What are we to make of this notion of a banshee carpenter? Is there some sort of time-slip that allows the sound of coffin-making to be heard before a death? Or are these merely the generic creakings and crackings of an old house interpreted through the lens of folklore as death omens? Why do we no longer hear reports of ghostly coffin carpentry?
In a previous post, I wrote about “The Tolaeth before the Burying,” or the sights and sounds of a phantom funeral. Here’s a definition of today’s Tolaeth:
The Tolaeth is an ominous sound, imitating some earthly sound of one sort or another, and always heard before either a funeral or some dreadful catastrophe. Carpenters of a superstitious turn of mind will tell you that they invariably hear the Tolaeth when they are going to receive an order to make a coffin; in this case the sound is that of the sawing of wood, the hammering of nails, and the turning of screws, such as are heard in the usual process of making a coffin. This is called the ‘Tolaeth before the Coffin.’ British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, 1881
This next note widens that definition to include noises from many phantom tradesmen and gives some examples of those tormented by these sounds:
The doctrine is, that the whole ceremony connected with a funeral is gone through in rehearsal by spectres which are the shades, phantoms, appearances, tai’shs, doubles, swarths, or whatever else we choose to call them, of living men, not merely by the shade of the person who is to die, but by the shades of all who are to be concerned in the ceremony. The phantoms go for the wood that is to make the coffin, the nails, the dead clothes, and whatever else may be required on the occasion; the sounds of the coffin being made are heard…
The shades that go for a coffin are called tathaich air ciste, i.e. frequenters for a chest. They are heard at night long after the joiner has ceased his day’s labour. The workshop is closed, and the wright has retired to rest, when the sound of a hammer, a shuffling for nails, and the working of a plane, are heard as if someone were at work. If anyone has the courage to enter the workshop, nothing is to be seen, and no answer is given though he speak.
Some fifty years ago there was a wright in Kinloch Rannoch, in Perthshire, who complained of having the Second Sight, and who, in emigrating to Australia, assigned as his chief reason for leaving his native land, the frequency with which he saw or heard people coming beforehand for coffins. The tools of his trade, plane, hammers, saw, etc., were heard by him at work as distinctly as though he himself were working, and the frequency of the omen preyed so much on his mind that he left the country in the hope of relief.
The shades were not those of the people whose death was imminent, but those of their friends and acquaintances, who afterwards proved actually to be the parties who came for the coffin. [See the story of the haunted Herr Humbarger below.]
A few years ago a medical student, in the west of Inverness-shire, sat up late on a summer night “grinding” for his examination. A joiner’s workshop adjoined the house in which he was. About two o’clock in- the morning he heard the sound of hammers, plane, etc., as though someone were at work in the shop. The sounds continued till about three. The evening was calm. Next day when he told what he had heard his friends laughed at him. Next night again, however, the noises were resumed and continued till he fell asleep. They were this night heard also by the other inmates; and as they were repeated every night for a week, every person in the house, including the joiner himself, who was brought in for the purpose, heard them. Shortly after a woman in the neighbourhood died in childbed, and the joiner, in whose workshop the noises were heard, made her coffin. The mysterious hammering only discontinued when the coffin was finished….Witchcraft & Second Sight in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, John Gregorson Campbell, 1902
Phantom coffin-making is quite as commonly seen, heard, and felt as phantom funerals. Scarcely a carpenter’s shop exists in the Highlands but has its record of sights and sounds seen and heard immediately before a coffin is made. This phantom coffin-making takes place only by night, so far as we know, thus differing from the habits of the phantom funeral. The carpenter himself, or one of his men or his family, is usually the person who sees or hears this. He may be passing the workshop when he sees it full of light; he looks and sees the shadows of men hard at work. He may possibly hear hammers and planes working, nails driving, and saws making their way through wood. He goes in: “darkness there and nothing more!” Sometimes the hammers and planes are working and nothing is seen. Wood for coffins, also is troublesome about a house; indeed, anything connected with a coffin is apt to get noisy and restless. You may hear the wood dashed to the ground or on to some other wood ; you may hear it sawed for more easy transport or to suit a certain length. Wherever the coffin rests, or is left on its way to the house where the dead is, its phantom may be heard, so to speak, beforehand. A relative assures me that, three days before her grandmother’s death, she was at midnight in an outhouse and heard the noise of a box as it was laid down, the swishing sound of something, and the thud of a heavy bag. The coffin was brought into that house for a momentary resting-place, the shavings were spread under it, and a bag full of bread and other things was laid down there with a thud, all exactly as she previously heard it. The Celtic Magazine, Edited by Alexander Mackenzie, et al, Vol. 12, 1887.
While the Tolaeth before the Coffin consists of all the normal carpentry sounds, it also may include noises indicative of handling the raw lumber, as the previous item indicates. Many people seemed to save choice boards or pieces of wood specifically for their coffins, storing them in the attic or loft until needed.
A few days afterwards, being in school with the children about noon, I heard a great noise overhead, as if the top of the house was coming down; I went out to see the garret, and there was nothing amiss. A few days afterwards, Mr. Higgon, of Pont-Faen’s son died. When the carpenter came to fetch the boards to make the coffin, which were in the garret, he made exactly such a stir in handling the boards in the garret, as was made before by some Spirit, who foreknew the death that was soon to come to pass.Morris Griffith. A Relation of Spirits in the County of Monmouth and the Principality of Wales, Rev. Edmund Jones, 1813.
A very intelligent informant says that the only thing of the kind he himself was personally witness to occurred above fifty years ago, when he was a young lad. An old woman of the neighbourhood lay on her death-bed, and while the rest of the household, of which he was a member, sat up, he was on account of his youth packed off to bed. Through the night he heard what he took to be the trampling of dogs on a loft above his sleeping place, and this he heard so distinctly that he asked his father next day what made him put the dogs there. He also heard a plank sliding down from the loft and striking on end in the passage between the doors. The following night the old woman died, and the lad himself was sent up to the loft to bring down planks to make her coffin. A plank slipped from his hands, and, falling on end in the passage, made exactly the same noise as he had before heard. Witchcraft & Second Sight in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, John Gregorson Campbell, 1902
An interesting (if jocular) note from Canada suggests that it is the ghost of the sick or dying person making his own coffin.
I would like to talk about a certain lonely carpenter shop, in which, before a death, the sound of plane and hammer used to be heard at night, and we were compelled to believe that the ghost of the sick one was, with officious if not indecent haste, making his coffin. As he was not yet a ghost, that is, not yet disembodied, there was a confusion of thought here. On some occasions he added to the nuisance by burning a candle which extinguished of its own accord if approached. “Scottish Myths from Ontario,” C.A. Fraser in Journal of American Folklore, 1892
Another variant of the Tolaeth before the Coffin is that of the haunted coffin-maker, who is visited by the doppelgangers of customers, who leave behind measurements of the coffin which will be required. The complete version of this story of the haunted Herr Humbarger is found in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales. While it was told in a rather unfortunate stereotypical stage-Cherman dialect, it’s a fascinating folkloric story.
“One night, or rather one morning, an hour or two before daylight, Humbarger arose, leaving his wife in bed, proceeding to his shop, and lighting a tallow candle, set to work. When Mrs. Humbarger awoke at the usual hour she was surprised to hear Jacob hammering away in his shop, and supposing that he had some job that must needs be finished early in the day, set about preparing breakfast, and when the meal was ready she called her husband:
“’Vall, Chacob, vy for you go of vork so gwick the day?” inquired Frau Humbarger.
“’Vy, Katarine, did you not hear dot man who comes of der coffin by dree o’clock?’
“’Nien, nien, Chacob, you make foolish of me.’
“’I not make foolish, Katarine; dot man come of dree o’clock on der door an say I must haf dot coffin of 10 o’clock, and he gif me the measure on dot vork bench, und I go of work und haf him now half mate.’
“Katarine was incredulous, and Jacob was firm in his asseverations. Certain it was that he had a coffin well under way, and by 10 o’clock it was finished, and Jacob was waiting for his customer while he smoked a pipe.
“Between 10 and 11 o’clock a gentleman appeared at the shop door, and Humbarger greeting him with:
“’You vas a leedle lade, mein frent!’
“’Not very late, considering that I have ridden from near Somerset since half past 7.’
“’Vy for did you go back home after you vake me, uh?’
“’I didn’t. I have just got to town.’
“’But you come of mine door last nide, and call me oud of mine bed to make dis coffin.’
“’Oh no, my friend, but it looks as though it would suit my purpose. Let me measure it.’
“The stranger measured it and it was just the size of a coffin he had been sent to procure, and he asked Humbarger if he could have it to take back with him immediately.
“’Dot vas your coffin anyway, since you order him and leaf der measure,” promptly responded Mr. Humbarger.
“The price of the coffin was agreed upon, it was paid for, and the farmer took it away in his wagon. Jacob related the circumstances to his wife, who said mischievously,
“’I told you, Chacob, dot no vone voke you up of der nide. You haf been haunted.’
“Humbarger, however, insisted that he had been called out of his house during the night, and that he readily recognized the man who subsequently got the coffin and pretended that he had not ordered it.
“Of course the story soon circulated throughout the village, and the gossips added to it. A month later Humbarger had another nocturnal visit, and a child’s coffin was ordered, to be finished in the afternoon. Later in the day a farmer living a few miles west of town called on Humbarger to secure his services, one of his children having died.
“’Oh, yes; I know dot. You come of der nide und told me, und mark der size on dis vork bench.’
“The farmer protested otherwise, but as the coffin was of the exact measurement desired he took it home. Then Mr. Humbarger began to have an indefinable fear that he was haunted.
“The thing was of regular recurrence, and almost everyone who came to Humbarger for a coffin found it ready made to order. The villagers began to fear the coffin-maker, and the coffin-maker avoided the villagers as much as possible. The women and children, and not a few of the men, believed he was in league with Satan, and he suffered a great deal in his trade.
“To those of his neighbors with whom he conversed on this subject—and among them was my father—he said that the orders were delivered in the night by persons whom he immediately recognized when they called for the coffins, and that when they were ordered he found the exact dimensions in chalk-marks on his work-bench the next morning. Cincinnati [OH] Post 16 December 1884: p. 3
One final variant of the Toleath before the Coffin was a sound interpreted as the shroud being nailed to the coffin:
Another portent of death was one known as the Knockers. The “knockers” were heard sometimes by the person who died, and at other times by the neighbours, and resembled the noise made when the shroud was nailed to the coffin. Several instances of this death omen have been related to the writer by persons of undoubted veracity, who, however, never attempted to explain the mystery, but simply contented themselves with narrating the “facts”. The experience of one family will perhaps prove sufficient to assist the reader in forming an adequate notion of this article in the local mythological creed. Mrs. O. and her son were sitting by the fire one night when they heard a kind of tapping, which the mother pronounced to be the “knockers” in their neighbour’s house, from which their own house was separated by a thin partition. The neighbour’s wife was ill in bed at the time, and died shortly afterwards. Those who heard the knockers on this occasion also heard the undertaker’s man nail the shroud to the coffin, and stated that the sounds were exactly alike. Not long after this incident happened, Mrs. O. and her husband lay in a bed in the kitchen of their house—the bed having been removed thither because it was warmer than the solar—when she was startled by a sound of knocking. She awoke her husband, who got up, lit a candle, and proceeded upstairs to discover if possible the cause of the noise. He had not proceeded half-way up the stairs before he heard three distinct sharp taps, as if they were made with a hammer; they were also heard by the wife, who told him they were the “knockers” fortelling her death. The poor woman died two months afterwards. Her husband still survives. Collections Historical and Archeological Relating to Montgomeryshire and its Borders, 1877
The noise of a coffin being built is one of those soundscapes lost to history like the sound of wooden wheels on cobblestones or the cries of hawkers in the streets. Unless you are a Trappist or Benedictine monk casket builder, you are not likely to hear the planing and hammering our ancestors understood as a matter of course—or took as a death omen.
Are there any noises still believed to be death omens today? 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.