Notwithstanding the manifest growth of popular enlightenment, there is still a vast amount of superstition in the North Country. Almost every neighbourhood has its wise woman, to whom credulous fools resort to have their fortunes told, or for the recovery of lost goods, or to find out who are their enemies, and learn how to circumvent and punish them. The fairy people, it is true, now only linger in childish tradition; but ghosts are still not uncommon, as witness the scare at Chollerford in the early days of the present year, on account of the alleged apparition of a murdered pedlar at the house of the railway station-master.
An old farmer on the Borders, of the name of Bell, said to have been a monstrous glutton, who required to have a round of beef set by his bedside every night, used to come back after death, and ride up and down about his “onstead,” even in daylight, if common report was to be believed. This was about eighty years ago. We had the particulars of the case from an honest woman, named Kirsty Weatherstone, who had been a servant at the place, and who had seen the apparition many and many a time, as, indeed, all the people thereabouts had. The old fellow was as fat and “ugsome,” she said, as when alive, while he sat in what seemed to be his accustomed gig, drawn by what seemed to be his favourite black horse; but never a word did the ghost utter, whatever he might see very different from Bell’s habit when a denizen of the earth, for he had been an awfully profane man. The ghost’s visits were so frequent, Kirsty added, that the people at last got familiarised with them, and would merely say, when they saw him riding his rounds, “There’s the old thief again!”
Another Border farmer, named Dunlop, having quarrelled with his wife, kept her for years shut up in a room in his house, where no one was allowed to have access to her but a certain comely maid servant, who took in her meals and otherwise attended to her, and who, after the poor woman’s death, married the widower. Common report ran to the effect that the unhappy prisoner was starved; but, however this may have been, her ghost certainly came back, unless the most knowing among the neighbours were under a gross delusion. One night a woman named Katy Winchester, whom we were well acquainted with in our youth, distinctly saw her standing, stock-still, at the farm-house end, when she was going home at a late hour to the village where she lived, she being an expert and well-employed midwife. Besides, Mr. Dunlop himself, after death had bereaved him of his second wife, was haunted by the ghost of his first, whom he used to see sitting opposite him at the parlour fireside, “mowing” at him like the foul fiend.
The keeper of a bumble ale-house in a small Border town gave lodging, on the night before the annual fair of St. James, sometime in the first decade of the present century, to a South-Country traveller, who had heavy saddle-bags. The man was seen to go in, but was never seen to come out; and the ale-house keeper, who had been notoriously poor before, became afterwards “passing rich.” Murder, said the neighbours, must be the explanation of the secret. And when the son of the alleged guilty publican rose to be a wealthy man, and lived in good style in a grand house, all the bells in it were said to begin a-ringing on each anniversary night of the traveller’s mysterious disappearance, though the ghost never appeared in bodily shape. A clever bell-hanger suggested that it was the rats which did this ringing, as they crept through a hole in the wall where the wires from the different rooms converged; but if that were so, the thing was still more wonderful, it being quite incomprehensible how these nimble rodents should have known how to play the pranks they did on “the glorious Fifth of August,” and on no other day of the year.
The author of “Rambles in Northumberland” tells his readers that, in passing a cottage, in which he remembered that an old woman had dwelt, who was suspected of having caused the death of one of her children, he inquired of a native of the village if he knew anything of the circumstance, and received from him the following account: –
I knew the woman, who is now where the Lord pleases, very well. She was the wife of a “day-tale ” man, and they had more small bairns than they could well provide for; and in harvest she used to go out a-shearing. One year, about the harvest time, she had a young bairn at the breast, which she thought was one too many; and that she might not be hindered of the shearing by staying at home with it, and that she might get rid of it altogether, she smothered it in the cradle. There was no public inquiry made, nor inquest held, but all her neighbours, especially the women folk, believed that the bairn was wilfully made away with, for she had the character of being a cold hearted mother. She never did well, though she lived for nearly forty years afterwards. She fell into a low way, and was, at times, almost clean past herself. She was always at the worst about the time of the harvest moon; and would then often walk about the house, and sometimes go out and wander about the common, all night, moaning and greeting in a painful way. I have many a time seen her holding her head atween her hands, rocking herself backwards and forwards on a low chair, groaning and sighing, and every now and then giving an awful sort of shriek, which folken who knew her best said was her way when she fancied she heard the bairn cry out in the same way as it did when she was smooring it. About the harvest time, she often used to see the spirit of the innocent that she had put to death; and her neighbours often heard her talking to it, bidding it to be gone, and not to torment her longer with its cries. She is now dead, and in her grave, and has been many years; and whatever may be her punishment in the next world for taking away the life of a harmless bairn of her own flesh and blood, she certainly dreed a heavy penance in this.
The same gentleman relates another story, concerning a pedlar who, according to popular report, was murdered in a lone farm-house above Rothbury about eighty years before he wrote. The pedlar had the character of being possessed of a large sum of money, which he always carried about with him. In his regular visits to that part of the country, he had been accustomed to call at this house; and from the hour he was last observed to enter it he was never seen alive. The farmer’s wife was the only person at home when the pedlar called; and tradition ascribed his murder to her. As he was sitting in the kitchen, with his back to the door, eating some food which she had set out, she came suddenly behind him, and felled him to the ground with a blow from a churn-staff. Then, after taking his purse out of his pocket, she threw him into a deep well in the yard. On her husband’s return from the field, she informed him of what she had done; and the next day, when the servants were absent, husband and wife drew the body from the well and buried it. The writer goes on to say that, though the neighbours noticed that their worldly circumstances were much improved, and that they had much more money at command than formerly, yet they were never “suspected of having murdered the pedlar. But their ill-got gain, as in all such cases, brought them no happiness. The husband, a few years afterwards, fell from his horse and broke his neck; and at times the widow was seized with fits of terror which appeared to deprive her of reason. She survived her husband several years, and on her death-bed communicated to a person who attended her the circumstances of the pedlar’s murder and the cause of her terror. She confessed that frequently, when she entered the kitchen where the deed was done, she fancied that she saw the pedlar sitting at the table; and after she had removed to another house, he used sometimes to seat himself opposite to her, with his hair wet and hanging down over his face, as he appeared when she and her husband drew him from the well.
It is universally agreed among ghost-seers that, when the murderer changes his abode, the spectre of his victim shifts along with him. But when a perturbed spirit, “revisiting the glimpses of the moon,” appears to a third party, it usually does so at or near the spot where the deed was committed, which becomes known as a haunted place.
Some half century since, a farmer named Wilson, who had been attending Stockton market, and left that town at a late hour, rather the worse for drink, to ride home to Middlesbrough, lost his way in the dark, and rode into the Tees, where he was drowned. His body was recovered soon after, but his hat, as was natural, had disappeared. His ghost was said to appear, causing terror to belated travellers. A Methodist local preacher, named John Orton, who had been at Middlesbrough, conducting divine service, was returning alone one night to Stockton, when, about the locality where the farmer was lost, he met a man without any hat, to whom he bade “Good night, “but received no answer. It being near midnight and the place quite solitary, Orton wondered what the man could be doing at that untimely hour. He therefore turned round and followed him, to see, if possible, where he went, for he suspected, from his appearance, that he was upon no good errand. But after retracing a few steps, he lost sight of him all of a sudden, the man disappearing, or rather vanishing, into a bush on the left-hand side of the road; and when Orton went cautiously forward and peered into the bush, there was no living creature there or near about. When he reached home, and told his wife what he had seen, she instantly exclaimed, “Why, man, it’s been aad Wilson!”
Orton’s son-in-law, who told us this anecdote, gave us also the following account of a ghost which he himself once saw: –
One night, a few days after my father died, I was sitting in the back yard getting my pipe, when, all on a sudden, a great black dog, as large as an elephant, came and stood right before me, as motionless as a rock. I was suffering from the effects of drink at the time, and terribly out of sorts, with a head ready to split, and some feeling not unlike the horrors; but still I was in full possession of all my senses. So I determined to find out whether what I seemed to see really existed outside of me, or was within my own brain; and therefore I sat watching it for about five minutes. It stood motionless all the time my eye was steadily fixed on it. But at last, in order to satisfy myself, I moved my eye sideways, first to the left and then to the right, and finding that the dog moved either way, each time I tried the experiment, I was convinced that it existed only in my own disordered brain.
The late Mr. Christie, land surveyor, who was employed by the Duke of Buccleuch to survey and make a plan of the country hunted by his grace’s foxhounds, related to us a tale of a certain Northumbrian gentleman, who, it seems, had been guilty of a secret murder, and who was ever after haunted by the ghost of the murdered man, dressed in the costume he had worn when alive. This unwelcome visitor was in the habit of coming at all hours, without any formal announcement, just opening the room door and walking in. If the gentleman had returned his salute, it might have disclosed his secret, and so have led to disagreeable consequences. So, whenever the door opened, it was his habit to look round and put his finger to his eye, in such a way as to cause himself to see double if the entrant was composed of flesh and blood, while, if it was only his disembodied friend, materialised for the nonce, the vision remained single, and he took no notice.