Continuing with our paranormal colors series, yellow is the color of cowardice, of choleric miasmas, tornado skies, Parisian decadence, and lurid journalism. It is, like orange, a relatively rare color among ghosts, although there are plenty of superstitions surrounding it.
Let’s start with the superstitions. To a collector of death-lore, these two are impressive:
If you wake in the morning with the death mold (yellow spots) on your hand, it is a sign that a dead man has shaken hands with you.
It is believed that the pictures of dead people turn yellow. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Vol. Seven, Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina, Wayland D. Hand, 1964: p. 16 and 31
Yellow garters, made and worn under specific conditions, were said to be an infallible love charm.
Does any one know where or how the yellow garter fad started? If you get somebody to knit you one and wear it on Easter, you’ll be engaged before the year is out. This is absolutely certain, for I know a girl who tried it last year. She was married in February and engaged four times, besides. So, you see, it brings real true love. Worcester [MA] Daily Spy 25 March 1894: p. 5
Yet, as the traditional marriage rhyme cautions: Marry in yellow, got the wrong fellow.
Actors, always superstitious at the best of times, loathed the color yellow.
Actors abhor the color yellow. They think is very unlucky to have a yellow trunk. It is unlucky for an actor to appear in any part in yellow, if it is the first time he has played the part. Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Cora Linn Daniels, Charles McClellan Stevens, 1903: p. 560
A Superstition About Yellow.
“Did you ever know that actors and circus people have a superstitious dread of anything yellow,” asked Billy Thompson, a member of the profession, of the corridor man at the Lindell. “It’s true, nevertheless. If a yellow dog should run across a field where a circus was erecting its tent it would consider it an omen of bad luck and would at once change it locality. Remember one incident that occurred down in Tennessee a few years ago that particularly bears out my statement. I was then a member of a travelling variety troupe, and we had been doing an exceptionally good business until one day one of the boys bought a yellow clarinet. [flageolet in other accounts] From that day business began to fall off, and finally got so bad that we were playing to almost empty houses. Of course we all agreed that the new yellow instrument was the case of our hard luck and besought its owner to dispose of it. He finally sold it to a fellow who was a member of a local band in the town, and just to show you how misfortune travelled with it, the very night he bought it, while on his way home with the clarinet under his arm, he fell down and broke his leg. After we got the yellow thing out of the company business commenced to pick up again, and we did a good business the rest of the season. Windsor [NC] Ledger 9 May 1894: p. 1
In a labored article (which might be tongue-in-cheek) a journalist blames the poor scheduling and late arrivals of Northern Pacific Railway trains on the fact that the timetable is printed on yellow paper. Anaconda [MT] Standard 26 August 1900: p.1 4
Yellow cats, like black ones, might be lucky or unlucky.
If a yellow cat passing in front of your path turns over, you may expect bad luck. Kentucky Superstitions, Daniel Lindsey Thomas, Ph.D. and Lucy Blayney Thomas, M.A., 1920: p. 245
On the other hand, inhabitants of Cane River, Louisiana said:
A yellow cat means money and gold; never turn one away, should it come to your house. Kansas City [MO] Star 28 September 1925: p. 26
Yellow cats might be a witch’s familiar or a witch’s disguise. For example, Bett Mellon of Ballycomer [Ballyconnell?], believed to be a witch by the locals, kept a yellow cat, with whom she closely identified:
A great yellow cat shared her hut, and with this beast she was wont to fall out frequently. Then a strange sight was witnessed by the neighbours. Bett Mellon, throwing herself upon her hands and knees, would arch her back exactly in the fashion of her familiar; and the two would spit, growl, and finally spring at each other in the true spirit of feline warfare,—fighting savagely, and rolling over and over upon the earthen floor, until some venturesome neighbour came to tear them apart. MacMillan’s Magazine, Vol. 85, December 1901: p. 114
Harrassed by a yellow cat-witch, this man found an effective use for a broom.
[Written by Nannie Williams in 1899.]
(Version a.1) Once an old colored man was harassed several nights by what he said was an old witch riding him, so he planned to catch her. She came every night in the form of a yellow cat. This night, as the old man lay down before the open fire-arch, which had in it a big hot fire, he saw this same yellow cat come in the door and take her seat right before the big fire in front of him. He immediately got up, and took his broom and put it across the door; and then he went back, stirred the fire up, put on several more logs, and made it as hot as possible. The yellow cat, which was the old witch, could not move out of her place, but simply turned from one side to the other. She could not move as long as the broom lay across the door. After the old man had burned almost all the fur and skin off the cat, he removed the broom and told her to go. No sooner was the broom removed than the cat flew. The old man said that he knew who she was: so the next day he went to this neighbor’s house to see how she was; and before he got there, the woman’s husband met him, and asked why he burned his wife so badly last night. He said that she was in bed, with the skin burnt off of her.
The author then adds a startling detail:
If it is a white cat, it is a white woman; a yellow cat, a yellow woman; and a black cat, a black woman; and if you put the broom across the door when the cats come in, they cannot leave until the broom is removed, so it is said. Journal of American Folklore, 1922: p. 284
Folklorist Vance Randolph witnessed first-hand, the expulsion of a yellow-cat “witch.”
A big yellow cat once walked into a cabin where I was sitting with an aged tie hacker and his wife. The woman began to shout “Witch! Witch!” at the top of her voice. The old man sprang up, crossed the fingers of both hands, and chanted something that sounded like “Pulley-bone holy-ghost double-yoke! Pulley bone holy-ghost double-yoke!” The cat walked in a wide circle past the hearth, stared fixedly at the old gentleman for a moment, and then strolled out across the threshold. We followed a moment later, but the animal was nowhere in sight. It may have crawled under the cabin, or under a corncrib which stood only a few yards away, but the old couple insisted that it had vanished by reason of some supernatural dispensation. Ozark Superstitions, Vance Randolph, 1947: p. 154
Now, on to yellow phantoms. A cursory look at the literature (and www.paranormaldatabase.com) turned up the following:
“Sailor Sam,” a phantom in yellow oilskins who appears on the Ross Revenge, home of the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.
A “Lady in Yellow” who haunts the Rose Room of Little Dean Hall.
A yellow dog of the Black Shuck variety, Godley Green, Manchester
A yellow monkey (described by some as an “immense yellow ape”) haunting Drumlanrig Castle.
And, my personal favorite, a putrid, pale yellow head accompanied by the smell of rotting flesh at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, University.
Ghost hunter/fantasist Elliott O’Donnell, in particular, had a taste for yellow miasmas and jaundiced phantoms, as in this post on a yellow-spotted ghost.
This tale of a yellow ghost comes from the rather unusual venue of a Welsh Salvation Army Barracks.
Charles Fort in LO! says of 1905 Wales that “I have never come upon any other time in which were reported so many uncanny occurrences,” and states that
“there was excitement at Rhymney, Wales, and investigations that came to nothing. Tapping sounds had been heard, and strange lights had been seen, in one of the revival-centers, the Salvation Army Barracks. Whether these lights were like the other lights that were appearing in Wales [The Egryn Lights], I cannot say. It was the assertion of the Rev. J. Evans and other investigators, who had spent a night in the Barracks, that they had seen “very bright lights.”
Fort apparently did not hear about Rhymney’s Ghost in Yellow, here deemed dubious by skeptical quotes from a judgmental headline writer.
A “GHOST” IN YELLOW.
BARRACKS “HAUNTED” BY A WOMAN.
“Not for £100 would I again go through the experience,” is the declaration of a gentleman living at Rhymney, South Wales, who, with companions, recently set himself to lay a “ghost” which is said to haunt the local Salvation Army Barracks.
The spectre takes the form of a tall, stoutly-built lady clad in yellow, with a drawn face of ghastly hue, and terrible gleaming eyes.
Salvation Army lasses are not usually given to romancing, but the young lady captain of the barracks has been so unnerved that she will not enter the place.
“I have not actually seen the spirit, or whatever it may be,” she said, but a few months ago I heard a mysterious rustling sound as if some woman were walking close past me. On the Wednesday night I distinctly felt an arm placed across the bed.”
Her female colleague, a lieutenant, has seen the spectre, and has in consequence received such a shock that she is now prostrate.
This woman first saw the spectre when she was sweeping the stairs at the barracks. Suddenly the tall woman in yellow walked with noiseless steps through the hall into the kitchen, where she seemed to melt into thin air. Two evenings later unaccountable knockings were heard in the hall.
On the Wednesday night half-a-dozen men stopped in the house. About half-past four one of the watchers saw the “woman in yellow” passing a doorway, and, calling to his friends, he darted after her, but not a trace could be found.
While the rest were away a tradesman went to another doorway, and there saw the ghostly visitant with the long, drawn face and the terrible, burning eyes. The tradesman managed to gasp out a question, asking the spectre if it were in trouble to say so “in God’s name.” At that expression the eyes lit up with a still more unearthly radiance, and without a word the “ghost” glided away and was seen no more. New Zealand Herald, 18 March 1905: p. 2
A Connecticut butcher was haunted by a jaundiced and unusually persistent Man in Black. Curiously, despite the suggestion of hallucination, several other family members saw the ghost, but only in the butcher’s presence. Folie en famille?
DOGGED BY A GHOST
The Remarkable Hallucination of a Connecticut Butcher
A Yellow Spectre
Hartford, March 29. A butcher of this city named Buckley is possessed of a queer hallucination. Several years ago he told his immediate friends that a tall man, dressed in black, followed him everywhere; on the street, at the theatre, to church; in fact, every movement of the butcher was accompanied by a similar one on the part of the ghost.
Finally, when life was almost a torture to him, he decided to start for California, hoping that he would thus elude the phantom. The trip west was made without incident of any kind, and as mile by mile was passed over and as the days waned into nights he began to breathe freer, and when San Francisco was reached he believed that he was rid of his ghost. He went to the mines and for weeks felt happy, gained in flesh, and decided to start in business. One day, while walking on the highway, he chanced to glance over his shoulder, and was horrified to discover the dreaded thing. It was clothed in the same suit of black, its face wore a demoniac smile, and its whole appearance seemed to say, “You cannot elude me.” The butcher started on a run, and now and then turned around only to discover the shadow lapping his footsteps. At the entrance to the town, he again glanced behind him, and found himself alone. The visits after that recurred only at intervals but were sufficient in number to assure him that he was not free. His stay in California lasted several years. He went from town to town, from mine to mine, always accompanied by the man in black.
He married a worthy young woman with the belief that by taking a partner to his joys he might also have some one to share his sorrows. The result was in no way satisfactory. Again the thought came to him that it would be well to start for the East. Arriving in Hartford he took up his residence near his relatives, and in a few weeks opened a butcher shop. Two months had barely elapsed when he was again visited by the phantom and thereafter it never left his side. A year after his return his wife died and several months later he remarried. He has moved from house to house with the hope of gaining rest, but all to no purpose. In conversation to-day he said:
“It follows me everywhere. At night I wake up to find him standing over me, slowly moving his index finger up and down, and his lips moving as though he were talking. Some nights the sewing machine will run for hours unceasingly, operated by the ghost. At breakfast, dinner, and supper he stands directly behind me and wherever I go he is by my side. Life is a fearful burden, and I don’t know what to do about it. He is now standing alongside of me, on my left side, I mean. What is his appearance? He is about six feet tall, very slender, of a pale yellow appearance. He is dressed in black throughout. I can’t place him among any of my friends or relatives who have died and don’t know of a soul I have ever injured.”
The most curious phase of the whole tale is that recently the butcher’s wife, mother, and brother say they have seen the phantom, but only when the victim was present. The Sun [New York NY] 30 March 1884: p. 7
And finally, this prisoner and his brother, although on opposite coasts, were haunted by an equally persistent vengeful yellow cat.
Haunted By Ghost of Murdered Cat
William Dwyer, Prisoner at Kelley’s Butte, Goes Insane
Says Feline Specter Visiting Him, Threatening Vengeance.
Seeing constantly before him a large yellow cat he claims to have killed 25 years ago, with the aid of his brother, William Dwyer, a prisoner from Kelly’s Butte, is a prisoner in a detention cell at the County Jail awaiting examination as to his sanity. The cat, the unfortunate prisoner says, appears before him with a portion of the rope used a quarter of a century ago in choking it hanging to its neck, and between “meouws” cries out: “I’ll get even with you.” Yesterday Dwyer was groping about in his cell attempting to force upon the imaginary cat a portion of his prison breakfast.
Frank, the brother of William Dwyer, is an inmate of an insane asylum in New York, crazed by the appearance of the same ghostly cat, says the prisoner.
Dwyer was sentenced to serve a year at Kelly’s Butte upon conviction on a statutory charge. He was sent to the prison about two months ago. Oregonian [Portland OR] 9 June 1907: p. 8
There was a William Dwyer of Idaho who was convicted of an elaborate real-estate fraud at roughly the same time. Is he the same man? Any follow-up to Dwyer’s talking cat? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Any discussion of the color yellow would be incomplete without Robert W. Chambers’ macabre The King in Yellow and its uncanny Yellow Sign.
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.