[Disclaimer: The illustration is actually a banshee. I couldn’t find an appropriate Gwyllion picture in the sea of modern artwork of unearthly creatures, male and female, whose faces (and other bits) are very visible.]
There is a particular category of road ghost, often female, that is seen always from behind. No matter how much the pursuer (inevitably a single man) runs or lashes his horse, he cannot catch up to the creature and does not see her face–she usually wears some kind of headgear. Here are two examples, one from Wales and one from Mississippi. The Welsh example is framed as a trickster spirit or witch (the narrator is a minister), and also has traits of the will-o-the-wisp, which can take the form of a purported guide or of a person in distress.
LLANHYDDEL MOUNTAIN was formerly much talked of, and still remembered concerning an Apparition which led many people astray both by day and by night, upon this mountain. The Apparition was the resemblance of a poor old woman, with an oblong four-cornered hat, ash-coloured clothes, her apron thrown across her shoulder, with a pot or wooden can in her hand, such as poor people carry to fetch milk with, always going before them, sometimes crying out WOW UP**. Whoever saw this Apparition, whether by night or in a misty day, though well acquainted with the road, they would be sure to lose their way; for the road appeared quite different to what it really was; and so far sometimes the fascination was, that they thought they were going to their journey’s end when they were really going the contrary way. Sometimes they heard her cry WOW UP, when they did not see her.
Sometimes, when they went out by night to fetch coal, water, &c. they would hear the cry very near them, and presently would hear it a-far off, as if it was on the opposite Mountain, in the Parish of Aberystruth, and sometimes passing by their ears.
The people have it by tradition, that it was the Spirit of one Juan White#, who lived time out of mind in these parts, and was thought to be a witch because the Mountain was not haunted with her Apparition until after her death. When people first lost their way, and saw her, they thought it was a real woman which knew the way; they were glad to see her, and endeavoured to overtake her to enquire about the way; but they could never over-take her, neither would she ever look back to see them ; so that they never saw her face.
She has been seen and heard upon other Mountains, even as far up as the Black Mountain in Breconshire. Robert Williams, of Langattock Crickhowel, a substantial man and of undoubted veracity; as he was travelling one night over part of the Black Mountain, saw her; and having lost his way, called her to stay for him ; but receiving no answer, thought she was deaf: he then hastened his pace, thinking to over-take her, but could not; for the swifter he ran the farther he was behind ; — at which he wondered very much, neither did he know the reason of it, not thinking it was a Spirit which he saw and heard. In trying to overtake her his foot happened to slip in a marshy place, at which his vexation increased; he then heard her laugh at it, like an old woman: he was now much wearied and his mind greatly troubled, having some thoughts of an Apparition ; and happening to draw out his knife for some purpose, she vanished : he then perceived he was in a most dangerous place; but he soon found his way home, and was very glad to find himself delivered from the unmerciful delusion.
She once led a man to and fro in a misty day at Peny ddoi-gae Mountain; for after travelling much, he came to a bush of rushes; this gave him so great a concern, that he afterwards made a song of complaint and reproach against her, in which he mentioned her four-cornered hat, &c. but her chief haunt was on Llanhyddel Mountain. — I recollect hearing, when I was a young lad in Aberystruth Parish, of persons having lost their way in coming home from Pontypool Market, upon that Mountain.
I once met a woman of the next Parish, who, together with her young daughter, had lost her way in the day-time, and was very weary, especially the young lass, whom I put in the way. I lost the way myself two or three times, in the day-time, on this Mountain, though I knew it very well, and that is no more than a mile and a half long, and about half-a-mile broad. Once I lost my way, — as I came from the Mountain I called at a house where I had never been; and finding an uncommon inclination to it, I offered to go to prayer, which they admitted, and I was greatly welcomed. I was then about twenty three years of age, and had begun to preach the everlasting Gospel. They seemed to admire that a person so young should be so warmly disposed ; few young men of my age being religious in this country then. Much good came into this house, and still continues in it. I think the Lord answered my earnest prayer, and if so the old hag got nothing by leading me astray that time. Often it is, that the malignity of evil Spirits is turned for good to them that fear God; and wonderful is the mercy that makes all things to work for good. — Another time, on going over the Mountain on horseback, on a misty day, and thinking she might be near me, (for she was very busy on that Mountain observing who passed over it) I said in faith, “Do thy worst thou Old Devil, I will not loose my way”; and I did not at that time.
Of late years there is but little talk about her, the light of the Gospel has driven her to closer quarters — in the coal-pits and holes of the earth, until the day when she shall be gathered in the body to receive the everlasting curse, Math. xxv. 41. “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the County of Monmouth and the Principality of Wales, Rev. Edmund Jones, 1780
**“Wow up!” is the English transliteration of a Welsh cry of distress: “wwb!” or “Ww-bwb!” pronounced “Wooboob”
#Wirt Sikes in British Goblins, footnotes the name of Old Woman like this: ‘Juan (Shui) White is an old acquaintance of my boyhood,’ writes to me a friend who was born some thirty years ago in Monmouthshire. ‘A ruined cottage on the Lasgarn Hill near Pontypool was understood by us boys to have been her house, and there she appeared at 12 p.m., carrying her head under her arm.’ I had thought Juan White a misprint for “Joan White,” as Joan is a “witch” name.
Sikes also names the Old Woman as one of the “Gwyllion…female fairies of frightful characteristics, who haunted lonely roads in the Welsh mountains and lead night-wanderers astray. They partake somewhat of the aspect of the Hecate of Greek mythology, who rode on the storm, and was a hag of horrid guise. The Welsh word gwyll is variously used to signify gloom, shade, duskiness, a hag, a witch, a fairy, and a goblin; but its special application is to these mountain fairies of gloomy and harmful habits….” British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, 1881
The road ghost in the following story, which appears in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, belongs to that same type of phantoms of the highway: an old woman, a figure that cannot be overtaken, no matter how fast the pursuit, an entity that does not answer when spoken to, and whose face is concealed—at least until the last, horrifying moment. The entity is also reminiscent of the creature whose grisly head leaps out of the basket in the folktale retold as “May I Carry Your Basket?” in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz.
A GHASTLY SPECTER
Terrible Experience of a Mississippi Man
Jackson (Miss.) Special.
Our town is much excited just now by a bona fide ghost, which is to be seen nightly on what is known as the old North Road. This road is little traveled now, as a better one has been made of late years nearly parallel to it, though some hundred yards apart. However, owing to the fall of an immense oak across the new road during the recent storm, travel has temporarily been resumed over the old one.
Jim D., a milkman, driving his wagon to town early one morning, was the first to see the ghost. On being interviewed, this man stated to your correspondent: “It was just a little after daybreak, and there was a very heavy fog, which prevented my seeing very far ahead, so I was not able to see where she came from, but I suddenly saw, almost under my horse’s nose, a little woman in a checked sunbonnet, hobbling along the road. The horse seemed to see her about the same time that I did, for he sprang back with an awful snort, or rather screech. He’s the steadiest animal that ever wore harness, but he began to rear up then, and take on so I could hardly hold him, and the sweat just rolled off him until he was as wet as if he’d been through the river. I was too busy quieting the horse to look after the woman, but when I got him started again, there she was still pegging along just in front of us. The bonnet flapped about her face so I could not see it, but from her walk and humped figure I could tell she was an old woman. She was holding her hand up to her head as if it hurt her, and I could hear moaning to herself in a piteous sort of way that made my flesh feel mightily creepy. I called out to her to know what was the matter, and if she didn’t want to ride, but she didn’t seem to hear, and just kept straight on till I got mad. “Hello, there,” I said, “would you mind getting out of the way? I’m in a hurry, and I’d like to pass you.”
“As she still didn’t seem to hear or notice, I turned out and tried to drive round, but though I got faster and faster, the old woman kept ahead, until we reached that old clearing where a house used to stand on the side of the road when she turned around and gave me one look. And, I tell you, sir, I’ll never forget that sight as long as I live. That old woman’s face had the awful greenish, corrupted look of a person that’s been dead a long time, and right across her long, skinny throat there was a dreadful cut, from which, as I am a living man, the blood was till oozing in big black drops. I was sitting there in the wagon staring at her, all the blood in my body freezing, and my hair standing up like a brush heap, when she vanished right before my eyes as completely as if the earth had opened and swallowed her up.”
Several have watched the road since then and seen the little old woman suddenly appear, always just as day is breaking in a certain part of the road, and after going a few hundred feet, vanish near the old clearing. She responds to no greeting, and seems unconscious that any one is near, until just before disappearing, when she glances round, revealing her unearthly dead countenance with the bleeding gash across her throat.
A certain gentleman of this place made the boast that he would fathom the mystery surrounding her, and had the courage to accost her, even endeavoring to lay hold of her garments; but, in his own words, his hand and arm felt as if they had encountered an electric fluid that fairly paralyzed them, and he fell back fainting, and half dead form the shock, while the specter calmly pursued its way. The gentleman still keeps his bed, and is suffering from the nervous attack brought on by his encounter with the ghost. As there seems to be some connection between the phantom and the cleared space spoken of, and on which a house evidently once stood, conjecture has been rife concerning this house and its history. But the oldest inhabitants have no recollection of any building ever having been there within their memory and say that the place has always presented the same bare and desolate appearance as now, no grass, no verdure of any sort ever having been known to spring up within its circuit.
St. Paul [MN] Daily Globe 6 April 1890: p. 19
Have you had any experience with sinister road ghosts? Send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. No covered baskets, please. I hate surprises.
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.