All October, in the lead-up to Halloween, I will be presenting a ‘Creepy History’ series, featuring extracts from old books that have been largely forgotten. These will all be non-fiction, as the best scary fiction from the past is still popular and readily available. The following true story is from the snappily titled Apparitions, or the mystery of ghosts, hobgoblins, and haunted houses developed, being a collection of entertaining stories founded on fact and selected for the purpose of eradicating those ridiculous fears, which the ignorant, the weak, and the superstitious, are but too apt to encourage. Now there’s book title that trips off the tongue. The author was Joseph Taylor, and the book was published in 1814.
It has been remarked, that when the royal vault is opened for the interment of any of the royal family, Westminster Abbey is a place of great resort: some flock thither out of curiosity, others to indulge their solemn meditations.
By the former of these motives it was, when the royal vault was opened for the interment of her illustrious majesty Queen Caroline, that five or six gentlemen who had dined together at a tavern were drawn to visit that famous repository of the titled dead. As they descended down the steep descent, one cried — “It’s hellish dark;” another stopped his nostrils, and exclaimed against the nauseous vapour that ascended from it; all had their different sayings. But, as it is natural for such spectacles to excite some moral reflections, even with the most gay and giddy, they all returned with countenances more serious than those they had entered with.
Having agreed to pass the evening together, they all went back to the place where they dined; and the conversation turned on a future state, apparitions, and some such topics. One among them was an infidel in those matters, especially as to spirits becoming visible, and took upon him to rally the others, who seemed rather inclinable to the contrary way of thinking. As it is easier to deny than to prove, especially where those that maintain the negative will not admit any testimonies which can be brought against their own opinion, he singly held out against all they had to alledge. To end the contest, they proposed to him a wager of twenty guineas, that, as great a hero as he pretended, or really imagined himself, he had not courage enough to go alone at midnight into the vault they had seen that day. This he readily accepted, and was very merry with the thoughts of getting so much money with such ease. The money on both sides was deposited in the hands of the master of the house; and one of the vergers was sent for, whom they engaged, for a piece of gold, to attend the adventurer to the gate of the cathedral, then shut him in, and wait his return.
Every thing being thus settled, the clock no sooner struck twelve, than they all set out together; they who laid the wager being resolved not to be imposed on by his tampering with the verger. As they passed along, a scruple arose, which was, that though they saw him enter the church, how they should be convinced he went as far as the vault; but he instantly removed their doubts, by pulling out a pen-knife he had in his pocket, and saying, “This will I stick into the earth, and leave it there; and if you do not find it in the inside of the vault, I will own the wager lost.” These words left them nothing to suspect; and they agreed to wait at the door his coming out, believing he had no less stock of resolution than he had pretended: it is possible, the opinion they had of him was no more than justice.
But, whatever stock of courage he had, on his entrance into that antique and reverend pile, he no sooner found himself shut alone in it, than, as he afterwards confessed, he found a kind of shuddering all over him, which, he was sensible, proceeded from something more than the coldness of the night. Every step he took was echoed by the hollow ground; and, though it was not altogether dark, the verger having left a lamp burning just before the door that led to the chapel (otherwise it would have been impossible for him to have found the place), yet did the glimmering it gave, rather add to, than diminish, the solemn horror of every thing around.
He passed on, however; but protested, had not the shame of being laughed at, prevented him, he would have forfeited more than twice the sum he had staked to have been safe out again. At length he reached the entrance of the vault: his inward terror increased; yet, determined not to be overpowered by fear, he descended; and being come to the last stair, stooped forwards, and struck the pen-knife with his whole force into the earth. But as he was rising in order to quit so dreadful a place, he felt something pluck him forward; the apprehension he before was in, made an easy way for surprise and terror to seize on all his faculties: he lost in one instant every thing that could support him, and fell into a swoon, with his head in the vault, and part of his body on the stairs. Till after one o’clock his friends waited with some degree of patience, though they thought he paid the titled dead a much longer visit than a living man could choose. But, finding he did not come, they began to fear some accident: the verger, they found, though accustomed to the place, did not choose to go alone; they therefore went with him, preceded by a torch, which a footman belonging to one of the company had with him. They all went into the Abbey, calling, as they went, as loud as they could: no answer being made, they moved on till they came to the vault; where, looking down, they soon perceived what posture he was in. They immediately used every means they could devise for his recovery, which they soon effected.
After they got him out of the Abbey to the fresh air, he fetched two or three deep groans; and, in the greatest agitation cried, “Heaven help me! Lord have mercy upon me!” These exclamations very much surprised them; but, imagining he was not yet come perfectly to his senses, they forbore farther questions, till they had got him into the tavern, where, having placed him in a chair, they began to ask how he did, and how he came to be so indisposed. He gave them a faithful detail; and said, he should have come back with the same sentiments he went with, had not an unseen hand convinced him of the injustice of his unbelief. While he was making his narrative, one of the company saw the pen-knife sticking through the fore-lappet of his coat. He immediately conjectured the mistake; and pulling out the pen-knife before them all, cried out, “Here is the mystery discovered: for, in the attitude of stooping to stick the knife in the ground, it happened, as you see, to go through the coat; and, on your attempting to rise, the terror you were in magnified this little obstruction into an imaginary impossibility of withdrawing yourself, and had an effect on your senses before reason had time to operate.” This, which was evidently the case, set every one, except the gentleman who had suffered so much by it, into a roar of laughter. But it was not easy to draw a single smile from him: he ruminated on the affair, while his companions rallied and ridiculed this change in him: he well remembered the agitation he had been in. “Well,” replied he; when he had sufficiently recovered, “there is certainly something after death, or these strange impulses could never be. What is there in a church more than in any other building? What in darkness more than light, which in themselves should have power to raise such ideas as I have now experienced? Yes,” continued he, “I am convinced that I have been too presumptuous: and, whether spirits be or be not permitted to appear, that they exist, I ever shall believe.”