We have previously heard from Mr. John Gladwynn Jebb in the thrilling story of The Haunted Enghenio. After his untimely death at the age of 52 in 1893, his wife collected the tales of his adventures and published them as A Strange Career: Life and Adventures of John Gladwyn Jebb. The book was issued with an introduction by H. Rider Haggard, which perhaps tells us all we need to know about its sensational contents. In today’s episode, Mrs. Jebb tells of the figure of a malevolent Aztec god, believed to be cursed. As the story opens, Jebb had gone to Mexico City.
[H]e worked steadily early and late, making new combinations and planning fresh schemes—when the monotony was disturbed slightly by two events.
One of these was the advent of a little son, and the other the acquisition of a new idol. Not new in an opprobrious sense, for its pedigree was unimpeachable, and Jack had long sighed for it in vain. It was about two feet high, of grey stone, tinged in places with pink, and its complacent, ugly face was where in a proper anatomy its chest should have been. It had been dug up in the excavations for the great drainage works, amidst great excitement of the native mind, and was recognised by the Indians around as an ancient god of sacriﬁce, said to have been buried in that spot by their forefathers, when the Spanish priests were sweeping the land clear of its temples and its gods. With their usual memory of tradition, the Indians could point out the very spot on which a tall pole had stood with this idol ﬁxed upon its top; while around the base was a grinning pile of skulls, mounting ever higher and higher, as fresh victims were given to the silent, insatiable image.
There is seldom a chance nowadays of ﬁnding any antiquity not hailing from Birmingham, and naturally when Jack heard of this discovery and its unquestioned history he was wild to possess the idol. But it was in vain that he offered bribes or promises; one of the native ofﬁcials had taken it, and refused on any terms to give up anything so rare and interesting. Jack returned again and again to the siege, but with no result. Judge then of his surprise when one day an Indian appeared suddenly on the stair of the house, bearing the idol on his back. No price was asked for it, nor was any explanation given of this sudden change of mind on the part of the owner. The idol was simply put down and left. No reason was ever volunteered for this strange conduct; but in time Jack came to have his own opinion about the matter. Meanwhile, he was delighted with his new possession, set it upon a sort of throne in the corner of a room, and paid it about as much homage as even an idol could demand, for there were reasons for believing it to be the only god of slaughter still extant. A bygone chronicler has referred to the fact that when the Spaniards reached the city of its abode, they found the pole and the skulls, but of the idol there was no trace.
Yet—it is not desired to encroach on Mr Anstey’s preserves, but it is an absolute fact that from the day he became the owner of that placid-looking lump of stone, everything that Jack touched went wrong. One piece of business after another, which up to that date had been satisfactorily progressing, fell through and failed. Negotiations which he thought completed, had to be commenced all over again, only after long suspense to be broken off ﬁnally. His own health gave way, three of his best and dearest friends died one after another, and the strange perversity of his affairs was such that he felt no surprise, when, once having to raise money on a reversion to which he was entitled, the very day after he had sold his expectations for a third of their value the holder died, and Jack would have come in for the whole had the signing of the deeds been delayed for twenty- four hours.
Of course it did not occur to him to connect the idol with these mischances; but it is a strange thing that when, broken in health and fortunes, he went to London with his family, the ﬁrst night the Aztec god spent on foreign soil was signalised by loud noises all over a house hitherto warranted to be of the quietest by its owners. Nor did the trouble stop here, for every night, with other unpleasing manifestations, loud knockings took place at a particular door, as long as the idol remained in the house. So noisy were they that some people could not sleep for the sounds, though others heard nothing at all. Nothing can be proved against a stone image, but it seems within the bounds of imagination that an unconscious ﬁgure looking down on centuries of bloodshed should become in a manner saturated with the malignant atmosphere around it, and should give forth the spirit of its victims’ agony and curses. Whatever the cause might be, the effects were as has been stated, and from the day when he joyfully accepted it to that of his death three years later, the idol sat and smiled, while Jack struggled bravely, but went down—down!
One is glad to think that the Aztec deity also had its vicissitudes; for after a lady visiting the house which it graced with its presence had been kept awake three nights by the unearthly noises constantly going on in and about her bedroom, its owner decided that he must reluctantly make up his mind to part with it. To submit it to the indignity of sale was out of the question, so Jack offered to give it to one after another of his friends who had frequently admired its dubious charms. Rather to his surprise, none of them seemed to yearn for the joys of possession, although they had all laughed at the stories told of its proceedings. For some time there appeared to be little chance of ﬁnding it a “comfortable home,” although one gentleman offered to take it to his country-house and put it in the pig-killing shed, where it could have as much gore served up to it daily as it required. But this plan was put a stop to by the fact that the gentleman who made the offer was the husband of the lady who had vainly tried to sleep through the idol’s nightly perambulations. It was not the little god she objected to, so much as the loss of her natural rest, she was careful to explain; still, she ﬂatly refused to tolerate its presence on any premises over which she ruled.
Finally, it found a refuge with a lady and gentleman sufficiently enamoured of its appearance and antiquity to overlook its bad character and to risk the consequences of its wrath. They took it, and have so far stuck to it manfully, in spite of the fact that from the date of its advent in their domestic circle, their affairs have gone as crookedly as those of its former owner. But the end is not yet; and whether the malign inﬂuence exercised by the exiled god, the undoubted relic of the most bloody ritual the world has ever known, or the incredulity of his owners, will conquer at the last, remains yet to be seen.
A Strange Career: Life and Adventures of John Gladwyn Jebb, Mrs [Bertha] John Gladwyn Jebb, 1894
This squib, from a Spiritualist publication, adds a few details about the manifestations of the racketing deity:
“A BANEFUL POSSESSION.”
We take the following from last week’s “Notes & Queries”: —
There is related in “The Life and Adventures of John Gladwyn Jebb,” an experience so curious, so mysterious lovers of the occult will gladly welcome its reappearance in the widely-read pages of “Note; and Queries.” Mr. Jebb was presented by his Indian friends with the only known specimen of an Aztec God of Slaughter, which had been dug up near the city of Mexico. From the day it came into his possession its malign influence was upon him—his fortune failed, his best friends died, his own health gave way, and death ensued; stranger still, a curse lingers with this stone image, and the present possessors have reason to rue the day that they gave it harbourage.
The first night the Aztec god spent on foreign soil was signalised by loud noises all over a house hitherto warranted to be of the quietest by its owners. Nor did the trouble stop here, for every night, with other unpleasing manifestations, loud knockings took place at a particular door as long as the idol remained in the house. So noisy were they’ that some people could not sleep for the sounds, though others heard nothing at all. Nothing can be proved against a stone image, but it seems within the bounds of imagination that an unconscious figure looking down on centuries of bloodshed should become in a manner saturated with the malignant atmosphere around it, and should give forth the spirit of its victims’ agony and curses. Whatever the cause might be, the effects were as has been stated, and from the day when he joyfully accepted it to that of his death three years later, the idol sat and smiled, while Jack struggled bravely, but went down—down!
Dublin. W. A. Henderson.
Light 9 March 1895: p. 116
“Strange” does not convey the half of the man’s career. Jebb seems to have been one of those persons who walk around with a “Kick Me” sign taped to his back—or perhaps tattooed on his forehead, a mere Toy in the hands of Fate. The book is full of narrow escapes, nefarious ill-wishers, and multiple business failures and illnesses. A few of the incidents that head each chapter will convey the flavor of his hapless persona: “Getting used to his persistent ill-luck; The concern at Denver turns out profitless; Becomes a partner in an omelette company; Discovers that he has taken strychnine; Fall in descending a mining-shaft; Perversity of his luck even with diseases; His evil star.” There is something in the breathtaking catalog of calamities that reminds one of the persistently luckless life of Augustus Hare, allowing for the addition of hostile natives, hidden treasures, and Mexican bandits.
Given his life-long run of buzzard luck, it is puzzling that the Aztec idol was blamed for finishing him off, especially when it took three years. In his travels Jebb had contracted a veritable fever hospital-full of tropical diseases: malaria, various agues, “swamp fever,” and blood-poisoning from insect bites. Haggard, in his introduction, acknowledges the cumulative toll disease took on the man and Jebb’s monotonous string of business disasters began well before he even visited Mexico. He did not need an idol to bring him bad luck; misfortune had marked him for her own.
To be fanciful, perhaps the god was unhappy with his unbloodied altar and chose his own sacrifice. Many of us—both believers or unbelievers—would find the presence of such an artifact unsettling; it may have been the final nail in Jebb’s coffin. It makes a ripping yarn.
Which Aztec “God of Slaughter” was depicted in the baneful possession? My guess is Mictlantecuhtli, pictured at the head of this post, but I don’t think he is normally depicted with his face in his chest. Other suggestions? And who is Mr Anstey? 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.