Thursday, October 20, 2011

Charles Dickens, the Supernatural, and Captain Murderer!

As promised, I wanted to mention a few of my favorite macabre or ghost-related accounts, prior to Halloween itself, one of them surprisingly, coming from none other than the famous and gifted English writer, Charles Dickens. Few have failed to enjoy in print or on the cinematic screen, such stories or books as, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and perhaps one of the most dearly loved and favorite tales, that of, A Christmas Carol, told and retold in multiple movies to the present-day, a holiday favorite.

Most readers are acutely aware that A Christmas Carol, contains as some of its most important and memorable characters, a certain number of ghosts, besides the person of Ebenezer Scrooge. However, I would venture to say, that the public-at-large are largely unaware that Charles Dickens began his illustrious writing career within the realm of the supernatural. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the lettered Englishman was an early and active member of the Ghost Club, founded in 1862.

Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia in the early 19th-century, commented within his work, Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind (1818), that, "The fear of ghosts should be prevented or subdued in early life, by teaching children the absurdity and falsehood of all the stories that are fabricated by nurses upon that subject."

As early as 1732, an article entitled, "Of Ghosts, Demons, and Spectres," published in the prestigious English journal, Gentleman's Magazine, reported how, "Some spirits or ghosts owe their existence only to a distempered imagination...The cheat is begun by nurses with stories of Bugbear, etc., from whence we are gradually led to listen to the traditionary accounts of local ghosts..."

I bring up nurses, since Charles Dickens once remarked how his family's nurse, the daughter of a shipwright, named Mercy, though he stated how "she had none on me." She frequently related to him as a child such nightmarish tales, as that of Captain Murderer, truly a Halloween-type tale if there ever was one!

In volume three of Dicken's work, All The Year Round, A Weekly Journal, published in September of 1860, he recounts the morbid tale of the murderous Captain, who had a habit of marrying women who mysteriously passed away, not long after the wedding. Dickens states how the Captain, being:
"Alone with his wife on the day month after their marriage, it was his whimsical custom to produce a golden rolling-pin and a silver pie-board. Now, there was this special feature in the Captain's courtships, that he always asked if the young lady could make pie-crust; and if she couldn't by nature or education, she was taught."
The Captain would then bring out "a silver pie-dish of immense capacity, and...brought out flour and butter and eggs and all things needful, except the inside of the pie," then his bride would remark, "Dear Captain, what pie is this to be?" His reply, "A meat pie." Naturally his new wife said, "Dear Captain Murderer, I see no meat." The Captain humorously retorted, "Look in the glass." She looked in the glass, but still she saw no meat, and then the Captain roared with laughter, and suddenly frowning and drawing his sword, bade her roll out the crust," which she would obediently proceed to do.

Once the crust was cut and "ready to fit the top" of the dish, the Captain would call out, "I see the meat in the glass! And the bride looked up at the glass, just in time to see the Captain cutting her head off; and he chopped her into pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones."

Charles Dickens relates further details concerning the life of Captain Murderer, stating how eventually the cannibal married one of "two twin sisters," one fair-haired and the other dark. The one not chosen, or the brunette, soon became suspicious of the Captain's actions, and actually witnessed him filing his teeth to a sharp point and then murder her sybling; followed by his baking, peppering, salting her sister's corpse, then sending her remains "to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones."

Wanting revenge for the death of her sister, the other twin enticed the Captain to marry her which he did. The same deadly procedure was carried out upon the other sister as well, but prior to being chopped up and eaten, she purposely had "taken a deadly poison of a most awful character, distilled from toads' eyes and spiders' knees," and after the Captain 'had his fill' and "had hardly picked her last bone," he "began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots, and to scream." This process continued until he eventually exploded.

As Dickens states: "Hundreds of times did I hear this legend of Captain Murderer, in my early youth...there was a mental compulsion upon me in bed, to peep in at his window as the dark twin peeped, and to revisit his horrible house, and look at him in his blue and spotty and screaming stage..." He added how, the nurse or "young woman who brought me acquainted with Captain Murderer, had a fiendish enjoyment of my terrors, and used to begin, I remember--as a sort of introductory overture--by clawing the air with both hands, and uttering a long low hollow groan....I sometimes used to plead I thought I was hardly strong enough and old enough to hear the story again...But she never spared me one word of it..."

The above story of course are variants of the English tale of "Mr. Fox," and that of the famed French account of "Bluebeard," who were both cannibal bride-grooms who murdered and/or ate their wives.

One would think Dickens would have been ruined for life, but as Harry Stone says in his work, The Night Side of Dickens: Cannibalism, Passion, Necessity (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1994), Dickens consequently became, "an early devotee of the wonder-filled realms of fairy tales, folklore, and mythology," which added to his creativity as a writer (p.20).

Many such stories as the above, including publications containing Charles Dickens' story of Captain Murderer, can be found in the collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 14, 2011

An Unexpected Pennsylvania 'Haunting' in 1787: A Tale of Warning?

Since this is the month of October and close to Halloween, it's only appropriate that I relate at least a short supernatural tale. Without further introductory remarks, it's best to simply quote the article in full, as it appeared, within the published pages of the New Jersey Journal and Political Intelligencer, for September 12, 1787, which goes as follows:
"We learn from Lancaster that the following singular affair is founded on fact, and confirmed by Dr. Huston.
On the evening of the 11th ultimo, a young man having obtained information of some young women near Wright's ferry, having formed a resolution of going in the evening to a cornfield to get some roasting ears of Indian corn, resolved he would go with a white sheet about him to represent a ghost, and have some fun in scaring them; but fatal was the consequence to him; whether he saw any thing which might be permitted to chastise him for his boldness, or what incident fell out to craze his imagination we cannot tell.
But so it turned out, that after running through the fields for some hours, at last he reached a house in a manner frighted beyond description; he was immediately seized with epileptic fits, and continued to have frequent returns of them, till they put a period to his existence about the middle of last week.
Doctor Huston attended him, and says when he was not in these fits, he was always scared and imagined he saw something terrible, and cried to be taken away from him."
The above is a simple story, but perhaps it contains a warning to all those who would attempt to frighten others this coming Halloween. Yet, if one enjoys being "frighted," or frightened, as occurred in 1787, there are many photographs, diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, etc., relating to the supernatural, available within the collections, housed here within the hallowed halls, of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

Incidentally, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania will be conducting a 'Ghost Tour' of our building, as well as a short power-point presentation, relative to some of our supernatural-related materials. This will occur on Wednesday, October 26, at 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. To register for the event, click here.

Visit us, if you dare!