duh duhduh duh duh, duh duh. . .
“Shave and a haircut/Two bits”. Oldtime country and bluegrass musicians recognize that little musical phrase immediately.
Sure, men have died in barber chairs. The most famous example is probably mobster Albert Anastasia, shot to death in one in New York City in 1957. Other men have had their throats slit while sitting in a barber’s chair; I made use of one such true event in my Halloween 2010 story The Button.
But this story, which comes from late 19th century British Columbia, in western Canada, is the only one I’ve ever run across in which a dead man came in for a shave and a haircut.
There were three of them, at first: prospectors looking for a gold strike. One was an Irishman named John Barry; the second, an American called Morgan Blessing; the third, a freed slave who had come north to seek his fortune. He had a single name: Moses.
Moses and John Barry had found the area where they sought gold to be mighty thin pickin’s. Morgan Blessing, however, had found one prodigious gold nugget. It was oddly shaped, resembling nothing so much as a primitive statue of an angel with wings. Hence, Blessing referred to it as his “Guardian Angel”.
They were on their way back to the town of Barkerville–now a BC Provincial Park, but then the largest town in Western Canada–when they stopped overnight at an inn in a hamlet called Quesnel. That night, Blessing showed Moses and Barry his “Guardian Angel”, calling it both his protection from harm and his ticket, should he choose, back to the US.
Next morning, the Guardian Angel was missing from Blessing’s pack.
Well, in those days officers of the law in Western Canada were few and far between. Blessing and others staying at the inn mounted a diligent search for the Guardian Angel, but were unable to locate it. They–perhaps inevitably–focused on Moses as the thief, despite not finding the nugget in his belongings or on his person, and were just about to lynch him when the outraged innkeeper came roaring out of the inn waving a shotgun, telling them they had no proof of Moses’ guilt, and threatening to shoot the first man who tried to place a rope around the ex-slave’s neck.
Blessing was no fool. He was armed with nothing except his foolish suspicions. He called off the lynching, but ordered Moses, as the saying goes, to “git outta town before sundown”. Moses complied.
Throughout all the ruckus, John Barry said not a word about the missing Guardian Angel, nor lifted a finger to help Moses.
Blessing and Barry, meanwhile, traveled on together, but, by the time Barry got to Barkerville, he was alone. He claimed that Blessing, distraught over the loss of his Guardian Angel and still thinking Moses was the thief, had turned back to Vancouver, and was probably on his way back to the States.
People in Barkerville, where Moses had by now set up a barber shop, weren’t so sure. There was some sentiment there that Barry knew more about the theft of the Guardian Angel than he was telling.
Moses was sitting alone in his barbershop one summer afternoon when the door opened to admit a customer. Moses looked up, and his greeting caught in his throat.
There in front of him stood Morgan Blessing, his clothes rotting, his hair and beard long and matted, and the smell of death and the grave coming off him in waves. He left the door standing open behind him.
After a moment or two, Moses gasped, “Lord, Lord, Mr. Blessing, is that you? What can I do for you today, sir?”
Blessing took a step nearer, but didn’t speak. He seemed to be in pain; he held one hand against the back of his head, grimacing as he did so. As Moses watched, trembling in his shoes, Blessing moved the hand that cradled the back of his head and stroked his beard.
“Oh,” Moses said, feeling somewhat relieved, even though he knew in his very bones that he was looking at a dead man. “You need a shave, sir? Well, have a seat here.”
Moses kept talking as he put a towel over the back of the chair, kept talking even as he tried to ignore the fact that he could read the lettering on the shop’s window through Blessing’s body as he crossed the light to sit down.
Moses nervously began stropping his razor and rattling on, “Mr. Blessing, I just want you to know, God is my witness, I never stole your Guardian Angel. I reckon that’s what you’ve come about. That, and getting a shave and a haircut.”
Blessing sat down. He had never taken his eyes off Moses for a minute; he had never said a word.
Moses knew that, sooner or later, he was going to have to begin shaving this transparent, reeking shade. He was wondering if his nerve would hold up when Blessing vanished.
The front door slammed itself shut, and even though Moses knew that Blessing had vanished before his very eyes, without walking through the door, he ran outside to see if he could see Blessing walking away.
The street was empty.
When Moses went back inside, he found that there was a great gout of dark-red blood on the towel he’d placed on the back of the chair, behind Blessing’s head. Laundering didn’t fade the stain. Finally, spooked and sickened, he burnt it, only to find that a red impression remained in the ashes after it was burnt up.
Moses was certain, after this visitation, that Blessing was dead, and he felt certain that Barry, who was carousing about Barkerville without a care in the world, must have killed him. How to get that across to the authorities, he didn’t know; his word wasn’t good enough proof for the law.
The Guardian Angel, though, was.
Barry screwed up royally when he fell in love with a busty, lively dance hall girl. As a payment for her favors, he gave her that nugget like a winged angel–Blessing’s Guardian Angel–but asked her to keep it a secret.
She showed the gift off to the other saloon girls, who told clients about it–and one of those clients–perhaps merely a concerned citizen, perhaps a lawman himself–turned Barry in on suspicion of theft and murder.
The saloon girl was the Crown’s star witness, putting the Guardian Angel in Barry’s possession; but Moses, too, testified at Barry’s trial. Moses told the startled court that he had known from the moment Blessing walked into his barber shop that he was dead, and figured that he’d been shot in the back of the head. Blessing wanted Moses to do something, but Moses candidly admitted he had no idea what to do. Not to mention, he added, that John Barry “had the murderin’ habit” and he was taking no chances on being Barry’s next victim.
Barry, knowing that he was facing the hangman, one way or another, took the stand and made a full confession. He had indeed stolen the Guardian Angel that night back in Quesnel, had somehow secreted it so that Blessing and his ragtag primitive crime scene investigators didn’t locate it, had stood by as Blessing threatened to lynch Moses. When the lynching was thwarted by the indignant innkeeper, and Moses had left town, Blessing and Barry had traveled on toward Barkerville.
At some point, though, Barry apparently began to suspect that Blessing had begun to suspect him, not Moses, of the theft. So he had killed Barry with a single shot to the back of the head. He named the spot where he’d buried Blessing–beside a bush on the outskirts of Barkerville. The remains were duly located and buried.
Barry was hanged a few short weeks later.
The ghost of Morgan Blessing was satisfied. That reeking bloody unshaven shade never walked again.
The story of the ghost who wanted a shave comes from Michael Norman’s 2006 book Haunted Homeland.