“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new” – Steve Jobs
Most of us are fairly incensed at the notion that we’re going to die, which is rather unreasonable of us considering its inevitability. You could be hit by a truck tomorrow. That’s not a threat. I stopped listening to the voices in my head years ago. Our species is so irritated that each of us has an unavoidable expiration date that we’ve thoroughly convinced ourselves that either death is nothingness and we won’t be there to experience it, or that some eternal afterlife exists where we can eschew some of those pesky mortal concerns and party infinitely with long-lost relatives. This is why we are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of ghosts. Even your stolid ghost-hunter approaches hauntings with some trepidation. Let’s face it, dying is hard enough. The last thing you want to do is come back and liter about insubstantially after you’ve otherwise shed all your earthly concerns. A common ghost narrative is the spirit that returns to warn us of our own impending doom. Let’s assume we tell ourselves these things for a reason. Such a macabre event superficially seems like it would be a source of terror. Personally, I think it’s about probability. We never know when we’re going to die, thus it’s the sort of thing that’s hard to prepare for. How different would we live our lives if a “best if used by” date was stamped on our foreheads. The well documented 17th century story of Lady Lee is illustrative of a ghost story told in just such a vein.
In the late 1600’s, Sir Charles Lee of Warwickshire confided the disturbing events surrounding his sole daughter’s death to the Bishop of Gloucester. “Sir Charles Lee, by his first lady, had only one daughter, of which she died in child-birth. After her death, her sister, Lady Everard desired to have the education of the child which she educated till she was marriageable; when a match was concluded for her with Sir William Perkins; but was prevented in an extraordinary manner” (Jarvis, 1823, p62-63).
A short time before Ms. Lee’s much anticipated marriage to the respectable Sir William Perkins, a union that although somewhat arranged in the finest aristocratic traditions, was also fortunately the result of reciprocal affection on the part of Ms. Lee and Sir Perkins, preternatural events would transpire that would ultimately prevent the consummation of the happy arrangement. As the bride looked forward expectantly to her wedding day, under the watchful eyes of her aunt Lady Everard, the ghost of Lady Lee’s mother would appear to her and explain her impending fate (a little odd, apart from the part about supernatural visitation, as Lady Lee had never met her mother since she died in childbirth).
One Thursday night, Miss Lee imagined that she saw a light in her chamber after she was in bed, when she rang for her maid, who presently came to her; and she asked why she left a candle burning in her chamber. The maid said she left none, and there was none, but what she brought with her at that time. She then said it was the fire; but the maid told her that was quite out, and said she believed it was only a dream. She then said it might be so, and composed herself again to sleep. About two o’clock she was awaked again, and saw the apparition of a little woman between her curtain and her pillow, who told her she was her mother; and that she was happy, and that by twelve o’clock that day she should be with her. She again rang for the maid, called for her clothes, and when dressed, went into her closet, and did not quit it till nine; when she brought out with her a letter sealed to her father, gave it to her aunt, the Lady Everard, told her what had happened, and desired that, as soon as she was dead, it might be sent to him. Her aunt, judging her to be delirious, sent to Chelmsford for a physician, who came immediately. He could discern no indication of what the lady imagined, or any indisposition; notwithstanding the lady would be bled, which was done accordingly (Timbs, 1825, p63).
Now, bleeding was pretty much the Prozac of the 17th Century, so its not unexpected that respectable physicians would have resorted to a little exsanguination when no other physical symptoms were obvious. Got to balance those humours. A curious notation in the annals of Lee family history regarding Lady Lee suggests that this was not the first time she’d peeked through the veil (of death, not matrimony).
But as some alloy to these advantages, she had derived from her mother, or from the peculiar circumstances of her birth, a mental disease that all the care of Lady Everard in her education had not been able to eradicate; indeed it had not assumed so decisive a character as to be any wise alarming till she had attained the first period of womanhood. This was a strong tendency to—shall we call it superstition ?—or shall we rather say that she was under the influence of an excitable imagination, which like some delicate instrument vibrated at the slightest touch, and gave forth a wild and almost painful music? There were times when she seemed to have glimpses of another world, the shadows of which fell upon her spirit as clear and distinct as the shadows from tree or rock upon the greensward in the summer moonlight. Many who were in the opposite extreme and had no imagination themselves, could not at all understand such a condition of mind, and held it to be very nearly allied to madness (Burke, 1850, p174).
Lady Lee took the spectral apparition rather seriously, enough to dispatch a letter to her father, meant to be unsealed at her rapidly impending death, requesting particular favors with regards to her post-mortem dispensation. So convinced of the accuracy of her undead mother’s predict on was she that she settled in, and made pious preparations for it.
And when the young woman had patiently let them do what they would with her, she desired that the chaplain might be called to read prayers; and when the prayers were ended she took her guitar and psalm-book, and sate down upon a chair without arms, and played and sung so melodiously and admirably, that her music master, who was there, admired at it. And near the stroke of twelve she rose, and sat herself down in a great chair with arms, and presently, fetching a strong breathing or two, immediately expired; and was so suddenly cold as was much wondered at by the physician and surgeon. She died at Waltham, in Essex, three miles from Chelmsford; and the letter was sent to Sir Charles, at his house in Warwickshire; but he was so afflicted with the death of his daughter, that he came not till she was buried. But when he came he caused her body to be taken up and to be buried by her mother at Edmonton, as she desired in her letter. This event occurred in 1662, and there is no record, so far as we are aware, that any later, or, indeed, any previous, supernatural manifestations took place at Lady Everard’s place (Ingram, 1884, p255-256).
Noted skeptic Samuel Hibbert-Ware (1782-1848), author of a classic treatise on the non-existence of ghosts called The Philosophy of Apparitions, concluded that Lady Lee had been the victim of that go-to favorite for unexplained Victorian deaths, “consumption”, and further suggested that the beauty of the narrative in its reinforcement of piety was the reason it was so often told for many years after Lady Lee’s death, handily ignoring the fact that Lady Lee was in relatively good health, looking forward expectantly to a marriage which she strongly desired, and that multiple physicians could find no clear indication of a physical malady.
Probably, the languishing female herself might have unintentionally contributed to the more strict verification of the ghost’s prediction. It was an extraordinary exertion which her tender frame underwent, near the expected hour of its dissolution, in order that she might retire from all her scenes of earthly enjoyment, with the dignity of a resigned Christian. And what subject can be conceived more worthy the masterly skill of the painter, than to depict a young and lovely saint, cheered with the bright prospect of futurity before her, and, ere the quivering flame of life, which, for the moment, was kindled up into a glow of holy ardour, had expired forever, sweeping the strings of the guitar with her trembling fingers, and melodiously accompanying the notes with her voice, in a hymn of praise to her heavenly Maker? Entranced with such a sight, the philosopher himself would dismiss for the time his usual cold and caviling scepticism, and, giving way to the superstitious impressions of less deliberating by-standers, partake with them in the most grateful of religious solaces, which the spectacle must have irresistibly inspired (Hibbert, 1824, p172-173).
The flaws in Hibbert’s presumptive logic, founded on nothing more that the idea that ghosts cannot exist, thus apparitions offering premonitions shortly followed by unexplained death are an impossibility, fill in the narrative gaps by inventing details that explain the occurrence through the confluence of a presumed madness, undetected consumptive illness, and coincidental death after a delusional vision. That’s parsimony for you. Ockham is turning in his grave.
On the other hand, it may be very reasonably asked, why the opinion of the two medical practitioners are so peremptorily called in question? The opinion of Dr. Hibbert plainly is, that the youthful female was in the last stage of consumption; and he quotes a few lines of poetry, applicable enough had it really been a case of that description, but tending to no proof whatever. And why assert that she was consumptive, even unto death? So far from there being any corroborative, presumptive, or even remote proof of this, it may safely be affirmed that the very reverse was the fact. Is it likely that a “young and lovely female,” in her rank of life, being an only and beloved child, should fall a victim, an unperceived victim, to such an insidious disease without notice? For it does not appear that there was any previous medical advice, or occasion for it (Past Feelings Renovated, 1828, p69).
I’m far less concerned with the qualifications of 17th Century physicians or the redactions of Victorian skeptics than I am with why we would tell ourselves such a ghost story. It seems that it handily offers an answer to the age old question of, “if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?”
Burke, J. Bernard Sir, 1814-1892. Anecdotes of the Aristocracy: And Episodes of Ancestral Story: Second Series. London: E. Churton, 1850.
Hibbert, Samuel, 1782-1848. Sketches of the Philosophy of Apparitions: Or, An Attempt to Trace Such Illusions to Their Physical Causes. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd; [etc., etc.], 1824.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes And Family Traditions of Great Britain. London: W.H. Allen & co., 1884.
Jarvis, T. M.. Accredited Ghost Stories. London: J. Andrews, 1823.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. Signs Before Death, And Authenticated Apparitions: In One Hundred Narratives. London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1825.
Past Feelings Renovated, Or, Ideas Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Hibbert’s Philosophy of Apparitions / Written With the View of Counteracting Any Sentiments Approcaching Materialism, Which That Work, However Unintentional On the Part of the Author, May Have a Tendency to Produce. London: G.B. Whittaker, 1828.