Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/The White House

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THE WHITE HOUSE.

On the road between Raskelfe and Easingwold stood in 1623, and stands still, a lonely inn called "The White House."

The wide, brown, heathery moor called Pill-Moor then extended to the roots of the Hambledon hills; on a slight rising ground above the marshes stood here and there a farm or cottage; and here and there a portion of the soil had been enclosed. To this day a large portion of the moor remains untilled, and is a favourite resort of botanists, who find there several varieties of gentian and orchis, rare elsewhere. Originally it stretched from Borough Bridge to the Hambledons, intersected by the streams flowing into the Ouse, patched here and there with pools of water.

In the White House lived a man called Ralph Raynard, and his sister. Ralph paid his addresses to a fine-looking young woman, dark-eyed, dark-haired, who lived at Thornton Bridge, at the Red House, where the road from Brafferton or Tollerton crossed the Ouse to Topcliffe and Ripon. The old house, lonely, surrounded by trees, with traces of a moat or pond, in spring full of yellow flags, stands to this day, almost deserted. The girl was poor, and a good match was of the first advantage to her; she was at the time in service at the Red House, and thither Ralph came to visit her.

But, for some cause unknown, they quarrelled, an estrangement ensued, and Ralph came no more across Thornton Bridge.

At the same time a yeoman named Fletcher, living at Moor House, in the parish of Raskelfe, had cast his eyes on the comely young woman, and he took advantage of the rupture between the lovers to step in and offer his hand to the damsel. He was at once accepted, in a fit of resentment against Ralph Raynard, and the marriage rapidly followed; so that she soon found herself the wife of a man whom she did not love, and some miles nearer the White House, where lived Ralph, whom she did love, than when she had resided at Thornton Bridge.

The resentment she had felt died away; an explanation followed when too late. There was a scene—despair on both sides, and resentment entertained by both Ralph Raynard and Mrs. Fletcher against the unfortunate yeoman who stood between them and perfect union and happiness.

On market-day, when Mrs. Fletcher ambled on her nag into Easingwold, she invariably halted at the White House, when the hostler, one Mark Dunn, a beetle-browed, uncouth fellow from Huby, received and held her horse as she dismounted and entered the inn. Ralph, the host, was always there, and received Mrs. Fletcher with an affection which dissatisfied his sister, a woman of sense, who saw that this cherishing of an old passion could lead to no good. When Mark Dunn disappeared for hours at a time, she shrewdly suspected that he was sent on messages to Raskelfe.

More than once she interfered and rebuked Ralph, her brother, warning him of the dangerous consequences of thus encouraging the attachment of a woman now bound to another man by the most sacred ties. With an oath he bade her mind her own business, and not interfere with him.

Fletcher could not but be aware that his wife did not love him; whispers reached him that she met her old sweetheart when he was from home; that her nag was seen standing an unreasonable time outside the door of the White House. He caught Mark Dunn one evening prowling in his orchard, and he fell on him with a stick. The ungainly fellow howled with pain, and swore revenge.

Fletcher became gloomy, neglected his affairs, and began to fall into difficulties. He had been sincerely, passionately attached to the dark-eyed, handsome girl he had brought to his home. He had done his utmost to render her happy, and now she was making his home miserable, destroying the former serenity of his spirits.

He was obliged to go one day on business to Easingwold. He would not return till late. His wife knew it. Something troubled his mind. A presentiment of evil which he could not shake off hung over him, and he wrote on a sheet of paper—

"If I should be missing, or suddenly wanted be,
Mark Ralph Raynard, Mark Dunn, and mark my wife for me,"

directed it to his sister, and on reaching Easingwold, posted it.

No sooner was he gone than Mrs. Fletcher mounted her horse and rode to the White House. She asked to see Raynard, and he walked by her side some way back to Raskelfe. There they parted; and Raynard was next observed in close conversation with his hostler, Mark Dunn.

It was May-Day. In the sweet spring evening Fletcher was returning on foot from Easingwold, when he came to Daunay Bridge, where at that time a road branched off from the highway from the North to York, and traversing the Lund, led to Raskelfe. As he crossed the bridge he stood still for a moment, and looked up at the stars, just appearing. Next moment Raynard and Dunn were upon him; they had sprung from behind the bridge, and he was flung over it into the water. The stream is narrow and not deep, so that, once recovered from the shock, he could have easily crawled out. But the murderers leaped into the water after him. Mrs. Fletcher, with a long sack over her shoulder, ran out from the shadow of a bush where she had been concealed, and they held the farmer under water, the two men grasping his throat, his wife retaining his feet in the sack, into which she thrust them, till his struggles ceased, and he was, or was supposed to be, dead.

The body was then thrust into the sack which Mrs. Fletcher had brought for the purpose, and the three guilty ones assisted in carrying or dragging the body along the road towards the White House. They were alarmed once; the clatter of a horse's hoofs was heard, and they concealed themselves by the road-side. The horseman passed, they emerged from their place of hiding, and continued their course.

As they drew near to the inn a streak of light from the inn-door showed that it was open. They heard voices. The horseman had called for something to drink, and it was brought to him without his dismounting. Then Miss Raynard was heard calling, "Ralph! Ralph!" She wondered, perhaps, at his long absence, or wanted him for some purpose in the house.

No answer was returned. Raynard, Dunn, and Mrs. Fletcher lifted the body over the low hedge into Raynard's croft or garden, and buried it in a place where the ground had been disturbed that day by his having stubbed up an old root. They carefully covered the body with earth, and Raynard sowed mustard-seed over the place.

It was thought prudent that Mrs. Fletcher and Raynard should not meet after this.

People wondered what had become of Fletcher; but knowing that he was somewhat embarrassed in his circumstances, they readily accepted the statement of his wife— that he had gone out of the way to avoid having a writ served on him.

Thus matters stood till the 7th July, when Ralph Raynard rode to Topcliffe fair. It was a bright sunny day. He passed the Moor House, but did not stay there; crossed Thornton Bridge, went before the Red House, where he had so often visited and spent such happy hours with the woman who was now his accomplice in crime, along by Cundall to Topcliffe.

He dismounted at the inn there—the Angel, an old-fashioned house near the dilapidated market-cross. He led his horse out of the yard into the stable. The sun glared without; within it was dark. As he was removing the bridle from his horse, suddenly he saw standing before him the spirit of Fletcher, pale, with a phosphoric light playing about him, pointing to him, and saying, "O Ralph, Ralph! repent. Vengeance is at hand!" In an agony of horror he fled out of the stable. In the daylight without he recovered composure, and endeavoured to believe that he had been a victim to delusion. He thought he must buy some present for the woman, love for whom had led him to the commission of murder. He went to one of the stalls to buy some trinket—a chain of imitation coral beads. "How does it look on the neck?" he asked, extending it to the keeper of the stall. Then he looked up and saw a ghastly figure opposite—the dead man with the coral round his neck, knotted under his ear, and his head on one side, the eyes wide open, with a blaze in the eyes, and heard him say: "How like you a red streak round the neck such as this? I will put one round the throat of my wife; and you shall wear one too!"

Sick and faint, he hastened back to the inn, and called for beer. Towards evening he rode home. He saw as he came towards the Carr, where there is a dense clump of trees, a figure looking at him. It was deliberately getting out of a sack, and shaking and wringing water out of its clothes. With a scream of terror Raynard plunged his spurs into the horse's flanks, and galloped past Cundall, home. As he crossed Thornton Bridge he closed his eyes, but when he opened them again he saw the well-known figure of the dead man walking before him so fast that his horse could not catch him up. The ghost trailed the sack after it, and left a luminous track on the road. When it reached a point at a little distance from the White House—the very spot where Raynard, Mrs. Fletcher, and Mark Dunn had turned aside with the body—the spectre strode across the heather, leaped the low hedge, and melted, apparently, into the ground, where now a rich, green crop of mustard was growing.

"You're back earlier than I thought," said the sister of Ralph Raynard. "I reckon thou'st not been stopping this time at Moor House?"

Raynard said nothing, except "I'm ill."

"Ah," said his sister, "I've gotten thee a nice bit o' supper ready, with a beautiful dish o' salad."

And she laid the cloth, and placed upon it a plate of fresh-cut mustard!

Raynard's face grew rigid and white.

"What is the matter?" asked his sister.

Opposite him, on the settle, sat the dead man, pointing to the salad.

Ralph sprang up, drew his sister away, and told her all.

She, poor woman, horror-struck, ran off at once to Sir William Sheffield, a justice of peace, residing at Raskelfe Park. The three guilty parties were apprehended and taken to York, where, on July 28th, 1623, all three were hung.

When they had been cut down, the bodies were removed and conveyed in a waggon to the White House, the hangman seated by the driver in front. There is a little rise not far from the inn, commanding the spot where the murder was committed, and the green mustard-bed where the body of Fletcher had been hidden, but which had been removed and buried in Raskelfe churchyard. On this hill a gibbet had been erected, and there the three bodies were hung, with their faces towards the dismal flat and the gurgling stream where the murdered man had been drowned. There they hung, blown about by the autumn storms, screeched over by the ravens and magpies, baked by the summer sun, their bare scalps capped with cakes of snow in the cold winter, till they dropped upon the ground, and then the bones were buried and the gallows cut down.

About eighty years ago the plough was drawn over Gallows Hill, when a quantity of bones were unearthed by the share. They were the bones of Raynard, Dunn, and Mrs. Fletcher. The hill to this day bears its ill-omened name, and people mutter about Raskelfe the doggerel lines—

"A wooden church, a wooden steeple,
Rascally church, and rascally[1] people."


  1. Raskelfe is commonly called Rascall.