"...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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In the spring of 1833, English newspapers carried numerous reports of strange occurrences in the parsonage of Syderstone. For weeks, the papers hosted a lively debate over whether or not the eerie phenomena plaguing a rector's family was the result of a ghost.

One of the earliest accounts of this spooky mystery comes from the "Bury and Norwich Post," May 8, 1833:

Nothing is more characteristic of the present age than the advancement of true philosophy and sound reason over that terrifying superstition and foolish belief in supernatural agencies which so universally prevailed during the dark ages, and especially amongst the illiterate, even up to the end of the last century. But it may be questionable perhaps whether these opinions are not rather suffered to slumber than entirely rooted out. Men seem to have a natural inclination to love the marvellous, and a mere nominal or imperfect acquaintance with religion seems in no small degree calculated to foster this disposition. The more intelligent may have discarded such absurdities; but the scepticism of the mass of the people on these subjects would in all probability be staggered by a well got-up ghost scene in real life: indeed the remains of superstition which still cling to us can hardly be ascertained unless put to the test; and then it is remarkable how soon people become convinced, without that rational and satisfactory proof which would be required in any other matter. The following circumstance has been creating great alarm in the neighbourhood of Fakenham for the last six weeks. In Syderstone Parsonage lives the Rev. Mr. Stewart, Curate, and Rector of Thwaighte. The house has a modern appearance, and not at all calculated for concealment.

About six weeks since an unaccountable knocking was heard in it in the middle of the night. The family became alarmed, not being able to discover the cause. Since then it has gradually been becoming more violent until it has now arrived at such a frightful pitch that one of the servants has left through absolute terror, and the family, we understand, intend removing as early as possible. The noises commence almost every morning about two o'clock, and continue until daylight. Sometimes it is a knocking, now in the ceiling overhead, now in the wall, and now directly under the feet; sometimes it is a low moaning which the Rev. Gentleman says reminds him very much of the moans of a soldier on being whipped; and sometimes it is like the sounding of brass, the rattling of ice, or the clashing of earthenware or glass — but nothing in the house is disturbed. It never speaks, but will apparently beat to a lively tune, and moan at a solemn one; especially at the morning and evening hymns. Every part of the house has been carefully examined to see that no one could he secreted, and the doors and windows are always fastened with the greatest caution. Both inside and outside of the house have been carefully examined during the time of the noises, which always arouse the family from their slumbers and oblige them to get up, but nothing can be discovered. It is heard by every one present, and several ladies and gentlemen in the neighbourhood, who, to satisfy themselves, have remained all night with Mr. Stewart's family, have heard the same noise and have been equally surprised and frightened. Mr. Stewart has also offered any of the tradespeople in the village an opportunity of remaining in the house and convincing themselves. Indeed the rev. gentleman has several times spoken to the supposed ghost, demanding the cause of its being troubled, and has even attempted to use his spiritual authority to exorcise it, but all to no purpose.

The shrieking last Wednesday night was terrific. It has been formerly reported in the village that the house was haunted by a rev. gentleman whose name was Mental, [Ed. note: The man's name was actually "Mantle"--an unfortunate typo, under the circumstances] who died there about 27 years since, and this is now generally believed to be the case. His vault, in the inside of the Church, has lately been repaired and a new stone put down. The house is adjoining the church yard, which has added, in no inconsiderable degree, to the horror which pervades the villagers when the family daily tell the tales of the previous night's freaks and screams of the nocturnal visitant. The tale is told with great eclat in the surrounding villages; and those who previously were believers in the earthly visitations of spirits are as much confirmed in their opinions as if one plainly and openly had arisen from the dead; and the incredulous are made almost to believe: it is altogether a rare feast for the superstitions. As to our own opinion, it is that, in all likelihood, some wily practitioner of fraud has availed himself of a knowledge of the premises, a disposition to be superstitious, and a fearful reluctance rigidly to push a proper investigation, to harass and annoy the family; at the same time we must say, from the representations of ear-witnesses, that the thing is so cleverly and cautiously conducted as to give it a very mysterious character.

On May 29, this same paper carried a sequel to their story:

Since our communication on the above subject, facts have repeatedly reached us of further freaks of this mysterious and nocturnal visitant, and from these repeated representations, we have thought it right to pay a visit to the village to enquire further into particulars, and although there are some circumstances that we do not at present feel at liberty to divulge, yet we believe the following particulars may be given without any breach of good faith.

On Wednesday last, Mr. Stewart requested several most respectable gentlemen to sit up all night, namely, the Rev. Mr. Spurgeon, of Docking, the Rev. Mr. Goggs, of Creake, the Rev. Mr. Lloyd, of Massingham, the Rev. Mr. Titlow, of Norwich, and Mr. Banks, surgeon, of Holt, and also Mrs. Spurgeon. Especial care was taken that no tricks should be played by the servants ; but as if to give the visitors a grand treat, the noises were even louder and of longer continuance than usual. The first commencement was in the bed-chamber of Miss Stewart, and seemed like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey. Mrs. Spurgeon was at the moment leaning against the bed post, and the effect on all present was like a shock of electricity. The bed was on all sides clear from the wall; — but nothing was visible. Three powerful knocks were then given to the sideboard, whilst the hand of Mr. Goggs was upon it. The disturber was conjured to speak, but answered only by a low hollow moaning; but on being requested to give three knocks, it gave three most tremendous blows apparently in the wall. The noises, some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between 11 and 12 o'clock until near two hours after sunrise. The following is the account given by one of the gentlemen:

"We all heard distinct sounds of various kinds — from various parts of the room and the air — in the midst of us — nay we felt the vibrations of parts of the bed as struck; but we were quite unable to assign any possible natural cause as producing all or any part of this. We had a variety of thoughts and explanations passing in our minds before we were on the spot, but we left it all equally bewildered."

On another night the family collected in a room where the noise had never been heard ; the maidservants sat sewing round a table, under the especial notice of Mrs. Stewart, and the manservant with his legs crossed and his bands upon his knees, under the cognizance of his master. The noise was then for the first time heard there — "above, around, beneath, confusion all," — but nothing seen, nothing disturbed, nothing felt, except a vibratory agitation of the air, or a tremulous movement of the tables or what was upon them. It would "be in vain to attempt to particularise all the various noises, knockings and melancholy groanings of this mysterious something. Few nights pass away without its visitation, and each one brings its own variety. We have little doubt that we shall ultimately learn that this midnight disturber is but another Tommy Tadpole, but from the respectability and superior intelligence of the parties who have attempted to investigate into the secret, we are quite willing to allow to the believers of the earthly visitations of ghosts all the support which this circumstance will afford to their creed — that of unaccountable mystery. We understand that enquiries on the subject have been very numerous, and we believe we may even say troublesome, if not expensive. We may suggest that it cannot be expected that letters should be taken in unless post-paid.

The parsonage was examined thoroughly, in the hopes of finding some sort of rational explanation for the peculiar knockings--a trench was even dug around the house--but nothing was found to throw any light on the disturbances. In fact, the more the house was inspected, the louder and more frequent the noises became, as if to taunt these researchers.

On June 22, 1833, the "Norfolk Chronicle" published a number of affidavits from various long-time residents of the area, who all testified that violent and mysterious knockings and groanings had been heard in and around the parsonage for at least the past forty-five years--at times, when the house was completely unoccupied. This, of course, was greeted with a good deal of skepticism, with some correspondents strongly suggesting these affidavits--all from the "servant class"--were the products of weak-mindedness and illiterate superstition.

After this, the story faded from the newspapers on the usual exasperatingly inconclusive note. The last report I have found of the weird happenings at Syderstone is this brief item:

Yorkshire Gazette, July 27, 1833

The "ghost"--as ghosts usually do--disappeared from the public eye, but, apparently, not from the life of the Stewart family. In Edward Moor's 1841 book "Bealings Bells: An Account of the Mysterious Ringing of Bells at Great Bealings, Suffolk, in 1834" he published a letter written to him by Reverend Stewart, which made it clear that the Syderstone haunting was--in a reversal of the usual phrase--forgotten, but not gone:

Syderstone Parsonage,
near Fakenham, Norfolk,
Tuesday Evening, May 11, 1841.

Sir,—You have indeed sent your letter, received yesterday, to the House of Mystery. In the broad lands of England you cannot, perhaps, find such another. But I regret to add, that I can afford you no assistance in the “Bell” line. I have no doubt but your work will be very curious. I shall look out for its announcement in the Norwich Papers, and feel gratified to be a purchaser.

"Our noises," in this Parsonage, are of a graver character. Smart successions of "Tappings,"— "groanings,"—"cryings,"— "sobbings,"—"disgusting scratchings,"—"heavy trampings,"—and “thundering knocks,”—in all the rooms and passages,—have distressed us, here, for a period of nearly "Nine Years," during my occupancy of this Cure. They, still, continue—to the annoyance of my family, the alarm of my servants, and the occasional flight of some of them. And I am enabled, clearly, to trace their existence in this Parsonage, to a period of Sixty Years past. I have little doubt either that, were not all the residents anterior to that time (in fact of a former generation) now passed away, I could be able to carry my successful scrutiny “on, and on!”

In 1833, and 1834—we kept almost open house to enable respectable people who were personally known by, or introduced to, us to satisfy their curiosity. But, our kindness was abused,—our motives misinterpreted,—and even our characters maligned. We, therefore, closed our doors; and they remain hermetically sealed! 
In  1834—I had prepared my "Diary" for publication. My Work was purchased by Mr. Rodd, the eminent Bookseller, of Newport Street, London, but as the "End" had not arrived, I postponed my intention from day to day,—and year to year,— in hope of such consummation. But the "Noises" occasionally recur, and my “Diary" occasionally progresses, until it has, now, assumed rather a formidable appearance.

Nothing can be more laudable than your generous, and christian object, proposed by the sale of your work in question; and the favourable results of which will, I respectfully trust, equal your most sanguine hopes.

Suffer me, again, to express my regrets for being unable in any way to forward your object: whether from personal experience or the experience of friends. I assure you l shall hear, with pleasure, of your being more fortunate in your application to others.

I have the honor to be,


Your obedient Servant,
John Stewart, Clk.

Unfortunately, I can find no indication that Stewart's diaries were ever published.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting story on several counts. One is that the initially the article writer simply states that the 'haunting' is a fraud, no matter how much evidence is piled up against it. Noises coming from above, around, under and amongst witnesses, all within minutes of each other, and it's still a hoax. Two, nine years after the rector and his family had moved in to the house, they were still there, even though the bangings, moanings and scratchings were a daily occurrence. You'd think the diocese could have rented them another cottage, under the circumstances. Hardy people, those Victorians.


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