A busy day and a quick post on an unusual auditory token of death. While the more usual death omens are visual: coffins, ladies in white, bird visitants, and phantom funeral processions, a large number of these premonitions are strictly aural: the banshee’s cry or knock, a howling dog, the ticking of the death-watch in the wall, the sound of a coffin being made, known as the “Tolaeth before the Coffin.” This story tells of ghosts who are heard, but not seen, with dire results.
A correspondent sends me this case of premonition of death, which is sufficiently off the ordinary lines of such cases to attract attention. When we have a number of such cases it will be time to inquire what they mean. Why did these two old defuncts come and mutter in a pantry because a brother of theirs was going to die? And, if that is an assumption that cannot be proven, why did they mutter in the pantry at all? And if that again is not proven, what was the noise that conveyed that belief to “all the servants in a body”? This is the narrative:—
I am a firm believer in premonitions of the deaths of relatives, and give instances from my own experience.
There were some years since three brothers, all bachelors, very wealthy, and, I fear I must add, fond of money. They lived near Stoke, Staffordshire. After the death of two of them, John and Richard,I and my husband (who was related to them) were living with the sole survivor, when he was taken mortally ill. One day my husband had gone out riding, the nurse and doctor were with the patient, and I was alone downstairs, when the servants all rushed in in a body, headed by the butler, and in great alarm, saying they heard their old masters, John and Richard, talking in the pantry, which was on the ground floor. I said that was nonsense, it must be thieves in the cellars, but went myself into the pantry and there heard a loud, querulous sort of muttering, in two voices, as of old men discussing money matters, but could distinguish no words. We were all too frightened to remain in the house, so waited outside the front door till my husband returned, when he and the doctor went all over the premises, but no one could be found, nor were the voices heard again. In a few days the patient died, and we soon after left the house.
Within two years my husband was in a dying state, and one morning my maid said she had heard from the coachman’s wife, who with the coachman himself was left in charge of the old place, and she wanted to know if the young master was worse, because she had heard the old men again talking in the pantry. I turned sharply upon her, saying, “Why do you tell me this?” She said, “I beg your pardon, my lady, but I thought you ought to know,” or words to that effect. My husband died very soon after, and the estate was thrown into Chancery.
Light, Volume 10, 11 October 1890
One further question: Why the pantry? Why not the library or the drawing room?
I wonder if there is any possibility that M.R. James knew this account? It reminds me a bit of the indistinct voices Mr Parkes hears in the cellars of Aswarby Hall in “Lost Hearts,” published in James’s 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Of course unintelligible whisperings and mutterings are practically compulsory in ghost stories and James uses them to good effect in other works, like “The Rose Garden.”
Apropos of nothing, this account also reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “The babbling went on, low and steady, on and on and on, the voice rising a little and falling a little, going on and on.” The interpretation of this scene in the 1963 film, The Haunting, is, for my money, one of the most chilling in horror cinema.
In The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales, you’ll find a chapter on auditory hauntings called “A Soul-Freezing Shriek: Ghostly Noises.“ There are banshee stories in The Face in the Window, The Ghost Wore Black, and The Victorian Book of the Dead. (All books are also available for Kindle.)
If there is some significance to the location of the old defuncts that has escaped me or if you have other aural hauntings you’d like to share, I’ll have my ear to the wine bin door. 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.