The Watcher: A Phantom Letter-writer from 1864

 

Artwork by Jessica Wiesel copyright@2008

Artwork by Jessica Wiesel copyright@2008

It is like something out of a horror movie. A couple purchases their dream home in an exclusive neighborhood, only to find themselves plagued by mysterious letters: “I am pleased to know your names now, and the name of the young blood you have brought to me.” “Have they found out what’s in the walls yet?” The letters are signed “The Watcher.”

Terrified, the family flees, then files a lawsuit against the sellers, claiming that the residents had also gotten sinister letters, but had not disclosed this to the buyers.  It is probably too early to predict the outcome, although one imagines fevered negotiations are already in progress.  Insidious: Chapter 4: The Watcher has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

I hate to tell them, but the plot has already been done to death, as I was reminded by this historic case of a phantom poison-pen letter-writer. 

Something of the Marvelous

How a Man Was Pursued by an Unknown Fiend.

A Story Showing That “Truth is Stranger than Fiction.”

In one of the pleasantest villages in the western part of this State lives a gentleman of education and refinement, surrounded by all the agreeable influences that wealth and a cultivated taste can afford. Fortunate in his domestic and social relations, with an interesting family of educated and intelligent children growing up into manhood and womanhood, connected with the best families of the place, respected by his fellow citizens, having received substantial evidences of their confidence and esteem by being entrusted with important offices of trust and responsibility—one would think his life could only be one of unalloyed pleasure and happiness.

But it is not so. Some strange and mysterious influence; some dark and unnatural enchantment of a spirit or fiend seems to be harassing his life, poisoning his cup of happiness, and rendering life itself miserable.

For more than twelve months past he has been the victim of some fiend, who pursues him with a deadly hate, and evidently, only seeks a favorable opportunity to take his life. Scarce a day passes that he does not find in or about his house upon arising in the morning a letter full of invective, declaring the intention of the writer to murder him as soon as an opportunity shall offer. These letters are found usually at the front door. They are evidently written by an illiterate person, unless disguised, and by a desperate character, and are full of bitter oaths and vulgarity. They are always written by the same person, and bear the traces of a mind scarcely human. Satan himself could not conceive of anything more deliberately fiendish and diabolical than these epistolary effusions.

What adds not a little to the marvelousness of this affair is the fact that all efforts to discover the author of the mischief have thus far proved entirely fruitless. This phantom, “bird or devil,” that is pursuing the man, in addition to his malignancy, seems to be possessed of all the artifice and cunning attributed to the evil one in his methods of concealment. A guard has been stationed around the house, or rather concealed about the lawn and in the shrubbery adjoining the house for weeks at a time, and invariably there would be found the next morning from the same mysterious individual, dropped on the verandah, shoved in at the parlor window, and in some instances placed in an interior room of the house. On such occasions the letter will describe minutely all the efforts made at detection, in many instances giving the names of the parties, even telling where he was concealed during the night, laughing with demoniac glee at their efforts at discovery, and declaring that his time for revenge has not yet come, but that no amount of vigilance can drive him  from his deliberate and set purpose to take the life of his enemy.

On one occasion the gentleman’s wife and her brother remained during the night under the floor of the porch, for the purpose of detecting, if possible, the being who was the author of all this mischief. Nothing unusual, however, was noticed; but the next morning, at the front door, the inevitable letter was found, the writer even going to far as to declare he was under the portico at the time, and knew all about their attempts at discovery! On another occasion the gentleman was returning from a neighbor’s house, accompanied by his wife and daughter (the gentleman has not gone out for the last twelve months after dark unless accompanied by female members of his family or by a guard well armed) when the next morning another letter was found, declaring it was the intention at that time to shoot him, but fearing he might do some injury to his wife and daughter, he was induced to desist. No reason is assigned for this persistent attempt to take the man’s life. Of course it is natural to suppose that it is the work of some convict of the Penitentiary, who fancies that he has been wronged by this gentleman in the discharge of official duty in years gone by. Providence [RI] Evening Press 12 March 1864: p. 1

It is obvious that the journalist is skeptical about this story, perhaps rightly so–the man is not named and in the majority of these kinds of persecutions, it is discovered that the target or (rarely) a family member is the culprit. If the target, they are often found to be acting in a dissociative state, with no memory of any harassing actions. I had my suspicions about Mrs. Thornley being the author of the notes in the Woman in Black/Crape Threat case.  And, in a 1915 example, Miss Alida Trumble of Hillsdale, Michigan, began receiving letters from a mystery correspondent who threatened her with death. After an incident where the young woman was stabbed in the forehead, it was discovered that she had written the letters with her left hand and injured herself during a “mental lapse.” [Source: Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 24 September 1915: p. 16, 1 and 29 September 1915: p. 1] The Spiritualist author Emma Hardinge Brittan also claimed to be the target of a phantom stalker. (See this link.

There really is something engagingly old-fashioned about unearthly entities putting pen to paper. Why not just pick up the phone? Or send a text? These dead-letter-writers are unsettlingly omniscient. I have written about letters from the apparently dead, who seem to know everything that is happening back at the old home place. There are poltergeists who leave invective-filled notes for their victims, or get personal in writing on walls, as in the Amherst Mystery where the words “Esther Cox, You are mine to kill.” appeared at the head of Esther’s bed. (“It knows your name. It knows where you live…”) This omniscience is a trait commonly found in poltergeist infestations, demonic possession, and saintly confessors.

I have mislaid for the moment a story similar in date and details to that of the unknown fiend’s victim–in the gripping narrative, the family moved numerous times–once across the country–only to find that their phantom stalker knew where they lived…

Will that be the outcome of the New Jersey story? They can move, but they can’t hide? The letter excerpts in the link at the head of the story are melodramatic in the extreme, almost as if they were testing a marketing campaign for a new horror movie or book.  Was this another Amityville scenario where a family got in over their head financially and developed an ingenious paranormal solution to get out of their mortgage?

The essential details are currently lacking: when did the sellers first receive letters from “The Watcher?”–only after the deal was struck? Or starting well before? I’m looking forward to the sequel. Or the movie-of-the-week.

For now I’m pitching my new reality series to HGTV: “The Decorator,” in which new home-buyers are terrorized by mystery letters like, “Why haven’t  you stripped that hideous wall-paper in the powder room yet?” “What’s with those cheap laminate floors?” and “Have you found out what’s in the walls yet? It’s live knob-and-tube wiring!!”

Back to sober reality.

For comparison, here are a few similar(ish) cases: The Circleville Writer saga, which led to a murder, and which is still unsolved.

The harassment of Mr. and Mrs. Wacker, which went on for decades.

A 2014 case in Holt, England, inspired this essay on the poison-pen in English country life.

Other historic cases? Preferably ones where the Unknown Fiend was unmasked. Write, leaving out the bitter oaths and vulgarity, to chriswoodyard8@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.