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“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd” – Voltaire


Damn Yankees and their ghost stories…

One of the lesser-known joys of historical research on strange phenomena is the discovery that everyone was where they claimed to be relative to the event in question.  You must find the little things that make you happy.  Personally, I like when somebody tells an outrageous story, all the facts line up around the context of the tale, and even in the telling, the narrator admits to a certain angst over what happened.  Its when a person is absolutely confident they were abducted by lizard people from the planet Reticulon and that said extraterrestrials conveyed a clear message of hope, peace, and exhortations to practice bikram yoga, that I wonder a bit.  Anomalistic phenomena (or noumena, to be generous) should fill us with doubt.  Doubt is where you start.  Not a doubt in veracity, but a doubt in interpretation.  And speaking of doubt, let me tell you a little story I ran across that has all these qualities, along with the addition of my favorite quality in a ghost story – a little whiff of irony.

George Halpin was one of those 19th Century career soldiers who didn’t much seem to care much about who he was fighting for, how many times he got wounded, or what weirdness occurred around him.  He just stood up, dusted himself off, pulled a bullet or two out of his leg and enlisted in a different army when things got boring.  Now, just so you don’t think I’ve been doing my homework on your behalf, I’ve spent a few hours digging around in the records of various armies.  Don’t you dare say I’ve never done anything for you.

Halpin spent the 1850’s in India working for the “Honourable” British East India Company and his service was roughly contemporaneous with the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858).  He seems to have spent much of his time from 1853-1857 as a staff officer and Captain at the St. Thomas Mount outpost (a small hillock in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India).  According to British army registers, by 1858 he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Madras Infantry.  That would have been the 3rd Madras (European) Regiment until 1859, later the 3rd Madras Infantry and still later the 108th Regiment of Foot (Madras Infantry) by 1862.  He was wounded at the Siege of Delhi in 1857, and was presumably released during the reorganization of the East India company-controlled military units  under the British Army after the Indian mutiny.

I say presumably, as he pops up again in 1862, enlisted as a Captain in the Union Army during the American Civil War in the course of which he was wounded at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1863, held prisoner from July 2, 1863, to April 11, 1865, released and then promoted from 1st Sergeant to 1st Lieutenant, April 14, 1865, promoted to Captain, May 15, 1865, and finally mustered out with his company, June 3, 1865.  Thus, George Halpin, survivor of the Siege of Delhi, is described in detail by the records of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, Company “A” which noted, “Second-Lieutenant George Halpin was promoted for his good conduct and bravery in the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville; served in the English army, and was severely wounded in the leg at the siege of Delhi, and afterwards in the side, in the same campaign” (Conyngham, 1866, p301).

This serves the following purposes: (1) It tells us that George Halpin actually existed, (2) that Madras Infantry Lt. Colonel George Halpin and Union Army Captain George Halpin were likely the same person, (3) the dates all match up, and (4) Halpin was a bad ass that bounced from war to war, shrugging off ghosts, wounds, and trauma that would have the rest of us hiding in a fetal position under our beds, if we weren’t already aware that under the bed is where all the monsters come from.  Don’t tell the kids.

Understandably, George had some stories to tell.  He related a bizarre encounter with a native ghost to his Company A compatriots over the campfire during the U.S. Civil War.  Presumably it was prefaced with some statement like, “Ghosts, you young whelps don’t know for ghosts…”.  His experience was recorded more or less verbatim in The Story of the 116th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, published in 1899.

It was a quiet moonlight night and red hot. My relief had come in and, piling up their arms in a corner, they dropped on the floor and in half an hour every man was fast asleep. I did not feel like sleeping and, lighting my pipe, I sat myself on a large table in the centre of the floor in the immense room to enjoy a smoke. While sitting there I heard a step ringing on the stairway and it became more distinct every moment as it neared the top. I naturally looked towards the opened door and was astonished to see a Hindoo walking in. He was turbaned and draped in white, with the saddest, queerest eyes I ever saw. As he entered the room I jumped from the table and called to him, demanding his business. He looked straight at me with those infernal queer eyes and walked right into the room, moving as though he would walk around the table and avoid stepping on the sleeping men. When he had almost completed the circuit of the room and was abreast with me I yelled at him to halt, but he still kept staring at me with those coal black eyes and moving right on. I made up my mind that he would not leave the room until I knew what his business was, and grasping my sword—the sergeants at that time carried a short, thick weapon, like the old Romans used to do—I ran to the door, and as he approached I ordered him to halt or I would run him through. The sinner never took his terrible eyes off me nor stopped for a moment, and when he came close I could stand it no longer but involuntarily stepped aside to let him pass, and as he did so I once more screamed at him to halt. He did not obey, so I ran my sword right through him, but there seemed to be nothing there and the phantom Hindoo was going down the steps with a stately, even tread. I then called down to the sentinel at the door to stop that man, but the sentinel saw no one pass either going in or coming out. Gentlemen, that is my ghost story. It ain’t much, to be sure, but it is true (Mulholland , 1899, p280-281).

Sadly, “Capt. George Halpin, Co. A. died at close of war from disease contracted in a Confederate prison” (Taylor, 1913, p288), although if there is any justice in this absurd universe, we can take solace in the fact that he was probably a first round draft-pick by the Norse gods and ushered off to Valhalla where he could knock heads for all eternity.  What seems compelling about Halpin’s narrative is that he openly admits it “ain’t much”, but relates the details of his experience anyway. Existential doubt is a healthy habit.  In a curious correspondence, George Halpin’s primary station during his stint with the Madras Infantry was Saint Thomas Mount, where it is traditionally said that Saint Thomas the Apostle was martyred.  But you may know St. Thomas by his more common name.  “Doubting” Thomas.

Conyngham, David Power, 1840-1883. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns: With Some Account of the Corcoran Legion, And Sketches of the Principal Officers. Cameron & Ferguson ed. Glasgow: R. & T. Washbourne, 1866.
Mulholland, St. Clair A. 1839-1910. The Story of the 116th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry: War of Secession, 1862-1865. Philadelphia: F. McManus, jr. & co., printers, 1899.
Taylor, Frank H. 1846-1927. Philadelphia In the Civil War 1861-1865. [Philadelphia]: The City, 1913.
The Quarterly Army List of Her Majesty’s British And Indian Forces On the Bengal Establishment: Exhibiting the Rank, Standing, And Various Services of Every Officer In the Army, Distinguishing Those Who Have Received Medals And Other Distinctions, And Who Have Been Wounded And In What Actions, With Their Periods of Services And Dates of Commissions: to Which Is Added a List of Civil Servants In Bengal And the North-Western Provinces, With the Dates of Their Appointments, Etc. Calcutta: R.C. Lepage & Co., British Library, 1859.
Pharoah and Co. The Madras New Almanac for 1853: With a General Directory and Register for Madras, Calcutta And Bombay. Madras, 1853.