Morfa Resonance: The Pit of Ghosts

Memorial card for victims of the Morfa Pit explosion, 1890 Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

Recently Dr Beachcombing wrote about the many premonitions of disaster occurring before the Morfa Colliery explosion of 10 March, 1890. The colliery, which was known as a “gassy” mine, had a long and deadly history.  There were explosions in 1858 (4 men killed), 1863 (30 or 40 men killed), and in 1870 (30 men killed), when the mine had to be flooded to put out the resulting fires. What I propose to look at today is the sequel to the 1890 disaster or, perhaps, to the entire grim history of the Morfa pit, which became known as “the pit of ghosts.”

Reports from the days and months after the 1890 disaster almost invariably mention superstition in connection with the warnings told of in Dr Beachcombing’s post.

“Other curious instances of warnings are freely spoken of which would yield matter of interest to the student of either folk or spirit-lore.’’ Such stories used to be quite common in the mining districts of Wales in connection with every disaster of this kind, and although the spread of popular education has done much to deaden the popular fancy and to kill off the old superstitions, it is quite clear that the land of the corpse-candle, the phantom funeral, the coal-finding gnome, the sprite and elf and fairy, is not yet denuded of all its poetical traditions.—Christian Herald, March 19th. Quoted in The Two Worlds: A Journal Devoted to Spiritualism, Occult Science, Ethics, Religion and Reform, 28 March 1890: p. 229

Some men even went on record with their belief in omens:

There is an abiding belief among the men of the Morfa Colliery that signs of warning preceded the terrible accident by which eighty-seven lives were lately lost. Not only is this floating belief current among the gossips, but it is sufficiently firmly held to be testified to on oath. In the course of the inquiry into the cause of the disaster the following evidence was given on oath:—

Peter Williams, questioned why a special examination of the pit was asked for previously to the day of the explosion, said (speaking in Welsh): The truth was there had been complaints of spirits being about in the four-foot vein. He supposed the colliers thought a special examination would get rid of the spirits. Another witness, named Harding, said a rumour had gone round that something was to be heard in the pit, and it was regarded as a proof that something unusual was to occur at Morfa—a fire or an explosion. He himself thought something would happen in the four-foot. The sounds they heard created fear in the minds of the men that there was danger in the pit. About a fortnight before the explosion he was in the four-foot with another man. After emptying a tram they went on their knees. No word passed between them; but they heard something, and looked at each other in amazement. One asked, “What is that?” and thereupon a door opened and slammed against the frame. He met Tom Barrass, the undermanager, and said to him,” Something very strange has happened there to-day.” Barrass remarked, “Well, I can’t doubt that this sort of thing makes one believe that everything one has heard before is true.” There were some people who were superstitious, and he had his ideas before the explosion; but he had come to believe that it was something else that caused the accident. He had proof himself that sounds and signs occurred before the explosion of 1883. Light, Volume 10, 3 May 1890

The tokens of the disaster as reported several months after the explosion were weird and varied:

PITMEN’S SUPERSTITIONS.

As the excitement connected with the awful colliery accidents in South Wales has died away, it may not be out of place to give a few interesting facts, as personally related to the writer, concerning the hallucinations which many of the colliers who worked in the Morfa pit laboured under before the disaster.

Mr Isaac Hopkins is the manager of the well-known Dynevor Collieries, at Neatb, and he told Mr George Palmer, of Neath, that a great many men had come to him from the Morfa pit seeking work, giving as their reason for leaving that “the Morfa pit was certainly haunted, and that some terrible calamity was about to occur. Several of the men declared that “there were frequent peculiar noises as of ghostly trams running wild in the pit, with heavy fails of coal and debris which never happened; that at times strong and most remarkable perfume spread itself all over the mine, the odour being like that from clusters of roses, clematis, and honeysuckle. Nothing could be seen, but scent of the most exquisite kind was honestly stated to have been frequently inhaled.” Others of the men stated that “a huge red dog was daily seen prowling about the workings, that it suddenly disappeared, and it could be none other than a ghostly dog and a sure omen of great evil; also that a strange man, dressed in oil-skins and wearing a leather cap tightly fastened over his ears [shades of Spring-heel Jack?], one day suddenly appeared on the cage of the pit, and, after waving his hands upwards as if in despair, faded away into thin air.”

An old collier named Thomas swore that he saw a weird-looking man jump on a journey of trams underground, and after riding some distance jumped off and melted away in the darkness of the mine. This statement was confirmed by a man named Beece, who both declared they recognised him as a pitman who died years ago. These, with many other tales of the most extraordinary kind, the mining population about Taibach even now pin their entire faith in. Press, [Canterbury, NZ] 22 December 1890: p. 6

But the noises and presences did not end in 1890. It was said in the papers that only six bodies were not recovered from the 1890 disaster; a list found here suggests that 44 of the 87 dead were not recovered–ample reason, from a classic ghost-lore perspective, for the echoes of the dead to linger and for the mine to be haunted.

In 1895 the mine was hit with a wave of new terrors.

WELSH MINERS SCARED They Leave Work in a Panic Owing to Uncanny Noises

London, Dec. 20.

The latest sensation for lovers of uncanny things is a haunted coal mine. It is situated at the Morfa colliery in South Wales. The spooks first made their presence manifest last week by indulging in wailing and knocking all over the underground workings. There could be no doubt about it, as several hundred miners heard mysterious sounds which were unlike anything they had heard before. They were so thoroughly scared that they threw down their tools and went to the surface and refused to resume work until the ghosts had been laid.

It has been suggested that the trouble at the Morfa colliery is due to the “coblyns” or fairies supposed in Wales to dwell in mines. But the miners themselves scout the idea. Coblyns, they say, are friends of the miners, and when they knock or shout or throw bits of coal about, it is for the purpose of letting the men know where the best veins of coal are to be found. The suggestion that the mysterious and terrifying wailing came from a tomcat, which had strayed from the mine stables and got lost in the workings is unanimously repudiated and denounced as unworthy trifling with a solemn subject. The Ottawa [Ontario, Canada] Journal 21 December 1895: p. 3

No longer were strange noises signs of disaster: the mine was declared haunted by the victims of the 1890 explosion.

SPOOKS IN WELSH MINES

Workmen Frightened Away by Mysterious Noises

The latest sensation for jaded lovers of uncanny things is a haunted coal mine. It is situated at the Morfa colliery, in South Wales. The spooks first made their presence manifest by indulging in wailing and knocking all over the underground workings. There could be no doubt about it, as several hundred miners heard mysterious sounds which were unlike anything they had ever heard before. They were so thoroughly scared that they threw down their tools and went to the surface and refused to resume work until the ghosts had been laid.

Recent efforts to persuade the men that the mine was perfectly safe and spook proof, and that the noises were due to natural causes, succeeded, and the men reluctantly returned to their work. Some had begun to be somewhat ashamed of themselves and made pretense that they had feared not ghosts, but some physical disaster, of which the noises were intended as a warning. But the majority fervently persist in the belief that there is a supernatural explanation and incline to think that the trouble is due to the disturbed spirits of six workmen who were killed in an explosion which occurred six years ago, and whose bodies were never recovered. Some of the men have declined to go down again until those bodies have been found and decently interred with Christian rites.

The evidence in favor of the supernatural theory is still considered abundant and plain enough for the average Welsh miner. Scores of men heard blood curdling noises, and several saw doors and brattices moving in the most unearthly manner. People abroad after dark are said to have heard the singing of dirges and the roll of muffled drums. Repository [Canton, OH] 5 January 1896: p. 6

Reported even longer after the fact, was this tale of the omen of the “Seven Whistlers,” which was not mentioned in any of the 1890 accounts I have found. These creatures seem to be the ornithological wing of the Wild Hunt.

WARN OF DANGER

SEVEN WHISTLERS UNCANNY

Peculiar Noises Like Yelping Supposedly Heard in Parts of England Before a Disaster.

In some parts of England peculiar whistling or yelping noises are heard in the air after dusk and early in the morning before daylight during the winter months. Sometimes, however, the noise is described as beautiful sounds like music, high up in the air, which gradually die away. The general belief is that the “seven whistlers,” as they are called, are the foretellers of bad luck, disaster, or death to some one in the locality.

It is a very ancient suggestion. Both swifts and plovers have been suggested as the “whistlers.” It may be noted that plovers are traditionally supposed to contain the souls of those who assisted at the crucifixion and in consequence were doomed to float in the air forever.

Like Singing of Larks.

In Shropshire the sound is described as resembling that of many larks singing, and the folklore of both Shropshire and Worcestershire says, “They are seven birds, and the six fly about continually together looking for the seventh, and when they find him the world will come to an end.”

Everywhere, without exception, the “seven whistlers” are believed to presage ill, but the superstition seems to be more particularly a miners; notion. If they heard the warning voice of the “seven whistlers,” birds sent, as they say, by Providence to warn them of an impending danger, not a man will descend into the pit until the following day.

Heard Before Explosion.

Morfa colliery, in South Wales, is notorious for its uncanny traditions. The “seven whistlers” were heard there before a great explosion in the sixties and before another, in 1890, when nearly a hundred miners were entombed.

In December, 1895, it was said that they had been heard yet again, whereupon the men struck work and could not be induced to resume it until the government inspector had made a close examination of the workings and reported all safe. Muskegon [MI] Chronicle 17 June 1904: p. 6

Another article on the “Seven Whisperers” says that the Morfa mine was a “singularly unlucky pit,” and that

In December, 1896, the scare broke out afresh, as a repetition of the same curious noises [as in 1890] took place, and, direst portend of all, one Sunday night a dove  [one of the three “corpse birds:” robin, pigeon, and dove] was found perched on a coal truck in the weigh-house. By way of reassuring the miners, who had struck work in a body, the Government inspector, the chief manager, and a small party of officials made a strict examination of the workings, but although they found nothing changed it was several days before the superstitious miners could be induced to resume work. Auckland [NZ] Star 17 January 1903: p. 5

The miners read the jocular pieces ridiculing their “superstitions” and rightly resented the slur.

A reporter from the Western Mail wrote: “I visited Morfa in quest of a ghost. In arriving at the place I found the Morfa miners standing in groups at the street corners. Being descendants of the ancient Silurians, these men are very brave, and, like their ancestors, they would meet a charge of cavalry on foot. But, if they are equal to all kinds of flesh and bones in war or peace, they are terribly afraid of ghosts….

It is all very well for the reader seated in the daylight at his fireside, to call the Morfa miners “superstitious,” because they on hearing strange and unexplainable noises in the dark caverns of the earth…One of the miners today, standing among his fellows, with his hands in his pockets, a pipe in his mouth, told me he had read the editorial comments in the Western Mail that morning on what they were pleased to call the “superstition” of the Morfa miners. “Tell the editor,” he said severely, “to confine his remarks to things of this world, for he knows nothing about heaven and hell and the workings underground.” And he added the remark that if the Western Mail editor had been seated in the dim light of a clammy lamp in the interior of the workings, and had heard groaning in the darkness beyond and below in the deep, he, too, would have taken to his heels and quickly sought “some hole to hide in.” Another miner, sharp-eyed and seemingly highly intelligent, declared to me that there was not the slightest doubt that inexplicable strange noises had been heard in the workings both lately and before the explosion six years ago. This belief, which he declared 50 percent of the men believed, has been intensified by the finding the dove at 10 o’clock on Sunday night close to the mouth of the shaft…. The Scranton [PA] Tribune 28 December 1895: p. 6

Considering the noises and alarums the miners experienced in 1895-1896, they must have been relieved that there was only one fatality in 1896—a man who died of dropsy exacerbated by a fall in the pit. As far as I can find, the Morfa Colliery had only isolated fatalities—no large-scale disasters–from 1890 until it closed in 1913.  Is the pit still believed haunted by the men who died there? And what toxic gases found down a coal mine might produce a sweet, flowery scent? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Various materials have been believed over the centuries to trap spirits: iron, crystal, and various gemstones. Coal is not one of them, yet the mines and their communities teem with mysterious voices, knocking kobolds, silently flitting Women in Black —and the spirits of those men and boys buried, not beneath decent slate in the churchyard, but under tons of rock and smouldering slag.

At these links you’ll find posts on a haunted mine, a black spectre in a mine, a headless miner’s ghost, and a subterranean centaur scaring miners off the job.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Funeral Coach: 1855

Funeral Carriage First Class, Eugene Atget, 1910

THE FUNERAL COACH.

“1855, March 28.—The following story was told me by Lady S., who heard it from Mr. M., a gentleman of considerable note, and one not at all given to romancing:—

“Mr. M., a well-known lawyer, went to stay with Mr.T., in the county of ___. In the course of their first evening together, Mr. M. learned that, among his host’s neighbours, was an old friend of his own, for whom he had great regard; but of whom he had lost sight since college days. The next morning Mr. M asked the gentleman of the house if he would forgive him if he walked over to see his old friend; adding a request that if he were asked to dinner, he might be allowed to accept the invitation.

“On being assured that he might do whatever was most agreeable to himself, he went to make his call—not on foot, as he had proposed, but in his friend’s dog-cart. As he anticipated, the gentleman he went to see insisted on his staying to dinner. He consented, and sent the groom back with the dog-cart, with a message to his master to say that, as it would be a fine moonlight night, he should prefer walking home. After having passed a very agreeable day with the old fellow-collegian, he bade him good-bye; and, fortified with a couple of cigars, sallied forth on his return. On his way he had to pass through the pleasant town of ___, and on coming to the church in the main street, he leaned against the iron railings of the churchyard while he struck a match and lighted his second cigar. At that moment the church clock began to strike. As he had left his watch behind him, and did not feel certain whether it were ten o’clock or eleven, he stayed to count, and to his amazement found it twelve. He was about to hurry on, and make up for lost time, when his curiosity was pricked, and the stillness of the night broken, by the sound of carriage wheels on the road, moving at a snail’s pace, and coming up the side street directly facing the spot where he was standing. The carriage proved to be a mourning-coach, which, on turning at right angles out of the street in which Mr. M. first saw it, pulled up at the door of a large red brick house. Not being used to see mourning-coaches out at such an unusual hour, and wondering to see this one returning at such a funereal pace, he thought he would stay and observe what happened. The instant the coach drew up at the house, the carriage door opened, then the street door, and then a tall man, deadly pale, in a suit of sables, descended the carriage steps, and walked into the house. The coach drove on, and Mr. M. resumed his walk. On reaching his quarters, he found the whole household in bed, with the exception of the servant, who had received orders to stay up for him.

“The next morning, at breakfast, after he had given the host and hostess an account of his doings on the previous day, he turned to the husband and asked him the name of the person who lived in the large red brick house directly opposite the churchyard. ‘Who lives in it?’ ‘Mr. P., the lawyer!’ ‘Do you know him?’ ‘Yes; but not at all intimately. We usually exchange visits of ceremony about once a year, I think.’

“Mr. M.: ‘Does any one live with him? Is he married?’ “Answer: ‘No. Two maiden sisters live with him. He is a bachelor, and likely to remain one; for, poor fellow, he is a sad invalid. If I am not mistaken, he is abroad at this moment, on account of his health.’

“Mr. M. then mentioned his motive for asking these questions. When he had told of his adventure, he proposed that, after lunch, they should drive to and call on the ladies, and see if, by their help, they could not unravel the mystery. Full of their object, they paid their visit, and after the usual interchange of commonplace platitudes, the sisters were asked if they had heard lately of their brother. They said, ‘No; not for weeks: and felt rather uneasy in consequence.’

Mr. M. surprised at not seeing them in mourning, asked them if they had not lately sustained a great loss. ‘No,’ they replied: ‘why do you ask such a question?’ ‘Oh,’ said Mr. M. ‘because of the mourning-coach I saw, with some gentleman of this family in it, returning from a funeral so late last night.’ ‘I think, Sir,’ said one of the ladies, ‘ you must have mistaken this house for some other.’ He shook his head confidently. At their request, he then told them what had happened. They said it was impossible that their street door could have been opened at that hour, for that every servant, as well as themselves, were in bed. The more the subject was canvassed, the farther they seemed from arriving at any satisfactory conclusion. The ladies, rather nettled at the obstinacy of his assertions, examined the servants, individually and collectively, but with no better result. Mr. M. and his host eventually withdrew. On their drive home, Mr. M.’s friend quizzed him, and reminded him that when he saw the apparition he had dined, and dined late, and had sat long over his friend’s old port. But Mr. M., though he submitted to the badinage good-humouredly, remained ‘of the same opinion still.’

“A week after, when Mr. M. was in his chambers in London, his friend from the country burst in upon him, and said, ‘I know you are much engaged, but I could not resist running in to tell you that the two ladies we called on last week, three or four days after our visit received a letter, telling them that their brother, “a tall, pale man,” had died at Malta, at twelve o’clock on the very night you saw the mourning-coach and the person in it at their door.’”

The Spiritual Magazine 1 October 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While Mrs Daffodil finds that the ghostly tale delivers a delightful frisson (and plans to tell it at the next All Hallow’s festivities, where it will frighten the Tweeny out of her wits…) , she is pursing her lips dubiously over the many breaches of etiquette found in this narrative. Mr. M. deserves reproach for entering a stranger’s house and posing such a delicate question, despite paving the way with conventional platitudes. His host is equally in the wrong for introducing him to the household simply in order to gratify a morbid curiosity.

The dead man is also to be censured. He might have panicked the household by his unexpected appearance so late at night. At the very least he should have sent a telegram notifying his sisters of his arrival.  One might also point out that the tall, pale gentleman properly belonged in a hearse, not in a funeral carriage, which is reserved for conveying legitimate mourners to and from the funeral and churchyard. Mrs Daffodil will reserve judgement on the dead man’s attire. It is a nice point of etiquette as to whether the corpse himself should don “sables” for his own demise.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

For other stories of death-omens and tokens of death, see The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past and The Victorian Book of the Dead, both by Chris Woodyard of http://www.hauntedohiobooks.com.  Her blog also contains rather too many stories of death and the grim and grewsome for those of a sensitive disposition. Mrs Daffodil has had to forbid the Tweenie the site.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead and on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Death on the Links: 1861

The  approach to the final hole and clubhouse at the Old Course at St Andrews.  The Swilcan Bridge is in the foreground. http://www.standrewsgolf.com/golf-courses/old-course.htm

[Originally published in September 2014. Revived for The Open Championship of 2021, at Royal St George’s.]

The Ryder Cup, that international showcase for atrociously designed golf sweaters, is being played this week at Gleneagles, Perthshire. Naturally I had to come up with a golfing ghost story.  Here is one from the hallowed links of St. Andrews.

Of the Bodach-Glas, or “dark grey man,” whose appearance is said to herald the approach of death to certain clans in Scotland, and of which Sir Walter Scott has made such effective use in Waverley when relating the end of his hero, Fergus Mac Ivor, we have the following well-authenticated instance of its having been seen in our own day.  The late excellent and justly popular Earl of Eglinton, whose sudden death was truly felt as a national loss in Scotland, and who is famed for an attempt to revive an ancient custom of mediaeval times by the tournament held at Eglinton Castle in 1839, was engaged on the 4th of October, 1861, in playing, on the links of St. Andrew’s, at the national game of golf. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of a game, exclaiming,” I can play no longer, there is the Bodach-Glas. I have seen it for the third time; something fearful is going to befall me.” Within a few hours, Lord Eglinton was a corpse; he died the same night, and with such suddenness, that he was engaged in handing a candlestick to a lady who was retiring to her room when he expired. Henderson, in Folk Lore, mentions that he received this account of Lord Eglinton’s death from a Scotch clergyman, who endorses every particular as authentic and perfectly true.

Singularly enough this much-lamented nobleman had a warning only a few months previous, concerning his second wife’s sudden death, conveyed, however, on this occasion by a dream. He had married in November, 1858, the Lady Adela Capel, only daughter of the Earl of Essex. Shortly after her confinement in December, I860, he left home to attend a wedding, and during his absence dreamed that he read in the Times newspaper an announcement of Lady Eglinton’s death on a day not far distant. The dream affected him a good deal, and his dejection on the day following was apparent to everyone. He returned home at once, and found his wife progressing favourably, and his alarm subsided. Soon after, the countess caught cold from having removed to another room; illness came on, and her husband was aroused one night with tidings that she was in a dangerous state. It was the last day of the old year, and the very morning indicated in his dream. Lord Eglinton rose up, as he afterwards expressed it, with a yell of agony. Before nightfall his wife expired.

Apparitions: A Narrative of Facts, Bourchier Wrey Savile, 1880, pp. 146-9

Archibald William Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton [1812-1861] has been best remembered for his inspiration to host a re-enactment of a medieval jousting tournament in 1839. It was a sincere attempt—the “knights” actually seriously trained to joust and some wore real medieval armor, but the event has gone down in legend and song for its extravagances and misfortunes: horrifically bad weather, gridlock from the crush of visitors, and leaking/collapsed banqueting tents.

Lady Eglington was Lord Eglinton’s second wife. She died in December 1860, at age 32. He was 49 when he died in October 1861.

The Bodach-Glas  is described as a spirit on horseback by Robert Chambers, commenting on Sir Walter Scott:

The original of the Bodach Glas, whose appearance proved so portentous to the family of the Mac-Ivors, may probably be traced to a legend current in the ancient family of Maclaine of Lochbuy, in the island of Mull, noticed by Sir Walter Scott in a note to his “Lady of the Lake.” * The popular tradition is, that whenever any person descended of that family is near death, the spirit of one of them, who was slain in battle, gives notice of the approaching event. There is this difference between the Bodach Glas and him, that the former appeared on these solemn occasions only to the chief of the house of Mac-Ivor, whereas the latter never misses an individual descended of the family of Lochbuy, however obscure, or in whatever part of the world he may be.

The manner of his showing himself is sometimes different, but he uniformly appears on horseback. Both the horse and himself seem to be of a very diminutive size, particularly the head of the rider, from which circumstance he goes under the appellation of “Eoghan a chinn bhig,” or ” Hugh of the little head.” Sometimes he is heard riding furiously round the house, where the person is about to die, with an extraordinary noise, like the rattling of iron chains. At other times he is discovered with his horse’s head nearly thrust in at a door or window; and, on such occasions, whenever observed, he gallops off in the manner already described, the hoofs of his steed striking fire from the flinty rocks….Like his brother spirits, he seems destined to perform his melancholy rounds amidst nocturnal darkness, the horrors of which have a natural tendency to increase the consternation of a scene in itself sufficiently appalling. Illustrations of the Author of Waverley, Robert Chambers, 1884

You’ll find the original Scott text here. Obviously there was a good deal of variation in the behavior and appearance of the Bodach-glas, not unlike the several varieties of banshee.

One wonders what, if any, statute in the R&A’s Rules of Golf covers a ghost in the fairway. “Outside Agency,” perhaps? Or more to the point:

“The course authorities may, under Rule 33-7, disqualify any player who acts in serious breach of etiquette, thereby violating the ‘spirit of the game’. Such serious breaches include actions made with intent to to injure other players or disturb/distract them while making their play.”

One couldn’t get much more disturbing/distracting than being a harbinger of death. Where was the rules official? The Bodach-Glas should have been ordered off the course immediately.

Other golfing ghost stories?  Lay one dead at my feet: Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Funeral Men: 1856

The Funeral Men The Funeral Mute, Robert William Buss, Museum of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We are all familiar with the more usual tokens of death: the picture falling off the wall, the howling dog or hooting owl, the tap of the Death Watch Beetle or the stopped clock. Some of us may also know the less common death omens: the butterfly of doom or ships with black sails, but it is the specifically mortuary tokens of death that fascinate me: the sounds of a phantom funeral, or visions of a spectral hearse or coffin. The following story, which is unique in my experience, features two funeral mutes as the terrifying messengers of death.

‘In the year 1856 we were residing in a rented house in one of the midland counties, with our family and servants, near which temporary residence my husband, an officer in the army, had a command. For reasons upon which I need not enter, a change of position and locality had been much pressed upon the authorities in London, on my husband’s behalf, which, after the expiration of some time, was determined on by them; and we found ourselves likely to go to Scotland; the exact change for which my husband’s friends had asked, and which we each desired, for it was not far from the home of some of those who were very near and dear to us.

‘As there was considerable difficulty in obtaining a suitable and sufficiently convenient house at the place where we wished to reside, my husband went on to Scotland a month before it was intended to take me and our family. I therefore remained with our household in England. With the exception of my children and servants, I was quite alone. Our hired residence, surrounded by considerable grounds and plantations, and situated on the slope of a hill, was quite isolated. No other abode was nearer than a quarter of a mile ; and that was the lodge where our gardener resided. Our drawing- room was on the first floor, outside of the windows of which rose a balcony of iron and wood, connecting this room with my bedroom (which adjoined it), and my husband’s dressing-room, which was furthest off, all of which rooms, by glazed doors, opened on to the balcony in question.

‘One evening, between nine and ten o’clock, in the month of September, I was seated in the drawing-room. My maid had brought me some coffee, and was arranging my work-table and books prior to my retiring to bed, when I arose mechanically and walked out on to the balcony through the open door, as was often my custom, to look at the beautiful landscape in the moonlight. The moon was up, and the whole of the valley below was bright, almost as bright as in the day. Greensward and brook, wood and copse, were seen in the distance; with a large dark mass of stately elms, below which a cluster of Scotch pines stood to the right. The stillness was marked and almost unusual; the landscape lovely.

‘Suddenly, turning my eyes to the left along the balcony, I beheld all at once the figures of two men, dressed as mutes at a funeral, with hatbands, scarves and cross-poles covered with black silk, standing at the glass door of my husband’s dressing room. They did not seem in the least degree spectral, but too truly and too perfectly real. For a brief moment this was my certain impression; but on looking steadily at their forms for a few seconds, they began to have a less substantial, and a more transparent and cloudy appearance. Awestricken and overcome, I fell back through the drawing-room window, with a shriek and a stagger, into a chair. My maid, who was still in the room, rushed forward to my aid; and for a few seconds I believe that I entirely lost my consciousness. On recovering myself partially, but wholly unable to speak many consecutive words, I cried out to her, pointing in the direction of the figures, “Look there—there!”

‘She looked out on to the balcony, and there beheld the two gloomy forms as vividly and keenly as myself. It was a surprise and a shock to us ‘both.

‘She rang for the man-servant, who, coming up, was at once asked if he could see anyone or anything outside his master’s dressing-room door on the balcony.

‘Looking in the direction indicated, he replied that he could not. “There is no one and nothing there.”

‘“Don’t you see those two funeral men?” earnestly asked the maid.

‘“There are no men there,” he answered; at the same time that he walked out, and approached the spot where the figures we still beheld stood.

‘I and the maid watched him as he boldly walked up to the door, into the room, and actually passed through the spectral forms which still stood there. They did not swerve, they did not stir. The dressing-room was as usual, the man asserted. No mortal was there. The man-servant maintained that both the maid and I were dreaming.

‘For a while, the figures seemed to both of us as solid and lifelike as possible. There they stood in the clear moonlight, erect, weird, motionless, and spectral. In a short time they began to grow less distinct, and as it were, cloudy and dim, in their lower parts, but yet, as manifest as ever in the upper; and then, in about a quarter of an hour, they had utterly faded away.

‘I was overcome and puzzled to a degree which I cannot describe and could not measure. The thought of my husband’s safety—for which 1 prayed—smote me at once, and was constantly before me, and yet at the same time I felt a weight of sorrow and a foreboding of loss which so completely took possession of me, that I could neither talk nor cry. Tears would have been a relief; but they did not and would not come.

‘Within an hour, my maid occupying a sofa in my bedroom, I had been induced to retire to rest ; almost glad to be convinced at one minute by the arguments of the man-servant that what I had seen was the result of my imagination, and yet utterly unable either to get rid of the pressing load of anxiety on my mind, or to secure sleep.

‘A night-light burned in my room; and from time to time a few commonplace words had been spoken between myself and my maid. The time passed slowly. Midnight had come; I think I was dozing.

‘All of a sudden we heard a loud and startling knock at the principal entrance of the house; so sudden, so loud, and so startling, that the manservant, who slept on the ground floor, suddenly awakened, speedily rushed to the front door.

‘He opened it as quickly as possible. But as he solemnly and affrightedly affirmed, there was no one there, and no sign of anyone, as he told me at my bedroom door. The moon was still up; my maid and I looked out once again on to the balcony: the landscape was clear. Not a sign. Not a sound. All was still. “These things,” said I to myself, “are some blessed angel’s warning of a coming calamity,” and this thought (for I had always believed in angelic intervention) was upon me throughout the rest of the night. I did not begin to sleep until the morning had broken, and the sparrows were twittering on the roof. But constantly I commended myself to God the Blessed Trinity in prayer.

‘On the following evening, my husband’s brother came to announce the overwhelming tidings that my children were orphans and that I was a widow.

‘ My husband had died almost suddenly of heart disease, at his temporary residence in the north of Scotland on the very night in question; and these strange warnings for eye and ear were no doubt mercifully sent to me to break the severity of the shock which news of a sudden death must have given. Here is the finger of God. How often afterwards, and how fervently, have I prayed to God in the beautiful words of the collect for St. Michael’s Day in the “Book of Common Prayer,” “As Thy Holy Angels always do the service in Heaven, so may they succour and defend us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” ’

More Glimpses of the World Unseen, Frederick Lee, 1878

The sharp rapping on the door was a common death-omen. Some banshees also knocked on doors, rather than screaming.

Victorian Funeral mutes

Funeral mutes—the “funeral men,” as the maid calls them, were, for a long time, an essential part of a Victorian funeral. They carried wands swathed in black and were stationed mournfully outside the house of the deceased. They also marched in the funeral procession to the cemetery. Mutes were paid by the job and were rarely from the most refined social classes. They were often a figure of fun in Victorian literature and journalism. But there is nothing amusing about these sinister Mutes in Black,  uniquely Victorian messengers of death.

Other death omens with a mortuary theme? Swathe in crape and send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

You’ll find information about professional and amateur mourners in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.  And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Father’s Ghost Fetches the Dying

Father's Ghost Fetches the Dying Image from http://ginva.com/2011/01/creative-gravestone-architect-and-design/
Father’s Ghost Fetches the Dying Image from http://ginva.com/2011/01/creative-gravestone-architect-and-design/

For Fathers Day weekend, a fatherly “fetch” tenderly carries off two family members.

A Danbury Ghost Story

Woman Saw Dead Father Carry Her Mother Away – The Mother Found to Have Died at the Same Time.

Danbury, Conn., March 19. As Mrs. C. W. Lee of 55 Jefferson Avenue, this city, lay on a bed of sickness, it is declared that she saw the apparition of her father, Oliver B. Pettit, formerly of Brooklyn, who died sixteen years ago, enter the room across the hall, where her mother was, and carry her out in his arms.

Mrs. Lee avers that she distinctly saw her father walk through the hall, and heard him call his wife by name, and ask her to go away with him, pleading with her until she consented. At first, the wife, Mrs. Margaret Pettit of 39 Grove Street, Brooklyn, refused, but her love for her husband evidently overcame her fear, and the daughter saw the stalwart form of her father emerge from the room and disappear with his wife in his arms.

Mrs. Pettit had been visiting her daughter, and, although not ill, was in the habit of spending the morning hours in bed. Yesterday she remained in her bed later than usual, and it was at noon that her daughter saw the vision. Calling for her husband, Mrs. Lee told him what she had seen, and Mr. Lee, hurrying to the room of his wife’s mother, found her dead. Her death must have occurred at exactly the moment when Mrs. Lee saw her father enter the room. A physician later said that Mrs. Pettit died from heart failure. The New York Times 20 March 1900: p. 1

I thought this was an interesting version of a “fetch” story, where the ghost was seen literally carrying off the dying.  The story appears in The Ghost Wore Black.  A few months ago, while researching background for The Victorian Book of the Dead, I was surprised to find a sequel.

HER FATHER’S SPIRIT

Beckoned to Her, and Though Recovering, She Soon Died.

When Mrs. Charles Lee died, at Danbury, Mass., last week, it was in peaceful resignation and with the conviction that her father’s spirit was bearing her away.

She had been waiting for five days for his coming—ever since she saw the ghostly visitor bear away her mother in that strange vision. That it was not the malady from which she had been suffering that caused Mrs. Lee’s death there is the testimony of the doctors. She was convalescing from an operation, and, so far as it was concerned, was out of danger.

That Mrs. Lee became conscious in some mysterious way that her mother, Mrs. Margaret Pettit, was dying, there can be no doubt. Mrs. Pettit left her home at No. 39 Grove Street, to go to nurse her daughter in Danbury. When Mrs. Pettit went to bed on Saturday night she was apparently in excellent health.

Her daughter gave the first news of the mother’s death. She told her husband that something had happened—that her mother was dead—and then Mrs. Lee swooned.

When Mrs. Lee had partly recovered she told those about her of her vision. She said she had seen the spirit of her father, who has been dead for 16 years, enter her mother’s room and say:

“Margaret, come with me.” She had seen her father take her mother in his arms, and, as they moved away they paused before Mrs. Lee, she said, and her father paused and beckoned to her, saying she would soon follow them.

Since that vision Mrs. Lee has hovered on the borderland between life and death. A great part of the time she has been delirious or in a state of coma. But in her lucid intervals she talked constantly of the vision and of her own summons.

Nothing could shake her conviction that her father’s spirit would return for her. When she was perfectly sane she said she was only waiting. She knew she would never get well.

She spoke of it when her husband and son were called to her bedside, and she said good bye to them. She told them she believed that they would soon join her, that the summons was for all of them, and that the family would be united in the beyond.

She died with her mother’s name on her lips. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 28 March 1900: p. 3

Other Fathers Day posts: about a ghostly image of a father and daughter appearing in a window after his death. A father who followed his child, literally, to the grave.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Nurse Brought Death: c. 1896

 

 

 

1921 nurse by crib

A Persistent Warning

I had been about five years married. My husband was a…business man, healthy and strong, and we were the possessors of two dear little girls, and very happy. As usual we started on our summer holiday, but, after the second week, I noticed a distinct change in my husband; he looked tired and ill, and he was very irritable. He made no complaint and said he was all right; but I felt anxious to get home. It was on the night after our return that I went to bed feeling very tired and soon dropped off into a heavy sleep, but was suddenly awakened and heard the clock strike twelve. I rubbed my eyes and listened, and then I saw distinctly leaning on the foot of my bed, a nurse in uniform, with head bowed down. It gave me a start and I called out “Nurse.” This awoke my hubby, and he was ever so cross. I turned my head to tell him, but, when I looked again, she was gone. Of course, he said it was a dream, but it was not, and I slept no more that night. I did not mention the matter to anyone, fearing they would laugh at me. But the next night, I was awakened by my elder little girl calling. I went to her and found she was greatly frightened. She said a nurse had wakened her, and described the vision as I had seen it. I got into her bed, but it was a long time before she went off to sleep. It worried me so much that I sent for mother, and, before I had time to tell her anything, I heard the child telling her just as she had told me. Mother laughed about it and said she would stay all night. Imagine what I felt like when, just as the clock was striking twelve, mother called out: “The ‘nurse’ has awakened me.” My husband was furious at being wakened, as he said, by hysterical women, but in the morning we all looked so ill—my husband particularly so—that, without telling us, mother sent for the doctor. When she told my husband, he was furious, put on his hat and went out. I was sitting at the window waiting for doctor, when an ambulance drove up. I rushed to the gate and was met by the nurse. Then, out slipped the doctor. They carried my husband in. He had fallen in a faint in the road, just as doctor was on his way to the house. He sent for an ambulance, and the nurse came with it. I tried hard to get nurse to stay with me, but she could not. My husband had a terrible illness from which he never recovered properly. Nurse often came in person to see me. Then, one day, I had the sad news brought to me that “pneumonia” had claimed her. But, up to the time of my husband’s death, I often saw her and knew it was to prepare me for some trouble. As the clock was striking twelve midnight on December 21/96, nurse came to me again. I could not sleep, and put my hand under the pillow to get my flashlight. The flashlight would not work, so I felt for my husband’s. He said his was out of order, but he would take them in the morning to be repaired. Those were his last words. Later, I found him dead, but I have never seen nurse since.

Warnings From Beyond, Signs, Visions, and Premonitions told by “Daily News” Readers, S. Louis Giraud, editor, (London, UK: Fleetgate Publications, n.d.): pp. 12-13

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Clock Foretells Death:1907

clock floral display
The Sad Hour funeral flower arrangement, 1902

CLOCK FORETELLS DEATH

Whenever It Stops Some Hapless Danbury Hatter’s Doom is Sealed

(The New York World.)

When the eight day clock in the office of the Danbury Hat Makers’ Association stops the superstitious hatters who gather there accept it as a sure sign that some Danbury hatter is about to take out a traveling card to the great beyond. The hat finishers, who have an office adjoining the hat makers, declare that when the makers brought their clock here they brought death with it.

The finishers and the makers have occupied adjoining offices in the Opera House block only a few months. The makers had an office in another part of the city. For many months previous to the time when the makers moved into an office connected with the finishers the latter had not had a death in the association for several months, according to H. C. Shalvoy, the secretary.

When the makers vacated their old quarters the new rooms were not ready for them, and desks and a clock were placed temporarily in the finishers’ office. Within two days the clock stopped and about the same time the death of a member of the Finishers’ Association was announced. The next week the clock stopped again, a maker passed away. Several times this coincidence occurred, until it finally attracted the attention of the officers of the Finishers’ Association. Even after the clock had been properly installed in the makers’ new rooms and removed from the finishers’ office it continued to announce impartially the approaching demise of hat makers and hat finishers alike. The two offices are connected by an always open door. Whenever a hatter dies a death benefit of $100 is paid by the association to which he belongs.

Yesterday the clock stopped again at 11:35 a.m. President Simon Blake, of the finishers’ strolled over into the makers’ office and noticed that the customary tick could not be heard. It was then a few minutes after noon. He stopped and stared at the clock He was smitten with a sudden fear, not for himself, but for some poor hatter who was doomed and knew it not. Solemnly President Blake uttered this prediction:

“Within forty-eight hours some one will be dead.”

“Well, you know what to do,” cheerfully responded Secretary P. H. Connolly, of the Hat Makers’ Association, “Get your hundred dollars ready.” Before night there came to the office of the Finishers’ Association news of the death of Frederick Weindrof, Jr., at 2 o’clock p. m., of pneumonia.

President Blake declares that if the clock is not removed soon he will take an ax and smash it. Several old hatters who have been in the habit of making these offices a place for social gathering are never seen there now.

The Commonwealth [Scotland Neck NC] 23 May 1907: p. 1

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Ghosts in Grave-clothes

 

Ghosts in Grave-clothes John Donne in his shroud, engraved by Martin Droeshout. He posed in his shroud for the portrait on which the engraving is based in and then kept it on until he died, five weeks later. National Portrait Gallery
Ghosts in Grave-clothes John Donne in his shroud, engraved by Martin Droeshout. He posed in his shroud for the portrait on which the engraving is based in and then kept it on until he died, five weeks later. National Portrait Gallery

A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.

“Lost Hearts,” M.R. James

Recently I’ve been digging up the dirt on burial shrouds, trying to determine exactly what the well-dressed corpse was wearing and when. While there is no doubt a certain esoteric charm in studying Z-spun tabbies and shrouding flannels, what I found even more fascinating was the ghosts who appeared clothed in their grave-clothes, often of a markedly archaic pattern. Andrew Lang gives us an striking example:

The most impressive spectre he [Andrew Lang] had ever heard of, he says, in substance, appeared in an English village. Half a dozen children who had been playing together in a house rushed out through the open door in a frightened state of mind, and one of them fell down in a fit. A lady who was driving through the village stopped, attended to the child who was lying on the ground before the horses, and asked the other children as to the cause of the panic. They said they had been playing on the staircase when “a dreadful woman” suddenly appeared among them. The only reason they could give for saying that the woman was dreadful was that she wore a long woolen robe and had her brow and chin bound up with white linen. “In fact,” says the writer, “she was a walking corpse come back from the days when the law compelled us to be buried in woolen for the better encouragement of the wool trade. This wandering old death, seen in the sunlight by the children, has always appealed to me as a very good example of ghosts and of their vague and unaccountable ways. For it is most unlikely that the children knew anything of the obsolete law of the ancient English mortuary fashions.” Religio-Philosophical Journal 7 February 1891: p. 578

“Buried in woolen” refers to the Burial in Woollen Acts of 1666-1680, requiring burial in a shroud of pure English wool.  The acts were resented and were largely ignored after the late 18th century. They were repealed in 1863. Obviously the walking dreadful woman was one of the unhappy woolen-shroud wearers.

Some of you may be familiar with the statue of John Donne depicted in his shroud, which is knotted on top of his head, as pictured in the engraving above. This ghost, seen in a church chancel, presented a virtually identical appearance, as well as making a curiously incongruous rustling noise.

Out of the Long Ago

In 1907 my late husband and I were visiting some friends when the subject of ghosts arose in conversation. My husband did not believe in spirits appearing from another world. I did, for I had seen my father who had, at the time, been dead over twelve months. He also spoke to me. I knew I was awake when I saw the apparition, for I awoke my husband to tell him, as I was frightened. As soon as my husband spoke, the apparition vanished. My mother also saw my father’s spirit twice, and she was the least imaginative of women. My husband’s friend, a young man of about thirty-two, said he believed in ghosts, for he himself had seen one when a boy. He then went on to elate the following remarkable story. I have put it down just as he gave it, without embellishments of any kind. “When I was about twelve or thirteen,” he said, “I visited some relatives in a village near London. About eleven o’clock one morning, I went with the vicar’s two boys, with whom I was friendly, to get a book from the vestry of the church where their father officiated. The elder of the two boys went to get the book, whilst the younger one and I went down the aisle to wait, and to pass the time until the book was found. Hearing a sound, I thought my playmate was coming for us, and looked up towards the chancel. Walking across the chancel I saw a tall figure shrouded in a sort of blanket affair, dull and drab and gathered on the top of the head, and tied in a bunch from which it hung down in folds over the figure, which was walking or gliding toward the vestry door. There was no sound of foot-falls, but, as the apparition moved, it made a sort of rustling noise, like walking amongst dry withered leaves. Thinking some one was playing a trick I followed, hoping to see the fun, but the figure vanished at the vestry door. I looked inside and asked my friend, who was not quite ready to leave, if any one had been into the room, and told him what his brother and I had seen. He answered that he had not seen or heard anything unusual. The church, for certain reasons, was always, except when in use, kept locked. My playmate of the church aisle was full of our adventure, and he told the vicar what we had seen. He strictly forbade us to repeat the story to any one, and went on to say if we did he would be exceedingly angry. His reason for keeping such a tale secret was obvious. When I grew up to manhood,” the narrator continued, “I received a letter one day, from a gentleman who lived, or had lived, in the village where I had seen the ghost in the church chancel. He enclosed me a sketch of the apparition, which he himself had seen when about sixteen years of age. He wanted to know if the drawing was like the figure I had seen. I wrote that it was exactly the same, except for the side face, which I did not remember to have seen. The side face was thin and keen, and the nose thin also, and very prominent. The writer went on to explain that he had heard I had seen the ghost and, like myself, in the broad daylight, and that he was very interested in looking the matter up.”

“In 1911 we called to see the relator of this story, when he at once mentioned that there had been further development in his ghost story. The gentleman who had sent him the sketch had written to inform him that the apparition had again been seen. He was inquiring the time and date of the previous appearances as he was anxious to ascertain if the uncanny visitor came at stated intervals. The shroud that covered the ghost was probably one of the very old-fashioned shrouds that used to be tied on the top of the head. Uncanny Stories Told by “Daily News” Readers, S. Louis Giraud, 1927: p. 30-31

Sometimes even the minutest details of the shroud were noted by a witness.

SPECTRAL ILLUSION

The following is one of the most remarkable of the ghost stories in Sir David Brewster’s late book:

About a month after this occurrence, [the appearance of her husband’s doppelganger] Mrs. A., who had taken a somewhat fatiguing drive during the day, was preparing to go to bed, about eleven o’clock at night, and, sitting before the dressing-glass, was occupied in arranging her hair. She was in a listless and drowsy state of mind, but fully awake. When her fingers were in active motion among the papillotes,[papers for making butterfly curls] she was suddenly startled by seeing in the mirror, the figure of a near relation, who was then in Scotland, and in perfect health. The apparition appeared over her left shoulder, and its eyes met hers in the glass. It was enveloped in grave-clothes, closely pinned, as is usual with corpses, round the head, and under the chin, and though the eyes were open, the features were solemn and rigid. The dress was evidently a shroud, as Mrs. A. remarked even the punctured pattern usually worked in a peculiar manner round the edges of that garment. Mrs. A. described herself as at the time sensible of a feeling like what we conceive of fascination, compelling her for a time to gaze on this melancholy apparition, which was as distinct and vivid as any reflected reality could be, the light of the candles upon the dressing-table appearing to shine full upon its face. After a few minutes, she turned round to look for the reality of the form over her shoulder; but it was not visible, and it had also disappeared from the glass when she looked again in that direction. On the 26th of the same month, about two P. M., Mrs. A. was sitting in a chair by the window in the same room with her husband. He heard her exclaim, “What have I seen?” And on looking on her, he observed a strange expression in her eyes and countenance. A carriage and four had appeared to her to be driving up the entrance-road to the house. As it approached, she felt inclined to go up stairs to prepare to receive company; but, as if spell-bound, she was unable to move or speak. The carriage approached, and as it arrived within a few yards of the window, she saw the figures of the postilions and the persons inside take the ghastly appearance of skeletons and other hideous figures. The whole then vanished entirely, when she uttered the above-mentioned exclamation. The Schoolmaster, and Edinburgh Weekly Magazine, Volumes 1-2, John Johnstone, Publisher, 1832: p. 221.

If the date on this story wasn’t much too early, we might suggest that Mrs. A. had been to Paris’s Cabaret du Neant and seen the coffined living decomposed to a skeleton and back in just minutes!  To be Relentlessly Informative, the “punctured pattern” was an eyelet-like effect punched in the cloth with pinking irons. It was a cheap way to achieve a lacy look for grave-clothes and linens.

Ghosts in Grave-clothes This post-mortem negative from Norway shows the "punchwork" commonly used on shrouds and grave-clothes http://digitaltmuseum.no/011015155636
Ghosts in Grave-clothes This post-mortem negative from Norway shows the “punchwork” commonly used on shrouds and grave-clothes http://digitaltmuseum.no/011015155636

In some variants of this next story, which was a popular urban legend, the ghost was recognized by a particular detail of the shroud.

A woman not far from Emly, buried her husband, a few months ago. A knock came to the door some night last month. She asked who was there. A hollow voice answered, “I am your husband, whom you buried, and I am very miserable in purgatory till my debts are paid. Sell the two pigs you have, and be sure you have the money for me on such a night when I call.” The poor woman did as he required, and felt happy at being able to meet his request, either through fear or love (as he appeared with his shroud and pale face.) Between the first and second visit of the ghost, the poor woman went and told her story to the priest; he told her it was all very good, but at the same time to have two policemen in the house when she would be giving the money. Accordingly, after getting the money, the purgatorial and shrouded ghost came and was arrested by the police and lodged in Limerick jail, there to undergo a little more purgatory till his trial comes on. This ghost turned out to be a near neighbor, who is god-father to one of her children. The Weekly Vincennes [IN] Western Sun 15 March 1862

In this account from the séance-room, an apparition draws attention to her burial robe as proof of her identity.

The next one who appeared was Mrs. Mary Ann Waugh, wife of the late John M. Waugh, of Rock Island, who died about thirteen years ago at this place; a sister of Mrs. Hill’s, and also sister of mine. The test in this case was remarkably good, principally in her general appearance of features and the manner she used to wear her hair, and some peculiarity in her burial robe, in the material used, and something very peculiar in the style and make, which she seemed very desirous of my wife seeing, as she assisted in the making of it.  Religio-Philosophical Journal 20 March 1875: p. 2

The shroud was also regarded as an infallible, if nuanced, death token in stories of second sight,  presenting a sort of sliding scale of death.

The event was usually indicated by the subject of the vision appearing in a shroud, and the higher the vestment rose on the figure, the event was the nearer. ‘If it is not seen above the middle,’ says Martin, ‘death is not to be expected for the space of a year, and perhaps some months longer. When it is seen to ascend higher towards the head, death is concluded to be at hand within a few days, if not hours, as daily experience confirms. Examples of this kind were shewn me, when the person of whom the observation was made enjoyed perfect health.’ Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution, Volume 3. Robert Chambers, 1861: p. 290

This seeress predicted the death of a young boy without giving her reasons. After his death, she explained what she had seen:

I carried the boy’s corpse aboard with me, and, after my arrival and his burial, I called suddenly for the woman, and asked her, what warrant she had to foretell the boy’s death? She said, that she had no other warrant, but that she saw, two days before I took my voyage, the boy walking with me in the fields, sewed up in his winding sheets, from top to toe: and that she had never seen this in others, but she found that they shortly thereafter died: and therefore concluded, that he would too, and that shortly. Light 9 February 1889: 66-67

One of these seers had his vision calibrated to a nicety.

Two seers at work, one a gentleman and the other ‘a common fellow’, who were both visiting the manse of an Inverness minister. All at once the common fellow began to weep and cry out that a certain sick woman about five miles away was either dead or dying.

The gentleman seer—naturally the expert—replied, ‘No, she’s not dead, nor will she die of this disease.’

‘Oh?’ said the fellow. ‘Can’t you see her covered in her winding sheet?’

‘Aye,’ replied the gentleman, ‘I see her as well as you do, but do you not also see that her linen is wet with sweat? She will soon be cooling of her fever.’ And so it turned out. The Revd Hector Mackenzie vouched for the story’s truth. Ravens and Black Rain: The Story of Highland Second Sight, Elizabeth Sutherland, p. 62

Shrouds seen via second sight might not only predict a death, but the form or color of that winding sheet.

“Florence MacLeod, spouse to the present minister of St. Kilda, informed me lately, that her mother Elizabeth MacLeod, a gentlewoman distinguished from sevrals for piety and good morals, having come out of her house at Pabbay in the Harris, with a clear moon-shining night, and having sat down to enjoy the pleasure of a calm serene air, and the beautiful prospect of a glittering starry firmament; both of them observed a domestic girl, who had been a native of St. Kilda (they had left the house), issuing from it, covered with a shroud of a darkish colour, and stalking across the distance betwixt them and the house as if she intended to frighten them, and after continuing in this manner for some time, disappeared. Upon their return to the house, the said Elizabeth, challenged the girl for her frolick, who affirmed, with many asseverations, she had not left the house all the time her mistress and daughter were absent: to which the other servants gave testimony. In a short time thereafter, the same girl died of a fever, and as there was no linen in the place but what was unbleached it was made use of for her sowe, [winding sheet] which answered the representation exhibited to her mistress and the declarant as above.” Light 9 February 1889: 66-67

Today, although shrouds are making a comeback in the context of green burials, most people go to their final rest in their own clothing.  Although I haven’t done a scientific survey, I’ve heard from people who have seen apparitions of friends and relatives wearing the same clothes they were buried in. That would not be particularly remarkable–if you saw the clothes at the viewing or funeral, you might picture the visitation wearing those clothes. Where that logical argument sometimes breaks down is when the witness did not go to the funeral or have any information about what the dead person wore in their coffin, but could describe the burial clothing anyway. Such anecdotes reopen the whole question of why ghosts are seen wearing clothes and why, if, as some psychic researchers used to suggest, the dead can project whatever image they want to those they visit, they choose to wear their last outfit?

Other stories of ghosts in grave-clothes or burial garments?  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

I’ve written before about shrouded specters and superstitions involving shrouds.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Death Angel in Lancashire

Death Angel in Lancashire, Death Angel, Horace Vernet, 1851, The Hermitage Museum

The Death Angel takes many forms: the hooded Grim Reaper, the Radiant Boy, fairy-like cherubs, the bloody-handed Banshee, or, in today’s case, a dazzling Woman in White.

[This piece comes from an interview of medium Mrs. Ellen Green, in a column called “The Mysteries of Mediumship” by “Our Special Representative” in the Spiritualist journal Light.]

A short time since I gave an account of a chat with Mrs. Stansfield, a bright little medium from the North, enjoying much honour in her own country, and commanding it in London immediately her remarkable gifts became known. Mrs. Green, of Heywood, is another Lancashire medium, or Lancashire witch if you will have it so, who, in many respects, compares with Mrs. Stansfield, of Oldham. She is a pleasant mannered, pleasant spoken little woman, very quiet and very retiring, with the accent of her native county just enough marked to agreeably flavour her talk.

[The narrator asks about how she became a medium.]

“Was there mediumship in the family”

‘My mother had the gift of second sight strongly developed, and could often foretell a death or a striking event. I myself can always feel when anybody related or dear to me is going to pass over. The first time I saw the Death Angel—’

‘The Death Angel! Surely now, I thought that dread personage was an altogether imaginary character.’

‘I have the same vision in each case, and I have come to call the spirit the Death Angel. I have never heard of anybody else seeing it. I was about sixteen at the time, and my mother and I were alone in the world. She was ill; and whilst I was at work in the factory where I was employed I heard my name, “Ellen,” repeated three times very distinctly. Fearing something wrong, I obtained permission to go home, and on the way, while passing through a large yard connected with the factory, I saw in front a form of dazzling white. There were no features distinguishable, but the form was that of a woman, clothed in a white robe of indescribable beauty. I put out my hand, a cold shudder went through me, and she melted away like snow under the sun. Hastening home, I found my mother unconscious; and when she came to herself I told her what I had witnessed. “My child,” she said, “I shall never get well. You have seen the spirit I always see when one I know is about to die.” And a day or two later she passed over. I have seen the Death Angel several times since, but only in the case of relatives or friends for whom I have a strong feeling of affection.’

Light 3 August 1895: p. 368

This is a softer, gentler, friends-and-family version of the Reaper, as opposed to the terrifying hooded Things found here and the bureaucratic Messenger of Death found here.

Intriguingly, in the same interview, Mrs Green confesses that she is afraid of spirits.

Spirit people I have seen as long as I can remember. As a child I used to play with spirit children, and not dream that they were different in any way from other children.’ “I suppose you were not long in discovering the difference ” ‘Longer than you might think. It was all so natural; and it did not occur to me that my little playmates were not visible to everybody as they were to me. When I knew they were not of earth, my feelings changed.” ‘How do you mean?’ ‘I don’t know whether it should be said, lest I be misunderstood, but I am afraid of spirits—afraid, that is, for them to come near me.’ ‘That is rather singular, is it not, when, as I gather is the case, you are on such intimate terms with the other world, and find its beings so natural in appearance and character?’

‘Yes, particularly as they are so natural that I often fail immediately to distinguish them from persons who have not passed over. I can’t explain the feeling, but it is very strongly implanted in me. I never attempt to speak to them, and if one comes near me I shrink away or even cry out. One of the photographs in Mr. Glendinning’s book, “The Veil Lifted,” is of me with a spirit form by my side. The spirit was necessarily quite close to me, and the peculiar expression of my features, and the attitude of shrinking away from the form were due to my uncomfortable sense of its proximity.’

Mrs Green does, indeed, look dubious in the photograph.

Death Angel in Lancashire Mrs Green, of Heywood (medium), and the same spirit form as in the next plate, but in a different attitude, and with the birds and flowers reversed. Stereoscopic photographs obtained October 21, 1893

Death Angel in Lancashire Another view of the death angel spirit photograph.

To be Relentlessly Informative, the hand in the lower right hand corner of this photograph somehow suggests an air pump; inflatable “spirits” were a useful prop in the séance room—easily hidden, then inflated and deflated, they were perfect for materializations and dematerializations.

I’ve included a chapter on Victorian personifications of Death in The Victorian Book of the Dead. They are fascinatingly rare in nineteenth-century non-fiction, especially considering the cultural focus on death and mourning.

Other Death Angels or Grim Reapers? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.