While headless ghosts used to hold what amounted to practically a monopoly in ghostlore, there are far fewer stories of ghostly heads. I am not sure why this should be: if a headless ghost can walk while looking for his disembodied head, in fairness, that head ought to be able to search for its body. And yet, there is this puzzling disparity.
There are many stories of ghastly faces looking out of windows (some in the glass and some behind it), but it is usually assumed that there is an equally ghastly body attached. There are also some decapitated ghosts who carry their heads with them—think of Anne Boleyn “with her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm.”
As promised in my previous post on embalmed heads, today’s post is concerned with apparitions of floating or severed ghostly heads, most of which seem to date from the late 19th century, the high watermark for the popularity of the headless ghost story. But we start with a paraphrase of a tale from the Renaissance period.
Cardan and Henningius Grosius relate a similar marvel of some of the ancient families of Italy. The following is an instance from the latter authority:—”Jacopo Donati, the head of that powerful family, one of the most important in Venice, had a child, the heir to the family, very ill. At night, when in bed, Donati saw the door of his chamber opened, and the head of a man thrust in. Knowing that it was not one of his servants, he roused the house, drew his sword, and, attended by several of his domestics, went over the whole palace, all the servants protesting that they had seen such a head thrust in at the doors of their several chambers, at the same hour: the fastenings were found all secure, so that no one could have come in from without. The next day the child died.” The Occult Sciences: Sketches of the Traditions and Superstitions of Past Times, and the Marvels of the Present Day, Edward Smedley, et al, 1855
It is unusual to find a ghostly replay of an actual decapitation as in this weird story, told of Charles XI of Sweden [1655-1697]. It describes how, accompanied by courtiers, he entered his large hall, only to find it hung with black and filled with strangers dressed in mourning:
“On the throne from which the King usually addressed his Court, a bloody corpse was lying, covered with the insignia of royalty. On the right stood a child, with a crown on his head and a sceptre in his hand. On the left leaned an aged man. This figure was enveloped in a cloak of ceremony, such as was worn by the former administrators of Sweden, before Gustavus Vasa had made one united kingdom of his country. In front of the throne sat several persons, grave and formal in their demeanour, and clothed in the black legal robes of judges. Before them was a table covered with books and papers. Between the throne and the corresponding side of the room stood a block, with a black veil thrown over it, and near to it lay an axe. No one in all this assembly seemed to take any notice of the presence of Charles and his companions, who on their entrance heard a low murmur of voices. Then the oldest among the judges, who appeared to fill the functions of president, arose, and struck three times on a book placed before him. A deep silence followed, and the door facing Charles being opened, the monarch saw several fine-looking young men enter the saloon, richly dressed, but with their hands tied behind their backs. They carried themselves haughtily and with firm countenances. Behind them walked a large muscular man clothed in a coat of brown leather, and in his hands he held the ends of the cord which bound the young men. The one who led the way, and who seemed to be of the most consequence among the prisoners, stopped when he reached the middle of the saloon, and gave a proud look at the block. The corpse [on the throne] then appeared to become agitated, as if in pain, and some light-coloured blood issued from a wound. The young man bent his knee and bowed his head; the axe flashed in the air, and fell with a heavy sound. The head rolled on the ground until it reached the feet of Charles, whose shoes were sprinkled with the blood. The King until then had stood in dumb amazement, but this ghastly spectacle unloosed his tongue, and advancing a few steps towards the phantom in the official cloak of an administrator, he exclaimed, “If you come from God, speak; but if from hell, depart, and leave us in peace.” The phantom replied, with slow emphasis, “King Charles, it is not in thy reign that this blood shall flow; but after five successive reigns, woe shall follow upon woe to the blood of Vasa.”
The members of this numerous assembly then faded into pale tinted shadows; these again gradually disappeared; the lights went out, and the lanterns of the King and his attendants alone remained, casting a dim reflection on the old tapestry gently stirring in the wind. After a while melodious sounds were heard. The apparition had lasted about ten minutes. The black draperies, the severed head, the flowing blood, had all vanished with the phantoms; but on the King’s slipper a dry stain remained, as if in souvenir of the extraordinary scene. Charles, on retiring to his cabinet, caused the whole of the circumstances to be immediately written down, and added his own signature to that of his attendants. This document still exists, and its authenticity has never been disputed….”
The vision was believed to be symbolic of the assassination of Gustavus III by Count Ankarstroem in 1792. Gustavus was succeeded by his young son; the elderly man is believed to represent the Duc de Sudermanie, the uncle of Gustavus IV., who was Regent of the kingdom, and then King, after the deposition of his nephew. The St. James’s Magazine, Volume 15, 1866
I can think of no account of ghostly heads where the head is anything but ghastly, decomposed, or non-human.
A Floating Head.
The partial materialization which produces a floating head seems to be not uncommon. A rather ghastly case of it is related by the Rev. H. Elwyn Thomas. He was walking one summer evening near Llangynidr, in South Wales, after having concluded his evening service. He states that it was at about twenty minutes to nine, but still light enough to see a good distance. The crisis of the story is best told in his own words:
“Turning round, I saw within half a yard of me, and almost on a level with my own face, that of an old man, over every feature of which the putty-coloured skin was drawn tightly, except the forehead, which was lined with deep wrinkles. The lips were extremely thin, and appeared perfectly bloodless. The toothless mouth stood half open. The cheeks were hollow and sunken like those of a corpse, and the eyes, which seemed far back in the middle of the head, were unnaturally luminous and piercing. This terrible object was wrapped in two bands of yellow calico, one of which was drawn under the chin and over the cheeks and tied at the top of the head; the other was drawn round the top of the wrinkled forehead, and fastened at the back of the head.
“Acting on the impulse of the moment, I ran away from the horrible vision with all my might for about sixty yards. I then stopped, and turned round to see how far I had distanced it, and, to my unspeakable horror, there it was still face to face with me, as though I had not moved an inch. I could see nothing between the face and the ground, except an irregular column of intense darkness, through which my umbrella went as a stick goes through water.” Mr. Thomas again ran away for a short distance, but soon pulled up and turned to face the apparition. It then receded before him, and moved quickly down the road until it reached the churchyard wall, which it crossed, and disappeared at a certain spot which he specially remarked. His description of this gruesome vision was instantly recognized by his host as that of an old recluse who had died fifteen years previously. This man had lived in a cottage close to the place where he first appeared to Mr. Thomas, and had been buried at the spot in the churchyard at which he vanished.
A Non-Human Apparition.
“One Saturday evening last summer, about eight, I was alone in the house, with the exception of my two little boys (of eight and nine years), who were at that moment in the bath. I left them for a minute and, closing the bathroom door, walked along the short corridor to the head of the stairs, thinking of the article for which I was going down. I raised my eyes and saw to my great surprise a peculiar light about six feet from the stair in the corner, five inches or six inches above me, and facing me. My first act was to look in every direction for a possible reflection, but in vain. There was no light in the house, the meter being turned off; the corner was a very light one, with a lofty ceiling.
“I looked again at the light, watching it intently, and in less time than it takes me to write it, I saw this light develop into a head and face of yellowish-green light, with a mass of matted hair above it. The face was very wide and broad, larger than ours in all respects, very large eyes of green, which, not being distinctly outlined, appeared to merge into the yellow of the cheeks; no hair whatever on the lower part of the face, and nothing to be seen below. The expression of the face was diabolically malignant, and as it gazed straight at me my horror was intense as my wonder, but I was not nervous in the least; the thought darted through my mind that Gustave Doré had drawn his originals from such. Keeping my gaze fixed on the thing, I said to it, ‘In the name of Christ, be gone,’ and the fiendish thing faded from my sight, and has not troubled me since.”
The lady…takes care to discount beforehand such explanations as might be offered by the crudely sceptical. She remarks, “I am not troubled with liver complaint, and never had a bilious attack in my life. I am also a member of a temperance association, and am generally considered strong-minded.” Certainly she seems to have faced her apparition more calmly than Mr. Thomas did, though both in itself and in its possibilities it was far more terrible than his…It seems a pity that she did not await its further development before so vigorously adjuring it to depart; there are many members of the Psychical Research Society who would give a good deal to have seen that head! Both tales from The Other Side of Death: Scientifically Examined and Carefully Described, Charles Webster Leadbeater 1903
The next two stories are from my book Haunted Ohio III. Names with asterisks have been changed.
HEADLESS IN HYDE PARK
Hyde Park contains many wonderful old houses set like jewels among the folds of the Cincinnati hills. This particular house had a beautiful view of the Ohio River—and a terrible secret.
About 1975, when the Whites* bought the house, they found clothing and personal items in an apartment above the garage—as if the owner had simply gone away and abandoned everything. The neighbors told them that the previous owner’s chauffeur, Morse*, had lived in the apartment until his death in a dreadful auto accident in the 1960s.
Mr. Houston*, his employer, had sent Morse out on a rainy night to pick up a house guest from a local restaurant. Somehow he collided with a car in the opposite lane and, trying to regain control of his car, ran into the guardrail, which rammed through the windshield, decapitating him.
The Whites found Houston’s diary among the abandoned papers. It told of his despair and his feelings of terrible responsibility in sending Morse out that night. He became obsessed with the incident, describing the accident in horrific detail over and over and telling how the chauffeur—headless—came to visit him.
He began to find blood on the seat of his new car. He heard a drip, drip, dripping he couldn’t explain. Once, he wrote, he opened a car door only to have Morse’s head roll out onto his feet, the fresh blood on its face becoming flecked with dirt from the garage floor.
The Whites shuddered at what may have been the ravings of an obsessed madman, but they also knew what they personally had seen: a head—just a head—peering out of the garage apartment windows about dawn. And the head’s eyes were open, gazing over the river—over Jordan?
This story was told told to me about the Cincinnati Museum of Art by an employee of the Museum:
Many Museum treasures are seen only rarely because of space limitations. In the depths of the Museum was a storage room holding a number of pieces of oriental furniture, carved in dark wood with strange, twisted figures, some with inlaid eyes of mother-of-pearl that glittered in the dim light. Two maintenance workers were in the habit of slipping into this room for after-lunch naps. Frank* had just stretched himself out on a roll of Turkish carpet when a noise made him open his eyes.
There, suspended in the air, only a few inches from his face, was a glowing, greenish, demonic face. The face grinned at him. Frank yelped and scrambled to his feet. He dodged around pieces of furniture, but wherever he went, the demon’s face blocked his way, leering. Somehow he got out of the room and fled to the locker room in search of his buddy Ted*. He tried to act nonchalant, but Ted looked at him strangely.
“You don’t look so good. You saw it too, didn’t you?” Ted asked. And he described the same ghastly green face.
When Frank told this story he wondered if the thing came out of some piece of furniture stored in the room. After all, he said, look at those carvings of demons and monsters and dragons that writhe over so much Chinese furniture. The sculptor had to use something for a model, didn’t he?
In this Scottish case, a disembodied head was followed by several other ghostly body parts.
Old Edinburgh was full of quaint, narrow, antiquated passages, some of which still exist, and these “Closes,” as they are locally called, contained numerous houses bearing the reputation of being haunted. Mary King’s Close was noted for the many terrible apparitions which had found suitable quarters within its mouldering dwellings. Mary King’s Close has disappeared to make way for modern erections; but just two centuries ago, that is to say, in 1685, it was a well-to-do thoroughfare, the residence of a respectable class of people. George Sinclair, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, and afterwards minister of Eastwood, in Renfrewshire, a contemporary of the events he refers to, gives the following account, in Satan’s Invisible World Discovered, of some terrible apparitions in Mary King’s Close, in the house of Mr. Thomas Coltheart, a respectable law agent. Mr. Coltheart’s business having improved, he removed into a superior residence in the Close above-named. Having been warned by some kind neighbour that the house was haunted, the maid-servant decamped in haste, and left Mr. Coltheart and his wife to manage as they best could. On Sunday afternoon Mr. Coltheart, being unwell, retired to rest, whilst his wife seated herself at his bedside and read the Scriptures. Happening to raise her eyes, she was intensely horrified to behold the head of an old man, with grey floating beard, suspended in the air but a short distance off, gazing at her intently with weird, fixed glare. She swooned at the sight, and remained in an insensible condition until the neighbours came back from church. Her husband did his best to reason her out of her credulity, and the evening passed without anything further taking place.
They had not been in bed long, however, before Mr. Coltheart also beheld the phantom head, floating in mid-air, and surveying him with ghostly eyes. He got up and lit a candle, and then betook himself to prayer. An hour passed, when the spectre head was joined by that of a child, also suspended in the air, followed speedily by an arm naked from the elbow, which, despite the lawyer’s pious ejaculations, seemed to wish to shake hands with him and his wife! In vain did Mr. Coltheart conjure the phantoms to entrust him with the story of their grievances, so that he might have their wrongs rectified: all was useless. They seemed to regard him and his wife as intruders, and to wish them away. Other phantoms joined them, including that of a dog, which curled itself up on a chair, and seemed to go to sleep! Others—some of a most horrifying and monstrous form — appeared, until the whole room swarmed with them: and the unfortunate couple were compelled to take refuge on the bed. Suddenly, with a deep and awful groan, all the apparitions vanished, and the pious lawyer and his wife were left in peace.
After such a terrifying house-warming, one would suppose that Mr. and Mrs. Coltheart would have got out of the house as quickly as possible; but such was not the case. The brave couple, if Professor Sinclair is to be relied on, continued to reside in the place for many years, and till the day of Mr. Coltheart’s death, without any further molestation from the spirits. The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain, John Henry Ingram, 1897
The Irish ghost-writer Elliott O’Donnell was perhaps the undisputed king of the ghostly head story. Here are three:
A ghost that terrified me more than any other when I was a child, and which I still dread more than any other, is the malevolent Banshee…When I was still in the cradle, my father decided to go for a trip to Palestine in company with a fellow-clergyman. Before going he was heard to say to my mother:
“If anything happens to me while I am abroad” (a journey to Palestine in those days was much more of an undertaking than it is now) I will appear to you.”
“Oh, don’t,” my mother replied. “I am so terrified at anything supernatural.”
“Very well then,” my father said, “I won’t appear to you, but I will let you know somehow.”
He went away, and in a few weeks’ time my mother received a letter from him saying that he had parted company with his friend, the Rev. S.T.S., and had arranged to go to Abyssinia with a certain ex-colonel of the Anglo-Indian army. This was about the middle of March. On the afternoon of April 1st, at about five o’clock, one of my sisters, in our home in Ireland, was sent upstairs to fetch something. When she was about to ascend the staircase leading to the top landing she saw immediately above her a spherical light which abruptly developed into a terrible-looking head. It was of a ghastly, yellowish-green hue, and the skin being drawn tightly over the bones, gave it a skeleton-like look, the horror of which was emphasised by a mass of long, matted, tow-coloured hair. But the worst feature of all was its eyes, which, obliquely set and pale, glittered diabolically as they fixed my sister with their gaze. Oddly enough, my sister does not appear to have been as much frightened as she was surprised and indignant. She realised that the thing, whatever it might be, was gloating over the horror it inspired, and this made her angry—angry that it should derive such satisfaction in trying to frighten a child. After staring at it for some seconds, she turned on her heels and ran, never mentioning a word about it till several years later, when, at about the same hour and in exactly the same place, another of my sisters saw a precisely similar phenomenon.
On both occasions the appearance immediately preceded a death. In the first instance, it was my father—he was murdered at Arkiko, on the Red Sea Coast the day after the head appeared; and in the second instance it was my mother. She, also, died the day following the appearance of the phenomenon. Ghosts Helpful & Harmful, Elliott O’Donnell, 1924
O’Donnell also relates the story of Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, staying at a hotel in Dundee where Mrs. Murphy was uneasy about a cupboard that faced the bed.
She was lying listening to her husband snore “when she suddenly became aware of a smell—a most offensive, pungent odour, which blew across the room and crept up her nostrils. The cold perspiration of fear at once broke out on her forehead. Objectionable as the smell was, it suggested something more horrible….
Mrs. Murphy then heard noises that suggested that something was about to manifest. Unable to bear the suspense, she got up and crept over to the cupboard, certain that whatever was making the stench was there.
“she held her breath and swung open the door. The moment she did so, a faint glow of decay filtered into the room and she saw, exactly opposite her, a human head floating in mid-air.
Petrified with terror and unable to cry out, she stared at it. That it was the head of a man she could only guess from the matted crop of short red hair that fell in disordered entanglement over the upper part of the forehead and ears. All else was lost in a disgusting mass of decomposition. On the thing beginning to move forward, the spell that bound her to the floor was broken, and with a cry of horror she fled to the bed and awoke her husband.
The head was by this time close to them, and had not Mrs. Murphy dragged her husband forcibly out of its way, it would have touched him…
Mr Murphy swung at it with his walking stick, the thing chased them as they went for the door, tripped, and fell. “The head approached until it hovered immediately above them, and then descended lower and lower, finally passing right through them, through the floor, and out of sight.”
When confronted, the landlord of the hotel first scoffed at the story, but then admitted that the head was said to be that of “a pedlar who was murdered in the inn more than a hundred years ago. His decapitated body was found hidden behind the wainscoting and his head under the cupboard floor.”Elliott O’Donnell’s Casebook of Ghosts, Elliott O’Donnell, 1989
In a lengthy chapter in his Haunted Highways and Byways, O’Donnell tells of a gypsy caravan haunted by a screaming head:
“It was a head that had been decapitated in a very crude manner, and from the tangled mass of black hair that fell to some length on either side the ears, he judged it was that of a woman. Otherwise there was little to guide him as to its sex. The face was covered with black spots about the size of a threepenny-piece, and the strangeness of this effect was much intensified by a strong yellow glow, which seemed to emanate from within it. The mouth was slightly open, the upper lip being wreathed in a malevolent leer. But as is generally the way with apparitions of this kind, it was the eyes of the thing that affect him. They were large, black and glittering, and filled with such an expression of mockery and animosity, that his heart died within him, and his body became like stone as he gazed at them.”
Later the explanation is given that the head is that of a gypsy woman murdered by her jealous husband. The spots on the head are explained as either signs of a disease or from decomposition. “I presume they didn’t waste a coffin on her,” is the dismissive comment. Haunted Highways and Byways, Elliott O’Donnell, 1914
A few other online tales of disembodied heads:
A head emerges from a grave at the Pierce Tomb in Massachusetts.
The severed head of an Earl seen by horrified servants years before his execution.
From that highly respected publication, The Weekly World News, a prophetic Floating Head.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.