“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” – Henry David Thoreau
Ah, conscience. Sorely lacking these days where we’ve institutionalized the ends justifying the meanness. Shakespeare’s Richard III best encapsulated the modern attitude towards the dictates of conscience when he said, “Conscience is but a word that cowards use; devised at first to keep the strong in awe; Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law. March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell; If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell”. The question that has long bothered philosophers is whether we are naturally moral creatures. The fact that we need laws and religion, that is, the threat of divine or terrestrial retribution to keep us in line tends to suggest that absent external controlling factors at the forefront of our consciousness, we have a strong inclination to go buck wild, knock people over the head for their chicken nuggets, sleep with animals, and dump toxins in the rivers. This obviously makes civilization a kind of “outsourced” morality that can substitute for individualized conscience. Of course, to some folks that means anything goes as long as you don’t get caught, or can find an acceptable loophole. This is where ghosts come in handy to remind us of those mortal sins that escaped the notice of gods and men. Pay-Seargent Jarvis Matcham of the British Army’s 49th Regiment of Foot (infantry first raised in 1743) discovered this the hard way.
Employment as an 18th Century pay-sergeant in the British Service was a pretty good gig, compared to your average redcoat. There were a lot of ways to get flogged or killed. The Jacobites were getting uppity in 1745. The Seven Years War was raging between 1756-1763. Those American colonials were making noise about tea prices from 1775-1783. Basically, there were a lot of ways to get bushwacked when you enlisted in the infantry. Apparently, embezzlement was not particularly uncommon among pay-sergeants, but if you were good at your job, the higher-ups were willing to look the other way. While Jarvis Matcham ultimately ended up with his head in the noose, his corpse boldly displayed as a warning to all others who might meditate on murder most foul, the essential quality of his character is a matter of some dispute. Some maintain Matcham “was so highly esteemed as a steady and accurate man, that he was permitted opportunity to embezzle a considerable part of the money lodged in his hands for pay of soldiers, bounty of recruits, and other charges which fell within his duty” (Day, 1848, p58). This may seem like faint praise, but was likely standard operating procedure for a military that still used press-gangs as a viable recruitment strategy. Clearly, a sign of superior accounting skills was the ability to skim a bit off the top without attracting too much attention. Still others suggest Matcham was an ill-tempered drunkard, quick to violence in the face of criticism, but we strongly suspect they were teetotalers evincing hard evidence of “sour grapes”.
The motive that compelled Matcham to murder the seventeen-year old William Jones, drummer boy for the 49th Regiment of Foot are similarly obscure. The most popular version of the tale suggests that, “He was summoned to join his regiment from a town where he had been on the recruiting service, and this perhaps under some shade of suspicion. Matcham perceived discovery was at hand, and would have deserted, had it not been for the presence of a little drummer lad, who was the only one of his party appointed to attend him. In the desperation of his crime, he resolved to murder the poor boy, and avail himself of some balance of money to make his escape. He meditated this wickedness the more readily, that the drummer, he thought, had been put as a spy on him” (Scott, 1830, p367-370). English Clergyman and novelist Cuthbert Bede and the famous Walter Scott took a grimmer view of Matcham’s character and ascribed more trifling motivations.
He enlisted into a regiment then quartered in Huntingdonshire that, after he had been in the regiment about three weeks, he was travelling upon the turnpike road about four miles from Huntingdon with a drummer (named William Jones), about seventeen years of age, the son of a sergeant of the regiment; when words arising, in consequence of the boy’s refusing to return and drink at a publichouse they had passed, he murdered the unfortunate youth by cutting his throat with a clasp-knife; that he took from his pocket about six guineas in gold, which had been entrusted to him by the commanding officer [Major Reynolds of Diddington] for his father, the Sergeant [for subsistence and recruiting money]; that he left the body on the road and made the best of his way to London.
In fear of the dire repercussions for the murder of the drummer boy, Jarvis Matcham decided he better cover up the evidence and hit the road, in the grand tradition of going on the lam. Later literary embellishments place the site of the murder on the Salisbury plain, but it appears that the dastardly deed was done in Huntingdonshire.
After cruelly butchering the poor boy, and concealing his body, he changed his dress for one of disguise, and made a long walk across the country to an inn on the Portsmouth road, where he halted, and went to bed, desiring to be called when the first Portsmouth coach came. The waiter summoned him accordingly: but long after remembered, that when he shook the guest by the shoulder, his first words as he awoke were, “My God! I did not kill him!” Matcham went to the seaport by the coach, and instantly entered as an able-bodied landsman on board a vessel (Day, 1848, p58-59).
Matcham was no slouch, despite his homicidal inclinations and questionable fiduciary practices, so he quickly impressed the naval officers on those ships that he sailed in making his escape with his diligence. “His sobriety and attention to duty gained him the same good opinion of the officers in his new service which he had enjoyed in the army. He was afloat for several years, and behaved remarkably well in some actions. At length the vessel came into Plymouth, and was paid off, and some of the crew, amongst whom was Jarvis Matcham, were dismissed as too old for service” (Brierre de Boismont , 1859, p308-309). Matcham and a fellow sailor set out on foot, travelling from Plymouth to Salisbury, resolved to look for new employment. And that’s when the past came back to haunt him.
It was on Thursday, 15th June 1786, that two sailors, paid off from H.M.S. Sampson, at Plymouth, and walking up to London, came to this spot. Their names were Gervase (or Jarvis) Matcham, and John Shepherd. Near the ‘Woodyates Inn’ they were over-taken by a thunderstorm, in which Matcham startled his companion by showing extraordinary marks of horror and distraction, running about, falling on his knees, and imploring mercy of some invisible enemy (Harper, 1899, p241-242).
Apparently, this strange storm was characterized by such vivid lightning and dreadfully loud thunder that it seemed a tad unnatural, but even so, Matcham “expressed more terror than seemed natural for one who was familiar with the war of elements, and began to look and talk so wildly, that his companion became aware that something more than usual was the matter” (Day, 1848, p58-59). At first reticent to enlighten his travelling companion as to the source of his bizarre behavior, he eventually explained what he was seeing.
To his companion’s questions he answered that he saw several strange and dismal spectres, particularly one in the shape of a female, towards which he advanced, when it instantly sank into the earth, and a large stone rose up in its place. Other large stones also rolled upon the ground before him, and came dashing against his feet (Harper, 1899, p241-242).
But Matcham’s preternatural torment did not end with these strange apparitions.
At length Matcham complained to his companion that the stones rose from the road and flew after him. He desired the man to walk on the other side of the highway, to see if they would follow him when he was alone. The sailor complied, and Jarvis Matcham complained that the stones still flew after him, and did not pursue the other. “But what is worse,” he added, coming up to his companion, and whispering, with a tone of mystery and fear, “who is that little drummer boy, and what business has he to follow us so closely?”—” I can see no one,” answered the seaman, infected by the superstition of his associate. “What! not see that little boy with the bloody pantaloons!” exclaimed the secret murderer, so much to the terror of his comrade, that he conjured him, if he had anything on his mind, to make a clear conscience as far as confession could do it. The criminal fetched a deep groan, and declared that he was unable longer to endure the life which he had led for years. He then confessed the murder of the drummer, and added, that as a considerable reward had been offered, he wished his comrade to deliver him up to the magistrates of Salisbury, as he would desire a shipmate to profit by his fate, which he was now convinced was inevitable (Scott, 1830, p367-370).
His companion, Sheppard objected to proceeding with surrender to the magistrates, as despite the confession, Matcham had been a pretty stand-up guy ever since. Matcham was undeterred from this course of action. Upon arrival in Salisbury, they proceeded directly to the authorities. A contemporary record noted the bizarre circumstances.
On the 16th June a man went before J. Easton, Esq. Mayor of Salisbury, and voluntarily declared, that he murdered a Drummer of the name of Jones about seven years ago. Since that time he had been in various employments as a Sailor, and in France, the West Indies, Russia, etc. that he was last on board the Sampson Man of War, lying off Plymouth, whence he and his companion John Sheppard, a native of the Soks, in Winchester, were lately discharged. He declared, that excepting this murder, he had at no time of his life done any injury to society: That on Thursday the 15th upon the road to Salisbury, they were overtaken near Woodyate’s Inn by a thunderstorm, in which he saw several strange and dismal spectres, particularly one in the appearance of a female, to which he made up, when it instantly, sunk, into the earth, and a large stone rose up in its place; that the stone rolled upon the ground before him, and often came dashing against his feet. Sheppard corroborated this part of the story, so far as relates to the horror of the unhappy man. He persisting in the truth of his confession, was committed to the town jail, and will take his trial at the ensuing Huntingdon assizes. At the assizes held at Huntingdon on Monday, July 31, Jarvis Matcham was capitally convicted for the willful murder of Benjamin Jones, a lad, drummer in the 49th regiment of foot, on the 19th day of August 1780, and ordered for execution on Wednesday last. During the time the above criminal was in confinement, his behaviour was truly penitential and the morning before the poor unhappy wretch, was executed, he received the holy sacrament; humbly begged of God that all who were present might take warning by his unhappy fate. At ten o’clock on Wednesday morning he was carried from the gaol to the place of execution, where he spent some time in prayer, continually to the last moment calling on God and the Lord Jesus for mercy. He was launched into eternity amidst a Luge concourse of people assembled there on the occasion. After hanging the usual time his body was cut down and carried to the parish of Alconbury, there to be hung in chains near the spot where the horrid deed was committed (Murray, 1786, p155).
Even murderers get immortalized by poets, particularly when the details are so titillating. Poets are all about the titillating. And just in case anyone wondered if this was all just fantasy or poetic license, there is a letter from the Earl of Sandwich confirming that they found the body of the drummer boy. “A letter from the Earl of Sandwich to the mayor of Salisbury stated, that the body of the drummer was found at a place called Weybridge, between Bugden and Alconbury, in the great North Road, within four miles of Huntingdon” (Notes and Queries, 1865, p541-542).
Alconbury, four miles northwest from Huntingdon. Here is the well-known Alconbury Hill” on the great coaching road to the north. A short distance south of the village is Matcham’s gibbet, where was executed Jarvis Matcham, whose murder of Jones, a drummer-boy, on the 19th August 1780, and his subsequent execution on the 2nd August 1786, is the theme of Barham’s poem “The Dead Drummer of Salisbury Plain” in the Ingoldsby Legends (Noble, 1911, p133).
Ghosts are obviously a wonderful literary device to demonstrate the psychological manifestation of guilt (Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, just to mention the Shakespearean variations), but is it such a stretch to imagine in a world where we have externalized our conscience to such a degree, that perhaps our conscience resents having to work so hard independently? Personally, if I were a conscience I’d be throwing up my hands and engaging in a little physical manifestation out of pique. Tragically, we have a hard time defining conscience, it being such a culturally rooted phenomena bouncing around in our heads. No wonder we’re haunted, for as poet Ogden Nash observed, “There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all”.
Brierre de Boismont, Alexandre-Jacques-François, 1798-1881. On Hallucinations: a History And Explanation of Apparitions, Visions, Dreams, Ecstasy, Magnetism, And Somnambulism. By A. Brierre De Boismont. Tr. From the French by Robert T. Hulme. London: H. Renshaw, 1859.
Day, Clarence S. Remarkable Apparitions and Ghost=stories, Or Authentic Histories of Communications (real Or Imaginary) With the Unseen World. New York: Wilson and company, 1848.
Harper, Charles G. 1863-1943. The Exeter Road: the Story of the West of England Highway. London: Chapman & Hall, 1899.
Harper, Charles George, 1863-1943. Ingoldsby Country: Literary Landmarks of the “Ingoldsby Legends”. London: Black, 1904.
Noble, W. M. 1845-1929. Huntingdonshire. Cambridge: University press, 1911.
Scott, Walter, Sir, 1771-1832. Letters On Demonology And Witchcraft: Addressed to J.G. Lockhart, Esq. London: John Murray, 1830.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. Predictions Realized In Modern Times. London: Kent, 1862.
Murray, J. ed. “Voluntary Confession of a Murder”. The Political Magazine and Parliamentary, Naval, Military, And Literary Journal v11. London: Printed for J. Bew, 1786.
E.V. “Jarvis Matcham”. Notes And Queries 3:7-8. London [etc.]: Oxford University Press [etc.], 1865.