When an early 18th Century French book named Drelincourt on Death was translated into English for publication, Daniel Defoe was asked to contribute a preface. What he wrote was claimed to be a true story concerning a ghostly encounter. George Cruikshank, in his 1863 work A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, paraphrases the story very well, and tackles the real ‘truth’ behind the story.
Mrs. Veal and Mrs. Bargrave, it appears, were intimate friends. One day at twelve o’clock at noon, when Mrs. B. was sitting alone, Mrs. Veal entered the room, dressed in a “riding habit,” hat, etc., as if going a journey. Mrs. Bargrave advanced to welcome her friend, and was going to salute her, and their lips almost touched, but Mrs. V. held back her head and passing her hand before her face, said, “I am not very well to-day;” and avoided the salute. In the course of a long talk which they had, Mrs. Veal strongly recommends Drelincourt’s Book on Death to Mrs. Bargrave, and occasionally “claps her hand upon her knee, in great earnestness.” Mrs. Veal had been subject to fits, and she asks if Mrs. Bargrave does not think she is “mightily impaired by her fits?” Mrs. B.’s reply was, “No! I think you look as well as ever I knew you;” and during the conversation she took hold of Mrs. Veal’s gown several times, and commended it. Mrs. V. told her it was a “scoured silk” and newly made up. Mrs. Veal at length took her departure, but stood at the street door some short time, in the face of the beast market; this was Saturday the market-day. She then went from Mrs. B., who saw her walk in her view, till a turning interrupted the sight of her; this was three quarters after one o’clock. Mrs. Veal had died that very day at noon!!! at Dover, which is about twenty miles from Canterbury.
Some surprise was expressed to Mrs. Bargrave, about the fact of her feeling the gown, but she said she was quite sure that she felt the gown. It was a striped silk, and Mrs. Veal had never been seen in such a dress; but such a one was found in her wardrobe after her decease.
This story made a great sensation at the time it was published; and “Drelincourt on Death,” with the Preface and Defoe’s tale, became exceedingly popular.
The absurdities and impossibilities of the foregoing narrative of this apparition of Mrs. Veal need not be pointed out; but the story is introduced here for two reasons; one of which will be explained further on, and the other is to show how the public have been imposed upon with these short stories.
It has all along boon known to the literary world that this “true Relation” was a falsehood, and brought forward under the following circumstances:
Mr. Midwinter, who published the translation of “Drelincourt on Death,” finding that the work did not sell, complained of this to Defoe, and asked him if he could not write some preface or introduction to the work for the purpose of calling the attention of the public to this rather uninviting subject. Defoe undertook to do so, and produced this story about the ghost of Mrs. Veal. The gullibility of the public was much greater at that time than now, and they would then swallow anything in the shape of a ghost; a great sensation was created, and the publisher’s purpose was answered, as the work had an extraordinary sale; but one cannot help expressing a very deep regret that the author of “Robinson Crusoe” should have so degraded his talent, by thus deliberately foisting upon the public a gross and mischievous falsehood as a veritable truth; and, worse than this, guilty of bringing in the most sacred names upon one of the most solemn subjects which the mind of man can contemplate, for the purpose of supporting and propagating a falsehood for a mercenary purpose.
In the lead-up to Halloween, I am presenting a ‘Creepy History’ series. 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.