"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Ghostly Quest for Justice

In 1749, a young army sergeant named Arthur Davies was in charge of a small regiment stationed in Dubrach, one of the more depressing sections of the Scottish Highlands. Sir Walter Scott once said of the area that “A more waste tract of mountain and bog, rocks and ravines, without habitation of any kind till you reach Glenclunie, is scarce to be met with in Scotland.”

In the best of times it was a violent, wretchedly poor land, but Davies was dealing with a countryside where the wounds left by the rising of ’45 and the battle of Culloden were still painfully fresh. The “bloody Sassenach” camped in their midst were openly, sullenly hated.

Sergeant Davies, however, was largely exempted from the odium heaped upon his fellow Englishmen. He was a genial, kindly man who treated the Highlanders with humanity, and he seemed to not have an enemy in the world.

Unfortunately, Davies was also trusting and naive to a degree uncommon in a five-year-old child, let alone an experienced soldier. He openly carried about a silk purse containing fifteen guineas. He sported a silver watch, distinctive gold rings, silver buckles and buttons, and a valuable gun. He was not particularly well-to-do by English standards, but to the chronically impoverished Highlanders he seemed a very plutocrat. His ingenuousness in displaying this relative wealth would soon cost him his life.

On the morning of September 28, 1749, Davies cheerfully kissed his wife good-bye and left their lodgings. He intended to do a bit of hunting before going to meet a patrol from Glenshee. He failed to do either of these tasks. In fact, he was never seen alive again.

Great efforts were made to locate the vanished officer, but to no avail. There were dark rumors that he had been killed by two local men, Duncan Clerk and Alexander Macdonald, but absent any evidence of what had become of Davies, these stories remained unpursued.

Davies’ disappearance remained a mystery until June of 1750. A man named Alexander Macpherson confided to Donald Farquharson, the son of Davies’ former landlord, that he “was greatly troubled by the ghost of Sergeant Davies, who insisted that he should bury his bones, and that, he having declined to bury them, the ghost insisted that he should apply to Donald Farquharson.”

Farquharson was naturally dubious about this story, until Macpherson led him to a peat moss that was found to contain all that remained of Arthur Davies.

Macpherson’s story was that in the previous month, “a vision appeared to him as of a man clothed in blue, who said, ‘I am Sergeant Davies!’” This uninvited guest indicated where his bones could be found, and informed Macpherson that Farquharson would help give these remains proper burial. Macpherson did indeed find the remains at the spot the ghost had indicated, but he was uncertain what to do next. Friends to whom he confided his little secret advised him to give Davies a secret burial, lest the area get a bad reputation. While Macpherson was still debating the best course of action, the ghost paid him another call. Davies repeated his demands for a decent funeral, and offered the additional information that Clerk and Macdonald had been his murderers.  The phantom made it clear that he was getting impatient for justice to be done.

19th century depiction of Davies' murder

For whatever reason, the two accused killers were not arrested until September 1753, and their trial for Davies’ murder took place nearly a year after that. In court, it was established that Clerk’s wife habitually wore one of Davies’ rings, that shortly after the sergeant’s disappearance, Clerk himself had suddenly and mysteriously acquired a tidy sum of money, and that on the day of the crime, both he and Macdonald had been seen carrying weapons near the scene where Davies’ body was eventually discovered. There was also testimony from an Angus Cameron, who swore that he had been an eyewitness to the slaying. He later confided what he had seen to a kinsman, who gave him the “don’t get involved” pep talk common to the more lawless areas everywhere. (This relative, Donald Cameron, corroborated this story.)

According to Sir Walter Scott (who knew one of the counsel for the accused,) even their legal representatives were convinced the two men were guilty. However, the jury had no problem delivering an acquittal. Scott believed the otherwise rock-solid case against them failed because Macpherson stated that the ghost spoke to him in Gaelic, a language unknown to the living Davies. It also seems plausible that the jurymen belived that the only good redcoat was a dead redcoat, and that this representative of a hated army surely must have deserved what he got. So although the unfortunate officer was finally decently interred, he remained unavenged, at least on any earthly level.

Of course, most authorities share Scott’s assumption that Macpherson simply invented his tale of ghostly visitation as an excuse for presenting information about the murder that he had obtained through more prosaic means. One hopes that this was the case. For otherwise it has to be feared that poor Davies, victim of a murder which was unofficially solved but forever officially unavenged, may have remained very restless indeed.

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