’s College, reproduced below in its entirety, doesn’t even mention Baker or his tale; but treats the haunting as a real phenomenon.
At any time of the year a visitor to the Christ’s College, Cambridge, may come across a stooped figure shuffling quietly around the Fellows’ Garden. This is the penitent ghost of a Fellow from two centuries ago named Christopher Round. He killed another Fellow of the college on this spot and, although he escaped the noose, his spirit returns still in the hope of achieving forgiveness.[iv]
Even Christ’s College Magazine 2010 (page 26), referred to an October 2009 article on Haunted Cambridge locales that mentioned in passing “. . . the legend of the ghosts of the Fellows’ Garden, described in A. P. Baker’s A College Mystery.”[v]
Whether based in actual lore or utterly fictional, Baker’s ghost, ironically, has achieved a life of its own.
A large part of this was due to Baker’s skill incorporating actual locations (Fellows’ Garden, the pool/bath, rooms in the Fellows’ Building) within the framework of his tale. These images, and others, insert a large dose of realism to the story; actual places, still visible to the present day.
His familiarity with Christ’s College, along with the several drawings included in the Heffer and Sons editions, add a degree of intimacy not usually found in a typical British tale of haunting.
A College Mystery concludes with the narrator describing incidents involving supposed haunting at Christ’s College. The narrator links it to Round’s earlier statement because of the locations of the reports and the date they both occurred—May 29—the date of Collier’s death.
But it doesn’t end there.
The 1998 edition of Christ’s College Magazine included a piece, A College Mystery – A Further Mystery?, written by Michael Wyatt. Similar to the postscript in Baker’s book, this short piece brings the haunting up to a more modern time, implying that what goes on at Fellows’ goes on there still.[vi]
The story of A College Mystery is, therefore, not so much a ghostly tale as a murder mystery to explain a ghost.[vii]
A College Mystery was written not as a ghost story in the strictest sense, but more as an exposé providing an origin tale for a haunting. It is not a tale of haunting, rather, of the events which lead to there being a haunting in the first place. As a consequence of Baker’s approach and style in writing, A College Mystery blurred the line between fiction and reality. As a result, his tale is actually believed by many to be a true record.[viii]
I can think of no greater tribute for an author’s work.
Baker, A. P. A College Mystery. Black Heath Editions. 2016. Kindle Edition.
Balan, Anil. “A College Mystery.” Ghost Cities. Anil Balan. 19 August 2012. Web. 06 April 2018.
Bowkett, Kelvin, Helen Mort, Tamsin Astbury, editors. “Staff.” Christ’s College Magazine 2010. Christ’s College Cambridge. 23 October 2012. Web. 05 April 2018.
Collia, G. R. “A College Mystery ~ A. P. Baker.” The Haunted Library. G. R. Collia. 10 November 2014. Web. 03 April 2018.
Haunted Rooms. “Christ’s College Cambridge.” Haunted Rooms. Haunted Rooms & McMedia Group Ltd. Web. 05 April 2018.
Pardoe, Rosemary. “A. P. Baker and A College Mystery.” The Ghosts & Scholars: M. R. James Newsletter. Issue 8 (Sept 2005). Web. 16 April 2018.
[i] Baker, A. P. “Preface.” A College Mystery. Black Heath Editions. 2016. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Collia, G. R. “A College Mystery ~ A. P. Baker.” The Haunted Library. 10 November 2014.
[iii] Balan, Anil. “A College Mystery.” Ghost Cities. Anil Balan. 19 August 2012.
[iv] Matthews, Rupert. Little Book of the Paranormal. The History Press, Glouchestershire. 2010, 2011.
[vi] More than anything else, Wyatt’s article reads more like a work of fan fiction.
[vii] Pardoe, Rosemary. “A. P. Baker and A College Mystery.” The Ghosts & Scholars: M. R. James Newsletter. Issue 8 (Sept 2005).
[viii] This phenomenon called to mind the reaction to the 1997 horror movie, The Blair Witch Project. A fictional supernatural creature set in an actual location is thought by many viewers to be a record of true events rather than entertainment. Also, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds aired on October 30, 1938 and allegedly caused mass panic and confusion.