Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A return from the threshold

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VIII (1862-1863)
A return from the threshold
by George Lumley


Doctor Dampier’s compliments, and he will be obliged if you will send him word whether you will give him what he has written to ask you for.”

In the dull light which was reflected from the staircase on the landing at the entrance to my chambers it was not possible for me to see the speaker’s face; but there was something in the sound of his voice which struck me with a kind of terror; it was as though I was listening to a voice from another world. So forcible was the shock that I drew back with a kind of fear from the speaker, and even hesitated for an instant to take the letter from his hand, although the person he named was one well known to me. Thinking that this feeling could only arise from the excited state of my mind, I took the letter from his hand, and, unlocking the door, I told him to come in. There was a fire burning in the grate, which lighted the room a little, and as a heavy rain was falling, and had been falling for some time, I said, “How long have you been waiting? Are you wet?”

“Nearly an hour,” was the reply; “but I don’t mind the wet.”

It was the same slow, even voice which seemed to come to me from the darkness of the grave, and I felt the same creeping sensation of horror which had attacked me when he spoke to me outside my door. Snatching up a piece of paper from my table, I took the lamp from the mantel-piece and hastily lighted it, keeping my back towards the speaker that he might not perceive my agitation. With a sudden determination I turned and held the lamp at arm’s length, so that it threw its light full on the messenger’s face. Apart from the expression of the countenance, which was stern, and as firmly set as though it were carved in stone, and of itself calculated to make a profound impression on all who looked at it, there was that in the eyes which no human being could fathom. They might belong to a man who had at one time committed a murder, and who was continually on the watch to see if any person who spoke to him suspected the crime of which he had been guilty. Such I have seen; but these to me shone from the deep hollows of the bloodless countenance with a far more appalling intelligence. There was in them an expression of recognition of myself; and in my own mind I recognised him, but always as one who had passed into another stage of existence. By a strong effort I said:

“You say you bring this from Doctor Dampier. Do you know me? Where have I seen you before?”

Without answering my question he pointed to the note I held in my hand. I felt that I could not read the note with any understanding of its contents; so, motioning towards the door, I told him to tell Dr. Dampier I felt too unwell to answer his note that evening, but that I would send an answer the following day. I held the door open, and listened to him as he descended the staircase with a step which sounded slow, even, and solemn as his voice. I waited two or three minutes till I thought he had reached a distance which would prevent me from overtaking him; then thrusting the letter into my pocket I turned out the lamp, shut the door, and left for a friend’s house, resolved not to enter my chambers again that night.

As soon as I found myself seated beside my friend at his fireside I recovered my spirits, and taking out the letter, read as follows:

My dear Mr. Hensman,

“Will you have the kindness to furnish me, at your leisure, with a full report of the case of Samuel Calcraft, in which you were engaged.

I prefer making this request to you rather than to the attorney who prepared the case for his defence, because, as you prosecuted him in your official capacity, no person will be able or likely to wish to throw doubt on your statement.

“I do not require your statement for present use, but eventually I shall do so in the interests of humanity; I shall, however, have no objection to reveal the reason to you on receiving your promise that you will not divulge what I tell you till the occurrence of an event which may be still distant.

“Very truly yours,
J. Dampier.

I had scarcely run my eye over this note before I understood the cause of my emotion on hearing and seeing his messenger; and to make this understood, I will relate the case of the Samuel Calcraft referred to in his letter.

In April of the year 1833, the town and neighbourhood of Hystos, U.S., was the scene of one of the worst crimes which it is in the power of a human being to perpetrate. The person murdered was named Exton, a man well-stricken in years, of a most estimable character, the principal leader, and most frequently the pastor, of the religious congregation to which he belonged. Respected by all, whether members of the same sect or not, on account of his thorough conscientiousness, his store was the source from which the greater part of the population of the town and country for miles round derived their supply of articles of all kinds. On the 27th of May, 1832, he was guilty of a weakness which somewhat lowered the respect in which he had been hitherto held by the female members of his congregation: he married the daughter of a settler who used generally to come with her father to his store when he had occasion to renew his supplies of tea, sugar, and so forth. Nothing was known in the town to the detriment of or in favour of the girl; it was her extreme youth which was the ground of objection to her. Shortly after their marriage it began to be rumoured about that Exton was not happy in his married life; and this, in consequence of the violence of his wife’s character, soon became so notorious that the strongest of his admirers among the women did not hesitate to express their sympathy in his affliction by low groans and other ejaculations whenever, in the course of his praying or preaching, he made any allusion which could be twisted into a reference to the thorn in his flesh. Manifestations of this kind were perfectly understood by his wife, who thenceforth entirely absented herself from any place of worship, and expressed her hatred of her husband on several occasions. The reason of this enmity was a mystery to everybody, Exton being a man of an uncomplaining disposition, who never spoke of his domestic troubles, or encouraged even his oldest friends to allude to them in his presence.

On the 5th of April, 1833, he presided at the meeting of his co-religionists, and at its conclusion received a pressing invitation to drive to a farm belonging to a man named Joynson, about three miles from the town, and remain there till the morning; there being a party there to celebrate the birth of the farmer’s first son. Refusing the invitation, Exton shook hands with those about him, and walked away in the direction of his house. This was the last time he was seen alive by them. Early the following morning a rumour flew through the town with the speed of electricity that Isaiah Exton had been found murdered on the floor of his bedroom. The houses were soon emptied of their inhabitants, all of whom proceeded towards Exton’s store to satisfy themselves of the truth of the rumour, and to gratify that mysterious inclination of humanity to look upon a place which has been the scene on which a human soul has been violently expelled from its earthly sanctuary. The rumour proved true enough; the unfortunate Exton had no doubt been killed, and that, too, only after a struggle of more than ordinary persistency, as was shown by the state of the body and the condition of the room.

There was no proof that the unfortunate man had been robbed, though his wife asserted that a bag containing a large sum in gold had been taken from a drawer in his bedroom. The regard in which he was held by his fellow-citizens made them positive that he had no enemy among them, and the person generally suspected of having had a share in his destruction was his wife; from suspicion they very soon passed to an assumption of her guilt; but as they could not believe her capable of committing the deed with her own hand, they supposed she had an accomplice; and who this could be was a mystery they were never tired of discussing. In due course an inquest was held on the body, at which Jane Burton, one of the servants, stated that she had for some time past noticed a great intimacy between her mistress and a porter named Samuel Calcraft employed in the store, that on several occasions she had seen him coming from the room in which his mistress was, and where he had no business to be, and that on these occasions he had always been much confused on seeing her, and had induced her to promise that she would say nothing about it, promising that he would tell her some day why he went there, which he never had done.

Suspicion having been thus directed towards the porter, the desire for a victim was so great that the discovery of a knife belonging to him covered with rust, assumed to be caused by blood, was considered sufficient evidence on which to commit him to take his trial for the murder of his master. In the interval between his committal and his trial other suspicious circumstances were discovered affecting him, namely, a purse which was found in his chest, and identified as his master’s, in which was a considerable sum for a man in his position; also a watch which had been seen in Exton’s possession on the eve of his death by several persons, and a miniature portrait of his mother enclosed in a silver case curiously chased, which the deceased was known to value very highly. People being thus satisfied that he was the actual murderer, were unremitting in their endeavours to get him to criminate his mistress. Every inducement it was in their power to offer him they offered. Promises to exert the influence of the whole town in saving his life on the ground that by reason of his youth he had fallen a victim to her wiles were made, but all were of no avail in bringing about the result they desired; the most he could be induced to say was that she had once or twice spoken of her husband in a way which he had told her was not right, and that for some time she had not uttered a word to him on the subject, though he knew from the women-servants they lived apart. His assertions were disbelieved by all; but as there was not a tittle of evidence against Mrs. Exton, she was allowed to remain at large, though she might almost as well have been in prison in solitary confinement, seeing that nobody would associate with her, or even speak to her. As for the store, that had to be shut up, not a customer having entered it to make a purchase since the murder of its proprietor.

On the day of the trial of Samuel Calcraft the town was thoroughly emptied of its inhabitants. The prisoner, when placed in the dock, became terribly agitated, and looked as though he would fall to the ground, and whispers reached me which showed that this was taken as further evidence of his guilt, though it did not appear to me at all surprising, considering his youth and the consciousness that most, if not all, of those present knew him, and believed him guilty of the murder.

It was my duty to put the case before the jury in the strongest light which the evidence appeared to me capable of sustaining. I had no personal feeling against the prisoner, of course, and it was rather from habit than design that I wove the evidence against him into my address in such a manner that even a jury altogether unprejudiced might have been induced to convict him. I looked at him as I finished my speech, and I shall never forget the expression of utter despair and horror with which he was regarding me, and which awoke in me a keener sense of the responsibility attaching to my office than I had ever felt before. His counsel had little to say in his defence. The only explanation he had to offer was that Calcraft had certainly had interviews, apparently mysterious, with his mistress, but that this was only for the purpose of conveying spirits to her, which she drank in large quantities without wishing anybody to know that she did so, and that this was the reason why he had made Jane Burton promise not to speak about having seen him. The knife he admitted was his, but asserted that it had grown rusty merely from want of use. The miniature he averred had been given to the prisoner by his master in order that he might clean the case, on the day preceding the murder, and he had put it in his room for safety’s sake. The purse he said had been given him by his master, and the money contained in it was his own savings. As for the watch, he denied most solemnly that he had put it where it had been found, or that he knew anything about it; and asserted that somebody must have put it in his chest after he was locked up.

I will not venture to say that the judge had formed a preconceived opinion of the prisoner’s guilt, or that he was influenced by the general desire to avenge the death of a man so deservedly esteemed as Exton, but he certainly summed up the case in a manner which I could not think impartial; I was not therefore surprised, knowing what I did of the public feeling respecting the case, when the jury returned a verdict of Guilty.

Sentence of death having been pronounced, the prisoner was carried out of court senseless.

It was in conducting this case that I first became acquainted with Dr. Dampier. We spent the evening together after the trial at his house, and I was very deeply interested in his discourse, especially in some of his theories touching life and death. The criminal trials and civil causes were so unusually numerous, that I had not left the town when the day arrived for the execution of the convicted murderer of Mr. Exton. On the morning of his execution he sent for me, and though I would have made any reasonable sacrifice to have avoided complying with his request, I could not under the circumstances refuse to go to him. I found that all he wanted of me was to beseech me to save his life. I told him I had no power whatever in the matter, that it was not to me he should appeal. He declared, in language which made those who heard it shudder, that he was innocent; and when they began urging him towards the scaffold, he turned towards me, and with a countenance stern in its expression and deadly pale, said: “You are my murderer, and if a murdered man can haunt you, I will.” And so he passed away to his death, and I into the official apartments to hear a case and give a gratuitous opinion concerning it. When I left about three quarters of an hour afterwards I looked up and saw the body still hanging.

The man who brought me the note from Dr. Dampier was Samuel Calcraft.

Having written for Dr. Dampier the statement for which he asked, I sent it to his house, and in return requested he would call upon me and give me the explanation he had promised. It was not long before he did so, and having received from me a promise that I would not divulge what he told me, I received from him the following statement:—

“You will, perhaps, remember that in the course of the conversation we had on the evening you dined at my house I mentioned some opinions concerning the length of time during which vitality might still remain in the human body after it had ceased to give any outward sign of its existence, and the result of some experiments I made with animals which had to all appearance been suffocated. As the opportunity of making such experiments with human beings seldom occurs, I determined to spare no pains to get possession of the body of Samuel Calcraft, and by means it is not necessary to describe, his body came to me, and his coffin with its substitute went the ordinary course, so that within two hours of his being strangled, his inanimate body was drawn from a sack which had been placed among a waggonload of faggots, driven by myself from the vicinity of the prison, while the owner of the vehicle was gone to get me change for a note with which to pay for the wood.

“I had a fire ready lighted beneath a large sand bath I had contrived in my laboratory, and having locked the door, I laid the to all appearance dead body in it, and carefully covered it with sand, the thermometer on being plunged in it marking 80°. There was not the slightest sign of life, the skin was cold, and the members already rigid. As soon as I had thus prepared the body, I inserted two small tubes in the nostrils connected with a large bladder of ammoniacal gas, of which I had several in readiness, and pressing gently on the bladder, I gradually forced the gas it contained into the lungs, from which I as gently expelled it. I had previously buried the wires from a galvanic battery of moderate power in the sand, the points lying beneath the base of the skull and the lower part of the spine. For upwards of an hour I continued to force the gas into the lungs and expel it by pressure without discovering any returning signs of life on which I could rely: the very slight warmth I could detect in the forehead on laying my cheek against it being as likely to arise from the transmission of heat from the sand as from the returning vital force; nevertheless, I determined to persevere till there was no room left for hope. By-and-by I imagined I could detect a slight clamminess on the skin, the sand no longer slipped away from it as from a piece of marble. Hardly daring to hope that this indicated that life was not yet extinct, and yet almost trembling with excitement, I controlled myself, and continued my efforts with the same steadiness. After many minutes of that intense anxiety which few beside the experimental chemist ever experience, I had no longer any doubt—a faint, a very faint, but distinctly perceptible movement of the heart was evident. By slow degrees it increased in force, and I thought it prudent to abandon the use of the ammoniacal gas for a time and substitute for it atmospheric air. The immediate result was a diminution in the strength of the pulsation, but by assisting the action of the lungs mechanically, this was restored again, and henceforward I only resorted to the gas occasionally, and then only for a few instants at a time. I no longer regarded the time; I continued my efforts; my whole mind was so absorbed in what I was doing that I felt no bodily sensation, neither fatigue, hunger, nor thirst; it must however have been several hours before there was the least sign that the patient had recovered consciousness. The first symptom was a twitching of the nostrils, followed by a similar movement of the corners of the mouth. The next indication I perceived was an attempt to raise the eyelids, and after many ineffectual efforts he succeeded. The instant he raised the lids I looked eagerly into his eyes to see their expression, and note his sensations on returning to life from death, as far as it was possible to read them therein. You have seen him, and have probably remarked the extraordinary depth and mystery of his look. Well, that same unfathomable look met mine then; it never changes, never varies.

“As soon as he was able to move his tongue, I raised his head slightly and dropped a little brandy and water on it. After a prolonged administration of this stimulant, other symptoms of a return to life were exhibited, the relation of which can only be interesting to medical men; let it suffice to say, that I had no longer any doubt of the ultimate recovery of my patient.

“My first questions, when he had slept and eaten, had reference to his bodily sensations at the instant of and after his suspension. He describes them as merely a sharp pricking over his body from head to foot, which was the last thing of which he was conscious: his return to life was like a long nightmare. But beyond this, I am convinced he was conscious of something which has no earthly connection. I am not influenced in this opinion by anything he has said, for whenever I have questioned him, he is as silent as a statue: it is from that unearthly, never-changing look of his, accompanied by an absence of animation, and apparently utter insensibility to everything we regard as painful or annoying.

“His execution took place eleven months ago, as you no doubt remember. For several weeks afterwards he remained locked up in my laboratory, till I thought it safe to send him here, to New Orleans, to my brother, who is as thoroughly satisfied of his innocence of the murder as I am; for I am convinced that he would not have denied his guilt to me on his restoration to life, if he had committed the deed.”

I did not see the doctor again after this, but I presume he returned to the place whence he had come. You know how men whose time is fully occupied go on year after year without seeing an acquaintance living in the same city, unless they meet by accident. This was my case and that of Mr. Dampier, the doctor’s brother. About five or six years ago he called on me, to ask me to take proceedings to enforce payment of an insurance on his brother’s life; not the doctor’s, but another brother who was a travelling preacher, or something of that kind. The mention of his brother’s name, caused me to ask if Samuel Calcraft was with him still, when he told me that his innocence had been established years before; “but,” he added, “it was such an extraordinary business altogether, that I will, if you wish it, write to my brother, and ask him to send you a full account of the affair!” Here is the letter I received, you can read it. It relates one of those remarkable cases which have given rise to the saying that murder will out; one of the greatest fallacies ever uttered, as I can testify from my own experience.

My dear Mr. Hensman,

“At my brother’s desire I send you an account of my discovery of the actual murderer of poor Exton, indeed I should have done so at the time, if I had not supposed that you would see an account of it in the newspapers.

“Shortly after I saw you last, I had occasion to visit a friend named Penton, who, it turned out, occupied a considerable extent of land joining that belonging to old Sangster, Mary Exton’s father, though I was not aware of it till afterwards. One day, while strolling about, I got on this man’s estate at no great distance from his house. You are aware of my habit of studying every manifestation of life. Well, on this day, I was looking for objects near a ditch, when I chanced to see some pieces of charred bone lying about among the grass. Without the most distant idea of the discovery this was destined to lead to, I picked up one piece, then another, and another; in short, I became satisfied that the bones were fragments of a human being. I now got interested in the matter, and jumped into the ditch, which happened to be dry just then, and stirring up the dry dirt at the bottom with my heel, I found other things which had passed through the fire, viz.: teeth, buttons, and, most important of all, a belt clasp of a very peculiar design, which said more for the maker’s mythological knowledge, than for the delicacy or purity of his taste. Putting the latter in my pocket, with as many of the teeth, and buttons, and charred bones as I thought necessary to establish the fact of their having formed part of a human being, I returned to my friend Penton. On showing him the buckle, and asking him if he had ever seen it before, he immediately said: ‘To be sure I have. It belonged to Joel Singleton.’—‘And who was Joel Singleton?’ I asked.—‘Joel Singleton,’ he replied, ‘was a fellow of no very good repute. He was a horse-dealer on his own account sometimes, besides working for the worthy Mr. Sangster as a woodman, an occupation which some said he engaged in for the sake of being with Mary Sangster, the young woman poor Exton married.’—‘Then, I suppose, when she married Exton he went away?’—‘Not at all, he was with Exton for at least a year afterwards; and there were rumours about, that if Mary could have had her way, she would have preferred him to Exton for her husband, in spite of his loose habits.’—‘Do you know where he went to when he did leave?’—‘No, he went away very suddenly, and Sangster said he had gone to—to California or Texas, I don’t exactly remember which.’—‘Well,’ said I, ‘it strikes me that he went to neither place. Look here! these bones are human bones, they have been in the fire, and so has this buckle, and as I found them all together, it is only reasonable to imagine that the bones belonged to the owner of the buckle, rather than to anybody else.’—‘Why, you surely don’t suppose that the fellow was burnt?’—‘Seeing that somebody has been burnt, it seems to me only rational to suppose that he was the person. At all events, the matter must be inquired into,’ I answered.

“The next day I went to the district judge, and told him of the affair. I need not go into details with you, as you will understand all that was done in the way of search, and so forth. The upshot of the whole was that Sangster, now a very old man, was taken into custody, and lodged in prison. The evidence was so purely circumstantial, that I do not think he would have been convicted if he had been tried, but he never was, for nature stepped in, and placed him beyond the reach of the law. When he was convinced that he could not live many hours, he sent for me, and made the following confession in my presence:—

‘Joel Singleton was the murderer of Mr. Exton. I am not going to tell you anything more about that affair, and so it is of no use to ask me any questions. I knew that he was the murderer, and he knew that I knew it, and if I had not killed him, he would have killed me; and, besides that there was the temptation of a bag of gold he stole at the same time. I had only one man about the place, and I picked a quarrel with him, and kicked him out there and then. That night Joel’s chance of disposing of me was lost.


‘I got rid of his body and clothes in the way you imagine, and threw the ashes into the ditch where you found them. May God forgive us all!’

“This settled the question of poor Calcraft’s innocence, and I went directly to New Orleans, to consult him as to what he wished should be done. He did not appear at all interested, and left it to me to do what I thought proper. As one instance does not establish a rule, I have not mentioned the restoration of Calcraft to anybody beside you and my brother, and I have not had an opportunity of repeating the experiment; but as there have been several cases of horse-stealing about here lately, and Judge Lynch has been using threatening language, there is a possibility that I may be able to renew it, and I have no doubt with equal success.

“Yours, &c.,
J. Dampier.

Such was the narrative which occupied an evening on board the Great Eastern.