As someone who studies death and mourning, I’m always pleased to come across a story—either true or fictional—that mingles mourning customs with a good ghost story. This plausible tale, which is written as fiction, features the traditional night-watch over the corpse plus a sinister aural haunting.
AUNT SARAH’S STORY.
“Well,” said Aunt Sarah Bird, “though I never saw one and hope I never shall, there are many who have, or who thought so at any rate; and I can’t help half believing in them after all. Your father, Mary Horton, if he was here, or Mr. William Day, if he was alive, could tell of an awful thing we once witnessed, which, if not a ghost, must have been something supernatural.”
“Do tell us about it, Aunt Sally,” said cousin Fanny.
We were all sitting in a great ring around Uncle Robert’s blazing hearth. Here were Aunt Sarah, Mary Horton, Elise Parker, cousin Fanny, and the children; on the other side Uncle Robert, Martin Kennedy the schoolmaster, and Daniel Ford and Stephen Ingalls, the hired men. Tiger and I occupied the chimney corner. I must mention that Uncle Robert is a large farmer in one of the old Puritan towns in Plymouth county, and lives in the family mansion, of which a part was built by my great-great-grandfather, who came over in the Mayflower.
It was a dark stormy night without, and the noise of the wind through the ancient elms was terrible.
“‘Twas before we were married,” continued Aunt Sarah, (speaking to uncle,) “when I couldn’t have been more than fifteen—but I must begin further back than that. Old Deacon Mansell of Middleborough, whose grandson died the year Fanny was born, had an only daughter, Charity”
“She married Dr. Garfield,” said uncle, “as long ago as I can remember; they’ve both been dead these twenty years at least.”
“Yes,” said aunt, “but she died before her husband, after they had been married about a year. The doctor was much the eldest, and was a rough man in his ways; they said he was none too kind to his wife while she was alive. It was a match of the deacon’s making, for Charity wanted to have had Stephen Kent, who went off to Genesee. She was a timid kind of a girl; indeed she was brought up so that she hardly knew what it was to have her own way in her life. The old man made her turn off Kent, who wasn’t worth anything but a small farm, and take Garfield, because he had property and was heir to old Mr. Cobb of Carver.
“All the young people then a few years older than I, said the marriage was the cause of her death. From the very day it took place she seemed to fall into a decline, and in less than a year she died of consumption.
“I wasn’t much acquainted with her, but Esther Mayhew, who had lived at our house, took care of her in her last sickness; and when she died, as there was no one there with Esther, our folks let me go over to keep her company.”
“I know the house,” said Stephen Ingalls; “it is around on what they call the five mile road.”
“Col. Davenport owns the place now,” said my uncle.
“The house stands in from the road,” continued Aunt Sarah, “and it looked dreary to me then because there were no trees near it, except some white birch and sumach at the foot of the lane—nothing but a high well-sweep, and a few outhouses that hid themselves behind as if they were afraid of being seen. I remember as plainly as though ’twere yesterday, how gloomy it looked the day I went to see Esther. There was she, and old granny Bolcum, who went away in the afternoon, and William Day, then a young man; he married Esther afterwards, and they moved over to the Vineyard. Garfield had gone down to Boston in the worst of his poor wife’s sickness, and though word had been sent, it took a day to go and a day to come, so that he could no more than get back in time for the funeral.
“In the east room lay the body in the coffin, ready for the funeral, which was to be next day. Dear me! how distinctly I recollect the expression of the face, when Esther took me in to see it; so serene and peaceful that I said it appeared as if the soul had gone to heaven before death. But Esther, who liked her very much, was all tears, and said ‘she didn’t know what to think, for that Charity had never experienced religion.’
“That evening, after granny Bolcum went away, came your father, Mary, who was to sit up with William Day. He must have been then about twenty-five, and as strong and resolute a young man as there was in the Old Colony.”
“He’d have been an active man if he had not gone into business,” said Uncle Robert.
“We sat by the kitchen fire,” continued my aunt, “till about ten o’clock, and then Esther and I went upstairs to bed. I was soon asleep and conscious of nothing, till some time in the night I was awaked by Esther’s suddenly rising up and saying in a startled whisper, ‘What’s that?’
“I should have mentioned that the house is a one-story one, and the only chamber then finished was the one we occupied, directly over the east room.
“She spoke so quick and grasped my arm so tightly I was awake in an instant, and comprehended that she was frightened at something she had heard. I held my breath, and in a moment we both heard a strange sound, that seemed to come from beneath the floor. I was frightened almost out of my senses. Esther had more courage. ‘Slip on your gown, Sally dear,’ said she; ‘don’t be scared—(for I was beginning to cry)—we will go down stairs. I dare say it’s only William Day has fallen asleep and snoring.’
“We hurried on our gowns as well as we could in the dark, and had hardly done so before there came another—a deep, low groaning, heavier than before.
“Esther pulled me down stairs, and we rushed into the kitchen where the watchers were sitting, both asleep, their supper untouched, and the fire light almost gone out. I grasped your father’s knees and he started to his feet; Esther shook William Day and clung to him, crying, ‘O William; wake! wake!’
“‘What’s the matter?’ said your father.” They were both awake in a moment, and listening. Presently the awful sound was again repeated; we all heard it as plainly as you hear me speak. Not a word was spoken for a moment. William Day lighted a candle. Said your father to him, ‘Let us go in and look at the body.’
“But now Esther lost all courage, and held William Day by the arm, saying he should not go; if he did we should die, and so forth. Then your father said, ‘Stay you with the girls, William. I will take the gun and see what this means;’ and he began to do so while he was speaking.
“The east room did not open immediately from the kitchen, but through another apartment at the side of the house. Your father walked in with his gun, thinking, I suppose, that a cat (for cats, you know, are attracted by dead bodies) might have broken in through the window. He had crossed the floor of the side apartment, and had his hand on the latch of the east room door, when there came another dreadful moaning noise, much more distinct and lengthened than either of the others. It makes my blood run cold even now to think of it.
“We clung with all our might to William Day. Your father paused an instant, and we could see that the light for a moment trembled in his hand. But suddenly he flung the door wide open and walked steadily into the dark room, saying with a voice that made the house shake,”‘ In God’s name, Evil One, depart!’ “Immediately, while he walked around the coffin, we heard a noise as of a rushing wind going swiftly about the outside of the house. William Day opened the kitchen door and we went with him and stood upon the door-stone. Your father, seeing that there was nothing in the east room, joined us with the light, and we all stood there together and listened, expecting we knew not what.
“Three times the mysterious sound seemed to encircle the house, each time more faint, till finally it appeared to depart, and gradually die away. As it came the second time your father walked out a little distance from the house, bearing the candle in his hand. The night was pitch dark, and so perfectly calm that the flame of the candle was as steady as it was within doors. Yet we all heard the sound, and when we came to talk of it afterwards, we found it appeared precisely the same to each of us—a singular mysterious whisper, something like a prolonged mournful gust of wind, that went three times round the house against the sun, and then died away.
“We listened some time after it had ceased, till your father came with the light, and then we all went in. He and William Day then walked into the east room and examined the doors and windows carefully, without finding that anything had been moved however, except that the napkin which covered the face of the corpse had been turned down. William was positive that this was not so before; but your father was not sure that he had not done it himself when he went in alone. The face of the dead was unchanged, and both the men said the sweet look of it was enough to frighten away the worst spirit that ever walked upon the earth.
“You may suppose none of us slept much that night; but though one and another of us would often fancy noises coming from the east room like those we had heard, there was no time when we could all agree that we actually heard any. We sat up and talked of it till day-break; your father said it might after all have been our imagination, or it might have been caused by an earthquake, or something that learned men might know about; for the sake of poor Charity he thought, and so did all, that it had better be kept a secret.
“So they made me, who was the youngest, promise very strictly not to tell of it. We have all kept our words so well that none of us, so far as I know, ever mentioned it again, though William Day (who afterwards married Esther) might have talked of it with his wife; they are both now in their graves. Your father and I are the only ones left; and the very names of the persons concerned are almost forgotten—so I think there’s no harm in telling it.
“Dr. Garfield arrived soon after daybreak in the morning, having ridden all night from Boston. He inquired if any one had passed the night at the house except ourselves, and said that in coming through Dodge’s woods about three miles back, he met an old man in a three-cornered hat and black stockings, with a long staff in his hand; the woods were dark and the morning fog obscured the twilight, so that he could not see distinctly, yet it appeared to him, oddly enough, that the old man looked and walked precisely like ‘daddy Mansell’—meaning Charity’s father, who died about four months after her marriage. He said that the old man, whoever he was, walked fast, in the middle of the road, and must have been almost blind, or in a brown study, for his horse would have gone directly over him had he not suddenly jerked him aside.
“I observed your father’s face change as he said this, but was so young at the time I could not understand it. When I grew up, however, and came to know what fathers—yes, and mothers, are capable of doing to their children, then I saw that he must have connected this account of the doctor’s with what had occurred in the night, and suspected in his mind that the awful groans we had heard were the sorrow of a tyrannical parent’s unquiet spirit over the dead body of his heart-broken child. And for my part, foolish as it may seem, I have never been able to account for the mystery in any other way.”
American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics and Literature, Volume 8: October 1848: pp 411-413
In the original article, another paragraph was added in which a sceptic suggested that the noises were a door creaking and cattle breathing out in the yard. There have been reports of mysterious vocalizations coming from corpses as trapped air works its way out. In The Victorian Book of the Dead there is an account of watchers startled by a dead boy’s laughter. The detail of “the prolonged mournful gust of wind” going “three times round the house against the sun,” seems to bear out the evil nature of the manifestation: widdershins is the direction of the Devil. The sinister figure of Deacon Mansell (the Deacon Met on the Road?) adds to the darkness of the story.
The custom of sitting up with the corpse would have been taken for granted by the readers of this story. It was a sign of respect for the dead, who, in common humanity, should not be left alone, just as the sick and dying should never be abandoned. While the vigils, particularly where there were only one or two watchers, could be very frightening, there is no truth to the modern suggestions that wakes were a) to make sure the person was actually dead or b) to prevent the corpse from becoming a vampire. That said, there are certainly stories of persons “waking” at their own wakes, and it was well-known that cats and corpses did not mix: in some cultures, a cat or other animal jumping over a corpse could cause the dead to become un-dead; and, to judge by the stories in the papers, cats found corpses an irresistibly tasty snack. There is a blood-curdling story in The Victorian Book of the Dead about cats madly trying to get into a room containing a corpse.
As for the “awful groans” being the sorrow of a tyrannical parent’s unquiet spirit over the dead body of his heart-broken child, I have my doubts. They seem more like a banshee after the fact.
Other aural or funereal hauntings? Whisper mysteriously to 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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.