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Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters By H. Addington Bruce Characters: 22565

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Haunting of the Wesleys

The Rev. Samuel Wesley is chiefly known to posterity as the father of the famous John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and of the hardly less famous Charles Wesley. But the Rev. Samuel has further claims to remembrance. If he gave to the world John and Charles Wesley, he was also the sire of seventeen other Wesleys, eight of whom, like their celebrated brothers, grew to maturity and attained varying degrees of distinction.

He was himself a man of distinction as preacher, poet, and controversialist. His sermons were sermons in the good, old-fashioned sense of the term. His poems were the despair of the critics, but won him a wide reputation. He was an adept in what Whistler called the gentle art of making enemies. Though more familiar with the inside of a pulpit, he was not unacquainted with the inside of a jail. He raised his numerous progeny on an income seldom exceeding one thousand dollars a year. And, what is perhaps the most astonishing fact in a career replete with surprises, he was the hero of one of the best authenticated ghost stories on record.

This visitation from the supermundane came as a climax to a series of worldly annoyances that would have upset the equanimity of a very Job-and the Rev. Samuel, in temper at any rate, was the reverse of Job-like. His troubles began in the closing years of the seventeenth century, when he became rector of the established church at Epworth, Lincolnshire, a venerable edifice dating back to the stormy days of Edward II., and as damp as it was old. The story goes that this living was granted him as a reward because he dedicated one of his poems to Queen Mary. But the Queen would seem to have had punishment in mind for him, rather than reward.

Located in the Isle of Axholme, in the midst of a long stretch of fen country bounded by four rivers, and for a great part under water, Epworth was at that epoch dreariness itself. The Rev. Samuel's spirits must have sunk within him as the carts bearing his already large family and his few household belongings toiled through quagmire and morass; they must have fallen still farther when he gazed down the one straggling street at the rectory of mud and thatch that was to be his home; and they must have touched the zero mark, zealous High Churchman that he was, with the discovery that his peasant parishioners were Presbyterian-minded folk who hated ritualism as cordially as they hated the Pope.

Whatever his secret sentiments, he lost no time in endeavoring to stamp the imprint of his vigorous personality on Epworth. Forgetful, or unheedful, of the fact that the natives of the Isle of Axholme were notoriously violent and lawless, he began to rule them with a rod of iron. Thus they should think, thus they should do, thus they should go! Above all, the Rev. Samuel never permitted them to forget that in addition to spiritual they owed him temporal obligations. In the matter of tithes-always a sore subject in a community hard put to extract a living from the soil-he was unrelenting.

Necessity may have driven him; but it was only to be expected that murmurings should arise, and from words the angry islanders passed to deeds. For a time they contented themselves with burning the rector's barn and trying to burn his house. Then, when he was so indiscreet as to become indebted to one of their number, they clapped him into prison. His speedy release, through the intervention of clerical friends, and his blunt refusal to seek a new sphere of activity, were followed by more barn burning, by the slaughter of his cattle, and finally by a fire that utterly destroyed the rectory and all but cost the lives of several of its inmates, who by that time included the future father of Methodism.

The bravery with which the Rev. Samuel met this crowning disaster, and the energy with which he set about the task of rebuilding his home-not in mud and thatch, but in substantial brick-seem to have shamed the villagers into giving him peace, seem even to have inspired them with a genuine regard for him. He for his part, if we read the difficult pages of his biographers aright, appears to have grown less exacting and more diplomatic. In any event, he was left in quiet to prepare his sermons, write his poems, and assist his devoted wife (who, by the way, he is said to have deserted for an entire year because of a little difference of opinion respecting the right of William of Orange to the English crown) in the upbringing of their children. Thus his life ran along in comparative smoothness until the momentous advent of the ghost.

This unexpected and unwelcome visitor made its first appearance early in December, 1716. At the time the Wesley boys were away from home, but the household was still sufficiently numerous, consisting of the Rev. Samuel, Mrs. Wesley, seven daughters,-Emilia, Susannah, Maria, Mehetabel, Anne, Martha, and Kezziah,-a man servant named Robert Brown, and a maid servant known as Nanny Marshall. Nanny was the first to whom the ghost paid its respects, in a series of blood-curdling groans that "caused the upstarting of her hair, and made her ears prick forth at an unusual rate." In modern parlance, she was greatly alarmed, and hastened to tell the Misses Wesley of the extraordinary noises, which, she assured them, sounded exactly like the groans of a dying man. The derisive laughter of the young women left her state of mind unchanged; and they too gave way to alarm when, a night or so later, loud knocks began to be heard in different parts of the house, accompanied by sundry "groans, squeaks, and tinglings."

Oddly enough, the only member of the family unvisited by the ghost was the Rev. Samuel, and upon learning that he had heard none of the direful sounds his wife and children made up their minds that his death was imminent; for a local superstition had it that in all such cases of haunting the person undisturbed is marked for an early demise. But the worthy clergyman continued hale and hearty, as did the ghost, whose knockings, indeed, soon grew so terrifying that "few or none of the family durst be alone." It was then resolved that, whatever the noises portended, counsel and aid must be sought from the head of the household. At first the Rev. Samuel listened in silence to his spouse's recital; but as she proceeded he burst into a storm of wrath. A ghost? Stuff and nonsense! Not a bit of it! Only some mischief-makers bent on plaguing them. Possibly, and his choler rose higher, a trick played by his daughters themselves, or by their lovers.

Now it was the turn of the Wesley girls to become angry, and we read that they forthwith showed themselves exceedingly "desirous of its continuance till he was convinced." Their desire was speedily granted. The very next night paterfamilias had no sooner tumbled into bed than there came nine resounding knocks "just by his bedside." In an instant he was up and groping for a light. "You heard it, then?" we may imagine Mrs. Wesley anxiously asking, and we may also imagine the robust Anglo-Saxon of his response.

Another night and more knockings, followed by "a noise in the room over our heads, as if several people were walking." This time, to quote further from Mrs. Wesley's narrative as given in a letter to her absent son Samuel, the tumult "was so outrageous that we thought the children would be frightened; so your father and I rose, and went down in the dark to light a candle. Just as we came to the bottom of the broad stairs, having hold of each other, on my side there seemed as if somebody had emptied a bag of money at my feet; and on his, as if all the bottles under the stairs (which were many) had been dashed in a thousand pieces. We passed through the hall into the kitchen, and got a candle and went to see the children, whom we found asleep."

With this the Rev. Samuel seems to have come round to the family's way of thinking; for in the morning he sent a messenger to the nearby village of Haxey with the request that the vicar of Haxey, a certain Mr. Hoole, would ride over and assist him in "conjuring" the evil spirit out of his house. Burning with curiosity, Mr. Hoole made such good time to Epworth that before noon he was at the rectory and eagerly listening to an account of the marvels that had so alarmed the Wesleys.

In addition to the phenomena already set forth, he learned that while the knocks were heard in all parts of the house, they were most frequent in the children's room; that at prayers they almost invariably interrupted the family's devotions, especially when Mr. Wesley began the prayers for King George and the Prince of Wales, from which it was inferred that the ghost was a Jacobite; that often a sound was heard like the rocking of a cradle, and another sound like the gobbling of a turkey, and yet another "something like a man, in a loose nightgown trailing after him"; and that if one stamped his foot, "Old Jeffrey," as the younger children had named the ghost, would knock precisely as many times as there had been stampings.

None of these major marvels was vouchsafed to Mr. Hoole; but he heard knockings in plenty, and, after a night of terror, made haste back to Haxey, having lost all desire to play the r?le of exorcist. His fears may possibly have been increased by the violence of Mr. Wesley, who, after vainly exhorting the ghost to speak out and tell his business, flourished a pistol and threatened to discharge it in the direction whence the knockings came. This was too much for peace-loving, spook-fearing Mr. Hoole. "Sir," he protested, "you are convinced this is something preternatural. If so, you cannot hurt it; but you give it power to hurt you." The logic of Mr. Hoole's argument is hardly so evident as his panic. Off he galloped, leaving the Rev. Samuel to lay the ghost as best he could.

After his departure wonders grew apace. Thus far the manifestations had been wholly auditory; now visual phenomena were added. One evening Mrs. Wesley beheld something dart out from beneath a bed and quickly disappear. Sister Emilia, who was present, reported to brother Samuel that this something was "like a badger, only without any head that was discernible." The same apparition came to confound the man servant, Robert Brown, once in the badger form, and once in the form of a white rabbit which "turned round before him several times." Robert was also the witness of an even more peculiar performance by the elusive ghost. "Being grinding corn in the garrets, and happening to stop a little, the handle of the mill was turn [sic] round with great swiftness." It is interesting to note that Robert subsequently declared that "nothing vexed him but that the mill was empty. If corn had been in it, Old Jeffrey might have ground his heart out for him; he would never have disturbed him." More annoying was a habit into which the ghost fell of rattling latches, jingling warming pans and other metal utensils, and brushing rudely against people in the dark. "Thrice," asserted the Rev. Samuel, "I have been pushed by an invisible power, once against the corner of my desk in the study, a second time against the door of the matted chamber, a third time against the right side of the frame of my study door


On at least one occasion Old Jeffrey indulged in a pastime popular with the spiritistic mediums of a later day. John Wesley tells us, on the authority of sister Nancy, that one night, when she was playing cards with some of the many other sisters, the bed on which she sat was suddenly lifted from the ground. "She leapt down and said, 'Surely Old Jeffrey would not run away with her.' However, they persuaded her to sit down again, which she had scarce done when it was again lifted up several times successively, a considerable height, upon which she left her seat and would not be prevailed upon to sit there any more."

Clearly, the Wesley family were in a bad way. Entreaties, threats, exorcism, had alike failed to banish the obstinate ghost. But though they knew it not, relief was at hand. Whether repenting of his misdoings, or desirous of seeking pastures new, Jeffrey, after a visitation lasting nearly two months, took his departure almost as unceremoniously as he had arrived, and left the unhappy Wesleys to resume by slow degrees their wonted ways of life.

Such is the story unfolded by the Wesleys themselves in a series of letters and memoranda, which, taken together, form, as was said, one of the best authenticated narratives of haunting extant. But before endeavoring to ascertain the source of the phenomena credited to the soi-disant Jeffrey, another and fully as important inquiry must be made. What, it is necessary to ask, did the Wesleys actually hear and see in the course of the two months that they had their ghost with them? The answer obviously must be sought through an analysis of the evidence for the haunting. This chronologically falls into three divisions. The first consists of letters addressed to young Samuel Wesley by his father, mother, and two of his sisters, and written at the time of the disturbances; the second, of letters written by Mrs. Wesley and four of her daughters to John Wesley in the summer and autumn of 1726 (that is to say, more than nine years after the haunting), of an account written by the senior Samuel Wesley, and of statements by Hoole and Robert Brown; the third, of an article contributed to "The Arminian Magazine" in 1784 (nearly seventy years after the event) by John Wesley.

Now, the most cursory examination of the various documents shows remarkable discrepancies between the earlier and later versions. Writing to her son Samuel, when the ghost was still active, and she would not be likely to minimize its doings, Mrs. Wesley thus describes the first occurrences:

"On the first of December, our maid heard, at the door of the dining-room, several dismal groans like a person in extremes, at the point of death. We gave little heed to her relation and endeavored to laugh her out of her fears. Some nights (two or three) after, several of the family heard a strange knocking in divers places, usually three or four knocks at a time, and then stayed a little. This continued every night for a fortnight; sometimes it was in the garret, but most commonly in the nursery, or green chamber."

Contrast with this the portion of John Wesley's "Arminian Magazine" article referring to the same period:

"On the second of December, 1716, while Robert Brown, my father's servant, was sitting with one of the maids, a little before ten at night, in the dining-room which opened into the garden, they both heard one knocking at the door. Robert rose and opened it, but could see nobody. Quickly it knocked again and groaned.... He opened the door again twice or thrice, the knocking being twice or thrice repeated; but still seeing nothing, and being a little startled, they rose and went up to bed. When Robert came to the top of the garret stairs, he saw a handmill, which was at a little distance, whirled about very swiftly.... When he was in bed, he heard as it were the gobbling of a turkey cock close to the bedside; and soon after, the sound of one stumbling over his shoes and boots; but there were none there, he had left them below.... The next evening, between five and six o'clock, my sister Molly, then about twenty years of age, sitting in the dining-room reading, heard as if it were the door that led into the hall open, and a person walking in, that seemed to have on a silk nightgown, rustling and trailing along. It seemed to walk round her, then to the door, then round again; but she could see nothing."

As a matter of fact, the contemporary records are silent respecting the extraordinary happenings that overshadow all else in the records of 1726 and 1784. In the former, for example, we find no reference to the affair of the mill handle, the levitation of the bed, the rude bumpings given to Mr. Wesley. There is much talk of knockings and groanings, of sounds like footsteps, rustling silks, falling coals, breaking bottles, and moving latches; allusion is made to the badger like and rabbit like apparition; and there is mention of a peculiar dancing of father's "trencher" without "anybody's stirring the table"; but the sum total makes very tame reading compared with the material to be found in the accounts written in after years and commonly utilized-as it has been utilized here-to form the narrative of the haunting. Not only this, but a rigorous division of the contemporary evidence into first hand and second hand still further eliminates the element of the marvelous. Admitting as evidence only the fact set forth as having been observed by the relators themselves, the haunting is reduced to a matter of knocks, groans, tinglings, squeaks, creakings, crashings, and footsteps.

We are, therefore, justified in believing that in this case, like so many others of its kind, the fallibility of human memory has played an overwhelming part in exaggerating the experiences actually undergone; that, in fine, nothing occurred in the rectory at Epworth, between December 1, 1716, and January 31, 1717, that may not be attributed to human agency.

Who, then, was the agent? Knowing what we do of Wesley's previous relations with the villagers, the first impulse is to place the responsibility at their door. But for this there is no real warrant. Years had elapsed since the culminating catastrophe of the burning of the rectory, and in the interim matters had been put on an amicable basis. Moreover, the evidence as to the haunting itself goes to show that the phenomena could not possibly have been produced by a person, or persons, operating from outdoors; but must, on the contrary, have been the work of some one intimately acquainted with the arrangements of the house and enjoying the full confidence of its master.

Thus our inquiry narrows to the inmates of the rectory. Of these, Mr. and Mrs. Wesley, may at once be left out of consideration, as also may the servants, all accounts agreeing that from the outset they were genuinely alarmed. There remain only the Wesley girls, and our effort must be to discover which of them was the culprit.

At first blush this seems an impossible task; but let us scan the evidence carefully. We find, to begin with, that only four of the seven sisters are represented in the correspondence relating to the haunting. Two of the others, Kezziah and Martha, were mere children and not of letter-writing age, and their silence in the matter is thus satisfactorily accounted for. But that the third, Mehetabel, should likewise be silent is distinctly puzzling. Not only was she quite able to give an account of her experiences (she was at least between eighteen and nineteen years of age), but it is known that she had a veritable passion for pen and ink, a passion which in after years won her no mean reputation as a poetess. And, more than this, she seems to have enjoyed a far greater share of Jeffrey's attentions than did any other member of the family. "My sister Hetty, I find," remarks the observing Samuel, "was more particularly troubled." And Emilia declares, almost in the language of complaint, that "it was never near me, except two or three times, and never followed me as it did my sister Hetty."

Manifestly, it may be worth while to inquire into the history and characteristics of this young woman. Her biographer, Dr. Adam Clarke, informs us that "from her childhood she was gay and sprightly; full of mirth, good humor, and keen wit. She indulged this disposition so much that it was said to have given great uneasiness to her parents; because she was in consequence often betrayed into inadvertencies which, though of small moment in themselves, showed that her mind was not under proper discipline; and that fancy, not reason, often dictated that line of conduct which she thought proper to pursue."

This information is the more interesting, in the present connection, since it contrasts strongly with the unqualified commendation Dr. Clarke accords the other sisters. From the same authority we learn that as a child Miss Mehetabel was so precocious that at the age of eight she could read the Greek Testament in the original; that she was from her earliest youth emotional and sentimental; that despite her intellectual tastes and attainments she gave her hand to an illiterate journeyman plumber and glazier; and that when the fruit of this union lay dying by her side she insisted on dictating to her husband a poem afterward published under the moving caption of "A Mother's Address to Her Dying Infant." Another of her poems, by the way, is significantly entitled, "The Lucid Interval."

There can, then, be little question that Hetty Wesley was precisely the type of girl to derive amusement by working on the superstitious fears of those about her. We find, too, in the evidence itself certain fugitive references directly pointing to her as the creator of Old Jeffrey. It seems that she had a practice of sitting up and moving about the house long after all the other inmates, except her father, had retired for the night. The ghost was especially noisy and malevolent when in her vicinity, knocking boisterously on the bed in which she slept, and even knocking under her feet. And what is most suggestive, two witnesses, her father and her sister Susannah, testify that on some occasions the noises failed to wake her, but caused her "to tremble exceedingly in her sleep." It must, indeed, have been a difficult matter to restrain laughter at the spectacle of the night-gowned, night-capped, much bewildered parson, candle in one hand and pistol in the other, peering under and about the bed in quest of the invisible ghost.

To be sure, it is impossible to adduce positive proof that Hetty Wesley and Old Jeffrey were one and the same. But the evidence supports this view of the case as it supports no other, and, taken in conjunction with the facts of her earlier and later life, leaves little doubt that had the Rev. Samuel paid closer attention to the comings and goings of this particular daughter the ghost that so sorely tried him would have taken its flight much sooner than it did. Her motive for the deception must be left to conjecture. In all probability it was only the desire to amaze and terrorize, a desire as was said before, not infrequently operative along similar lines in the case of young people of a lively disposition and morbid imagination.

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