Our cousins across the pond–meaning the Brits, that is–do have a sort of monopoly on some types of ghost stories. One such motif is that of screaming skulls. There are many tales in British folklore about these noisy crania, which shriek, laugh, and are said to bring bad luck to any fool who takes them out of the house where they’ve taken up residence.
Most of these screaming skulls aren’t, shall we say, motivated by any great emotion left over from their living years. The Calgarth Skulls were different. They took it upon themselves to drive a man out of his ill-gotten home and into penury and madness.
I first read the story of the Calgarth Skulls in a Ripley’s Believe It. . .or Not! illustrated anthology way back in the 1970s. They also make an appearance in Sarah Hapgood’s 1993 book 500 British Ghosts & Hauntings. Hapgood casts some doubt on the story; there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of documentation to prove any of the principal characters actually existed. But I’m of much the same opinion about the Calgarth Skulls as I am about our own Bell Witch; something extraordinary must have happened in that setting for the story to persist in folklore for so many centuries.
In the late sixteenth century, in Cumbria, there lived a great landowner named Myles Phillipson, and he was not well thought of. He had a reputation of being dishonest in business dealings and, in his capacity as the local magistrate, a little too eager to dole out heavy punishments to people who crossed him.
Among those who crossed him were an elderly couple whom tradition names as Kraster and Dorothy Cook. They had the good fortune to own a small and picturesque farm property and, while not wealthy people, had done well for themselves.
Unfortunately, the big man in those parts–Myles Phillipson–wanted their land. He had a fancy to build himself a great house on that small farm, with its pretty views. Phillipson made the Cooks an offer he thought only fools would refuse.
Far from being fools, the Cooks were simply happy on their farm and wanted to keep it. They turned Phillipson down.
Like many another dishonest magnate, Phillipson did not like being thwarted, and set in motion an evil plan to take the Cooks’ land without having to pay for it.
He pretended to have no hard feelings, and he invited the elderly couple to a party at his home. They came, and had the misfortune to express admiration for a fancy serving bowl (tradition says it was either gold or silver) that was used in the course of the evening.
Within a day or so, the Cooks were under arrest. While they were out, Phillipson had a henchman plant the beautiful bowl in their wee house. Phillipson then raised a hue and cry, proclaimed the bowl stolen, accused the Cooks of theft, and as magistrate sentenced them to hang.
Kraster Cook protested to no avail. Dorothy took more direct action; in court, she placed a curse on Phillipson: he would never prosper from then on, for she and her husband, she threatened, would haunt him until the end of his days.
They were hanged, Phillipson snatched up their property, and his great house was soon built.
At the first party he gave there, the guests stampeded out in terror. There was a grand staircase in the foyer of the mansion, and just as the party was in full swing, the guests heard two voices raised in raucous shrieks–not of fear, but of laughter. The sounds seemed to come from the staircase, and sure enough, when the servants investigated, there on the bannisters sat two grinning skulls.
Phillipson threw the skulls out into a nearby lake and bade his guests continue their revelry, but no sooner were the words out of his mouth than the skulls reappeared and resumed their unholy glee at his expense.
The guests ran. A few of them, as they left, reminded Phillipson of Dorothy Cook’s curse as sentence of death was passed on her.
Phillipson never held another party at his great house; word got about that the skulls sat on that staircase, laughing, day in and day out. Worse yet, his canny, if hardly legal, business ventures failed, and he eventually died penniless.
His heirs were unable to live in his mansion, for the skulls remained there. Only when the house fell into ruin did the haunting cease.
Strangely, Myles Phillipson figures in another story of much the same sort, from about a century later than that of the Calgarth Skulls. That story, from John Canning’s Fifty Great Horror Stories, involves a hand taken from the body of a holy man called Father Arrowsmith and tells how Phillipson used the hand to restore a dead man to life long enough for the man to change his will in Phillipson’s favor, and how Phillipson murdered–and was haunted by–the man’s heirs, with much the same results as Dorothy Cook’s curse brought about in the older story.
All I can say is, DANG, if there really was a Myles Phillipson, he was a wrong ‘un. (^_^)