How a Nobleman (Partially) Solved the Disappearance of a Purloined Plate

Ghost

A generic ghost that has absolutely nothing to do with today’s story.

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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A Mathematician’s Ghost Story: Or, the Thomases and the Phantom

RichardBentley

Scholar Richard Bentley, pictured here being very scholarly.

In December 1695, University of Oxford mathematician John Caswell wrote a letter to Richard Bentley, a renown classical scholar and clergyman at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College. Earlier, the pair of friends planned to meet in London, but Caswell had to return to Oxford when he got sick. In his letter, Caswell apologized for missing Bentley. As though an apology wasn’t enough, Caswell also attached a ghost story for his friend’s amusement. The mathematician originally heard the tale from two different people, before going to the curate who spread it, a Mr. Thomas Wilkins who will henceforth be known as Thomas I.

According to Thomas I, the story took place in a parsonage in Warblington, a suburb of Havant, England. The unfortunate protagonists of this relation consisted of Thomas Perce, his wife and child, a maid, and a servant also inconveniently named Thomas. On a Monday night in August 1695, at 9 or 10 PM, everyone in the house was asleep except the maid and child. After putting on a fire in the kitchen, the maid turned around and was startled to see a figure in a black gown walk across the room. With a candle in one hand, and the kid in the other, the maid ran upstairs and gave a shout.

The Perces hurried to the staircase, and the maid explained to them what happened. The poor woman was so spooked that she refused to stay, choosing to sleep and complain at a neighbor’s house. (That of Henry Salter, a farmer.) The next day, Perce’s wife went to Wilkins and asked him to look into the matter. Not a Thomas to believe in ghosts, Wilkins flat-out told Mrs. Perce that he thought the story was a lie to smear her landlord, a rector named Brereton. To prove that the house was positively not haunted, Wilkins arranged to stay the night with the other two Thomases.

Once he arrived at the parsonage, Wilkins looked around every room to be sure that nobody was hiding in the house. At one point, much to the horror of Perce, Wilkins called for the ghost to appear. The phantom didn’t materialize, and a brave Wilkins reassured Perce that he’d protect the man if it did. Over the next two nights, nothing out of the ordinary happened. On the third night of Wilkins’s stay, however, the servant Thomas slept in a room separate from the other men. As he was in bed alone, Thomas III saw the dark-gowned figure creep into his room. The ghost leaned against a window for a time, then wandered off to creep and haunt and do whatever else it is that spirits do.

During his encounter, Thomas III was so afraid that he couldn’t move or talk. When he duly reported the episode to the curate, Wilkins dismissed it as a trick. It wouldn’t be until the fifth night, when Wilkins slept in one room and the two Thomases in the other, that the curate would change his tune. That time, the servant yelled for Wilkins to come to their room. The spirit was back, and it whistled as it walked around the room and looked at Thomas II and III in bed. (While the sight of two men in bed might sound suggestive to the modern reader, sharing beds was a common practice of the time.)

When Wilkins reached the room, the servant had to unlock the door to let him in. As soon as he stepped inside, Wilkins was greeted by the figure in the black gown, who moved from the bed to the window. Shocked, but keeping his cool, Wilkins approached the spirit and asked what it was. Since the ghost made no reply, Wilkins reached to touch it, his hand passing through its body onto the wall. After demanding an answer a second time, the most courageous Thomas followed the ghost out into a hallway, where it vanished from a corner. Although he claimed not to be afraid, Wilkins slept with the other Thomases that night.  (While the sight of three men in bed might sound suggestive to the still unconvinced modern reader, sharing beds after a ghost sighting is a practice that has remained to this day.)

As Wilkins described it, “The Apparition seemed to have a morning gown of a darkish color, no hat nor cap, short black hair, a thin meagre visage, of a pale swarthy color, seemed to be of about 45 or 50 years old: the eyes half shut, the arms hanging down, the hands visible beneath the sleeve, of a middle stature.” As a matter of fact, the description matched Sebastian Pitfield, a rector who’d long been dead. Pitfield had a nasty reputation in life, and was rumored to have murdered his own illegitimate children. With a ghost like this under their roof, the Perces decided to abandon the parsonage altogether.

Two months later, on an early October night, a passerby noticed lights in many of the house’s rooms. After peeking at the light from the kitchen window, the man turned away and was immediately confronted by the figure in the gown. The curious passerby bolted off, pursued by the phantom over several acres of land. When the man came across a barn owned by Henry Salter, he rushed inside and reported the chase to some servants. The other men went outside and found the ghost still there. For its dramatic exit, the ghost made “a hideous noise” and stood a while before disappearing for good.

In spite of its haunted reputation, the parsonage’s landlord insisted that the place was just as livable for the living. As is the custom of every landlord who has a problem, Mr. Brereton lowered the rent and warned others not to talk about it.

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 the company of such wonderful people as a vengeful circus dwarf, a gourmet cannibal, and a mother who convinces her daughter that aliens are coming to abduct them. The book is available on Kindle for $4.99, and like Mr. Brereton’s house, comes with a free phantom in a black gown. 

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The Demon of Spreyton

Spreyton

Modern-day picture of Spreyton, England

In November 1682, Francis Fey was a 20-year-old servant in the service of Philip Furze, a landowner who lived in the little English village of Spreyton. One day, while in a field near his employer’s house, Francis was puzzled to see Philip’s father outside. The elder Furze was walking with his staff, and like the many moles he’d once whacked, had long been dead.

Fortunately, Old Furze’s ghost had no intention of whacking Francis. Instead, Furze had returned from the dead to sort out some problems with his will. He explained that two beneficiaries were each owed ten shillings, and a sister in the near-by town of Totnes was owed twenty. So long as all three beneficiaries got their money, Furze promised not to haunt Francis.

Francis ran to the first two beneficiaries without any problems. Furze’s sister in Totnes was a bit more difficult; she refused to take her share, suspecting it’d been sent by the Devil. That night, Furze appeared to Francis again, telling him to buy a ring worth twenty shillings. Furze’s sister had no qualms with the ring, so Francis figured he was free and headed back home.

As part of their agreement, Furze should have left Francis alone. But as Francis rode into Spreyton, Furze materialized yet again. Unfortunately, this time, the ghost did have the intention of beating Francis. It appeared behind Francis as he rode his horse, clinging to his waist and then throwing him to the ground. The fun didn’t stop there either. Once Francis got back to Philip’s farm, his horse jumped and landed twenty-five feet away.
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A Haunting on Fuencarral Street

Torres

Diego de Torres Villarroel

It would probably be easier to tell you what the 18th century Spanish writer Diego de Torres Villarroel didn’t do. According to his highly picaresque autobiography, Torres did all sorts of different jobs, including working as a bullfighter, dancer, soldier, lock picker, astrologer, and math professor. He was also said to be a prophet, although his apparent predictions of the death of the Spanish King Louis I and the French Revolution were more vague coincidences than actual prophecies.

In 1723, after moving to Madrid, a poverty-stricken Torres was forced to work as a smuggler to get by. One day, Torres’ fortunes changed when a messenger from Josepha de Figueroa, the Countess of Arcos, paid him a visit. The messenger looked pale and sick, and explained that the Countess wanted Torres to come stay at her house. For the past three nights, the Countess’ home had been knocked by loud, unexplained noises.

The Countess was afraid that her house, which was located on Fuencarral Street, was being haunted by a duende. In Spanish folklore, duendes are creatures similar to goblins, tricksters who come into people’s homes to harass them and drive them crazy with loud noises. (Our demented friends from The House of the Lions, the follets, are technically a Catalan variety of duende.)

Torres was skeptical about the story, but agreed to investigate the haunting. When he arrived at the Countess’ house, he found the servants pale and quiet, and the Countess terrified. That night, they all banded together and slept in the same bedroom, Torres included.

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A Skeptical Law Student

AntoniodeTorquemada

Antonio de Torquemada.

In the “Garden of Curious Flowers (1570),” a hodgepodge work of miscellanies that had the proud distinction of being banned by the Inquisition, the Spanish author Antonio de Torquemada recounted a bizarre story that many people in Italy and Spain could supposedly vouch for. The tale concerned a student named Juan Vázquez de Ayola, who with two of his friends went to Bologna to study law.

While searching for a place to stay, the Spaniards asked some local men in the street if they knew any places friendly to foreigners. One of the men, smiling, pointed to a boarded-up house. His friends told the Spaniards that this was meant to be a good old-fashioned Bolognese joke; the house had been unavailable the past twelve years because it was haunted. Ayola, playing the straight man, asked if he could have the keys.

The owner of the house did his best to turn the students away. He told them all about the horrible things people had seen there, but the Spaniards laughed them off. They were modern 16th century college boys, dammit, and they didn’t believe in anything as silly as ghosts. So the owner coughed up the keys and the Spaniards got themselves a haunted house.

After moving in, the Spaniards had a hard time finding servants for their new home. They were able to hire one woman as a cook, but she refused to do her job inside the house. A month passed, and much to the astonishment of the Bolognese, the Spaniards were still living in the house without having seen or heard anything strange.

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How Gnomes Drove an Artist to Kill Herself

GhostTower

The Castle of La Boca, named after the neighborhood in Buenos Aires where it stands, is a big and beautiful representation of Catalan modernism. It’s also supposedly haunted, which is why many people call the building’s tower “The Ghost Tower.” The eponymous ghost of the tower is said to haunt the top floor, where people have heard anguished shouts and disembodied footsteps.

According to legend, the ghost is a painter named Clementina, a young art student who lived there a century ago. The story behind Clementina’s demise involves a nostalgic rancher, a noisy reporter, and a bunch of mischievous follets, a creature in Catalan folklore similar to gnomes.

The story begins with the estanciera (rancher) Maria Luisa Auvert Arnaud. Auvert owned a very profitable estancia, a rural estate like a ranch, making her one of the wealthiest people in Buenos Aires. In the early 20th century, Argentina was experiencing a great boom in immigration from Europe. Hoping to make some money off these new Argentinians, Auvert bought a plot of land in La Boca and planned to get into real estate.

Despite her French-sounding name, Auvert’s family had roots in Catalonia. On her new land, Auvert hired the Catalan architect Guillermo Alvarez to build a house that would remind her of her family’s homeland. To maximize the Catalan flavor, Auvert imported furniture and plants from the old country, including some mushrooms she put on the balconies.

When the construction was completed in 1908, Auvert was so happy with the final product that she dropped the idea of renting the building and took the house for herself. The Castle should have been her dream home, but Auvert quietly packed her bags after living there for only a year. Nobody knew why she moved so suddenly, though neighbors said they sometimes heard her and her servants yelling at something at night.

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A Warning Unheeded: A Victorian Account of Precognitive Dreams

unknown artist; Reverend Frederick George Lee (1832-1902)

Painting of Frederick George Lee.

Today’s article is an account from Frederick George Lee’s 1885 “Glimpses in the Twilight: Being Various Notes, Records, and Examples of the Supernatural.” Lee was an English priest who believed in ghosts and wrote several books about the supernatural. He recorded this story, verbatim,  from the member of a Buckinghamshire family called Hickman. Unfortunately, the narrator gives us no date, but I assume it happened in the earlier part of the century. 

My grandfather had a favourite daughter. She was his youngest child, had been born about ten years after the birth of his youngest son, and to her he was devotedly attached. The loss of his wife when his youngest daughter was about sixteen years of age, seemed to deepen and strengthen the affectionate attachment in question.

He himself is said to have been a very hard-headed, unromantic, anti-sentimental man, who had been largely influenced by the Scotch philosophers of the last century in rejecting the revealed religion of Christ; and during the latter part of his life, with a habit of sneering and cynicism, appears to have given up any belief in God, the soul, or immortality.

He was, however, reputed to have been a person of great integrity and good principles; living an upright life, respected by his friends, and a good friend as regards things temporal to his poorer neighbors.

The daughter in question, going with others to an outdoor party in one of the most beautiful parts of Buckinghamshire, not far from Wendover, rambling far from headquarters, was with several others overtaken by a storm, caught a severe cold, went home, took to her bed, and in less than ten days was buried in the village churchyard.

The young girl in question was very fair both in form and features; and friends who came to see her in her coffin said that she had never in all her life looked more beautiful. She was interred in the family vault amid the tears of her relations, and to the intense grief of her sorrowing parent.

Her father was inconsolable at his loss, the more so as he knew nothing of the consolations of religion, having long ago rejected them, and fretted much at what he looked upon as the stern decrees of Fate.

The night after the funeral he is said to have had a most vivid dream. He dreamt that his daughter was confined in a cold and narrow underground cell, and that two resolute jailers were slowly filling her mouth with small pieces of cotton wool, in order to forcibly suffocate her; but that in the greatest trouble and agony she continued to resist, and would not be suffocated.

The dream disturbed him considerably; but, on waking and thinking over it, he acknowledged that his recent loss had no doubt served to disorganize his stomach, to confuse his brain, and to give rise to such fantastic fancies of the night.

However, a similar dream was had on the following night, and a third to his great astonishment on the night succeeding. His mental anguish and stress became so great that, at sunrise on the third day he rose from his bed, and went off to the clergyman of the parish to narrate what had happened, and to ask his counsel.

The clergyman, who had not then risen, surprised at being roused so early, came downstairs, listened to the curious and affecting narrative, and at once advised the immediate opening of the vault. This was done at once, and the coffin examined.

Under further advice- that of a doctor from the country town, who was going his rounds to visit his patients- the coffin was opened, when, to the horror of all who witnessed what was then and there discovered, it seemed perfectly clear that the young girl had been buried alive.

It was obvious that she had been put into the coffin in a state of suspended animation or trance, and that since the burial (for the body was turned and twisted, the hands compressed, the nails being dug into their palms, and the face fearfully contorted), the poor creature had died of suffocation.

An inquiry which was held resulted in nothing that could either give consolation to the living or benefit to the dead. The bare and melancholy facts as here recorded were both undoubted and unquestioned. The father of the girl soon afterwards died of grief, wasted away from sorrowing; and, as some said, died of a broken heart.

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