"...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, October 30, 2017

Elliott O'Donnell's Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Halloween; Or, How Not to Hunt For Ghosts

"Illustrated Police News," December 28, 1872



In his book "Haunted Churches," famed "ghost hunter" Elliott O'Donnell related his experience with trying to chase down the spirit of an ancient nun: an expedition that wound up going down the toilet, in every sense of the phrase.

Let this be a cautionary tale for anyone who goes searching for spooks this Halloween.

A few miles from Hitchin, in a wood on the summit of a hill, are the ruins of Minsden church, at one time a chapel of ease, said to have given shelter to many a passing pilgrim. Tradition associates it with Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III and Lady of Hitchin Manor, who is credited with stealing her royal lover's rings when he was on his death-bed and powerless to prevent her. In the seventeenth century it witnessed the marriage of Sir John Barrington, Bart., to Susan Draper.

After that time nothing of any note seems to have happened there, and, about 1738, it became so dilapidated that pieces of masonry and plaster not infrequently fell on the clergy and congregation, to the consternation of both.

Probably, soon after that date it was abandoned, some say on account of widespread rumours of its being haunted by the ghost of a nun, alleged to have been murdered during the reign of Henry VIII, when a convent was either attached to the church or occupied its site.

I first heard of the reputed haunting through a photographer living in the neighbourhood of Minsden, who sent me a photograph taken, he said, in broad daylight at the ruins. The chief interest in the photograph lay in what resembled the shadowy form of a nun. The photographer did not claim he had photographed a ghost, he merely called my attention to the shadowy form and implied he could not account for it. He referred to a local belief in the haunting of the spot by the phantom of a murdered nun, and suggested that we should visit the ruins; he would ask a few of his friends to accompany us and I could invite a few of mine. It was October, and, at my suggestion, we chose for the date of our visit to the ruins All Hallows E'en, that being one of the nights in the year when denizens of the spirit world are popularly believed to be in closest touch with the material inhabitants of this plane. Also, since All Hallows E'en is one of the occasions when the working of certain spells is deemed likely to produce interesting results, I asked a lady, who is well versed in such things, to be one of the party. Others I invited were H. V. Morton, the well-known author, Wyndham Lewis, "Beachcomber," and R. Blumenfelt, son of the Editor of The Daily Express.

When I arrived at King's Cross I saw a crowd of people collected in front of the Ladies' Waiting Room. Intuition warned me of the reason, and when I cautiously elbowed my way through the gaping throng, I perceived, as I had anticipated, my mediumistic friend, clad--and this I had not anticipated--in orthodox witch's costume, namely, high cap, cloak, gown covered with demons and black cats and, of course, in one hand, a broomstick. The picture was startling enough, and the expressions on the faces of the spectators were a study. While some showed wonder and others amusement, a few looked positively scared; probably they thought she was the escaped inmate of some home for the mentally defective.

Of my three friends, Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt there was not a sign. Indeed, I did not see them till I had bundled the witch into a third-class compartment, much to the consternation of a female occupant, who at once flew out of it. I then caught sight of them stealing surreptitiously into a first-class compartment, as far away from us as possible.

The Hitchin photographer lived with two very proper, elderly female relatives, and when they caught sight of the witch, standing beside me in the doorway, they were immeasurably shocked. "Who is this person?" they demanded. "She must not enter this house." And when I endeavoured to explain why she had come, their indignation grew. "Tom," one of them exclaimed, turning to the photographer, who cowered against the wall, looking extremely sheepish and uncomfortable, "Tom, you never told us a person dressed like this was coming. It's a scandal. What would your dear father, aye, and grandfather say? Why, they never missed a Sunday at chapel in their lives. The mere thought of a woman in such an attire as this," pointing at the witch, who maintained an imperturbability that suggested she was not altogether unaccustomed to such harangues, "coming to the house is enough to make them turn in their graves. Tell her to go away at once." Tom making no response, I had to intervene, and after much pleading obtained permission for the witch to sit with us in Tom's studio till it was time for us to go to the haunted ruins, on the condition, however, that, after leaving the house then, she was never to set foot in it again.

The ruins were several miles distant, and it was well-nigh midnight when we arrived there. As we drew near to the wood, there was a ghostly rustling of leaves, which made the more nervous of the party clutch hold of one another, followed by a buzzing and whirling, as a number of birds, scared at our approach, left their homes in the ivy-clad ruins of the church and flew frantically away.

I had brought with me a variety of articles necessary for the working of the spells, and I proposed that, while the witch muttered appropriate incantations, Messrs. Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt should try their luck with hempseed and apples.

Most All Hallow E'en keepers know the hempseed spell. Walking alone in the dark one has to scatter hempseed over the left shoulder, drawing mould over it afterwards with a hoe or other instrument, and repeating, as one does so, these words: 
Hempseed I sow, yes, hempseed I hoe;
Oh, those who's to meet me come after me and mow.

And then, if the Powers that govern the Unknown ordain it, one hears footsteps in one's rear and, on turning fearfully around, sees the immaterial counter-part of whoever is to come into one's life within the next twelve months and affect it most. If you are destined to die during that period, you see a skeleton. All this may sound just fanciful and old world, superstitious tripe: but, nevertheless, I have known occasions when something quite unexpected and unquestionably superphysical has happened. On this particular occasion, when asked if they would separate and, alone, amid the gloom and shadows of the trees, put the spell to the test, Messrs. Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt answered in the negative, a very decided negative; they much preferred remaining together.

The witch did her best to persuade the ghost to manifest itself. Seated on the damp soil she crooned, and incanted, and moaned, there was a note of occasional real misery in the last; but the other world remained obdurate, it would not come at her calling, and perhaps it was just as well, because some of the party might, I think, have been more than a wee bit startled; at least I gathered so from their close proximity to one another and from what, every now and then, sounded suspiciously like the chattering of teeth, though the cold--and out there it was cold--might have had something to do with the last.

Our pulses gave a sudden jump when one of the party exclaimed: "What's that?" We looked, and for a few seconds I thought that the witch's endeavours had at last succeeded in bringing the superphysical, but investigation proved it was only the ghostly effect of the moonlight on one of the ivy-clad ruin arches. We were discussing our disappointment, "professed" disappointment, I fancy, on the part of several, when from afar came a sound like the report of a firearm. "A strange hour and season for anyone to be out shooting," someone observed, and we thought no more about it.

As it was now about four o'clock, the chance of the ghost appearing seemed so remote that we set out on our homeward journey.

And now came our only real thrill. It was a still, grey, chilly morning. There had been a slight fog rising from the damp ground during the night, and it was now so thick that those of our party who were in front, myself among them, could not see the witch and photographer, who were trudging along some little distance in the rear. Through the mist the black shades of trees and hedges stood out faintly. We were hastening, thinking longingly of breakfast and a cheery fire, when suddenly dark figures sprang out from seemingly nowhere, and peremptory tones commanded us to halt. They were policemen, four of them, who in the mist--my eyes, no doubt, were strained by hours of high nerve tension vigil--appeared magnified into giants. They asked what we were doing, tramping a lonely highway at that unearthly hour, and when I said: "Looking for a ghost," the leader of them responded nastily: "That's a good 'un. You don't expect us to swallow that." He went on to inform us that the booking office at Wellyn railway station had been broken into during the night and the official in charge of it fired at, which explained the report of firearms we had heard.

He was about to search us, and I was feeling somewhat anxious, because one of our party had, I knew, a revolver on him, when I was seized with a sudden inspiration. "Do you know Mr.--?" I said, naming the local photographer.

"Very well," the Sergeant replied, "but he's not here."

"No," I answered, "but he's following with a lady, clad as a witch, and one or two other people. Do you not know last night was All Hallow's E'en, when the dead from cross-roads and cemeteries are permitted to mingle once more with the living? We came hoping to see the ghost of the nun that rumour alleges haunts the ruins of Minsden church. Haven't you heard of her?"

"Now I come to think of it," the Sergeant said, "I 'ave 'eard of the party, but I don't pay any attention to tales of that sort. You'll all 'ave to come along to the Police Station and answer such questions as may be put to you."

Grunts and ejaculations of dismay came from Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt, who had hitherto been dumb, too overcome, so I imagined, with the horror of the situation to speak.

Now the appalling thoughts of not getting to their respective newspaper headquarters in time loosened their tongue strings, nor did I feel too happy, for I was cold and shivering and wanted a hot drink very badly.

To my infinite relief, however, at this very critical moment, there loomed into view the witch, photographer and the rest of the party, who were all local. On hearing them corroborate my story, the Police Sergeant capitulated, and all ended well, at least so far as concerned that little incident; but there was some bother when we got back to the photographer's house and tried to smuggle in the witch. One of Tom's elderly relatives hearing us, and making sure we were burglars, or the house was on fire, started to scream, and it took desperate efforts on Tom's part to calm her. Fortunately, she was far too frightened to come out of her bedroom, or she must have seen the witch.

Our train back to London did not arrive for nearly two hours, and all that time we sat huddled together in the dreary room, in momentary dread of one or other of Tom's aged relatives descending on us. To render the situation more embarrassing and alarming, the witch, doubtless affected by sitting on the cold ground for so long, had to retire with sudden haste to the toilet which, as bad luck would have it, was upstairs, next to one of the aged relative's bedrooms. She contrived to get there without attracting attention but, on leaving the place, in her anxiety to catch the train, she slipped, and descending amid an avalanche of paper parcels, landed on the floor with a terrific crash. This was altogether too much for Messrs. Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt. They decamped pell-mell, meanly leaving me to grab hold of the witch and drag her and her many parcels to the station.

So ended my first visit to the haunted church of Minsden.
On the bright side, I'm sure O'Donnell could not possibly have seen any Halloween ghost or goblin that was nearly as terrifying as his photographer friend's little old aunties.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a comedy from one of the early Bowery Boy movies. All they needed was Brooklyn accents.

    I have a couple of books by H. V. Morton. He was a writer of light-hearted travelogues. But he didn't included this adventure in anything I've read.

    ReplyDelete

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