Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/The Sampford Ghost

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IN 1810, considerable commotion was caused by the rumour that spread concerning a house in Sampford Peverell reputed to be haunted. The house belonged to a Mr. Tally, who let it to a Mr. Chave, son of a well-to-do yeoman of the neighbourhood, for a general shop and residence. The rumours reached the ears of the Rev. C. Colton, M.A., a clergyman at Tiverton, and he visited Sampford to investigate the matter, and wrote his experiences to the editor of the Taunton Courier on 18 August. The tone of the letter is frank and sincere.

"I am well aware that all who know me would not require the sanction of an oath, but as I am now addressing the public, I must consider myself before a tribunal of which my acquaintance constitutes a very small part. And first, I depose that after six nights at Mr. Chave's house, and with a mind perfectly unprejudiced, after the most minute investigation and closest inspection of the premises, I am utterly unable to account for any of the phenomena.

"I further depose, that in my visits to Mr. Chave's house, I never had any other motive, direct or indirect, but an earnest wish to trace these phenomena to their true and legitimate cause. Also that I have in every instance found the people of the house most willing and ready to contribute everything in their power to cooperate with me in the detection of the cause of these unaccountable sights and violent blows and sounds. Also, that I have affixed a seal with a crest to every door, cavity, etc., in the house, through which any communication could be carried—that this seal was applied to each end of sundry pieces of paper in such a manner that the slightest attempt to open such doors, or pass such cavities, must have broken these papers—that none of these papers were deranged or broken; and also, that the phenomena that night were as unaccountable as ever.

"Also, that it appears that this plot, if it be a plot, hath been carried on for many months, that it must be in the hands of more than fifty people, that the present owner is losing the value of his house, the tenant the customers of his shop, whom fear now prevents from visiting it after sunset."

To this and more, Mr. Colton took oath before B. Wood, Master in Chancery, Tiverton.

This letter was animadverted upon by the editor and by writers to the Taunton Courier, as dealing in general, and giving no details.

To this Mr. Colton (14 September) replied, giving particulars of what he had seen and heard.

The house rented by Chave had for some time been looked upon as haunted. An apprentice boy lodging in it had been frightened by the apparition of a woman. Persons passing at night had seen strange lights in the windows. Mr. Colton goes on to say:—

"Rather more than four months ago, this house became extremely troublesome. The inhabitants were alarmed in the following manner: noises and blows by day were heard extremely loud, in every apartment of the house. On going upstairs and stamping on any of the boards of the floor, in any room, say five or six times, corresponding blows, generally louder, and more in number, would be instantly returned. The vibration of the boards caused by the violence of these blows would be sensibly felt through a shoe or boot. Observe, the floors underneath which these noises were heard are all of them immediately over rooms that are ceiled. An effect not to be produced by any blows on the ceiling was that the dust was thrown up from such boards as were beaten with such velocity as to affect the eyes of the spectators.

"At midday the cause of these effects would announce its approach by amazing and loud knockings in some apartment or other of the house, above stairs or below, as might happen. The moment they were heard, any person on ascending the stairs, and stamping with the feet, would be answered somewhat louder; and then, what is extremely curious, these noises would absolutely follow the persons through any of the upper apartments. The joists and beams of the flooring opposed not the slightest obstacle to its progress. Walls it would penetrate with equal facility, as was manifest by its following any person into different apartments.

"These phenomena by day continued almost incessantly for about five weeks, when they gradually gave place to others still more curious and alarming, which succeeded at night. There are two apartments in this house—one within the other. In this room there is but one door, not a single cupboard, and one very small chimney. The walls are of stone, the flooring of new deal, extremely close, and not covered by a carpet. There is one large modern window in the room. There is no visible access to this room but through another, in which they who wish to satisfy their curiosity constantly sit. The partition is thin, there is also a window in it (it is of lath and plaster). In the room where strangers sit, there is also one door only; and there is a kind of landing-room at the top of the stairs opposite to this door."

In the further room the servant-maids were sent to sleep. These were now violently beaten, during the night, producing bruises and swellings. Those who sat in the outer room could hear the blows being administered. Mr. Colton went into the inner room and stood by the bed where the maids were, and heard the blows rained on them. When he cried for a light, it was brought in, but no person could be seen by him who could have administered these blows.

The next phenomenon was this, not witnessed by Mr. Colton. He says: "Mr. Chave, of Mere, no relation at all to Mr. Chave who rents the house, can swear to the following fact. Sitting up to hear and see these phenomena, he was alarmed by one or two loud shrieks; on rushing into the room his course at the threshold of the door was arrested by the following phenomenon. Every curtain of that bed was agitated and the knots thrown and whirled about with such rapidity, all at the same time, that it would have been by no means pleasant to have been in their vortex, or within the sphere of their action." The moon at the time was full, and was shining into the room.

"This scene, accompanied with such a violent noise of the rings as could not have been exceeded by four persons stationed one at each curtain for the purpose, continued for about two minutes, when it concluded with a noise resembling the tearing of a sheet from top to bottom. Candles were then instantly produced, and many rents, one very large one across the grain of strong new cotton curtains, were discovered." Mr. Colton, however, on other occasions professes to have seen the curtains violently agitated and a heavy Greek Testament placed on the bed flung across the room. But it is worth noticing that these things only took place when the women were in the bed, and never when the candle was in the room. The maids now pretended to be so frightened that they dared no longer sleep in their room, whereupon Mr. and Mrs. Chave allowed them to remove into their apartment. The noises followed them, an iron candlestick was flung across the room at Mr. Chave's head. Another significant matter noted by Mr. Colton, was that the maids after one of these violent exhibitions were found bathed in perspiration, the drops rolling from their brows.

Such is a brief summary of Mr. Colton's narrative. It called forth a pamphlet by Mr. Marriott, the editor of the Taunton Courier, that had been prompted by Mr. Tally who was much annoyed at the probable depreciation of the value of his house, and who gave notice to Mr. Chave to quit it.

Mr. Marriott was doubtless right in his conjecture that there was a plot among the servants, and that it was they who produced the phenomena. He conjectured that the raps were dealt by a mop-stick at the ceiling below the floors that seemed to be struck. He pointed out that there were marks on the ceiling as if the mop-stick had been so used, and he intimated that the set of hauntings was due to Mr. Chave trying by this means to avenge a quarrel he had had with his landlord over a bill.

To this Mr. Colton promptly replied, that it was true that there was a mop-stick in the house, but that by means of the mop-stick the sounds heard and the vibration of the boards casting up dust could not have been effected. He and others had tried, and the marks observed on the ceiling were caused by these trials. As to the quarrel over a bill, it had not occurred. It was not to Mr. Chave's interest to give the house a bad name, for he had but recently rented and fitted it up, and it would be an inconvenience to him to move; moreover, these supernatural phenomena were doing him much harm, in injuring his business.

Mr. Colton now added further mysterious sights, but they rested on nothing better than the testimony of the maids. One had seen a white hand come out from under the bed, another had seen a livid arm hanging down from the ceiling.

There can, I think, be little doubt that it was not Mr. Chave, but the servant-maids who managed the whole series of phenomena. These knockings could easily be transmitted through boards, and the curtains tossed about, and books and candlesticks flung across the room, by having horsehair attached to them. That is the true secret of the Poltergeist manifestations in England, France, and Germany.

The authorities are:—

"Sampford Ghost. A Plain and Authentic Narrative of those Extraordinary Occurrences, etc., by the Rev. C. Colton, M.A., Reg. Col. Soc., Tiverton " (1810).

"Sampford Ghost!!! A Full Account of the Conspiracy at Sampford Peverell, near Tiverton; Containing the Particulars of the Pretended Visitations of the Monster. Taunton, 1810." (This by Marriott.)

"Sampford Ghost. Stubborn Facts against Vague Assertions, etc., by the Rev. C. Colton, M.A., Reg. Col. Soc., Tiverton" (1810). Answer to Mr. Marriott.

"Sampford Ghost! Facts Attested and Delivered to the Public Relative to these Extraordinary Occurrences, etc., by the Rev. C. Colton. … London (n.d.)."