“I can’t tell you how irritating it is to be an atheist in a haunted house” – Matthew Tobin Anderson
One question has always bothered me. Why aren’t there more ghosts? As M. Schele de Vere once observed, “The earth, it has been said, is one vast graveyard, and man can nowhere put down his foot without stepping on the remains of a brother.” It seems like we should be a lot more haunted given the blood-soaked history of our species. One would expect specters and phantasms of the restless dead to lurk in every nook and cranny, awaiting the slightest provocation to express their discontent with their untimely deaths.
The simple fact is that we are probably hardwired to ignore them, otherwise we’d spend all our time conversing with whiny phantoms demanding attention, justice, proper burial, or any of the many reasons we posit for the unhappy dead to announce their presence. Perhaps this is the basis of religion, that is, the sneaking suspicion that in any given space we are not alone, surrounded as we are by the memory that every acre is a sepulcher. Assigning benign agency to the shiver that crawls up our spine in lonely places or witching hours may simply be a defensive reaction to the horror that we replant our fields and rebuild or homes on lands invariably soaked in murder and mayhem.
Pick any idyllic village on any continent, and odds are good that it was the site of slaughter. Take, for instance, the charming, quiet little town known as Passenham in Northamptonshire, England near Milton Keyes. In 876 A.D., the Danes were busy fighting and pillaging across the English countryside. King of Wessex Alfred the Great rallied his troops and managed to fight the Viking “Great Heathen Army” (led by Ivar the Boneless) to a standstill, leading to Wessex taking its place as the dominant kingdom in England. Alfred’s oldest son Edward the Elder inherited the throne of Wessex in 899 when Alfred died, and was discontent with the treaty brokered by his father, angling to recapture East Anglia and the Midlands from the Vikings. From about 899-921 A.D. the green fields of England were drenched in blood. Upon Edward’s succession to the throne of Wessex, his brother Æthelwold started a revolt followed by his defection to Danish Northumbria. What ensued was Viking invasion after Viking invasion, culminating in series of pitched battles, backstabbing, and brokered treaties (incidentally, everybody who isn’t fighting one loves a Viking – they have cool hats, a keen sense of how to wear fur fashionably, and a partying lifestyle) that ultimately ended with all the English and Danes south of the Humber submitting to the authority off Edward.
One would think that modern day England would consequently be awash in Viking ghosts, but there is a curious absence of them in the historical record. Maybe there’s no point in hanging around this mortal coil when the alternative is getting wined and dined in Valhalla, hob-nobbing with Odin, and eternally knocking heads together without fear of death. Good times. Probably the same reason you don’t get a lot of undead Roman legionaries wandering about the countryside. The Elysian Fields sounds much more appealing. It took Christianity to make heaven all about the harps and hosannas. Who wants that eternity, when eternal debauchery or carefree oblivion are viable options?
At any rate, a whole lot of people have died violently over the centuries in Passenham, in particular near Passenham Manor and the Passenham Rectory. This is nothing unique. As observed earlier, any given plot of ground probably has been despoiled at one time or another in history with the vital fluids of our forefathers. The earliest written reference we have to Passenham is from 921 A.D. Edward was busy fortifying Towcester (with the collapsed remnants of a Roman wall) and Buckingham, repelled a Viking attack, and then encamped his army at Passenham to recuperate, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Archaeologists love when they have some clues as to where to dig, and as it turns out, the Passenham Manor area seems to be distinguished by a lot of skeletons littered about the estate, dating to the time of Edward the Elder, exhibiting a lot of broken bones and nasty wounds. Over time, about 100 skeletons have been unearthed on the grounds. From about 1087 A.D., Passenham Manor passed to whomever the King happened to like that week (on the accession of Henry of Lancaster as King Henry IV in 1399, it became the property of the crown). This plot of about 300 acres had basically seen the better part of 700 years of bloodshed, a potentially fertile breeding ground for disgruntled ghosts.
Is it any wonder that over the years, folks feel a little creepy around Passenham, because let’s face it, this is a ghost story as old as time and Athenodorous, that is, spooky ghosts lurking about only to be outed when a skeleton buried unceremoniously in some nearby hole is identified. By 1872, the Passenham manor house and rectory had been moved around the grounds a bit, built and rebuilt, generally modernized (by 19th Century standards), and the Reverend G.M. Capell had taken up residence in the Passenham Rectory.
In the summer of 1872, a Mrs. Montague Crackanthrope arrived at Passenham to visit her father, who had taken up residence at the rectory temporarily. She was lodged in the dining room for a lack of space. While there, “Mrs. Montague Crackanthrope and her nurse were ‘obsessed’ by ‘a feeling that someone was in the room,’ when someone was not” (Lang, 1896, p135). This general sense of creepiness persisted despite an absence of visible apparitions or phantasms to obligingly shed a little light on the matter. Mrs. Montague described the experience in her own words.
For you see I heard nothing, saw nothing, neither did the maid. I was startled when my father told me of the rector’s confession as to the “disagreeableness” of that end of the house — months afterwards — but what made most impression upon me was, that having battled through the night with my vague terrors successfully, I could not sit in that arm-chair, in the sunshine, next day, with the sound of the cook singing over her work close at hand (Myers, 1889, SPR, p42-43).
Mrs. Crackanthrope was careful to note that she had no particular reason for experiencing sleepless nights and never saw anything out of the ordinary. Crackanthrope would later reminisce in greater detail about her odd experiences at Passenham Rectory.
In the summer of 1872, my father occupied a rectory house (Passenham) not far from Blisworth, in Northamptonshire, for a few weeks, and I went down to spend three days with him and my mother at Whitsuntide; my two children and their nurse being already there. The room given to me was over the dining-room; next door to it was the night nursery, in which my nurse and children slept, the rest of the inmates of the house being quite at the other end of a rather long passage. I hardly slept at all the first (Saturday) night, being possessed with the belief that someone was in my room whom I should shortly see. I heard nothing, and I saw nothing. The next morning, Sunday, I did not go to church, but betook myself to the dining-room with a book. It was, I remember, a perfectly lovely June morning. Before I had been a quarter of an hour in the room, and whilst wholly interested in the book, I was seized with a dread, of what I did not know; but in spite of the sunshine and the servants moving about the house, I found it more intolerable to sit there than it had been to remain in the room above the night before, and so, after a struggle, and feeling not a little ashamed, I left the room and went to the garden. Sunday night was a repetition of Saturday. I slept not at all, but remained in what I can only describe as a state of expectation till dawn, and very thankfully I left on the Monday afternoon. To my father and mother I said nothing of my two bad nights. The nurse and children remained behind for another week. I noticed that the nurse looked gloomy when I left her, and I put it down to her finding the country dull, after London. When she returned she told me that she hoped she would never have to go to stay in that house again, for she had not been able to sleep there during the fortnight, being each night the prey of fears, for which she could not account in any way. My father left this rectory at the end of the summer; and sometime afterwards he was talking of the place to me, and mentioned laughingly that before he entered it the rector had ‘thought it right to let him know that that end of the house in which I and my children were put up was said to be haunted, my room especially, and that several of his visitors — his sister in particular — had been much troubled by this room being apparently entered, and steps and movements heard in the dead of night (Podmore, 1908, p257-258).
A year or two after Mrs. Crackanthrope’s visit, the bodies started appearing, especially underneath the floorboards of the dining room where visitors often experienced a strong desire to run away screaming.
Being lately on a visit at Passenham Manor, we were startled by the rectorof the parish appearing in a great state of excitement, on 15th September, to say that a skeleton had been found just under the floor of his dining-room. We went at once to inspect; and, sure enough, in a corner of the room there were several bones of what had once been a human body; they were huddled together, and our first surmise was that some foul play had at some time or another taken place, and a body been disposed of in this manner. However, next day, on further excavations being made, many bones and skulls were found, some with the jaws pretty perfect. The skulls are of a very low type, displaying in some of them little or no room for forehead, but receding straight back from the eyes. The curious thing is that they should be so near the surface, only just under the flooring. The house is situated very near the churchyard; but these bones, from their appearance, must have been buried all at one time, and the bodies generally lay from west to east. The house is about 300 years old; the beams of the floor were completely eaten through with dry rot. There is a tradition amongst the parishioners that at some time or another a very great battle took place near this spot, but what battle it was there is no means of tracing from the popular tradition, which is simply that a great battle did take place at some time or another close to the place (Notes & Queries, 1873, p548).
After some investigation, the provenance of the bones was examined a little more precisely, and experts came to the consensus that they were unearthing the fatally wounded soldiers likely to have been part of Edward the Elder’s anti-Viking contingent.
In excavating the soil for laying a new floor in the dining-room of the rectory (in August 1873), six skeletons were discovered,‘ resting only 18 inches below the surface, and from their appearance competent judges suppose them to be more than a thousand years old. While our agent was collecting information for the present work, the rector informed him of another skeleton which had been exhumed that morning (September 19), about I6 inches beneath the ﬂooring of the hall. Whilst preparing a vault for the late Rev. Loraine Smith, ﬁfty skeletons were exhumed, and in a ﬁeld about a quarter of a mile north of the church, human remains are everywhere to be met with a little below the surface. If the antiquity thus given to these bones be correct, it will take us back to the scenes of some of the great battles fought here in the ninth or tenth centuries between the Saxons and the Danes, probably to an earlier period. Some even give to these remains an antiquity of ﬁfteen centuries, which would carry us up to the Roman era. Remnants of ﬂint, pottery, glass, etc., of great antiquity, have also been dug up here (Whellan, 1874, p572).
Later inquiries were made of the long-time resident Rev. G. M. Capell, who writing from Passenham Rectory, October, 1889, rather blithely confirmed: “I found seven skeletons in my dining-room in 1874” (Podmore, 1908, p257-258). If we weren’t so good at ignoring the dead that we trod upon, we’d spend all our time mired in the history of each plot of dirt, wary of the ghosts contained therein. This would make it very difficult to keep a day job. Our species no doubt has a good evolutionary reason for attending to the here and now to the exclusion of those things that go bump in the night. We’ve got crops to plant and stocks to trade and thus we lock up millennia of horror for sober examination by qualified professionals, but as playwright Wilson Mizner said, “There is something about a closet that makes a skeleton terribly restless”.
Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912. Cock Lane and Common-sense. New ed. London: Longmans, Green, 1896.
Podmore, Frank, 1856-1910. The Naturalisation of the Supernatural. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908.
Myers, F.W.H. “On Recognised Apparitions Occurring More than a Year After Death”. Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research v6. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1889.
“Human Bones Found Under the Dining Room Floor of the Rectory at Passenham”. Notes And Queries 4:12 (Jul-Dec). London [etc.]: Oxford University Press [etc.], 1873.
Whellan, Francis. History, Topography, And Directory of Northamptonshire: Comprising a General Survey of the County, And a History of the City And Diocese of Peterborough. 2d ed. London: Whittaker, 1874.