Tramp, tramp, tramp, the ghost is marching…. Today’s story of a solitary, night-walking figure that caused a local ghost-panic in New England comes from Newbury, Massachusetts, c. 1810-20. The narrator is the author’s “Uncle Richard,” telling tales at Christmas:
“I am afraid,” said he, at last “that something, which really did happen in front of the house I have spoken of, will startle you young folks, and perhaps it is foolish to relate it, as you seem already quite excited enough; but I will premise by saying, that I will only tell you what I saw myself, or heard from those upon whose word I could implicitly rely; and, moreover, that I do not believe in ghosts, however singular the facts in question may appear. Of course, you know, sister,” addressing my mother, “my calls at your house were sometimes in the evening, after attending the market or to other business during the day. It was during one of your husband’s absences at sea, that we were sitting around the fire of a wintry night, when a lively neighbor, a lady who took much interest in whatever was going on, came in evidently in a state of agitation, and taking her seat, with very brief greeting, broke out with the exclamation, ‘There he is again!’ I did not understand what this meant; but it was soon explained to us that, for a week or ten days past, some person, or figure, or whatever it might be, had been observed walking fore and aft, in front of the house opposite the meeting-house, at a certain hour of the evening, and though many had passed, no one had recognized him, nor did he take any notice whatever of any one whom he met. He was said to wear a pea-jacket buttoned to the chin, and a glazed hat, as if prepared for any kind of weather; or, as the gossips afterwards said, indicating the fact that he was the forerunner of the loss of not a few masters of vessels residing in the neighborhood, who perished at sea during the storms of that season. I took my hat and went out to see if I could discover anything uncommon. It was a moonlight night, with a light fall of snow upon the ground. As I passed up the short street to the square, Aunt Foggison’s chamber window was thrown open, and her daughter’s voice was plainly heard berating the supposed spectral night-walker.
‘What are you doing there, you good-for-nothing scamp, you?’ cried she, in a voice that must have reached any mortal ears; ‘why don’t you go home to your family, if you’ve got any family, or wherever else you belong, instead of stalking up and down here, frightening honest folks out of their senses?’ Overcome perhaps by the vigor of her expostulation, the window was shut down with a slam. As I advanced, though I certainly had a full view of a human-looking figure upon its round and at no great distance either, and my senses had been confirmed by the objurgations addressed to it by our worthy relative, when I actually reached the ground of his perambulations, prepared to seize a single man by the collar and learn what he was about, it is certain that he was no longer visible.
I returned to the house and made report of my unsuccessful doings, and unhitched my horse and drove home. I learned, a few days afterwards, that the figure regularly appeared, giving one sign of vitality by a regular tramp — tramp — tramp — upon the frozen ground, so far as any one was disposed to listen, and spreading consternation throughout the vicinity. The affair at length became unendurable. Women were afraid to go into the street, and, for that, a good many men too, and it was really so serious, that, as I learned, it was resolved to form what is called, I believe, a cordon, and gradually approaching the place simultaneously from every avenue, so to inclose him that escape would be impossible. Being much acquainted with the people of that part of the town, I was invited to join the company, and accordingly drove in seasonably for the purpose. Certainly, most sober people believed the whole was but some trick, which it only needed reasonable pains to discover and defeat. The mysterious figure, it seemed, continued to walk, ignorant of or indifferent to our devices.
“There were three main avenues, by streets, to the premises, together with a narrow passage way leading from one of the streets to another. At the appointed hour we duly assembled on our several stations. Our director was a ‘rude and boisterous captain of the sea ‘” — (for Uncle Richard could sometimes be poetical, at least in the way of quoting Shakespeare). “It had been arranged by him that, being on our posts, at a fixed moment, we should move rapidly up the several avenues and so join forces as to form a circle inclosing the open space, and gradually contracting our company, if the rogue was then within our compass we should have him sure. The arrangement had been made in profound secrecy, and if any there were traitors, I was not aware of it. Sure enough there was our guest on his usual stroll. As our circle speedily drew in, and just as hands were stretched out to seize him — presto, as the jugglers say — he was gone!’
“By the jumping gingerbread!” exclaimed Thurlow, our uncle’s hired man, springing from his chair by the wall, outside of our family party, — seeing this was Christmas night.
“Oh dear sus! ” cried Sally Bannocks, our own particular help of many years, from the like position.
“Our detective band,” resumed my uncle, “looked at one another in amazement, and after some hard swearing from a few of the roughest, and the exchange of a hasty ‘good-night,’ dispersed, as far as convenient in companies of two or three, and departed, a good deal disconcerted, to their several places of abode. The same experiment was tried on two or three other occasions, as I was informed by friends, with no better success. Spectre or not, he always found means to elude them; and there were always those who, having no other means of accounting for his evasion, insisted upon it that he must have had confederates among those who sought to arrest him.”
“Could he not have escaped slyly into the house?” asked some incredulous inquirer.
“That was hardly likely, with so many eyes upon him. Besides there was nobody there but women and children, excessively alarmed themselves, the husband, Captain Y__, being at sea, and one of those who was afterwards known to have been lost with all his crew, upon nearing our dangerous coast.”
“But why did not the city government make a piece of work of putting an end to such a scandal?” inquired a doubter in spectral visitations.
“Well, I suspect a whole body of police could do little towards capturing an actual ghost; and then, too, there was at that time no city and no such force. Our town government consisted of mostly ancient citizens, and three or four constables, all of whom, probably, preferred to remain quietly and comfortably at home, instead of venturing out into the wintry night air, to hunt up ghosts.”
“Why didn’t somebody try the effect of a bullet?” inquired another.
“Well, shooting was a rather violent remedy; and as for firing at a ghost, I believe every one was afraid.”
“Wasn’t it strange, considering that he must have had some particular object in haunting that spot, and was likely, therefore, to be found out by some of the neighborhood by his face, or dress, or figure, or gait, or in some way or other, if a real person, that he never was recognized?” asked another of our evening guests.
“It was strange enough,” said my uncle; “but few, if any, got very near him, and they perhaps, casual passers-by, who paid no attention to the fact. As for him, he only walked steadily backward and forward, turning neither to the right nor to the left, except at each end of his beat; replying to no interrogatories, and appearing utterly unconscious of any epithets or railings which from a distance were hurled at him. Only one man ever professed to have seen his face.”
“Who was that, uncle ? ” we all eagerly exclaimed.
“Late one stormy night, when the snow was falling fast,” continued my uncle, — “and one would suppose that any reasonable creature of flesh and blood would wish to be safely housed, — an hostler named Dobbin, who had charge of a stable at one end of the street, was trudging home, swinging a lantern in his hand, to the small house in which he lived, at a little distance beyond the now pretty notorious ‘Ghost’s Walk.’ As he approached the spot, there, to be sure, was the object of terror, taking his usual exercise. ‘Now,’ as Dobbin told the story, ‘thinks I to myself, I’ll play you a trick, mister, and find out who you are, if I can. So, jest slyly unfastening the door of the lantern, as I met him, I flung the door wide open and held it up to his face, and I says, says I, “A stormy night, friend.” I thought I should know him, and guess I should if ever I do see him again, which I don’t want to, I tell you; and may I hope to die, if ever I saw that face before. He looked pale, and his eyes, as he fixed ’em on me, had what I call a sort of a stony glare. He never opened his mouth, but just looked. It was only a glance, as it were, for I never was so frightened in my life, and jest dropped lantern and scampered away home as fast as my legs could carry me.’ ”
“Lud-a-massy ! ” screamed Sally Bannocks, on the verge of hysterics, — and some of the rest of us were not far from that condition. We were mostly on our feet, and as my mother insisted upon our bidding “Good-night,” Uncle Richard proposed, after a further trial of his capital cider, to harness his horse and drive us home in his covered wagon. But it was a fine night and, though getting rather late, we concluded that it would do us more good to take the air, in the mile or two of the walk to town. In the course of our preparations for departure, and in answer to a variety of questions, our uncle informed us, that the mystery was never cleared up, nor the trick, if trick it were, ever discovered. As to the tale of such a person as Dobbin, we might place what reliance upon it we saw fit; and though the motive seemed certainly difficult to see, it might have been, after all, a well-contrived piece of deception, to be sure, a very laborious and unaccountable one, concealed by the collusion of parties in the secret. How long the ghost continued to walk he did not know ; but it finally disappeared, and the house had been inhabited by respectable people ever since, who had suffered no disturbance.
Old New England Traits, George Lunt, 1873
A curiously pointless little haunting, and, as Uncle Richard says, “laborious and unaccountable.” Small New England villages can certainly harbor secrets, but it seems unlikely that some multi-person conspiracy was behind the night walker. The suggestion that he was a forerunner of disaster on the seas is the logical one, given that he is dressed like a sailor, although perhaps he was a love-sick swain trying to contact an old flame. An elopement would have put paid to his appearances.
The faces of those apparitions who haunt thoroughfares are generally unseen or hidden. Except for Dobbin’s lantern trick, this road-ghost would also have been faceless. It is curious that, except for his vanishing trick, he seemed to be quite corporeal. Other theories or similar local lore? Just across the Merrimack River was the haunted schoolhouse of Newburyport. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who would appreciate it if you would shutter that lantern.
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.