It is a peculiar characteristic of some of my family members, including myself, that they are able to tell when people are going to die. For example, in the story titled,“The Skull Beneath the Skin” in Haunted Ohio V: 200 Years of Ghosts, I told of seeing a skull face on an otherwise healthy-looking man who, I was told later by someone who knew him, was in the final stages of cancer. It is an unsettling and erratic talent to have, but one that would have been well-known to our ancestors, who were fascinated by the harbingers, portents, and tokens of death.
As I said in a recent post on an Indiana Banshee, “tokens of death” were a frequent theme in the ghost stories of the past. These death-omens could be anything from a prophetic dream, a vision of a phantom funeral, headless apparitions or women in white ghosts, a familiar disembodied voice calling one’s name, a crown of feathers in a pillow or mattress, dogs howling, or mysterious lights. In The Face in the Window, you’ll find the story of a cat named “Death,” who, like Oscar, the cat who predicts death at a Rhode Island nursing home, spelled doom for patients at the Cincinnati City Hospital and a man who believed he was about to die because he had heard the family Banshee.
Here are a few other harbingers of death from the past.
A Dream That Foretold Death.
A post-mortem examination was made at Franklin yesterday of the body of Lum McDaniel, whose strange and sudden death Saturday has been reported. The physicians in charge found that death resulted from paralysis of the heart. It is said that Mr. McDaniel had a peculiar dream the night before his death, which he related next morning at the breakfast table. He thought he was alone and suddenly fell in a fainting fit, and no one being near to help him he died. The actual facts coincide with the dream. Sandusky [OH] Daily Register 15 October 1892: p. 2
The Token of Death
A young man called at a newspaper office in Plymouth, England, the day after the bombardment of Alexandria, and asked if the names of any of the Englishmen killed during the day had been received. He said that during the afternoon the mother and wife of a petty officer named Revington, serving in Alexandria, had what they regarded as a “token of his death.” They were sitting together in their house talking nad working when they heard or thought they heard the voice of the absent son and husband say, “Mother!” three times. Nothing had been heard about Revington at the newspaper office, but the next day the relatives received a telegram from the Admiralty stating that he was shot in the streets of Alexandria while serving on police duty. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 21 September 1882: p. 6
Death Angel Visible
In the summer of 1899, after my second term in medical school, I secured a position in the Lakeland Insane asylum at Lakeland, Ky. I was day warden for a couple of months then was changed to night warden on ward No. 56. The ward had 54 patients, most of whom were epileptics. But there was one by the name of Frank who was not only insane, but through paralysis, was so helpless he had to be fed and carried around from place to place. This made him a great care. We had another patient by the name of Ellis, who was so full of devilment that he would often go down along the foot of the beds along the ward and jerk the covers off. Then he was very quarrelsome also.
Frank had taken sick and did a great deal of groaning, which seemed to annoy Ellis more than a little: and we had to watch him to keep from jumping on Frank. I came on the ward at 9 p.m. At that time all patients were supposed to be in bed. The dining room was at one end of the war, divided from it by a heavy iron netting. I made a trip through the ward about thirty or forty minutes to see if all were in bed, as we had several who had tried to hang themselves. Of course, I was to keep a close watch on the ward at all times. The ward was about eighty feet long and we always kept a sixteen candle power electric light burning at the opposite end from the dining room, where I sat by a table when not busy going over the ward.
On one side of the ward were a couple of rooms with the side end opening into the ward with no partition between.
On this particular night we had Frank lying on the floor in one of these rooms. And as he was going on and groaning considerable, the day warden said to me when I came on duty that night: “You must watch Ellis close, for he has been wanting to get at Frank all day. “
Everything went well and I had made several rounds making them more often. I had just been on a round and stopped a minute before Frank’s room and I noticed he was breathing very hard. As I walked back to the table and sat down, just inside the dining room in front of the gate, which was open, I looked at my watch and it was twenty minutes of twelve.
Earlier in the evening I had started a letter and for the time being I turned my attention to it again.
All of a sudden there was a low rustle something like a lady’s skirt will make when walking by, but there was no sound of footsteps. I looked up at once and as Frank’s room was near the lower end of the ward close to the light a glance was sufficient to see anyone in that end of the ward. When I glanced up a figure in a night robe was nearly in the middle of the ward and went directly into Frank’s room. As the form had come from the direction of Ellis’ bed and seemed to be about his size, I concluded, of course, it was him. I ran down there as quick as I could on tiptoe, hoping to get there before Ellis would have time to jump on Frank.
But when I got there you can imagine my surprise when Ellis was not to be seen. In fact, no one was there. And Frank had quit breathing.
I instantly glanced at Ellis’ bed and to more of my surprise, he was in bed seemingly sound asleep. I then made an examination of all the beds and found every patient in bed sound asleep.
I have pondered over this many times, and to this day I can’t make out how anyone could have gotten in there and out, and in their bed all still without having been caught, as I only had about sixty feet to go and I ran with my eyes in that direction. Then why was I so sure that was someone, and it was not. After I had gone over the ward thoroughly and walked back to the table I looked at my watch again and it was five minutes after twelve. I have to believe my own eyes and believe it was a death angel who came for Frank that night. L.R.E. [From a 1914 ghost story contest held by the Dayton [OH] Daily News.
Phantom funerals are a well-known motif in European ghostlore. In my upcoming book, The Headless Horror, I tell of a phantom funeral seen in connection with a suicide unhappy with the location of his grave. Here is a strangely technicolored phantom funeral from Georgia.
A DEATH FORETOLD
A gentleman from Georgia relates the following curious story:
Some years ago, when I was a school boy, attending school at Calvary, Ga., I, in company with one of my cousins, witnessed one of the most wonderful of spirit processions.
‘Twas on a Friday afternoon, in the spring of the year, and we were on our way from school. We came down the road, laughing and talking together. We were just opposite the grave yard, at the Primitive Baptist church (Piedmont), where we witnessed one of the grandest burials imaginable. Just in front of us, as silent as moonlight, came the burial procession. On, on, it came. First the corpse in a blue wagon drawn by two white mules. Then the mourners in black. Then the rest of the procession in all the colors of the rainbow, moving with silent tread to the grove which surrounds the yard.
Coming to the grave they halted, lifted the coffin from the wagon, lowered it into the grave and filled it. Then re-entering their wagons and buggies, all of them moved off, passing over graves, trees and everything else in the way. The whole procession then disappeared like a mist. We knew all of the people, and knew whom they buried. When it disappeared we went home in a hurry and told my mother about it. She would not let us tell Uncle J. and his wife, because it was their little girl that we saw buried. She was at the time, to my certain knowledge, well and hearty. Before Saturday night she was a corpse, and she was carried to the grave in exact accordance with the scene we had witnessed. Logansport [IN] Pharos Tribune 2 April 1889: p. 3
In many Native American traditions, the owl is a symbol of death and evil.
OWL HOOTED; SISTER DIED
Ghostly Bird Was True Death Harbinger for Woman in Minnesota
Orwell, Vt., Jan 8. Whenever Henry Sherman, a farmer of this place, hears a barn owl hoot he is just as sure that a near relative has died as though he had received a letter containing the news. Mr. Sherman is not a spiritualist nor a believer in signs, yet he has absolute faith in the owl. Seemingly he has good reason.
Two years ago the farmer was awakened in the night by a loud hooting and was rather surprised, as, while sawwhet owls are not at all uncommon hereabout, the barn variety of bird is rare and in late years they have not been heard. Being curious to get a look at the nocturnal disturber he arose and peered out of the window. There, sitting on a stub close to an apple tree, was the owl hooting at intervals.
Next day Mr. Sherman received a telegram from St. Paul, Minn. Announcing that his sister had died the night before at 12 o’clock. It was 12:15 when he was awakened by the owl. The two incidents were not connected until three months later, when the bird again appeared on the night that Mr. Sherman’s uncle, John H. Dodge, of Water Mill, L.I. passed away. When it was found that his death had taken place at the very hour the owl set up his cries the farmer began to feel queer.
Last March a cousin in Scranton, Pa., was killed by a trolley car at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. About 4:30 the owl showed up, blindly flapping about over the house and emitting long and discordant cries. This was almost too much for Mr. Sherman and he shot at the bird. He missed and away went the owl.
The feathered messenger of death did not appear again until last week, when for an hour one night he sat silently on his old perch. That day Mr. Sherman had received word that Mr. Dodge’s son was seriously ill of pneumonia, and he feared the worst. At 6 o’clock in the morning the owl hooted and the farmer was certain that his nephew was dead. In fact, he had died at that hour. Oakland [OH] Tribune 8 January 1907: p. 3
I hope this post finds all of you well. And, no, if I see a skull instead of a face when I meet you in the street, I will not tell you. Some things are best left unsaid.
For more stories of tokens of death, see The Face in the Window, The Victorian Book of the Dead, and The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past. (All are available for Kindle as well. Or ask your library or bookstore to order it for you.)
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.