XXXV

Haunted houses⁠—​Ghosts⁠—​Ghouls⁠—​Phantoms⁠—​Vampires⁠—​Conjurors⁠—​Divining⁠—​Goblins⁠—​Fortune-telling⁠—​Magic⁠—​Witches⁠—​Sorcery⁠—​Obi⁠—​Dreams⁠—​Signs⁠—​Spiritual mediums⁠—​False prophets⁠—​Demonology⁠—​Deviltry generally.

Whether superstition is the father of humbug, or humbug the mother of superstition (as well as its nurse,) I do not pretend to say; for the biggest fools and the greatest philosophers can be numbered among the believers in and victims of the worst humbugs that ever prevailed on the Earth.

As we grow up from childhood and begin to think we are free from all superstitions, absurdities, follies, a belief in dreams, signs, omens, and other similar stuff, we afterward learn that experience does not cure the complaint. Doubtless much depends upon our “bringing up.” If children are permitted to feast their ears night after night (as I was) with stories of ghosts, hobgoblins, ghouls, witches, apparitions, bugaboos, it is more difficult in afterlife for them to rid their minds of impressions thus made.

But whatever may have been our early education, I am convinced that there is an inherent love of the marvelous in every breast, and that everybody is more or less superstitious; and every superstition I denominate a humbug, for it lays the human mind open to any amount of belief, in any amount of deception that may be practised.

One object of these chapters consists in showing how open everybody is to deception, that nearly everybody “hankers” after it, that solid and solemn realities are frequently set aside for silly impositions and delusions, and that people, as a too general thing, like to be led into the region of mystery. As Hudibras has it:

“Doubtless the pleasure is as great
Of being cheated as to cheat;
As lookers-on feel most delight
That least perceive a juggler’s sleight;
And still the less they understand,
The more they admire his sleight of hand.”

The amount or strength of man’s brains have little to do with the amount of their superstitions. The most learned and the greatest men have been the deepest believers in ingeniously-contrived machines for running human reason off the track. If any expositions I can make on this subject will serve to put people on their guard against impositions of all sorts, as well as foolish superstitions, I shall feel a pleasure in reflecting that I have not written in vain. The heading of this chapter enumerates the principal kinds of supernatural humbugs. These, it must be remembered, are quite different from religious impostures.

It is astonishing to reflect how ancient is the date of this class of superstitions (as well as of most others, in fact,) and how universally they have prevailed. Nearly thirty-six hundred years ago, it was thought a matter of course that Joseph, the Hebrew Prime Minister of Pharaoh, should have a silver cup that he commonly used to do his divining with: so that the practice must already have been an established one.

In Homer’s time, about twenty-eight hundred years ago, ghosts were believed to appear. The Witch of Endor pretended to raise the ghost of Samuel, at about the same time.

Today, here in the City of New York, dream books are sold by the edition; a dozen fortune-tellers regularly advertise in the papers; a haunted house can gather excited crowds for weeks; abundance of people are uneasy if they spill salt, dislike to see the new moon over the wrong shoulder, and are delighted if they can find an old horseshoe to nail to their doorpost.

I have already told about one or two haunted houses, but must devote part of this chapter to that division of the subject. There are hundreds of such⁠—that is, of those reputed to be such; and have been for hundreds of years. In almost every city, and in many towns and country places, they are to be found. I know of one, for instance, in New Jersey, one or two in New York, and have heard of several in Connecticut. There are great numbers in Europe; for as white men have lived there so much longer than in America, ghosts naturally accumulated. In this country there are houses and places haunted by ghosts of Hessians, and Yankee ghosts, not to mention the headless Dutch phantom of Tarrytown, that turned out to be Brom Bones; but who ever heard of the ghost of an Indian? And as for the ghost of a black man, evidently it would have to appear by daylight. You couldn’t see it in the dark!

I have no room to even enumerate the cases of haunted houses. One in Aix-la-Chapelle, a fine large house, stood empty five years on account of the knockings in it, until it was sold for almost nothing, and the new owner (lucky man!) discovered that the ghost was a draft through a broken window that banged a loose door. An English gentleman once died, and his heir, in a day or two, heard of mysterious knockings which the frightened servants attributed to the defunct. He, however, investigated a little, and found that a rat in an old store room, was trying to get out of an old-fashioned box trap, and being able to lift the door only partly, it dropped again, constituting the ghost. Better pleased to find the rat than his father, the young man exterminated rat and phantom together.

A very ancient and impressive specimen of a haunted house was the palace of Vauvert, belonging to King Louis IX, of France, who was so pious that he was called Saint Louis. This fine building was so situated as to become very desirable, in the year 1259, to some monks. So there was forthwith horrid shriekings at night-times, red and green lights shone through the windows, and, finally, a large green ghost, with a white beard and a serpent’s tail, came every midnight to a front window, and shook his fist, and howled at those who passed by. Everybody was frightened⁠—King Louis, good simple soul! as well as the rest. Then the bold monks appearing at the nick of time, intimated that if the King would give them the palace, they would do up the ghost in short order. He did it, and was very thankful to them besides. They moved in, and sure enough, the ghost appeared no more. Why should he?

The ghosts of Woodstock are well known. How they tormented the Puritan Commissioners who came thither in 1649, to break up the place, and dispose of it for the benefit of the Commonwealth! The poor Puritans had a horrid time. A disembodied dog growled under their bed, and bit the bedclothes; something invisible walked all about; the chairs and tables danced; something threw the dishes about (like the Davenport “spirits;”) put logs for the pillows; flung brickbats up and down, without regard to heads; smashed the windows; threw pebbles in at the frightened commissioners; stuck a lot of pewter platters into their beds; ran away with their breeches; threw dirty water over them in bed; banged them over the head⁠—until, after several weeks, the poor fellows gave it up, and ran away back to London. Many years afterward, it came out that all this was done by their clerk, who was secretly a royalist, though they thought him a furious Puritan, and who knew all the numerous secret passages and contrivances in the old palace. Most people have read Sir Walter Scott’s capital novel of “Woodstock,” founded on this very story.

The well known “Demon of Tedworth,” that drummed, and scratched, and pounded, and threw things about, in 1661, in Mr. Mompesson’s house turned out to be a gypsy drummer and confederates.

The still more famous “Ghost in Cock Lane,” in London in 1762, consisted of a Mrs. Parsons and her daughter, a little girl, trained by Mr. Parsons to knock and scratch very much after the fashion of the alphabet talking of the “spirits” of today. Parsons got up the whole affair, to revenge himself on a Mr. Kent. The ghost pretended to be that of a deceased sister-in-law of Kent, and to have been poisoned by him. But Parsons and his assistants were found out, and had to smart for their fun, being heavily fined, imprisoned, etc.

A very able ghost indeed, a Methodist ghost⁠—the spectral property, consequently, of my good friends the Methodists⁠—used to rattle, and clatter, and bang, and communicate, in the house of the Rev. Mr. Wesley, the father of John Wesley, at Epworth, in England. This ghost was very troublesome, and utterly useless. In fact, none of the ghosts that haunt houses are of the least possible use. They plague people, but do no good. They act like the spirits of departed monkeys.

I must add two or three short anecdotes about ghosts, got up in the devil-manner. They are not new, but illustrate very handsomely the state of mind in which a ghost should be met. One is, that somebody undertook to scare Cuvier, the great naturalist, with a ghost having an ox’s head. Cuvier woke, and found the fearful thing glaring and grinning at his bedside.

“What do you want?”

“To devour you!” growled the ghost.

“Devour me?” quoth the great Frenchman⁠—“Hoofs, horns, graminivorous! You can’t do it⁠—clear out!”

And he did clear out.

A pious maiden lady, in one of our New-England villages, was known to possess three peculiarities. First, she was a very religious, honest, matter-of-fact woman. Second, she supposed everybody else was equally honest; hence she was very credulous, always believing everything she heard. And third, having “a conscience void of offense,” she saw no reason to be afraid of anything; consequently, she feared nothing.

On a dark night, some boys, knowing that she would be returning home alone from prayer-meeting, through an unfrequented street, determined to test two of her peculiarities, viz., her credulity and her courage. One of the boys was sewed up in a huge shaggy bearskin, and as the old lady’s feet were heard pattering down the street, he threw himself directly in her path and commenced making a terrible noise.

“Mercy!” exclaimed the old lady. “Who are you?”

“I am the devil!” was the reply.

“Well, you are a poor creature!” responded the antiquated virgin, as she stepped aside and passed by the strange animal, probably not for a moment doubting it was his Satanic Majesty, but certainly not dreaming of being afraid of him.

It is said that a Yankee tin peddler, who had frequently cheated most of the people in the vicinity of a New England village through which he was passing, was induced by some of the acute ones to join them in a drinking bout. He finally became stone drunk; and in that condition these wags carried him to a dark rocky cave near the village, then, dressing themselves in raw-head-and-bloody-bones’ style, awaited his return to consciousness.

As he began rousing himself, they lighted some huge torches, and also set fire to some bundles of straw, and three or four rolls of brimstone, which they had placed in different parts of the cavern. The peddler rubbed his eyes, and seeing and smelling all these evidences of pandemonium, concluded he had died, and was now partaking of his final doom. But he took it very philosophically, for he complacently remarked to himself.

“In hell⁠—just as I expected!”

A story is told of a cool old sea captain, with a virago of a wife, who met one of these artificial devils in a lonely place. As the ghost obstructed his path, the old fellow remarked:

“If you are not the devil, get out! If you are, come along with me and get supper. I married your sister!”