Category: ghost stories

The Hellfire Clubs, Part Two

The Hellfire Clubs, Part Two

The best known of the 18th-century Hellfire Clubs, one founded by Francis Dashwood, is largely remembered today because of the theatrical settings in which they were said to gather, namely a ruined abbey and a network of caves. The latter is represented in the 1961 period drama, The Hellfire Club, from which we hear a brief snippet (although other details and characters of the film are strictly products of the screenwriter’s imagination.)

Francis Dashwood was born into privilege, son of a Baronet, whose title and estate in Wycombe (in Buckinghamshire county, about an hour northeast of London) he inherited at the age of 15.  His various social connections  saw him appointed to various positions, including Chancellor of the Exchequer and Postmaster General, but his  reputation in such roles was generally one of incompetence. This, however, was balanced by his peculiar genius for organizing social clubs.

We discuss two groups he founded before his “Hellfire” days, The Society of Dilettanti, and The Divan Club, both groups dedicated to exploring the culture of lands far from England: the first dedicated to the exploration of the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, and the latter devoted to the lands of the Ottoman Turks.

Divan Club Dashwood
Dashwood in his Divan Club costuming. By Adrien Carpentiers.

Social groups such as these were referred to as “dining clubs,” though “drinking clubs” would likely be more accurate.  The Society of Dilettanti seems to have exhibited a particular devotion to “Venus” and “Bacchus” (polite jargon of the era for erotica and more drinking.)  The Dilettanti’s delight in forbidden themes expressed itself in certain “devilish” elements of club ritual prefiguring Dashwood’s “Hellfire” years.  In  some anecdotes about Dashwood’s travels abroad, told by Horace Walpole, we hear of some likewise impish and irreligious behavior.

In 1752, Dashwood turned his attention to his most famous creation. Actually, he never called it “The Hellfire Club”; instead it was referred to (among other names) as The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe — a mocking reference to the Catholic saint of Assisi.  Dashwood had several portraits painted portraying him as a questionable monk, including this one by William Hogarth:

William Hogarth’s portrait of Dashwood as St. Francis.

(The image in the episode collage likewise represents Dashwood as St. Francis, this one from his Dilettanti years.)

After an abortive start holding meetings on his estate, Dashwood moved the group to the George and Vulture Inn in London, then in 1751, after leasing an old abbey 10 miles south of his estate in Medmenham, he relocated gatherings there, at which point, the group became known as  the Monks of Medmenham.

To supervise restoration of the abbey, Dashwood hired Nicholas Revett, a pivotal figure in the revival of classical Greek architecture in England, a movement, Dashwood embraced with uniquely idiosyncratic abandon.

We hear of a number of eccentrically pagan additions Revett added to Dashwood’s estate, and Mrs. Karswell reads a contemporary report on the dedication of a Temple of Bacchus on the grounds, complete with costumed fawns and satyrs. We also hear about the curious interest he took in Wycombe’s Church of St. Lawrence, hiring Revett to complete a restoration modeled on a pagan temple in Syria.  He also had an enormous golden ball added to the church steeple, one reputedly large enough to accommodate Dashwood and several Hellfire cronies, who would gather there to drink.

The Golden Ball added by Dashwood to St Lawrence Church.

As for rumors of sexual escapades attached to the club, we explore some clues provided a 1779 volume surveying London’s brothels entitled Nocturnal Revels.  While some of this may just be salacious rumor, the libertine law of Dashwood’s “order” was literally set in stone, carved over the entrance: Fais ce que tu voudras, (“Do what you will”.)

The phrase is borrowed from 16th century French satirist François Rabelais, himself a former monk who satirized the Church and society at large, in his series of connected novels Gargantua and Pantagruel.  In the former, Rabelais imagined a libertine monastery with the phrase inscribed over its entrance, an idea borrowed by Aleister Crowley in his imagining of an Abbey of Thelema (his religious system built around the concept of the will or thelema in Greek.)

While Dashwood’s primarily playful attitude clearly distinguished him from Crowley and other serious occultists, there were rumors of secret rituals practiced by an inner circle of the monks, as we hear in another description provided by Horace Walpole.

The inner circle of Dashwood’s group, known as “the Superiors,” was restricted to 12 members plus Dashwood, the number being either an irreverent reference to Jesus and his twelve disciples or the number in a witches’ coven.  The general membership  included a alarming number of elite figures, a half dozen or so Members of Parliament, prominent writers, poets, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Frederick Prince of Wales, the eldest (estranged) son of George II.  We also hear of Benjamin Franklin’s involvement with Dashwood.

Two particular members are discussed in a bit more detail: John Wilkes and John Montagu, whose personal feud spelled the end of the club and involved a particularly outrageous stunt said to have been perpetrated by Wilkes.

Wilkes was a radical politician whose published remarks on a speech by George III resulted in charges of libel and him briefly fleeing the country as an outlaw — an incident which endangered the Monks by his association.  His nemesis was John Montagu, better known as the Earl of Sandwich (and here we provide the origin story of that particular culinary innovation.)

At some point around 1750, Wilkes published obscene parody of Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man,”  called “An Essay on Woman,” one which targeted Montagu’s well known mistress Fanny Murray as its subject.  In revenge, Sandwich chose to read before Parliament particularly obscene passages from Wilkes’ satire, resulting in further charges against his rival.  Wilkes reciprocated by publishing further exposes of the group, generating further controversy ultimately leading Dashwood to close the abbey headquarters in March of 1776.

While there were serious political differences between Sandwich and Wilkes, the real cause of their hostility, so goes the story, lies in an absurd stunt referred to as “The Affair of the Baboon,” a detailed account of which Mrs. Karswell provides from an 18th century source.

Though there are no historical records documenting this, a strong tradition holds that after ending meetings at the abbey, Dashwood moved gatherings into a network of manmade caves on his estate (tunnels excavated for chalk).

This tradition is documented as early as 1796, when a diarist (Mrs. Philip Powys)  describes a visit to the caves, noting a hook for a chandelier, likely to have been the “Rosicrucian” chandelier, Dashwood elsewhere described. She also mentions an underground pool supposedly known by the Medmenham monks, as “The River Styx,” a large central chamber that became “The Banqueting Hall” and other small rooms nicknamed “Monks’ Cells.” A gothic facade fronts the caves.

Hellfire Caves Entrance

Throughout the 19th century, local legends of occult doings in the caves grew evermore fantastic, as we hear in a few quotes read by Mrs. Karswell. By 1951, a descendent of Francis Dashwood, Sir Francis John Vernon Hereward Dashwood, who had inherited the family’s West Wycombe properties, struck upon the idea of transforming the caves into a tourist attraction, advertising the tunnels as “The Hellfire Caves.”  Though ultimately successful, we hear some contemporary newspaper accounts voicing concerns by local residents and clerics about evil forces awakened from within the caves through these activities.

Our episode ends with a ghost story told of Francis Dashwood’s best friend and fellow Monk, Paul Whitehead, something involving removing Whitehead’s heart.

 

CONTEST INFO:

For information on the Patreon giveaway please visit: https://www.boneandsickle.com/2022/03/30/patreon-raffle/

 

 

A Christmas Ghost Story IV

A Christmas Ghost Story IV

In keeping with the old tradition of whiling away the nights of Christmas telling ghost stories, we bring you a tale published in 1912 by E.F. Benson.  Read by Mrs. Karswell, complete with sound FX and music as always.

If you’d like some additional listening of this type, we have three more recorded in previous years going back to 2018: Christmas Ghost Story III,  Christmas Ghost Story II, and Christmas Ghost Story I.

Ghost Trains & Railway Terrors

Ghost Trains & Railway Terrors

Ghost trains and real-life railway terrors intermingle in this episode’s exploration of old train-wreck ballads, nervous and funereally obsessed Victorians, urban legends involving train deaths, and more.

Mrs. Karswell begins our show reading an imaginitive description of a phantom train written by George A. Sala for an 1855 edition of the magazine, Household Words, published by Charles Dickens (whose railroad connections we’ll be discussing).

Next we hear a bit of Vernon Dahhart’s 1927 ballad, “The Wreck of the Royal Palm,” describing an accident that had happened near Rockmart, Georgia the previous year. Other folk songs including gruesome railroad deaths are then explored. These include “In the Pines,” “The Wreck of the Old ‘97,” and “Wreck on the C&O,” including snippets from versions recorded by Lead Belly, Vernon Dalhart, and Ernest Stoneman respectively (with a reiteration of a line from “C&O,” by The Kossoy Sisters.) ** FOR MUSIC DETAILS SEE BELOW.

We next hear a bit about an obsession with dangerous trains expressing itself on London’s stages in theater productions of the mid-to-late 1800s.  One manifestation was the “sensation dramas” of the day, which presented trains and train wrecks on stage via highly developed stagecraft.  Another trend involving characters imperiled on railroad tracks was launched by the 1867 play, Under the Gaslight.  The 1923 play Ghost Train is also discussed.

Our attention turns back to Charles Dickens as we hear a vivid passage describing the death of the nemesis of his novel Dombey and Son, published as a serial between 1846 and 1848; it is literature’s first death by train.  Mention is also made of his classic ghost story, “The Signalman” from 1865.

Dickens’ ambivalent, and somewhat fearful, attitude toward the railroads seems to be rooted in the railways’ effect on the traditional patterns of life in Britain’s towns and villages, but also has roots in personal experience, namely as a passenger in the 1865 Staplehurst Disaster.  A train wreck that not only affected his literary themes, but his personal wellbeing for years to come.

We then switch gears to examine a few localized legends from American involving trains.  The first is the Maco Ghost Light encountered near the tiny North Carolina town of Maco Station and said to represent the lantern of an undead (and decapitated) railway worker. We also look at a legend from Texas, that of the San Antonia Ghost Tracks, in which aa alleged accident involving a school bus and train spawned reports of supernatural occurrences.

Another North Carolina legend examined involves an 1891 train accident on Bostian Bridge near the town of Statesville.  The ghost stories associated with the site recount appearances of the the doomed train on the anniversary of its accident.  The first of these is said to have happened on the 50th anniversary in 1941, but an even more terrifying encounter from 2010, on the 119th anniversary, is also discussed.

Beginning in 1872, seven years after Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, supernatural tales stories began to be told of the train that carried the dead president’s body through 12 cities in which he lay in state.  We hear just one of the stories published in The Albany Evening Times.

We then examine the musical phenomenon of songs that portray phantom trains as conveyances to the afterlife, in particular the gospel trope of Death as a Train that may arrive to unexpectedly whisk you off to the Great Beyond, thereby reminding listeners of the need to get right with God. An elaboration of this theme involves the Hell Train, driven by the Devil himself, one which takes those who refuse to make the afore-mentioned spiritual preparations. Included here are songs or song-sermons recorded by The Clinch Mountain Clan, The Carter Family, Rev. J. M. Gates, Rev. H.R. Tomlin, Rev. A.W. Nix, Chuck Berry, and Gin Gillette.

The episode ends with a look at the not terribly successful embalming of Abraham Lincoln prior to his his funeral tour, punctuated by a snippet from “In the Pines” AKA “The Longest Train” by Dead Men’s Hollow.

** NOTE: a streaming library of the numerous songs featured in this episode, along with some additional songs of similar themes, is available to those who join our Patreon as supporters before December 1.

 

The Dybbuk

The Dybbuk

A dybbuk is a “clinging spirit” of Jewish folklore, a ghost that can possess a human host.

Dybbuk, by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1923)

Stories of dybbuks (pl. dibbukim in Hebrew for sticklers) date to the 16th century but have never traditionally included the idea of trapping a dybbuk in a box, a trope that only dates to a 20o3 eBay ad placed by a Portland antique refinisher Kevin Mannis.  Although Mannis would later confess to having made up his listing’s backstory as a sort of creative experiment, the box has continued to be the center of an evolving mythology advanced first by its 2003 buyer, Jason Haxton. In 2016, the box was purchased by Ghost Adventure‘s TV personality Zak Bagans, for display in his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas.  We open the show with some clips from a July 2020 episode in which Bagans opens the box.

The dybbuk-in-a-box trope was also furthered by the “based on a true story” 2012 horror film, The Possession, for which Mannis and Haxton served as consultants.  We hear a clip from that film as well as a clip from the ridiculous 2009 dybbuk-without-a-box film The Unborn.  The 2015 Polish film (in English and Polish) Demon is also recommended as a more traditionally European take on the dybbuk folklore, thanks in part to its incorporation of a wedding motif.

A wedding dance with Death from 1937 film.

The idea of a dybbuk appearing at a wedding is borrowed from a classic 1937 film from Poland, The Dybbuk, a cinematic adaptation of Russian ethnographer S. Ansky’s highly successful 1914 play by the same name.  Described as a sort of Romeo and Juliet meets The Exorcist, this classic of Yiddish theater was first performed in Warsaw in 1920, but was quickly was translated into dozens of languages and performed throughout Russia, Europe and the United States, popularizing this previously obscure figure of Yiddish or Ashkenazi folklore.

The story of the dybbuk begins with a 16th-century explosion of incidents in Safed (Tsfat) a mountain city in Northern Israel considered one of Judaism’s four holiest cities thanks to its role in the development of the Kabbalah and the particularly saintly occupants of its hillside cemetery.

The first and foremost figure in Safed’s association with Kabbalah is Isaac Luria, whose teachings are recorded by his student Chaim Vital in The Tree of Life, foundational text of Lurianic Kabbalism, the dominant school of Kabbalistic thought since the 16th century. Luria’s school converted Safed into a sort of spiritual hothouse, characterized by extremes of devotion, asceticism, and visionary experience — an environment that has been tied to the proliferation of dybbuk encounters recorded in 16th-century Safed.

Of these Safed accounts, we hear two lengthier narratives said to have transpired in 1571 and 1572 read by Mrs. Karswell, Without revealing too much that could spoil the stories, there are a few commonalities worth noting — the fact that dybbuks have a strange method of leaving their human host and that their hosts needn’t always be human.

We also learn the Kabbalistic explanation for the dybbuks compulsion to  take a human host.  It’s related to  the notion of gilgul, or transmigration of souls, a process which ideally moves from lower forms to higher as ordered by the principle of tikkun olam, the “repair of the world,” or rectification.

A brief story from Chaim Vital’s spiritual autobiography, Book of Visions, illustrates a phenomenon paralelling that of the dybbuk, namely, the ibbur, the spirit of a good but still to be perfected individual, who may return to earth and possess a human host to accomplish required mitzvahs.  We also hear of a strange grave rjte said to provoke encounters with these heavenly beings.

Our show wraps up with audio clips from modern instances of dybbuk possessions and banishings performed by Jerusalem Rabbis David Batzri and Menashe Amon between 1999 and 2019.

 

The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

Harlequin is an enigmatic figure with roots in dark folklore of France, specifically that of the Wild Hunt (Chasse Sauvage) a nocturnal procession of ghosts or devils, particularly associated with the time around Christmas and New Year.  The myth is also common to England and examined more closely in its Germanic manifestation in Episode 16, “The Haunted Season.” We open with a snippet from an album dedicated to Hellequin’s folkore by a Belgian band called Maisnée d’Hellequin.

In the show, we trace a thread leading from medieval stories of Hellequin (Harleqin’s ancestor in France) and King Herla (the English equivalent) to the more recent theatrical figure of Harlequin, along the way examining a link with the traditional English Christmas play (mummers’ play) and its role in the evolution of the figure of Father Christmas.

 

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our first story comes from the French-Norman monk Oderic Vitalis, from volume two of his Ecclesiastical History. It was written in about 1140, making it not only the first account mentioning Hellequin (“Herlequin” in his text) but also the first European ghost story, one Vitalis relates as a true event transpiring on New Year’s Eve 1091, and told to him by an eyewitness, a priest, by the name of Vauquilin (Walkelin).

While returning  from a visit to an ailing member of his parish, Vauquilin, hears the thunder of what sounds like an approaching army and is met by a giant with a club, whom he recognizes as Hellequin and who in this case serves as a sort of herald of the ghostly crew that follows.  It’s a richly detailed and extravagantly ghoulish tale, splendidly read by our own Mrs. Karswell.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say, that the spirits Vauquilin sees passing are enduring a sort of purgatorial torment for past sins, an apparently temporary but unenviable state of earthbound damnation.  (For more on medival tales of ghosts visiting mortals from purgatory, see our “Ghosts from Purgatory” episode.)  In the procession, these sinners are accompanied by devils who torture them, chief among these, apparently Hellequin.

Our next story, from around 1190 paints a more detailed picture of the English version of Hellequin, King Herla. It was written in Wales by the courtier Walter Map and contained in his eccentric collection of myths and pseudo-historical anecdotes called De Nugis Curialium, or “trifles for the court.”  This one’s more of an origin story explaining King Herla’s transition from mortal king to ghostly rider.  I won’t give away the details on this one either, but it involves a dwarf king’s wedding party inside a mountain, parting gifts, and bad gift etiquette.

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our third story comes from 14th-century France and is a bit different as it doesn’t describe what are supposed to be supernatural events but a representation of this, a fictional procession imitating Hellequin’s ride.

The procession in this text takes the form of a charivari, a sort of parade with participants noisily banging pots and pans or playing discordant music on various instruments. Charivaris were most commonly occasioned by weddings, in particular those which defied some social convention, such as the rushed wedding of a widow or widower who not honoring a suitable period of mourning.

In our story, the wedding is that of a figure named Fauvel, who is marrying the allegorical figure of Vainglory. Fauvel, by the way, is a horse representing all the worst traits of social climbers of the day.

The satiric Romance of Fauvel (“Romance” = “novel”) was written in 1316 by a Gervais du Bus, then much enlarged in 1316 with additions, including our charivari scene, by another writer by the name of de Pesstain.  The text describes a particularly carnivalesque scene including a bizarre, wheeled noise-making machine, and all sorts of taboo-breaking behavior by the participants. The connection between the Wild Hunt and carnival is also noted in an 18th-century German carnival procession we hear described, one mimicking in this case Frau Holde and her retinue. The Fauvel passage ends with the narrator encountering a giant recognized as Hellequin, who is bringing up the rear — leading from behind in this case.

Fauvel
Charivari illustration from The Romance of Fauvel.

We then have a look at the theatrical, Harlequin who originated in the 16th century as a stock figure from the Italian commedia della’arte, where he’s known as Arlecchino. He wears a black half-mask along with a suit sewn with multicolored diamonds. And he always carries a sort of short club, an element that seems to be borrowed from the diabolical Hellequin.  Though he’s most well known as an Italian figure, Arlecchino seems to have his source, as a theatrical entity, in a devil of this name from medieval French mystery plays.  We also look at some supernatural Hellquins in secular plays including a 13th-century work by the Norman poet Bourdet and the satiric work, Le Jeu de la feuillée by Adam de la Halle.

We then follow the theatrical Harlequin to England where in the 18th century, the commedia plays morphed into were called “harliquinades,” frothy comedies, which eventually evolved into the British tradition of Christmas pantos/pantomimes.

We also examine a little remarked upon influence of the commedia and harliquinades on England’s seasonal mummer’s plays, particularly the traditional Christmas Play.  An echo of Arlecchino’s trademark slapstick, or club, along with a mumming character called “Father Beelzebub” helps us connect the character of Father Christmas found in these plays with the devilish old Hellequin/Herla of French and Anglo-Norman folklore.

Father Christmas (on left) from Sandys Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852)

 

The Gibbet, Hanged in Chains

The Gibbet, Hanged in Chains

Illustration from 1832 broadsheet “Execution of James Cook, and Hung in Chains at Le’ster for the Horrid Murder of Mr. Paas.”

The gibbet was a hanging iron cage used to display the corpses of criminals in 18th and early 19th-century England. To be thus “hanged in chains,” in the judicial jargon and thinking of the day, subjected the criminal to an extra measure of postmortem shaming and offered the general public a rather extravagant cautionary example. Naturally, this frightful spectacle also generated a fair measure of folklore, which we explore in this episode as a follow-up to our “Gallows Lore” show.

The gibbet was a relatively rare punishment reserved for the crime of murder, and only then used in particularly heinous or high-profile cases. Though it was sometimes employed before 1751, its use was more widespread thanks to The Murder Act instituted that year.  This bit of legislation offered this extra punitive measure in response to a sort of inflation of the penal code attaching the death penalty to increasingly minor crimes, such as acts of theft.

The Murder Act also designated anatomical dissection of the criminal body as an additional option for postmortem punishment, a fate actually much more common than the gibbet. Dissection may have been intended primarily to enhance physicians’ medical knowledge, but it also provided the surgeons with body parts and substances that could be sold off for other purposes. We make a grisly digression from gibbets to explore some of the ways the human byproducts of executions were made use of in folk-medicine, magic, and certain professions.

William Hogarth's "The Anatomy Lesson (The Reward of Cruelty)" 1751, satirizes a criminal dissection.
William Hogarth’s “The Anatomy Lesson (The Reward of Cruelty)” 1751, satirizes a criminal dissection.

Next, we get into the  details of the gibbetting process. Contrary to common understanding, the gibbet was not simply designed as a sort of narrowed human-sized birdcage.  It was an arrangement of customized form-fitting iron bands wrapping the limbs, trunk, and body, and connected with vertical cross-pieces.  The cage was suspended in a way that allowed it to rock freely in the wind, lending a sort of eerie animation to the corpse and thereby increasing the terrifying impact of these displays.

The horrific impression made by the gibbeted corpse is detailed in Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, in a scene describing an encounter with a gibbet by the story’s protagonist as a child. Mrs. Karswell reads for us a few lavishly macabre paragraphs from the novel.

We follow this with another literary gibbet, one surprisingly found in a now-forgotten series of children’s books by Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family, published in three volumes between 1818 and 1847.

Then we hear a typical ghost story told of the gibbet, a tale set down in ballad form as “Old Grindrod’s Ghost,” which first appears in the 1872 collection Ballads, Romantic, Fantastical, and Humorous by the historical novelist William Ainsworth. The excerpt of the song heard is from the North-English band Pendlecheek.

actualgibbet
Jame Cook’s gibbet (see first illus) at the Leicester Guildhall museum.

While gibbettings drew huge crowd, the morbid fascination they popularly exerted lingered on in relics obtained from the gibbets as they fell to pieces over the years — in bits of bone, fragments of iron and wood that were carried off as mementoes. We examine cases of gibbet iron and wood recycled as novelty products, or even as structural elements in buildings, such as an old gibbet post serving as a ceiling beam in The Hare and Hound on the Isle of Wight.  There are a few ghost stories, and gibbet rhymes and riddles along the way.

Though the gibbet was relatively exclusive to England, the practice was inherited by its colonial states. From America, we hear of  a very demanding pirate gibbetted on a small island in Boston Harbor, and from Canada, a unique case of a gibbetted woman, Marie-Josephte Corriveau, hanged in chains in Québec City for murdering her husband in 1733.  Though her case was sensational enough for its time, her fame was greatly increased in 1851, when her gibbet was accidentally dug up and then acquired by P.T. Barnum for exhibition. In the wake of this, a body of folk tales sprung up, in which “La Corriveau” became a sort of witch or spirit — or beautiful femme fatal.

We close with a nod to the predatory birds that famously tear at the bodies hanged in chains. From Germany, we offer a bit of folklore on magic eggs produced by ravens who have thus dined, and from Scotland we hear a bit of the ballad, “Twa Corbies,” (two ravens or crows), which tells of the birds feeding not on a convicted criminal, but a slain knight. Included is a snippet of an excellent rendition of the song by The Cories.

La Corriveau by Henri Julien, illustration for “Les Anciens Canadiens” by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, 1861.
Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Quite distinct from their Western equivalent, Slavic mermaids might better be described as water ghosts, as they are almost always the spirits of departed females, while their male equivalent takes the form of a water goblin or water sprite.  The Russian word for mermaid is rusalka (rusalki pl.) and male creature is a vodyanoy.  Similar words are used in other slavic languages, though the Czech water goblin is known as a vodnik.

The rusalki are found not only found in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but also Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.  And they’re honored with their own holiday, Rusalka Week, just now coming up in early June.

While they are usually active only at night, during Rusalka Week, they emerge in the daylight when they may be seen dancing, singing, or playing usually in groups.  As they lack the fish tail of Western mermaids, they may also venture into forests and fields for such activities, but while in the water, they may also  pull swimmers, fishermen or others near the water to watery deaths. We open the show with a clip from Mermaid: Lake of the Dead, a 2018 Russian horror film about a rusalka, which depicts the creature in this malevolent aspect.

Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879
Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879

Not just any woman who dies will become a rusalka.  Typically, she would have died by violence, suicide, or sudden accident, particularly drowning.  Often these deaths are related to misfortunes in love, rejection by lovers, or suicides due to unwanted pregnancies.  Because of this, the rusalka is particularly focused on capturing men with no interest in attacking adult females.  Men who fall prey to them are either believed drowned or may live with them in a sort of underwater spirit limbo in their richly appointed palaces of crystal, gold, and silver.  Occasionally, their would-be victims may overcome them by the power of the cross, or in rare cases, they may even be domesticated into mortal life (with varying success).  Mrs. Karswell reads several typical and atypical tales describing the interactions of rusalki and men, ones collected from informants in turn-of-the-century studies by Russian ethnographers

While rusalki are most interested in men, they may sometimes capture girls and boys to be kept as the children they failed to have in life. Infants may also become rusalki if they die unbaptized, and will wander the earth in that form for seven years seeking someone who might free them by performing a christening. After that, like other rusalki, they remain in that undying form until the end of the world.

Prior to the 19th century, it’s not clear the rusalki were always regarded as the ghosts of unfortunate females. Instead, they seemed to play some role in connection to fertility.  This is particularly clear in Ukraine, where the rusalki (or creatures nearly the same) are called mavka and a figure called Kostromo is both the center of early spring fertility rites and known the first female to become a mavka. “Mavka” is also the name of under which a contemporary Ukranian musiican performs songs composed, in what she calls “the language of mermaids.”  We hear a clip from one of her performances.

Rusalia Week, or Rusalia, is tied to the date of Pentecost or Whitsunday. It’s also known as “Green Christmas” or “Green Holiday” as  homes and churches are decorated in greenery, and celebrations take place in birch forests where young women and girls wear crowns woven from flowers and plants.  It takes place either 40 or 50 days after Easter, and the biggest celebrations take place on Semik (from the Russian word for “seven,”) the seventh Thursday after Easter, which is June 4 this year.  We describe some rather curious rituals around birch trees involving symbolic dolls used to represent the rusalka, and how these are understood to symbolically free the restive spirits from their existence as rusalki.

Semi Celebration, 19th cent, unknown artist

Rusalia celebrations embrace both aspects of the rusalki — their post 19th-century incarnation as dangerous ghosts, and an older pagan understanding of these beings as bringers of regenerative moisture and fertility of crops.  We also hear a few accounts describing tried and true methods for evading rusalki attacks particularly common during this period.

The rusalka folklore has been adapted into a number of Slavic productions over the years.  We hear of a rusalka in Russian novelist, poet, and dramatist Nikolai Gogol’s 1831 collection of stories Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which served as the basis of a loopy but fun Russian TV series, Gogol, from which we hear a clip.  ( A rusalka briefly appears also in Gogol’s Viy, adapted into a cult classic film of 1967, Viy Spirit of Evil, from which we hear a clip.

Rusalka folklore has been a popular subject for opera. Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka, which premiered in 1856 was based on a nearly finished verse drama by Alexander Pushkin.  Its tragic tale involves not only a a vengeful adult rusalka, but also a dangerous child rusalka, and a madman who believes he is a raven.

The better known Rusalka opera, which premiered in 1900, is by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.  Best known for its lovesick aria “Song to the Moon” in the first act, its story draws partly on Slavic folklore and partly on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” to tell its equally tragic tale.  A vodnik or “water goblin” is cast as the father of the character given the name Rusalka, and the opera also features the witch Jezibaba, the Czech equivalent to Baba Yaga.

Dvořák liked to say the opera was inspired by fairy tales of popular 19th-century poet Karel Erben, namely his 1853 collection Kytice, which means “bouquet”. (The book was given a particularly sumptuous treatment int the 2000 adaptation known in English as Wild Flowers.)  While in fact the opera borrows nothing directly from Erben’s stories, Dvořák did more explicitly embrace one of Erben’s pieces in his symphonic poem known in English as “The Water Goblin.”  Mrs. Karswell reads for us the climactic scenes of this tale, which is gruesome even by Bone and Sickle standards.

Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin
Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin

After a bit of further discussion of the vodnik and its Russian near-equivalent, the vodyanoy, we address the elephant in the room — the fact that the rusalki are said to tickle men to death.  I share a few comments on reference to historic tickle torture, as well as some anecdotes from the much more amusing history of death by laughter.

 

All of Them Witches

All of Them Witches

This Halloween we have five stories of witches from all the way back to around 1125AD to the 1960s. Some of them are actual historic personage, some seem more purely folkloric.

It’s a somewhat longer episode for which I”ll provide somewhat shorter show notes here.  So, I won’t going into the details of each story, but just give a sketch of who we’ll be talking about.  Aside from all being witches, you’ll see another common thread; four of the five kept avian familiars: roosters, blackbirds, and jackdaws.

The first a 19th-century witch who’s become a part of Connecticut folklore — Hannah Cranna.  Though there are stories of her cursing neighbors from her life, the most interesting part of her tale begins with the details of her burial details, with which she was particularly obsessed.  The segment begins with a snippet of Mark Fry’s bit of folk-psychedelia “The Witch” — only because it happens to dovetail nicely with a story of Hannah told on an urban legends web page.

Our second witch was also very particular about her burial, but with a more clear-cut rationale: she wanted to prevent the Devil from claiming her soul (and body, it seems) upon her death. This is the so-called “Witch of Berkeley,” who story was first told by English chronicler William of Malmesbury all the way back in 1125.  It’s in his Chronicle of the Kings of England (as a sort of digression).

Our third witch, Molly Leigh, is also from England — North Staffordshire, where she died in 1746. Though she fit the witchy archetype of having both a quarrelsome personality and undesirable physiognomy, she was never tried or executed for witchcraft, despite some rumors of minor mischief, such as bewitching beers down at the pub.  Her story, like Hannah Cranna’s, focuses more on her afterlife exploits.  We play a snippet of a recent horror movie Molly Crows, which uses Leigh’s story as a springboard.

The fourth witch is our most modern: Sibyl Leek, who appeared on the scene in the 1960s during a wave of pop-culture.  While she claimed to be a descendant of Molly Leigh, her life seems to have been much more pleasant, centering primarily upon how to best position herself in the media spotlight.

Our final story is is quite an oddity.  The story of the self-confessed 17th-century witch, Major Thomas Weir, who became a fixture in legends of old Edinburgh.  This is our longest segment, and I’ll leave the rest for you to enjoy as Mrs. Karswell’s reads from our sources, ad the details as are suitably shocking.

From: A compendium about demons and magic. 1766. (Wellcome LIbrary)
From: A compendium about demons and magic. 1766. (Wellcome LIbrary)
#33 Ghosts from Purgatory

#33 Ghosts from Purgatory

Hear how notions of Purgatory influenced medieval ghost stories, the tradition of All Souls’ Day, and a Neapolitan “cult of skulls.”

We set the scene with a clip from “The Lyke Wake Dirge,” a 14th–century British song sung or chanted as a sort of charm over the body of the deceased in the night before burial. It describes the perils confronted by the soul during its journey into the afterlife, describing a “thorny moor,” and “Bridge of Doom,” which must be traversed to arrive in a none-too-friendly Purgatory.

We take a moment to review the historical Catholic concept of Purgatory, one usually associated with fire and torment, albeit of a temporary rather than everlasting nature and geared toward the further purification of the soul bound for Heaven.

Souls in Purgatory, Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Walters Manuscript
Souls in Purgatory, Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Walters Manuscript

Gregory the Great, the 6th-century pope, is one of the earliest influences on the notion of Purgatory offering as evidence a  ghost story of a wicked bishop condemmed to haunt the baths. We also hear of a grisly apparition of Gregory’s dead mother that supposedly appeared in a church where, legend has it, Gregory was saying mass.

From the 8th-century English chronicler Bede, we hear of a man named Drythelm who is granted a vision of Hell, that is “not the Hell you imagine,” (i.e., Purgatory instead) and of the Irish saint. Fursey, who was flown by an angel over purgatorial fires, where a surprising encounter with a demon provides him a curious souvenir.

St. Patrick went one better than ghost stories, at least according to legend. With a tap of his bishop’s crook, he’s said to have cracked open the earth to reveal a gateway to Purgatory itself, all in an effort to convert those stubborn pagans who wanted something a bit more concrete to validate the gospel.  A variety of medieval legends chronicle adventures through this underworld, and the site (though not the cave itself) is still open to visitors to a tiny Irish island in Loch Dergh (“the lake of the cave.”)

Though it’s not specifically Purgatory, descriptions of hellish torments identical to those that might be experienced there are particularly plentiful in the 12th-century Irish text The Vision of Tondal. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the best passages.

Detail from the Getty Tondal
Detail from the Getty Tondal

Following a snippet of a late medieval ballad from Norway, Draumkvedet* or “The Dream Poem,” which relates its own story of a visionary journey into the afterlife, we discuss the relationship between All Souls’ Day, prayers for the dead, the cult of the Anima Sola (“lonely soul” suffering in purgatory), and the strange Neapolitans “cult of skulls,” including that of “Princess Lucia,” a legendary lovesick suicide.

Next we hear some stories of frustrated demons and a graveyard full of grumbling corpses from Jacobus da Varagine,1260 compilation of saint stories,  Legende Aurea, or The Golden Legend, followed by the utterly bizarre ghost stories written on some spare pages of a manuscript collection by a 13th-century  Cisterian monk from the abbey of Byland in Yorkshire, or “The Byland Ghost Stories.”

From 14th-century France, we hear a story known in modern English as The Ghost of Guy, describing a series of ghostly visitations by a soul condemned to Purgatory —  and the surprisingly colorful reason they were necessary!

Our last ghost story comes from The Adventures of Arthur, a story from northern England, probably set down in the late 14thcentury.  It tells of a particularly loathsome manifestation of Queen Guinevere’s mother that rises from within a lake with some pious advice for her daughter.

Cult of Skulls, Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples
Cult of Skulls, Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples

We end with two more modern efforts to provide evidence of souls suffering in the afterlife: Rome’s very small, and very odd Museum of the Souls in Purgatory created by a particularly obsessive 19th-century priest and a classic urban legend in audio form captured from late-night airwaves of a few decades ago.

* Norwegian listeners: my apologies for any errors in pronunciation of “Draumkvedet.”