In the first half of the eighteenth century the well-known family of Harris of Heyne were residing at their ancient seat in the county of Devon, not far from the borders of Cornwall. The family was wealthy, and their estates extended far and wide round the mansion. The head of the family at that time held a situation in the court of George II., which obliged him to reside in London during a part of the year. Travelling in those days was very different from what it is now, as may be judged from the anecdote respecting Lord Godolphin, prime minister in the reign of Queen Anne, of whom it is told that when he visited his estate in Cornwall, as the post did not then extend beyond Exeter, he was accustomed to have a private post of his own for the conveyance of despatches into the far west once a week, and his neighbours used to assemble in his hall for the purpose of hearing the news from London read out pro bono publico.
When the time of his attendance at court arrived, Mr. Harris was accustomed to move the greater part of his establishment to London, leaving behind a few servants only, under the charge of one Richard Morris, who had been long in the family as head butler.
In the year 1730, when Mr. Harris was in London, he received a letter from his confidential servant, informing him that the house had been broken into at night, and that a lad who had lately been taken into service had mysteriously disappeared. Mr. Harris immediately left London for his seat in Devonshire, and on his arrival was told that no alarm had been given on the night of the robbery until the morning, when a window opening on the lawn was discovered to have been broken through, and footstep marks discovered outside. Morris, the butler, was found in the plate-room half dressed, tied to a table, and with a gag in his mouth. His own account of the robbery was that having been roused by some noise in the middle of the night, he had got up and gone down to the plate-room, the door of which had been previously forced, that he was there seized, gagged, and bound before he could escape, or even call for help; and that there were five or six men altogether, none of whom he recognised, except the lad lately taken into service, who had disappeared since that night.
In those days there were no telegraph wires, no means by which a criminal fleeing from the scene of his crime could be outstripped by that wondrous machinery which elicited the remark of the silent traveller, “Them’s the cords that hung John Tawell;” and no detective or rural police. A week had elapsed before Mr. Harris could reach his home. In the meanwhile, the village constables had attempted to trace out the robbers, but without success. No clue to the missing plate or the thieves could be discovered. After making a careful and strict search of the premises, Mr. Harris returned to his court duties in town, giving up all hope of finding either his lost property or the criminals.
Some six months passed away before Mr. Harris again visited his country seat, where he was received by Morris, and found everything in its usual state, nothing more having been ascertained about the robbery. Tired with his long journey from town, Mr. Harris retired early to bed, and soon fell into a sound sleep.
In the middle of the night he suddenly awoke — as he himself was always wont to declare on relating the incident, he was in an instant thoroughly wide awake, how or why he never could explain — and he saw by the light of a small lamp burning in his room the lad who had disappeared on the night when the plate was stolen, standing at the foot of the bed. Mr. Harris asked what he wanted at that time of night; the boy beckoned to him, but made no reply. Again he asked him for what purpose he had come, and again the boy beckoned to him and pointed to the door.
Mr. Harris was as devoid of fear as most men; so he rose from his bed, partly dressed himself, took his sword under his arm, and then followed the lad, still beckoning and pointing with his arm out of the room. His own statement subsequently of his feelings was that he was in doubt as to whether the lad was alive or an apparition, that he felt no fear, but only a strong desire and determination to see the matter to an end. The two went down the staircase, and through a side door, which Mr. Harris remembers to have been to his astonishment unlocked and open, they passed into the park.
The lad led the way for about a hundred yards towards a very large oak, the trunk of which was surrounded and almost hidden by low shrubs and bushes, which had been allowed to grow wild from time immemorial. Here the lad stopped, pointed to the ground with his forefinger, and then seemed to pass towards the other side of the tree. It was not a dark night, and when Mr. Harris followed, as he immediately did, the lad had vanished from his sight. It seemed useless to search for him; and after a little while Mr. Harris returned to the house, fastened the door as he let himself in, and went to his room for the remainder of the night.
Before the dawn he had resolved on his course of action, and having made his arrangements, he first had the butler, Richard Morris, taken into custody. He then set workmen to dig round the oak tree, who after a short search came upon the body of the lad, buried in his clothes, scarcely a foot below the surface. It was evident that his death was occasioned by strangulation, as the cord was still fastened tightly round his neck.
The butler, after attempting at first to deny having had any hand in the business, soon made a confession of the whole affair. He had two accomplices to help him in the robbery, who had carried off the stolen plate to Plymouth, but being interrupted by the lad whilst removing it, they had murdered him, and buried his body under the tree, where it was subsequently discovered in the way related above. They then proceeded to tie and gag the butler, as he was found in the pantry. The murderers were never traced, and so escaped the penalty of their crime; but Morris, the butler, was tried at the ensuing Exeter assizes, and having pleaded guilty, was condemned and executed.
The details given above were mentioned at the trial of Richard Morris, as explaining the cause of his being suspected and of his subsequent arrest. Mr. Harris always avowed most solemnly the reality of the apparition, and that he had actually gone out of the house in the dead of night, and accompanied the spirit of the murdered lad to the very spot where he had been buried. Though all who are disbelievers in supernatural appearances will readily attribute it to the effect of a dream, this plausible theory will not account for the fact of the place where the lad was buried having been so quickly found.
If you found this interesting, please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.