Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there is no denying that many hauntings were human, rather than spiritual, mysteries: ghosts were often the product of personal fears, anxieties, lies, crimes and deceits that are often difficult to fathom as historians. Here are five spooky cases for you to consider…
1621: Nunnifying Mary Boucher
Mary Boucher was a London servant woman employed by a Catholic lady. According to the clergyman John Gee (d1639), the lady hatched a plot with three Jesuits to convert Mary to Catholicism, and so have her ‘Nunnified’. What better way to persuade Mary to convert to the Catholic faith than to convince her that ghosts returned from purgatory?
One of the conspirators dressed up in a white sheet and approached Mary as she lay in bed one night. The supposed spirit touched Mary with “a hand cold as earth or iron” and claimed to be her long-deceased godmother: “See that you tell my children what you have seen, and how their mother appeared unto you”.
When Mary told her mother about the ghostly visitation, she convinced her daughter that it was nothing but a popish trick. But maybe John Gee, who claimed to have visited Mary to verify the story, was making up his own stories to deflect rumours that he himself was in thrall to the papacy…
1650: The haunting of Susan Lay
In 1650 an Essex servant girl named Susan Lay went to her local magistrate in great distress, saying that she was haunted by the ghost of her mistress, Priscilla Beauty, the wife of an alehouse keeper. Lay had given birth to illegitimate children by both Beauty’s husband and her son, William. Both children died in infancy.
Priscilla passed away at Easter 1650. Three days after she was buried, Susan – who was then living in the alehouse barn – began to be visited by the pale ghost of her mistress calling to her, “Sue, Sue, Sue”. The anguished Susan thought the spirit of her mistress had come back from the dead to punish her for her sins – “oh this woman will be the destruction of me”, she said.
When Susan threatened to commit suicide, William told her, “this is a just judgement of God upon you for if she walks, she walks to you and nobody else.”
1765: Shrieking and groaning at Hinton Ampner
The haunting of the Manor House at Hinton Ampner, near Alresford, Hampshire, began simply enough with the inexplicable banging of doors. A groom said he had seen an apparition of its former owner, Lord Stawell.
Mary and William Ricketts had purchased the manor in 1765, and soon began to regret it. When William left for a lengthy trip to Jamaica four years later, leaving his wife and three young children, the poltergeist phenomena began to intensify: Mary began to hear footsteps, knocking noises, and the rustle of silk in her bedchamber. By the spring of 1771, mysterious murmurings, groanings, and shrieks plagued the Manor House.
William was still abroad. Mary’s brother, Sir John Jervis, came to investigate, but could find no rational cause for the disturbances. The family moved out shortly after, and the house was demolished a few years later.
Was it the ghost of Lord Stawell, or perhaps another previous owner, Sir Hugh Stewkeley? A local pauper had told the family that Stewkeley was rumoured to have buried treasure under the floorboards of the dining room.
c1865: a man clinging to a tree in the face of an apparition in a forest. London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series - 72 (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images).
1834: A ghostly tenancy dispute
In February 1834 four men applied to the Bristol magistrates to nullify the tenancy agreement they had signed because their rooms were haunted. One of the men said he saw the ghosts of two women, one wearing mourning clothes. Another’s daughter claimed she also saw the ghost of a woman with light hair and grey eyes, who wore a cap with lace strings. She felt a draft of air as the ghostly woman passed by her bed. As well as these visions, all four tenants complained of a strange blue light appearing in their rooms.
The magistrate tried to convince them that there were no such things as ghosts. But the men refused to believe it, with one of them citing the Reverend John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, as an authority on their reality. Alas, the law could do nothing for the haunted tenants.
1861: A murder revealed by a ghost?
One evening in January 1861, several men and women were gathered at the fireside in the cottage of Joseph Allinson, in Kendal, when terrible knocking sounds emanated from the room above where Joseph’s bedridden, purblind wife lay.
The alarmed fireside congregation proceed upstairs to investigate the cause of the mysterious noises. Mrs Allinson revealed to them that she had just been visited by an apparition of a grim, rough-looking man dressed in black. It breathed in her face, causing the bedside candle to burn dim before being extinguished by some unseen hand.
The ghost pointed to the floor and in a thick, husky, hollow voice told her that she must dig under the hearthstone in the cellar, and there she would find something buried. The ghost then vanished.
Joseph and his friends immediately headed down to the cellar to carry out the spirit’s instructions. On removing the hearth flagstone they found, just below the surface, a quantity of long-buried bones, thought to be human, and a scattering of hops. Were they the remains of a murder victim? Was the ghost that of the murderer, or the murder victim?
Professor Owen Davies from the University of Hertfordshire specialises in witchcraft, magic, and ghosts from the ancient world to the modern era. He is the author of the forthcoming Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic (OUP, 2015) and America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem (OUP, 2013).