The Divine Comedy: Purgatory Pranksters

Poor Souls in Purgatory, not imposters.

Poor Souls in Purgatory, not imposters.

Why is i the happiest of the vowels?

Because i is in the midst of bliss; e is in hell, and all the others are in purgatory.

San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 21 September 1863: p. 4

In a shameless bid to ride the coattails of publicity for Dan Brown’s new book Inferno, [an inferno-mercial, if you will.]  and since I have previously covered Hell and its location as well as some fiery relics of the Poor Souls in Purgatory, today I am looking at some stories about Purgatorial pranks, where the living impersonate the dead for their own purposes. And, just because I can, I’m including a few Purgatory jokes. 

You know, of course, that Purgatory is a place (in the Catholic tradition) where the dead are sent to be purified before they can move on to eternal bliss. Time served there may be shortened by the prayers of the living, Masses said, etc. I thought that the Vatican had recently eliminated Purgatory, but I may have been thinking of Limbo, which inspired a lot of loose talk in 2007, when a document was released discussing the doctrine. Despite headlines about “Limbo Closed,” it is still considered a “possible theological hypothesis” about the fate of unbaptized infants. 

Here is a typical, serious tale of a soul from Purgatory returning to earth. This story, which comes from Saint Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun and visionary, is nearly word-for-word the same as ones found in medieval exempla. 

One night, a sister who had died two months previously came to me. She was a sister of the first choir. I saw her in a terrible condition, all in flames with her face painfully distorted. This lasted only a short time, and then she disappeared. A shudder went through my soul because I did not know whether she was suffering in purgatory or in hell. Nevertheless I redoubled my prayers for her. The next night she came again, but I saw her in an even more horrible state, in the midst of flames which were even more intense, and despair was written all over her face. I was astonished to see her in a worse condition after the prayers I had offered for her, and I asked, “Haven’t my prayers helped you?” She answered that my prayers had not helped her and that nothing would help her. I said to her, “And the prayers which the whole community has offered for you, have they not been any help to you?” She said no, that these prayers had helped some other souls. I replied, “If my prayers are not helping you, Sister, please stop coming to me. She disappeared at once. Despite this, I kept on praying,

After some time she came back again to me during the night, but already her appearance had changed. There were no longer any flames, as there had been before, and her face was radiant, her eyes beaming with joy. She told me that I had a true love for my neighbor and that many other souls had profited from my prayers. She urged me not to cease praying for the souls in purgatory, and she added that she herself would not remain there much longer. How astounding are the decrees of God! Divine Mercy in my Soul Diary, Sister M. Faustina Kowalska, Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 1987 p. 30 

Surviving relatives were, naturally desperate to see their loved ones sprung from the place of temporary torment, which is why the practice of indulgences was so prevalent. This 16th-century story from France shows how one clever man played on relatives’ fears. 


Lewis Brabant, valet de-chambre to Francis I. was one of these extraordinary people, and was noted for many uncommon pranks. He had, moreover, a very singular knack at counterfeiting the tone of voice of any particular person living or dead, so as even to imitate their very

groans and lamentations, provided he had ever known them, or heard them speak.

Lewis happened to take a fancy to a young woman, who was not only handsome, but had also a good fortune. Unluckily the father could not be brought to relish the match: but he, dying soon after, Brabant applied to the mother, who it seems knew nothing of the peculiar talent of our artist. In broad day-light, and in the presence of some company that happened to be then at her house, she was alarmed with a voice exactly resembling that of her deceased husband. The voice bid her “marry our daughter to Lewis Brabant, who now asks her of you. He is a man of a plentiful fortune, and bears the best of characters. For denying his request when living, I now endure unspeakable torments in purgatory. If you comply with this warning, I shall not remain long in this place of torture. Then you will have done two very meritorious actions: you will procure an excellent husband for your daughter, and give everlasting rest to the soul of your poor husband.”

How could the poor mother resist the imposture? Brabant was to all appearance silent—his mouth shut, and his lips motionless. The voice seemed to proceed from above, and as she imagined from heaven, and was moreover so like that of her late husband, that she deemed the smallest delay a most damnable sin; he therefore immediately promised her daughter to Lewis, who set his thoughts to work to marry her as fast as possible.

His affairs were but in bad order, a circumstance not to be concealed when a marriage contract is to be made. To hazard the reputation and credit of the invisible world, would be held as a scoffing at religion, of which the government might think proper to take notice. Let the consequence be what it would, he was resolved to give himself out for a man of fortune, and that in a manner that could not be called in question.

“I have deceived this good woman,” said Lewis to himself, “why cannot I cozen some rich miser? These are seldom without remorse of conscience; so as the walls of the fortress are already shaken, there wants only the last battery to be played upon it.” While he was busied about his project, he happened to hear of one Cornu, a banker of Lyons, extremely rich, and whose conscience twitched him now and then on the score of his past and present conduct in the way of his calling. This was the very circumstance which Lewis wished to find out: so out he sets, goes to the banker’s, and acquaints him he has business of moment, and which required the greatest secrecy to communicate.

Mr. Cornu received him very civilly, and leading him to a retired room where no one would overhear them, Lewis began to talk in a very religious strain, and was particularly diffuse on the article of devils, apparitions, hell, and purgatory. When he found his man somewhat moved, and that the pill began to work, he, in appearance, became quite silent: at the same time a voice was heard resembling, as he (Cornu) thought, that of a ghost. The father of this banker had been dead some years. Cornu was persuaded he heard his father’s voice, which commanded him to pay to Lewis Brabant, then with him, a large sum of money for the ransom of Christian captives in slavery among the Turks. The ghost also complained that he had suffered grievous torments in purgatory ever since his death. In case of refusal, he menaced his son with everlasting torments in hell flames. He knew he had richly deserved almost hell fire by his usury, and even by usury on usury, and was satisfied the vast wealth he had amassed had been the fruit of the vilest extortion, injustice, and oppression. An injunction so unlooked for, and delivered in so extraordinary a manner, alarmed the guilty conscience of the banker. He desired him to return the next day. Avarice is ever mistrustful, ever awake. The voice might come from the room above, or through some chink made on purpose in the wall of the apartment

Therefore, on the return of Lewis next morning, he suffered Cornu to conduct him into a large plain, perfectly level and smooth, where was neither cabin, hollow, hillock, nor tree, to be found. Lewis, who saw through the banker’s meaning, essayed the utmost reach of his art. At their first meeting, Cornu had heard only his father’s voice; now his ears were assailed with the woeful plaints and doleful moans of all his relations, imploring his help, in the name of every saint, and crying aloud, that no atonement was so efficacious as the redemption of captives. Wherever they went, though both Cornu and Brabant kept the most profound silence, in the openest and most sequestered places, the same lamentations, the same imploring for aid and relief, followed them. “If this is not a miracle,” said the banker to himself, “I am at a loss what can be a miracle. Do I not see all around me? What trick can be played me in the midst of a smooth bald plain? It must be a voice from the other world—I can plainly hear it coming from the heavens.” He then pays down the ten thousand crowns to Brabant to enable him to make a voyage to Turkey for the redemption of captives, which that arch deceiver engaged to do: but instead of going to Turkey, he went directly home, where he gave himself out for a man of considerable property, in order to conclude his marriage treaty.

Cornu, hearing the trick that had been played him, took it so much to heart that he fell dangerously ill, and soon after died, equally a victim to the loss of his money, and the cutting raillery with which he was attacked from every quarter.

 I got this version of “The Ventriloquist” from an 1819 edition of Belle Assemblée: Or, Court and Fashionable Magazine. A version of it from 1826 attributes it to one “M. Bordeau, a learned critic of the sixteenth century.”   

Even monks impersonated the Poor Souls, usually for money, but in this following case, to discredit a rival religious order and to prove a theological point. The results of this “prank” were unusually dire. The principals went to the stake and, one assumes, into Purgatory for rather a long time. 

The different orders of Monks practised the grossest impositions, not only on the community at large, but upon each other. Among many of these base artifices, by which they compassed their purposes, the tragedy of Berne, as it is called, stands conspicuous; and may serve as an example. The Dominicans and Franciscans were engaged in a vehement controversy concerning the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, the former denying and the latter affirming. A Dominican Monk, named Wigand Wirt, preaching at Frankfort, A. D. 1507, so violently assailed the above-mentioned doctrine, that he was summoned to Rome to answer for his conduct. His brethren of the Dominican order, at their Convention at Wempfen, formed a plan to aid him, and to convince the world that the doctrine of the immaculate conception was false. Berne was selected as the scene of their operations. The prior, subprior, preacher, and steward of the Dominican cloister at Berne, undertook to get up miracles and revelations for the occasion. A simple-hearted rustic, by the name of John Jetzer, who had just entered upon his novitiate in the monastery, was selected as their tool. The subprior appeared to him one night, dressed in white, and pretended to be the ghost of a friar, who had been a hundred and sixty years in purgatory. He wailed and entreated of Jetzer to afford him aid. Jetzer promised to do it as far as he was able; and the next morning reported his vision to his superiors. They encouraged him to go on, and to confer freely with the ghost if he appeared again. A few nights after the ghost made his appearance, attended by two devils, his tormentors, and thanked Jetzer for the relaxation of his sufferings in consequence of his prayers and fastings. He also instructed Jetzer concerning the views entertained in the other world respecting the immaculate conception, and the detention of some pontiffs and others in purgatory for having persecuted the deniers of that doctrine; and promised Jetzer that St. Barbara would appear to him to give him further instruction. Accordingly the subprior assumed a female garb, on a succeeding night, and appeared to Jetzer. She revealed to him some parts of his secret history, which the preacher, his confessor, had drawn from him at his confessions. Jetzer was completely duped. St. Barbara promised that the Virgin Mary should appear to him. She, or rather the subprior personating her, did so, and assured him that she was not conceived free from original sin, though she was delivered from it, three hours after her birth; that it was a grievous thing to her to see such errors spread abroad. She blamed the Franciscans much, as the chief cause of this false belief. She also announced the destruction of the city of Berne because the people did not expel the Franciscans, and cease to receive a pension from the king of France. She appeared repeatedly and gave Jetzer much instruction. She promised to impress upon him the five wounds of Christ; which she declared were never impressed upon St. Francis or any other person. She accordingly seized his right hand and thrust a nail through it. This so pained him that he became restive under the operation, and she promised to impress the other wounds without giving him pain. The conspirators now gave him medicated drugs, which stupified him, and then made the other wounds upon him while senseless.

Hitherto the subprior had been the principal actor. But now the preacher undertook to personate St. Mary, and Jetzer knew his voice, and began to suspect the whole to be an imposition. All attempts to hoodwink him became fruitless, and he was in a short time completely undeceived. They now endeavored to bring him voluntarily to join in the plot. He was persuaded to do so. But they imposed upon him such intolerable austerities, and were detected by him in such impious and immoral conduct, that he wished to quit the monastery. They would not let him go; and were so fearful of his betraying their secret, which was now drawing crowds to their monastery, and promised them great advantage, that they determined to destroy him by poison. Jetzer by listening at their door got knowledge of the fact, and was so on his guard, that they could not succeed, though they used a consecrated host as the medium of the poison. He eloped from the monastery and divulged the whole transaction. (See Murdock’s Mosheim, vol. iii. p. 14,15.) The Evangelical Magazine, Volume 2, 1834

 The Irish, with their “Papist superstitions” about Purgatory, were the obvious targets for Purgatorial humor.

A Letter from Purgatory

An old lady had an ancient servant named Ann Brady, who lived with her for many years. One day Ann came into her mistress in the parlor crying and roaring:

“Now, aint I the unfortunate woman! Och, what shall I do at all at all!”

“What’s the matter, Ann?” said her mistress.

“Och, ma’am,” replied Ann, “the postman’s outside, and he’s got a letter for me from Purgatory, and I know it’s from me ould mother, who’s been there this tin years, and it’s all about me not paying for the masses I said I would. Ochone! But I am the miserable woman!”

On her mistress going out she found the postman in a fit of laughter, with a letter directed to “Ann Brady, from the dead Letter Office.”

Nothing could induce her to touch it, the “Dead” to her meaning purgatory, and nothing else; and her mistress was obliged to open the letter for her, and found it was one Ann had written to her nephew in Clare, but who had gone to America, and consequently the letter had been returned. Irish Wit & Humor: Containing the Best Sayings of All Irish Speakers, Walter Henry Howe, 1827

 A priest, who was examining a confirmation class in the South of Ireland, asked the question, “What is the sacrament of matrimony?” A little girl at the head of the class answered, “’Tis a state of torment into which souls enter to prepare them for another and better world.” “Being,” said the priest, “the answer for purgatory.” “Put her down,” says the curate, “put her down to the foot of the class.” “Leave her alone,” said the priest, “for anything you or I know to the contrary, she may be perfectly right.” Elevator [San Francisco, CA] 12 September 1874: p. 4 

Even the animal kingdom was enlisted to aid in Purgatorial impostures:

An English officer had lately arrived at Bonn from Madrid, and, during his residence at the latter town, having heard it stated that on “All Souls’ Night,” certain departed spirits would answer the call of the priest, and appear for a short time to their longing friends, he thought it quite worth while to witness such a wonderful sight. He followed the crowd into the chapel. A gloom so deep pervaded it that it required some little time to become accustomed to it. Many priests were at the altar, addressing the awestricken multitude. The most breathless anxiety prevailed, when, presently on the floor, in every direction, black objects appeared moving. It was no delusion; there they were. The priests solemnly declared to the people they were the souls of their departed friends, which by virtue of their alms and the intercession of their holy fathers were thus permitted to visit the earth. An indiscribable feeling of dread seemed to pervade all present. Screams, cries, confusion, terror, prevailed. Captain—himself felt somewhat squeamish; but like an honest son of Briton, determined to sift the imposture to the bottom. He watched the motions of the visitors; and, seeing one apparently disposed to make his acquaintance, kept his eye steadily fixed upon it. Onwards it toddled, and at last favored by the gloom, arrived so near his feet, that he stooped down unobserved captured, and put it into his pocket! Here was a delightful adventure—a soul fresh from purgatory a captive in the pocket of a British officer! Never was such an event heard of before—no, not in all the histories of the most outrageous acts ever detailed against the unbelieving heretics. There it was; and as soon as he could leave the abode of falsehood and imposition, he hastened to his lodging, carefully secured the door, and then proceeded to examine his prize. Judge, then, of his amusement, and, at the same time, honest indignation, when he found that this black thing, this creature solemnly declared by the priests to be a soul from purgatory, was nothing more nor less than a crab covered with black crape! Vincennes [IN] Gazette 22 June 1861

As the 19th century began, the Poor Souls in Purgatory began to become more like the spirits of the Dear Departed who returned through mediums and séances or like traditional ghosts who were laid by learned parsons.

My mother, who was ill at this time, died a few days after, which prevented me from resuming my journey. About two months after her death, a circumstance occurred in the neighbourhood, which, as illustrative of the manners and superstition of the people, may not be deemed unworthy of insertion in this place.

A servant-maid was haunted by the ghost of her mistress, who had died some time previously. By the persuasion of her friends, she resolved to question it as to its object in tormenting her, and accordingly went through the following form:—

A little after sunset, accompanied with two or three friends, she took some holy water with her into a field, and when the ghost made its appearance, she marked out a circle with the water, and commanded the ghost, in the name of the Trinity, not to come within that circle, and to answer such questions as she should put to it. The ghost then shrieked with joy, at the prospect of being relieved from its miseries by being questioned, (for it was not allowed to speak otherwise,) and replied to Biddy’s queries:—that it had served all its time in purgatory and was now ready to go to Heaven if three masses were said for it; but that till then the soul was obliged to lodge in a bush, that was at the foot of the garden, exposed to the inclemency of the weather. Biddy then put some questions respecting some of her own friends who had died, to which the ghost answered, that some of them were in Heaven, others as yet in purgatory, and more waiting to have some masses said for them, or pilgrimages to Lough Dergh performed for them, before Peter would open the door. The ghost being obliged to disappear at twelve o’clock, Biddy commanded it to attend the night following. In the meantime, the ghost’s husband built a shed over the bush in the garden, to protect the soul from cold, and a report of the occurrence being circulated throughout the neighbourhood, thousands flocked at the appointed time to the place, to make enquiries concerning their deceased friends. The ghost knew everything about all Pluto’s subjects, and gave satisfactory information, through Biddy, (who alone could see or hear it,) to all such as made enquiries. I being sent by my father to ask respecting my mother, having effected my way through the crowd, requested of Biddy to enquire about her. She asked me how long my mother had been dead, and I replied: “If she had lived till next Monday, she would be dead nine weeks.” This answer excited considerable laughter, which nettled me not a little; and Biddy having put the question to the ghost, returned as answer to me, that my mother was to be two months more in purgatory, and that after that, nine masses should be said for her soul before she could get into Heaven. I burst out into tears, exclaiming that it was a d—d lie; for my mother had never done any evil act, for which she should be kept in purgatory so long; and returned home meditating vengeance against the ghost, for what I considered malicious information.

I had often heard my father state, that a tester was the only effective bullet to shoot a ghost with, and having resolved, on this occasion, to make a trial of its magic powers, I borrowed a gun, loaded it with a tester, and proceeded the next night, in order to have a slap at the spirit. As I was about to ascend a ditch, which was on my way, the ghost appeared standing in a bush at the top of it, as if to intercept me; my senses were paralysed, my resolution forsook me, and I was about to kneel down to beg its pardon, when, by some accident, the gun went off, and the ghost disappeared. The report attracted several persons to the place, who, on hearing the particulars, concluded that the ghost had been shot; and having made a search for the remains, they found, somewhere contiguous, a substance of the nature of jelly, very common in the fields in Ireland, and vulgarly denominated a fallen star. They all agreed that this was the corpse of the ghost; they held it sacred, and deemed it worse than sacrilege to lay hands on it. I returned home smitten with remorse, and loaded with execrations, for my impious conduct. In the meantime, the news of the catastrophe reached the place of rendezvous, and all were agog to know if the ghost would appear. Biddy took her station at the appointed hour, but no ghost appeared; this was a positive proof of its fate. The air rent with exclamations against me; had I been within reach they would have torn me asunder. The number present on this night, was estimated at twenty thousand. I was obliged to leave the neighbourhood, to avoid the resentment of the ghost’s friends, until they were appeased by the intervention of the priest; and I went afterwards by the name of Jackey the Ghost-killer. There were about three thousand masses ordered on this occasion. Biddy is alive at this day, and is well known in the neighbourhood by the name of Biddy the Ghost. The London Magazine, Volume 14, John Scott, John Taylor, 1826 

Here is a ghost story, or adventure, which recently occurred in Limerick, Ireland: A woman not far from Emly, buried her husband, a few months ago. A knock came to the door some night last month. She asked who was there. A hollow voice answered, “I am your husband, whom you buried, and I am very miserable in purgatory till my debts are paid. Sell the two pigs you have, and be sure you have the money for me on such a night when I call.” The poor woman did as he required, and felt happy at being able to meet his request, either through fear or love (as he appeared with his shroud and pale face.) Between the first and second visit of the ghost, the poor woman went and told her story to the priest; he told her it was all very good, but at the same time to have two policemen in the house when she would be giving the money. Accordingly, after getting the money, the purgatorial and shrouded ghost came and was arrested by the police and lodged in Limerick jail, there to undergo a little more purgatory till his trial comes on. This ghost turned out to be a near neighbor, who is god-father to one of her children. The Weekly Vincennes [IN] Western Sun 15 March 1862 

The last story shows the same old scam with the twist that Purgatory has been transmuted into the more modern torment of “debt.” 


A most remarkable ghost story has just come to light at Binghamton. N. Y., which were it not for the standing of the person who relates it, would be unworthy of credence. Incredible as it may seem, it can be vouched for. Two years ago Michael Connors, fireman on the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company’s railroad, was killed in the tunnel. Connors was a single man, and lived with his parents in this city. The incidents of his death had passed away from the recollections of all except his most intimate friends and family, but they were vividly recalled a few weeks ago, when it is alleged that a sister of the deceased astonished the family by claiming that the disembodied spirit of the beloved and departed one was nocturnally floating through space, and that on a certain hour it was in communication with her.

It would appear at her chamber window and gently tap on the pane for admission. She claimed that the spirit was very much annoyed on account of debts that Connors owed at the time of his taking off, and she had been importuned to secure the money some way and pay them. She said that it was the spirit’s request that the lantern that her brother carried should be kept burning at the foot of her bed, as it had been his custom when he was here on earth, as he desired to make a spiritual trip to the spot where he met his death.

The young lady was ill at the time, and she insisted that the lantern should be kept burning nights. The family was nearly frightened out of its wits, but she told them to have n fears, as the spirit would not harm her. The story at the time became current among her friends, many of whom called to see her. She told them of the visit of the spirit of the departed and beloved brother, and that she needed money to liquidate his debts. His spirit would never rest in peace until the obligations against him were paid. Her story was generally believed, and her appeals for money were generously responded to, and, as her illness was somewhat protracted, she secured a round sum of the coin of the realm.

For the purpose of removing suspicion and making her story generally believed she sent for the engineer with whom her brother worked. She told him of the spiritual visitation, and stated that it had frequently visited the tunnel and had ridden on the engine. The engineer was not a little exercised after that over the strange story. For weeks after that when he passed through the tunnel he kept a sharp lookout for the strange apparition. It worried him somewhat, but he says that he saw nothing that would in any way suggest the presence of the supernatural.

Soon after the young lady recovered, and it was supposed  that she had used the money as the spirit indicated to pay her brother’s debts. A short time after her recovery she was married and her trousseau was one of beauty and richness. It was not until after her marriage that she told some of her most intimate friends how she secured the funds to pay for her wedding outfit. She had no money, and was betrothed; the wedding day was fast approaching; in order to get money to pay for her wedding outfit she conceived of this ghostly tale and she was thereby enabled to fulfill her promise. The couple are living in this city and to all appearances are contented and happy.  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer4 May 1891: p. 4. 

As we have seen recently in the news, those venal psychics who charge large fees to “communicate” with dead loved ones continue the tradition of Purgatorial pranksters by preying on the anxieties of the bereaved, thus reserving for themselves a special place in Hell….  Any more purgatory jokes?  Clink a coin in the coffer to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail DOT 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 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.

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes