Ghosts, murders and providence

   Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.

   Speak; I am bound to hear.

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away…
            … List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love —

   O God!

   Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.


(Hamlet, Act I Scene 5.)

Hamlet’s father was merely the most famous of many early modern ghosts who manifested themselves in order to reveal the dreadful truth of a murder concealed and to demand revenge or justice. It was a familiar theme of murder pamphlets and ballads (see Malcolm Gaskill and Vanessa McMahon).

Avenging ghosts could take a variety of forms: usually the murder victim him/herself, although it was not unknown for a murderer’s ghost to confess his or her crimes. As in the case of Hamlet, some appeared to their close relatives or friends. In a late eighteenth-century ballad, a young sailor was murdered at the order of his lover’s father, but he appeared in the night to tell her the truth:

Your cruel parents have been my undoing,
  And now I sleep in a watery tomb

She was so distraught that she drowned herself, and on learning of this, the boatswain whom her father had used to kill the young man was “struck with horror” and “did confess the fact he had done”.

Other victim ghosts tormented the murderer, as in a seventeenth-century ballad about a man who murdered his lover:

Sometimes her bleeding Ghost in flames appear’d
Saying, You shall not boast that you are clear’d,
   Who wrought my fatal Fall,
   For Vengeance still I call,
Alive or dead you shall have your reward. [Gaskill, p.218, reg. required.]

These ghosts represented a ubiquitous theme in cheap print about murder I’ve mentioned before, that of providentialism: God would intervene, sooner or later, to bring concealed murders to light. And He could do it in some mighty mysterious ways.

Such ghosts didn’t appear only in sensationalist cheap print, however. A number of diarists recorded cases of killers confessing to crimes because they had been tormented by the ghosts of their victims. We rational modern folk might smile and assume these were hallucinations and/or nightmares arising from guilt, but more detached witnesses sometimes claimed to have seen the ghosts of murder victims. So, a case from the Northern Assize circuit:

In 1660 Robert Hope of Appleby (Westmorland) informed a JP that he was being pursued by the ghost of Robert Parkin. When, standing in the parish church, Hope had “charge[d] the spiritt what was the reason it did soe molest him, it replyed I am murdered I am murdered I am murdered”. When Hope asked “was it by any man, it replyed noe, & thereupon he desired it to goe to its rest for when he came before the Justices he would divulge it to them”… [Gaskill, p. 231.]

Gaskill argues that this sort of testimony was intended to persuade officials, to kick-start an official investigation into local suspicions, and in this case it worked. (Unfortunately Gaskill doesn’t say what the final outcome of the case was. If no more substantial evidence were produced, a guilty verdict at trial would seem highly unlikely.) Ghosts and dreams were useful in enabling the witness to “impart knowledge about murders without attracting suspicion about either its veracity, or how it came to be acquired” (p.233). But of course, that could only be effective in a cultural context in which belief in ghosts was widely shared – including amongst the gentlemen who served as justices of the peace and coroners.

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4 Responses to Ghosts, murders and providence

  1. Kristine says:

    I’m getting in a ghostly mood for Halloween! I’ve added some notes on ghosts, crime and the theatre on my blog. I’m not sure if I agree with Gaskill’s argument on the function of ghosts as kick-starting investigations into old murders, though. His line of reasoning seems to imply that people would consciously use a ghost story in order to anonymously tip off the authorities. To me this sounds a bit like a modern rationalisation of the belief in ghosts, or am I misreading Gaskill?

  2. Sharon says:

    He’s treading a very fine line. He wants to take the beliefs seriously as a social/cultural phenomenon, but nonetheless as a modern secular person, he almost certainly starts from the assumption that there really could not have been a ghost. Even if he didn’t, it’s certainly not an explanation that can be used by a historian who wants to be taken seriously. In other words, at some point, he has no choice but to rationalise it: the witness could have dreamt/hallucinated the encounter with the ‘ghost’ and then told it as though it had been a waking event, or the witness made it up altogether, but the encounter simply can’t have ‘really’ happened.

    But the decision to invent such a story in the exceptional circumstances of a suspected murder doesn’t imply that that witness didn’t sincerely believe in ghosts. To the contrary, Gaskill would argue (I think): the particular choice of story in such a serious context in fact tells us something important about the depth and nature of ghost beliefs. That follows from the more general argument through the book that since witnesses’ goals are to persuade decision-makers of their own convictions, they have to choose plausible ways of presenting their knowledge (and their opinions). What they say has to seem at least possible (better still probable, and best of all convincing) to magistrates, coroners, judges and juries.

    PS: Like your post!

  3. Pingback: alun » Carnivalesque IX: The past is back to haunt you

  4. sharon says:

    From Gill Spraggs: Ghostly Evidence.

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