In the chronicles of Victorian death we find a poignant theme we might term “Called by the Dead.” For centuries it has been source of comfort for many to believe that someone we love—family, friend, or religious figure—is waiting and will come at our death to escort us across the river to the sun-filled gardens of the Afterlife. In these Victorian and Edwardian cases, some of the dead were not just passively awaiting their loved one’s arrival, but predicting deaths or urgently calling the living to follow those who were not lost, but gone before.
The will to live is primal; the dead might need to be extra-persuasive. In these stories, a fatherly “fetch” tenderly carries off two family members.
A Danbury Ghost Story
Woman Saw Dead Father Carry Her Mother Away – The Mother Found to Have Died at the Same Time.
Danbury, Conn., March 19. As Mrs. C. W. Lee of 55 Jefferson Avenue, this city, lay on a bed of sickness, it is declared that she saw the apparition of her father, Oliver B. Pettit, formerly of Brooklyn, who died sixteen years ago, enter the room across the hall, where her mother was, and carry her out in his arms.
Mrs. Lee avers that she distinctly saw her father walk through the hall, and heard him call his wife by name, and ask her to go away with him, pleading with her until she consented. At first, the wife, Mrs. Margaret Pettit of 39 Grove Street, Brooklyn, refused, but her love for her husband evidently overcame her fear, and the daughter saw the stalwart form of her father emerge from the room and disappear with his wife in his arms.
Mrs. Pettit had been visiting her daughter, and, although not ill, was in the habit of spending the morning hours in bed. Yesterday she remained in her bed later than usual, and it was at noon that her daughter saw the vision. Calling for her husband, Mrs. Lee told him what she had seen, and Mr. Lee, hurrying to the room of his wife’s mother, found her dead. Her death must have occurred at exactly the moment when Mrs. Lee saw her father enter the room. A physician later said that Mrs. Pettit died from heart failure. The New York Times 20 March 1900: p. 1
I thought this was an interesting version of a “fetch” story, since the ghost was seen literally carrying off the dying. The story appears in The Ghost Wore Black. While researching background for The Victorian Book of the Dead, I was surprised to find a sequel.
HER FATHER’S SPIRIT
Beckoned to Her, and Though Recovering, She Soon Died.
When Mrs. Charles Lee died, at Danbury, Conn., last week, it was in peaceful resignation and with the conviction that her father’s spirit was bearing her away.
She had been waiting for five days for his coming—ever since she saw the ghostly visitor bear away her mother in that strange vision. That it was not the malady from which she had been suffering that caused Mrs. Lee’s death there is the testimony of the doctors. She was convalescing from an operation, and, so far as it was concerned, was out of danger.
That Mrs. Lee became conscious in some mysterious way that her mother, Mrs. Margaret Pettit, was dying, there can be no doubt. Mrs. Pettit left her home at No. 39 Grove Street, to go to nurse her daughter in Danbury. When Mrs. Pettit went to bed on Saturday night she was apparently in excellent health.
Her daughter gave the first news of the mother’s death. She told her husband that something had happened—that her mother was dead—and then Mrs. Lee swooned.
When Mrs. Lee had partly recovered she told those about her of her vision. She said she had seen the spirit of her father, who has been dead for 16 years, enter her mother’s room and say:
“Margaret, come with me.” She had seen her father take her mother in his arms, and, as they moved away they paused before Mrs. Lee, she said, and her father paused and beckoned to her, saying she would soon follow them.
Since that vision Mrs. Lee has hovered on the borderland between life and death. A great part of the time she has been delirious or in a state of coma. But in her lucid intervals she talked constantly of the vision and of her own summons.
Nothing could shake her conviction that her father’s spirit would return for her. When she was perfectly sane she said she was only waiting. She knew she would never get well.
She spoke of it when her husband and son were called to her bedside, and she said good bye to them. She told them she believed that they would soon join her, that the summons was for all of them, and that the family would be united in the beyond.
She died with her mother’s name on her lips. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 28 March 1900: p. 3
In this story, the living girl initially resisted her dead lover’s call, but love, it seems, was stronger than death.
CALLED BY HER DEAD LOVER.
A few days ago we chronicled the death of Miss Athaliah Gilbert, of South Cottonwood, says the Salt Lake Herald. At the time of the announcement there were reports current that some events out of the ordinary were connected with her decease, but at that time there were no means of ascertaining the particulars. Yesterday, however, Mr. James Gilbert, the young lady’s father, and several other Cottonwood people were in the city, and from them a reporter learned the facts which follow. All the names mentioned are those of responsible and well-known citizens, and unreal as the narration sounds there can be no doubt of its authenticity.
The young lady was sixteen years old at the time of her death, and appears to have been possessed of one of those warm, lovable, bright, even-tempered dispositions which endear the owner to everyone with whom she comes in contact. Though so young, she took a busy part in all church duties, and in improvement associations and the Sunday-school her name always had a prominent place. Some three or four years ago she formed an intimacy with a youth named John Cunliffe, the son of a neighbor, and, despite the tender years of both, they, became strongly attached to each other, and provoked no end of comment at their old-fashioned devotion and steadfast affection for one another. This state of affairs continued until the girl was fifteen years old, when the association was rudely broken by the death of young Cunliffe. He lost his life from the kick of a wild horse about a year ago. When the intelligence was brought to Miss Gilbert, her father says, it gave her a shock from which she never recovered. She almost sank beneath the blow, and at his funeral her paroxysms of grief were so violent that it was feared her reason would depart. In time, however, she resumed her accustomed duties, but it was evident that the blow she had sustained had sunk deep into her life. She seldom roused herself from a deep lethargy of sadness, and day by day her color and strength and the freshness of her youth seemed to be ebbing away. A few months ago she alarmed her sister by telling her that “John” had visited her chamber and had told her that she must prepare to come to him. She manifested no fear, but, according to her sister, had told him she could not leave her parents, but he had only said again that she must come. Once again, later, she told her sister that he had come to her with the same message, and she had now evidently given up desiring to remain, as she told her sister how she wished to be dressed at her burial and whom she wished to dress her. Soon after that young Cunliffe’s father came to Mr. Gilbert, sorely disturbed, and told him that one morning as he was lying down his son had come to him and stood at the foot of his bed. His father had asked him what it was he desired, and he replied: “I came to see you, father. I am staying at Gilbert’s, and I am going back there now. I have been there ever since I left you. Where else should I be?” Mr. Gilbert attempted to reason the old gentleman out of his notion, but he insisted that it was no dream or vision but that his son had actually visited and spoken to him, and that in broad daylight. In the meantime Miss Gilbert continued “to maintain that her last day was approaching, and no amount of persuasion seemed to shake her belief. One week ago last evening she and her parents were attending a birthday party at a neighbor’s. Miss Gilbert was sitting at the lunch table chatting with some companions, when, without a word of warning, she fell to the floor motionless. Her father and mother raised her, and both said her heart had ceased to beat. Their cries and lamentations and their frenzied attempts to rouse her, they state, rallied her for a few moments, and she was hurriedly conveyed home, where she expired shortly afterward, leaving her friends almost stupefied with grief. Her funeral was one of the largest convocations of mourners, ever seen in that locality. Switchmen’s Journal, Volume 1, 1886, p. 376
I was intrigued by the ghostly young man’s statement to his father that he had been staying with his sweetheart’s family since his death. Had he been trying to get her attention for months? Miss Gilbert did not report his visitation until well after his passing. The Spiritualists might say that he required rest for a time after his sudden death to build up enough strength to communicate.
This aged lady was doomed by a plethora of omens.
Of Departed Husband
Beckoned, and Her Relative Dreamed of a Death
Aged Woman and Her Son Killed By Car.
Cleveland, Ohio, August 23. Vivid presentiments of impending death last night were followed this afternoon by the death under a Lake Shore electric car of Mrs. Mary Eccles, 83 years old, and her son, William J. Eccles, 45, near Dover Center, Cuyahoga County.
Eccles lost his life in a futile effort to save his mother, who was unable to cross the tracks ahead of the car with sufficient speed, because of her feebleness. Eccles had crossed the tracks to halt the car bound for this city, but turned back when he saw the danger in which his mother stood. Both were hurled a half hundred feet and were dead when picked up.
Last night Mrs. Eccles dreamed that her husband, who has been dead seven years, called to her to join him, and Mary Eccles, daughter of William Eccles, who lived with her grandmother, dreamed of a sudden death.
The aged woman, before going into the country with her son, told her granddaughter they might never see each other again. The granddaughter dreamed of crape on the door several years ago and a boarder in their home died the following day. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 August 1908: p. 1
Some spouses did not seem to understand that death meant an end to their controlling ways. The word “commanded” in this anecdote is, to say the least, suggestive.
SPIRIT OF WIFE
“Called” Him to Celestial Home and Aged Man Attempted Suicide
South Bend, March 2. Claiming to have seen the vision of his dead wife and being commanded to join her in her celestial home, Samuel Schwartz, 72, tried to accede to her request to-day by taking morphine. He was unconscious when found but was revived. He declared his wife’s spirit summoned him, and Schwartz, expressing doubt as to whether he could go to heaven, the spirit told him it could be fixed so that he could join her in heaven. He begged off for a day to settle his accounts. This being done he attempted suicide. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 March 1911: p. 1
The most disturbing stories of the living called by the dead are those that led to suicides.
Some of the evils connected with spiritualism have been curiously exemplified in a case that occurred at Vienna. Mrs. Taubner was a widow, and a firm believer in the possibility of holding communication with those who had passed to the other side. She frequently attended séances, and at one of these asked through a medium whether her late husband would permit her to marry a new suitor, who had appeared since his death. The message delivered by the medium was that her first husband strongly objected to this, and would very much prefer that she would come to him in Paradise at an early date. She took the message quite literally, and straightway went home and poisoned herself with arsenic for the purpose of rejoining him. Her last words, spoken in terrible agony, were, “I am coming, John, as you called me!” We earnestly hope that the medium who was directly accountable for the crime of this weak-minded woman will receive the punishment which he most certainly deserves. Country Life, Volume 13, 31 January 1903: p. 132
Nice spot of victim-blaming, calling the widow, whose judgment was possibly clouded with grief, “weak minded.”
The dead seem both amoral and persuasive, urging suicide, which at the time was considered legally a crime and morally a sin.
WOMAN DIED AT CALL OF MOTHER’S SPIRIT
New York, Dec. 21.
In response to what she believed to be a whispered invitation from the spirit of her dead mother to join her in heaven, Miss Louise Barney, the daughter of Emil Barney of Lincoln place and Randolph avenue, East Rutherford, N.J., put a gas tube in her mouth and smothered herself to death.
Beside her on the bed, all ready to be put on, was a white gown which she had ordered from a dressmaker after receiving the supposed spirit message.
In a letter addressed to her father Miss Barney told of the spirit summons to the other world.
“Come to me without delay. You do not know what happiness awaits you,” her mother said, she wrote.
Miss Barney left the request that the white gown be used as her burial shroud. It was on Saturday last, the girl said, that she got the death message while kneeling on her mother’s grave in Berry Lawn cemetery, Carlstadt. She had been grieving ever since her mother died a year ago. She had been keeping house for her father. Miss Barney will be buried Sunday beside her mother. Lincoln [NE] Journal Star 21 December 1908: p. 17
A well-known ballad tells of a mother visited by her dead child, complaining that she has soaked his shroud with her tears. It sounds as if this lady was anticipating she would need a change of clothes for her deceased son.
CALLED BY HER DEAD CHILD
[From the Chicago Times.]
A singular but a tender and a beautiful incident occurred on the North Side on Wednesday night. Living ta No. 202 Erie street is a lady whose name is Mrs. Robert. Some months ago she laid away to rest, under the grasses of Graceland Cemetery, her little boy, to whom she was fondly attached, and around whose memory she still twines her holiest affections. Frequently since the death and burial of her boy, she has gone to his grave to scatter over it fresh flowers. Now and then she weaves a cluster in some curious shape and leaves it there at twilight for the dews to moisten while she is away. It is one of the misfortunes of the lady that she is a somnambulist.
On the night stated she eluded the attention of any one about her own premises, and had gone as far as No. 967 North Clark street, in her night dress, before she was noticed. At this number resides Mrs. Mosher, who chanced to be at the window, when she saw the figure glide by almost swiftly, the long hair falling upon the shoulders of the strange-looking sight. Mrs. Mosher, guessing what it was, summoned her husband, who pursued the moving figure until he held the form in his own hands, and escorted her into his home, where she remained during the night, and on the following morning Mrs. Mosher had her sent to her home, on Erie street, in a carriage. When Mrs. Robert was found she had under her arm a bundle of clothes, and in the other hand a collection of flowers. She said she had gone to sleep at home, and dreamed that her little boy had come back to her and took her by the hand and asked her to go with him to his grave. She arose and took the clothes and flowers as stated, and was found, in her sleep, hastening to the spot in the silent city of the dead where her own treasure was buried. Daily Gazette [Wilmington DE] 26 September 1877: p. 2
We do not know whether to rejoice that the unfortunate lady was not found dead on her child’s grave or mourn that the reunion with her “own treasure” was postponed.
This Spiritualist couple was not at all dismayed by a death prediction, but serenely and practically prepared for their ends.
COUPLE HEARD CALL FROM SPIRIT WORLD
They Die Near the Time Predicted, as They Believed by Their Dead Child.
Cokeville, Wyo., Aug. 28. Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Webster died at their home in Minta county within a week of the time that had been predicted for the events and were buried in the same grave.
They were Spiritualists, and about a year ago they informed friends that their daughter in the spirit world had told them they would join her there in the middle of August, and bade them to make preparations. They accordingly ordered coffins, had a tombstone for their graves inscribed and designated the minister and pallbearers and the passages of Scripture they wished read and the hymns they wished sung at their funeral.
Then they composed themselves to await the final summons. Although respectively seventy-five and seventy-two years old, neither of them was in ill health, but they never doubted that they should die at the appointed time, and they were eager to go.
Mr. Webster fell ill early in August and died at 8 o’clock on the morning of the 20th. Mrs. Webster was up and about the house when her husband died and was apparently in her usual health, but that afternoon when she was sitting in the death chamber talking quietly with a friend she fell over dead of heart failure, as the doctor said. The Scranton [PA] Republican 29 August 1907: p. 1
Sadly, some calls from the dead did not always mean a happy ending for the receiver of such a summons.
HIS CHILD’S GHOST
PETER GESSNER CRIES OUT THAT HE SEES AN APPARITION
AND CUTS HIS THROAT WITH A PEN-KNIFE
HE DIES BEFORE HELP CAN REACH HIM
AN AFFLICTED FAMILY
“There’s the wraith of my child—she’s winking at me—I shall, shall go.”
Such were the words, uttered in a loud, strong tone, which attracted Mrs. Peter Gessner from bending over the bedside at her home, on the second floor of a building at Market and McLean Streets, shortly after 3 o’clock Tuesday morning. The woman, who was up and dressed to attend the wants of her two sick children and her husband, turned quickly toward the lounge on which the latter had been sleeping on the ground floor and saw him sitting up and staring fixedly before him. Gessner rose as he spoke and started for the staircase. Conceiving that her husband who had been extremely melancholy of late over the death of one of their children, had become crazed, the woman endeavored to calm him. He pushed by her without recognition and continued up the stairs. Mrs. Gessner hurriedly summoned the bartender who slept in another part of the house and a neighbor to aid her in preventing Gessner doing himself an injury. The three followed Gessner to the upper floor where they found him stretched in a pool of blood which flowed from a jagged cut in his throat. Still clutched in his hand was a small penknife with a blade scarcely an inch in length, but with which he had contrived to sever his windpipe and jugular vein. The cut extended from ear to ear. Efforts were made by the man’s wife and friends to staunch the flow of blood while a messenger ran to Dr. McTaggart’s home. The physician arrived within a few minutes but at once perceived that it would be impossible to save the man’s life. He took a few stitches in the wound and did the little possible, but Gessner expired while he was at work. The dead man’s wife, herself worn out with watching and sorrow, was prostrated by this additional blow.
Gessner was 37 years old and had been proprietor of the saloon for many years. The death of one of his children occurred a few weeks ago and Gessner, who was naturally superstitious and was also extremely fond of the deceased, brooded almost continually over it. He said often upon awaking from a fitful sleep that the dead child would come and stand by his couch at night and beg him to come to her. His wife sought to soothe his fantastic notions and watched him almost constantly. His death is mourned by a large number of his German friends.
The remains were taken in charge by Undertaker McGorray, who prepared them for burial. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 17 September 1890: p. 4
Gessner is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Cleveland. His death date is given as 16 September 1890. Lizzie Gessner (no birth date given) is also listed as dying on 16 September 1890, but perhaps father and daughter were buried under the same stone. Her death from diphtheria at her home was reported in the Plain Dealer for 6 September 1890. She was four years, 23 days old.
There is a school of thought that says that ghosts of loved ones are merely demons in disguise, come to lure humans to their destruction. It sounds only too plausible in the context of these accounts of the grieving who chose to follow their beloved dead into the darkness.
Other examples of the living called by their dead loved ones? 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. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.