Scared… to Death!

A bizarre pastime emerged in the nineteenth and early twentieth century: ‘playing the ghost’. This usually involved a prankster donning a white sheet, perhaps with a scary mask and some devil horns and then cavorting in a spook like manner at a creepy location such as a dark lonely road or grave yard at midnight to frighten the wits out of any unfortunate passer-by. These ghost hoaxes terrified the victims and sometimes led to outraged vigilante mobs and violence, not to mention madness or murder and sometimes even spawned hysterical mass panics. The concern about these ghostly shenanigans was so great that it generated cautionary urban legends about the dangers of such supernatural hoaxes. A couple of my favourites are outlined below…

The Hammersmith Ghost Hoax of 1804

The Dead Hand

The first case is set, I would guess, in the middle of the nineteenth century and was widely reported in 1885. It concerns an old lady who had recently died and whose body was lying overnight in a curtained four poster bed. It fell to the old lady’s young niece (and heiress) and her cousin to sit and watch with the departed relative overnight.

This was an eerie duty for the young women, and as the wind howled and the snow fell outside, they decided to amuse themselves by recounting spooky stories. At first, they noticed creepy coincidences around the room. The ash by the fire had formed the shape of a coffin. They thought they could see the image of a winding sheet in the flickering candle flame.

The niece told her cousin a scary tale about being alone upstairs in a large empty house and hearing someone – or something – creep up the stairs. The sound of creaking came nearer until it reached the door, when it stopped. And then the door handle slowly began to turn…

It was at this point that the niece’s story trailed off. There seemed to be a creak coming from the bed where her aunt’s corpse was lying. The curtains round the bed rustled. The niece’s eyes nearly started from her head, she turned white and backed away towards the door, trembling violently and then fled the house into the night.

The cousin had her back to the bed, but on seeing the niece’s reaction, she turned to look behind her. A long, bony hand was slowly stretching out towards her from behind the curtains.

She leapt up, but as she tried to run, something clutched her skirt with an iron grip and prevented her from escaping. She struggled to free herself only to knock over a table and extinguish the room’s only candle. Alone, in the darkness, with the unremitting grip on her skirt preventing her from fleeing, she shrieked and fell silent…

Outside the house the cousin’s boyfriend and his mate were laughing their heads off at their prank. Knowing the girls would be alone in the room with the corpse, they had tied a length of cord around the old lady’s wrist, and from outside the room, pulled it so that the withered arm appeared from behind the bed curtains.

The boys found the niece outside in a swoon. Inside, on lighting a candle, they saw the cousin lying dead on the floor. She had caught her dress on an iron stove in trying to escape the horror, the horror which had scared her to DEATH![i]

This night thy soul shall be required of thee!

The second example was told by John Strange Winter (actually a pen name for novelist and journalist Henrietta Stannard) in 1911. This cautionary tale (which was ‘repeatedly vouchsafed as true’) involved a highly religious young girl at a boarding school.

One night, two pranksters crept into the girl’s dorm room as she slept and daubed on the wall opposite her bed in luminous phosphorus paint ‘This night thy soul shall be required of thee’.

Then, one of the tricksters got under the girl’s bed and kicked the mattress to wake her up. The girl did indeed wake and see the flaming letters (a quote from Luke 12:20). She let out a scream and then fell silent.

Her friends were disappointed that this was the only reaction and assumed that she had seen through the trick. They crept out of her room, thinking the girl had gone back to sleep.

In the morning, it was found that the poor girl was DEAD.

The two jokers did not receive capital punishment for their cruel trick, but they did carry the knowledge that they had caused their friend’s death just as if they had plunged a knife through her heart.[ii]

Cautionary Tales

Both of the above tales seem to me to be urban legends rather than real events. No names or clear dates are given. The stories are told with much relish in the newspaper sources than would be appropriate if they were relating a real tragedy. They are more of a warning as to what might happen if one should engage in such cruel hoaxes and they reflect the fears and moral concerns of their time.

However, ghost hoaxing did indeed lead to tragic consequences, the most well-known instance being the story of the Hammersmith Ghost. Towards the end of 1803 a prankster had been scaring the citizens of this part of West London by jumping out at them at night wearing a white sheet or an animal skin. The rumour emerged that it was the ghost of a man who had killed himself by cutting his own throat. Some of the ghost’s victims were so shocked that it seriously affected their health, and a pregnant woman is said to have died as a result of the fright.[iii]

After a night of drinking, excise man Francis Smith decided to confront the ghost on 3 January 1804. Walking the dark winter streets, Smith eventually came across a white clad figure and asked it to identify itself. When no reply came, Smith pulled out a fowling gun and fired. He had killed bricklayer Thomas Milward, who was wearing the white clothing that was typical of his profession. Milward’s mother-in-law had warned him about the danger of being mistaken for the Hammersmith Ghost and urged him to change his clothes.[iv]

Francis Smith was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, though was soon after pardoned. The real culprit was later shown to be a shoemaker who was dressing as a ghost in order to exact revenge on his apprentices for scaring his children with spooky stories.[v]

Stay tuned for more tales of ghost hoaxes gone bad!

[i] South London Chronicle and Southwark and Lambeth Ensign 26 December, 1885

[ii] Forres, Elgin and Nairn Gazette 23 August, 1911

[iii] Owen Davies The Haunted (Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke, 2007) p.21

[iv] Ibid

[v] Caledonian Mercury 14 January 1804

Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

2 thoughts on “Scared… to Death!

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