While life imprisonment and execution do a relatively decent job of discouraging people from killing one another, the threat of posthumous vengeance might well be a greater deterrence. Looking at ghost stories across time and space, one can find a countless number of tales that involve the victim of a crime coming back from the grave to point a finger at their unidentified murderer. Other times, as in the case of Juan Vázquez de Ayola, the spirit shows up to reveal their own corpse, a piece of evidence often hidden in the least creative places.
A classic take on this subgenre, with both tropes present, can be found in the life of the English nobleman George Harris. In 1730, Harris was serving in a court position in London when he received an urgent letter from his servant Richard Morris. Morris, the head butler of Harris’s country estate, reported that the house had been burglarized. To make matters worse, the culprits got away undetected, and a newly-hired servant boy had also gone missing. In the week or so that it took Harris to rush back to his home in Devon, the local constables struggled to move forward with the case.
One of the obstacles in the investigation was the timing. Despite that the burglary took place at night, it wasn’t until the morning that it was discovered. Morris, to his presumed displeasure, was “found in the plate-room half dressed, tied to a table, and with a gag in his mouth.” When questioned, the butler reported that he’d stumbled onto the burglars in the middle of their heist. Before the criminals took off with a valuable plate, they grabbed Morris and tied him up. He described the thieves as a group of five or six men, one of whom Morris identified as the missing servant.
Although Harris took a look around his estate, he couldn’t find anything unusual. With no clues to go on, and his responsibilities calling in London, there really wasn’t much that Harris could do. Six months passed before he could return home. Back in the countryside, Harris learned from Morris that the burglars still hadn’t been caught, yet there were no other incidents during his absence. Exhausted from his trip, Morris headed off to his room, more concerned with his bed than his plate.
That night, Harris woke up early, noticing a strange figure in his room. Thanks to a small lamp, Harris could see that the midnight creeper was, in fact, his missing servant. The boy, doubtlessly hungry to purloin another plate, was asked what he wanted, but refused to reply. Instead, he pointed to Harris’s bedroom door, motioning for his master to follow. Harris, curious about what the boy was doing, put on some clothes, grabbed a sword, and followed him out the room. With his arm stretched forward, the servant led Harris down a staircase and through a door outside, coming to a stop at a large oak tree.
The boy pointed to the bottom of the tree, which was covered with bushes and shrubs. After a moment, he walked past the tree, and disappeared from Harris’s sight. Being a master of charades, Harris had a good feeling what his oddly silent servant meant to imply. In the morning, he had Richard Morris seized and ordered workers to dig around the oak tree. After digging up less than a foot of ground, the men uncovered something more damning than the purloined plate: the body of Harris’s missing servant. The boy, with the cord still wrapped around his neck, had been strangled to death.
After some pressing, Morris confessed that his account of the burglary was a lie. The butler had an active role in the theft, inviting two ne’er-do-wells inside so that the trio could make off with something expensive and fancy. As the criminals helped themselves to Harris’s tableware, however, the servant boy accidentally ran into them during the operation. Playing it safe, they figured the best course of action was to kill the boy, burying him under a blatant landmark. To further cast off any suspicion, Morris was tied up and left in the house.
While this accounted for the missing servant, there was still the matter of the butler’s co-conspirators and their theft. Neither the plate nor the burglars were located, leaving Richard Morris as the only punished culprit. For his part in the crime, Morris was sentenced to death and executed. To be fair, it’s unclear whether Morris was the one who laid his hands on the servant. Still, for failing to bury the boy’s body in a more creative place- say, like the plate-room- I’d say that Morris deserved his fate for such an appalling lack of imagination.
If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting my work by buying my book “Forgotten Lives” on Amazon here. My first collection of short stories includes such sugary sweet tales as “The Society for the Preservation of Vice,” in which a group of decadent artists attempt to pull off a human sacrifice, and the heart-warming “A Gourmet’s Confession,” in which a glutton resorts to cannibalism after he can’t eat conventional food anymore. The book is available on Kindle, and since it’s only $4.99, doesn’t require stealing a plate in order to afford it.
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