Death on the Moor

Redbreast In the Morning

“What woke it then?  A little child

Strayed from its father’s door

And in an hour of moonlight wild

Laid lonely on the desert moor.”- Emily Bronte  1837


Haworth.  February 1801-

Two-year old Joseph Helliwell snuck outside and attempted to secretly follow his father  from their home at Enfieldside to Pecket Well, where the farmer had a business meeting.  Tragically, Joseph could not keep up as his father made his way up the old Haworth Road.   He was found frozen to death the next morning upon the Moor.

Haworth.  January 27, 1849-

Four-year old Joseph Halliwell was the son of farmer William.   They lived on Far Intake Farm.  One day, the little boy ventured out and became lost.  Four days later, he was found frozen to death upon the same moor which had claimed his  near-namesake less than fifty years before.


resource:  “Strange World of The Brontes” by Marie Campbell

Published in: on October 21, 2009 at 5:44 pm  Comments (12)  
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Mary: The Mysterious 19th Century Medium

The Spiritualist movement sprung from humble origins.  In 1848,  twelve and thirteen year-old Katherine and Margaret Fox heard unexplainable knockings and rappings in their reportedly haunted family home in upstate New York.    The girls, rather than being afraid, were thrilled, and established a simple code to communicate with the spirits.

One early message read:  “Dear friends, you must proclaim the truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era; you must not conceal it any longer.  When you do your duty God will protect you and good spirits will watch over you.”

Spiritualism spread across America.  Four years later, the accomplished American Mrs. Hayden traveled to England and introduced it to the fashionable world.

During the height of the movement, while public spiritualists displayed thrilling shows- private home circles were venerated for instilling proper spiritual values and harmony within families.

Spiritualism was a blessed relief to the countless Victorian families who’d lost children.  Now, they were not only  certain  the soul survived, but they could also communicate with loved ones on the other side.  Death was simply a transition to another realm which could be reached any time.  It also appealed to those who were tired of dogmatism and wished to experience God in a personal way.

The middle-class Theobald family of London became involved in Spiritualism in the 1860s.  Morell Theobald lived with his wife and four children.  His spinster sister, Florence, often stayed with them.  Florence always stated she’d been born “sensitive” and immediately was drawn to this new religion.

Florence began practicing automatic writing in 1863.   After she received many loving messages from deceased relatives, the rest of the Theobald family became involved.   Soon they were having regular family sittings in which Morell Theobald’s other children who’d died in early youth communicated with them.  They spoke of their daily activities in heaven and answered some questions related to theology.

As time passed,  the spirits became more active.  Throughout the house, raps broke out at will.  The spirit children spelled out their love to “mama” through the furniture on her birthday.  The spirits encouraged them to live life fully as well as care for their spiritual needs.

The Theobalds became one of the most respected families in the spiritualist community.

In the early 1880s, a new cook named Mary, entered their household.  She claimed to have had psychic experiences  as a child which resulted in being “whipped as a witch” by her parents.

Mary related to the Theobalds that while working in Brighton she’d been “told” one day she would live with a kind, sympathetic family at Granville Park.  (The Theobalds had moved there in 1873 after spirits warned Morell about the ill health effects of the clay soil in Highgate)

The family sittings were their spiritual sphere and always began with prayer.  The servants attended but stood to the side.

In 1882, Mary announced she saw spirits.  The Theobalds were impressed with her powers, yet she was a servant.  Her place was downstairs.  However, as time passed, and her powers became more and more evident, they welcomed her as a family member.  After the rest of the servants gave notice, it was decided Mary would share the household duties with daughter, Nellie Theobald.  They did not want any negative outside forces to interfere with their harmonious circle.

In the class-obsessed Victorian era, associates were horrified.  While  the Theobalds were obviously legitimate  and astute spiritualists, Mary must be a fake, an unscrupulous villain.  Many friends severed ties with them.

Morell Theobald refused to bow down to this prejudice.  He defended their decision by publicly announcing in a journal: “Spiritualism comes somewhat as a leveler of social distinctions……”

Mary became best friends with Nellie.  They ran the house together and Nellie also began developing mediumistic abilities through writing.

Soon, many bizarre ghostly happening occurred.   The girls reported finding fires already lit in the morning.  The dining table already set for breakfast.  Mysterious letters were discovered in locked boxes. Spontaneous writings appeared on the ceiling.  Mr. Theobald rose early and waited in the kitchen in order to see the spirits start the fires or set the table.  They never came.  During family sittings, the spirits informed him  they could not perform fragile operations while being watched.

In 1884, the family acquired a cabinet and were thrilled when Mary produced materializations of spirit hands and feet.   After Mr. Theobald detailed some of their experiences in the spiritualist journal, Light, he was met with more scorn.

The Society of Psychic Research insisted on drilling Mary through a set of tests.  The Theobalds refused to force her through these brutal experiments.  During this tension-filled time, Mary grew quite ill and took to bed.  Morell claimed  the Society was trying to disprove spiritualist ideas rather than observe and record its merits and distanced himself from them.

Through the years, the Theobald family and Mary remained closely knit.

Was Mary a fraud?

On one hand, it was convenient that no one else saw the fires being lit or tables being set.  Some claim Nellie was in cahoots, seeking special attention.

On the other hand, the class prejudice can not be ignored.  It had been perfectly fine when Mary participated in the sittings as a servant. It was only when the Theobalds regarded her as part of their family, that accusations of fraud circulated.

The House of Seven Gables

The oldest surviving mansion in the United States was built in 1668 for Captain John Turner in the historic seaport of Salem, Massachusetts.   This house inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to pen his 1851 classic novel.

Hawthorne’s relatives, the Ingersolls, acquired the house after John Turner III lost the family fortune.  During several visits, Hawthorne’s reclusive cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, entranced him with stories of its lore.  According to papers, the impressive dwelling once boasted seven gables.  This seemingly innocent fact stirred Hawthorne’s imagination.

When creating the novel’s villian, Nathaniel  had only to turn to his own family ancestry.  One infamous ancestor was Colonel John Hathorne, a judge at the Salem Witch trials.   He presided at the trial in which  Sarah Good swore: “I’m no more a witch than you’re a wizard!  And if you take my life God will give you blood to drink!”  In the novel, the character, Matthew Maule, sentenced to death as a wizard, hurls similar words to Judge Pyncheon who falsely accused him in order to steal his land.  After Judge Pyncheon’s sudden and mysterious death, his descendants move into the house.    His evil deed holds a subtle but affective hold on each passing generation.

When the novel opens, the current inhabitant, spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon, has been reduced to opening a shop to make ends meet.  Reclusive, she has become as lifeless as the faded curtains and darkened timber.  Her only real companion is Holgrave, the radical daguerreotypist who rents a room in the house.

Into Hepzibah’s carefully guarded world comes bright, country cousin Phoebe (less of a person than symbolic of the free world beyond Seven Gables). Not long after Phoebe’s arrival, Hepzibah’s feeble-minded brother, Clifford returns home after being released from prison.   Clifford had been falsely accused of a crime by their cousin, Judge Pyncheon, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Puritanical judge of long ago. Things come to a climax when Judge Pyncheon threatens to send Clifford back to jail unless he discloses the whereabouts of hidden wealth.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a member of the literary movement, Dark Romanticism, which included  Byron, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe,  Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville.  As with Gothic fiction before, their stories often involved vampires, ghouls, and haunted houses.  While the earlier Gothic writers concentrated on sheer terror, the Dark Romantics explored the dark nature of man and universe.

Nathaniel Hawthorne told his publisher he wished to write passages, “with the minuteness of a Dutch picture.”   Indeed, the house and shop are so finely described that one can hear the old stairs creaking, the window shutters banging, the shop door opening.   Readers see poor Hepzibah, frightened, out of her depth, yet determined as she meets her first customer  (a little boy who wants a gingerbread).  They watch as  Phoebe reads to the child-like Clifford and walks in the garden with Holgrave as they quietly fall in love.

The chapter, “Judge Pyncheon” is a poetic tour de force on death.  “The shadows of the tall furniture grow deeper, and at first become more definite; and then, spreading wider, they lose their distinctiveness of outline in the dark gray tide of oblivion, as it were, that creeps slowly over the various objects, and the one human figure sitting in the midst of them.  The gloom has not entered from without; it has brooded here all day, and now, taking its own inevitable time, will possess itself of everything.  The Judge’s face, indeed, rigid, and singularly white, refuses to melt into this universal solvent.  Fainter and fainter grows the light.”

The novel is not without its flaws.   The conclusion comes too quickly and easily.  Also, while Hawthorne richly describes the characters of Seven Gables, the reader is still kept at an emotional distance.  The camera lens zooms in to study them like an impassive scientist.  One explanation for this is Hawthorne struggled with his desire to be a writer, considering it “unmanly”.  Throughout the novel he keeps himself tightly leashed, afraid to reveal any part of his inner being.

The House of Seven Gables is not a frightening tale of any kind.  In fact,  it has sprinkles of quiet, macabre humor throughout.  It is not a passionate novel.  It won’t raise anyone’s temperature.  Yet the house and its inhabitants linger in the mind of the reader long after they’ve turned the last page.

Why I Chose to Write A Ghost Tale

In Wuthering Heights,  Emily Bronte stated:  “I have a conviction that ghosts can and do exist amongst us.”

I’ve always held the same sentiment.  In my own family, there have been many incidents.  The night my grandpa died, my father dreamt he was at a party.  My grandpa came to him and said he was very happy and at peace.  He didn’t want his son to mourn.  The next day, family gathered together to remember my grandfather.  My dad was telling some people about his dream, when my grandfather’s sister interrupted.  “Wait.  Was he wearing a…..?”  My father said, “Yes.”  “Was he drinking a…..”  “Yes.”  “And did he also say….”  “Yes.”   This went on and on.  It turned out they’d had exactly the same dream to the most minute details.

When my own nana passed, I asked to have her old music box.  She’d had it forever and I always associated it with her.  Since having it in my home, there have been several incidences when it has started playing on its own.  These were at times when I was feeling depressed or worried.

Only a month or so ago, my other grandmother came to me in a dream.  She told me to tell my mom to be careful and she loved her.  I called home to find out my mother was in the hospital.  She’d fallen shortly after my dream.  (mom’s okay, btw)

People all around the world have similar tales.  Sightings, hearings, prophetic warnings from dreams…

  To me- the idea of ghosts existing amongst us is quite natural.  Some benevolent, some gray, some malevolent. 

The veil between the spirit world and the world of the living is delicate.

I’ve always loved reading ghost stories.  From Lefanu to M.R. James to Blackwood.  To my dismay, however, there are very few ghost novels.   Of course, there is, “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. (though technically a novella)   I’ve heard Susan Hill’s, “The Woman in Black” is great.   Unfortunately, I haven’t read it yet.   Shirley Jackson’s, “The Haunting of Hill House” is one of my favorite novels- but I’m not sure if it can be described  as a ghost tale.

  So I decided to write my own old-fashioned, full-length ghost tale.  The process is frustrating, wonderful, painful, fun, exasperating, and exhilarating. 

And I love every painful moment.

Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 10:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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