In the 1930s, news of Europe was increasingly dire: the rise of fascism, threats of war, the lingering effects of the Great Depression. But that same decade, readers around the world also opened their newspapers to read something much more lighthearted—stories about a talking mongoose that had supposedly haunted a cottage on a remote island in the Irish Sea.
His name was Gef, and his bizarre, unexplained story still draws interest nearly a century later: most recently in fiction, in retrospective investigations, and in Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose, a 2023 comedy starring Simon Pegg, Minnie Driver, and the voice of Neil Gaiman as the talking mongoose.
Here’s what you should know about the mysterious rise and fall of the purported poltergeist.
A haunted farmhouse
Gef’s story began in Doarlish Cashen, a farmhouse on the Isle of Man.
Situated between England and Ireland, the 221-square-mile island has been a self-governing crown possession of the United Kingdom since 1828 and is known for its windswept natural beauty and remote, rugged shores. In the early 1930s, members of the Irving family reported hearing strange sounds behind the walls of their old stone house. At first, they thought it was a mouse, but ultimately, they claimed, the creature behind the walls began speaking to them. It introduced itself as Gef (pronounced “Jeff”), an eighty-year-old mongoose from New Delhi.
According to James, Margaret, and their teenage daughter Voirrey Irving, the mongoose spoke in a high-pitched voice and in multiple different languages. It conversed with them, parroted their conversations, and sometimes threatened them. Nights were filled with Gef’s sounds and stories, and the Irvings say they soon befriended him.
Gef was witty, worldly, and mocking, and the family began leaving him food and having long conversations with him. In return, the mongoose hunted rabbits for the family, told them legends and fairy tales, and made jokes. “I’ll split the atom! I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!” he reportedly said at one point. He also told them he could kill them all, “but I won’t.”
A family friend
All three of the Irving family members said they could hear and converse with Gef, who sometimes made morbid remarks and who showed a particular fondness for Voirrey. Their claims that their house was haunted by an invisible talking animal stirred local interest and earned Gef the nickname “the Dalby spook,” referring to the name of the closest village.
Reporters got wind of the story and flocked to the island, eager to find out if the Irvings were lighthearted pranksters or the perpetrators of an outright fraud. But the Irvings proved enigmatic: Though Gef made noises when others were around, he often didn’t speak to outsiders, and the Irvings couldn’t produce real proof of its existence.
Nonetheless, wrote one reporter in 1931, “the people who claim it was the voice of the strange weasel seem sane, honest, and responsible folk and not likely to indulge in a difficult, long, drawn-out and unprofitable practical joke to make themselves the talk of the world.”
World fame, paranormal claims
Gef also caught the attention of adherents to Spiritualism, a then-popular movement that claimed humans could communicate with the spirit world through mediums and ghosts. They flocked to the Isle of Man to learn more about the ghostly mongoose, and the worldwide attention the case garnered sparked an investigation by the International Institute for Psychical Research, a London-based group that claimed it could test various phenomena to determine if they were real.
Harry Price, an investigator known for exposing ghost-related hoaxes, visited the island in 1935 along with BBC employee R.S. Lambert, who edited the BBC’s programming guide magazine The Listener. However, Gef did not speak to them during their visit.
To support his paranormal claim, James Irving sent Price and Lambert samples of the creature’s supposed hair, teeth, and claws that turned out to be from the family sheepdog. A 1936 book about the case concluded that without more substantive proof, Gef should be considered a hoax.
Despite the lack of evidence for the mongoose, though, the Irvings refused to back down. Gef “unfortunately does exist. He is a cross we have to bear,” James Irving told a reporter in 1936. As the Irvings doubled down, their supporters defended the family’s claim, saying there was no way Gef was a fraud and vouching for the Irvings as a quiet, honest, and modest family.
Soon, Gef appeared in an even unlikelier place: the British courts.
Gef on trial
After Price and Lambert’s investigation, Lambert wrote about Gef in the widely-circulated magazine he edited, drawing even more attention to the case. When a coworker spread rumors that Lambert actually believed in the occult, he sued for slander and won.
Lambert also sued his employer, the BBC, for similar reasons, causing then British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to convene a special inquiry into the matter. It cleared the BBC of any wrongdoing.
“Sorting through Gef’s various occult, journalistic, and legal adventures,” writes historian Jeffrey Sconce, “it is really difficult to know who really believed what” in the case. “…it is almost impossible to separate those who really believed the weasel might exist from those who only pretended to believe he might exist.”
The ongoing mystery of the talking mongoose
But if Gef was really a hoax, the Irvings never let on. In the heyday of the Spiritualism’s frauds and hoaxes, many people eventually confessed, but the Irving family never revealed whether they’d made up Gef. Instead, they clung to their version of the facts—that a talking mongoose had taken up residence in their abode and entered an unlikely friendship with them.
Ultimately, Gef stopped talking—after James Irving became ill and Voirrey Irving grew up and left home. Margaret eventually sold the farmhouse to a man who claimed that the next year, he shot and killed a strange animal on the land. Eventually, Doarlish Cashen was torn down. As for Voirrey, she never changed her story on Gef and died in 2005 without recanting.
Was Voirrey a ventriloquist? Were the Irvings simply victim of a mass delusion? Historians are still unclear on why the family would have participated in a yearslong hoax, especially one that devalued their farm, made them no money, and only helped them achieve controversial fame. No matter the answer, Gef has continued to vex and tantalize for decades. Eventually, the farmhouse was demolished, and in the intervening years the Irvings died.
Gef may be silent today. But the questions—and the fascination—produced by the “man-weasel” endure, long after any purported traces of his odd existence have disappeared.