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.
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