[I have modernized and edited the section on ghosts from Francis Grose’s A Provincial Glossary with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (1787) for ease of reading. The original version can be found here.]
A ghost is supposed to be the spirit of a person deceased, who is either commissioned to return for some especial errand — such as the exposure of a murder or the restitution of lands or money unjustly withheld from an orphan or widow — or who, having committed some injustice whilst living, cannot rest till that is redressed. Sometimes the occasion of spirits revisiting this world is to inform their heir in what secret place (for example, a private drawer in an old trunk) they had hidden the title deeds of the estate or where, in troublesome times, they buried their money or plate.
Some ghosts of murdered persons, whose bodies have been secretly buried, cannot be at ease till their bones have been taken up and deposited in consecrated ground with all the rites of Christian burial. This idea is the remains of a very old piece of heathen superstition. The Ancients believed that Charon was not permitted to ferry over the ghosts of unburied persons, but that they wandered up and down the banks of the river Styx for an hundred years, after which they were admitted to a passage. This is mentioned by Virgil:
Hæc omnis quam cernis, inops inhumataque turba est:
Portitor ille, Charon; hi quos vehit unda, sepulti.
Nec ripas datur horrendas, nec rauca fluenta,
Transportare prius quam sedibus ossa quièrunt.
Centum errant annos, volitantgue hæc littoral circunn:
Tum, demum admissi, stagna exoptata revisunt.
Sometimes ghosts appear in consequence of an agreement made whilst living, with some particular friend, that he who first died should appear to the survivor.
[Joseph] Glanvil tells us of the ghost of a person who had lived but a disorderly kind of life, for which it was condemned to wander up and down the earth in the company of evil spirits till the Day of Judgment.
In most of the relations of ghosts, they are supposed to be mere aerial beings without substance, and they can pass through walls and other solid bodies at pleasure. A particular instance of this is given in Relation 27 of Glanvil’s collection. One David Hunter, neat-herd to the Bishop of Down and Connor, was for a long time haunted by the apparition of an old woman, whom he was by a secret impulse obliged to follow whenever she appeared. He says he did this for a considerable time, even if in bed with his wife, and because his wife could not hold him in his bed, she would go too and walk after him till day, though she saw nothing. His little dog became so well acquainted with the apparition that he would follow it as well as his master. If a tree stood in her path, he observed her always to go through it. Notwithstanding this seeming immateriality, this very ghost was not without some substance, for having performed her errand, she desired Hunter to lift her from the ground. In doing so, he says, she felt just like a bag of feathers.
We sometimes also read of ghosts striking violent blows, and if not made way for, they overturn all impediments like a furious whirlwind. Glanvil mentions an instance of this in Relation 17. A Dutch lieutenant, who had the faculty of seeing ghosts, was prevented from making way for one that he mentioned to some friends as coming towards them. He was violently thrown down with his companions and sorely bruised. We further learn, in Relation 16, that the hand of a ghost is ‘as cold as a clod.’
The usual time when ghosts make their appearance is midnight and seldom before it is dark. Some audacious spirits have been said to appear even by daylight, but there are few instances of this. Those are mostly ghosts who have been laid, perhaps in the Red Sea (more on this hereafter), and whose times of confinement were expired. Like felons confined to the lighters, these are said to return more troublesome and daring than before. No ghosts can appear on Christmas Eve, so Shakespeare has put into the mouth of one of his characters in Hamlet.
Ghosts commonly appear in the same dress they usually wore whilst living. They are sometimes clothed all in white, but that is chiefly the churchyard ghosts who have no particular business, but seem to appear pro bono publico or to scare drunken rustics from tumbling over their graves.
I cannot learn that ghosts carry tapers in their hands as they are sometimes depicted, though the room in which they appear, if without fire or candle, is frequently said to be as light as day. Dragging chains is not the fashion of English ghosts, chains and black vestments being chiefly the accoutrements of foreign spectres seen in arbitrary governments. Dead or alive, English spirits are free. One instance, however, of an English ghost dressed in black is found in the celebrated ballad of William and Margaret:
And clay-cold was her lily hand,
That held her sable shroud.
This, however, may be considered as a poetical license, used in all likelihood for the sake of the opposition of lily to sable.
During the time of an apparition, if there is a lighted candle in the room, it will burn extremely blue. This is so universally acknowledged that many eminent philosophers have busied themselves in accounting for it without once doubting the truth of the fact. Dogs too have the faculty of seeing spirits, as is instanced in David Hunter’s relation above quoted. But in that case they usually shew signs of terror by whining and creeping to their master for protection, and it is generally supposed that they often see things of this nature when their owner cannot. Some persons, particularly those born on a Christmas Eve, cannot see spirits.
The coming of a spirit is announced some time before its appearance by a variety of loud and dreadful noises. Sometimes it is a rattling in the old hall like a coach and six and rumbling up and down the staircase or like the trundling of bowls or cannon balls. At length the door flies open, and the spectre stalks slowly up to the bed’s foot. Opening the curtains, it looks steadfastly at the person in bed by whom it is seen. A ghost is very rarely visible to more than one person, even though there are several in company.
It is here necessary to observe that — as has been universally found by experience as well as affirmed by diverse apparitions themselves — a ghost has not the power to speak till it has been first spoken to. Notwithstanding the urgency of the business on which it may come, everything must stand still till the person visited can find sufficient courage to speak to it, an event that sometimes does not take place for many years. It has not been found that female ghosts are more loquacious than those of the male sex, both being equally restrained by this law.
The mode of addressing a ghost is by commanding it, in the name of the Three Persons of the Trinity, to tell you who it is, and what its business is. It may be necessary to repeat this three times, after which, in a low and hollow voice, it will declare its satisfaction at being spoken to and desire the party addressing it not to be afraid, for it will do him no harm. This being premised, it commonly enters into its narrative. During the narration of its business, a ghost must by no means be interrupted by questions of any kind. So doing is extremely dangerous. If any doubts arise, they must be stated after the spirit has done its tale. Questions respecting its state or the state of any of their former acquaintance are offensive and not often answered, spirits perhaps being restrained from divulging the secrets of their prison house. Occasionally spirits will even condescend to talk on common occurrences. This is instanced by Glanvil in the apparition of Major George Sydenham to Captain William Dyke, Relation 10, wherein the Major reproved the Captain for suffering a sword he had given him to grow rusty, saying, ‘Captain, Captain, this sword did not used to be kept after this manner when it was mine.’ This attention to the state of arms was a remnant of the Major’s professional duty when living.
Once its request or commands are given, with injunctions that they be immediately executed, it vanishes away, frequently in a flash of light. In these cases, some ghosts have been so considerate as to desire the party to whom they appeared to shut their eyes. Sometimes its departure is attended with delightful music.
It is somewhat remarkable that ghosts do not go about their business like the persons of this world. In cases of murder, a ghost does not go to the closest justice of the peace to present its information or to the nearest relation of the person murdered. Instead, it appears to some poor labourer who knows none of the parties, draws the curtains of some decrepit nurse or alms-woman, or hovers about the place where his body is deposited. The same circuitous mode is pursued with respect to redressing injured orphans or widows, even though it seems as if the shortest and most certain way would be to go to the person guilty of the injustice and haunt him continually till he be terrified into a restitution. Neither is pointing out lost writings generally managed in a more expedient way. The ghost commonly applies to a third person, ignorant of the whole affair and a stranger to all concerned. But it is presumptuous to scrutinize too far into these matters. Ghosts have undoubtedly forms and customs peculiar to themselves.
If, after the first appearance, the persons employed neglect or are prevented from delivering the message or conducting the business committed to their management, the ghost appears continually to them. At first, it will appear with a discontented — next an angry and at length with a furious — countenance, threatening to tear them in pieces if the matter is not forthwith executed. Sometimes, the ghost terrifies them, as in Glanvil’s Relation 26, by appearing in many formidable shapes and sometimes even striking them a violent blow. There are many instances of blows being given by ghosts, and some wherein they have been followed with an incurable lameness.
It should have been observed that ghosts, while delivering their commissions, in order to ensure belief, communicate to the persons employed some secret, known only to the parties concerned and themselves, the relation of which always produces the effect intended. The business being completed, ghosts appear with a cheerful countenance, saying they shall now be at rest and will never more disturb any one. Thanking their agents, by way of reward, ghosts communicate to them something relative to themselves, which they must never reveal.
Sometimes ghosts appear and disturb a house without deigning to give any reason for so doing. With these, the shortest and only way is to exorcise and eject them or, as the vulgar term is, lay them. For this purpose there must be two or three clergymen, and the ceremony must be performed in Latin, a language that strikes the most audacious ghost with terror. A ghost may be laid for any term less than an hundred years, and in any place or body, full or empty, as a solid oak — the pommel of a sword — a barrel of beer, if a yeoman or simple gentleman — or a pipe of wine, if an esquire or a justice. But of all places, the most common and what a ghost least likes is the Red Sea. It is related, in many instances, that ghosts have most earnestly besought the exorcists not to confine them in that place. It is nevertheless considered as an indisputable fact that there are an infinite number laid there, perhaps from its being a safer prison than any other nearer at hand, though neither history nor tradition gives us any instance of ghosts escaping or returning from this kind of transportation before their time.