There are many accounts of ghosts allegedly contacting the living in order to have them carry out certain tasks of great importance to the deceased, but most of these tales live in that shadowy world between history and folklore. The following account, on the other hand, is unusually well-documented, even though it follows the irritating Victorian practice of cloaking names and places with pseudonyms. As strange as the story might be, there seems little doubt that it happened. The story first made print as a series of documents and affidavits published in the “Proceedings of the Society For Psychical Research” in December 1895. It is a very long and convoluted affair, which I will summarize as best I can.
In an unnamed English village stood a house owned by a family called “Appleby” in the narrative. They lived elsewhere and rented the home out. Around 1887, the home was leased to a Mr. Buckley. He was a bachelor who lived with his mother and sisters. The Buckley womenfolk went to the house first, to put the place in order. They soon began complaining that the place was haunted--they kept hearing uncanny noises, such as the sounds of heavy weights being dragged on the floor, or footsteps pacing around supposedly empty rooms. When Mr. Buckley moved in, he heard nothing unusual, but did have one curious experience. One evening as he walked upstairs, he found his hand full of water. There was no stain on the ceiling, or anything else to account for it. On another occasion, one of his sisters was in the attic alone, when she suddenly felt water swishing over her face, as if someone was swiping her with a wet brush.
These oddities eventually wound down, and life in the Buckley household carried on quietly for two years. Then, in October 1893, a widow named Mrs. Claughton and two of her children came to visit the Buckleys. For whatever reason, their arrival was the cue for all spectral hell to break loose.
Late one night, Mrs. Claughton was awakened by footsteps on the stairs. One of the Miss Buckleys was ill, and the widow assumed a servant was coming to bring her to the sickbed. The steps stopped outside her door. Then the noise was repeated. Mrs. Claughton opened the door, to find that no one was there. The puzzled woman went back to bed and resumed her sleep. A short time later, she was roused by the sound of someone sighing. When she opened her eyes, she saw a woman standing by the bed. The intruder’s head was swathed in a white shawl, and her expression was “gentle and refined,” although her features were markedly emaciated.
“Follow me,” said the wraith. Mrs. Claughton took her candle and followed the apparition into the adjacent drawing-room. Her visitor walked towards the window, turned around and said “Tomorrow!” It then vanished.
When Mrs. Claughton returned to her bedroom, one of her children asked, “Who is the lady in white?”
“Only me,” the widow replied. “Go to sleep.”
The next morning, Mrs. Claughton went to a friend, a Dr. Ferrier. She told him of her strange experience the night before, and asked for advice on what to do next. The best he could suggest was that an electric bell communicating with Miss Buckley’s room should be set up in her bedroom.
That night, at around one a.m., the alarm let out a loud peal. When the Buckleys rushed to Mrs. Claughton’s room, they found her in a faint. When morning came, the widow returned to Dr. Ferrier to ask him about the whereabouts of a certain place, which the narrative chose to call “Meresby.” After consulting a postal directory, they learned it was a small agricultural community about five hours from London. The widow explained that “certain ghosts” had ordered her to go there to carry out specific tasks for them.
For a few days, Dr. Ferrier heard nothing more about the matter. Then, he got a letter from Mrs. Claughton’s governess. She wrote that when the widow arrived at her London house, she was plagued by a night filled with sounds of weeping, “loud moans,” and “a very odd noise overhead, like some electric battery gone wrong.” Also heard were heavy footsteps and thuds. Shortly after this, Mrs. Claughton herself wrote Ferrier, informing him that she had gone to Meresby and carried out her ghostly instructions. Her job had been to examine the Meresby parish registers and compare certain entries with information given by her spirit employers. After this was done, she was to spend the time between one a.m. and one-thirty a.m. in the Meresby Church, alone, when she would receive further information from the ghosts.
Mrs. Claughton afterwards described her otherworldly adventure in more detail. On the night the alarm went off in her room, she had awakened to find the lady in white bending over her.
“Am I dreaming, or is it true?” the widow asked. The specter gave her a certain piece of information confirming that it was the latter. Then a male ghost “tall, dark, healthy, sixty years old” appeared. He said that he was George Howard, and that his body was buried in Meresby churchyard. He gave the dates of his marriage and death. He told her to verify these dates by the parish registers, and then wait at 1:15 in the morning by the grave of one Richard Harte. Howard added that Joseph Wright, the Meresby parish clerk, would be able to assist her. She was also to find a Mr. Francis, who was somehow connected to the personal affairs of the ghosts. Then she saw the ghost of a man whose name she was not free to give. He appeared to be greatly distressed, covering his face with his hands as though suffering some private agony. These phantoms said they would meet Mrs. Claughton in Meresby Church in order to give her some important details concerning the third, unhappy wraith. They then evaporated. Mrs. Claughton felt faint--something quite forgivable under the circumstances. She rang the alarm, and collapsed.
When Mrs. Claughton spent the night in Meresby Church, the ghosts gave her information necessary for her to settle whatever the matters were which troubled George Howard’s spirit. She visited Howard’s daughter, where she “recognized the strong likeness to her father, and carried out all things desired by the dead to the full...The wishes expressed to her were perfectly rational, reasonable and of natural importance.” Happily, she was able to report that her actions “effected the intended results.”
Most unfortunately, Mrs. Claughton--apparently out of a sense of discretion--never revealed what “the wishes expressed to her” were. The business which was obviously so important to the undead remains a mystery. One of the people involved in the whole saga said that judging by his “very partial knowledge” of what the Meresby ghosts wanted done, he considered Mrs. Claughton’s reticence about the matter to be entirely justified.
I suppose all one can say is that it’s a great pity that most ghosts don’t have a Mrs. Claughton around to settle their unfinished business.