When Ghost Hoaxes Go Bad…

Playing the ghost – dressing in a white sheet, devil mask or animal skin and then jumping out on innocent victims to scare the wits out of them in dark and lonely locations – was a popular but much frowned upon pastime in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was assumed that delicate ladies who were on the receiving end of these pranks would be liable to lose their wits, or possibly even die from fright.

In an earlier article I wrote about how playing the ghost supposedly led to the death of the victims, and certainly led to the killing of an innocent man, in the case of the Hammersmith Ghost.[i]

However, the ghost hoaxes gone bad I’m going to recount in this post are both from the late eighteenth century, a decade or so before the golden age of playing the ghost. Both of these supposedly true stories have a nice twist with the tables turned on the fake spooks…

An angry mob chases a ghost hoaxer, Illustrated Police News

The Ghost of Teethill Wood

In the winter of 1794, a young sailor called William Johnston returned to Scotland for a few days’ leave to visit his mother in Saint Andrew’s.

While working as a mate at sea, William had discussed the subject of ghosts with a clergyman who happened to be a passenger on the ship. The priest had told him that because everybody knows that ghosts are insubstantial, if a ghost has footsteps or makes other noises, it is obviously physical in nature and so therefore cannot be a real ghost.

This was a hypothesis that William decided to put to the test on the Teethill Ghost. The Teethill Ghost was a towering apparition in white that had been seen many times in Teethill Wood, Elgin, and the locals were afraid to venture near the area after dark.

William assembled three young mates to be witnesses on a nocturnal expedition to investigate this mysterious haunting. The intrepid ghost busters went to the spot where the ghost was wont to haunt and waited…

It wasn’t long before a huge figure in flowing white robes appeared in front of the party. As the spectre drew near, William remembered the clergyman’s comments about the nature of ghosts. Footsteps were clearly audible. When the apparition was six yards away, William pulled out a pistol, aimed at the ghost and pulled the trigger.

As the shot rang out, the ghost fell to the ground crying, ‘Mercy! Mercy! I’m a dead man!’

Although William did not recognise the voice, his companions did. It belonged to a local eccentric named Bailie J—-n from Elgin.

Fortunately for Bailie, there was no shot in the gun but it still took the ghosthunters some time to convince the ‘spirit’ that he was in fact unharmed and the pistol had been empty.

However, in a plot twist straight from the Scooby Do playbook, it turned out that the oddball Bailie was a smuggler of tobacco and gin and concealed his contraband in thickets in Teethill Wood. At night, his servant would collect the forbidden goods from the hiding place and deliver them to various places in the neighbourhood. Bailie, meanwhile, would put on his wife’s white gown and hold her petticoat above his head, knowing that this would scare away superstitious locals.

And, he would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids![ii]

Black Devil White Devil

This second story also took place (or was first recorded) in the 1790s and concerned a young woman called Molly, described as an ‘idiot’ who was resident at St James workhouse in Taunton. Molly, it seems, had an aversion to sleeping in a bed, so she would often run away at night and sleep in a nearby cow shed.

One night, two men decided they would try to scare her out of this habit. When they knew Molly was in the cow shed, one of the men donned a white sheet and walked back and forth where the unfortunate woman would see him, while his friend hid and watched.

Eventually, Molly saw the apparition and exclaimed ‘Aha! A white devil!’

However, the prankster was not expecting what happened next. Molly suddenly added, ‘A black devil, too! A black devil too!’

The confused ghost looked behind him and saw – or thought he saw – a figure all in black behind him, and ran home in a state of mad terror. As he ran, Molly clapped her hands in great glee and shouted, ‘Run black devil and catch white devil!’

The man, whether from shock or exertion, died within minutes of reaching his home.

I like to think poor young Molly was not such an idiot after all and, realising she was being hoaxed, gave as good as she got. In any case, she was left to sleep in her cow shed in peace.[iii]

[i] Scared… to Death! – Paul Weatherhead

[ii] This story first appeared in James Grant, ‘The Haunted Wood’, Elgin Annual (1833) and was reproduced in the Elgin Courant and Courier 4 April 1893.

[iii] This story first appeared in James Lackington, Memoirs of the forty-five first years of the life of James Lackington, (1793) pp.57-59. Reproduced in the Derby Mercury 23 May 1793

Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

One thought on “When Ghost Hoaxes Go Bad…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: