Ghosts and Spirits


Saturday Oct. 24, 1812

I yesterday spent a very pleasant evening at Mr Flaxman’s, the company present were Mr. Mrs. and Miss Flaxman, 2 Miss Denmans, Mr. T. Denman, Mrs. and Miss Vardill, Governor Franklin, my Mother and myself.

After supper Dr. Johnson, and his propensity to superstition were named, when my Mother said she had always considered it as the most amicable part of his character, in which Mr. Flaxman agreed. This, and some remarks on Dr. Johnson’s great disposition to believe in the Second Sight, led to a good deal of conversation, in the course of which the following curious circumstances were related, which were not, like the usual tales of Ghosts and Hobgoblins, of figures stalking by moonlight, over some favourite spot of ground, dreaded and believed by all, yet actually seen by none, or only by those whose testimony is very doubtful. The Second Sight, and the idea of the spirits of the dead being sometimes permitted to revisit this world, to give some important warning to their friends &c, have of late been the subjects of much discussion, and many in disgust or ridicule of the credulous, have fallen into the opposite extreme of scepticism. In this instance, as in almost every other, the golden mean is perhaps to be preferred. Should this little paper by any accident ever fall into the hands of one of these sceptics, I may perhaps like others be ridiculed for my credulity, but I have certainly been much more frequently censured for the opposite error. A few months since Miss Baillie’s fine Tragedy of Orra came into consideration, and in the course of some remarks which took place respecting it, my sister strongly reprehended me for my incredulity in these matters. In the vulgar idea of ghosts which return to this world to give information of some concealed treasure, or for some other purpose equally frivolous, which however it might have interested the living, can, whether they are blessed or otherwise, no longer deserve a thought, I have no belief. But that spirits have occasionally given a friend notice of their death or of his own, have attested the truth of our belief in another world and summoned him to prepare for it, there are many well attested instances, and perhaps some of the following may not be thought unworthy of notice.

Of the existence of prophecy no one who believes in the religion of our Saviour can possibly doubt, and it is certainly not improbable that a portion of this divine spirit, though comparatively exceedingly small may sometimes have been imparted to many who have hence possessed what has received the name of Second Sight. It has been observed, and with a considerable degree of apparent weight, that this gift has not been imparted to persons eminent, either for piety or for intellectual energy, but for the most part to the rude and ignorant. Shall I then go farther and say, that possibly the faculty of prescience may to a certain degree be implanted in every mind, but that those, which refinement has stored with a multiplicity of ideas, are less alive to its suggestions, or should they feel them, reason them away. Should some unseen influence impress them with the idea of a future event, and that event take place, they might have had some reason to expect it. Should they fancy they see a friend, and afterwards hear that he was either dead or distant at the moment, they would say it had been someone like him that they had seen. The ignorant man on the contrary having but few ideas, is more open to these impressions of futurity, and more likely to remember them. I know that some few years ago, I have had unaccountable anticipations of events that I had not the slightest reason to expect, which afterwards took place, and which though trifling in themselves were then of great importance to me, and imprinted themselves deeply on my memory. But should those same events now take place, with the same anticipation, I should probably refer them to some unperceived association of ideas, some invisible connection, like that which upon recollection and reflection we often perceive to have subsisted between our dreams and the actions and conversations of the preceding day. Be all this as it may, I will conclude with an observation made last night, that it is better to be too credulous than otherwise, and that it is not wise to overthrow anything that reminds us of the other world or that establishes a connection between it and the present, at the same time that we ought not to be in constant expectation of visions, or supernatural visitations.

This is dangerous ground and it is perhaps presumption in me to venture upon it. If so, I entreat pardon from above, and indulgence from my readers, should there ever be any.

Mr. Flaxman stated that once in conversation with Dr. Flaxman, his namesake and a clergyman, the Doctor severely reprehended him for his credulity with regard to Spirits. Mr. Flaxman asked him if he had never in his life met with any well authenticated instance, that might bear upon the subject in question. He replied: Never in my life; Oh, yes, once I did. A sailor came to me one morning, told me that he had been awakened the night before by a loud knock at his bed’s head and asked me what he was to think of it. I told him someone who slept in the next room had either done it to frighten him, or by accident — no one slept in the next room — then someone above or below — that was also impossible — Some noise then, in the next house or the street — No — What then did he himself think of it — The sailor replied, I have a very dear friend now in the East (or West) Indies, and I think he is dead, and that knock was to warn me of it. Dr. Flaxman endeavoured to reason him out of it but in vain. At last he made him write down the day and hour of his hearing the noise, and desired if he should find that his friend was dead at the time, that he would return and inform him. About three months after, when the Doctor had forgotten him, he returned and showed him a letter from India which stated that his friend had died on the night when he heard the knock. Well, said Mr. Flaxman, and what was your opinion of this? I thought, said the Doctor, that his spirit had been permitted to give his friend notice of his death.

Govr. Franklin said he had known a young lady in New York who had the faculty of seeing persons that she knew, however distant, at the moment of their death. A lady once told him that one day, this young friend of hers came into a party and said that she had seen her uncle go upstairs into the bedroom he occupied when there. The lady expressed her surprise that he had entered without knocking or giving any notice and sent to look for him. He was not there. The young lady then said, she was sure something had happened to him, wrote down the day and hour of her seeing him, and the next day received information that at that time he had expired.

My Mother stated that a very intimate friend of theirs, and not at all prone to superstition, at 4 o’clock on the first of August, fancied that her sister stood at his bedside robed in white. He exclaimed, Mrs. Brown, what brings you here at this time. She replied, I am not now of this world, and I come to inform you that you will not be long on it, therefore prepare. This dream made a strong impression on him, and when he returned to York, and found that Mrs Brown whom he had left three months before in perfect health, was dead and had expired on the 1st of August as the clock struck four, he withdrew deeply affected, as was my Mother when he afterwards told her the story. The gentleman died about six months after.

Mr. Flaxman related another circumstance which he had learned in the way of his profession. Mr. George Ellis, well known in the literary world, called upon him to request he would make a monument for a lady, the wife of a relation of his, I believe an uncle. It was to be a simple sarcophagus, with a dove at the top. Mr. Flaxman enquired the reason of the dove and at length received the following explanation. This lady had been long in a decline, and had been taken by her husband to the air of Lisbon. One day he was sitting with her, he observed her turn her face to the window, and open her mouth for some time as if in conversation. At first he feared she was delirious but forbore to interrupt her. When she ceased to speak, he asked her with whom she had been conversing. She said with Miss —— who was at the window. This was a young friend who had died a few months before. The husband said she was not there. Yes, said the lady, she has a dove with her. She came to say that at such a day and hour she would come to fetch me. At the day and hour named, the lady died, and the dove is on the monument.

Mr. White, the celebrated preacher, had told Mr. Flaxman of a singular circumstance. His wife’s father had gone out on business one morning and was not to return till the next day. About two hours after he was gone, his daughter saw him come into the yard on horseback but did not stay to speak to him. When she got upstairs to her mother, she had seen him also from the window. Some hours after this vision, he was brought home having fallen from his horse when he was about two hours distance from home.

Governor Franklin, it is well known was some time imprisoned when the disturbances broke out in America. During this time he had in vain endeavoured to obtain communication or correspondence with his wife. One night he dreamt that he was remarried to her, and was standing with her at the altar. On his release from confinement, he found that during that period she had pined and died (I believe at the time of his dream) and was buried under the very stone on which he believed they stood when he was married to her. The Governor said that in the course of the last six months he had three times heard a knocking at his bed, like that named in a former page. It had not been heard by his man who sleeps in the room with him, and from his manner he appeared to consider it as a warning to himself. He is now in his 86th year.

Miss Vardill related a story of a gentleman who was attracted to the window by a noise of horses, and saw a very numerous cavalcade and among them his servant on horseback and leading a white horse. He asked him what he was doing. The servant replied, Sir, I am no longer in your service and the horse I lead is for you. He immediately made enquiries after the servant, and was told that they were just coming to inform him that he had died about ten minutes before in an apoplectic fit. The gentleman was shortly after killed by a white horse.

Miss Vardill also told another story of a person, whose name I forget, who was obliged to conceal himself, having been seen by his housekeeper (who used to let him into the house at night on his presenting his head at the window) at the exact moment of his imprisonment. He was beheaded soon after or hung, but this story was not so remarkable as the others I have related, as she might easily fancy saw a head at the window, when she was accustomed to look for one there.

Mr. Flaxman also told the story of —— who was brought up by Lorenzo di Medici in the study of the Greek and Latin languages for the purpose of translating from them, and who agreed with a friend, that whichever died first should return if permitted to inform the other if it was true that there was another world. One morning —— heard a horse galloping violently and went to the window, when he saw his friend riding on a white horse, who waved his hand to him and said, It’s true, It’s true. He soon after heard that he was dead.

These are the most remarkable of the stories that were related. There were many others that were either not so particular, or that I do not remember so well.