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Archive for May, 2010

Among those whose lives were totally disrupted by the Burr-Wilkinson plot to form a “kingdom” in the Louisiana Purchase territories was an all but forgotten figure in American history: Harman Blennerhassett. I frankly am less interested in Harman—a kindly but naïve man, easily led by his ambitious wife and the smooth-talking Burr—than I am in said wife: Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett, who was among other things an accomplished poet with two published volumes to her credit.

Harman Blennerhassett was the easygoing son of Irish aristocrats. In his native land, he got involved in plots to overthrow the hated British, largely by being easily persuadable. In 1794, when he was somewhere around the age of thirty, his family sent him into revolutionary France to rescue his young niece, Margaret Agnew, who had been studying there. Margaret was a highly intelligent, gracious, accomplished young woman, not yet out of her teens, and Harman Blennerhassett, despite their kinship way within the forbidden degrees, fell in love with her. They were married that same year, and promptly ostracized by both families.

In 1796, Blennerhassett’s father died, leaving Harman in possession of one hundred thousand pounds fortune and several highly profitable Irish properties. The following year, disheartened by the families’ continued refusal to recognize their incestuous marriage and fearing that the British were about to arrest Harman for his revolutionary activities in Ireland, the pair sold up his Irish holdings and left for the United States.

After spending some months in New York City, the couple traveled by keelboat to the Ohio River Valley. (It never fails to amuse me to be reminded that, in those days, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee were considered the frontier, and have a better claim to the title “Old West” than states across the Mississippi.) They ultimately purchased part of Backus Island in the Ohio River south of what is now Parkersburg, West Virginia, and built a showplace of a house on the island.

They were set to be arbiters of taste, culture and refinement in the wild Ohio Valley—and then, in 1805, Aaron Burr came calling.

Word had spread of this wealthy, agreeable Irishman and his brilliant, beautiful wife, and Burr, chronically short of cash but ambitious as Lucifer, determined to try to persuade Blennerhassett into bankrolling his western venture. It turned out he didn’t need to do much persuading; Margaret was as impressed with Burr as he was enamored of her husband’s money. Margaret, moreover, was convinced that her husband was, far from being a goodnatured naif, a man of considerable talents who had never had scope to use them. The Burr plot, she reasoned, would give Harman room to show what an organizer he was.

Thus, Blennerhassett was persuaded to pay for and obtain keelboats, provisions, arms, ammunition, and whiskey for an army of five hundred, which Burr thought he could raise among the disaffected in the western territories.

In the event, the war to establish a western empire, with Burr as its titular head, never happened. The plot was uncovered by agents of the Jefferson government, and Burr’s partner in treason, Gen. James Wilkinson, gave up the whole folly to save his own hide. Burr and Blennerhassett were arrested; Margaret, who had been away during the fallout, returned to the island to find that the Ohio militia, seeking evidence of the plot, had all but destroyed her beautiful Palladian mansion. (What was left of it burned in 1811, long after she and Harman, released for lack of direct evidence of any treasonable activity but financially and—more tellingly—psychologically ruined, left to try to recoup their fortune on a Mississippi cotton plantation.)

That venture failed as well, and eventually Harman Blennerhassett and his niece/wife were forced to return to Ireland and live off the charity of relatives. Harman, a broken man, died in 1831 and lies in an unmarked grave on the Isle of Guernsey, his final home.

It was during their long years of ruin that Margaret, partly for financial reasons and, I suspect, partly to try to deal with her own pain and disillusionment, turned to writing poetry, ultimately publishing two collections: The Deserted Isle and Other Poems, by A Lady (1822) and The Widow of the Rocks and Other Poems, by A Lady (1824). It was not the fashion at the time for women to publish under their own names, so many hid behind such a patronizing and anonymous designation. Even allowing for the style of her day, her poems are quite moving:

Oh! Why, dear isle, art thou not still my own?
Thy charms could then for all my griefs atone.

The stranger that descends Ohio’s stream,
Charmed with the beauteous prospects that arise,
Mark the soft isles that, ‘neath the glittering beam,
Dance with the wave and mingle with the skies;
Sees, also, one that now in rein lies.
Which erst like fairy queen, towered o’er the rest,
In every native charm, by culture dressed.

There rose the seat, where once in pride of life,
My eye could mark the queenly river’s flow,
In summer’s calmness, or in winter’s strife,
Swollen with rains, or battling with the snow.
Never again my heart such joy shall know—
Havoc and ruin, rampant war, have passed
Over that isle, with their destroying blast.
(“The Deserted Isle”)

Unlike her husband, Margaret still had fight left in her. She returned to the US in 1840 with the expressed purpose of petitioning Congress for redress; she wanted reimbursement for the destruction of her Ohio home. She got support from, among others, the great Kentucky senator Henry Clay, and Congress did, eventually, decide to pay her for the loss. By then, it was too late; in failing health during the whole process, Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett died in a poorhouse in New York City in 1842. She was in her early sixties.

Blennerhassett Island, as it is now called, is the site of a rebuilt Palladian mansion and is a historic/tourist attraction. Margaret’s body was exhumed from its New York grave in 1996 and returned to her beloved island.

A sad story, no doubt—as sad as those of other, far better known women poets; but poetic fashions change, as do our tastes in sad stories. Margaret Agnew Blennerhassett deserves, I think, to be remembered for herself, not as a footnote to the Burr plot.

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In Lancashire, in the north of England, there’s a village called Bashall Eaves, a few miles northwest of Clitheroe. Bashall Eaves has Arthurian associations; the great king himself is said to have fought a battle there, back in the dark days that followed the collapse of Rome. Not far from Bashall Eaves, the Forest of Bowland looms. In that forest, tales of witchcraft abound.

Witchcraft, it would seem, has nothing to do with the 1934 murder of a local man named John Dawson, but the victim doesn’t rest easy, according to Terence Whitaker in his 1980 book LANCASHIRE’S GHOSTS AND LEGENDS. More information about this strange death can be found at True Crime Library.

John Dawson was middleaged, a farmer and bachelor who shared a house on his farm with his spinster sister. On March 19, 1934, he had taken care of the daily chores on the farm and then, as usual, walked to the local pub for a few drinks at the end of the day. He returned to the farm about ten PM.

Someone was waiting in the dark.

As he went through the gate, starting the short walk up to the house, he felt a sharp pain in his back, just below his left shoulderblade, and then heard an odd clicking sound. He looked around, thinking perhaps someone hiding in the hedge—which was, and sometimes still is, used for fencerow—had thrown a rock at him. He didn’t see or hear anyone, so he went inside, had a late supper with his sister, and went to bed. He didn’t tell her until the next morning, when he woke up in terrible pain to find his bed full of blood, about the odd incident at the gate, and asked her to take a look at his back.

What she saw sent her screaming to summon the local doctor, who came as fast as he could get there. Radiating downward from John Dawson’s left shoulderblade was a great, bloody wound with ragged edges. The doctor, after one look, had Dawson rushed to the infirmary at Blackburn and called the police.

Despite treatment, John Dawson died three days later of gangrene and blood poisoning. Surgeons had removed a large bullet from the wound, which had penetrated the muscles of his back and lodged near his liver. It was no ordinary bullet; it appeared to have been specially made for its deadly purpose, and had been cut from a piece of cylindrical steel on a lathe, and sharpened at both ends. It had been fired, even more bizarrely, not from a gun, but from an “air cane”—a two-chambered device often used, it’s said, by poachers; one chamber contained compressed air which, powered by a foot pedal, could send a projectile accurate up to thirty yards. It was a silent device, too—save for the clicking sound. John Dawson probably saw nor heard anyone in the hedge because he had already passed the place where his killer lay in wait—probably across the road from the gate.

Despite an intense investigation, no place was ever found where such a bullet had been made, and the “air cane” which fired it was never found. The only motive ever floated came from one of Dawson’s farmhands, a man named Tommy Kenyon, who thought Dawson had been killed in a case of mistaken identity. Kenyon, it seemed, had been fighting with another farmer, a dairyman named Tommy Simpson, because Simpson thought Kenyon had impregnated Simpson’s seventeen-year-old daughter. Tellingly, Simpson hanged himself in his barn ten days after John Dawson’s death—but his family insisted that he had been in trouble with health authorities about the quality of milk his dairy was producing, and in a fit of depression over that problem had taken his own life.

The police were also hindered, as in the Charlie Walton murder investigation, by the refusal of local people, clannish and suspicious of police and outsiders, to cooperate, probably because they didn’t want to cause trouble for neighbors, not to mention that more than a few of them may have been poachers and in possession of air canes.

The police finally gave up the search for John Dawson’s killer, but he hasn’t. As late as the 1970s, when Whitaker was researching his book, there were stories told that a shadowy figure in a tattered coat, through which showed an ugly bloody wound, could be seen walking through that front gate. Sometimes the figure would turn and stoop, as if looking into the thick hedge. Even though his killer, whoever he was, is no doubt long since in his own grave, John Dawson, it seems, is still looking for him.

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Life after the fabled Lewis and Clark exploration of the Louisiana Purchase territories (1804-1806) was not kind to Meriwether Lewis. The two were loaded with honors by a grateful Thomas Jefferson, who had paired his dear friend Lewis with William Clark for the expedition. Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory following their return, with his headquarters in St. Louis, in what is now Missouri. It was a position for which Lewis, who suffered from a depressive disorder, was ill-suited. These were the years when the great plot to form a kingdom in the new territories, with its capital in New Orleans and with Aaron Burr as its titular head, was afoot, and Lewis most probably held a good deal of information about treasonable activities in the area. There were also rumors of a coming war with Great Britain that caused great excitement, although that war was still three years in the future.

The bane of Lewis’s existence, however, was a Washington D.C. dominated by hidebound bureaucrats. (Some things never change.) He was annoyed by their nitpicking of his every presentation of expenses, but when they ventured to insinuate that he was padding his accounts, he was enraged. He finally lost it, once and for all, over a twenty dollar request for government stationery they refused to approve.

He determined to go to Washington with three purposes in mind: to vindicate himself face to face with the penny-pinchers and bean counters, to find a publisher for the edited journals and papers he had accumulated over the course of the great western expedition, and to visit with family and friends.

He left St. Louis in September 1809, accompanied by a Creole ne’er-do-well named John Pernia and a slave called Captain Tom. His original plan was to travel by flatboat to New Orleans, where he would board a ship bound for the eastern seaboard, land at some port city, and travel on to Washington on horseback or by stagecoach.

They made it as far as Fort Pickering on the Chickasaw Bluffs (not far from Memphis), where Lewis fell gravely ill. It’s not known exactly what this illness was: a recurrence of malaria, a bout with depression complicated by alcohol, or an early episode of dementia brought on by syphilis, which he allegedly caught on the western expedition. In any case, he was laid up at Fort Pickering for some six days, and finally was well enough to resume his journey on September 29th. By now he had acquired a third traveling companion, the United States agent to the Chickasaw nation, James Neely. His traveling plans had also changed; perhaps alarmed by renewed rumbles about impending war, he decided to travel overland to the infamous Natchez Trace and follow it northeastward to Nashville, where he would make further arrangements.

Nowadays the Natchez Trace is a scenic and historic route. In 1809 it was the haunt of land pirates, bandits, gamblers, killer innkeepers, and prostitutes, unsafe at best and deadly at worst. It proved the latter for Meriwether Lewis.

On October 10th, thunderstorms spooked the pack animals that carried the cases of Lewis’s papers, and two of them ran away. Pernia and Captain Tom turned back to look for the errant beasts while Lewis and Captain Neely continued on their way. When after several hours the servants had not returned, Neely directed Lewis to a tiny settlement with an inn for travelers called Grinder’s Stand (or Grinder’s Station; accounts vary), just off the Trace in the area of Hohenwald, Tennessee, and set off to look for the servants and pack animals.

And so it was that Lewis arrived, alone, at the place where he would spend the last night of his life. He arranged for lodgings for himself and his companions, and shared a meal with the Grinder family. The wife, Priscilla, was there alone with her small children; she told Lewis that her husband was away on a hunting trip.

In a curiously circumstantial and suspiciously static statement she made repeatedly over the years after Lewis died, Priscilla Grinder said that his behavior was so erratic that evening that she grew afraid for herself and her children and, after Lewis had retired to his room, she locked herself and her little family into the kitchen and sat up all night. Captain Tom and Pernia arrived just about bedtime, she said, and stayed in the barn with the horses, although it’s not known whether they had found the pack animals lost earlier in the day. Neely did not arrive at all that night.

Priscilla Grinder said that she could hear Lewis pacing up and down his room, declaiming “like a lawyer” as if he were arguing with someone, until sometime after midnight, when she heard a gunshot and Lewis cried out, “Oh, Lord!”, followed by a second gunshot.

No one went to the wounded man’s assistance. He pounded on the locked door, begging Mrs. Grinder to “bring me water and heal my wounds”, but she refused to open the door, claiming she was too afraid. Nor did his servants come from the barn to aid him. She watched through a peephole as Lewis dragged himself to the well, heard the gourd dipper scrape the empty bucket as he sought water, saw him stumble and fall and finally make it back to his room, heard him groan, over and over, “I am no coward, but I am so strong, so hard to die.” (This was virtually a direct quote from one of his western journals, about the death of a grizzly bear.)

At first light she sent one of her children to the barn to rouse the servants. She and the two men found Lewis on the floor of his room. His wounds were ghastly: a huge one in his side and a horrifying one in his head, which had taken off a piece of his skull and left his brain partially exposed. He was still alive though, and cutting himself with a razor, apparently trying to open an artery and end his agony by bleeding to death. He didn’t succeed, but death wasn’t far off; he died just after sunrise. He was only thirty-five years old. The date was October 11th, 1809.

John Pernia promptly disappeared, and he didn’t leave empty-handed; he apparently lit out for his native New Orleans, where, some years later, a gold presentation watch given to Lewis by President Jefferson turned up.

Thirty years after Lewis’s death, his lost papers were mysteriously sent, with no message as to their provenance, to his stepsister in the eastern U.S.

Captain Neely, the Indian agent, and Robert Grinder both arrived about midmorning. Neely gave orders for Lewis to be buried on the spot and busied himself in the composition of a letter to the by then former president Jefferson, giving details of Lewis’s “suicide.”

Many of Lewis’s friends—and many students of the case since—did not accept the suicide story. They had no doubt it was murder. The main theories range from an assassination at the behest of Burr’s co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, who feared Lewis would reveal information about the true extent of Wilkinson’s involvement to simple murder in the course of robbery by none other than Robert Grinder, who, far from being on a hunting trip, was hidden out all the time and killed Lewis for the gold he was bound to have been carrying on such a long journey. Lewis died with a mere twenty-five cents in his pocket; Grinder, arrested and charged with murder but freed for lack of evidence, moved to West Tennessee and paid in gold for a large acreage and a number of slaves not long after Lewis’s death—the money having come from some unknown source.

Lewis lay in his lonely unmarked grave until 1920, when the National Park Service took over the area. He was dug up and reburied under a fine monument, and today there’s an interesting three mile loop hike in the reconstructed area. Locals say, however, that he has never rested in peace. They say that the door of the cabin where he died opens and closes by itself, that there are sounds like a gourd dipper scraping the bottom of an empty bucket in the night—a phantom seeking phantom water, and that people have reported that the wind in the trees is sometimes interrupted by the sound of a human voice repeating “It is so hard to die.”

Lewis may never go to his eternal rest. It’s unlikely at this late date that the true tale of his death will ever be told.

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Fairest Maid, where all Is fair, Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign, O choose me for your Valentine!
Love, Mighty God! Thou knows’t full well, where all thy Mother’s graces dwell,
Where they inhabit and combine to fix thy power with spells divine;
Thou knows’t what powerful magick lies within the round of Sarah’s eyes,
Or darted thence like lightning fires, and Heaven’s own joys around inspires;
Thou knows’t my heart will always prove the shrine of pure unchanging love!

It goes on in this same vein for another two verses. But this rather labored poem has great significance in American history, for it forms the heart of the first Valentine greeting ever given to an American girl. There’s a story behind it, of war, forbidden love, spies, betrayal, death, and ghosts, and it goes something like this:

During the Revolutionary War, New York’s Long Island was held by the British after General Washington’s Continental troops were forced to abandon it under heavy attack. As was the custom of the time, British officers and soldiers were quartered in private houses during the occupation.

One such was Raynham Hall, a twenty-room home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Built in the 1740s, it was the family home of the Townsends, a prominent patriot family. (Oddly, there is a more famous Raynham Hall in Norfolk in England, which was also home to a family called Townsend; there may be a family connection between the two.) In 1778, several British officers were quartered at the Hall, among them a young major named John Graves Simcoe. The Townsend family, still living at their home, consisted of a widowed father, several sons who were in Washington’s Continental Army, and daughters who were still at home.

Love knows no enemies, and so it was that John Simcoe, then twenty-seven, fell in love with seventeen-year-old Sarah Townsend. Known in the family as Sally, she was a pretty, winsome slip of a girl, who, legend says, returned his affection, despite her staunchly patriotic father’s disapproval. It was to Sally that Simcoe addressed that Valentine poem, dated February 14, 1779.

And who knows what might have come of this forbidden love? We’ll never know, because of events that began in late autumn of the following year.

Major Simcoe was a close friend and associate of a British Army officer whose name is far better-known than Simcoe’s: Major John Andre. Of French Hugenot descent, Andre remains a highly attractive character, fluent in four languages, a skilled artist and writer, a brave soldier, a renowned ladies’ man—and, sadly, a party to the Benedict Arnold plot to turn over the American garrison at West Point to the British for a price.

Arnold had married, as his second wife, a young woman named Margaret Shippen. Although she is remembered as a loyalist sympathizer, the truth of the matter seems to be that Peggy Shippen Arnold was an opportunistic bitch who wanted, more than anything, to accrue wealth and social position, no matter what the cost. It was partly her incessant nagging, and partly his own pique at being denied a promotion following the Battle of Saratoga, that led Arnold to begin negotiating with the British to switch sides and, in the process, hand over West Point, where he was in command.

Andre became involved partly through Peggy Arnold; he had, it was said, courted her assiduously, but broke off their relationship, after which she took up with the widowed Arnold. Andre acted as go-between for Arnold and the British, and thus it was that, in September 1780, Sally Townsend overheard him talking with John Simcoe one night about a letter from Arnold offering to surrender West Point and naming his price.

Sally, whose family were good patriots, after all, passed this information to her father, who passed it to one of her brothers, and thence on to General Washington. Now known to be a spy, Major Andre made the same foolish mistake Nathan Hale, the American spy, had made in 1776; he was captured with incriminating papers while wearing civilian clothes. Had he been wearing his uniform, he would have been treated as a prisoner of war; in civvies, he was treated as a spy, and subject to execution. Strangely enough, he was arrested on September 23, 1780, four years and one day after the British executed Nathan Hale. Found guilty by a military tribunal, Andre was hanged on October 2, 1780.

Major Simcoe, back at the Hall, was livid with rage when he learned of Andre’s capture and death. He would gladly have arrested and executed the whole Townsend family as traitors to the Crown, he declared, but for the fact that he could not find evidence directly connecting them to spy activity. He did, therefore, the one thing he could: he told Sally he no longer loved her, that he could never forgive her family’s part in Andre’s betrayal—and he left.

Simcoe would eventually become lieutenant governor of Upper Canada and died in England in 1806. He married a Canadian woman, but their only child, a daughter, died at the age of fifteen months. If he ever spared another thought for Sally Townsend, he never recorded it.

Sally, however, never got over her first love. She remained single, dying at Raynham Hall at the age of eighty-three, in the mid-1840s. She preserved Simcoe’s Valentine poem to the end of her long life; it is on display at Raynham Hall, which is now a museum. Sally, say tour guides and visitors, has never left the Hall; her spirit has been seen on the upper floor of the structure, and the bedroom she used her entire life is so cold, even on the hottest days, that people who spend any length of time there put on sweaters before they enter it.

Sally was not alone during the sixty-odd years that followed her broken romance, though. She left papers that indicate that she frequently saw, and spoke with, the ghost of Major Andre. She was to say, toward the end of her life, that Andre, always the gentleman, had told her he forgave her for her part in his death—the very thing that John Simcoe, who professed to love her, could or would not do. Andre’s ghost has also been seen outside the Hall, right up to the present day.

No happy endings—just a carefully preserved profession of love and stories of the restless dead.

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Hinton Ampner

The primary lesson of most ghost tales is that you ought to finish your life here on earth before moving on to the next. If you don’t you may have to stay here for awhile, bereft of body, attempting to do in death what you did not accomplish in life. (Phillip DePoy, The Drifter’s Wheel, 2008)

That certainly seems to be the lesson one could draw from the story of the haunting of Hinton Ampner Manor, where incest, infanticide, and guilt seem to have sparked one of the strangest hauntings on record.

The house was already more than a century old when, in 1719, the heiress Mary Stewkeley married Edward Stawell, the younger brother and heir presumptive of the childless Lord Stawell. Mary Stewkeley was a decade older than her husband, but she bore him two children. She inherited Hinton Ampner Manor on her father’s death, and with it, the guardianship of her much younger sister Honoria.

And with so seemingly innocent an event—an older sister undertaking to raise a younger—the trouble began.

Mary Stewekeley Stawell died in 1740. She left behind her husband, a daughter, and Honoria; her only son had died while away at boarding school. By this time, one might have expected that Honoria would have been married and mistress of her own establishment, but she stayed on at Hinton Ampner. She had fallen in love with her brother-in-law, and he apparently returned her affection. Under the law of the time, their relationship was considered incestuous.

Moreover, Lord Stawell’s servants, as horrified by the “goings-on” as was the outer world, spread the word that Honoria had at some point borne a child to Edward Stawell—and the child had been “done away with.”

Edward Stawell inherited his childless brother’s title in 1742, but he did not move to his brother’s manor; he remained at Hinton Ampner with his beloved Honoria. Honoria died in 1754. Her lover followed her within a year, dying of a stroke on April 2, 1755. He was fifty-six years old. Not long after, servants still living at the manor reported they saw his ghost in the house, wearing a “drab” (presumably beige) coat which he had worn frequently in life.

Hinton Ampner passed into the hands of Henry Bilson Legge, the husband of Stawell’s only daughter, as part of a marriage settlement. The couple only used the manor for a few weeks during the fall hunting season. The rest of the year, it was cared for by three old servants who had been there since Mary Stewkeley’s childhood. Legge died in 1764; his widow very shortly thereafter married the Earl of Hillsborough, and made the decision to rent out Hinton Ampner.

In January 1765 Henry and Mary Jervis Ricketts moved into the house, with their three young children. It was during their six-year residence in the house that the worst of the hauntings occurred. Mary Ricketts, who came from London and was a highly educated and frankly skeptical woman, kept a record of the strange events. Closely guarded by the Ricketts family until the 1870s, it makes for amazing reading even today.

From the time they moved in, the Rickettses were plagued by the most prosaic haunting noises, in particular sounds of doors being slammed. At first thinking there was hanky-panky in the servants’ quarters, they eventually decided that villagers were sneaking in to make mischief, perhaps upset because all the Ricketts’ servants were Londoners. They changed the locks, but the noises continued.

By summer, Lord Stawell had made his first appearance. He was seen first by the youngest Ricketts child’s nurse, who plainly saw a man in a “drab” coat go into the yellow bedchamber directly across the hall from the nursery. Thinking there might be a guest in the house, she was reassured by other servants that there was no guest. A search turned up no trace of the man. Shortly thereafter, a groom crossed paths with him in the entrance hall; the groom mistook the man for the butler, and was vastly surprised to learn that the butler was already in bed in the servants’ quarters and had not been downstairs since earlier in the evening.

In July of 1767, the servants were at tea in the kitchen when they heard a woman’s footsteps coming down the service stairs. They could tell it was not one of them, for they could hear the rustling of her clothes—apparently a gown of stiff silk; nor yet did the steps sound like those of Mary Ricketts. They saw a tall woman pass by the kitchen door and go on down the passageway to the yard, and, presumably, on into the street. A deliveryman came in almost in concert with her passing, and declared he had seen no one. Although the servants did not know it at the time, they had just witnessed the apparition of Honoria Stewekeley. Honoria was never seen again—only heard.

Around the same time, the noises that had disturbed the household from the beginning increased. Human groans, and rustlings and footsteps, became part of the repertoire. When the servants shared their misgivings with Mary Ricketts, she—perhaps predictably—ridiculed them. She would not do so for long.

Henry Ricketts was a man of business, and in 1769, his business took him on a long voyage to Jamaica. He left Mary, their three children, and eight servants behind at Hinton Ampner. And—again, perhaps predictably—the ghosts of Hinton Ampner took advantage of his absence to put on a ghastly exhibition for Mary, the skeptic.

She, hitherto unaware of or undisturbed by the noises that had pestered the rest of the household for four years, was now hearing not only footsteps that came from nowhere and belonged to no one in the house, but rustlings of invisible silk that accompanied some of them. Occasionally, the silken rustlings were loud enough, and close enough to her bed in the infamous yellow bedroom, that they woke her out of a sound sleep.

In the winter of 1769-1770 she received a visit from an old man living in the poorhouse at West Meon, close by. He told her that it was common knowledge that a carpenter had made a sort of hideyhole under the dining room floor during the tenure at Hinton Ampner of Mary and Honoria’s father, Sir Hugh, presumably a hiding place for papers or treasure. Neither Mary nor Lady Hillsborough followed up on this information. Given what would eventually be found under the floorboards, Mary missed her chance to stop the haunting in its tracks.

In the summer of 1770, she was startled by the sounds of a man’s footsteps coming across the floor of the yellow bedroom; the sounds were never repeated, however, and she remained in that room until winter, when she moved into the chintz (so called because of its decorations) bedroom across the hall, which was a warmer room. There, she heard sounds of music and sounds as if someone were banging on a door with a club—but again, these sounds were not repeated.

During the winter of 1770-71, she also became aware of the strangest of all the manifestations: an eerie, hollow, murmuring noise that seemed to fill the entire house. She said adamantly that most might have mistaken it for winds in the eaves, or drafts, but it could be heard on nights when there was no wind.

On April 2, 1771 (the anniversary of Lord Stawell’s death in 1755), she was awakened by the sounds of people walking in the hall outside the chintz bedroom. She listened to the racket for some twenty minutes before waking her maid; the two of them not only heard the footsteps, but sounds that indicated someone was opening and closing the door of the yellow bedroom. A search proved that no one save she, the maid, and the children were on the second floor; moreover, the door to the yellow bedroom was locked.

As that summer drew on, the hollow murmuring that filled the whole house became hollow no more; for out of it came the sounds of angry human voices, one high-pitched and obviously female, two others deeper and male. They were carrying on a conversation, but none of their words were ever distinguishable. These sounds often went on all night and into the next morning.

Mary Ricketts kept a written record of all that was happening, and she was now convinced, she wrote, that “[these things] were beyond the power of any mortal agent to perform, but knowing how exploded such opinions are, I kept them in my own bosom, and hoped my resolution would enable me to support whatever might befall.”

In the event, she would remain in the house less than a month from the time she penned those words.

There was a brief respite from the sounds when, in late July of 1771, her brother John came to visit her. Her brother was a naval officer, who would eventually rise to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet and mentor the much more famous Horatio Nelson. No sooner was Captain Jervis gone, however, than the sounds got worse. This time, it sounded as if some tremendously heavy object was falling with preternatural speed and landing in the floor of the lobby outside Mary’s chintz room. Worse yet, it was followed by a piercing, indisputably human scream, which came again and again before it finally seemed to fade beneath the floor.

Mary hadn’t told her brother about the haunting on his previous visit. When he returned to Hinton Ampner in early August, she did so; her entire household, herself included, was by now in a state of near-panic. This time, Captain Jervis got no respite. He, his manservant, and a fellow officer from the Royal Navy sat up every night for a week and were treated to the full cacaphony of sounds and a few new ones besides; one night, there was a phantom gunshot, followed by groans of agony, that had no mortal source.

The last straw, for Captain Jervis, was a repetition of the heavy object falling/screams. Horrified, and unable to find, despite repeated searches of the house and grounds, any cause for the events, he advised his sister to move out. She did so within the week.

Lady Hillsborough managed to rent Hinton Ampner again; that tenant lacked Mary Ricketts’ stubbornness. He moved out within six months, unable to tolerate the ghostly noises. The old manor stood empty, growing derelict, until 1797, when it was razed to the ground. It was reported, during the dismantling of the house, that the body of an infant child was found under some floorboards.

A new Hinton Ampner House, which still stands and is noted for its gardens, was built a few hundred feet from the old site. Even it, however, is haunted; some of the same noises that plagued the old house are heard there, usually around dawn.

It sounds as if Lord Stawell and Honoria, whose illicit love led to something infinitely more sinister, are still trying to put things right—and, although the child’s bones under the floor were found and buried, they, the guilty parents, are still looking for redemption.

Scary thought.

I first read of the haunting at Hinton Ampner in Frank Usher’s account in FIFTY GREAT GHOST STORIES (1971; edited by John Canning). His source was Mary Ricketts’ own “Narration”, which appeared in what Usher describes as a “garbled” form in an 1870 biography, then in full in an 1872 issue of THE GENTLEMAN’S MAGAZINE.

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I couldn’t tell you if Itchells Manor, the former home of the Bathurst family in Hampshire in England, still stands. It was, however, back in the early nineteenth century, a notoriously haunted place—a haunting that centered around a massive fireplace in an upstairs bedroom. Here’s the story:

In the early years of the eighteenth century, the squire of Itchells was Alexander Bathurst, a rich man who became a panicky miser following the collapse of a great money-making opportunity of the year 1720 that’s remembered as the South Sea Bubble—comparable, you might say, to our contemporary dot-com collapse. Squire Bathurst had invested money in the South Sea Company, made a bundle, sold his South Sea stock at peak price, reinvested in the much more stable East India Company, and thanks to dividends from that company become a phenomenally wealthy man. When the South Sea Bubble collapsed, he realized how near his escape from total financial disaster had been, and lost his nerve. He withdrew his funds from the East India company, converted them to gold coins, and returned to his ancestral home. There, he got rid of all the servants save his valet, sold off his fine horses—keeping only one—and shut off all but three rooms of the manor.

His valet, Giuseppe Mancini, was in a miserable situation. Squire Bathurst refused to buy adequate food supplies, and was slowly deteriorating both mentally and physically. The one thing he still took any pleasure in was counting his money. On many a night Giuseppe would hear him murmuring away in his locked bedroom, counting the coins he kept locked in a great trunk. Giuseppe, near starvation himself, came up with a plan to do away with Squire Bathurst, take his money, and return to his native Italy a rich man.

He first found a place to hide the squire’s body—not a hard task; the man was so emaciated he could have been hidden under a couple of floorboards–, taking some of the bricks out of a certain fireplace in an upper room and making a sort of niche. Then, one night when all was dark and silent, he slipped into the squire’s room, intending to smother him with a pillow. That plan went awry when the squire woke up, and Giuseppe ended up cutting his throat with a straight razor instead.

Giuseppe wrapped the body in a sheet, carried it upstairs, placed it in its fireplace tomb, and replaced the bricks, being careful to use fresh mortar to seal Squire Bathurst in. He was just about to walk out forever when he was stopped in his tracks by a frantic knocking—coming from behind the bricks he had just mortared in place—and the sound of Squire Bathurst’s unmistakeable voice shouting, “Let me out! LET ME OUT!”

Giuseppe raced downstairs and dragged the trunkful of coins out to the stable, where he placed it in the one carriage Squire Bathurst had kept, hitched up the one ill-fed horse still left of an excellent stable, and tried to drive away from the house. Within a couple of miles, the horse dropped dead in the traces, the effort too much for its starved body, and the carriage collapsed under the weight of the trunkful of gold. Giuseppe, still in a panic, filled his pockets with coins and ran for the nearest seaport. Unfortunately, the money was found, the squire’s squalid house searched, and a “Hue and Cry” raised for the missing valet. He was arrested, convicted, and hanged for his crime.

Itchells Manor was inherited by Alexander Bathurst’s nephew. Within a century, however, the Bathurst line died out when the only male heir was killed at Waterloo, and the house was sold to a family called Lefroy.

Oddly, none of the Bathursts were ever disturbed by the squire’s spirit. The Lefroys weren’t so lucky. At Easter, in 1823, they threw a house party, and the murdered Squire chose then to make his presence known. On the first night of the party, one of the Lefroy servant girls was upstairs in a certain bedroom, making up the fire in a certain massive fireplace, when she was scared into flight by knockings from the chimney piece—hard enough knocks to make the bricks tremble when she touched them—and a voice roaring, “LET ME OUT!! LET ME OUT!!!”

Casting caution and her mistress’s orders to the wind, the girl raced down the great main staircase, almost losing her footing when an invisible body shoved her aside. She, and others summoned by her shriek of terror, distinctly heard a heavily-accented voice—a different voice from the dreadful one upstairs—wail, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” as the invisible being swept past. Steps raced across to the heavy front door, which swung open, letting in a blast of icy night wind, and all heard the sounds of a carriage rumbling off down the gravel drive—but there was no carriage to be seen.

Not to mention that the door, which slammed itself shut as abruptly as it had opened, proved to have been locked all along.

The guests were placated, somewhat, with the lame explanation that the girl had been frightened by a giant rat. The lady who occupied that room stayed elsewhere that night, and left the next day, and the room with the noises was shut up and remained so. Squire Bathurst, however, continued to scare the servants with odd knockings in various parts of the house, making it all but impossible for the Lefroys to keep staff.

He and the spirit of Giuseppe, still trapped in the house like his murdered master, put on another full-scale performance in 1840, at which time the phenomena were observed by a Lefroy son who had been away at school in 1823, and a friend of the family, both of whom left written accounts.

There have been no reports of the hauntings for many years since. Perhaps, in whatever afterlife they’re in, Squire Bathurst and Giuseppe have made their peace with each other.

We can hope.

I first read about the Squire of Itchells Manor in an article by Ronald Seth, published in John Canning’s 1971 anthology FIFTY GREAT GHOST STORIES.

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Knobs don’t normally have names, like mountains do. Down in my friend Auntie’s little corner of ‘em, though, just outside Etowah, there’s one called, simply, The Wildcat. In the old days, before wildcats were hunted nearly to extinction in this area, they used a cave on the knob for a place to hide out during the day, and hunted from there at night. People would hear them scream, that ghastly scream like a woman in terror, and gradually the knob acquired that identifying name. Auntie says, in fact, that she believes big cats still come there; she heard a cat shriek, deep in the night, not long ago, from that direction.

One morning last October, though, she heard some entirely different noises, and they reminded her of an old, old story that she was told when she was a young girl. She doesn’t know if the story was made up to account for natural phenomena, or if it has a basis in fact, but it’s been handed down through one branch of her family for more than a century—possibly closer on to two.

Auntie was up early that morning, waking to a windy, cloudy, rainy day. She had her newly adopted kitty to feed, and errands to run, and she was startled out of her business by sounds like footsteps on her porch, and then sounds of knocking. But there was no one there. . .

She then heard something else that chilled her to the bone—a moaning sound. She thought perhaps it was the wind moaning in the chimney, or around the corners of the house, as it does when it blows from one particular direction—the direction of The Wildcat—until, with the moaning, she heard a sound no one could mistake—like a woman sobbing. When she went outside to feed Miss Kitty, she could still hear the moaning and crying. It came from the woods across the road. The Wildcat is beyond those woods. That was when she knew the sounds were not the wind moaning around her house and chimney.

That was when she remembered the story of the cries and moans that come from The Wildcat, that follow the phantom footsteps and knocks, long about October.

One branch of Auntie’s family, the Elliots—to whom we refer affectionately as “them crazy Elliots” for some of the wild and woolly scrapes they got into—, along with a few intrepid neighbors, moved into what is now McMinn County long before it was organized as a county in 1819. White people were not, technically, supposed to settle in the area, which was still regarded as Cherokee territory at the time. But the Elliots had married into the Cherokee, and settled near their relatives.

The ones who passed the story down didn’t recollect the exact year; only that it was in October that the neighbor woman went missing. The story goes that she stepped out to fetch water and was last seen heading toward The Wildcat. Nobody understood why she would be going there. Sure, there was a great spring of water on the knob, fresh sweet water, but there were equally good springs much closer. Still, no one stopped her. No one asked questions, until she failed to return home.

The Elliots and the neighbors went out searching for her. They searched for weeks, and found not a trace of her. Eventually, with winter coming on, the search was abandoned.

A year passed, and in October, at the anniversary of the woman’s disappearance, they first heard the footsteps. . .and the knocking. . .and the moaning that turned to crying. . .and, like Auntie, found it was coming from the woods, in the direction of The Wildcat. Again they went out onto the knob to search: the woods, the spring, even the cave where the wildcats came. Again, they found no trace of her. They noticed that the sounds got stronger as they got near the top of The Wildcat, but died out as they closed in on what they thought was their source. The search was abandoned again.

This happened, every October, thereafter. They searched for several years, when the sounds came, but finally, in frustration, gave up the search altogether.

And last October, the sounds came again, this time to Auntie, a descendant of the Elliots who first searched for the woman, so long ago.

Auntie wonders if that poor woman, lost for nearly two centuries now, has tried to make it home again, has tried to get someone’s attention with the footsteps, the knocking, the moaning and crying. She wonders if there might be a way to send the poor soul on her way—

But that would necessitate yet another search of The Wildcat. Auntie’s old now, and the Elliots who could have guided her over the knob are all long in their graves.

She’ll wait, and listen, for more Octobers to come.

And wonder.

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