Old-Fashioned Ghost Stories

“We may go hand in hand with our loved ones to the very brink of the dark river, but there we must leave them; and oh, how we struggle and agonize, and passionately pray — alas, how fruitlessly! — for but one glimpse beyond the veil.”

Charles Jay Taylor / Library of Congress

In that far-off time which I have long been accustomed to designate as my “young days,” I heard very little about ghosts. At that period they were decidedly unfashionable, were rarely mentioned in polite circles, and the slightest credence in them was considered a debasing superstition fit only for the vulgar. Now, however, that the subject of spiritual appearances is constantly brought forward in mixed society and argued pro and con with more or less warmth, it is easy to perceive that a strong current of belief underlies all the skepticism manifested by strong - minded unbelievers. The banshee of Ireland, the fetch of Scotland, the doppelganger of Germany are but the expressions of deep-rooted national belief; and though, undoubtedly, spurious ghosts, unreal visitations, and mock warnings have imposed from time to time on the credulity of the public, yet a vast number of well-authenticated facts, in many cases from personal experience or from the lips of people of unimpeachable veracity, may enable us to say with the poet, —

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy!

Dr. Bushnell, in his grand work, Nature and the Supernatural, lays it down as an axiom that there is nothing beyond the reach of Almighty direction, and that those deviations from the received laws of nature which we are too apt presumptuously to pronounce impossibilities are simply matters which our finite comprehension cannot fathom.

It is interesting to notice how generally unimpressionable children and very young people are with regard to supernatural appearances, and though in this very paper I mention a few anecdotes of a contrary tendency, yet I have every reason to think they are exceptions to a general rule, and not evidences against it.

I have myself known children of susceptible and nervous temperament, who could be worked up into paroxysms of terror by nursery tales of thieves and robbers, listen quite unconcernedly to the most thrilling stories of ghostly appearances. Who has not read with some amusement of the children at Epworth Rectory, whose marvelous coolness under the visitations of the family ghost is recorded by Abel Stevens in his Life of Wesley? These children, when interrupted in their play by the noisy rappings of the ghost, would simply say to each other, “Oh, it is only the ghost!” and continue their game.

It is mostly in maturer years that our restless yearnings to discover the mysteries of the unseen world, or at least to account for the few glimpses we may have had of it, become most intense, especially when the angel of death has torn from our arms some cherished member of our little circle. We may go hand in hand with our loved ones to the very brink of the dark river, but there we must leave them; and oh, how we struggle and agonize, and passionately pray — alas, how fruitlessly! — for but one glimpse beyond the veil, for but one brief message of comfort or of warning from the shadowy land into which our cherished ones have vanished!

It is strange, too, that while the veil which parts the visible from the invisible world is thick and impervious to the more delicate, fragile, and susceptible children of clay, it seems at times perfectly diaphanous to some of the hardworking, practical children of toil whose spiritual sensibilities might be supposed to be of the dullest and most obtuse kind. The events which I record in this paper have taken place either in my own family or in the families of intimate friends, or are from the narration of persons of strict veracity. I begin with one told me very lately by a pious and useful minister of the Church of England. I give this anecdote of his boyish days as much as possible in his own words.

“I was brought up by my grandfather and grandmother, who resided in the old family mansion on the banks of the Derwent, in Derbyshire. This venerable place, which had belonged to our family from the time of the Norman Conquest, had a wide reputation for being haunted, and indeed the strange noises which were heard and the strange tricks which were played, for which nothing rational could account, made the belief of general acceptance. From generation to generation no death occurred in our family without some supernatural warning being given, and in what I am about to tell you I was the person visited for this purpose.

“When I was about seventeen years of age, it was rather suddenly agreed that I should go with ‘granny,’ as I called her, to pay a visit of a few days to my parents, who lived in the suburbs of Manchester. During the past summer my youngest sister, Lizzie, with whom I had been very little acquainted before, had paid us a visit at the time of hay-making, and I remember thinking that she was the most beautiful child I had ever seen. Always in white, with lovely auburn hair floating in long curls over her shoulders, and playfully darting in and out among the hay-makers, she appeared to me something angelic, and when her visit was ended I quite grieved over her departure. I was therefore much pleased when granny asked me to accompany her to Manchester, as I should see my dear little sister again. A year before, we had lost an aunt to whom we were deeply attached, and her bereaved husband was at the present time inhabiting one wing of our old family mansion. It was the 19th of December, 185-, that after carefully packing my box for the journey and laying quite at the bottom of the box, as it stood in a corner of my room, some articles of black crape which I had worn at my aunt's funeral, I went to pay a farewell visit to my uncle in his part of the house. After I had sat with him some time the hall clock struck four, and just at that moment I felt a deadly chill and shivering all over me, exactly as if I had been suddenly plunged into cold water. I became deadly pale, and my uncle in an alarmed tone asked what was the matter with me. I said I did not know, but that I had never felt such a strange sensation before. My uncle imagined I must have taken cold and recommended my going early to bed, as I was to travel the following day.

“Having quite recovered from my unpleasant feelings, I spent the evening as usual and retired to bed at the accustomed time. Now, my bed-room was at the end of a long, narrow corridor, and exactly opposite the door by which I entered was the door of a room said to be haunted, which was always kept closed, and which no servant in the house could be persuaded to enter; indeed, they very unanimously avoided going into the corridor itself after dark, though it opened into many bedrooms besides my own. I had two or three times, while a boy, been in the haunted room with my grandfather; I saw nothing remarkable about it but a good deal of moldy, old-fashioned furniture, and an immense, funereal-looking bed at one end, with hangings which had once been splendid but were now dropping to pieces from age and neglect. The bed in my room stood exactly facing the door by which I entered and the door of the haunted room across the passage. Another door on the same side of the room was blocked up by my box, which stood against it. I cannot distinctly remember whether or not in entering for the night I closed my bedroom door, but think it almost certain that I did so, for it was December and the weather very cold. I went to bed full of my to-morrow’s journey, and not giving a single thought to either ghosts or haunted rooms went fast to sleep. How long I slept I cannot guess, but I found myself sitting up in bed intently watching the door of my room, which was wide open, and the door of the haunted room, which was also open, and which I could see distinctly across the corridor as the moonlight fell upon it. From this room came a figure which I watched across the passage and which on approaching my bed I at once recognized as the aunt I had lost the year before, dressed in the same clothes I had last seen her in. She had a most fond and tender expression on her face, but it changed into an angry frown when, stretching over the side of the bed, I tried to embrace her, exclaiming, ‘Oh, dear aunt, is that you?’ I felt that I clasped the empty air, the figure vanishing in an instant from my sight. I thought I had been dreaming, and lay down again, to wake up a short time afterwards and see again the figure of my aunt, but now differently dressed, advancing from the haunted room into mine, this time not coming to the bed but going to the box I had packed and placed in the corner ready for the next day. This she appeared to rummage over, displacing the contents and then tossing the things back again. I watched her with the greatest astonishment, and saw her go slowly out of my door into the door of the haunted room. I don’t know whether I slept again or not, but a third time I was sitting up in bed, a third time my aunt came in, this time close up to the bed, in long, flowing white clothes,—a dress in which I had never seen her. I almost gasped out, ‘Dear aunt, why do you come?’ to which she replied very clearly and distinctly, but with something of effort, ‘I come to make an important communication, but it is all comprised in these words: Poor Lizzie! But don’t grieve: Lizzie is quite happy!’ As she finished these words I started from the bed with outstretched arms, but she had vanished, and I fell heavily to the floor where she had stood. I suppose that after getting back to bed I slept till morning, but as soon as I saw my grandmother I told her all the circumstances and made her look at my box, which was in the greatest disorder, and all the articles of mourning which I had placed at the bottom of the box I found at the top. My grandmother looked grave but said nothing. I still persisted in thinking it but a curious dream, and we started on our journey that very morning. I was quite in my usual spirits when we arrived at the last railway station. From here we had still a long walk to where my parents lived, and, as we were not expected, I pleased myself by thinking how surprised they would all be. We arrived, and just as I laid my hand on the latch of the garden gate to open it for granny, I felt exactly the same deathly chill and shivering which had come over me while sitting with my uncle the evening before. When I had recovered and we were going up the long gravel walk, I said to my grandmother, ‘How strange the house looks, granny! All the windows are draped with white, and I never remember my mother's room having white curtains before.’ Granny made no answer, and as we knocked at the door my mother opened it, led us into the hall, and received us most affectionately, but spoke in a hushed, subdued tone which frightened me. Her first words were, ‘How glad I am you are come! we looked for you some hours ago.’ ‘How can that be,’ we replied, ‘when we meant to surprise you, and did not write that we were coming?’ ‘But did you not,’ said she, ‘get my two letters? — the one in which I wrote of dear Lizzie’s dangerous illness from scarlet fever a week ago, and one to tell you of her death at four o’clock yesterday, which last ought to have reached you before you started this morning?’ This was a dreadful blow to us, for, as we told my mother, we had received neither letter. When we were a little recovered from the shock, my mother told us that, the day before, Lizzie knew she was dying and said she felt quite happy; she took leave of all the family then at home, and referring to me said, ‘I should have liked to say good-by to dear Tom, — poor Tom! Give my love to Tom!’ As she said these last words she fell back and passed away; just at that moment the clock struck four. She died, then, exactly at the time when I felt the deathly chill while sitting with my uncle.

“After my grandfather’s death I was placed till I was five and twenty in business with a master who proved to be a professed atheist. Finding me to be an intelligent lad and more than usually well grounded in the Scriptures, he made it his daily business, by specious argument and covert ridicule, to undermine my Christian belief, and often flattered himself that he was on the point of succeeding. He certainly would have done so but for my remembrance of my aunt’s appearance in my bedroom at the time of Lizzie’s death. Whenever I had time for reflection and thought of that, I felt assured that there was not only a state of being after death, but a directing power by whose agency even a disembodied spirit could return to the scene of its earthly pilgrimage.”

Our Protestant minister in France told us of a curious occurrence in his father’s family before he was born, which related to his eldest brother, then a baby in arms. His father, Captain S—, having come into the inheritance of a large estate, was having some alterations and additions made to the house, and pending the completion of these engaged a house in the immediate neighborhood. When his family arrived, a spacious, airy room on the second floor was given up to the nurse and the baby, then only seven months old. The very day of their taking possession, the nurse found that her little charge, usually so quiet and good - tempered, began, when the evening drew on, to scream most violently, and more particularly when, in walking up and down to quiet him, she passed before a large, empty closet at one side of the room; indeed, it seemed to her most unaccountable that the baby appeared, by an irresistible fascination, always to turn his head towards the closet and to scream so that she feared he would go into convulsions. This continued for some days, only towards evening, and always at the same time. The nurse told her mistress, and Mrs. S— thought it advisable to remove the nursery to a room on the floor with herself, when it was found that the child's excitement entirely ceased, and it became as placid as usual. After Captain S— removed to his own house, the one he had hired was pulled down by the landlord, and under the floor of the empty closet was found the skeleton of a person who had evidently been murdered and hidden away there long years before. There were no rumors in the place implicating any of the recent owners of the house in question, but a very old woman remembered to have heard in her youth of the mysterious disappearance of a young girl from the family of a visitor to the place, who was never heard of again. It is to be supposed that the unconscious baby was in some mysterious manner made aware of the ghostly secret hidden under the cupboard floor.

A young English lady nearly connected with our family married, while visiting in Germany, a gentleman of rank and fortune, with whose mother, who lived at a distance of about forty miles away, she became a great favorite. At the birth of her first baby she was much distressed that her kind mother-in-law, the Frau von B—, was not present, nor did her husband venture to tell her that illness — not, however, supposed to be dangerous — was the cause. All went well in the sick-room, and five days afterwards Madame B—, her baby boy by her side, was sleeping soundly, with her curtains drawn, just as darkness had settled down at the close of a winter’s day. Contrary to her usual custom the nurse, seeing the lady so fast asleep, had left the room to get something necessary for the night. Madame B— awoke on feeling the pressure of an icy-cold hand on her arm, and, looking up hastily, saw by the light of the lamp her mother-in-law hanging over her and the baby with a very sad expression on her face, which was ashy pale. Raising herself in the bed, the young mother exclaimed, “O dearest mother! when did you come? I am so glad!” The mother-in-law sighed deeply, and replied,” I am only come, dear Alice, to say farewell forever; you will never see me more on earth!” She instantly vanished out of sight, and the nurse, returning, found her lady in a state of great excitement and alarm, calling for her mother-in-law and saying that she must be in the house, having just left her bedside. The poor lady was ill for many days, and it was long before she was told that her husband’s mother had died at her own castle, forty miles away, at the very moment when she stood beside her.

A sister of this young Madame B— was staying at Brighton, with the family of a young friend in a deplorable state of health, but who was gradually getting better under the care of a doctor, clever and zealous, who visited her daily and took the greatest interest in her case. He was a tall, slender man, with long, thin fingers most remarkably white, and a countenance which seemed to bear the impress of all the woes and troubles of his numerous patients, so deep was the sympathy he felt for those who suffered. One day there was much sorrow in the family: the kind physician, on whose visits they so much depended, died suddenly; none of them dared tell the invalid, and for a few days nothing was said, but the family noticed that poor Minnie S— looked very pensive and grave. At length her mother thought it best to tell her, when she quietly replied, “I have known it from the first; lie came and told me himself, and comes to see me every night!” A few nights after this, for some reason or another, the invalid went to sleep in a different room, and the young friend staying on a visit took her place in the vacated bed. Towards midnight the family, who kept late hours, retired for the night, and Georgy D— took possession of her friend's bed, quite ignorant of the doctor’s nightly visits. In about an hour loud shrieks were heard from the room, and the young girl was found on the side of the bed, pale, trembling, and almost convulsed with terror. She said that having undressed and gone to bed, first shutting and locking the bedroom door, she went fast to sleep, leaving her curtains undrawn and the lamp on the dressing-table 'alight. She was awakened by a rustling noise beside her bed, and starting up saw the doctor, dressed just as he was in life, standing there. He then sat down on the side of the bed and laid his long, pale hand on her arm, but the moment he saw that the occupant of the bed was changed he got up, and vanished from her sight before reaching the door. Strange to say, that very instant he went to the room where Minnie S— was sleeping, and held his customary conversation with her, quite unseen and unheard by Annie D—, a younger sister of the one to whom he had just been so plainly visible. After a time his visits ceased.

At the close of the Burmese war, Lieutenant K—, a young officer who had been severely wounded in one of the actions and subsequently attacked by fever, was sent home on sick certificate some months before the return of his regiment, whose term of service in India had nearly expired. He left many friends behind him, but none from whom he more deeply regretted to part than Mr. P—, the British collector at Madura, with whom he had been for years on terms of most familiar intimacy. The very first night of his landing in England, after an absence which dated from boyhood, he lay long awake in his bed at the hotel where he had taken up his quarters. He felt very restless, and thought over all he had gone through in India, and the friends he had left, to see, probably, no more. Among these he thought of his friend P—. It was past midnight, and he was still meditating, when he heard some one in the room, though he had locked the door before undressing. He looked to the side from which the sound came, and distinctly saw his friend P—, not far from the bed, gazing at him very mournfully. Astonished beyond measure, he prepared to step out of bed, exclaiming, “Why, P—! Whatever brings you here?” His friend waved his hand as if to keep him off, shook his head sadly, and gliding towards the door suddenly disappeared. K— remained awake nearly the whole night, quite unable to account for what had happened. In due course of time the mails from India brought word that P— had died of cholera, at Madura, after a few hours’ illness, on the very night in which he appeared to Lieutenant K—.

Miss Mary E— resided with her father, and kept house for him in his beautiful Kentish villa. The grounds were very extensive, but Mr. E—’s favorite spot was a group of large trees within sight of the drawing-room windows. Here he had a garden soat and a small table placed, and was in the habit of smoking his afternoon cigar and also reading here every day. Miss E— was an accomplished horsewoman, and usually accompanied her father in his daily rides. One day she refused to go, having a bad headache, but followed Mr. E— to the foot of the stairs and begged him to return in time for tea, as he had promised to escort her to a dancing party in their neighborhood. To this he agreed, and Miss E— from the window watched him mount his horse and ride off. She lay down for a time, but at last, feeling restless, got up, and taking a book sat down to read. At the usual time the maid came to say that tea was ready. “But,” said Miss E—, “Papa has not come home, Mary, and I would rather wait.” “Oh, yes, miss,” said the servant; “my master has been home for about half an hour, and is smoking in the garden.” Miss E— looked from the window and saw her father in his accustomed place under the trees. She was going down-stairs to join him and bring him in to tea, when she paused, hearing a confused murmur of voices in the hall below. A deadly fear, for which she could not account, seized her, but recovering she went down, to find a group of men from the village, many of whose faces she knew by sight, bringing in on a shutter the dead body of her father. His horse had shied, it was supposed, at a heap of stones at the side of the road, and his head coming in contact with the stones death must have been instantaneous. At the time that Mr. E— was distinctly seen by the servant and his daughter, he was lying a bleeding corpse.

Some time after my dear mother’s death, I was sitting with my father, Colonel D—, in his dressing-room, and we were mutually deploring our dreadful misfortune, and going over, as we were too prone to do, many of the circumstances attending her last illness. I remarked to him, among other things, that her illness was in the beginning so slight that I should not have felt the least fear as to the result had I not been extremely discouraged by the sadness and preoccupation of mind manifested by himself at that time. My father, after some hesitation, related to me the occurrence which had occasioned his unwonted depression of spirits, which I can truly say I listened to in dumb astonishment, so unlikely a person did he appear to have experienced anything of the sort.

He was sitting one evening after dinner with my mother, conversing on various subjects. The wine and dessert having been placed on the table, they drew their chairs up to each corner of a blazing fire, the evenings being chilly, though it was only the early autumn. After a time my mother appeared to be dozing in her chair, and my father drew out his pocketbook to make a note of some visit he had to pay the next day. He found, however, that the pencil-case he always carried in his pocket and much valued as the gift of an old friend was not there, and, concluding that he had left it on his dressing-table before dinner, quietly left the room to fetch it. The staircase went up from the hall, and at the first landing branched off into two smaller staircases, the one to the left leading to my mother's apartments, a bedroom and dressing-room fronting the lawn, with a wide landing-place and window between the two rooms; the one to the right, through an arched door-way into a long corridor, with bedrooms on each side and a back staircase at the end. My father’s dressing-room was in the middle of the corridor. Having found his pencil-case, he was coming out of the arched door-way before mentioned, when he saw my mother before him on the small flight of stairs leading to her own rooms. She turned into her dressingroom, and my father, much surprised to see her, followed to give her his arm in coming down again, as she was rather infirm. What was his astonishment on entering the room to find no one there.He could hardly believe the evidence of his senses, and when, on returning to the dining-room, he found my mother in her chair by the fire exactly as he had left her, he knew not what to think. When she roused up before tea, he asked whether she had left the room since dinner, to which she answered, “Not for a moment.” When my father was on his death-bed, he was for some time delirious, but on the last morning, a few hours before death he was perfectly lucid, and said to me, “I shall soon leave you, my child; your dear mother has come to fetch me!” Then, seeing, doubtless, my look of awed astonishment, he added, “Yes, my dear wife has lain by my side all night.” I had never left his bedside, but had neither seen nor heard anything unusual, except that during the night he seemed, at intervals, to be talking fondly to some one near him.