Henry Brougham served as Lord Chancellor of Great Britain from 1830 to 1834, under Earl Grey. A level-headed statesman, he seems an unlikely character to have had a ghostly encounter, but American writer Henry Addington Bruce related the true story of The Ghost Seen by Lord Brougham in his 1908 book Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters.
It is comparatively easy, when seated before a roaring fire in a well-lighted room, to sneer ghosts out of existence, and roundly affirm that they are without exception the fanciful products of a heated imagination. But the matter takes on a very different complexion, when in that same room and without so much as the opening of a door, one is unexpectedly confronted by the figure of an absent friend, who, it subsequently appears, is about that time breathing his last in another part of the world. Especially would it seem impossible to remain skeptical if there existed between oneself and the friend in question a compact, drawn up years before in an access of youthful enthusiasm, binding whichever should die first to appear to the other at the moment of death.
This, as all students of ghostology are aware, has frequently been the case; and it was precisely the case with the ghost seen by the famous Lord Brougham, the brilliant and versatile Scotchman, whose astonishingly long and successful career in England as statesman, judge, lawyer, man of science, philanthropist, orator, and author won him a place among the immortals both of the Georgian and of the Victorian era.
At the time he saw the ghost he was still a young man, thinking far less of what the future might hold than of the pleasures of the present. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely subject for a ghostly experience. From his earliest youth, his father, a most matter of fact person, sedulously endeavored to impress him with the belief that the only spirits deserving of the name were those which came in oddly labeled bottles; and in support of this view the elder Brougham frequently related the adventures of sundry persons of his acquaintance who had engaged in the mischievous pastime of ghost hunting. Added to the natural effect of such tales as these was the inherent exuberance of Brougham’s disposition and the bent of his mind to mathematics and kindred exact sciences.
It was at the Edinburgh high school that he first met his future ghost, who at the time was a youngster like himself, and became and long remained his most intimate friend. The two lads were graduated together from the high school, and together matriculated into the university, where, in the intervals Brougham could spare from his favorite studies and recreations, and from the company of the daredevil students with whom he soon began to associate, they continued their old time walks and talks.
On one of these walks, the conversation happened to turn to the perennial problem of life beyond the grave and the possibility of the dead communicating with the living Brougham, mindful of the views maintained by his father, doubtless treated the subject lightly, if not scoffingly; but one word led to another, until finally, in what he afterward described as a moment of folly, he covenanted with his friend that whichever of them should happen to pass from earth first would, if it were at all possible, show himself in spirit to the other, and thus prove beyond peradventure that the soul of man survived the death of the body.
So far as Brougham was concerned, this undertaking was speedily forgotten in the pressure of the many activities into which he plunged with all the ardor of his impetuous nature. His days were given wholly to the pursuit of knowledge; his nights to the pursuit of pleasure, as pleasure was then counted by the roystering young Scotchmen, whose favorite resort was the tavern, and whose most popular pastime was filching signs, bell handles, and knockers, and stirring the city guard to unwonted energy. Under such conditions neither the death pact nor the solemn minded youth with whom he had made it could remain long in his memory; and it is not surprising to find that with the end of college life and the removal of his boyhood’s friend to India, where he entered the civil service, they soon became as strangers to each other.
Brougham himself remained in Edinburgh to read for the law, and incidentally to develop with the aid of an amateur debating society the oratorical talents that were in time to make him the logical successor of Pitt, Fox, and Burke in the House of Commons. He continued none the less a lover of pleasure, some of which, however, he now took in the healthy form of long walking trips through the Highlands. In this way he acquired a desire for travel, and when, in the autumn of 1799, an opportunity came for an extended tour of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, he grasped it eagerly. Together with the future diplomat, Lord Stuart of Rothsay, then plain Charles Stuart and the boon companion of many a pedestrian excursion, he sailed for Copenhagen late in September, and by leisurely stages made his way thence to Stockholm, alive to all the varied interests of the novel scenes in which he found himself; but encountering little that was exciting or adventurous, until, after a prolonged sojourn in the Swedish capital and a brief visit to Goteborg, he started for Norway.
By this time the weather had turned so cold that the travelers resolved to bring their tour to a sudden end, and to press on as rapidly as the bad roads would permit to some Norwegian port, where they hoped to find a ship that would carry them back to Scotland. Accordingly, leaving Goteborg early in the morning of December 19, they journeyed steadily until after midnight, when they came to an inn that seemed to promise comfortable sleeping accommodations. Stuart lost no time in going to bed; but Brougham decided to wait until a hot bath could be prepared for him.
Plunging into it, and forgetful of everything save the warmth that was doubly welcome after the cold of the long drive, he suddenly became aware that he was not alone in the room. No door had opened, not a footstep had been heard; but in the light of the flickering candles he plainly saw the figure of a man seated in the chair on which he had carelessly thrown his clothes. And this figure he instantly recognized as that of his early playmate, the forgotten chum who, as he well knew, had years before gone from the land of the heather to the land of the blazing sun. Yet here he sat, in the quaintly furnished sleeping chamber of a Swedish roadside inn, gazing composedly at his astounded friend. At once there flashed into Brougham’s mind remembrance of the death pact, and he leaped from the bath, only to lose all consciousness and fall headlong to the floor. When he revived, the apparition had disappeared.
There was little sleep for the hard headed Scotchman that night. The vision had been too definite, the shock too intense. But, dressing, he sat down and strove to debate the matter in the light of cold reason. He must, he argued, have dozed off in the bath and experienced a strange dream. To be sure, he had not been thinking of his old comrade, and for years had had no communication with him. Nor had anything taken place during the tour to bring to memory either him or any member of his family, or to turn Brougham’s mind to thoughts of India. Still, he found it impossible to believe that he had seen a ghost. At most, he reiterated to himself, it could have been nothing more than an exceptionally clear cut dream. And to this opinion he stubbornly adhered, notwithstanding the receipt, soon after his return to Edinburgh, of a letter from India announcing the death of the friend who had been so mysteriously recalled to his recollection, and giving December 19 as the date of death. More than sixty years later we find him, in his autobiography commenting, on the experience anew, granting that it was a strange coincidence but refusing to admit that it was anything more than the coincidence of a dream.
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. Normal service (journals and snippets) will be resumed in November. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen.