A couple of years ago my friend Bella wrote a blog post about a family who had forewarning of deaths among their members by three loud knocks at the door, although no one was ever at the door when they checked. Death omens are common to all cultures. Many, like the one in Bella’s story, are attached to specific families, and the stories behind them are pretty spooky.
The most familiar of all death omens is, of course, Ireland’s banshee. Her name in Gaelic is ban-sidhe, “woman of the sidhe”–in other words, she was originally a member of the faery people of Celtic myth. Eventually, her fairy origins were forgotten, and she became a spirit or ghost who attached herself to certain of Ireland’s great families. Most of the stories behind the banshee begin with a seduction and murder of a young woman by a male member of the haunted family, as is the case in possibly the most famous such story: the redhaired phantom who haunted the O’Briens of Rossmore. She appeared in the seventeenth century at the bedroom window of a Lady Ann Fanshawe, a friend of the O’Briens, and made the night terrible with her weeping, disappearing just before dawn. (Contrary to popular belief, the banshee usually weeps or moans rather than screams.) Lady Fanshawe was informed the next morning that one of the O’Briens had died in the castle that night, and that the banshee–a murder victim buried under the floor of Lady Fanshawe’s room, centuries before–had heralded his death.
Berry Pomeroy, a ruined castle in Devonshire, England, also has a death omen, attached to the castle itself and whoever may be living there. The castle was originally owned by a Norman family called de la Pomerai, and the ghost is said to have been the daughter of a medieval lord of the castle who, as a result of an incestuous relationship with her father, bore a child, which she strangled at birth. Apparently, her guilty spirit could not rest, and became the castle’s death omen. A famed early nineteenth century doctor named Walter Farquhar recorded in his journal that he saw the ghost–a beautiful young woman who appeared on a staircase, wringing her hands in distress–the day before a patient of his, the wife of the man who was then the castle’s caretaker, died.
One branch of Clan MacKenzie in Scotland’s Highlands has been warned for centuries of an impending death by a spectral hand. A woman’s hand, it usually appears from the mid-forearm down, protruding from a wall, and has been known to knock objects over to get the attention of a family member.
Legend does not say why the hand came to haunt this particular family, but it has manifested as recently as the twentieth century, and not only in the family home; one MacKenzie is said to have seen the hand while watching a film in a movie theater, and returned home to find that a family member had died at that very instant.
A Roman Catholic family in Anson County, North Carolina has, according to John Harden’s 1954 book TAR HEEL GHOSTS, been warned for at least four generations of a death in the family by tiny black crosses that appear on the family’s linens: sheets, shirts, even–during World War I–on a white ribbon bookmark in a pocket Bible carried by a soldier of the family. He wrote to his mother about finding the cross in the Bible, and later on the day he wrote the letter was killed going over the top.
Moreover, after word is received of the death, the crosses always vanish.
And then there is my personal favorite of all death omens: the Black Friar of Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, England. He’s my favorite for this reason: for some three centuries he haunted the family of none other than my favorite Brit Romantic poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). Recognizable as an Augustinian friar because of the black robe he wore, the ghost is theorized to have represented a curse on the Byron family, who were given the property when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic church, took over the lands held by religious orders, and gave them to his supporters. Lord Byron the poet was the last member of the family to own Newstead Abbey; he inherited it from an uncle. The ghost was said to appear at the weddings, christenings and deathbeds of the Byrons. On happy occasions he looked both unhappy and angry; at deathbeds, he wore a broad grin. Lord Byron, however, swore that he saw the friar looking happy at Byron’s own ill-omened 1815 wedding to an heiress named Annabella Milbanke, an event Byron called the unhappiest of his life. In his long poem DON JUAN, Byron wrote of this spirit:
By the marriage beds of their lords, ’tis said,
He flits on the bridal eve;
And ’tis held as faith, to their bed of death,
He comes–but not to grieve.
Just between you, me and the fencepost, nobody I’d want to see next to my marriage bed, and that’s a fact. 😉