I am putting the finishing touches on my upcoming book: The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales (and you don’t know what finishing touches are until you’ve skimmed 969 contemporary newspaper articles on the decapitation murder of Pearl Bryan) so, pressed for time, I am posting a longish story about what seems to be a 19th century banshee in Indiana.
What were called “tokens of death” were a frequent theme in the ghost stories of the past. These could be anything from headless apparitions or women in white appearing just before a death, dogs howling, or a spook light hovering over a doomed person. I myself grew up hearing that birds tapping on window glass or pictures falling off the wall meant that someone was going to die.
The lore of the British Isles tells us of banshees who wail, shriek or sob as portents of someone’s death. Certain families have their own clan banshees, who follow family descendants wherever they may be. Compared to other types of death tokens, banshees are uncommon, but not unknown in the United States. (In The Face in the Window, I reported on a man at a Cincinnati hospital who said he was doomed because he had heard the banshee.)
This story does not give the wife’s maiden name; Davis, however, is a Welsh surname and the Welsh call their banshee the Gwrach y Rhibyn. Is this a true story? I can only say that The St. Louis Globe-Democrat published a great many supernatural stories, some more plausible than others.
A TOKEN OF DEATH
The Strange Tapping On the Window
And the Low, Mournful Moan, Like the Cry of a Woman in Distress.
How a Mother’s Demise Affected Her Daughter’s Family
Many Miles Away.
“Something that has always appealed largely to my credulity and that I never could explain occurred to me, or rather to my wife, some twenty years back,” said J. F. Davis, who is stopping at the Laclede, to a Globe-Democrat reporter yesterday. “It is a case of genuine spiritual telegraphy, as I deem it. “I’ll make a story of it.
“In 1855 I was married in Dayton, Ohio. My wife was the daughter of a well-to-do farmer who resided in that vicinity, where I was buying wool at that time. My wife was one of three children, and the only daughter. I will say here, and you will see how it figures in my story later on, that my wife was a very attentive and hard-working girl, and I knew that her parents loved her the best of all. After we were married we moved to Terre Haute, Ind., and I took charge of a very large woollen mill as manager. My wife’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Schauab, removed to Western Pennsylvania, very close to Red Bank. We did very well in Terre Haute. I bought an interest in a woollen mill there myself, built a good home and raised a large family.
“After about five years of absence my wife desired to revisit her parents and nothing would do but that we must go. Traveling eastward or westward in 1861 was not what it is to-day, I assure you. It meant that I must forsake my business for many weeks; that all the family must be taken along for the sake of safety, and that cost a large outlay of money. We paid the visit and I the bills, and finally returned home. At the time of parting from her mother my wife said that she felt just as though she should never see her again. The whole parting scene was rather said, now that I recall it.
“Well, we returned to Terre Haute, and for eight or nine years my wife corresponded regularly with her parents. Along about 1877 a letter came from home saying that her mother was ill, but not seriously so. Still it worried my wife a great deal and set her to thinking seriously of going home again. The weight of business and family affairs had grown by this time to such an extent that it required constant attention. My family was a large one, ten children in all, and my wife was an excellent manager, so that in view of the constant need of her I was seriously opposed to her going. Any how she wrote a letter saying that she would come home if they needed her, but that she hoped all would be well without.
“A few days after I mailed this letter—it was in the winter time and snowing—I came home from the mill and prepared to enjoy myself as I usually did of a winter evening. We had supper and my wife straightened things. She put the children to bed, that is, the little ones, and we sat alone in the sitting room. I was reading my paper and she was knitting, as she always did, before the fire. About 10 o’clock she stirred in her chair and said:
“’Did you hear some one walking?’
“I said, ‘No,” for I didn’t. I felt at once that that was a queer question for her to ask, for it was snowing outside rather heavily. It was one of those soft, wet snow-storms, and it would take a rather heavy walker to be heard on a gravel walk. I said, ‘Why, it’s snowing out. You certainly did not hear any one walk.’ Just then she said:
“’Listen; some one’s tapping on the window.’
“’Bah,’ I said, half nettled at what I deemed her odd fancies, ‘I don’t hear any one.’ I arose from my chair, just to satisfy myself and her, and opened the side door to which the gravel path led. I looked, but no one was there. It was simply snowing heavily, and no boot marks were visible. I turned back, fully assured that it was all her imagination. For a little while nothing happened. I got interested in some newspaper tale, and she again rocked to and fro in her chair, when all at once I heard a tapping on the window pane. My wife heard it too. She stopped and looked at me with that triumphant glance of ‘there, now, I told you so,’ coupled with wild-eyed surprise.
“We listened. It came again—once, twice, three times. I dropped my paper and opened the door. My wife came and looked over my shoulder out into the darkness. There was not a sign of any one, although I had reached the door quickly, and no footprints were in the snow. I remember saying, ‘Well that’s queer.” And shutting the door. Then we sat down to discuss the matter. It was rather a serious discussion, I assure you, although I was not, and am not now seriously given to a belief in the supernatural. We talked of the matter, I dare say, ten minutes, when all at once my wife said:
“’There it is again.’
“Before I could realize what it was, a low, mournful sound came from without; not from the ground, I thought, but from the lower branches of a tree that stood a little distance from the door. It was just like a woman crying in most woeful bitterness. Oh, that cry was simply awful. It was just a long, low human wail that seemed to contain the bitterest sorrow. I was almost dumbfounded. I thought my wife would faint, but she only sat still, very pale and looked at me. Finally I got up and went to the door. It was the same story as before. There was not a sign of any one’s presence.
“My wife took it at once for what it was—a token. She said that she knew something must have happened at home, that mother was worse or dead, but she could hardly think of that. Four days later a letter came to my office for her. It was not black bound, for they couldn’t buy mourning paper that far out in the country, and maybe they didn’t care to. But it was from home, and I felt that it must bring news of death. I opened it, and sure enough it told her mother’s end, how at 9 o’clock on the night that the omen came her mother had died from a sudden inflammation and that her dying exclamation was, ‘Oh! I want to see Sarah’ – that is my wife’s first name. I withheld the letter for ten days, or until I thought her nervousness had passed away and that she had strength enough to bear the news. Then I broke the tidings to her and gave her the letter. It was a cruel blow, and it seemed cruel on my part to withhold the news so long; but I still think it was best.
“Not long after, to appease her anger and satisfy her longings, I took her home again, where she visited her father and the grave of her mother. But, aside from all that, I firmly believe in tokens now. I have had some other queer, unexplainable things to happen since then, all of which have convinced me in the belief that there is something that passes between those who have strong bonds of affection between them, that in moments of extreme joy or sorrow flies like an arrow with the news, and we call them tokens. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 December 1892: p. 13
This story and other banshee and token-of-death tales are found in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, which is available in paperback and for Kindle. You’ll also find death-omen and Angel of Death/Grim Reaper tales in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also found on Amazon and other retailers in paperback and for Kindle.
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.