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LEGENDS OF RURAL SPOOKS
IT must be regretfully stated that the old time folklore of the supposed supernatural has apparently vanished from modern New England. Skepticism has seized upon the present generation and such genuine unalloyed ghost stories as still persist are regarded as the harmless delusions of old age. Thus, much that furnished thrills in earlier days has departed.
They were creepy enough, those ancient tales. And in most instances they were vouched for as strictly true by people whose reputations for veracity were beyond dispute.
Ghost in the Milk Dairy
Take the story of the milk pans as an example. The people who occupied the milk pan infested residence were an intelligent church going family of the highest standing. They were not superstitious and in fact regarded their spooky experiences as a joke. They had a dairy farm at a period when cream separators were unknown.
The process at that time was to "set" the milk in shallow tin pans and skim off the cream when the milk had become sour. The cream was then made into butter. Where there were quite a number of cows, a considerable stack of these tin pans was required. Such as were not in use would be placed in an orderly pile on a high shelf in the milk room.
Therefore, it can be readily understood that if one of these pans was to slide off the shelf to the floor, it would make a loud noise.
Now, suppose the farmer and his family were sitting around the evening lamp and all at once an unearthly din in the milk room should indicate that a dozen or perhaps two dozen of those six-quart milk pans had rolled from the top shelf to the floor, we would naturally expect one or more members of the family to go at once to investigate.
Well, this highly respectable and truthful family would do nothing of the kind. They would remain quietly reading the weekly paper, or knitting, or popping corn, according to age and disposition; because they knew no milk pans had stirred an inch. It was merely the spook amusing himself.
Spook Story of the Runaway Horse
A family lived on a back hilly road, and where the highway passed their house it was quite steep. Comparatively few teams would be seen during the day and still fewer would be abroad at night. It therefore might be expected that when all the sounds of a horse galloping wildly down the road with a rattling wagon at his heels should be heard, the people would rush to the windows and doors to find out whose horse was subjecting his driver to probable injury or sudden death; but they didn't — at least after the first few times. They knew no horse was running away; it was only the spook.
And still there are people in this age of jazz who think the "old times" had no excitement.
Most of the practical jokes of the spook were harmless, but in a given instance he seems to have gone rather too far.
Tipping and a Victim
As could be expected a certain number of people were disposed to take these "manifestations" quite seriously, regardless of the ridicule of their neighbors. A group of these seekers after occult knowledge had gathered one evening to engage in their favorite avocation of "table tipping," and were unusually favored with "signs." The small table around which they were seated became so totally unmindful of the force of gravity that a recent novitiate of corpulent figure was induced to seat himself upon it to keep it in place. No sooner had he taken his position than the table began to float about the room.
It was a triumphant moment for the believers. They were succeeding beyond their wildest anticipations. The table, after various oscillations, approached the stairway, still carrying the portly investigator. Clinging to it were a number of enthusiasts who stumbled up the stairway well toward the top. Suddenly the invisible force weakened, and the table with its burden, fell with a crash.
The victim was considerably bruised but otherwise physically uninjured. His vanity had however received a hard jolt and he took no further part in the seances.
There is significance in the fact that although most people of the rural districts long ago lost interest in "spirit" phenomena, it has lately engaged the attention of city dwellers to an increasing extent. Such investigations passed under the ban of country people because of the current impression that they were generally demoralizing in their influence. Those who maintained the churches were skeptical and this developed antagonisms, which affected attendance upon church and Sunday school. The "ouija board" is about all there is left of the old time manifestations in rural New England.
Story of the Ouija Board
But even the ouija board can carry consternation to the wayward.
A New England youth of unusually good looks became impressed with the idea that his face could easily be made to be his fortune. The matrimonial route seemed to be easiest and after a short courtship he became the husband of a woman of considerable wealth. To be sure she was quite deaf and some forty years his senior, but there could be many collateral diversions. His elation was short lived. The old lady had not lived so many years without acquiring wisdom. She promptly added to her other bridal accessories a "ouija" with which she soon became proficient.
Before his marriage the young husband had made the acquaintance of numerous fair ones of whom chorus girls seemed the most congenial. But he soon found it wise to avoid their company. With her faithful ouija, his wife could have him shadowed at all hours of the day. It was too uncanny. He became the most docile and punctilious of husbands.
Coincidence often assumes an uncanny resemblance to the so-called supernatural. Instances in which a certain type of dream was followed by disaster are common to all classes of people. But what is to be said of "signs" during waking hours? as for example the following legend of a highly intelligent married couple who would have scorned to palm off such a narrative unless authentic.
Unreal Arrival of Uncle Mark
Late one summer evening these middle-aged parents of a considerable family had just retired to rest, the younger people being long since abed and asleep. All at once the silence of the farm was broken by the sound of a horse and buggy coming rapidly up the main road, and which turned from the highway, passed through the yard and up a driveway into the horse barn- The farmer and his wife exchanged glances, one of them remarking that "Uncle Mark," a brother of the farmer, was evidently making one of his customary unannounced visits.
Then followed the familiar sounds of the horse being detached from the buggy and led into the stall. The farmer hastily readjusting his clothing, took the lamp and went down stairs to admit the visitor. Seeing and hearing no one he went down the porch and crossed the yard to the barn. He found no strange horse, wagon or driver.
When the wife was told that what they had both heard so distinctly was a delusion, she looked very grave.
"That means bad news," was all she said.
The farmer and his wife went to bed and let us hope they slept the sleep of the just. The next morning a telegram announced the sudden death of a near relative. It would be hard to convince any of their descendants that this fine old couple had betrayed any weak superstitious delusions in describing this mysterious combination of happenings.
It is probable that the experienced traveling salesman is about as near immune to superstitious thrills as any type of citizen, but in one specific case even his iron nerve gave way.
Locked Door Which Swung Open
A young man of exceptional vigor and equipoise, traveling through a hilly country, had occasion to make a late journey across a mountain. The road was poor and the traveling tedious and he found that he had sadly miscalculated the time required to complete the trip. He decided to stop at the first likely looking farmhouse and beg for a chance to stay over night.
By this time it was very dark but he was able to get a glimpse of two or three cabins on the way that seemed too utterly unattractive for consideration. Finally he came to a more commodious looking establishment and decided to go no further if he could possibly avoid it. Stopping his horse in front of the house he hallooed several times. There was no answer, so inferring the inhabitants were sound sleepers, the young man concluded to first find shelter for his horse and then come back and in some way or other secure a night's lodging for himself.
An outbuilding was located and unharnessing his horse, he tied him to a beam and after giving the animal some hay and a bedding of the same, he went back to the farmhouse, intending to pound on the door until he aroused the inmates. But he did not pound on the door.
As the weary traveler approached the front step, the door began to turn, swung around slowly and finally stood wide open. There was not the slightest noise nor sign of any human agency associated with the door. Every individual hair arose on the young man's head. He thought with joy and relief of that good, faithful animal munching his dry hay. He hastened back to the shed, lay down as near the horse as safety would permit, and so managed to pass the night.
At daybreak he resumed his journey, but before leaving he observed positive evidences that the house was uninhabited. The door was locked.
It is probable that had the salesman had the time and disposition to make a careful daylight inspection of the vacant house, he might have discovered some perfectly natural cause for the mysterious actions of the front door. But his curiosity, was not very active just then.
In another instance the investigations of a traveling salesman nearly caused a case of sudden death by heart failure.
Joke Played on the Hotel Porter
This young man found himself marooned for the Sabbath at a little hotel in a back country town. Sunday afternoon, finding nothing better to do, he proceeded to put the blasé hotel clerk through a third degree examination in regard to any local points of interest which might alleviate the general tiresomeness of the situation. The only interesting feature apparently possessed by the town was a haunted house guaranteed to be genuine in every respect.
There was the usual legend of some ghastly tragedy and the record of spookish antics frequently associated with such histories. Altogether the salesman was disposed to consider this a real find and worth looking after.
The most conspicuous member of the hotel staff of employees was a colored porter. Bland and attentive, this young man took his position very seriously indeed. The salesman became very chummy with the porter. He found several occasions to utilize his services and showed his appreciation by liberal tips. It therefore seemed only natural to the porter that the salesman should propose that he have his company for an evening's stroll to look over the town, especially as the suggestion was associated with the promise of an extra half dollar.
In his conversation with the clerk, the salesman had learned the general location of the haunted house, and waiting until it was quite dark he started out in that direction with his escort. He remarked on the darkness of the night, saying it was just the kind of a night for ghosts to be on duty. Finally he asked his companion if he knew of any haunted houses in town. The porter rather reluctantly admitted that he did know of one and that they were getting pretty near to it.
By this time the porter had evidently lost interest in the excursion and suggested that he would be needed at the hotel. He was, however, prevailed upon to go a little further. Shortly afterward there loomed up a large old-fashioned dwelling surrounded by considerable grounds which he pronounced to be the haunted house. It was uninhabited of course.
The porter again urged that he would be needed at the hotel, but the salesman insisted that he must get a little nearer before going back. When about opposite the house, he stopped and took a careful look at the building which now looked dismal enough in the dim starlight.
The salesman was possessed of a voice that he could make unusually penetrating. He suddenly gave a tremendous leap backward and yelled in a most agonizing tone.
"Great Heavens! What is that?"
But his companion did not answer. He disappeared down the road at a pace that no professional sprinter could excel.
In "the good old days" a ghost seems to have generally appeared to investigate any unusually spectacular murder. This came about according to custom following the celebrated pedlar mystery.
Pedlar Who Disappeared
A German Jew had built up a profitable trade among the farmers in a certain section and was looked for every summer by his customers. He traveled with a horse and cart and carried a considerable stock of silks for dresses and heavy black broadcloth for men's suits. Another item of considerable importance in his business was a choice stock of Paisley shawls.
The prosperous farmer of that period was expected to provide his wife with at least one black silk dress in addition to the one she may have had as a part of her wedding outfit, the shawl adding the final touch of elegance to her wardrobe.
Naturally the wife would expect her husband to be dressed according to her standard, and that meant at least one new broadcloth suit every ten or fifteen years. Therefore the pedlar could always count upon a considerable number of sales and it can be taken for granted that he made at least a fair profit.
It was, however, often necessary for him to extend credit as actual money was very scarce in those times. But he knew his customers and rather encouraged this class of business.
One season the pedlar made his usual rounds, did a considerable credit business, delivering his goods as usual and — was never seen again.
The farmers who had provided themselves with funds to settle their accounts could not understand the case. The pedlar was apparently the last man of their acquaintance to neglect his collections. Time passed, the year rolled around and nothing was heard. It was indeed a mystery.
One day a marvelous story went the rounds. A well-known, young man announced that he could keep his secret no longer. He had a confession to make.
He said that about the time of the pedlar's last visit, returning home one evening, he had overtaken two men on a lonely road through the woods who were carrying a heavy burden wrapped in a blanket. Finding they were discovered the men had required him, on penalty of death, to help them bury a man's body- It was the pedlar.
Pressed for details as to the identity of the probable murderers, he named two well-known business men of a nearby town who presumably, tempted by the large sums of money habitually carried by the pedlar, had committed the crime.
The accused were naturally placed under arrest, but their denials of the crime were not vehement as might have been expected, but were calmly contemptuous. They arranged their affairs as best they could and settled down to endure confinement in the county jail as patiently as possible until the next session of court. There does not seem to have been any evidence to corroborate the testimony of the principal witness, and when he later appeared before the county prosecutor and told him the alleged confession was merely a romance suggested to his mind through a badly distorted sense of humor, there was nothing further to be done with the alleged murderers except to release them.
While in these latter days such a hoax on the authorities would likely prove unpleasant to the joker, he apparently escaped any legal penalty. But he found it expedient to shortly leave the neighborhood, as the theory was promptly advanced that the original confession was really justified, but that the witness had in some manner been induced by the accused parties to retract, probably by a liberal bribe. His later prosperity in a large New England city was generally attributed to this source by censorious former neighbors, although others, probably better informed, were aware that he was a highly paid and valued employee in a large mercantile establishment.
This would seem to be the logical end of this narrative, but although the subsequent history of the case can be rather briefly told, what has been heretofore stated is but the beginning of the story.
Those who had been accused of the crime did not follow the example of the unreliable witness, but remained to spend the balance of their days attending to their usual occupations in the town where they had lived so long. One of these men was considerably older than the other, and although there had been no special intimacy apparent between the two from year to year, when the older man eventually developed what promised to be a fatal illness, the other promptly gave over his business to a subordinate and took up his abode at the home of the sick man. Day after day, and in fact night after night, he was always at the invalid's call and it was generally and plausibly reported that no one was left alone with the sick man from that time until his death. Naturally those who enjoyed the sensational, immediately assumed that the attendant was afraid to permit his former alleged associate in crime any opportunity for private conversation with others lest he unburden his mind by a confession.
Enter the ghost!
During the last years of the man so carefully watched by his partner, he lived in a large old-fashioned house on a back street, surrounded by ample grounds- The household consisted solely of himself and an elderly woman acting as a domestic. The man was to a considerable extent a recluse, but whenever he had occasion to leave his home after nightfall, which was seldom, his housekeeper would immediately make haste to visit a friend. She declared that nothing would induce her to stay in alone at night, because of numerous uncanny noises and especially certain dismal groans proceeding from some never fully revealed part of the house. Coincidentally with the death of the owner these spookish manifestations ceased. Many long years have passed since that time and the house is still standing in good preservation. It has been occupied by different families during this time and only the oldest inhabitants remember that at one time it was regarded as harboring a ghost.
All the actors in this tragedy or comedy have long since passed away, but the legend persists as one of the most unique old-time mysteries of New England.
The skeptical reader might easily dismiss the foregoing history as being in all probability the result of too much imagination and rural credulity, but those who vouch for another story of "hants" are still living and their testimony is absolutely beyond question.
Sudden Discontinuance of the "Spirit Raps"
A young couple with an infant child occupied a typical New England house located on a thriving farm. The house was in a good state of preservation and the residents were healthy and normal in every respect. Their sleeping room, however, became widely noted among their acquaintances. It was fairly infested with "spirit raps."
The exhibit was usually about as follows: Soon after retiring and while perhaps getting into the drowsy stage that borders upon dreamland, a series of raps would suddenly start on the ceiling and pass diagonally across the room. After moving from the farthest corner the raps would gradually seem to come down the wall at the head of the bed, at which point raps would be heard on the wooden headboard and upon the pillows. This occurred on numerous occasions and became quite a nuisance.
One evening the young couple went to bed unusually fatigued from a hard day's exertions. Just as they settled down to sleep, the raps started in louder than usual. Exasperated by these unwelcome noises, the husband suddenly expressed his mind. He told his wife that he wished those certain kind of spirits would go back to Hades where they came from and let him sleep.
It was not surprising that he should have lost patience, but it was surprising that the raps did then and there cease, never again to be heard.
Another old-time story of the mysterious was told by a young woman whose Puritanic regard for strict veracity was almost a joke to her friends.
With her young child in the cradle, she was sitting in the early evening in a room which looked out upon an open space of ground including the driveway. Save for the child, she was absolutely alone in the house. It was a very thick, starless night, threatening rain. At her back as she sat in the darkness, resting from her labors and thinking that she must get a light and do some sewing, there was a window almost entirely hidden by vines which were allowed to shade that part of the room, there being other windows to furnish light.
Suddenly there flashed on the wall before her a bright reflection of the vine-covered window, the frame standing out clear and distinct as though there were no vines at all. She looked at this reflection with great astonishment a moment, sprang to her feet, opened the door and started out on the porch which commanded a complete view of the entire front of the house and the open field beyond. There was not a sound nor a sign of anybody abroad. It is asked in the Scriptures if a woman can forget her sucking child, but in this instance she could, for she ran down the road like a wild thing to a nearby house, where she secured the companionship and moral support of a kindly old woman, and returned for the protection of her sleeping infant.
To the present generation these tales of the supernatural would be generally regarded as rubbish. Those who lived in years of maturity a half century ago would hardly be inclined to so classify them. On the contrary, they would regard them as unsolved mysteries existing at the time, often amusing and seldom terrifying. Let those of that era be the judges.