I’ve stated before that one of the intriguing things about poltergeist cases is the consistency of the phenomena over centuries. Today we visit 17th-century Devon and find a report to antiquarian John Aubrey about a young servant afflicted by “some discontented daemon,” or, from a modern parapsychological perspective, a poltergeist of many talents.
TRANSPORTATION BY AN INVISIBLE POWER
A Letter from the Reverend Mr. Andrew Paschal, B.D. Rector of Chedzoy in Somersetshire, to John Aubrey, Esq. at Gresham College, London.
I last week received a letter from a learned friend, the minister of Barnstable in Devon, which I think worthy your perusal. It was dated May 3, 1683, and is as follows. (He was of my time in Queens College, Cambridge.)
There having been many prodigious things performed lately in a parish adjoining to that which Bishop Sparrow presented me to, called Cheriton-Bishop, by some discontented daemon, I can easily remember that I owe you an account thereof, in lieu of that which you desired of me, and which I could not serve you in.
About November last, in the parish of Spreyton in the county of Devon, there appeared in a field near the dwelling house of Philip Furze, to his servant Francis Fry, being of the age of twenty-one, next August, an aged gentleman with a pole in his hand, and like that he was wont to carry about with him when living, to kill moles withal, who told the young man he should not be afraid of him; but should tell his master, i.e. his son, that several legacies that he had bequeathed were unpaid, naming ten shillings to one, ten shillings to another, &c. Fry replied, that the party he last named was dead. The Spectrum replied, he knew that, but said it must be paid to (and named) the next relation. These things being performed, he promised he would trouble him no further. These small legacies were paid accordingly. But the young man having carried twenty shillings ordered by the Spectrum to his sister Mrs. Furze, of the parish of Staverton near Totness, which money the gentlewoman refused to receive, being sent her, as she said, from the Devil. The same night Fry lodging there, the Spectrum appeared to him again, whereupon Fry challenged his promise not to trouble him, and said he had done all he desired him; but that Mrs. Furze would not receive the money. The Spectrum Replied, that is true indeed; but bid him ride to Totness and buy a ring of that value, and that she would take. Which was provided for her and received by her. Then Fry rode homewards attended by a servant of Mrs. Furze. But being come into Spreyton parish, or rather a little before, he seemed to carry an old gentlewoman behind him, that often threw him off his horse, and hurried him with such violence, as astonished all that saw him, or heard how horridly the ground was beaten; and being come into his master’s yard, Fry’s horse (a mean beast) sprung at once twenty-five feet. The trouble from the man-spectre ceased from this time. But the old gentlewoman, Mrs. Furze, Mr. Furze’s second wife, whom the Spectre at his first appearance to Fry, called, that wicked woman my wife (though I knew her, and took her for a very good woman) presently after appears to several in the house, viz. to Fry, Mrs. Thomasin Gidley, Anne Langdon, born in my parish, and to a little child which was forced to be removed from the house; sometimes in her own shape, sometimes in shapes more horrid, as of a dog belching fire, and of a horse, and seeming to ride out of the window, carrying only one pane of glass away, and a little piece of iron. After, this Fry’s head was thrust into a narrow space, where a man’s fist could not enter, between a bed and a wall; and forced to be taken thence by the strength of men, all bruised and bloody; upon this it was thought fit to bleed him; and after that was done, the binder was removed from his arm, and conveyed about his middle, and presently was drawn so very straight, it had almost killed him, and was cut asunder, making an ugly uncouth noise. Several other times with handkerchiefs, cravats and other things he was near strangled, they were drawn so close upon his throat. He lay one night in his periwig (in his master’s chamber, for the more safety) which was torn all to pieces. His best periwig he inclosed in a little box on the inside with a joined-stool, and other weight upon it; the box was snapped asunder, and the wig torn all to flitters. His master saw his buckles fall all to pieces on his feet. But first I should have told you the fate of his shoe-strings, one of which a gentlewoman greater than all exception, assured me, that she saw it come out of his shoe, without any visible hand, and fling itself to the farther end of the room; the other was coming out too, but that a maid prevented and helped it out, which crisped and curled about her hand like a living eel. The cloaths worn by Anne Langdon and Fry, (if their own) were torn to pieces on their backs. The same gentlewoman, being the daughter of the minister of the parish, Mr. Roger Specott, shewed me one of Fry’s gloves, which was torn in his pocket while she was by. I did view it near and narrowly, and do seriously confess that it is torn so very accurately in all the seams and in other places, and laid abroad so artificially, and it is so dexterously tattered, (and all done in the pocket in a minute’s time) as nothing human could have done it; no cutler could have made an engine to do it so. Other fantastical freeks have been very frequent, as the marching of a great barrel full of salt out of one room into another; an andiron laying itself over a pan of milk that was scalding on the fire, and two flitches of bacon descending from the chimney where they hung, and laid themselves over that andiron. The appearing of the Spectrum (when in her own shape) in the same cloaths, to seeming, which Mrs. Furze her daughter in law has on. The intangling of Fry’s face and legs, about his neck, and about the frame of the chairs, so as they have been with great difficulty disengaged.
But the most remarkable of all happened in that day that I passed by the door in my return hither, which was Easter-eve, when Fry returning from work (that little he can do) he was caught by the woman spectre by the skirts of his doublet, and carried into the air; he was quickly missed by his master and the workmen, and great enquiry was made for Francis Fry, but no hearing of him; but about half an hour after Fry was heard whistling and singing in a kind of a quagmire. He was now affected as he was wont to be in his fits, so that none regarded what he said; but coming to himself an hour after, he solemnly protested, that the daemon carried him so high that he saw his master’s house underneath him no bigger than a hay-cock, that he was in perfect sense, and prayed God not to suffer the Devil to destroy him; that he was suddenly set down in that quagmire. The workmen found one shoe on one side of the house, and the other shoe on the other side; his periwig was espied next morning hanging on the top of a tall tree. It was soon observed, that Fry’s part of his body that had laid in the mud, was much benumbed, and therefore the next Saturday, which was the eve of Low-Sunday they carried him to Crediton to be let blood; which being done, and the company having left him for a little while, returning they found him in a fit, with his forehead all bruised and swollen to a great bigness, none able to guess how it came, till he recovered himself, and then he told them, that a bird flew in at the window with a great force, and with a stone in its mouth flew directly against his forehead. The people looked for it, and found on the ground just under where he sat, not a stone, but a weight of brass or copper, which the people were breaking, and parting it among themselves. He was so very ill, that he could ride but one mile or little more that night, since which time I have not heard of him, save that he was ill handled the next day, being Sunday. Indeed Sir, you may wonder that I have not visited that house, and the poor afflicted people; especially, since I was so near, and passed by the very door: but besides that, they have called to their assistance none but nonconforming ministers. I was not qualified to be welcome there, having given Mr. Furze a great deal of trouble the last year about a conventicle in his house, where one of this parish was the preacher. But I am very well assured of the truth of what I have written, and (as more appears) you shall hear from me again.
I had forgot to tell you that Fry’s mother came to me, grievously bewailing the miserable condition of her son. She told me, that the day before he had five pins thrust into his side. She asked; and I gave her the best advice I could. Particularly, that her son should declare all that the spectre, especially the woman gave him in charge, for I suspect, there is aliquid latens; and that she should remove him thence by all means. But I fear that she will not do it. For I hear that Anne Langdon is come into my parish to her mother, and that she is grievously troubled there. I might have written as much of her, as of Fry, for she had been as ill treated, saving the aerial journey. Her fits and obsessions seem to be greater, for she screeches in a most hellish tone. Thomasin Gidley (though removed) is in trouble as I hear.
Sir, this is all my friend wrote. This letter came inclosed in another from a clergyman, my friend, who lives in those parts. He tells me all the relations he receives from divers persons living in Spreyton and the neighbouring parishes, agree with this. He spoke with a gentleman of good fashion, that was at Crediton when Fry was blooded, and saw the stone that bruised his forehead; but he did not call it copper or brass, but said it was a strange mineral. That gentleman promised to make a strict inquiry on the place into all particulars, and to give him the result: which my friend also promises me; with hopes that he shall procure for me a piece of that mineral substance, which hurt his forehead.
The occasion of my friend’s sending me this narrative, was my entreating him sometime since, to inquire into a thing of this nature, that happened in Barnstable, where he lives. An account was given to me long since, it fills a sheet or two, which I have by me: and to gratify Mr. Glanvil [sic] who is collecting histories for his Sadducismus Triumphatus, I desired to have it well attested, it being full of very memorable things; but it seems, he could meet only a general consent as to the truth of the things; the reports varying in the circumstances.
Polts come in many flavors: the rappers, the hurlers, the furniture-movers, the smashers, and the fire-starters, as well as the rarer varieties: the food-rotters, the chokers and the clothes-slashers. Fry’s polt rather unusually began with an orthodox apparition requesting resolution of unfinished business. So far all present and correct. But things go south rather quickly after the witch-like Mrs Furze appears, with her devilish, shape-shifting tricks. The whiff of brimstone becomes even more pronounced when Fry is throttled by his bandages and his cravat, for the Prince of Darkness has the reputation of a strangler. (As an aside, the choking and the contorted positions in which Fry found himself suggested the tortures suffered by Anna and Henry Phelps during the Stratford haunting.) It is almost a relief to find the polt reverting to classic “freeks” such as a marching barrel of salt, a moving andiron, and an apparition impersonating her daughter-in-law.
Clothes-slashing polts are among the most dramatic of the species. I’ve written about a particularly destructive case in Ohio in The Face in the Window. (You’ll find an excerpt in this post.) There are other accounts in the paranormal literature of clothes being slashed on the body and in the pocket or suddenly coming unstitched, just as Fry’s buckles went to pieces as his master watched. As for the uncanny, eel-like shoe-strings, perhaps the less thought about them, the better…
When the Rev. Mr. Paschal speaks of Fry’s “fits,” his illnesses, and being bled, it certainly sounds like Fry’s “aerial journey” is no more than a neurological misfire. Still, his description of his master’s house as “no bigger than a hay-cock” offers an unsettling perspective and his scattered shoes and periwig hung on a tall tree, if not exactly conclusive evidence for levitation, imply that Fry took elaborate pains to “dress the set” to support his story.
I was reminded by Fry’s aerial adventure of a story from Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles, where a bell-ringer is tricked by the Devil.
He noticed a black ox standing opposite him. This animal put out its tongue and with it took hold of the man and mounted him upon his back, flew through the air with him and set him down on a pinnacle of the tower of the castle of Ysenberg. [Isenberg]…The devil said: “Do me homage and I will set you down safely and also give you great riches; but if you refuse you shall either die here by hunger or else be dashed to pieces by falling headlong.”
The plucky bell-ringer holds his own against the Devil, demanding in God’s name that he be released unharmed.
Immediately the devil took him and set him down very roughly in a field near the town of Gerrsheim before the dawn of day…men hastening with torches to the service of matins found this bell-ringer in a field in a fainting condition; and when they had revived him and had heard his story they were greatly astonished. On the fourth day indeed he returned to his house and related to all so fully the position both of the towns and buildings, which he had never seen before, that they could not doubt that he had been really carried away.
The Dialogue on Miracles, Caesarius of Heisterbach, Chapter LVI in “Of Demons.”
I seem to recall other levitation stories where the flyer describes how buildings and towns look from above—seemingly miraculous in pre-flight days, although perhaps an excursion to a bell tower or other tall structure might explain them.
We have strayed far from Devon and I haven’t even mentioned the equally obsessed and screeching Anne Langdon or the “troubled” Thomasin Gidley. Young women, are of course, the usual polt vectors. By modern standards, Francis Fry is something of an anomaly, but 17th and 18th-century stories of possession (which, again, we might interpret as classic poltergeist manifestations) include a number of men.
Since I am always eager to find a polt explanation that does not involve the devil, the presence of three afflicted members of the same household obviously suggests illness. A neurologist might be able to look at the symptoms described and diagnose something like encephalitis or epilepsy.
But as to where that leaves serpentine shoe-strings, well, I haven’t an earthly…
Other examples of ghosts or polts levitating their victims? Share with chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who is double-tying her shoe-laces.
DK writes in with this wonderful example of a man carried off by the fairies and visibly levitated in front of his friends:
In regard to your recent blog, Some Discontented Daemon, you may like this tract from 1678 about a similar case from Ireland in which Dr. Moore was visibly carried aloft, supposedly by invisible fairies, and found later in a nearby wood, very reminiscent of alien abduction. AbductedSchoolMaster(1678)
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.