White Dogs of Death

White Dogs of Death White Tibetan Mastiff dog, 1896

Yesterday began the Chinese Year of the Dog, a creature the Chinese regard as an auspicious animal. “If a dog happens to come to a house, it symbolizes the coming of fortune. The invincible God Erlang in Chinese legend used a loyal wolfhound to help him capture monsters.” However, if you are wondering when I’m going to bring on the roly-poly fu dogs to cavort and frisk in an auspicious, fortune-bringing manner, you will be disappointed, for today we learn of an unusual family banshee–the white dog of death.


In the Shape of Mastiff

It Always Foretells a Death in the Merriweather Family.

The Dog Was Shot By Its Master While Rescuing the Latter’s Baby.

Since Then It Has Always Appeared When Any Disaster Threatens Its Slayer’s Descendants

Lexington, Miss. Cor. Philadelphia Times

A family banshee is so commonly supposed to be an old-world possession by a few favored, or, unlucky ones, as you choose to look at it, that the owning of such an attendant by an American household has something of the incongruous in it. But that they have one is the fixed belief of the Merriweather family, of this part of the State, and many are the stories related by them of this spirit’s appearances and warnings of approaching disaster to any member and they produce as witnesses many of the best and most reliable persons in the community. This singular possession makes the form of a snow-white mastiff of stately carriage who bays and howls about the house just before trouble comes, for whatever nature it may partake.

Mrs. Merriweather, a lady of nearly 90, and now the head of the family, tells of her first experience of the phantom. “When I married my husband he told me something of this queer matter, but being of robust mind and not given to fancies, least of all to supernatural fears, I thought no more of the thing, but dismissed it as an idle old woman’s tale, as perhaps you will in turn after you have heard my story. I had indeed nearly forgotten it, and when one night I was sitting in my cozy sitting-room, I saw the door open slowly.

“I glanced up, expecting to see some of the children come in, but instead there walked in as if perfectly at home a large, fine-looking dog, which proceeded to stretch itself before an arm-chair and lay there looking at me with grave, sorrowful eyes. Ordinarily I have put the animal out, but somehow I could not help but be impressed by the creature’s mien, and, concluding it to be the valuable dog of some neighbor, I permitted it to remain where it was, at least I thought I would, until my husband came home. He had been out of the State on business for several days, but I was expecting him home that night and had sat up for him after the rest of the household had retired.

“Presently I heard the sound of his buggy’s wheels, and, throwing a wrap across my shoulders, I went out on the porch to welcome him. I remember distinctly having closed the door of the sitting room behind me and the only other door had a heavy bookcase before it. The windows were also closed and shuttered. So that I was utterly amazed on going back to the room with Mr. Merriweather to find the dog gone.

“Why, where is the dog?” I asked aloud, pausing to glance around the room.” ’What dog?’ asked my husband, and I told him all I knew of the animal, adding: ‘It was so unusual a color and so fine a specimen that I felt sure it belonged to some one who could appreciate any kindness showed it.’ ‘What color was it?’ said Mr. Merriweather, and when I answered that it was white, he uttered an exclamation that surprised me.

“’It was the Merriweather watch-dog, Mary!’ he cried. ‘There’s been a death in the family or there will be. Hark to that!’ and I heard the mournful howl of a dog outside.

“For a moment I was impressed by his evident belief in the thing, and asked, ‘But whose death does it mean? Not yours or mine or the children’s, I hope.’

“’I cannot tell,’ he said, looking ten years older. ‘Where did it lie down, did you say?’

“I told him, when he cried out, ‘It must be a warning of brother George’s death. That is always his chair when he is here, you know.’

“But by this time what I boasted of as my common sense asserted itself, and I declared I did not believe a word of it, although I could not help but admit to myself that there were some puzzling particulars about the occurrence. But in a few days there came the tidings of George’s death, and the date given was that of my vision. The letter also stated that he had died at the hour of 10 at night, which was precisely that at which I had seen the mastiff enter the room. My superstition was aroused by this coincidence, for a while, at least, but my mother coming to visit me about that time I confided to her the story, and as she was a woman of more than usual intelligence and strength of mind, she ridiculed me for my weakness in attributing the vision to anything more than a curious chance, of which the world is full. I acknowledged myself foolish and tried in my turn to convince my husband of a more natural explanation for the matter.

“But he answered that the dog had been seen in his family for more than 100 years, and that in so great a cloud of witnesses there must have been some reliable ones. He told me how it was supposed the phantom attached itself to them.

“It is a long story, but briefly it is this: When the Merriweathers came over from England they first settled in Virginia, where the founder of the American branch became wealthy and the owner of much land, buying fairly enough from the Indians. But after a while they became dissatisfied over the price paid them for it, or jealous of the thrift of the white man and made an attack on the mansion house.

“This was repelled and the Indians retired. The following day, rallying his neighbors, they went down to punish them by burning their village. As they drew near the place Mr. Merriweather saw his white mastiff running excitedly about the wigwams and being a man of strong and rather cruel nature, became furious at what he took to be the animal’s desertion of him for the vagrants, as he called the Indians, and drawing his musket, shot the creature.

“The poor animal, badly hurt as he was still dashed into a smoking wigwam and reappeared with a bundle of clothes in his mouth, which he proceeded to lay at his master’s feet. The bundle contained a cry also, and the man hearing it took the cover off its face and found his own baby, which the Indians had evidently stolen the night before, and on abandoning their village on receiving notice of the settlers’ coming had placed it in one of the wigwams, setting it afire with the rest.

“Conscience-stricken at having so poorly rewarded the faithful friend who had witnessed the kidnaping most likely, and had followed the trail to know where the child had been taken, Mr. Merriweather now turned to see what could be done for the mastiff, but it was to find the dog dead at his feet. Since then the phantom was known to have invariably announced the death of all the family. Seeing my husband was convinced of the truth of the story, I made no further attempt to make him take the same view of it as I did. But I had not seen the last of the dog by any means.

“The war with Mexico broke out, and Mr. Merriweather left for the field, and I was alone with my three children. My baby had been ailing slightly for some days, but not one had any idea that she was ill to any alarming degree, and one night my sister asked to be allowed to sit with her while I took a little rest. This was very grateful to me, as I was worn out with several nights’ watching and anxiety. But though I fell asleep readily, I did not stay so long.

“I was aroused by the door of my bedroom opening, and, turning my face toward it, I was amazed to see the big white mastiff I had seen before walk in and stand for a moment looking at me with its sad, intent gaze, which was more human than anything else.

“But just at that moment I heard my sister give a scream and say: ‘Oh, Ann, quick! The baby! The baby! Oh, my God!’ And I rushed past the dog and down the stairs, thinking of nothing else than my child.

“I met my sister coming toward me with the baby in her arms and one glance told me that the little thing was dead. It had been asleep when all at once it awoke and gave a faint cry and was gone before any restorative could be poured down its throat. The servants, who were all about at the time, afterward declared that no dog could possibly have got in, and all thought it must have been imagination on my part, or a dream,. But I was beginning to think differently. The next visit we had from the banshee was not to me.

“One morning my eldest daughter came downstairs with a pale face and heavy eyes, and said that she had not been able to sleep for the howling of a dog under her window, and asked if it had not disturbed me. I had heard nothing, although mine was the next room to her’s and opened on the same lawn. But I did not ridicule or even doubt her story. I had had enough experience of unbelief myself to respect other’s.

“That afternoon the girl came in saying, “Why, mother, where did the dog go?’

“I asked her what she meant, when she told me that a big white mastiff had preceded her up the walk and had entered the house not half a minute before she did.

“We searched the house together, but, as is perhaps needless to say, we found nothing. I was now very uneasy. News of the army was very hard to get and not always reliable and I feared for my husband, from whom we had not heard for over a month. When at last dispatches did come through I learned with great relief that his name was not among the killed or wounded, and congratulated myself that for once the banshee had been mistaken.

“But before the week was over a letter came for me from my husband’s messmate saying that Mr. Merriweather had died on the 7th of May of yellow fever. Since then I have never seen the phantom mastiff again, but my children have all had visions of him. On one occasion my youngest grandchild came running to me asking where the pretty dog had gone, and saying that he had played on the lawn with him, patting him, and that he had licked his hand.

“I chided the little fellow for what I thought to be a flight of the imagination, but his brother nearest him in age came in just then, and corroborated the story by saying that he had seen little Morgan caressing a big white dog, but that the dog had all at once seemed to blow away.

On the break out of the civil war the whole household was kept awake by the continuous howling of a dog about the house, but on going out to look for him my sons could see nothing of him. But when they had regained the house the howling was worse than ever. And you know I lost both of them in the Tennessee campaign. I look every day for his summons to come to me. I am ready, and I hope to be so when death comes this is true. There are many of my neighbors who have known of the banshee’s coming and can tell you of the accuracy of his wailing predictions.”

The Times [Philadelphia PA] 29 August 1893: p. 8

A howling dog was an inevitable token of doom:

The tradition about corpse-dogs is, that they are sent from hell to the country of the Earth to fetch corpses, and as a rule Death follows wherever they appear. And when they approach a dwelling where Death is coming they are seen by the dog of the house, and cause the animal such terror that it foams at the mouth, and utters dismal howlings as long as the hell-hounds continue near.

That is the reason why a dog howls before a death; when you hear that mournful sound you may be quite sure that a corpse-dog is in the neighbourhood, and if you observe which way the dog’s head is turned, in that same direction is the demon animal. Some dogs are daring enough to go to the door of the sick person’s house, where the corpse-dog watches—yes, and howl beneath the window of the room where Death awaits his prey. Although corpse-dogs are as a rule invisible, yet of their existence nobody has a doubt. That one has been actually seen by an individual is as good a proof as if a hundred or more had seen them. Dogs are reliable witnesses of their presence in any place where they come. They strike terror in any religious family, especially if any member of it be ill, and no small anxiety is felt until the foul creatures leave the neighbourhood, and the house-dogs cease to howl and foam….

The hour of their visitation to a locality is generally towards the edge of night, just before cock-crow. Usually at that hour the dogs will begin howling in heart-rending fashion, as if pitying him who will soon be seized by the teeth of the hounds of hell, and find themselves gripped in the claws of the King of Terrors. As every reader must have heard many a dog howl, it would be idle to describe the sound which has often caused the remark, “We shall be sure to hear of a death very soon,” and it is but rarely that it happens otherwise.

It is well known that dogs and horses are creatures gifted with very keen senses of scent and sight, especially after the shades of night have fallen on the face of Nature, and particularly as regards sight or smell of anything beyond the usual limits of this world, such as spirits, corpse-candles, Toili, hell-hounds and the like. But there is a great difference in the powers of individual dogs and horses in this respect. It is just the same with mankind; some have been endued with powers to behold the Unseen, while others again are found blind to every vision of the kind. That is the reason why it is useless to heed every dog that howls, but only certain ones in cases where it has been found that a death always follows their howling…. Such a one was old “Brins” of Tymawr, of respected memory. Shaggy and red-eyed, he was not a particularly good sheep-dog, but he was very faithful to his owners and full of doggish common sense. The voice of Brins always struck terror into the community, for well was it known that some one was sure to die if Brins opened his mouth to howl at night. People would go out and look to see in what direction his head was pointed, so as to know whereabouts the death would be.

There was an old butcher who had exceeded the allotted span of human days by ten years. At last his time came; he was taken ill, and from the hour when he began to keep to his bed, the old dog Brins began to howl. As night after night went by, John Hughes growing weaker and weaker, so did the dog continue his howlings. At first he gave tongue near his own home, but as the old man’s end drew near, Brins went over to his house, the two places not being far apart. At last, such was his boldness that he crept right under the window of the room where the dying man lay, and howled steadily until the end came. After this his voice was not heard again at night, until just before another death occurred.

It was indeed bold of the old dog to go and howl beneath the sick man’s window; because the wise who know say that as Death approaches, the Cŵn Annŵn (hell-hounds) draw round the house, and on the last night they enter the room and stay by the bedside, so as to be near when the breath leaves the body.

Stranger Than Fiction, Mary L. Lewes, 1911: pp. 154-58

In a similar vein to the Merriweather’s white dog of death, those Welsh harbingers of doom, the Cwn Annwn, are sometimes described as white dogs:

The Rev. Edmund Jones, in his work entitled “An Account of Apparitions of Spirits in the county of Monmouth,” says that, “The nearer these dogs are to a man, the less their voice is, and the farther the louder, and sometimes, like the voice of a great hound, or like that of a blood hound, a deep hollow voice.”  It is needless to say that this gentleman believed implicitly in the existence of Cwn Annwn, and adduces instances of their appearance.

The following is one of his tales:—

“As Thomas Andrews was coming towards home one night with some persons with him, he heard, as he thought, the sound of hunting.  He was afraid it was some person hunting the sheep, so he hastened on to meet, and hinder them; he heard them coming towards him, though he saw them not.  When they came near him, their voices were but small, but increasing as they went from him; they went down the steep towards the river Ebwy, dividing between this parish and Mynyddislwyn, whereby he knew they were what are called Cwn wybir (Sky dogs), but in the inward part of Wales Cwn Annwn (Dogs of Hell).  I have heard say that these spiritual hunting-dogs have been heard to pass by the eaves of several houses before the death of someone in the family.  Thomas Andrews was an honest, religious man, and would not have told an untruth either for fear or for favour.”

The colour of these dogs is variously given, as white, with red ears, and an old man informed Mr. Motley that their colour was blood-red, and that they always were dripping with gore, and that their eyes and teeth were of fire.

Folk-lore of Wales, Elias Owen: p. 125-29

In a story of an encounter with the hounds of Arawn, King of Annwn, Thomas Crofton Croker writes:

Then remarking the colour of the dogs, without thinking of noticing the stag, he deemed that of all the greyhounds he had seen in the world, he had not seen dogs of similar colour with them; for their colour was a clear shining white, and their ears were red, and the as the dogs glittered with such whiteness, so glittered the redness of their ears.

Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, Thomas Crofton Croker: p. 178-179

In his chapter called “Cwn Annwn or The Dogs of Hell,” Croker tells of several Welsh encounters with these fearsome dogs. Curiously, the word “mastiff” is used quite consistently to describe them, although the color is not always noted.

Although the article says that they came from England, was the Merriweather/Meriweather family Welsh?

Other white dogs of death? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Mrs Daffodil and I have previously covered other white creatures of death, such as a rabbit a cat, and pigeons. White, is of course, the color of death and morning in China.

Floodmouse wrote in with this interesting note on white dogs. Thanks, Floodmouse!:

Chris Woodyard is the author of A is for Arsenic: An ABC of Victorian Death, 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.

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