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A ghostly apparition

8 famous ghosts from history


As Halloween approaches and the nights grow colder and darker, many of us, like Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, might glance warily around us as we climb the stairs to bed.

Our ancestors were certainly conscious of ‘things that go bump in the night’. Ghosts have been reported all over the world throughout history, from apparitions in ancient temples to modern-day poltergeists in suburban semis. Some ghost reports have been met with scorn and scepticism, others with fascination and eager crowds. Whatever the truth, these historical accounts continue to tingle the spines of those who dare to read them.

Here we look at eight of the most famous ghosts in history.

1. Pausanias

The famous Spartan general Pausanias, victor over the Persians at the sea battle of Plataea in 479 BC, continued to make waves after his death – as a ghost, possibly the most famous ghost of the ancient world.

The Spartans loved their gifted general, but after a bit of a falling out, the military man approached the Persian ruler Xerxes with betrayal in his heart.=

Pausanias’s treachery was discovered, and he was pursued into the Temple of Athena in Sparta and bricked up there alive. The ghost of the general then haunted the temple, wandering about and making blood-curdling shrieking and moaning noises. This ancient poltergeist was eventually persuaded to leave the temple by a so-called ‘magician’.

2. The Bingen Poltergeist

In the Annales Fuldenses, written in Fulda, Germany, in the 9th century AD, can be found a report of a poltergeist terrorising a farmer in the Rhine Valley.

The man, living near Bingen, was haunted for some time by the irritating phantom. According to the story, the ghost would start fires in the crops and farm buildings, throw stones maliciously, shake the farmhouse, and even shout at the farmer accusing him of having affairs with young women.

The poltergeist was said to follow the unfortunate fellow around, leading to locals shunning the man.

3. Anne Boleyn

One of the most famous historical ghosts in Britain, and possibly the world, is that of Tudor queen Anne Boleyn. Over the centuries her ghost has been seen in many places around Britain, including the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, Blickling Hall, and Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent.

She is often seen headless – a frightening reminder of how she died, beheaded by her husband King Henry VIII in 1536.

Anne was executed in the Tower of London, and so unsurprisingly the Tower has been her favourite haunt.

One famous sighting was in 1864. One night, a guard in the Tower, standing watch over the ancient courtyard in which Anne died, saw the figure of a woman glide towards him. Her feet were not touching the ground, but the guard assumed she was real and so lunged at her with his bayonet. He charged right through the woman, causing the guard to faint. The poor chap was hauled before a court martial charged with dereliction of duty but was saved by one General Dundas, who testified that he had also seen Anne’s ghost that night.

4. The Drummer of Tedworth

The case of ‘The Drummer of Tedworth’ is possibly one of the most famous accounts of a ghost in British history and an early report of a poltergeist.

In March 1661, magistrate John Mompesson of Tedworth in Wiltshire, caused the drummer, a middle-aged beggar by the name of William Drury, to have his beloved instrument confiscated as a penalty for forgery.

The drum was afterwards delivered to Mompesson’s house by a local bailiff. The Mompessons then began to hear the eerie sound of the drum beating, by itself, all around the house. A ghost was among them.

The haunting continued for months and included beds being thrown about, fetid smells, strange lights, scratching, and even the sounds of dogs and cats. The troublesome ghost attacked guests, servants, a local blacksmith, and even Mompesson’s horse, which was reported to have died of fright. The ghost’s voice was heard and Mompesson even claimed to have seen it.

Word spread, and people flocked to the house, including the Reverend Joseph Glanvill, who claimed to have witnessed the phenomena and later wrote about it in a 1681 book.

In 1663, Drury admitted that he was responsible for the hauntings, causing them to happen remotely. He was tried for witchcraft and sentenced to transportation. While he was out of the country the hauntings stopped, and after escaping and returning to England the poltergeist returned with him.

The drummer presumably ceased his attack on the Mompessons not long after this, though it is not known when.

5. The Cock Lane Ghost

One of the most famous of all British ghosts is surely the Cock Lane Ghost, which caused a sensation in London in 1762.

At a house in Cock Lane, Smithfield, a poltergeist was reported to be terrorising the inhabitants. The ghost made loud knocking noises and the household claimed they had seen the phantom with their own eyes.

The haunting on Cock Lane caused such a stir that crowds began to flock to the house, with many visitors claiming to have witnessed the ghost’s activities for themselves.

The noisy spirit then claimed to be a former resident of the house called Fanny, who had lived there with a Mr Kent – the poltergeist, nicknamed ‘Scratching Fanny’ – revealed that Kent had murdered her.

The Cock Lane Ghost was eventually uncovered as a hoax, a scheme with blackmail in mind perpetrated by a resident of the house named Richard Parsons and his eleven-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Richard Parsons got his just deserts – he was pilloried and sentenced to two years in prison.

6. The Bell Witch

Arguably the most famous ghost in American history is the Bell Witch. In 1817, at a farmhouse in Tennessee, a vicious, violent, malevolent poltergeist plagued John Bell and his large family.

Starting with mysterious scratching and rapping sounds, it moved on to furniture being shoved about, bedclothes being violently thrown off, and physical assault including slapping and pinching.

During disturbances, the Bells’ twelve-year-old daughter would behave strangely, fainting or sometimes going into a ‘trance’.

The ghost soon spoke, and with a strange rasping voice identified herself as a local witch named Old Kate Batts.

After violently attacking John Bell several times, on 20 December 1820, John Bell died, apparently poisoned by Batts.

After disappearing for seven years and coming back briefly, the witch disappeared forever, but not before attracting public attention and visitors to the farmhouse, including, allegedly, future president Andrew Jackson.

7. The Maharajah Duleep Singh

The famous Crown Prince of Punjab, Victor Duleep Singh, was visiting Berlin in October 1893, in the company of Lord Carnarvon, when something very strange happened to him.

The prince later recalled the incident, in his own words:

I went to bed, leaving, as I always do, a bright light in the room (electric light). As I lay in bed I found myself looking at an oleograph which hung on the wall opposite my bed. I saw distinctly the face of my father, the Maharajah Duleep Singh, looking at me, as it were, out of this picture; not like a portrait of him, but his real head.

The prince had seen the apparition of his father in the painting, and shared the experience with Lord Carnarvon the next morning, telling him he believed his father was dead. That evening, Singh was notified by telegram that his father had died of a seizure. Lord Carnarvon confirmed that they had no knowledge of Victor’s father’s illness before the incident.

8. Abraham Lincoln

Possibly one of the most famous ghosts in modern history is that of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, who was assassinated in 1865.

Over the years several occupants of the famous Washington building have reported seeing the phantom of the murdered leader, including Theodore Roosevelt, Grace Coolidge, and visitors such as Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (who fainted on seeing Lincoln’s phantom).

Winston Churchill, a frequent guest at the White House, once climbed out of his bath in the iconic mansion and ambled naked into the bedroom. The British wartime leader was startled to see Lincoln standing by the fireplace. Churchill greeted him with his usual wit, and then Lincoln smiled and disappeared.