Back in the middle part of the nineteenth century, in the English village of Ringstead, in Northamptonshire, there resided a butcher with the peculiar–but, given his particular propensities, appropriate–name of Weekly Ball. The husband of a happy-go-lucky wife and father of a tribe of rather feckless children, he was also a notorious seducer of young women, despite being what we would, here in the knobs, describe as a homely cuss, short, chubby and jowly. Ball was blessed, however, with such natural charm that he usually succeeded with whatever girl he wanted.
And so it was that, when he met teenaged Lydia Atley while delivering an saddle of mutton to the local squire’s kitchen, he was able to seduce her with barely a word.
Lydia was a black-haired, black-eyed beauty, with a full, pouting mouth and a ripe firm body. She was also of a sensuous disposition, and sick, so she told her best friend and fellow servant Betsy, of teen boys who had no idea how to satisfy a girl’s needs. Though she had never met Ball before that winter day in the squire’s kitchen, she knew of his reputation for sexual prowess–and he recognized a certain hunger in her. She signaled her interest with the sexy way she prepared, at the cook’s direction, a tankard of mulled wine for him: locking eyes with Ball as she plunged a heated poker into the tankard with a murmured remark about its “glowing red tip.” Ball riposted by offering her some late apples from his orchard, and Lydia accepted–both of them knowing that there would be more than apples offered, and accepted, when they met.
Despite Betsy’s remonstrances, Lydia began sneaking out to meet the butcher, at first on her Wednesday afternoons off, then later in the dark winter evenings and the long twilights of summer, in a storage hut near the orchard. And in the following autumn, the inevitable happened, and Lydia became pregnant.
Ball was furious, of course. Lydia told Betsy that he had offered to give her money to go away and have her child in private. Lydia gave a week’s notice to her employers, left the Hall–and was never heard from, or seen alive, again.
Her friend Betsy was, by then, a nineteen-year-old and engaged to marry a fellow servant named Ben Ridgway. A couple of months before they were to be married, they were spending a rare spring evening in a spot favored by lovers, not far from Weekly Ball’s orchard. Ben turned on his own considerable charm, and he and Betsy were just about to make love when she startled him by pushing him away and leaping to her feet, running toward a spot in the orchard, and calling, “Lydie! LYDIE!”
And then she turned and ran back to his arms, whitefaced and shaking from head to foot. To his puzzled questions, she answered that she had seen the missing Lydia Atley, over his shoulder, smiling, but shaking her head and moving her finger in the time-honored signal for “better not do that!”–but when Betsy got up and ran toward her, she was gone as if she had never been there at all.
Ben hadn’t seen a thing. But Betsy refused to be comforted or seduced; she demanded to be taken back to the Hall, and wouldn’t let him touch her again until their wedding night.
Ben and Betsy were not the only ones whose amours were interrupted by the odd appearances and disappearances of Lydia Atley. Within the month, three other couples came forward, all reporting the same thing; each pair had been about to have sex when the girl was startled, and frightened, by the disapproving and disappearing Lydia, and each boy saw nothing.
Moreover, those appearances and disappearances gave rise to murmurs that Lydia had never left the village, and that Weekly Ball must have “done away” with her, but with no evidence, the murmurs remained murmurs.
For the next fifteen years, Lydia acted as a very effective form of birth control. But for the fact that she seemed to prefer the long light evenings of spring and summer, and the occasional cold winter Wednesday or Sunday afternoon, she might have wiped out unwed pregnancy altogether in Ringstead.
In the spring of 1865, a laborer digging a drainage ditch intended to divert water away from the nearby churchyard during heavy rains found a skeletonized body. The local doctor identified it as the remains of a young woman, not yet out of her teens, and–significantly–missing two lower jaw teeth–a fact known to Lydia Atley’s friends and family. With the discovery of the skeleton, a man stepped forward to reveal a secret he had held for fifteen years: that, on the evening Lydia Atley was last known to have been alive, he had passed the storage hut by Weekly Ball’s orchard and heard a voice he had recognized as hers saying, “I don’t think you mean to give me any money at all, Weekly Ball. I think you mean to kill me.” The inadvertant eavesdropper had taken flight at that, and, asked later why he had never reported this before, said only that he believed it was best to stay out of other people’s business.
With that report, however, the murmurs about Ball’s culpability in Lydia Atley’s disappearance burst into roars, and to his vast surprise he found himself hauled into court and charged with her murder. But for the fact that he hired an astute lawyer, who pointed out that A) all the Crown’s evidence was purely circumstance and hearsay and B) the area where the body had been found was near a traditional gypsy encampment and it was possible that the remains were those of a gypsy girl and not Lydia Atley’s at all, he might have been convicted and hanged. Ball was acquitted, but barely; his business took a severe hit, though, as the villagers, not satisfied with the verdict, shunned him. He soon sold out and moved away, and no one from Ringstead mourned when reports came, years later, of his death.
Lydia’s sad remains–for the villagers firmly believed the skeleton was indeed hers, no matter what Ball’s fancy lawyer argued–were buried with all proper rites in the churchyard. Her spirit was not appeased, however, and she continued to haunt Ringstead for some years thereafter. Her last reported appearance, on Midsummer Eve in 1874, brought her hauntings an ironic full circle, for the girl who saw her that night was with a boy named Isaac Ridgway–the son of Ben and Betsy.
This story is adapted from a telling by Ronald Seth in John Canning’s book 50 GREAT GHOST STORIES (1971).