“Is it still okay to make fun of schizophrenics? There’s a little voice in my head that says no” – Dana Gould
There are too many needy ghosts out there whining about the injustices us mere mortals are wont to commit, asking us to find property deeds they stashed away, revealing where they buried their treasure so their orphans will be cared for, and pointing their insubstantial, yet accusatory fingers at their murderers or other folks that did them wrong while they were alive. Oh, they haunt the site of their execution or emotional trauma, throw a few dishes when someone moves into their former home, and generally make themselves a nuisance, steadfastly refusing to ever behave usefully and appear irrefutably on reality television. No manners among most of the dead. Then again, they’re dead. Look where manners got them. Or rather, what observance of friendly social norms failed to prevent. My theory is that most ghosts, just like their previous mortal incarnations are vain, self-centered, and incredibly narcissistic. Not stunningly modest like you and me. The fact that most ghosts are overly concerned with throwing infantile tantrums or at minimum ensuring we remember them fondly may very well be the best evidence of the survival of the human soul. Thus, it’s long past time to give a shout out to those anonymous, disembodied voices that want nothing more than to save you from imminent death. An illustrative case can be found at the close of the 17th Century, where one such auditory apparition intervened to prevent a nautical catastrophe, and try not to assume that insurance agents also have an afterlife.
In 1694, British Merchant Captain Thomas Rodgers of the hardy vessel Society, set out lightly-loaded on a voyage from London to Tidewater, Virginia to pick up a few hundred tons of tobacco on what was initially an uneventful passage. The captain and crew were veteran seamen, there was plenty of grog, and the expectation of the availability of good smokes on the return voyage. About 345 miles (100 nautical leagues) off the Virginia coast, everything seemed to be ship-shape and “Bristol fashion”, keeping in mind that in the 17th Century, navigation was not the tidy, globally-positioned affair it is nowadays.
They had a pretty good passage, and the day before had made an observation, when the mates and officers brought their books and cast up their reckonings with the captain, to see how near they were to the coast of America, They all agreed that they were at least about a hundred leagues from the capes of Virginia. Upon these customary reckonings, and heaving the lead, and finding no ground at an hundred fathoms, they set the watch, and the captain turned in to bed. The weather was good, a moderate gale of wind blew fair for the coast; so that the ship might have run about twelve or fifteen leagues in the night, after the captain was in his cabin. He fell asleep, and slept very soundly for about three hours, when he waked again, and lay till he heard his second mate turn out, and relieve the watch; he then called his chief mate, as he was going off from the watch, and asked him how all things fared: who answered, that all was well, and the gale freshened, and they ran at a great rate; but it was a fair wind, and a fine clear night: the captain then went to sleep again. About an hour after he had been asleep again, he dreamed that a man pulled him, and waked him, and bade him turn out and look abroad. He, however, lay still and went to sleep, and was suddenly awaked again, and thus several times; and though he knew not what was the reason, yet he found it impossible to go to sleep; and still he heard the vision say, turn out and look abroad. He lay in this uneasiness nearly two hours: but at last it increased so, that he could lie no longer, but got up, put on his watch gown, and came out upon the quarter-deck; there he found his second mate walking about, and the boatswain upon the forecastle, the night being fine and clear, a fair wind, and all well as before. The mate wondering to see him, at first did not know him; but calling, Who is there? The captain answered, and the mate returned, Who, the captain! What is the matter, Sir? The captain said, I don’t know; but I have been very uneasy these two hours, and somebody bade me turn out, and look abroad, though I know not what can be the meaning of it. How does the ship cape? said the captain. South-west by south, answered the mate; fair for the coast, and the wind east by north. That is good, said the captain ; and after some other questions, he turned about to go back to his cabin, when, somebody stood by him and said, “heave the lead, heave the lead!” Upon this, he turned again to his second mate, saying when did you heave the lead? What water had you? About an hour ago, replied the mate, sixty fathom. Heave again, said the captain. There is no occasion, Sir, said the mate; but if you please it shall be done. Accordingly a hand was called, and the lead being cast or heaved, they had ground at eleven fathom. This surprised them all, but much more when at the next cast, it came up seven fathoms (Timbs, 1825, p136-138).
The famed English writer Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) is said to have spoken to his contemporary, the good Captain Rodgers himself, copying down the details of what happened next.
Upon this the captain in a fright bade them put the helm a lee, and about ship, all hands being ordered to back the sails, as is usual in such cases. The proper orders being obeyed, the ship stayed presently, and came about; and when she was about, before the sails ﬁlled, she had but four fathoms and a half water under her stern; as soon as she ﬁlled and stood off, they had seven fathom again, and at the next cast eleven fathom, and-so on to twenty fathom; so he stood off to seaward all the rest of the watch, to get into deep water, till daybreak; when being a clear morning, there were the capes of Virginia and all the coast of America in fair view under their stern, and but a very few leagues’ distance: had they stood on but one cable’s length further, as they were going, they had been bump ashore (so the sailors call it) and had certainly lost their ship, if not their lives. Now, what could this be? Not the Devil, that we may vouch for him, he would hardly be guilty of doing so much good; hardly an angel sent from heaven express, that we dare not presume; but that it was the work of a waking providence, by some invisible agent employed for that occasion, who took sleep from the captain’s eyes, as once in a case of inﬁnitely more importance was done to king Ahasuerus; this we may conclude. Had the captain slept as usual, and as nature required, they had been all lost; the shore being ﬂat at a great distance, and, as I suppose, the tide low, the ship had been aground in an instant, and the sea, which run high, would have broke over her, and soon have dashed her in pieces (Defoe, 1840, p213-216).
The disembodied voice gave no clue as to its identity, offered no back-story, nor inclined itself to share any information whatsoever, save the fact that the Society was nearing certain destruction.
Had they stood-on but one cable-length further, as they were going, they would have been ashore, and certainly lost their ship, if not their lives—all through the erroneous reckonings of the previous day. Who or what was it that waked the captain and bade him save the ship? That he has never been able to tell!” (Carrington, 1915, p75).
Would that all the disembodied voices in our heads were so helpful, yet in our compulsion to piece together a narrative that would justify a visitation from the afterlife, we often cater to our own vanity, assuming that we ourselves are important enough to merit the attentions of a phantasm, and that we require adequate dramatic explanation for why our precious sleep has been interrupted. I say, if a ghost wants to tell you his story, be suspicious of the details. If an anonymous voice suggests navigational corrections without explanation, it’s probably wise to double-check your heading. We’re so used to tales of disgruntled ghosts returning for justice, perhaps we’ve neglected the vast majority of the undead, that is, the happy ghosts who want for nothing and feel no need to overtly demand the recognition they never received in life. As author Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island said, “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world”.
Carrington, Hereward, 1880-1959. True Ghost Stories. New York: J.S. Ogilvie, 1915.
Defoe, Daniel, 1661?-1731. The History And Reality of Apparitions. Oxford: D. A. Talboys, for Thomas Tegg, 1840.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. Signs Before Death, And Authenticated Apparitions: In One Hundred Narratives. London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1825.
The Terrific Register: Or, Record of Crimes, Judgments, Providences, And Calamities. London: Sherwood, Jones, and Co., 1825.
Longman, Charles James. “At the Sign of the Ship”. Longman’s Magazine v29. Green and Company, 1897.