Hannah Grundy – the Headless Ghost of Staithes
If you take a night walk on the beach near the North Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes at Christmas, you might see an eerie transparent figure floating down from the towering coastal cliffs. As the shape comes closer, it crosses a bridge and comes onto the beach where you can see in the pale winter moonlight that the figure is that of a young woman who appears to be searching in the freezing rockpools, and it’s then that it strikes you what she is looking for – her head!
This is the headless ghost of Hannah Grundy.
Hannah Grundy has slipped into North Yorkshire folklore, but she was a real person. On Tuesday 14 April 1807, she and three other teenage girls went down to the beach at Staithes to hunt for shellfish. As she sat on the beach for a rest, forty yards from the base of a 700 foot high cliff, a dreadful accident occurred. A large flat rock, loosened by stormy weather, came hurtling down onto her neck and ‘severed her head from her body without mangling it, and threw it thirty yards from where she was sitting’.[i]
Ever since her headless ghost has supposedly been seen on the beach, especially at Christmas. It’s assumed she is searching for shellfish, though I think it more likely she’s looking for her own head – not easy without any eyes, which may be why she’s been searching for over two centuries.
A Headless Ghost in Buckingham
A respected farmer and his friend were driving their horse and trap along a dark country road a few miles from Buckingham one evening between Christmas 1897 and New Year 1898. As they approached the corner of a crossroads they saw a sombre looking dark figure standing in front of them.
The farmer called out, ‘Hullo there! Move on, please!’ However, the strange figure made no answer and did not move. As they drew closer they saw to their horror that the figure, wrapped in a black cloak, was that of a headless woman. At this moment the horse also caught its first glimpse of the phantom and stopped paralysed with fear and trembling violently.
Again the farmer cried out ‘What do you do there? Move on, please!’ but to no avail. The mysterious figure stood silent and immovable in the road. The horse, however, began backing away and was in danger of pulling the pair into a ditch by the side of the road, so the driver’s friend leapt out to prevent this. At this point, it seemed the headless wraith had vanished.
As soon as the horse and trap were ready to proceed, the dark figure appeared again a few yards in front of them. This time the farmer told the spirit to speak in the name of God, at which she slowly glided away through a hedge.
Now the road was clear, the terrified horse took the opportunity to gallop for its life to the nearest village.[ii]
Unfortunately, the farmer and mate are unnamed and the source for the story is the Illustrated Police News, a true crime paper famous for its lurid illustrations and known as Britain’s worst newspaper. See the top of this article for the accompanying illustration.
This story also lacks the punchline that a satisfying ghost tale needs. Usually the punchline is something along the lines of …’and that was the room where the murderer hanged himself….’
So, let’s speculate. The supposed sighting took place at a crossroads – traditionally a place where people who commit suicide were buried as they could not be interred in hallowed ground. Perhaps the headless woman in black took her own life in lovelorn despair. Though suicide by decapitation seems a bit far-fetched. Perhaps she was murdered on the spot by a dastardly lover? But this doesn’t give her much agency.
Crossroads are also associated with black magic, necromancy and the raising of evil spirits. So, I suggest she is the ghost of a necromancer who tried to raise Beelzebub in some ghastly black magic ritual but had her head torn from her shoulders by a demonic force she could not control…
The Ghost of Christmas Post
Here’s a lighter – but no less bizarre – Christmas ghost story to finish with.
In the Postmaster General’s report of 1876, a strange tale emerged set in the West of Ireland. A new post box had been built into a wall, but the post office could not get anyone to collect the letters posted there.
This was because many of the locals were afraid of a strange ghost that haunted that stretch of road – a large, white headless turkey.[iii]
[i] Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser 21 April 1807; Larne Times 26 December 1936
[ii] Illustrated Police News 8 January 1898
[iii] The North Briton, 9 September 1876