“Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia” – Charles M. Schulz
British explorer of New South Wales, Captain Charles Sturt (1795-1869) once pointed out that “In a colony constituted like that of New South Wales, the proportion of crime must of course be great”. Thus, one would expect an abundance of examples of the world’s oldest profession. Prostitution? No, I mean murder over real estate. It’s really the number one reason primates kill each other. In fact, the entire history of our species is arguably one endless, speculative land grab. We’ve refined our technique a little bit over the years, but the essential strategy of clubbing our neighbors over the head and divvying up their pastures, wives, and worldly goods has remained an eternal theme. Not that I’m trying to start a fight, but keep that in mind when the guy next door wants to borrow your ladder or chainsaw. As a rule, I remain suspicious whenever anybody wants to borrow a chainsaw. It’s relatively hard to prepare yourself against Mongol hordes, unruly Visigoths, or colonial empires that intend to liberate you from your possessions, ransack your cities, and sell you off into slavery. Those are the kind of social forces outside your control. You just suck it up and hope the reservation isn’t too dry and dusty. Think locally, not globally. The dude over the next hill wants your stuff. And he never liked you anyway. You will inevitably be murdered for your fifty acres and a mule. Sorry, them’s the breaks. The best you can do is have a good haunting strategy to ensure someone eventually hangs from the gibbet for their homicidal efforts. Study up on the spectral activities of 19th Century farmer Fisher in Penrith, Australia, who efficiently got his phantasm on in order to see a little justice done.
In the colony of New South Wales, at a place called Penrith, distant from Sydney about thirty-seven miles, lived a farmer named Fisher. He was unmarried, about forty-five years old, and his lands and stock were worth not less than £4000. Suddenly Fisher disappeared, and a neighbour, named Smith, gave out that he had gone to England for two or three years, and produced a written document authorizing him to act as his agent during his absence. As Fisher was an eccentric man, this sudden departure did not create much surprise, and it was declared to be “exactly like him” (Radcliffe, 1854, p231).
The first lesson here is that if your neighbors find you a little odd, they might not blink an eye when you unceremoniously vanish. Consequently, you should consider establishing an afterlife buddy system. Find that one dear friend who is both receptive and can be effectively targeted for an apparitional appearance, just in case you are ushered off this mortal coil with extreme prejudice and the locals consider you strange enough to up and relocate without formal farewells. If you don’t plan for this while you’re still alive, you just make life a little more difficult once you’re dead. Or is it that you make the afterlife a little more difficult when you’re undead? Never mind. The point is, know who you will haunt in the event of your murder. Haunting your murderer is just about revenge. Haunting a potential legal witness is about justice. Luckily, Fisher, when alive, chummed around with another friendly farmer named Ben Weir.
An old man named Ben Weir, who had a small farm near that of Fisher, was returning home one night from Sydney, when he beheld farmer Fisher with a severe wound on the forehead, and blood ﬂowing from it. When Weir got within a few paces of the ﬁgure, it disappeared. He could not rightly comprehend the meaning of all this, and did not mention what he had seen, lest his neighbours would say he had been drunk. A few nights afterwards he had occasion to pass the spot where Fisher had appeared, and there again the farmer stood before him as before. Weir could not now remain silent. He went to a justice of the peace and told his tale. At ﬁrst the justice would not credit his informant, but subsequently he instructed an inquiry to be made (Grant, 1880, p294-295).
Smith of course was immediately suspected of foul play, the dubious documents making him agent for Fisher in Fisher’s extended absence notwhithstanding. The problem is that it’s darned hard to prove a nefarious conspiracy involving murder and real estate when you don’t have a body. This is an important consideration, should you find yourself unexpectedly dead. You need to let folks know where your final resting place is. Fisher’s ghost was prudently endeavoring to do this. Of course, Ben Weir was a little reticent at first to run directly to the local magistrate with tales of ghouls and ghosties, so he approached a gentlemen landowner and local notable in the neighborhood named Mr. Grafton (a former Navy lieutenant and longtime settler), explaining his phantasmagoric experiences. While Grafton was inclined to think that Weir had been hitting the bottle excessively, he nonetheless figured they should look into the matter.
A small tribe of aboriginal Australians happened to be encamped on Grafton’s land, and Grafton knew that the natives had superior tracking abilities. He enlisted the aid of one Johnny Crook (presumably not his real name), a sharp young aborigine chief who had previously assisted in hunting down an insidious band of desperate bushrangers across 27 miles of rocky terrain. The notable English author Charles Dickens eventually related the story in his weekly literary magazine Household Words.
When old Ben Weir made his appearance in the morning at Mr. Grafton’s house, the black chief, Johnny Crook, was summoned to attend. He came and brought with him several of his subjects. The party set out, old Weir showing the way. The leaves on the branches of the saplings which he had broken on the first night of seeing the ghost were withered, and sufficiently pointed out the exact rail on which the phantom was represented to have sat. There were stains upon the rail. Johnny Crook, who had then no idea of what he was required for, pronounced these stains to be “White man’s blood;” and, after searching about for some time, he pointed to a spot whereon he said a human body had been laid. In New South Wales long droughts are not very uncommon; and not a single shower of rain had fallen for seven months previously—not sufficient even to lay the dust upon the roads. In consequence of the time that had elapsed, Crook had no small difficulty to contend with; but in about two hours he succeeded in tracking the footsteps of one man to the unfrequented side of a pond at some distance. He gave it as his opinion that another man had been dragged thither. The savage walked round and round the pond, eagerly examining its borders and the sedges and weeds springing up around it. At first he seemed baffled. No clue had been washed ashore to show that anything unusual had been sunk in the pond; but, having finished this examination, he laid himself down on his face and looked keenly along the surface of the smooth and stagnant water. Presently he jumped up, uttered a cry peculiar to the natives when gratified by finding some long-sought object, clapped his hands, and, pointing to the middle of the pond to where the decomposition of some sunken substance had produced a slimy coating streaked with prismatic colours, he exclaimed, “White man’s fat!” The pond was immediately searched; and, below the spot indicated, the remains of a body were discovered. A large stone and a rotted silk handkerchief were found near the body; these had been used to sink it. That it was the body of Fisher there could be no question. It might have been identified by the teeth; but on the waistcoat there were some large brass buttons which were immediately recognised, both by Mr. Grafton and by old Ben Weir, as Fisher’s property. He had worn those buttons on his waistcoat for several years (Dickens, 1853, p9).
An inquest was held, and Thomas Smith (Fisher’s supposed agent) was brought before the court on charges of willful murder. It didn’t help his case that Smith had by then actually moved into Fisher’s former house. Smith still protested his innocence.
The day of trial came; and the court was crowded almost to suffocation. The Attorney-General very truly remarked that there were circumstances connected with the case which were without any precedent in the annals of jurisprudence. The only witnesses were old Weir and Mr. Grafton. Smith, who defended himself with great composure and ability, cross-examined them at considerable length, and with consummate skill. The prosecution having closed, Smith addressed the jury (which consisted of military officers) in his defense. He admitted that the circumstances were strong against him; but he most ingeniously proceeded to explain them. The power of attorney, which he produced, he contended had been regularly granted by Fisher, and he called several witnesses, who swore that they believed the signature to be that of the deceased. He, further, produced a will, which had been drawn up by Fisher’s attorney, and by that will Fisher had appointed Smith his sole executor, in the event of his death. He declined, he said, to throw any suspicion on Weir; but he would appeal to the common sense of the jury whether the ghost story was entitled to any credit; and, if it were not, to ask themselves why it had been invented? He alluded to the fact which in cross-examination Mr. Grafton swore to—that when the remains were first shown to him, he did not conduct himself as a guilty man would have been likely to do, although he was horror-stricken on beholding the hideous spectacle. He concluded by invoking the Almighty to bear witness that he was innocent of the diabolical crime for which he had been arraigned. The judge (the late Sir Francis Forbes) recapitulated the evidence. It was no easy matter to deal with that part of it which had reference to the apparition; and if the charge of the judge had any leaning one way or the other, it was decidedly in favor of an acquittal. The jury retired; but, after deliberating for seven hours, they returned to the court, with a verdict of Guilty (Alden, 1853, p780).
Obviously, the jury found that Smith had made himself a little too comfy on Fisher’s homestead, suggesting that he himself thought it unlikely (if not impossible) that Fisher would ever return, at least in a corporeal form. Before Smith was executed for the crime of murdering Fisher “he confessed that he, and he alone, committed the murder, and that it was upon the very rail where Weir swore that he had seen Fisher’s ghost sitting, and that he had knocked out Fisher’s brains with a tomahawk” (Radcliffe, 1854, p235). Personally, I find it wise not to make too many acquaintances who own tomahawks for precisely this reason. When all is said and done, we don’t know if Smith actually did us a favor. Perhaps Fisher was just begging for a tomahawk to the head for as Ambrose Bierce observed, all legalities aside, there are really, “four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy”.
Alden, Henry Mills, 1836-1919. “Fisher’s Ghost”. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine v6. New York: Harper & Bros, 1853.
Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870. “Fisher’s Ghost”. Household Words v7. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1853.
Grant, James. The Mysteries of All Nations: Rise And Progress of Superstition, Laws Against And Trials of Witches, Ancient And Modern Delusions, Together With Strange Customs, Fables, And Tales … Leith: Reid & son, 1880.
Radcliffe, John Netten, 1826-1884. Fiends, Ghosts, and Sprites: Including an Account of the Origin and Nature of Belief In the Supernatural. London: R. Bentley, 1854.
This is absolutely fantastic. To think that all this went down… wow. I should probably give the neighbours a Key Lime pie now and then, though.
Trying to imagine the size of a handkerchief, which could be used to tie a stone big enough to sink a man’s body in a pond . . .
Everything’s bigger in Australia…
The story of Fisher’s Ghost actually took place in Campbelltown, a town SE of Penrith. Fisher’s Ghost creek still flows there. http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/fishers_ghost_creek