Creepy History 23. For the last Creepy History blog post we looked at a quote from At Home and Abroad, by Bayard Taylor, published in 1859. Taylor was a successful American poet, who used his earnings from his poetry to fund travels in Europe in the late 1840s. He wrote about his experiences, and his articles were published in the Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post and the United States Gazette, leading to a career working as a correspondent for the Tribune during the California gold rush. When his wide died in 1850 he threw himself into his work, but his health began to suffer, so he instead embarked upon extensive travels around the world, and his journals were published in several volumes. At Home and Abroad is a collection of anecdotes from his travels that had not featured specifically in his previous travel books. One section of the book, ‘My Supernatural Experiences’, collects together strange happenings during Taylor’s travels, such as the following creepy encounter:
One more incident, of a more decided character, closes the list of my experiences. During my last visit to London, I accepted an invitation to pass two or three days with a banker, who occupies a fine estate on the Thames, near Windsor. The house which was a palace in its extent and the character of its appointments was built by a former Earl of T- , who ruined himself in erecting it. Gardens, graperies, and a noble park, stretching along the bank of the Thames, completed the attractions of one of the loveliest places in England. When the hour for rest arrived, I was conducted to a chamber looking towards the towered entrance, and a group of magnificent cedars of Lebanon, on the lawn. The night was misty and moonless so that, after I had extinguished the candle, the room remained in almost complete darkness.
It was midnight when I went to bed; and I had slept, I suppose, until somewhere between two and three, when I suddenly awoke, and to my surprise, found that my candle was still burning. My first idea was, that I had forgotten to extinguish it. Closing my eyes, while revolving this question in my mind, I opened them again upon a room darkened as before. Through the uncurtained window, I saw the dim tops of the cedars rising against the misty November sky. At the same instant, I detected a slight noise at the door as if some one was cautiously trying to enter. But as the key was turned, the attempt was in vain; and I presently heard the same noise at the door of the adjoining dressing-room. Listening intently, I became aware of a slight creak at the door of communication between the two rooms. This was followed, not by a foot step, but by the hushed, rustling sound of a long dress trailing upon the floor. The sound marched slowly across the room, and approached the bedside, where it stopped. Then the gentlest touch as, indeed, of airy fingers drew the bed-clothes straight, and tucked the ends of the cover lids and sheets into the space between the mattress and bedstead. Meanwhile, I lay perfectly still, in a passive state of surprise and wonder.
When, however, the gentle ministry ceased, and I again caught the rustle of the trailing dress on the carpet, I sprang bolt upright in bed, and peered into the gloom, in hope of seeing the figure. But the room was a gulf of darkness, except the bit of window not covered by the cedars; and by this time the rustle had reached the dressing-room door. In a few seconds more, it had passed away completely; and, after exhausting myself in speculations as to the character of the visit, I slept. On mentioning the incident at break fast, I found that none of the guests had been disturbed; nor could I learn that anything of the kind had previously happened in the house, although one gentleman affirmed that the old mansion, which was pulled down by Lord T- before building the present one, had the reputation of being haunted.
Two different explanations occurred to me. Either the imaginative part of the brain was dreaming, while the senses were awake as in the former cases or the incident was real, and the mysterious visitor was a somnambulist possibly a housekeeper or a chambermaid, unconsciously repeating her rounds to see that everything was in order. The vision of the lighted candle must have been an illusion an instantaneous dream suggested by that electric spark of light which is sometimes struck from the eyes on opening them suddenly.
In all these experiences, notwithstanding the liveliness and permanence of the impression produced on my mind, I am fully satisfied that there was nothing whatever of a supernatural character. So long as the visible world, and the constitution of our mortal nature, furnishes us with a sufficient explanation of such phenomena, why should we lay hold upon the invisible and the immortal?
Although Taylor was “fully satisfied”, his “sufficient explanation” requires the coincidental combination of two unlikely events: a sleepwalking housekeeper and the optical illusion of a lit candle. Sometimes the rational explanation in these matters requires a greater leap of logic than the irrational!