THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art,and Politics.
VOL. XVI. — NOVEMBER, 1865. —NO. XCVII.
THERE is a test of truth in popular creeds and in human opinions generally which is prominently put forward by Herbert Spencer, and has been more or less distinctly stated by other writers, long before our time, — a very searching and trustworthy test.
It is, in substance, this:—Whatever doctrine or opinion has received, throughout a long succession of centuries, the common assent of mankind, may be properly set down as being, if not absolutely true in its usually received form, yet founded on truth, and having, at least, a great, undeniable verity that underlies it.
If, however, there be conflicting details as to any doctrine, varying in form according to the sect or the nation that entertains it, then the test is to be received as affirming the grand underlying truth, but not as proving any of the conflicting varieties of investment in which particular sects or nations may have chosen to clothe it.
Thus of the world’s belief in the reality of another life, and in the doctrine of future reward and punishment.
In some form or other, such a faith has existed in every age and among almost every people. Charon and his boat might be the means of conveyance. Or the believer, dying in battle for the creed of the Faithful, might expect to wake up in a celestial harem peopled with Houris. Or the belief might embody the matchless horrors painted by Dante ; his dolorous city with the terrible inscription over its entrance-gate : “Lasciate ogni speranza,voi ch’entrate.”
Again, the conception might be of a long unconscious interval after death, succeeded at last by a resuscitation ; or it might be of another world, the supplement and immediate continuation of this, into which Death, herald, not destroyer, ushers us even while human friends are yet closing our eyes and Composing our limbs. It might be of the Paradise in which, on the very day of the crucifixion, the penitent thief was to meet the Saviour of mankind ; or it might be of that Heaven, yet increate or unpeopled, seen by some in long, distant perspective, shadowed forth in such lines as these : —
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1865, by TICKNOR AND FIELDS, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
Shall sleep in Death’s dark gloom,
Until the eternal morning wake
The slumbers of the tomb, ”
Yet again, the idea may be of a Future of which the denizens shall be, on some Great Day, tried as before an earthly court, doomed as by an earthly tribunal, and sentence pronounced against them by a presiding God, who, of his own omnipotent will, decides to inflict upon sinners condign punishment, in measure far beyond all earthly severity,—torment in quenchless flames, with no drop of water to cool the parched tongue, for ever and ever.
In other words, we may conceive, as to human destiny in another world, either of punishments optional and arbitrary, growing out of the indignation of an offended Judge who hates and requites sin, or of punishments natural and inherent, growing out of the very nature of sin itself, as delirium tremens requites a long career of intemperance. We may conceive of punishments which are the awards of judicial vengeance ; or we may believe in those only which are the inevitable results of eternal and immutable law, a necessary sequence in the next life to the bad passions and evil deeds of this.
Those who incline to this latter aspect of the Great Future, as the scene of reward or punishment supervening in the natural order of things, may chance to find interest, beyond mere curiosity, in the following strange narrative.
There is not, perhaps, a country more rife in legends of haunted houses than Germany. No province but has its store of them. Many, drawn by tradition from the obscurity of the past, have lost, if they ever possessed, any claim to be regarded except as apocryphal. But others, of a recent date and better attested, cannot be disposed of in so summary a manner.
In furnishing a specimen of this latter class, I depart from a rule which I think it well to observe in regard to original narratives of character so marvellous : to record such, namely, only when they can be procured direct from the lips of the witnesses themselves. This comes to me at second hand. I had no opportunity of cross-questioning the actors in the scenes narrated. Yet I had the story from a gentleman of high respectability: the principal Secretary of the-Legation at Naples : and his sources of information were direct and authentic.
In the southeastern portion of Pomerania, at no great distance from the frontier of the province of West Prussia, and in the vicinity of the small town of Bütow, there stood, not many years since, an ancient chateau. It was the ancestral residence of an old Pomeranian family of baronial rank ; and the narrative of its destruction, with the causes which led thereto, is curious and remarkable.
Its former owner, the Baron von Putkammer, after leading a wild and dissolute life, had expired within its walls. For years previously, many a mysterious story, fraught with dark hints of seduction and infanticide, had been whispered over the surrounding country ; and when at last death arrested the Baron’s profligate career, some reported that he had been strangled in requital of outrage committed, — others, that the Devil had taken home his own, as they had long expected.
His estate went to a relative of the same name, who granted the enjoyment of it to his eldest son, heir to the title. This young man, after a time, arrived to take possession. He found in the chateau the administrator of the deceased Baron’s estate.
It was late, the first night, before he went to bed. Yet he was scarcely undressed, when he heard, through the stillness of the night, the approach of a carriage, at first rolling over the sharp gravei of the avenue, then entering the paved court-yard. This was succeeded by the noise of the front door opening, and the distinct sound of steps on the principal staircase.
Young Putkammer, surprised at this unseasonable visit, yet supposing it some friend who had been benighted, hastily donned his dressing-gown, and, with light in hand, stepped to the landing. Nothing to be seen there ! But he heard behind him the opening of a door leading into the principal gallery of the chateau, — a long hall which for some time had been out of use. It had been employed by the former owner of the castle as a banqueting-room, was hung with old family portraits, and, as the young man had noticed during the day, was so completely incumbered with furniture, which had been temporarily stored there, that no one could pass through it.
He returned in great surprise, which was much increased when he found the door of the gallery in question closed and locked. He listened, and heard quite distinctly, within the room, the noise of plates and dishes and the clatter of knives and forks. To this, after a time, succeeded the sound of shuffling cards and the rattle of money, as if thrown on the table in the course of the game.
More and more astonished, he awoke his servant, and bade him listen at the door and tell him what he heard. The terrified valet reported the same sounds that had reached his master’s ears. Thereupon the latter told him to arouse the administrator and request his presence.
When this gentleman appeared, the young nobleman eagerly asked if he could furnish any explanation of this strange disturbance.
“I was unwilling,” said he, in reply, “ to anticipate what you now witness, lest you might imagine I had some interested motive to prevent your coming hither. We are all familiar with these sounds. They occur every night at about the same hour. And we have sought in vain any natural explanation of their constant recurrence.”
“ Have you the key of the gallery ? ”
“ Here it is.”
The door was unlocked and thrown open. Silence and darkness ! And when the lights were introduced, not an object to be seen through the gloom, but the old furniture confusedly piled up over the floor.
They closed and locked the door. Again the same sounds commenced : the clatter of dishes, the noise of revelling, the clink of the gamblers’ gold. A second time they opened the door, this time quickly and suddenly ; and a second time the sounds instantly ceased, and the hall, untenanted except by the silent portraits on its walls, appeared before them, the same still and gloomy lumber-room as before.
Baffled for the time, young Putkammer dismissed his attendants and retired to his chamber. Erelong he heard the door of the gallery open, the heavy footsteps sound on the stairway, the front door creak on its hinges, — and then the roll of the carriage, first over the stone pavement, then along the gravelled avenue, till the sounds gradually died away in the distance.
The next night he was ready dressed and prepared with lights. When, about the same hour, the noise of the approaching carriage was heard, he had the lights immediately carried to the top of the stairway, and he himself half descended the stairs. Up the stairs and past his very side came the footsteps ; but neither living being nor spectral form could his eyes perceive.
The same noises in the old banqueting-hall. The same fruitless attempts to witness the revel, or to get at the secret, if any, of the imposition.
The young man was brave and devoid of superstition. Yet, in spite of himself, these mysterious sounds, renewed night after night, irritated his nerves, and preyed upon his quiet. He thought to break through the spell by inviting a party of living guests. They came, to the number of thirty or forty; but not for their presence did the invisible revellers intermit their nocturnal visit. All heard the approach of the carriage, the steps ascending the staircase, the sounds of revelry in the hall. And all, when the opened door disclosed, as. wont, but darkness and silence, turned away with a shudder, —and to the subsequent invitation of their host to favor him again with their company replied by some shallow apology, which he perfectly understood.
Thus deserted by his friends, and subjected, night after night, to the same ghastly annoyance, the young man found his health beginning to suffer, and decided to endure it no longer.
Returning to his father, he informed him that he would receive with gratitude the rents of the property, but only on condition that he was not required to reside in its haunted chateau.
The father, ridiculing what he termed his son's superstitious weakness, declared that he would himselt take up his residence there for a time, assured that he could not fail to discover the true cause of the sounds that had driven off its former occupants.
But the result belied his expectations. Like his son, he never coukl see anything. But the selfsame sounds nightly assailed his ears. He caused the hall to be cleared out and occupied daily. So long as it was lighted, and there was any one within it, no sounds were heard ; and by thus occupying it all night, the disturbance could be averted. But as often as it was closed or left in darkness, the invisible revel recommenced at the wonted hour, preceded by the same preliminaries, terminating in the same manner.
Nothing was left untried to penetrate the mystery, and to detect the trick, if to trickery the disturbances were due. But every effort to obtain an explanation of the phenomena utterly failed. And the father, like the son, after a few weeks’ struggle against the nightly annoyance, found his nervous system unable to cope with this constant strain upon it, and left the chateau, determined never again to enter its walls.
The next expedient was to rent it to those whom the fame of its ghostly reputation had not reached. But this was unavailing, except for a brief season. No tenant would remain beyond a week or ten days. This plan, therefore, was abandoned in despair ; the principal rooms were closed ; and the building remained for years untenanted, except by one or two unwilling dependants.
Finally the proprietor, deeming all change hopeless, and finding that the keeping up of the chateau was a mere useless expense, resolved to destroy it. The dead had fairly driven out the living. He had it pulled down ; and a few low, ruined walls ‘alone remained to mark the place where it stood.
Still, even within these deserted ruins, the same sounds of nightly revelry were declared to have been heard by those who were bold enough to approach them at the midnight hour. When this was reported to the proprietor, he determined, if possible, to outroot this last remnant of disturbance. Accordingly, he caused to be erected, out of the remaining materials of the chateau and on the spot where it had stood, a small chapel, now to be found there, a mute witness of the story I have here told.
The chapel was completed and consecrated in the year 1844. Even while the rites attending its consecration were in progress, strange and unwonted noises disturbed the congregation ; but from that time on they ceased ; and the chapel has since been entirely free from any such.
A relative of the proprietor, a young officer in the Prussian army, was present at the consecration, himself witnessed the noises in question, and had previously heard, from the parties themselves, all the former occurrences. He it was who related the circumstances to my informant, the Baron von P-, a gentleman of a grave and earnest character, whose manner, in repeating them to me, evinced sincerity and conviction. But it is not merely upon his authority that the details of the narrative rest. They are. it would seem, of public notoriety in Pomerania; and hundreds of persons in the neighborhood, as my informant declared, can yet be found to testify, from personal observation, to the general accuracy of the above narration.1
The most salient point in this story is the practical and business part of it, — the actual pulling down of the chateau, as a last resort, to get rid of the disturbance. Mere fancy is not wont to lead to such a result as that. The owner of a piece of valuable property is not likely to destroy it for imaginary cause. Interest is a marvellous quickener of the wits, and may be supposed to have left no stone unturned, before assenting to such a sacrifice.
I inquired of the gentleman to whom I am indebted for the above narrative if there were no skeptical surmises in regard to the origin of the disturbance. He replied, that he had heard but one, —namely, that the administrator of the deceased Baron’s estate might, from motives of interest and to have the field to himself, have resorted to a trick to scare the owners from the premises.
It is beyond a doubt that such devices have been successfully employed ere now for similar purpose. An example may be found in the story of the monks of St. Bruno, and the shrewd device they employed to obtain from King Louis the Saint the grant of one of his ancestral palaces. It was in this wise.
Having heard his confessor speak in high terms of the goodness and learning of the monks of St. Bruno, the King expressed a desire to found a community of them near Paris. Bernard de la Tour, the superior, sent six of the brethren ; and Louis assigned to them, as residence, a handsome dwelling in the village of Chantilly. It so happened, that from their windows they had a fine view of the old palace of Vauvert, originally erected for a royal residence by King Robert, but which had been deserted for years. The worthy monks, oblivious of the Tenth Commandment, may have thought the place would suit them ; but ashamed, probably, to make a formal demand of it from the King, they seem to have set their wits to work to procure it by stratagem.
At all events, the palace of Vauvert, which had never labored under any imputation against its character until they became its neighbors, began almost immediately afterwards to acquire a bad name. Frightful shrieks were heard to proceed thence at night. Blue, red, and green lights were seen to glimmer from its casements, and then suddenly disappear. The clanking of chains succeeded, together with the howlings of persons as in great pain. Then a ghastly spectre, in pea-green, with long, white beard and serpent’s tail, appeared at the principal windows, shaking his fist at the passers-by. This went on for months.
The King, to whom all these wonders were duly reported, deplored the scandal, and sent commissioners to look into the affair. To these the six monks of Chantilly, indignant that the Devil should play such pranks before their very faces, suggested, that, if they could but have the palace as a residence, they would undertake speedily to cure it of all ghostly intrusion. A deed, with the royal sign-manual, conveyed Vauvert to the monks of St. Bruno. It bears the date of 1259. From that time all disturbances ceased, — the green ghost, according to the creed of the pious, being laid to rest forever under the waters of the Red Sea.2
Some will surmise that the story of the castle of Putkammer is but a modified version of that of the palace of Vauvert. It may be so. One who was not on the spot, to witness the phenomena and personally to verify all the details, cannot rationally deny the possibility of such an hypothesis. Yet I find little parallel between the cases, and difficulties, apparently insuperable, in the way of accepting such a solution of the mystery.
The French palace was deserted, and nothing was easier than to play off there, unchallenged, such commonplace tricks as the showing of colored lights, the clanking of chains, shrieks, groans, and a howling spectre with beard and tail, — all in accordance with the prejudices of that age ; nor do we read that any one was bold enough to penetrate, during the night, into the scene of the disturbance ; nor had the King’s commissioners any personal motive to urge a thorough research ; nor had a pious sovereign, the owner of a dozen palaces, any strong inducement to refuse the cession of one of these, already untenanted and useless, to certain holy men, the objects of his veneration.
Very different, in every respect, is the affair of the Pomeranian castle. It is a narrative of the skeptical nineteenth century, that sets down all ghost-stories as nursery-tales. The owner, and his son, the future possessor, each at separate times and for weeks, reside in the castle, and occupy themselves in repeated attempts to discover whether they have been imposed on. The selfsame trick, if trick it was, is repeated night after night, without variation. The roll of the approaching carriagewheels, first along the gravelled avenue, then over the paved court-yard, while no carriage was visible, — how were such sounds to be imitated? The fall of footsteps, unaccompanied by aught in bodily form, up the lighted stairway, and past the very side of the bold youth who stepped down to meet them,—what human device could successfully simulate these ? The sound of the opening gallery-door and the noises of the midnight orgies, with full opportunity to examine every nook and corner of the scene whence, to every ear, the same identical indications came, — how, in producing and reproducing these, could trickery, time after time, escape detection ? Both father and son, it is evident, had their suspicions aroused ; and both, as evidently, were men of courage, not to be blinded by superstitious panic. Is it a probable thing that they would destroy an old and valued family mansion, without having exhausted every conceivable expedient to detect imposture ?
Nor was this imposture, if as such we are to regard it, conducted in approved form, after the orthodox fashion. It assumed a shape contrary to all usually received ideas. No spectre clanking its chains ; no lights burning blue ; no groans of the tormented ; no ordinary getting-up of a ghostly disturbance. But a mere succession of sounds, indicating, if we are to receive and interpret them literally, the periodical return from the world of spirits of some of its tenants, restless and unblest. Was this the machinery a mystifier was likely to select ?
Such are the difficulties which attend the hypothesis of a concerted plan of deception. They will be overlooked by those who have made up their minds that communications between this world and the next are impossible, and who will content themselves with pronouncing, that, though they cannot detect the mode of the imposture, yet imposture of some kind or other it plainly must have been.
And such skeptics will very properly remind us of other difficulties in the way of accepting as a reality the alleged phenomena. What have the spirits of the departed to do with conveyances resembling those of earthly structure ? Are there incorporeal carriages and horses ? Can grave men admit such fancies as these ? 3 Or is all this, even if genuine, only symbolical,— sounds without objective counterpart ? Then what becomes of the positive character of this narrative, as a lesson, as a warning to us ? The whole degenerates into an acted parable. It fades into the idle pageantry of a dream. Thus we lose ourselves in shadowy conjecture.
But, none the less, the facts, if facts they be, remain to be dealt with. And if at last we concede the ultramundane origin of these manifestations, whether as objective reality or only as truthteaching allegory, what a field is opened to our speculations regarding the realms of spirit and the possible punishments there in store for those who, by degrading their natures in this world, may have rendered themselves unfit for happiness in the next, — and who, perhaps, still attracted to earth by the debasing excesses they once mistook for pleasure, may be doomed, in the phantom repetition of their sins, to detect their naked reality, to have stamped on their consciousness the vileness of these without the brutal gratifications that veiled it, the essence of vice shorn of its sensual halo, the grossness without the glitter: if so, a terrible expiation !
I beg it may not be imagined, that, because I see grave difficulties in the way of regarding this case as one of imposture, I therefore set it up as proof of a novel theory regarding future punishments. A structure so great cannot be erected on foundation so slender. I but furnish it as a chance contribution towards the probabilities of ultramundane intercourse,—as material for thought, — as one of those hints which future facts may render valueless, but which, on the other hand, other observed phenomena may possibly serve to work out and corroborate and explain.
- I find in my journal the following : — “ August 17, 1857. Read over to the Baron von P the Putkammer narrative : and he assented to its accuracy in every particular."↩
- This story is given in Garinet's Histoire de la Magie en France, p. 75.↩
- Yet in a recent case, occurring in England, and authenticated in the strongest manner, the “ sound of carriages driving in the park when none were there” is one of the incidents given on the authority of the lady who had witnessed the disturbances, and who furnishes a detailed account of them. See "Facts and Fantasies,” a sequel to " Lights and Sounds, the Mystery of the Day,” by Henry Spicer, London, 1853, pp. 76-101.↩