The Devil’s Fire-Proof Chain

The Devil's Fire-Proof Chain Image of chain from magazine story.

The Devil’s Fire-Proof Chain Image of chain from magazine story.

I find haunted or charmed objects to be a fascinating study. On one hand, you have the cursed idol or bambino statue that bring ill-luck or death; on the other, objects like The Luck of Edenhall or the Fairy Flag of the MacLeods, which serve as protective charms for a clan or family. Today we screw the loupe more firmly into the eye to examine a story of a fine gold chain with a curious provenance and an even more curious fire-proof reputation.

The next narrative is but the outline, without names of the parties, of one of the most extraordinary stories which ever saw the light. It is that of a most confirmed gambler, a nobleman who received a gold chain from a stranger, who arrived one evening at his castle, and played with him. This chain the donor conjured him to guard with care, and hand down to his posterity, or with the loss of it would the estate be lost. The particulars of this story, and the names of the parties concerned, happen to be in my possession; and strange, and next to impossible as they seem, venture to give them, because the gentleman who received them from the present owner of the estate, and who handed them to me, is yet living in London, a retired officer of the army. With this preface I shall now copy the account exactly as it stands in my friend the colonel’s own notes in my possession.

“A short account of extraordinary spiritual events personally known to Count Piper, a Swede, some of them having occurred to his own family, and related to me by himself at Nice, February and March, 1854 :—

“March 13th, called on Count Piper, who related again to me and Baron Prost, this story as well known in Sweden, and which, I believe, has been there published. He also showed us the chain hereafter mentioned. About 1704-6, a Baron [Johan] Sparre, who had led the most dissolute life, and ruined his property in the country where he lived, who had nailed up the doors of the church on his estate, believing neither in God nor devil, was visited by a spirit one night, who reproached him most severely, and threatened to drag him away if he did not reform. At the same time he put a gold chain round his neck, and dragged him violently by it, the baron resisting with all his force. The spirit then told him to pay attention to what was written on the chain, and never to part with it, adding that if he amended his life, no harm would happen to him so long as he had possession of the chain. In the morning, recollecting the occurrence as a horrid nightmare, he felt for the chain, and was astonished beyond measure to find it round his neck.

“I have seen another and a more rational version of this concluding scene. It states that Sparre, finding himself in the clutches of a fiend, cried for help to St. Brigetta [Bridget of Sweden], and instantly a bright spirit appeared, drove off the demon, and putting the chain round his neck, told him so long as he kept it there, he was safe. After the death of Count Sparre, the property was bought by the grandfather of the grandfather of Count Piper, [Carl and Christina Piper] and is now in the hands of the present Count, my informant. After the property was delivered over, the widow of Count Sparre sent this chain with a letter to the purchaser, giving this account of it, and saying that it belonged to the property, and must go along with it.

“The mother of the present Count Piper has told him of various misfortunes which have happened on the property whenever that chain was left anywhere else—always by fire. The father of Count Piper once lent the chain to a friend to take to the theatre, at Stockholm, ten Swedish miles distant. A fire broke out at his chateau, and recollecting the absence of the chain, he sent a man on horseback to fetch it back. Count Piper left the chain somewhere and went to Stockholm. Fifteen days afterwards the heard of their church being set on fire by lightning, just as the people were leaving it. The fire was extinguished by them. Count Piper, on receiving the news, sat down and wrote a letter to his mother, in the presence of a great many people of note, desiring her to inform him on what day and hour the fire took place. The answer, on its arrival, named the exact day and hour when he had left the chain behind him.

“On another occasion he left the chain at Stockholm, and a village belonging to him was burnt. Another time he left the chain while he went to bathe in a lake, and during that time a house with other appurtenances of his was burnt.

“Count Piper has been obliged by the priests to insure his church, though he never will insure his house, convinced that so long as he wears the chain, no fire will take place on his property. He has been much ridiculed for this belief, but he does not trouble himself on that score. I said to him, ‘Try the experiment, leave the chain in this house and go away for a day or two, perhaps this house will be burnt.’ ‘Not for the world,’ he replied, ‘this house would not be burnt, but some property of mine in Sweden would be.’ The name of his chateau is Engso [Ängsö], in Westmannia.[ Västmanland]

“The chain, when doubled, is just the length of my arm, from the top of my finger to the point of the shoulder, or from a yard and) a half to a yard and three-quarters. It is of the purest gold, thin wire, and twisted like a curb, but with the peculiarity that it cannot be laid flat, but twists and serpents while trying to do so. To each end is attached a locket of the size and appearance of the illustration annexed. One side is of black enamel, which has never worn or chipped off, and in it is inlaid in gold a figure of five semicircles, like a blown rose, and at each corner a sort of ornamented half-circle. On the reverse side, engraved in Roman letters, in gold, are the letters A.S.V.P. On each sides is a hinge with a pin through it, to which the ends are attached. No jeweller has been able to give an opinion about it, except that the gold is of the purest quality, and it is curious, that having had a new link put in to replace a broken one, at different times, the original always wears away the new link. No one can tell what the letters mean, but the Count has imagined, perhaps in joke, that it might mean “Af Satan’s Värdiga Pack:”— De la Canaille noble du Diable.

“Count Piper used to inhabit the second story of his chateau. When he went to Stockholm on business, and was absent from home for some time, he used, during three or four years, always to write to say when he should return, in order to have his rooms prepared. A day or two previous to his return noises were heard in his rooms as of a person moving about. Examinations were made, but nothing was discovered. As these noises invariably occurred just previous to his return, his mother and a man who served in the army or reserve in the neighbourhood, to whom Count Piper had given a room above his own, and who acted as a sort of overseer or servant, and who heard the same noises, concluded that it was a spirit which indicated the Count’s return. In consequence of this, for the last six ears, the Count had never written to announce the time of he intended return home, but his mother and the man, hearing the noises, always had his rooms prepared. The noises sometimes sounded like that of a person opening a door, moving about the furniture, walking, chopping logs of wood, as if making a fire, &c., and the Count was sure to appear in a day or two afterwards.

“A young Swedish officer, whom our friend and informant, the Colonel, met with afterwards, assured him that Count Piper was a most truthful and honorable man, and firmly believed all these things.”

Spiritual Magazine, Volume 6, May 1865: pp

A visitor to the Piper estate wrote a little fantasia about the Devil visiting Sparre and the origins of the gold chain. He added

The Sparre property was for sale. On handing over the title-deeds the widowed countess enclosed this gold chain in a note to Countess Piper, begging it might never be alienated from the landed property. So many accidents of fire have, during the last hundred years, been attributed to the absence of this talisman, the present possessor, though not peculiarly superstitious on the subject, for good luck’s sake wears it constantly round his throat. He took it off the other morning to show me: I only trust no accident has occurred in consequence.

He stated that “The welfare of many castles in Sweden depends upon some article held by tradition to be a talisman” and added this curious note about a similar fire-proof accessory:

In the [Säfstaholm] Archive-room hangs an old pointed beaver hat, on which the fate of Säfstaholm depends. Not long since the room was opened to air the papers, when a newly-arrived housemaid, supposing it to be a workman’s cap, indignantly tossed it out of window. That night a fire burst out in the farm-buildings. No one called for water. The family ran to the archives, and, finding the hat absent without leave, rushed to the court, picked up the lost treasure, and the fire, without more ado, quietly went out.

One Year in Sweden: Including a Visit to the Isle of Götland, Volume 2, Horace Marryat, 1862: p. 96-7

I believe that current Count Piper, referenced above, was Carl Edward Vilhelm, diplomat and Swedish envoy to the United States. Not only did he have a lucky chain, like many Scandinavians, he was a Vardøger, a person who “arrives” in spirit before they actually arrive. I’m personally familiar with the phenomenon: my husband, who has Swedish blood, often “comes home” several times before he actually arrives. I hear the front door open or the garage door go up, but when I look, no one is there. He usually arrives between twenty minutes and a half hour later. I find it unsettling rather than helpful.

But back to the mysterious chain. If it was an evil spirit or the Devil who gave Sparre the helpful object, why does it ward off fire? One would think that the Devil would be eager to give a damned soul a taste of the flames of Hell. And if it was a good spirit, who told Sparre that he would always be safe when he wore it, why does it only protect buildings? Most of the late 19th-century versions of this story cite the traditional “playing cards with mysterious stranger with cloven hooves” episode. The Devil, uncharacteristically, lost at cards and offered the chain to cover his gambling debt.

And what about those mysterious letters? Do they really mean ““Af Satan’s Vardiga Pack:”— De la Canaille noble du Diable.” And (my Swedish is museum-caption-quality only) does that mean “The noble rabble of the Devil” or “Satan’s noble scoundrels,” which is my new band name.

The Engsökedjan, or what purports to be the chain, some five feet in length, is said to be embedded in the walls of Ängsö, still protecting the family property. The Pipers left Ängsö in 1971 and the castle is now a museum.  Can anyone find a photograph of the actual chain, instead of the inadequate image at the head of this post? I’d also be pleased to hear stories of other Swedish family talismans?

Send old links, not the new ones that wear out so quickly, to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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.