You may also like Over 100 of the Freakiest, Creepiest and Scariest Books on DVDrom and Supernatural Horror in Fiction Literature - 350 Books on DVDrom and Forgotten Tales of Ghosts and Hauntings - 100 Books on CDrom and The Paranormal and Supernatural - 400 Books on DVDrom
“Three times all in the dead of night,
A bell was heard to ring.”—Tickell.
Haunted houses have proved an insuperable stumbling-block to those wiseacres who no sooner insist that superstition has died out than the familiar headline in the daily paper, “A haunted house,” stares them full in the face. It is believed that many such houses stand tenantless to-day because of the secret fear they inspire in the minds of the timid or superstitious, who, quite naturally, shrink from living under the same roof with disembodied spirits. It has already been noted that M. Camille Flammarion is a firm believer in haunted houses. Here is what he has to say upon that much debated subject:—
“There is no longer any room to doubt the fact that certain houses are haunted.
“I began the scientific studies of these questions on November 15, 1861, and I have continued it ever since. I have received more than four thousand letters upon these questions from the learned men of every land, and I am glad to be able to say that some of the most interesting letters come from America.”
For every haunted house there must, of course, be an invisible intruder who comes only in the small hours, when the effects of its unwelcome presence would, of course, be most terrifying to weak nerves. But it is to be remarked that we hear nothing nowadays of the old-time, hair-raising, blood-curdling ghost whose coming forebode something terrible about to happen, or who had some awful revelation to make. That type of ghost has passed away. The modern ghost never makes set speeches in a sepulchral voice or leaves a palpable smell of brimstone behind. It comes rather in a spirit of mischief-making, shown in such petty annoyances as setting the house bells ringing, overturning articles of furniture, twitching the bedclothes from off a sleeping person in the coldest of cold nights, putting out the lights, or making a horrible racket, first in one room, then in another, as if it revelled in pure wantonness of purpose. In short, there is no limit to the ingenious deviltries perpetrated by this nocturnal disturber of domestic peace and quiet.
After two or three sleepless nights, followed by days of quaking apprehension, the occupants usually move out, declaring that they would not live in the house if it were given to them. And so it stands vacant indefinitely, shunned by all to whom its evil reputation has become known, a visible monument of active superstition.
That all these things have happened as lately as in this year of grace (1900) is too well known to be denied. And as most people would desire to shun publicity in such a matter, there are probably very many cases that never reach the public eye at all. One such is reported of a family at Charlestown, Massachusetts, being disturbed by strange noises, as of some one pounding on the walls or floors at all hours of the night. Even the police, when summoned, failed to lay hands on the invisible tormentor, who, like the ghost in Hamlet, was here, there, and nowhere in a jiffy.
One of the most singular cases that have come to my knowledge, perhaps because the unaccountable disturbances happened in the daytime, whereas they habitually occur only in the night-time, when churchyards are supposed to yawn, was that of a haunted schoolhouse. This was downright bravado. If we do not err, in this case a bell was repeatedly rung during the regular sessions, by no visible agency, to the amazement of both teachers and scholars. After a vain search for the cause, the schoolhouse was shut up, and so remained for a considerable time, a speechless but tangible witness to the general belief that the devil was at the bottom of it all.
Not many generations ago, when ghosts were perhaps more numerous than at present, there were professional exorcists who could be hired to clear the premises of ghosts or no pay; but this is now a lost art. As Shakespeare says:—
“No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!”
While upon this interesting subject it may be instructive to know what our ancestors sometimes suffered from similar visitations. We take the following extract from Ben Franklin’s New England Courant, of 1726:—
“They write from Plymouth, that an extraordinary event has lately happened in that neighborhood, in which, some say, the Devil and the man of the house are very much to blame. The man it seems, would now and then in a frolic call upon the Devil to come down the chimney; and some little time after the last invitation, the goodwife’s pudding turned black in the boiling, which she attributed to the Devil’s descending the chimney, and getting into the pot upon her husband’s repeated wishes for him. Great numbers of people have been to view the pudding, and to inquire into the circumstances; and most of them agree that so sudden a change must be produced by a preternatural power. However, ’tis thought it will have this good effect upon the man, that he will no more be so free with the Devil in his cups, lest his Satanic Majesty should again unluckily tumble into the pot.”
But houses are by no means the only things subject to these astounding visitations. Dark and secluded ponds, thick swamps, and barren hillsides often bear that unsavory reputation to-day, it may be from association with some weird tale or legend, or mayhap because such places seldom fail, of themselves, to produce a certain effect upon an active imagination. Let any such person, who has ever been lost in some thick forest, recall his sensations upon first making the unwelcome discovery. The solemn old woods then seem all alive with—
“The dim and shadowy armies of our unquiet dreams,
Their footsteps brush the dewy fern and print the shaded streams.”
As regards haunted ships, the following incident, taken down as literally as I could transcribe it at the time, from the lips of a seafaring friend, speaks for itself:—
“‘Twas some dozen year ago, may be less, may be more—beats all how time travels when you’ve turned the half-century post—I was aboard of the old Paul Pry—queer name, now, warn’t it? We was a lyin’ in Havana harbor, all snug, about a mile from shore. Well, the mate he was on watch. In port, you know, ships always keep slack watch. Our’n was light, nothin’ in her, hold all swep’ out clean that very day, ’cause we was to begin takin’ in sugar and molasses in the mornin’. All hands were off in the ship’s boat visitin’ another ship—all ’cept the steward. The old man, he was ashore.
“I’m slow, but you just hold your hosses. All to once’t the mate thought he heern somebody walkin’ back’ards and for’ards plumb down in the hold. He walked to the open hatch and called down, ‘Who’s there?’ No answer. He listened. No sound. Thinkin’ it might possibly have been the steward getting his firewood, the mate went for’ard to the steward’s room to see if it was so, and found him fast asleep in his bunk. That settled it. Nobody aboard but them two.
“The mate he said nothin’ to nobody, but got a lantern and slipped quietly down the ladder into the hold, determined to find out who was skylarkin’ there, for I tell you the mate he was a game one all the time, and don’t you b’leeve he warn’t!
“He hunted high and low, from the fore-peak to the run, but not a soul was to be seen anywhere; but just as soon as he stood still he would hear those myster’ous footsteps go trampin’ fore and aft, fore and aft, as plain as day, right by him, where he stood.
“By this time the mate had got pretty well worked up, I want you to know, so he just gin one kinder skeered look around him, and then hustled himself off up that ladder just a leetle mite faster than he came down, wonderin’ to himself what it all could mean, and thinkin’ all sorts of things to once’t.
“Then he went and woke up the steward, and both on ’em went and listened fust at one hatch, then at t’other, and sure enough that consarned tramp, tramp, tramp, was a-goin’ on agin just the same as before. Then they pulled on the hatches. But, Lor’ bless you, it warn’t no use. Them critters down below had the bulge on ’em every time.
“The mate he said nothin’ ’cept to the old man, who looked as black as a new-painted deadeye with the lanyards unrove when he heerd it; but somehow it leaked out among the crew before we sailed, and one or two ran away and laid low till the ship was clean out of the harbor.
“It was gen’lly b’leeved fore and aft that them there footsteps was a warnin’. Hows’ever, the thing quieted down some in a day or two, so nothin’ more was heerd of the walkin’ match down below; but on the third day out, I think it was, we was struck by one of them northers, and in spite of all we could do we was drove ashore on a reef off the Bermudys, where the Paul Pry brought up all standin’, and there she left her old bones. The wreckers they came and took off the crew, and fetched ’em all safe into Nassau. Now if that ship warn’t haunted, I miss my guess. You can’t most always tell about them things, I know; but ef it was skylarkin’, all I’ve got to say is, it was a purty neat job, and don’t you forget it.”
There are also places, as well as houses, which have the reputation of being haunted, sometimes through the commission of a horrible crime in that particular locality, sometimes through the survival of some obscure local tradition. It matters not. Once give the place a bad name, and local tradition preserves the memory of it for many generations. Every schoolboy is familiar with the weird legend of Nix’s Mate, a submerged island at the entrance to Boston Harbor, where pirates were formerly hung in chains. Appledore Island, on the coast of New Hampshire, once had the name of being haunted by the uneasy ghost of one of Captain Kidd’s piratical crew. The face of the spectre was said by those who had seen it, or who thought they had seen it, to be dreadful to behold, and the neck to bear the livid mark of the hangman’s noose. Once, no islander could be found hardy enough to venture himself on Appledore after dark. Indeed, such places of fearsome reputation are found all over New England. For example, there is the shrieking woman of Marblehead, a remarkable spook, who at certain intervals of time could be heard uttering the most heartrending cries for mercy to her inhuman murderers. Then, again, there is the legend of Harry Main, reputed pirate and wrecker, who, by means of false lights, decoyed simple mariners to destruction on the shoals of Ipswich Bar, to which for his many crimes the wretch was doomed to be chained down to the fatal spot to which he had lured his unsuspecting victims.
Quite naturally these legends mostly cluster about the seacoast, but now and then one is found in the interior. One corner of the town of Chester, New Hampshire, lifts into view an eminence known as Rattlesnake Hill, one rocky side of which is pierced entirely through, thus forming a cavern of great notoriety in all the country round. This cavern is known as the Devil’s Den, and many were the frightful stories told around winter firesides of the demons who, of yore, haunted it, and who, all unseen of mortal eyes, there held their midnight orgies within the gloomy recesses of the mountain.
There are two entrances to this cavern, both leading to an interior, subterranean chamber, whose vaulted roof is thickly studded with pear-shaped protuberances that are said to shine and sparkle when the flame of a torch sheds a ruddy glow upon them. According to popular tradition the path leading to the cavern was always kept open, summer and winter. Many years ago the poet Whittier put the legend into verse:—
“’Tis said that this cave is an evil place—
The chosen haunt of a fallen race—
That the midnight traveller oft hath seen
A red flame tremble its jaws between,
And lighten and quiver the boughs among,
Like the fiery play of a serpent’s tongue:
That sounds of fear from its chambers swell—
The ghostly gibber,—the fiendish yell;
That bodiless hands at the entrance wave—
And hence they have named it the Demon’s Cave.”
The persistent life of such local traditions as these fully attests to the belief of former generations of men in the active agency of the Evil One in human affairs. And not only this, but this omnipresent devil has actually left his mark, legibly stamped, in so many places, and his name in so many others, that to doubt his actual presence were not only unreasonable but ungenerous. Even his footprints are found here and there, yet strange to say, few represent a cloven foot. The sonorous names, Devil’s Pulpit and Devil’s Cartway, are found within a few miles of each other on the coast of Maine. Moreover, do we not know from a perusal of the testimony given at the celebrated witchcraft trials, that the arch-fiend had been both seen and spoken with in propria persona?
It used to be a not uncommon threat with quick-tempered people to say that if their wishes or expectations were not gratified to their liking, they would “haunt you” when they died. I myself have often heard this expression used either in jest or in earnest; and when used it never failed to leave a disagreeable impression on the listener.
It is not a great many years ago since an account was telegraphed all over the country, and duly appeared in the daily newspapers, of an honest citizen, a resident of one of the largest towns in Pennsylvania, whose wife “while yet in good health, frequently admonished her friends that she did not wish her body to be buried in a certain wet graveyard. She threatened to ‘speak to them’ if her wish was not granted, and went so far as to tell them how she would haunt them by coming back in ghostly form. The wife died, and her body was buried in the graveyard she had disliked. Now, strange as it may appear, her husband alleges that, since the funeral took place, she has appeared at his bedside several times each week, always looking at him, and always making motions with her bony hands, as a mark of her displeasure. The husband says he is unable to sleep, and also that he is sure the strange midnight visitor is none other than his wife. He declares that whatever other people may think of it, he himself firmly believes that he has brought the enmity of the spirit upon himself and children by their refusal to grant the wife’s last request. The children’s beds are also visited by her, as they say, and as a consequence the family is kept in constant alarm. One of the nearest neighbors has also seen the ‘spook’ several times, and corroborates the family in every particular. The terrified husband relates the facts himself, and it is the responsibility of the man that warrants publishing his story of the appearance of the spook. He gives the account of the strange happenings in a straightforward manner, which impresses a person with its truth, and he further says it is not imagination, a dream, or an attack of nightmare, but that the spook always comes when he is wide awake. The women and children of the neighborhood are in great terror, and the people hardly venture out of doors after dark.”
Upon the heels of this experience comes the following telegram to the Associated Press, thus disseminating, through its thousand channels, superstition broadcast:—
[“Copyright, 1899, by The Associated Press.]
“London, March 4, 1899. Another link in the chain of illfortune which has followed the famous Newstead Abbey was forged this week. It seems that a curse rests on the abbey, and that the eldest has never succeeded to the estate.
“Byron sold it to Col. Wildman in 1808, who died childless. The trustees sold it to Webb, the famous sportsman, whose eldest son died this week. Byron had the skull which was reported to have belonged to the ghost that haunted the abbey, and he used it as a punch bowl. Webb buried the skull, hoping to lay the ghost.”
As related to the general subject, it is too well known that certain persons to-day profess the power of conversing with disembodied spirits, to need more than a passing reference to this particular form of belief, which some hold to as firmly as to an article of religious faith, while others consider it a delusion or worse. Forty odd years ago spirit rappings convulsed society from one end of the country to the other. Spiritual séances were vehemently denounced from the pulpit, and while fully reported also by the press, the mediums were charged with being rank impostors, humbugs, and the like. Alleged exposure followed exposure. Yet somehow the belief, such as it is, has contrived to outlive ridicule, calumny, and persecution—the common lot of every new and startling departure from the older beliefs—until to-day it has acquired not only the right to live, but also that of calm discussion.
Dr. Samuel Johnson once asked the pertinent question, “If moral evil be consistent with the government of the Deity, why may not physical evil be consistent with it?” The solemn declaration that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations, sometimes recurs to us with startling force, more especially when the awful anathema is brought so near home to us as it is by the following veracious incident.
There is a certain well-known locality in Essex County, Massachusetts, which has long borne the evil reputation of being haunted, owing to the tradition that a cruel murder was committed there. According to some of the old people from whom I had the story, strange sights and sounds have been both seen and heard near the spot where the crime took place. For instance, a child would be heard crying out most pitifully, though nothing could be seen. One belated horseman positively declared that when passing this accursed place he had seen a child’s coffin moving along the road, as he moved; and that the spectre followed him almost into the town of Ipswich. It is said to be a fact that many of the old folks were afraid to pass this place of dread after dark.
As to the origin of the story, with its highly dramatic features, accounts differ somewhat; but considerable pains have been taken to arrive at the truth, since it is a matter of general notoriety in the neighborhood referred to, although the actual facts may have no relation whatever to the “skeleton in the closet” disclosed by the story itself.
The story goes back to colonial times, and chiefly has to do with the two daughters of a family in good social standing. These young women had for a serving-maid a negro slave, who was treated with marked severity by her haughty mistresses.
In time, the slave woman bore a child. Angered at the coming of the luckless little waif, the cruel sisters resolved to put it out of the way. One day the mother found it hid away in a hogshead of flax, in the garret. Failing in this attempt, the sisters then took the child, stuck pins into its veins, and tried to smother it between two feather beds. When the infant was thought to be quite dead, the body was thrown into a brook, under a nearby bridge which spanned it. Life, however, was not quite extinct, so that the child’s cries were heard by a passing traveller, who rescued it, but it soon after bled to death from the wounds inflicted upon it.
Half crazed by this dastardly act, the forlorn mother then and there called down the curse of God upon the inhuman sisters and their sons to all future generations.
This is substantially the legend. Now for the sequel. It is said to be a fact that all the sons of the daughters of that family, and no others, have ever since been afflicted with a strange and incurable malady, the principal feature being a tendency to profuse bleeding from the most trifling cuts or wounds. After some days have elapsed, a mere scratch will begin to bleed copiously and so continue until the sufferer has lost so much blood that in some cases it is said he has bled to death. From this circumstance the persons so afflicted are known by the name of “bleeders.”
Mr. Felt asserts that the family in which this singular hemorrhage first appeared brought it with them from England; which, if true, would summarily dispose of the legend; but his statement does not accord with the story as told on the spot. It is here related as it was told to me.
Reference was earlier made to the old-time, respectable ghost of our fathers, who like the ghost in Hamlet, made his unwelcome appearance only to subserve the ends of justice. This practical generation hardly realizes, we think, how lately the ghost was accepted in that character, or how trustworthy his evidence was deemed by the purveyors of public intelligence. On turning over the files of the New England Weekly Journal of December 1, 1729, we came across the following ghost story, here reproduced verbatim:—
“Last week, one belonging to Ipswich came to Boston and related that some time since he was at Canso in Nova Scotia, and that on a certain day there appeared to him an apparition in blood and wounds, and told him that at such a time and place, mentioning both, he was barbarously murdered by one, who was at Rhode Island, and desired him to go to the said person and charge him with the said murder, and prosecute him therefor, naming several circumstances relating to the murder; and that since his arrival from Canso to Ipswich the said apparition had appeared to him again, and urged him immediately to prosecute the said affair. The abovesaid person having related the matter was advised and encouraged to go to Rhode Island and engage therein, and he accordingly set out for that place on Thursday last.”
Dr. Timothy Dwight, in his “Travels,” records, with approval, the following singular superstition relative to the barberry, which is so common in New England. “This bush,” he remarks, “is, in New England, generally believed to blast both wheat and rye. Its blossoms, which are very numerous, and continue a considerable time, emit very copiously a pungent effluvium believed to be so acrimonious as to injure essentially both these kinds of grain.
“In Southborough, a township in the county of Worcester, a Mr. Johnson sowed with rye a field of new ground. At the south end of this field also grew a single barberry bush. The grain was blasted throughout the whole length of the field, on a narrow tract commencing at the bush and proceeding directly in the course, and to the extent, to which the blossoms were diffused by the wind.”
Certes, that was a most extraordinary belief held by the simple country folk in a certain quiet corner of New England, that candles made of the tallow obtained from a dead body, would, when lighted, render the person carrying them invisible; and furthermore that a lighted candle of this description, if placed within a bedroom, would effectually prevent a sleeping person from waking until it should be extinguished. This I had from the lips of a most intelligent and estimable lady, who knew whereof she spoke.
I confess that on hearing this statement I realized that I had now found more than I was looking for. But incredible as it may seem at first, all doubts were set at rest by the following article found among some fragments of old superstition in a certain treatise on that subject. Here is the article verbatim:—
“The Hand of Glory is a piece of foreign superstition common in France, Germany, and Spain; and is a charm used by housebreakers and assassins. It is the hand of a hanged man, holding a candle made of the fat of a hanged man, virgin wax, and siasme of Lapland. It stupefies those to whom it is presented, and renders them motionless, insomuch that they could not stir, any more than if they were dead.”
I do not find any recent mention of the appearance of that ancient bugbear known as the Will-o’-the-wisp, or magical Jack-o’-lantern, associated with the unearthly light sometimes seen flitting about ancient graveyards. Science has practically accounted for this natural phenomenon to the general acceptance; but science has not yet been able to do away with the instinctive dread with which the vicinity of a graveyard is associated in most minds. I well remember how, when a lad, I dreaded to pass a graveyard after dark. There was a sickly feeling of something lurking among those ghostly looking tombstones. I looked another way. I whistled, I looked behind me. Vain effort! I ran from the spot as if all the ghosts my fears had conjured up were close at my heels.
For a list of all of my digital books on disk click here