It was the day after Christmas, which in England is referred to as Boxing Day, when the Acting Vicar of St. Mary’s, a stately old church in the small hamlet of East Rudham, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, had a most unusual encounter. It was so singular that the divine saw fit to report it to the local newspaper at the time.
The Rev R. Brock, was serving as Acting Vicar while the regular Vicar of the parish, the Reverend Dr. Astley, was away on a trip to Algeria with his wife. It was about tea-time and the Reverend Brock was relaxing in the vicarage, steeping in the holiday spirit, no doubt, when the housekeeper rushed in, all in a huff.
“Come and see Dr. Astley!” she said.
“See Dr. Astley?” he said.
“Yes, see Dr. Astley!” she replied.
The housekeeper, obviously disturbed, led the acing vicar into the study and bade him look out the window. Reverend Brock scanned the lawn without and saw nothing unusual, at which the housekeeper exclaimed,
“You are looking in the wrong direction! Look there,” pointing over to a wall outside which contained an alcove.
Gazing over in that direction, the acting vicar did indeed see something, although at first the full import of it did not strike him. He saw a “full presentment” of a clergyman with a Cuddesdon collar gleaming white in the gathering gloom. Reverend Brock turned about to look behind, remarking to the housekeeper, “it must be a reflection of myself,” but no sooner had he said so than he realized that that was impossible, since there was no manner in which his image could have been so reflected outside.
The vision from outside the study window was of a clergyman sitting at a table or desk with books before him. The acting vicar also observed that the person sitting there had a gold chain across his waistcoat—exactly how the Reverend Astley was known to wear his watch and chain. The young divine looked through the window several times, but the presentiment (for that’s what he took it to be) did not move. Then he went outside to get a better look at the figure against the wall. As he did so, the housekeeper informed him that that spot was where Reverend Astley was want to reside and read in the summertime. Both the Acting Vicar and the housekeeper knew that the apparition they were witnessing could not possibly be the vicar—since Dr. Astley and his wife had left for Algeria on December 10th and were still there, to the best of anyone’s knowledge.
The mysterious vision finally disappeared, but the mystery of its appearance that Yuletide afternoon only deepened when the parish community learned some time later that the Vicar and his wife died in a railroad accident in Algeria just about the same time as the vision.
These days the hamlet of East Rudham is even smaller than in the late vicar’s day, the railroad line having long since ceased its service to the village. If there is any answer to be found to the singular Vicar’s Presentiment of 1908, perhaps the village elders who hold court daily at the Cat and Fiddle near the village green may provide some solution. It would, at least, provide worthy conversation on a winter’s day. Merry Christmas all ye Christmas spirits!
First off, let me reassure folks who go to Rugby: despite the title of this essay, there are no ghouls in Rugby, Tennessee, none. No flesh-eating beings of any sort–at least not any I know of–reside there.
That out of the way, let me assure all those in search of a paranormal encounter, there is a gaggle of ghosts that inhabit the place, more per square mile than any town I know of. So, while I can’t guarantee a ghostly good time, your chances are better here than anywhere.
As I chronicle in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, this quaint rural village has been called “The Most Haunted Town in America.” It may, in fact, be the most haunted town in the world, although proving either assertion would be difficult, since the census bureau does not keep record of such things.
Rugby,Tennessee, is located high in the Cumberland Mountains, a wild and scenic area that while by no means backward, has not been subject to the massive influx of commercialism and corporate tourist development that the equally scenic Smoky Mountains have.
The Cumberlands are located between Nashville and Knoxville: to go from one to the ‘tuther, one passes through this area; travelers rarely stay there for their vacation, however, and mostly just pause in the region long enough for a lunch or brunch at one of the many restaurants and rest stops just off the interstate. This is a pity, since they are missing quite a lot; untrammeled wilderness, scenic heights, clean air and not a few frights and sights at Rugby.
To give an idea of the difference between the two mountain regions of Tennessee, in the summer when one goes fishing in a beautiful mountain stream in the Smokies, one is generally doing so with dozens of other fishermen, all elbow to elbow enjoying the same stream. When you go fly fishing in the Cumberlands, you can cast your reel without worrying about snagging another anglers fishing hat in the process. In all likelihood, the only being within sight of you also fishing is the occasional black or brown bear–or maybe the rare Bigfoot (otherwise known as the Tennessee Stink Ape).
So while Rugby is not hard to get to, being about an hour and spare change from downtown Nashville and a similar distance from Knoxville, it is not a heavily traveled spot, which suits the ghosts just fine.
To recap from my chapter on the town, Rugby was founded by Thomas Hughes, the novelist famous for Tom Brown’s School Days. Hughes, who actually attended the English “public school” (in the US we call them private schools) named Rugby, was a high minded sort and his intent was to found a town to provide a haven and gainful employment for the younger sons of titled English nobility. In Victorian England, the family wealth and title of an aristocratic family went to the eldest brother, leaving his siblings dependent on handouts from the family patriarch; on the other hand they were prohibited by strict English social custom from seeking gainful employment on their own. So, with little to do except mooch off their eldest brother, these younger sons often whiled away their days drinking, gambling and whoring and hoping big brother would kick the bucket some time soon.
Hughes thought to provide in America a place where they could learn a trade and be productive members of society, so he funded the construction of this little Victorian English village in the Southern highlands. Unfortunately, while the village of Rugby perfectly served Hughes’ purpose, it turned out that the younger sons of English nobility actually preferred to drink, gamble and go wenching instead of soiling their soft hands with any sort of gainful employment. What this late nineteenth century social experiment left behind was a village of quaint and beautiful Victorian homes and a number of mostly English ghosts in the heart of Dixie.
One of the most famous haunts was the Tabard Inn, where a murder most foul took place in Room 13. Alas, one can not stay here, as the building went up in flames some years back. But I talked with Rugby Executive Director, Barbara Staggs, soon after Strange Tales was published, and she had interviewed eyewitnesses who testified that as the building burned, they could hear screams coming from the vacant Room 13. Some locals believed it was the ghost that haunted the hotel who set the fire herself.
Much of the Victorian furniture from the second hotel was salvaged from the fire however, and repurposed to homes throughout the town. Some say cursed furniture was the cause of supernatural phenomena spreading throughout the rest of the town. Others in Rugby disagree on this; but no one doubts that as towns go, Rugby has more haunts per capita than any other town in America.
More fortunate in its fate wasNewbury House. Its owner was an English gentleman of high esteem but low birth who found the town quite congenial and sent for his family from England. Sadly, he died before they came and now his ghost resides in Newbury House, still waiting for them to arrive.
Then there is the old Victorian library, which looks for all the world like something out of Harry Potter–if Harry was a book nerd. It has signed copies of Charles Dickens’ novels. No gnarly ghost of Jacob Marley though. Some call it the “Rip Van Winckle” library, because it seems as though when one enters it, one has entered a sort of time warp. Although there is a phantom librarian reported present there, its presence is mostly unseen. You, however, may have a different experience when you visit.
There are a number of homes in the town with ghosts, some more active than others and over the years eyewitnesses have reported encounters with them all. There is Kingston Lisle, Thomas Hughes’ sometime residence; there is Roslyn, a two story mansion with several spirits, including the wild carriage driver who thunders up to the front door in a black carriage and the tale of the “weeping girl” in the front yard. Then too, there is Twin Oaks, allegedly once home to a witch, although whether she was simply what the Irish call a “Wise Woman,” knowledgeable about healing herbs and such, or of the more wicked sort, we know not. Appalachia has had its fair share of both sorts.
Again, for more in depth accounts of Rugby’s many ghosts one is better off consulting the chapter in Strange Tales. Then after reading, you will be armed with enough knowledge to tackle Rugby for yourself. The living residents are friendly and helpful to visitors and the spectral residents are mostly harmless—even if the occasional encounter with them is a bit startling. By all means, if you visit Dixie in your travels, Rugby is worth the trip.