Dr Beachcombing had an intriguing post recently on “Ghost Universals and Human Universals,” about the consistent ways in which ghosts are said to manifest. One of them was a “sickly or deformed image.”
Being of a morbid temperament, I’ve taken special notice of stories of pale and sickly spirits, so here are a few tales of pallid phantoms. Obviously a ghost is traditionally thought to be pale, but these particular sickly-white spirits seem to be associated with a crisis apparition or a death-bed appearance. The first is a vision of a friend, loitering palely and only later reported to be dead.
Sir,—In the latter part of the summer of ’78, between half-past three and four in the morning, I was leisurely walking home from the house of a sick friend. A middle-aged woman, apparently a nurse, was slowly following, going in the same direction. We crossed Tavistock-square together, and emerged simultaneously into Tavistock-place. The streets and square were deserted, the morning bright and calm, my health excellent, nor did I suffer from anxiety or fatigue. The following scene was now enacted:—A man suddenly appeared, striding up Tavistock-place, coming towards me, and going in a direction opposite to mine. When first seen he was standing exactly in front of my own door. Young, and ghastly pale, he was dressed in evening clothes, evidently made by a foreign tailor. Tall and slim, he walked with long, measured strides, noiselessly, without a sound. A tall white hat, covered thickly with black crape, and an eye-glass, completed the costume of this strange form. The moonbeams, falling on the corpse-like features, revealed a face well known to me that of a friend and relative. The sole and only other person in the street, beyond myself and this being, was the woman already alluded to. She stopped abruptly, as if spellbound, then, rushing towards the man, she gazed intently and with horror unmistakable on his face, which was now upturned towards the heavens, and smiling ghastly. In her strange contemplation she indulged but during very few seconds, and with extraordinary and unexpected speed for one of her age and weight, she ran away with a shriek and yells terrific. This woman never have I seen or heard of since, and but for her presence I could have explained the incident, called it, say, subjection of the mental powers to the domination of physical reflex action, and the man’s presence would have been termed a false impression on the retina. A week after the above event news of this very friend’s death reached me. It had occurred on the morning in question. From the family I ascertained that, according to the rites of the Greek Church, and to the custom of the country he had resided in, he was buried in his evening clothes, made abroad by a foreign tailor, and strange to say he wore galoshes or india rubber shoes over his boots, according also to the custom of the country he died in; these deaden completely the sound of the heaviest footstep. I never had seen my friend wear an eyeglass. He did so, however, whilst abroad, and began the practice some months before his death. When in England he lived in Tavistock-place, and occupied my rooms during my absence.—I am, Sir, yours very truly,
Light Vol. 1 Issue 1, 1881, p. 342
The second is a visitation as a token of a mother’s death.
18, Batoum Gardens, West Kensington Park.
I have not the least objection to giving an account of the apparition I had of my mother which appeared to me at the time of her death, although it is a subject I have very rarely mentioned, partly that it is an occurrence I hold very sacred and partly that I do not care to have my story doubted or laughed at.
I went to school in Alsace in October, 1852, when I was 17, leaving my mother in England in delicate health. About Christmas, 1853, 14 months after I left home, I heard that my mother’s health was worse, but I had no idea that she was in any danger. It was the last Sunday in February, 1854, between 1 and 2 o’clock, I was seated in a large school-room reading, when suddenly the figure of my mother appeared to me at the far end of the room. She was reclining, as if in bed in her nightdress. Her face was turned towards me with a sweet smile and one hand was raised and pointing upward.
Gently the figure moved across the room, ascending as it went until it disappeared. Both the face and figure were wasted as if by sickness, as I never had seen her in life, and deadly pale. From the moment I saw the apparition I felt convinced my mother was dead. So impressed was I that I was unable to attend to my studies, and it was positive pain to me to see my younger sister playing and amusing herself with her companions.
Two or three days after, my governess, after prayers, called me to her private room. As soon as we entered I said “You need not tell me. I know my mother is dead!” She asked me how I could possibly know. I gave no explanation, but told her I had known it for three days. I afterwards heard my mother died on that Sunday at the time I had seen her, and that she had passed away in an unconscious state, having been unconscious for some day or two before her death.
I am by no means an imaginative, sensitive woman, and never before or since have I experienced anything similar. It has always been a comfort to me to feel that my mother did appear to me.
Journal of Society for Psychical Research, October 1885: pp 69-70
The final case is, again, of a person known to the witness, only later discovered to be dead. This is one of my favorites. The phrase “Her face turned and followed me,” is like something out of M.R. James.
The three documents which compose this case are (1), account of Mrs. de Fréville’s death by the Rev. C. T. Forster; (2) deposition made to me and Mr. Hodgson, by Mr. Bard, at Cambridge, July 21st, 1885 ; (3) deposition made to me by Mrs. Bard, at Hinxton, on July 8th, 1885.
Mr. Forster conducted me over Hinxton churchyard on July 8th, 1885, and I can attest the accuracy of Mr. Bard’s description of the relative position of the church, the tomb, and the exits.
F. W. H. M. [Frederic Meyers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research.]
Hinxton Vicarage, Saffron Walden,
August 6th, 1885.
My late parishioner, Mrs. de Fréville. was a somewhat eccentric lady, who was specially morbid on the subject of tombs, &c. About two days after her death, which took place in London, May 8th, in the afternoon,
[She was found dead at 7.30 p.m. She had been left alone in her room, being poorly, but not considered seriously or dangerously ill.]
I heard that she had been seen that very night by Alfred Bard. I sent for him, and he gave me a very clear and circumstantial account of what he had seen.
He is a man of great observation, being a self-taught naturalist, and I am quite satisfied that he desires to speak the truth without any exaggeration. I must add that I am absolutely certain that the news of Mrs. de Fréville’s death did not reach Hinxton till the next morning, May 9th.
C. T. FORSTER, Vicar of Hinxton, Cambs.
I am a gardener in employment at Sawston. I always go through Hinxton churchyard on my return home from work. On Friday, May 8th, 1885, I was walking back as usual. On entering the churchyard I looked rather carefully at the ground, in order to see a cow and donkey which used to lie just inside the gate. In so doing I looked straight at the square stone vault in which the late Mr. de Fréville was at one time buried. I then saw Mrs. de Fréville leaning on the rails, dressed much as I had usually seen her, in a coal-scuttle bonnet, black jacket with deep crape, and black dress.
She was looking full at me. Her face was very white, much whiter than usual. I knew her well, having at one time been in her employ. I at once supposed that she had come, as she sometimes did, to the mausoleum in her own park, in order to have it opened and go in. I supposed that Mr. Wiles, the mason from Cambridge, was in the tomb doing something. I walked round the tomb looking carefully at it, in order to see if the gate was open, keeping my eye on her and never more than five or six yards from her.
Her face turned and followed me. I passed between the church and the tomb (there are about four yards between the two), and peered forward to see whether the tomb was open, as she hid the part of the tomb which opened. I slightly stumbled on a hassock of grass, and looked at my feet for a moment only. When I looked up she was gone. She could not possibly have got out of the churchyard, as in order to reach any of the exits she must have passed me. So I took for granted that she had quickly gone into the tomb. I went up to the door, which I expected to find open, but to my surprise it was shut and had not been opened, as there was no key in the lock. I rather hoped to have a look into the tomb myself, so I went back again and shook the gate to make sure, but there was no sign of any one’s having been there. I was then much startled and looked at the clock, which marked 9.20. When I got home I half thought it must have been my fancy, but I told my wife that I had seen Mrs. de Fréville.
Next day when my little boy told me that she was dead I gave a start, which my companion noticed, I was so much taken aback.
I have never had any other hallucination whatever.
ALFRED BARD, Sawston.
When Mr. Bard came home he said “I have seen Mrs. de Fréville to-night leaning with her elbow on the palisade looking at me. I turned again to look at her and she was gone. She had cloak and bonnet on.” He got home as usual between 9 and 10; it was on the 8th of May, 1885.
Journal of Society for Psychical Research, October, 1885: pp. 64-5
Ghosts are very different from doppelgangers, yet the “pallid-and-sickly” motif often accompanies the psychic double–as Abraham Lincoln reported of his vision in the mirror, taken as a portent of death.
“I have seen this evening again, what I once saw before, on the evening of my nomination at Chicago. As I stood before a mirror, there were two images of myself—a bright one in front, and one that was very pallid standing behind. It completely unnerved me. The bright one, I know, is my past, the pale one my coming life. I do not think I shall live to see the end of my term. I try to shake off the vision, but it still keeps haunting me.” History of the American Civil War, John William Draper, 1868
In the case of the French teacher, Mlle. Emilie Sagée, those who saw her double reported that it looked healthier than she did–that the genuine Mlle. Sagée grew pale and wan as the double grew rosier.
In this story, of a doppelganger as grounds for divorce, the phantom husband is described as “pallid” and of a “deathly hue.”
I myself once dreamed of seeing my reflection in a mirror set in an old-fashioned oak mantel, looking sickly and corpse-like. I’m still here, but the dream apparently was a portent of an illness that persisted a long time. Some cultures believe that seeing yourself is an omen of death–that you are your own “fetch,” sent as a warning. In the stories of pallid spirits above, it seems that the pale visage was a warning to others.
Other deathly-pale images? Fetch ’em out. 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 newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.