Three or four years ago there was an undertakers’ New Year’s dinner in certain north of England town. The guests all drove to the rendezvous in mourning coaches and attired in full regulation somber clothes.
On entering the dining room they found it draped in black and decorated profusely with artificial and other wreaths. Even the tablecloth was adorned with a broad black border, and in the center of the table there was a miniature coffin filled with choice flowers.
The guests, however, did not fail to enjoy themselves, for the dinner was a good one, well served and to everybody’s liking. When the chairman rose to propose the toast of the evening, “Health to ourselves and prosperity to our business during the new year,” he was greeted with a storm of applause, albeit the latter part of the toast would not be received with much enthusiasm in an ordinary company.
During the evening appropriate songs, such as “The Gravedigger,” “Down Among the Dead Men,” ‘I Took His Measure,” and similar cheerful ditties, were excellently rendered. Pearson’s Weekly.
Since the season of holiday decorating is upon us, let’s start the month of December with a tale of two church officials trying to enjoy a well-earned cup of cheer after decorating St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester.
THE RECTOR’S GHOST
In the ancient town of Dorchester, Dorset, one Christmastide (I cannot fix the exact date, but it was not earlier than 1814, and might probably have been the following year), a rumor arose that a ghost had appeared in the old church of St. Peter’s to the clerk and sexton. They were both dreadfully frightened, and the former, I think, insensible for a time. The spirit was said to be the Rev. Nathaniel Templeman, the late rector, who died in 1813.
The story reached the ears of the then rector, the Rev. Henry John Richman, a learned and intelligent man, genial and kindly (I have the pleasantest recollections of him). The action be took in this affair was attributed to his eccentricity, in which he certainly gave proofs in regard to some other matters. He had an invalid wife and sister-in-law, both very nervous; so, to avoid annoying them, he examined the clerk and sexton both together, and apart, at the house of my aunt. I was quite a child then, but can just remember the whispering and excitement, and the men being shut in with the rector. The particulars of the story I heard afterward.
It was the custom in Dorchester, on Christmas Eve, for the clerk and sexton to decorate the church, not in the artistic fashion of modern times, but with large bunches of holly and mistletoe stuck about indiscriminately. Afterwards they gave the church a good cleaning for Christmas Day. On this Christmas Eve, the clerk and the sexton, after locking the doors of the church in order to prevent the intrusion of curious persons, busied themselves, as usual in Christmas preparations until the winter day drew to a close, when they sat down, on a form in the north aisle, to rest from their labors.
Then it was, as they told Mr. Richman, that the temptation came upon them to take a glass of the Sacramental wine, which kept in the vestry. After obtaining wine, they became aware that someone was sitting between them on the form. There had been no sound of steps, and the figure passed neither, but seemed to grow upon the seat. They both recognized the later rector, or “Old Master,” as they called him: he had the old familiar look and dress. He turned with a stern countenance from one to the other shaking his head in his peculiar way, but did not speak. The sexton, Ambrose Hunt, was able to say the Lord’s Prayer; Clerk Hardy was utterly unable to utter a word, and shook with extreme terror. The spirit after a while rose, and retreated down the aisle, turning round occasionally with the same awful look. He seemed to melt or vanish over the family vault, where his body lay. I never heard any explanation, except a surmise that somebody concealed in the church, and dressed like the late rector, frightened the men, but the “somebody” was never discovered, and I believe the other good rector believed the men’s story.—
Lucia A. Stone.
Shute Haye, Walditch, Bridport, Eng.
Spiritual Scientist February 1878: p. 19
So many details turn this into an M.R. James story: “no sound of steps,” “turning round occasionally with the same awful look,” and melting into the family vault.
The Rev. Nathaniel Templeman, who died 12 June 1813 and was succeeded by his curate, Mr Richman, was Rector of St Peters for 32 years–no wonder he was called “Old Master.”
While I can’t find a Clerk Hardy in the online parish records, Ambrose Hunt and Thomas Hardy are listed as witnesses at a number of weddings conducted by Mr Richman. I wonder if there is any link to the novelist Thomas Hardy, who, with architect John Hicks, helped restore St Peters in 1856-7? Hardy’s father, also named Thomas, was a violinist in his village church choir and a stone mason. It would hardly be a stretch, since the novelist was fascinated by the supernatural, to find that his father had met the rector’s ghost. But perhaps the name was a common one in the area.
Thoughts on the Hardy genealogy in relation to this tale? Or of newer visitations from the Rector? Some modern lists of haunted sites say that he angrily comes back when theft or damage is threatened to St Peters. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
You can hear a reading of the original story on the Boggart and Banshee Podcast, available on Apple, Spotify, Buzzsprout, Amazon, etc. etc.
He was a genial-looking, bald-headed man of 59, but when he heard us talking about Christmas gifts he sobered up a little and said:
“I am also going to take advantage of the occasion to make a gift. Ah! poor Mary!”
“What’s the matter with Mary?” asked one of the drummers.
“Mary was my wife, sir. She has been dead these five years.”
“Oh! that’s it? Please excuse me. I thought perhaps you were speaking of a sick or crippled child.”
“You are excused. Yes, Mary was my first wife, and she was a treasure. She will not know that I am making her a Christmas present, but I shall do it as a matter of duty and love. It is in the baggage car ahead.”
“Isn’t that rather queer to make a Christmas gift to a dead person?” asked the drummer after a silence lasting a minute or two.
“I think it is,” was the reply, “but it must serve to show that I treasure her memory. It cost $25, and stands four feet high. I do not think I could have got a more suitable gift. If she could speak I know that she would express her great satisfaction.”
“Might I ask the nature of the gift?” was the cautious query.
“Oh! certainly. It is a fine Italian marble headstone to mark Mary’s grave. I hope to have it set up on Christmas eve.”
“You–you have waited five years to get that headstone?”
“Yes, sir. I have been busy getting married twice again and burying a second wife, and have Just get around to it. Next Christmas I shall present the other one with a similar Santa Claus gift. I think the idea original and unique, don’t you?”
“No, sir!” stiffly replied the drummer, as he rose up.
“What’s the matter?”
“I am, going out for a smoke, and I had as soon tell you that I think you are a blamed mean man! I suppose you’ll buy your third wife a coffin for a Christmas gift won’t you?”
“No, of course not. No, sir, I wouldn’t do such a thing as that. I’ve already selected her gift”
“And may I ask what it is?” sneered the drummer as he moved away.
“You may, sir–you may. I have bought a lot in the cemetery and had the deed made out in her name, and she’ll be tickled half to death over it!”
The queerest funeral I ever heard of occurred in a neighboring village. It was the child of a very odd couple. The mother of the child was seventeen years old when she was married to a man of almost sixty. He was poor and crippled and prematurely old. It was a strange mating. She was not a refined girl. She had no opportunity to cultivate refinement. Her people were unrefined and illiterate. She went to work at a farm house and there met the man whom she married a year later. He was employed on the farm, so they returned to the farm and resumed their residence there as they had been living previous to their marriage.
Hired help on the farm do not have much spare time, and they soon begin to think that all the world is just as busy as they are, and I suppose it was this idea in the mind of the young mother that suggested the odd funeral for their dead child. The baby lived to be three months old. It never had been well and strong. ‘The father wanted to have a funeral and hearse, but the bereaved mother said it would be expensive; and, besides this, everybody was so busy, it being housecleaning time, that they would not want to knock off; to attend the funeral of such a little [one.]
“But I want our friends to see poor little Jimmy before he is laid away in the cold, dark grave, so we’ll borrow the horse and buggy and go to town and get a little white coffin and we’ll bring it down to the farm and put our dead baby in it, and tomorrow, John, you and I will take Jimmy in the buggy and go around to all our intimate friends and call them to the door to see the corpse. We won’t get out of the buggy at each house, because it is no longer fashionable for the mourning friends to get out of the carriage at the cemetery.”
John agreed to this, so they drove to town and purchased the little coffin, and on the way back they stopped at many houses to notify the friends that their baby was dead. John drove and the wife and mother held the little box on her knee, very often breaking down and weeping bitterly. In her own peculiar way, she felt very badly. Next morning the parents started out for the burial ground near the mother’s old home, six miles away. Had they driven directly to the cemetery and buried the child’s body it would not have, appeared so strange, but it was late in the afternoon by the time they arrived at the burial ground. It was pathetic, yet ridiculously strange and absurd. They would drive up to a friend’s door, and in her peculiar, shrill voice would call out:
“Hello, Misses Jenkins, Mrs., Jenkins! Come here! Oh, there you are–good morning, Mrs. Jenkins! We are going to bury our baby today and we thought you would like to take a last look at dear little Jimmy. We knew you all were so busy and could not take time to come to the funeral, so we brought the funeral to your own door.
“Don’t the little darling look sweet! And just to think that we must lay him in his little grave and never see him again! I thought you would want to see him, just because you were my friend before I was married, and because you have a baby of your own sleeping out under the sod, where the moonbeams fall so silently during the night, and the birds and the sunlight come in the morning, and the snow comes in the winter and hides the place for months, so that we may forget the little body wasting away to dust.”
Then they would drive on to another street and stop in front of a house and call out the inmates to see little Jimmy, and discuss death and bereavement and the coming resurrection and the celestial crown. The father never said a word, but allowed his wife to do all the talking, as she had done all the planning and arranging the funeral. Out in the country a friend induced them to stop and, eat dinner, placing little Jimmy’s body in the parlor. Several of the neighbors hearing of this, sent their children over to look at the dead child, and the mother took much pleasure in showing the corpse, even though a fresh fountain of sorrow opened at each exhibition.
It was late in the afternoon when they drove into the cemetery, where a number of the mother’s old time friends had gathered to await the arrival of the funeral. They had been there several hours, and some had gone home before the arrival of the coffin.
Here the little white box was opened for the last time and the dead, face fondled by the mother’s coarse hand before the coffin closed for all time. Then the sexton lowered the child into the little narrow grave, and the father led the weeping mother from the place.
Some people look upon the affair as ridiculous in the extreme, but it appears so only because it is a new departure, That mother felt just as badly as though the baby had been hauled to the cemetery in a white hearse, and she and her husband rode in a closed carriage. It came as near to being a private funeral as their circumstances would allow, but it will hardly become fashionable.
Jake Haiden [Jacob Huff] “The Philosphy of Jake Haiden” column for the Reading Times and “Faraway Moses” articles in Pennsylvania Grit