IT is often remarked how very rarely narratives of supernatural events find their way into the proceedings of courts of justice, when it is remembered how large an amount of belief they still receive even among the educated classes. There is something uncongenial with the supernatural in such an ordeal. The delicate texture of its credibility shrinks from the broad light of open inquiry, and from the rough handling of men who are unscrupulously determined to get at the truth. The best ghost story that has got credence during the last ten years – and we are better at that work as at all others than our ancestors – would not stand the ordeal of a jury trial.1
It is true enough, that when certain superstitions were universal or supreme, the courts of justice were the chosen arena where they were developed in their most hideous and cruel shape. But when light has visited a people, it is concentrated in these tribunals. They will not give themselves to the powers of darkness where other and better powers reign. Rife as a superstition may be among the people, or even in a class of scientific heretics among the educated, the courts of justice – at least open public courts like ours – draw their lights from still higher intellectual sources, and refuse to be tainted by it. Thus the quackeries which, from time to time, sweep society and are forgotten till the antiquaries excavate them, pass and leave the administration of justice untainted, however much they may have had their influence on society or science, and even on religion. Thus in a county where quack doctors make their thousands a year, jury of tradesmen will bring in a verdict against universal vegetable medicine. No one has yet been convicted on the evidence of clairvoyants who have seen the picking of pockets through mobs, or the forging of notes through closed shutters, though there could not be a more natural or fitting application of their art. There was more than a jest in the proposal that Madame Tussaud should bring an action for one shilling sterling against the clairvoyant who professed to have seen her wax-works, to try the question whether he had seen them, yea or nay? Could such a question be for some serious patrimonial object actually referred to a jury, the sifting it would receive would be of a totally different kind from that which satisfies the jury of male and female sages in a drawing-room.
The clarifying advantage of such an ordeal is in the distinctness with which different things are ascertained separately and without reference to each other. All our tales of the marvellous are conveyed to us complete. Some dreamer has dreamt a dream, and, lo! it has proved true, prefiguring some important event. It would never have been heard of but for the fulfilment. It has been well remarked, that as each human being dreams some 365 times a year, and generally about things in which he is immediately engaged – the dream taking the direction of some probable conclusion – it is not wonderful that there should be many coincidences between dreams and realities. The dreams veritably fulfilled in this manner would make no inconsiderable number when they are taken by themselves, and the unfulfilled remain unrecorded, so that the numbers cannot be compared with each other.
But there is a further misleading tendency in the propensity which so many of us have, even if we do not believe in the marvellous ourselves, to be the vehicles through which it is conveyed to other people. A marvellous coincidence is like a piece of wonderful news, a valuable conversational commodity, which the owner does not wish to cheapen by understating. Sometimes the narrator entertains a lurking belief which he is reluctant to allow; he is anxious to find some excuse for enjoying the excitement of believing; and he will give his faith to a supernatural event on far less evidence than he would require to prove some every-day matter which it is his interest to deny.
Generally you are told, at the commencement of the narrative, that the narrator has not in his constitution a particle of credulity – only, so and so happened. Perhaps some one dreamed that he saw a dear and distant relation laid in a shroud. He remembers the exact time, and finds by his letters, received months afterwards, that at the very same moment that relation died. Some friend drew the curtains of his bed at night, all ghastly and pointing to an open wound; at that same moment it is subsequently ascertained that he committed suicide. The narrator draws no inference. These are facts, and he expects to be believed when he tells them, make of them what you will.
It is ungracious to say that you would have liked some evidence that the dreamer’s vision was recorded and published before the realisation is known. We never hear of people waiting for the fulfilment of a dream, or the accomplishment of visionary vaticinations. The omen and the fulfilment are always conjoined. The sort of evidence in which they are so connected would not satisfy a court of justice. It would rend them in twain, and demand a rigid proof of each, looking hither and thither at the precedents and coincidents of the whole affair. Thus, to take an instance lately talked of in society, – we are told of a breakfast-party being plunged in solemn gloom by a lady who complains that her sleep has been disturbed by a pestilent drummer rub-a-dubbing round the house all night. She sees, from the sinister expression on every countenance, that she has said something she ought not to have said, but what it may be she cannot divine. Questions are asked when an opportunity comes, and it is put to the poor lady, “was she really ignorant of the sad legend of that ancient house, that just before a death in it a drummer is always heard parading the castle during the night?” A short time elapses, when the lord of the castle receives a notice of the death of a beloved member of his family.
It is useless to contradict or doubt such a story. But were there a judicial examination, there would be some other matters requiring settlement. Every instance of a death preceded by the drumming would of course be investigated. But further – evidence would be desired, not only that the drummer was spoken of immediately after the death occurred, but it would be necessary to show, on full and satisfactory evidence, that the fact of the drumming was known and spoken of before the death occurred. It might possibly be found, that sometimes it only occurred to some one after the death to remember that he had heard of the drumming, and counsel would know how to deal with questionable testimony like that. Finally, a return would be demanded of all occasions on which any one spoke of having heard the drummer, without a death following the rumour. Possibly, too, learned gentlemen might think it as well to extend their inquiries into the habits of the neighbourhood, and would doubtless feel much interest in the history and habits of the members of musical associations and amateur bands.
Supernatural agencies will seldom condescend to be exposed to so rough and vulgar an ordeal. They prefer the pure, high-minded faith which is superior to such paltry realism. Thus, it must be confessed that the occasions on which such interesting matters find their way into the records of our courts, in later times at least, are extremely rare. This rarity may give them value. In any sense, whether that of the vulgar plodder, who is looking about for miserable facts, or in that of the loftier aspirant after the infinite, who demands the unlimited command over your reason, and will not condescend to prove anything, a collection of them would be valuable, and the meagre contribution which our Scottish records supply to it, is given in the following pages.
On the 3rd of June, 1754, Duncan Terig, alias Clerk, and Alexander Bain Macdonald, were tried at Edinburgh for the murder of Sergeant Arthur Davies, in the year 1749.2 Davies was an Englishman, and was employed in the unpopular and unsafe duty of enforcing the Disarming Act in the Highlands. He was stationed at the fortified barrack of Dubrach, near Braemar, with four men under his command. A post more wild and isolated, at a period when the passes of the Grampians were as little known in the Lowlands as those of Afghanistan, cannot easily be conceived. It was only by descending the river Dee, where there was then no road, that communication could be had with the rest of the world, without crossing great ridges of mountain. Though the springs that feed the Spey bubble up close to those which swell the Dee, they approach each other between three and four thousand feet above the level of the sea; and it is by crossing the great rocks, with their precipices and snow-fields, from which the accumulating rivulets fall down on either side in mighty torrents, that the adventurer can pass from the strath of the Dee to that of the Spey. On the other side is the great basin washed by the Tay and its tributaries, reached by the scarcely less wild pass of Glentilt, or by that which, further eastward, passes to the Isla, by the Spital of Glenshee. The name given to this lonely pass, which was the scene of the murder, is derived from its having once been the site of a station of the magnificent Knights Hospitallers. If these mountain passes sometimes perplex and frighten the tourist of the present day, they must have been still more formidable to Sergeant Davies, who found the whole district covered with that forest of gigantic pine-trees, of which a scattered remnant only stands to attest its ancient sylvan grandeur. Over this perilous ground the Englishman, little accustomed to such scenes in early life, had to pursue his dangerous duty. The small parties scattered here and there, throughout the disaffected districts, had no inconsiderable re semblance to the present Irish police, isolated in small bodies, and often separated by great mountain ranges from each other. In both instances, small knots of men have kept their position and inspired a wholesome awe over tracts inhabited by a hostile population, and have exemplified the power of system and discipline over chaotic numbers.
But the habits of Sergeant Davies seduced him into additional, and, as his friends often warned him, inexcusable risks. He was a sportsman – being then almost peculiar to England. The Highlander stalked a deer or killed a salmon when he wanted food, or joined in some great driving of the tinchel, with festivity and vast assemblage; but the patient exercise of solitary sport in the forest or the stream was a propensity with which he could not sympathise; and Davies, sometimes setting out alone on such pursuits, or straying to a distance from his party, became a marked man.
He was repeatedly warned of his danger; but he appears to have been a man of unsuspicious, hardy, self-relying character. Steady, sober, and well-regulated, he seems to have acquired an amount of movable wealth rather remarkable as the possession of a non-commissioned officer. He had fifteen guineas and a half in gold, which he carried about in a green silk purse. He had a silver watch and two gold rings, one of them having the letters “D.H.” engraved within, and this posie:
“When this you see,
He had large silver buckles on his shoes, a pair of knee buckles, twenty-four silver buttons, with silver lace and a button on his hat. To those who think of the condition of the non-commissioned officer at the present day, this wealth seems almost as marvellous as it must have appeared to the half-naked Highlanders of Dubrach. He was fond of displaying his wealth, even when any onlookers it might attract could only be of a suspicious or dangerous kind. “He made no secret,” said his widow, “of his having the gold above-mentioned; but, upon the many different occasions he had to pay and receive money, he used to take out his purse and show the gold; and that even when he was playing with children, he would frequently take out his purse and rattle it for their diversion, from which it was generally known to all the neighbourhood that the sergeant was worth money, and carried it about him.” He used to say, when taxed with the imprudence of wandering about alone in a hostile country with so much superfluous wealth on his person, that with his weapons and ammunition he feared no man. In fact, he courted his doom. There is not a less predatory race in any country than the Highlanders of the present day; but, in the time of the disarming, robbery was their profession, and the plunder of the enemy and Saxon & confirmed national principle.
There was another small party at Glenshee, and it was the practice for the two to meet at a spot halfway between their stations, at stated intervals, to make mutual arrangements for the service they were employed in. On the 28th of September, 1749, the party from Dubrach proceeded to the spot, and returned without their sergeant, stating that they had not seen him – that they believed he was pursuing his sport, and that they had heard him fire a shot. He reached the place of meeting alone, after his own men had left it, and he found there the Glenshee party, whose sergeant took an opportunity of admonishing him on his rashness. “He thought it was very unreasonable in him to venture upon the hill by himself; as for his part, he was not without fear even when he had his party of four men along with him.” The sergeant never appeared again alive among his friends; and the poor widow, in her testimony, said:
“From the second day after the sergeant and party went from Dubrach as aforesaid, when the witness found he did not return, she did believe, and does believe at this day, that he was murdered; for that he and she lived together in as great amity and love as any couple could do that ever were married, and that he never was in use to stay away a night from her; and that it was not possible he could be under any temptation to desert, as he was much esteemed and beloved by all his officers, and had good reason to believe he would be promoted to the rank of sergeant-major on the first vacancy.”
Nearly a year had elapsed after the sergeant was thus missed, when a certain Donald Farquharson, in Glenshee, was told that his neighbour, Alexander Macpherson, “alias Macgillas,” had been making repeated and very anxious inquiries after him, and had left a message beseeching him to call at his father’s shieling. Farquharson did so; and the communication then made to him had better be given in the words in which his testimony is recorded:
“Macpherson told him that he was greatly troubled with an apparition – the ghost of the deceased Sergeant Davies – who insisted that he should bury his bones; and that, he having declined to bury them, the ghost insisted that he should apply to the witness, saying that he was sure Donald Farquharson would help to bury his bones. That the witness could not believe that he had seen such an apparition; upon which Macpherson desired him to go along with him, and he would show him the bones, and the place where he had found them. That the witness went along with him, which he did the rather that he thought it might possibly be true, and if it was, he did not know but the apparition might trouble himself.”
He at last agreed, however, to accompany Macpherson to the spot. It was a deserted peat moss, about half a mile from the path which had been used by the patrolling parties. The witness thus described what he found:
“The spot where the body was lying had the surface of the ground entire, and no peats had been casten there: that the flesh had been mostly consumed from the bones, and the head separated from the body, and the hair lying by itself, separated from the head – that the hair was of the same colour with the sergeant’s hair, a mouse colour. That they also found some blue cloth, all torn in rags, some of it under the body, and some of it lying by the body; and it appeared to the witness to be of the same kind of cloth with that of the blue coat which the sergeant commonly wore when he went a-shooting; that the bones were not all lying together, but were scattered asunder, particularly some of the joints of his arms and one of his legs; and that some of them were scattered at the distance of several yards. That Macpherson told him, that when he first found the bones, which was about eight days before, that they were lying further off, under a bank, and he drew them out with his staff.”
Macpherson corroborated the story of the ghostly visitant, but in a manner which will be afterwards commented on. He said that Farquharson doubted his information about the body lying on the hill, until Macpherson told him that he had been visited by a spectre, as of a man clad in blue, which turned out to be the ghost of Sergeant Davies. It is surely uncommon to mistake a disembodied spirit for a neighbour and friend in the flesh, and only to be convinced of the error by specific information afforded by the ghost. Such, however, was the position in which this witness stated that he found himself. The vision said to him, “I am Sergeant Davies.” The narrative continues thus:
“Before he told him so, the witness had taken the said vision, at first appearance, to be a real living man, a brother of Donald Farquharson’s. That the witness rose from his bed and followed him to the door, and then it was, as has been told, that he said he was Sergeant Davies, who had been killed on the hill of Christie about near a year before, and desired the witness to go to the place he pointed at, where he would find his bones, and that he might go to Donald Farquharson, and take his assistance to the burying of him. That upon his giving Donald Farquharson this information, Donald went along with him, and finding the bones as he informed Donald, and having then buried them with the help of a spade which he had alongst with him. And for putting what is above deposed upon out of doubt, depones that the above vision was the occasion of his going by himself to see the dead body, and which he did before he either spoke to John Growar, Daldownie, or any other body. And further depones, that while he was in bed another night, after he had first seen the body by himself, but had not buried it, the vision again appeared, naked, and minded him to bury the body; and after that he spoke to the other folks above-mentioned, and at last complied and buried the bones above-mentioned. That upon the vision’s first appearance to the witness in his bed, and after going out of the door, and being told by it he was Sergeant Davies, the witness asked him who it was that had murdered him, to which it made this answer, that if the witness had not asked him, he might have told him; but as he had asked him, he said he either could not, or would not, but which of the two expressions the witness cannot say; but at the second time the vision made its appearance to him, the witness renewed the same question, and then the vision answered that it was the two men now in the panel that had murdered him; and being further interrogated in what manner, the vision disappeared from him first and last? Depones, that after the short interviews above-mentioned, the vision at both times disappeared, and vanished out of his sight in the twinkling of an eye; and that in describing the panels, by the vision above-mentioned, as his murderers, his words were ‘Duncan Clerk and Alexander McDonald.’ Depones that the conversation betwixt the witness and the vision was in the Irish language.”
Sir Walter Scott was able to preserve, traditionally, an incident of the effect of the ghost story, which the record does not convey. McPherson was asked by Mr. McIntosh, the counsel for the prisoners, what language the ghost spoke. The witness said it was as good Gaelic as ever he heard in Lochaber. “Pretty well,” answered Mr. McIntosh, “for the ghost of an English sergeant.” Sir Walter justly remarks that “this was no sound jest, for there was nothing more ridiculous in a ghost speaking a language which he did not understand when in the body, than there was in his appearing at all.” It is in such matters, of course, as in St. Denis’s journey with his head, le premier pas qui coúte.
The whole affair of the ghost, however, so disorganised the intellectual digestion of a jury of David Hume’s fellow-citizens, that they rejected the accompanying mass of sound substantial testimony, and acquitted the accused in the face of very strong evidence. The whole neighbourhood knew from the beginning who had been the murderers. Clerk and McDonald became suddenly rich – at least in comparison with their preceding poverty – and a damsel to whom Clerk was subsequently married, was in possession of some rings, and other valuable trinkets, which had, beyond a doubt, belonged to the sergeant. In bickerings and disputes with their neighbours, the murder was frequently “cast up” to them. The witness McPherson was on the hill with Clerk, when they saw a young cow. “Shoot it,” said Clerk. The witness refused, adding, “That it was such thoughts as these were in his head when he murdered Sergeant Davies, upon which some angry expressions happened between Duncan and the witness; but when the witness insisted upon it that he could not deny the murder, Duncan fell calm, and desired the witness to say nothing of that matter, and that he would be a brother to him, and give him everything he stood in need of, and particularly would help him to stock a farm when he took one.” On another occasion, when reproached with the deed, he said, “What can you say of an unfortunate man?” meaning how can you be so heartless as to trouble one about an affair which may get him into difficulty. But there was distinct evidence by an eye-witness. One Angus Cameron, who, having gone to reside in the distant district of Ranoch, could speak freely, said:
“That about an hour and a half before sunset, on the 28th of September, he being on the hill of Galcharn, on the side thereof, saw a man in a blue coat, with a gun in his hand, with a hat which had a white edging about it, he knows not whether it was silver or not; and saw other two men, one of whom was the panel, Duncan Clerk, coming up the hill towards the first-mentioned man, who was distant from him, the witness, about a gunshot, upon or near the top of a hill opposite to him, the name of which he does not know, he being a stranger in that country. * * * That he saw Duncan Clerk and his companion, whom he did not nor does not know, meet with the man clad in blue, as aforesaid; and after they had stood for some time together, he saw Duncan Clerk strike at the man in blue, as he thought with his naked hand only, upon the breast; but upon the stroke he heard the man struck cry out, and clap his hand upon the place struck, turn about, and go off. That the panel Duncan Clerk and the other man stood still for a little, and then followed after the man in blue, and he saw him, the said Duncan and the other man, each of whom had a gun, fire at the man in blue. That the two shots were very near one another, and immediately upon them the man in blue fell.” He then explained the circumstances under which he had been in hiding on the hill, and the rifling of the body.
In a historical point of view the evidence is confirmed by a statement of Sir Walter Scott, that both the counsel and agent for the prisoners were convinced of their guilt.
The story of the ghost is easily accounted for. The finders of the bones had made up their minds to give their testimony so that the murderers should be brought to justice. For such an unneighbourly and unclannish action they must have some rational excuse. Love of justice, a respect for the laws, would be received with just scorn as a paltry subterfuge – the desire of vengeance would be rational, but would not look well. The summons of a restless ghost would afford a just and appreciable motive, founded on rationality and good sense; and accordingly this plan was adopted for the justification of the informer in the eyes of the country.
But it does not appear that Macpherson intended to give the Court of Justiciary the benefit of this story. He had there mentioned the discovery of the sergeant’s remains as a simple fact, without any allusion to the ghost. It was alluded to, however, by the preceding witness, Farquharson. It appears to have been from this hint that Macpherson was questioned on the point, and he required to stand by the story, or retract the vindication of his unhandsome conduct. His evidence commences in these downright terms: “In summer, one thousand seven hundred and fifty, he found, lying in a moss-bank, on the hill of Christie, a human body – at least, the bones of a human body – of which the flesh was mostly consumed; and he believed it to be the body of Sergeant Davies, because it was reported in the country that he had been murdered on that hill the year before. That when he first found this body, there was a bit of blue cloth upon it, pretty entire, which he took to be what is called English cloth,” &c.
The continuation of Macpherson’s evidence sufficiently lays bare his motives for getting up the ghost story. “For some days he was in doubt what to do, but meeting with John Growar in the moss, he told John what he had found, and John bade him tell nothing of it, otherwise he would complain of the witness to John Shaw of Daldownie; upon which the witness resolved to prevent Growar’s complaint, and go and tell Daldownie of it himself; and which, having accordingly done, Daldownie desired him to conceal the matter, and go and bury the body privately, as it would not be carried to a kirk unkent, and that the same might hurt the country, being under the suspicion of being a rebel country.” The eye-witness of the deed said, that when he spoke of it to the neighbours, they “advised him to say nothing of it, as it might get ill-will to himself, and bring trouble on the country.” Finally, the ghost-seer was in the employment of Clerk, one of the accused; and his testimony, without some overwhelming motive, would have been deemed a deed of double baseness.
Sir Walter Scott, in his curious introduction to this trial, is at a loss to find any other analogous instances of spectral evidence reported in the proceedings of criminal trials. He mentions the case of Auguier, in the causes célèbres. This man was prosecuted for repayment of a loan of 20,000 francs to Mirabel, who had no better means of stating how he got possession of so much money, than that a ghost introduced him to a hidden treasure. The proceedings were ingeniously quashed, on the ground that the treasure, if genuine, would have been the property of the crown. With a more vague reference, Sir Walter says:
“It is a popular story, that an evidence for the crown began to tell the substance of an alleged conversation with the ghost of a murdered man, in which he laid his death to the accused person at the bar. ‘Stop,’ said the judge, with becoming gravity; ‘this will not do. The evidence of the ghost is excellent. None can speak with a clearer cause of knowledge to anything which befel him during life. But he must be sworn in usual form. Call the ghost in open court, and, if he appears, the jury and I will give all weight to his evidence; but in case he does not come forward, he cannot be heard, as now proposed, through the medium of a third party.’ ”
Sir Walter also alludes, incidentally and briefly, to the only known record of a criminal trial in England, where the proceedings of a ghost come under consideration, if such a term can apply where the supernatural visitor received no more official notice than a contemptuous allusion from the bench. It occurred in the case of the trials of Harrison and Cole, in 1692.3 A certain Dr. Clench, a respectable medical man in London, had excited the indignation of some people by his cautious dealings about a loan transaction, and a security for his money over house property. He was sitting, one evening, by the fire in his nightgown and slippers, when a hackney coachman came hastily to tell him that he had two gentlemen in his coach below, who desired the doctor’s assistance to visit a patient in imminent danger. The doctor entered the coach. The coachman was ordered about in various directions, and sent on one message after another. At one place he was sent for an individual named Hunt, a surgeon, and came back saying he could not find him. The criminals had not made up their mind to play their final trick, or could not safely accomplish it; otherwise he would not have found them. They next drove to Leadenhall-market, when they gave the coachman 3s. 6d., and bade him buy a couple of fowls from a stall kept by a one Hunt. The coachman made fruitless inquiries after Hunt, but could find no such person’s stall. He bought the fowls, however, and returned. When he looked into the coach, he saw only one man there, prostrate, with his head on the cushion. The coachman cried out, “Hollo, master!” and shook him, believing him to be drunk; but he found him, at last, to be dead. He had been choked by pressure on the windpipe, as the indictment expresses it, “with a pocket-handkerchief, with a coal being put in the same, of the value of twopence, about the neck of him the said Andrew Clench.”
One of the murderers – Harrison – was identified in a curious manner. A lady, who had seen the coach stop near Dr. Clench’s door, and the driver sent on his mission, took it in her head that the fare would make off – “I think they call it bilking,” said the counsel for the prosecution; and, being curious to see such an operation, she watched the men narrowly, and, by the aid of one of the few street lamps of that day, became acquainted with Harrison’s features.
The other man could not be found; but a Mrs. Milward lodged an incoherent-looking information against a man named Cole, on the ground that her deceased husband had confessed to her, on his death-bed, that he and Cole had committed the murder. At his trial, she could offer nothing but such hear-say evidence; and the following fragment of her examination contains the slight and fugitive reference made to the ghost:
“Justice Dolben – Was there no quarrel between Cole and you about your goods?
“Mrs. Milward – No, my lord. I had no quarrel with him.
“Justice Dolben – Because you did not do it sooner, have you not been troubled with your husband’s ghost? Tell the jury the story; we have heard on’t; but I am afraid they will laugh at you.
“Mrs. Milward – That was very true, my lord.
“Justice Dolben – Well, if you have anything else to say that is material, speak; otherwise, my brother and I are of opinion, that what you have already offered is no evidence.”
The invitation to Mrs. Milward to tell the ghost-story, was made in banter, and she had no opportunity of getting it out. Cole was acquitted.
In Mr. Montgomery Martin’s work on the “British Colonies,”4 there is an anecdote which it is, certainly, a little startling to find gravely told in a statistical work passing through the British press in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is offered as an instance of the “keen sight and sense possessed by the Australian savages.” A respectable settler had disappeared from his farm near the Great Western road to Bathurst. When his absence was made matter of inquiry, his overseer, a convict on ticket of leave, circulated a report that his master had gone to England, leaving him in charge of the settlement. This created some surprise; but, after the lapse of a few weeks, the matter was forgotten, and the convict went on with his duties unquestioned. But behold what happened to disturb their routine:
“One Saturday night, a neighbouring settler, returning from market with his horse and cart, on coming to the paling which separated the missing farmer’s land from the high road, thought he saw the very man sitting on the rail or fence. Instantly stopping, he hailed his long-absent neighbour, inquired where he had been, and when he had returned home. Receiving no answer, he dismounted from the cart, and went towards the fence; upon which his neighbour, as he plainly appeared to be, quitted the fence, and crossed the field towards a pond in the direction of the house which he was supposed to have deserted.”
The farmer called for his friend next morning. He found that he had not returned; and when he told his story of the night, the overseer laughed at him; said the man he thought he saw must be by that time near the coast of England, and hinted that the worthy farmer had certainly been overtaken by spirits of another and more vulgar kind. The farmer, however, was dissatisfied. He thought there were symptoms of foul play, and he laid the matter before a neighbouring justice of peace. Some of the mounted police were sent to make inquiries, and they were accompanied by a native black constable, as being a person more competent than European policemen to deal with such questions. The native was taken to the paling where the absent farmer had been seen.
“The spot was pointed out to the black, without showing him the direction which the lost person apparently took after quitting the fence. On close inspection, a part of the upper rail was observed to be discoloured. It was scraped with a knife by the black, who smelt and tasted it. Immediately after, he crossed the fence, and took a straight direction for the pond near the cottage. On its surface was a scum, which he took up with a leaf, and after tasting and smelling it, declared it to be ‘white man’s fat.’ Several times, somewhat after the manner of a bloodhound, he coursed round the lake. At last he darted into the neighbouring thicket, and halted at a place strewed over with loose and decayed brushwood. On removing this, he thrust down the ramrod of his musket into the earth, smelt at it, and then desired the spectators to dig there. Instantly spades were brought from the cottage; the remains of the settler were found and recognised; the skull was fractured, and the body presented every indication of having been some time immersed in water. The overseer was committed to gaol, and tried for murder.
“The foregoing circumstantial evidence formed the main proofs. He was found guilty, sentenced to death, and proceeded to the scaffold protesting his innocence. Here, however, his hardihood forsook him; he acknowledged the murder of his late master, declaring that he came behind him when he was crossing the identical rail on which the farmer fancied he saw the deceased, and with one blow on the head killed him, dragged the body to the pond and threw it in, but after some days took it out again and buried it where it was found.”
Mr. Martin says, in concluding his narrative: “The first indication to the farmer of the spot on which the murder was committed, is to me the most singular interposition of Providence that ever came within the limit of my own immediate observation.” He states that the accuracy of his narrative will be attested “by Saxe Bannister, then his Majesty’s attorney-general for the colony, and by other gentlemen.” It is a prevailing feature, however, of such narratives, that they are always associated with remote times or places; that they shun assizes, of the Central Criminal Court, where they would receive a close and full examination; and we have nothing for it but to believe everything, or doubt the word of very respectable gentlemen.
The law courts of the United States of America would not be expected to prove a suitable atmosphere for a disembodied spirit. If the report of a case, however, which was decided in Maryland, in 1799, be not a hoax,5 testimony as to the appearance of an actual ghost was there given, and solemnly received. The case is that of “James, Fanny, and Thomas Harris, devisees of Thomas Harris, versus Mary Harris, administratrix of James Harris.” It is unnecessary to enter into the technicalities and merits of the case, further than to say that the deceased Thomas Harris left a brother and natural children. He made a settlement, intending to leave his whole property to these children. It was found, however, that it was only effectual in bequeathing to them his movable or personal estate, and that his brother remained the heir of some landed property possessed by the deceased. This brother, after showing an intention to take advantage of his position, changed his mind, and before his death sold the estate, intending to give the proceeds to the children. This change was believed to be occasioned by the appearance of his brother’s ghost to a common friend; and the manifestation of the ghost was part of the evidence that James Harris, before his decease, had destined the fund for his brother’s children.
The person who saw the ghost was named Briggs, – a man of good repute and undoubted courage, who had been a soldier in the revolutionary war.
“He was riding near the place where Thomas Harris were buried, on a horse formerly belonging to Thomas Harris. After crossing a small branch, his horse began to walk on very fast; it was between the hours of eight and nine o’clock in the morning; he was alone – it was a clear day; he entered a lane adjoining to the field where Thomas Harris was buried; his horse suddenly wheeled in a panel of the fence, looked over the fence into the field where Thomas Harris was buried, towards the graveyard, and neighed very loud. Witness then saw Thomas Harris coming towards him, in the same apparel as he had last seen him in his lifetime. He had on a sky-blue coat; but before he came to the fence he varied to the right, and vanished. His horse immediately took the road. Thomas Harris came within two yards of the fence to him; he did not see his features, nor speak to him. He was acquainted with Thomas Harris when a boy, and there had always been a great intimacy between them. He thinks the horse knew Thomas Harris, because of his neighing, pricking up his ears, and looking over the fence. About the first of June following, he was ploughing in his own field, about three miles from where Thomas Harris was buried, about dusk. Thomas Harris came alongside of him, and walked with him about 200 yards; he was dressed as when first seen.”
It is clear that the ghost, which appeared in a sky-blue coat, must have had a very bad taste, and a miserable appreciation of the picturesque and appropriate. It is evident, too, that Thomas Harris must have been a formidable bore when he was in the flesh, for his ghost becomes eminently tiresome, and it would be cruelty to inflict on the reader an account of his pertinacious reappearances. One of them shows, too, that he must have been a man of bad temper and quarrelsome habits, insomuch as to forget his true functions as a spirit, and summon the arm of the flesh to his aid.
“Sometime after,” continues Mr. Briggs, “when in bed, and a great fire light in the room, he saw a shadow on the wall; at the same time he felt a great weight upon him. Some time after, when in bed and asleep, he felt a stroke between his eyes, which blackened them both. His wife was in bed with him, and two young men were in the room. The blow awakened him, and all in the room were asleep. Is certain no person in the room struck him. The blow swelled his nose.”
These visitations were repeated to James Harris, and produced on him the influence already alluded to. The ghost, like Banquo’s, was visible to one person only, though many were present at its visitations, when Briggs was seen in earnest conversation with some person or persons, not only unknown, but unseen. This case would, perhaps, not be considered an uncommon one, were it not thus solemnly dealt with in a court of justice. Briggs had been present at the death of Thomas Harris, and was haunted long afterwards by his dying groan. This, along with his spectral guest, “preyed upon his mind so as to affect his health.” He had, in fact, become a proper subject for optical delusions.
It is difficult to detect, in the Scottish criminal records, any trace of prophetic dreams, the second-sight, or the other superstitions which were rife in Scotland, and might be deemed peculiarly valuable as instruments for the revelation of crime. Their absence must be attributed to that reluctance which the spiritual world has ever shown to appear before a jury; but, making all allowances, it is wonderful that the traces of any allusion to them should be so faint and scanty as they are. Such revelations as those published by Fraser Martin and Aubrey would be extremely useful in the detection of crime.6 But we do not find in evidence such forewarnings as accompany the uncouth names of Evander Macmhaoldonich, or Donald Macinstalker, who, in anticipation of a domestic tragedy, “was frequently alarming the people of the family, that murder or manslaughter was soon to happen therein.” It is indeed unfortunate, that when any of these instances are so specific that one could trace them into the criminal records, they are still always referred to distant places. Thus “Mr. Rory Macleod, son to the deceased Mr. Norman Macleod, sometime minister of Kilmuir,” when he gives such an instance of the second-sight as must have necessarily connected itself with judicial proceedings, carries it across the Atlantic, though, in other instances of second-sight, his own family is fertile enough. He tells us how, in the year 1745, Jonathan Easton, of Newport, in Rhode Island, left his housekeeper in charge of a store of rum. There was an Indian girl who wanted some of the liquor, and, being refused, she murdered the housekeeper, and threw her into a draw-well. After his return home, “as Mr. Easton was in bed, he saw an apparition, between sleep and awake, informing him the Indian girl had murdered his servant, and thrown her into the draw-well, of which he at first did not take notice; but the scene being thrice repeated, he considered there might be something in it; whereupon he called one of the town council, and both going to the well, found the body of the girl, and thereupon seized the Indian maid, who immediately confessed the murder, for which she was executed.”7
Among the multitudinous superstitious stories which the historian Wodrow preserved in his private memorandum-book, there are some which, if they were seriously believed, should have found their way into the records of the Court of Justiciary.8 For instance, there is the following account of the foreshadowing of a murder. The seer is supposed to be enjoying the hospitalities of a country mansion:
“At supper time, there being some other stranger at table, the gentleman of the house entertained him very kindly. They were all very cheery, till, in a little time, that gentleman who was the guest began to be very pensive, which was observed in his countenance, and by his silence; so that the whole company turned all upon him, and challenged him why he was turned so grave and sullen, being so good company before? He answered, nothing ailed him, and began to force himself to a feigned cheerfulness, but found, at last, it would not do. So, rising from the table, and touching another stranger gentleman in the company, in order to speak with him aside, they went both to the door, and he addresses him thus: ‘Oh, sir, I cannot conceal any longer the reason of my present discomposure, which is this. I see a dirk sticking in the breast of this gentleman of this house, and I am persuaded he will be murdered ane way or other this night, except means be taken to prevent it.’ ”9
All necessary precautions were taken to avoid the catastrophe; but the man was foredoomed. His fate made him step out of his house in the middle of the night, and a tinker, or gipsy, who owed him an old grudge, and had long lain in wait for his life, stabbed him.
Though such things were believed by learned divines, and the community in general, the author only remembers one instance in which a prophetic dream appears in connection with a criminal trial; and that occurred so lately as the year 1831. In that year, a young Highlander was tried and executed for the robbery and murder of a pedlar, in the wilds of Assynt, in Ross-shire. A certain Kenneth Fraser, a village tailor, pointed out the place where the plunder was hidden, and stoutly maintained that it had been revealed to him in a dream. Like that of Sergeant Davies, the revelation was in Gaelic – a favourite language in the spiritual world. The testimony is given thus: “I was at home when I had the dream, in the month of February. It was said to me in my sleep, by a voice like a man’s, that the pack was lying in such a place. I got a sight of the place, just as if I had been awake. I never saw the place before. The voice said, in Gaelic: ‘The pack of the merchant is lying in a cairn of stones, in a hole near their house.’ The voice did not name the Macleods; but he got a sight of the ground, fronting the south, with the sun shining on it, and a burn running beneath Macleod’s house.”10
The jury did not, in this case, reject satisfactory evidence of the crime because it was mixed up with this silly story. The clergyman of the parish thought fit to “improve” the whole story into a “voice from the borders of eternity,” in which, not content with a solemn commentary on the tailor’s dream, he adds to the marvellous history, by relating an equally prophetic one which visited the murderer. When in custody for his crime, he dreamed that he was in a strange burial-ground, where he saw his father digging a grave, with a coffin beside it. The father bade him lie down in it; but, appearing to take compassion on him, released him, saying: “Well, Hugh, go for this time, until about a year after this; but in much about a year, remember your coffin will meet you.” The account we have of the fulfilment is this: “Macleod imagined that this dream foretold his acquittal at the circuit at Inverness, and he left Dornoch in high expectations. Strange to say, at that circuit his trial was postponed, for want of a sufficient number of jurors; and when the next circuit came, it was again adjourned, for want of a material witness, and a whole twelvemonth and some days elapsed before he was condemned to death.”11
1 Surely among the strangest grounds of action, if it be not altogether a fictitious case, is that which forms the foundation of the tenth declamation, attributed to Quinctilian. A mother mourning for the death of her son is visited by him in her dreams, and is comforted. “Nec jam nisi cum luce certa, fugatisque sideribus, invitus ille vanescebat ex oculis, multum resistens, sæpe respiciens, et qui se promitteret etiam proxima nocte venturum. Jam mœrori locus non erat – mulier filium nocte videbat, die sperabat.” She communicated the happy news to her husband. But he rather dreaded than courted such a visit, for he had ill used the youth in life. Accordingly he applied to the magi to perform incantations on the tomb which would prevent the spirit from leaving the urn of ashes. The visits ceased, and the mother prosecuted her husband. It is observable, that throughout Quinctilian’s writings there are frequent morbid traces of the effect of his own domestic bereavements.
2 The trial was edited, in a thin quarto volume for the use of the Bannatyne Club, by Sir Walter Scott, in 1831.
3 State Trials, xii., 834.
4 Div., v., 5.
5 It was printed in a periodical work called the Opera Glass, in 1827, and thence transferred to “Notices respecting the Bannatyne Club,” privately printed in 1836, p. 191.
6 See a Treatise on the Second-Sight, Dreams, and Apparitions, with several instances sufficiently attested, and an Appendix, &c. Edinburgh, 1763.
7 Treatise on the Second-Sight, p. 90.
8 Most of Wodrow’s supernatural events, like the miracles in the Vitæ Sanctorum, are friendly to his own Church, and very destructive to its opponents. Some of the incidents are extremely picturesque. The following account of the fate of an apostate, might be supposed to have suggested the story of Alp, in Byron’s Siege of Corinth, had there been any probability of the poet having read the cramp MS., in which alone it was to be found: “It’s said, that some days before his death, as he was walking in the links, about the twilight, at a pretty distance from the town, he espyed, as it wer, a woman all in white, standing not fart from him, who immediately disappeared; and he, coming up presently to the place, saw nae person there, though the links be very plain: only, casting his eye on the place where shee stood, he saw tuo words drawn, or written, as it had been with a staff, upon the sand, ‘sentenced and condemned!’ Upon which he came home pensive and melancholy, and in a litle sickens, and dyes. What to make of this, or what truth is in it, I cannot tell; only, I had it from a minister, who lives nigh to Montrose.” – Wodrow’s Analecta. i., 101-102.
9 Analecta, i., 100.
10 Aberdeen Magazine, ii., 94.
11 Black Calendar of Aberdeen, p. 61. Some other incidents of this curious trial have been noticed in an interesting article in the Quarterly Review for July, 1851.