“They say that shadows of deceased ghosts do haunt the houses and the graves about, Of such whose life’s lamp went untimely out, Delighting still in their forsaken hosts” – Joshua Sylvester
The Indian Rebellion (sometimes called “The Sepoy Mutiny”) was a major uprising in British India from 1857-1858 against the rule of the British East India Company that essentially functioned as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown, and is thought of by many to be India’s First War of Independence. Although unsuccessful, it had severe repercussions, including the formal end of the Mughal Empire and the dismantlement of the British East India Company. The 75th Stirlingshire Regiment of Foot would ultimately lead a bayonet charge at the Siege of Dehli in 1857, but in 1854, a portion of the regiment was assigned to hill station Murree in the Punjab. With the 75th was a young Lieutenant (or subaltern) by the name of Richard Barter of Carrytown, County Cork, a stalwart infantry officer who would one day become General Barter and pen a well-received memoir about his adventures in India called Mutiny Memories. On a moonlight night in 1854, Lieutenant Barter would encounter a strange set of spectral travelling companions.
The Hill Station of Murree was relatively new and the majority of the regiment were quartered in temporary huts perched on the crest of a hill 7000 feet above sea-level. A few lucky officers, Lt. Barter among them, managed to rent houses from their predecessors when they took up station. Barter procured a modest hovel from a Lieutenant B. (who we are assured died not long after, as researches at the War Office prove, at Peshawar on 2nd January, 1854). In an April 28, 1888 letter, Barter himself described what he could remember of his temporary home. “This house was built on a spur jutting out from the side of the mountain and about 200 or 300 yards under the Mall, as the only road then made, which ran round the bill, was called. A bridle-path led to my house from the Mall, and this was scooped out of the hillside, the earth, etc., being shoveled over the side next to my house. The bridle-path ended at a precipice, but a few yards from where a footpath led to my hut” (Tweedale, 1921, p126). Murree would one day be a popular tourist destination for prominent Englishmen, but the area had been set up as a medical center for British Troops in 1851, the purpose it was serving when Lt. Barter arrived in 1854. Barter settled in comfortably and began entertaining friends like a proper gentleman. One evening Mr. Barter had a visit from a Mr. and Mrs. Deane, who stayed until 11 PM. There was a full moon, and Mr. Barter walked to the bridle path with his friends, who climbed it to join the road. He loitered with two dogs, smoking a cigar, and just as he turned to go home, heard a horse’s hoofs coming down the path. At a bend of the path a tall hat came into view, then round the corner, the wearer of the hat, who rode a pony and was attended by two native grooms. Barter described how the scene just kept getting weirder.
At this time the two dogs came, and crouching at my side, gave low frightened whimpers. The moon was at the full, a tropical moon, so bright that you could see to read a newspaper by its light, and I saw the party above me advance as plainly as if it were noon-day; they were above me some eight or ten feet on the bridle road. . . . On the party came…and now I had better describe them. The rider was in full dinner dress, with white waistcoat and a tall chimney-pot hat, and he sat on a powerful hill pony (dark-brown, with black mane and tail) in a listless sort of way, the reins hanging loosely from both hands.” Grooms led the pony and supported the rider. Mr. Barter, knowing that there was no place they could go to but his own house, cried Quon hai? (“Who is it?”), adding in English, “Hullo, what the devil do you want here?” The group halted, the rider gathered up the reins with both hands, and turning, showed Mr. Barter the known features of the late Lieutenant B. He was very pale, the face was a dead man’s face, he was stouter than when Mr. Barter knew him and he wore a dark Newgate fringe. Mr. Barter dashed up the bank, the earth thrown up in making the bridle path crumbled under him, he fell, scrambled on, reached the bridle path where the group had stopped, and found nobody. Mr. Barter ran up the path for a hundred yards, as nobody could go down it except over a precipice, and neither heard nor saw anything (Lang, 1899, p71-74).
The ghost had clearly dressed for dinner, and as a tux and tails can give even the most dissolute (even unto the point of death), a certain air of respectability, it seems an excellent choice for ghostly apparel. When you’re a member of the living dead, you can only do so much about the pallid skin tone, bloating corpse, and a five-o’clock shadow (it’s hard to get a good razor in the afterlife, unless you’re an Egyptian pharaoh and somebody had the good sense to bury you with the necessities). Now, Barter was no hothouse flower and resolved to make some inquiries into his phantom visitor, a gentleman with whom he had met, but was not especially familiar with, apart from living in the specter’s previous humble domicile.
Next day Mr. Barter gently led his friend Deane to talk of Lieutenant B., who said that the Lieutenant “grew very bloated before his death, and while on the sick list he allowed the fringe to grow in spite of all we could say to him, and I believe he was buried with it.” Mr. Barter then asked where he got the pony, describing it minutely. “He bought him at Peshawar, and killed him one day, riding in his reckless fashion down the hill to Trete.” Mr. Barter and his wife often heard the horse’s hoofs later, though he doubts if anyone but B. had ever ridden the bridle-path (Leadbeater, 1903, p265-267).
Barter’s encounter obviously left him puzzled, particularly since he had no direct knowledge of the dead Lieutenant’s equestrian purchases, his death, or the state of his facial hair when the Grim Reaper came to call. He had only a passing acquaintance with the man at all, which when you’re looking for a solid ghostly back-story, makes you wonder. Do some ghosts attach themselves to people, and others to places? Was Lieutenant B. finding the afterlife a tad dull, and decided he needed to get gussied up and go for a ride? The case became the subject of general discussion at an 1889 meeting of the Society for Psychical Research.
Among the cases read that which excited most comment was a narrative by General Barter, C.B., who, on a mountain path at Murree, in India, beheld a phantasmal group representing Lieutenant B. (who had been dead for some months) supported upon a pony by two syces. General Barter had been barely acquainted with Lieutenant B., but that gentleman had built the hut which General Barter was occupying, and had frequently ridden down the mountain path on a pony resembling the phantom pony seen. There were also details in the phantom’s appearance which corresponded with Lieutenant B.’s appearance when he died, though not with his appearance when General Barter knew him. Mr. Bidder, Q.C., commenting on this and on the other cases cited by Mr. Myers, remarked that there seemed to be an important difference between apparitions occurring at the time of death and those occurring some time afterwards. Those occurring at death were mainly personal; they were observed, that is to say, by friends of the dying person, on whose minds he might naturally desire to produce an effect. But the cases which had been read that night were all of them more or less local in character; that is to say, the apparition was observed by persons who were strangers, or nearly so, to the deceased, but in some place in which the deceased had lived or died, and which might, therefore, have an interest for him which the stranger who happened to be present in that place could not possess (SPR, 1889, p52).
There are very few advantages to being a ghost. There’s a lot of unceremonious rotting, chain-rattling, and lurking about the places one used to love when they were alive, but that doesn’t mean you need to be unfashionable. Whether ghosts have some objective existence or they are figments of our own confused consciousness, as Donatella Versace said, “Fashion is about dreaming and making other people dream”. I hope somebody remembers to pack my top hat in the coffin.
Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912. The Book of Dreams and Ghosts. New impression. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1899.
Leadbeater, C. W. 1847-1934. The Other Side of Death: Scientifically Examined And Carefully Described. Chicago: Theosophical book concern, 1903.
O’Donnell, Elliott, 1872-1965. Animal Ghosts; Or Animal Hauntings & the Hereafter,. London,: W. Rider & son, 1913.
Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). “General Meeting Notes”. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research v4(1889). London: Society for Psychical Research, 1889.
Tweedale, Charles L. Man’s Survival After Death: Or, The Other Side of Life In the Light of Scripture, Human Experience, And Modern Research. New York: E.P. Dutton & company, 1921.