The Twilight World of Tallinn by M J Steel Collins

Estonia is apparently a nice part of the world to live in. It rates high for education, economic and press freedom, and is the most democratic of the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. It is also one of the more technological parts of Europe, with high internet usage – it’s the place that brought us that great invention, Skype.

Not exactly the sort of place you would associate with ghosts perhaps. Hallowe’en isn’t celebrated, and the only date in the Estonian church calendar associated with the dead is the 2nd of November, recognised throughout the Christian world as All Souls Day, a day of prayer for the dead. However, scratch below the surface, and you might find that ghosts are in fact a rather important part of the Estonian make up – especially in Tallinn, the capital city. This is the place where a local informed a journalist from Time magazine that it wouldn’t be normal not to have a ghost.

In fact, in terms of the ghostly versus living ratio, Tallinn could be seen as a serious contender for Edinburgh’s crown as The Most Haunted City in the World. Although Tallinn itself was never attacked, razed or pillaged, historically, it could also give Edinburgh a run for its money in the ‘crazy stuff happened here’ stakes. It is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, having been made a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997. Tallinn, actually known as Reval until 1918, has traces of settlement dating back 5,000 years. The city is made up of three parts; The Toompea, or Cathedral Hill, The Old Town and The Estonian Town. The first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050, and the area has always been the seat of power, although it didn’t officially become part of Tallinn until 1877. Nowadays, the Estonian Government, Parliament and several international Embassies are located there. The third section is the Estonian Town; Estonians didn’t become the dominant population in the city until the latter part of the 19th century – until then the majority of residents were Baltic Germans.

The Old Town was the centre of Medieval Trade, and it is here where many buildings dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries can be found. Tallinn, or Reval, if we’re going to be accurate, was at this point a major port in trade between Russia and Scandinavia, and in 1285, became a member of the Hanseatic League, a military and mercantile alliance of Germanic countries in Northern Europe. Prior to this, it was a place that the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Denmark became very interested in during the Northern Crusades in the early 13th century, when Christianity was forced upon the population. The city was sold to the Teutonic Knights in 1346, and continued to be an important trading port between Western and Northern Europe. At this point, Reval had a population of 8,000 and was a fortified city with walls and 66 defence towers.

By 1710, a plague ridden Reval fell under Russian imperial rule. This was in the middle of the Great Northern War of 1700 and 1721, when an alliance led by Tsarist Russia fought against the rule of the Swedish Empire. Reval kept much of its cultural and economic autonomy until 1889. The 19th century saw the city become industrialised, though it remained a very important port. In 1920, Estonia became independent, with Reval, renamed Tallinn, as its capital. The country remained independent until the Second World War, when it was briefly annexed by the USSR in 1940, and then by Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1944. Following the war, Estonia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, when it again became independent. A major figure in Tallinn history is Old Thomas, the figure on the weathervane that was erected on the Town Hall in 1530. Old Thomas is seen as one of the guardians of the city.

And what about the ghosts that lurk after the passing of that history? Most of the houses in The Old Town are reputed to be haunted, and there are several tales of cruelty and magic. Our first place of interest is Raekoja Square, next to the Town Hall in The Old Town. It was used for torture and executions during the Middle Ages. Misbehaving residents would be tied up for days on end to the Shame Pole,so the townspeople could throw rotten fruit and eggs at them – a punishment rather similar to the Stocks. The site of the pole is now marked with a large circular stone.

Perhaps the most famous ghost story to come out of Tallinn is called The Devil’s Wedding. This is reputed to have taken place at Rataskaevu 16, a 15th century house, which has a top floor window bricked up from the inside, but a painted window replete with curtains on the outside. The story goes that centuries ago, the owner of the house, then a hotel, was on the verge of suicide, so desperate was he for money. Just in the nick of time, a stranger, clad in a cloak, approached him, offering a large sum of money for the use of an upstairs apartment for a party on the condition that absolute privacy was guaranteed. The deal was struck, and later on that night, the hotel was besieged with well dressed guests, and the sounds of extreme revelry emanated from the top floor.

Now, this is where versions of the story diverge. In one, the hotelier’s servant cannot resist his curiosity, and peered through the apartment’s keyhole. He was found at death’s door the following day, and just before he popped his clogs, he claimed to have seen Old Nick himself having a wedding party in the room. Another version has it that it’s the hotelier himself who can’t mind his own business and has a look through the keyhole to see Satan partying away. Another retelling of the story states that the hotelier went into the room the following day to find a goatskin bag full of gold. Upon touching the bag, the gold turned to dung, and the hotelier dropped dead on the spot. But other accounts have him survive, but finding the room covered in hoof prints and claw marks. Definitely the sign of a good ghost story that’s done the rounds often enough to have so many different versions!

As for the bricked up window, the reasons behind it are unclear, though it is believed by some that rumours of the Devil holding a wedding party in the room led to the city authorities ordering the window to be bricked over. Another explanation is that a later owner of the building got fed up with reports of the sound of partying taking place in the room and bricked the window up. It may be an old tale, but apparently the party isn’t quite over. Not too long ago, a Dutch diplomat rented the rooms below the haunted apartment, and wound up staying in a local hotel after being freaked out by the strange noises coming from above. When the house was recently remodelled, strange artefacts, including coins, papers and even human bones were found in the walls.

Bones were also found in the walls of an old house at Suur-Karja 10 when it was being remodelled in 1928. The house in question had a reputation for being haunted for centuries. Strange noises such as scratching, knocks and voices were reported by residents right up to the 1920s, but the strange activity stopped after the discovery, and eventual removal, of a skeleton in the walls during the renovations.

Tallinn’s oldest school, the Gustav Adolf Gymnasium was established in 1631 by Swedish King Gustav Adolf on the site of a former convent. Despite the fact the school has been on the site for over 400 years, the spirits of the old nuns can still be seen and heard about the school. Pupils and staff have reported nuns walking in the corridors and the sound of bells. Another haunted public building is the city museum, Linnamuuseum, which is housed in a 14th century house. During the Soviet era, a woman in white was reported several times by staff. Meanwhile in the Garden of the Danish King, Tani Kuninga Aed, the ghost of a woman in an old fashioned crinoline dress has been seen walking along the city wall.

Just by the Finnish Consulate, there can be found a pub and a block of flats on the corner of Piiskopi Street, which was previously the entrance to a large fortress in the Middle Ages. One night, during a party held there, a reveller is said to have been killed, and ever since, the sounds of a ghostly party have been heard. The resident spirit went through a tetchy phase, repeatedly making folk trip on the stairs. However, it stopped when a young child nearly took a tumble, the accident only being prevented by an invisible hand reaching out to stop the kid falling.

Next, we go to Toompea, where there is quite the collection of ethereal residents. The Canadian Embassy is regarded as the most haunted house in the area and was once the subject of a film on Tallinn’s haunted houses. It has two female ghosts, one in black and the other in grey. The grey lady was a somewhat amorous spirit, with a habit of kissing men. She was described as having long nails and ‘smelling like the tomb’. An English naval officer accommodated in the premises in 1919 wound up in an asylum after being driven insane by the sound of a woman cackling every night. In Rahukohtu, a French attaché fled his home screaming in French that he was being pursued by the ghost of a woman in white. He collapsed in the street, dead.

Three ancient towers in Tallinn are a hotbed of haunted activity. Lühikese Jala Väravatorn, the Short Leg Gate Tower, is a popular site for the conduction of paranormal research owing to its reputation as Tallinn’s most haunted spot because of the amount of activity reported there. Ghosts of monks have been encountered on a number of occasions; they have been seen dancing around the table, but there is a melancholy individual among their number. One has been seen on his knees several times. Curiously, a visiting psychic made contact with an old monk at the tower. Called Justus, he had started out as the hangman’s apprentice, but somehow wound up in a monastery; part of his misery stems from the fact he can’t make amends for his first career choice.

Other strange phenomena at Lühikese Jala Väravatorn include a ghostly Hanseatic ship floating out of the wall, sailing full wind across the room, melting into the wall on the opposite side. The vicious face of a man would appear in another wall, gurning away until it faded. In a cafe to the rear of the tower, poltergeist activity occurred, with a vase rising and falling to the floor before customers.

The Tallitorn, or Stable Tower, was formerly a prison for small offenses in the 16th and 17th centuries. One prisoner, the son of a Burgomaster, was so scared that he asked to be put in another prison that wasn’t reputed to be haunted. Permission was denied, but he was allowed to take a servant with him for moral support. The two were found terrified in the morning, having been plagued by ghosts all night. Additionally, the prisoner’s mother fainted upon seeing something horrible when she visited her son. The prisoner, who had been incarcerated for ‘inappropriate behaviour in love affairs’ was eventually moved.

Virgin’s Tower was once a prison and place of torture; the city prostitutes were imprisoned here. Nowadays it is a slightly less terrifying cafe, but still boasts an impressive haunting. Waitresses report being grabbed by the ghosts, and there have also been strange footsteps and scratching sounds. A monk drinking wine has been seen too. When the cafe first opened, early morning customers were treated to the sight of a group of phantom men in period costume singing, who would quickly vanish. The cafe workers are not afraid of the ghosts, however, believing them to be the old soldiers returning to their posts protecting the cafe and staff.

Thus ends our tour of ghostly Tallinn – who knows, if you ever visit, that person smiling at you from across the street in Toompea might just not be of our plane…