Thursday, October 22, 2015

What is a Ghoul?—From the St. Louis Republic 1890

What is a Ghoul?—From the St. Louis Republic 1890

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Is there such a thing as a ghoul? If so, is it a biped or a quadruped, a man or a beast? Edgar A. Poe, in one of his poems—The Bells—assures us that “they are neither man nor woman, neither beast nor human —they are ghouls.” The poet here furnishes the outline and leaves the imagination to complete the picture. The popular belief is that the ghoul lives upon human flesh, and dwells within easy access to a country graveyard, where it can sally forth at night and prey upon the recently buried corpse, carefully covering up all traces of its presence. The ghoul has only in a very few cases been identified with the New World, and is scarcely ever spoken of except as a myth. In Asia, and occasionally in Europe, something is heard of their ravages in burial places remote from human surroundings. In isolated portions of Ireland at certain intervals the cry of “Ghoul” goes abroad, and a thrill of horror accompanies the utterance. An Irishman gives the following account of a ghoul he actually saw: “In 1868, at Laracor church and graveyard, in the County Meath, a ghoul was captured while in the act of depredating the grave of a recently buried infant. I lived at the time of the occurrence about eight miles from the scene. Laracor graveyard was situated on a slope that reached downward to the brink of the river Boyne. It was a solitary spot, two miles from the village, and unfrequented save on the Sabbath, or at all times when the keen of death—or funeral cry of the Irish peasants —was within the gloomy inclosure. In June,1868, reports reached the county town that graves were being pillaged in that section of the country, and the magistrates determined to arrest the “body-snatchers’ and make them pay dearly for their services in behalf of the physicians, who at that time paid high prices for subjects for anatomical analysis. The village police were notified to proceed to Laracor graveyard, and one fine night in June, obedient to call, six members of the force, accompanied by as many more young men from the neighborhood, arrived at the spot indicated and concealed themselves behind a large tombstone or mausoleum. They waited breathlessly for hours, and about one o'clock a figure was observed to glide along the west wall of the inclosure, and paused a moment, as if to listen, and then fell upon all fours and crept to a newly made grave, where it began tearing up the earth in dog fashion and with marvellous rapidity. The watchers remained quiet for ten minutes before making an onset, and then rushed forward and surrounded the thief. But, to their horror, the creature leaped to its feet, uttering a hoarse, inhuman scream that almost terrified them to death. The moon shone out vividly, and by its light they beheld a being in form of a man, that to look upon was to loathe beyond endurance. A body covered with thick, crispy hair from head to foot (face and palms included), eyes small and sunken with a wild glare, mouth large and brutal with four tusks at least five inches long, curved inward and hiding a small, receding chin. The nails, three and a half inches in length, were strong and thick and hollow as a gouge.

This creature was fully five feet ten inches in height, but so lean and fleshless that its weight did not exceed one hundred and twenty pounds. The crown of the head pointed upward, and the circumference around the brow was not over twelve and a half inches. The most remarkable feature of the visage (save the tusks) was a pair of gigantic ears of the human shape and standing out from the head. As we gazed upon the hideous spectre in our midst a strange, superstitious dread took possession of the boldest of the party. Yet it moved not a muscle; only the quick, wild and glaring eyes were in action, to discover a chance of escape from its persecutors. ‘God in His mercy and the Virgin save us!" uttered Constable Knowles, crossing himself, ‘it’s a ghost.' It was half an hour before some of the party could be induced to assist in securing and binding the creature, and yet it made no other opposition than to moan piteously at intervals. News of the capture spread far and wide. Mass was said at the village church before daylight, for the dreadful monstrosity was carried into the village, and the people were stricken almost dumb with fear. This was on a Saturday night. On the following Monday the petty sessions convened at Kells, where the county magistrates sat upon the bench, awaiting besides their ordinary routine a novel and interesting subject for investigation. The excitement rose to such a pitch that the police lost all control of the mob, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that the object of horror could be led from its cell to the jaunting-car which was standing in front of the building. When at last it was ushered forth a shudder of horror passed through the assembly, and several hundred voices murmured ‘Christ save us, 'tis a ghoul.” As the vehicle passed through the courthouse I, with others, ascended the stone steps to get a better view. It was then that, for the first time, the ghoul, driven to distraction by the mass of surging humanity, made a desperate struggle for liberty. Unshackled, the creature sat between two police, when suddenly it grasped both men by the throats and hurled them from the car. Before further damage could be done, a policeman on the opposite side struck the ghoul with a heavy baton and secured it hand and foot. When brought before the court the strange creature exhibited a vacant demeanor, and uttered not a sound nor moved a muscle. Several of the magistrates undertook to ply it with questions, but they might as well have addressed a statue. At length a jury was impaneled, and the result was a verdict of insanity and a committal to the lunatic asylum at the capital. Orders were then and there issued to scour the vicinity of the graveyard for further testimony. The result was the discovery of a shallow cave beneath a ledge of rock which projected from the river bank and was accessible only by entrance from the water, which was fully four feet deep at the spot. The discoverers of the cave ran a boat to the opening, entered, made search and discovered a quantity of human bones, chiefly children, piled in a corner of the narrow apartment, some of which contained pieces of decomposed flesh. The stench was terrific, and the witnesses declared that they became deadly sick from the few minutes' exploration of the horrible den. Judging from the quantity of bones in the cave, it is hardly likely that its inmate had haunted the spot for over ten or twelve months. A few days after the arrival of the curiosity in the city of Dublin the subject was brought before the medical and scientific faculties of the Irish capital, and full testimony taken in the case. During the examination, the ghoul betrayed no more interest than on the previous event, but remained stolid and motionless. The jailers testified that during its captivity it had refused every species of food, but would drink water ravenously at times. The abstinence could not long continue without disastrous results, and the death of the ghoul within thirty days from its capture is attributed to this cause. And here there arose another question, as to the disposition of the body. When about to lay it in the graveyard attached to the asylum a dispute arose which never has been quite settled. The clergy, at least a leader of one of the denominational churches, objected to the interment of an animal in a Christian burial place, while others claimed that the ghoul was a human, and the body, therefore, entitled to the same consideration as any other sinner. Finally, however, the corpse was carried to the suburbs of the city and laid beneath a tree in a piece of waste land. I cannot do better than refer to the opinion of Dr. Burke, an elderly and eminent physician, who it appears had thirty years previously examined the Kilfinnan ghoul: “I believe, said the doctor, ‘that the benefit of the doubt should have been in favor of the ghoul, and that he should have been awarded human burial. We have no philosophical proof that the creature belongs to a distinctive genus. This specimen is in every respect similar to the Kilfinnan ghoul; both being alike in respect to the tusks, eyes, nails, hair-clad bodies, idiotic heads and enormous ears. The post-mortem analysis in both instances revealed not one single feature foreign to the human race. The doctor, however, would risk no definite assertion as to the origin of the ghoul. History has touched but lightly upon the subject, and in works of ancient eastern authors they are alluded to in a shadowy manner, and coupled with everything that is horrible and repulsive. The creatures had been heard of in Ireland not infrequently, but only three had been captured during a space of thirty years. One of them was caught while asleep, resting its back against a tombstone, in the Kilfinnan graveyard, the halfdevoured body of an infant in its possession. Dr. Burke's opinion was that there were only a few in that country, but that these were gifted with great longevity, and travelled during the darkness of the night from place to place. This would account for the many grave robberies that never were traced despite the liberal rewards which were offered. “I believe,” said Dr. Burke on one occasion, “that the ghoul, notwithstanding popular superstition, is a human being endowed with an immortal soul, sprung from man and woman; that owing to estrangement from mankind at an early period, it degenerated and at length developed the strange and horrible traits for which it is peculiar.’”

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