The Doctor’s Ghost Story

"Rhoda" from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, by Edward Gorey

“Rhoda” from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, by Edward Gorey

Must rush off and do publicity-type things for The Victorian World of the Dead, so here is a bare-bones ghost story, told by an English doctor. The setting is the village of Holloway.

There was something very agreeable to me, in my boyhood, in lingering among its simple denizens and listening to their traditions and passing experiences—none of which, however, were more interesting to a psychologist than what I am now about to relate, as happening to a person still living there in Philip Spencer’s cottage.

Philip and his first wife, Martha, who was a cousin of mine, having no children of their own, adopted the little daughter of a young woman who went to live at Derby. The child called them father and mother as soon as she could speak, not remembering her own parents—not even her mother.

While yet very young, she one day began to cry out that there was a young woman looking at her, and wanting to come to her; and according to her description of the person it must have been her mother. As no one else saw the apparition, and the child continued for more than half an hour to be very excited, Philip took her out of the house to that of a neighbour; but the apparition kept them company, talking by the way.

They then went to another house, where it accompanied them still, and seemed as though it wanted to embrace the child; but at last vanished in the direction of Derby—as the little girl, now a young woman, describes it—in a flash of fire. Derby is about fourteen miles distant from Holloway, and as in that day there was neither railway nor telegraph, communication between them was much slower than at present.

As soon, however, as it was possible for intelligence to come, the news arrived that the poor child’s mother had been burnt to death; that it happened about the time when it saw her apparition; and, in short, that she was sorrowing and crying to be taken to the child during the whole of the time between being burnt and her expiration.

This is no “idle ghost story,” but a simple matter of fact, to which not only Philip, but all his old neighbours can testify; and the young woman has not only related it more than once to me, but she told it in the same artless and earnest manner to my friend, the late Dr. Samuel Brown, of Edinburgh, who once called at the cottage with me,—repeating it still more clearly to Messrs. Fowler and Wells on our recent visit. Those people who ridicule all psychical phenomena they may not themselves have seen, will possibly be disposed to explain away this fact; but all we need say to such is what Shakespere said long ago—” There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Nor could I well quit Holloway on this occasion without recording the story.

Days in Derbyshire, Dr. Spencer T. Hall, 1863 

The unfortunate fire victim follows a pattern of ghosts seen in their last throes. Soaking wet, for example, (if drowned) or with their throats cut (if murdered.) This is a theme that seems to have gone the way of headless highwaymen and ghostly nuns, at least in current western/European ghostlore. (Some Japanese ghosts still manifest in horrifically mutilated ways.)  In many years of interviewing hundreds of witnesses for my Haunted Ohio series, I can think of only a handful of cases where the ghost reflected its manner of death. Any modern examples of this sort of thing? Tell me artlessly and earnestly at Chriswoodyard8 AT


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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.




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