When it comes to apparitions, spectres and ghosts, the only thing that is predictable is their unpredictability. While creepy castles and gothic mansions make for suitably moody sets for Hollywood fiction, the truth is that paranormal encounters can happen almost anyplace and anytime. Sometimes it may be a one-time singular occurrence; at other times a ghost may make its presence known almost daily, like clockwork. Similarly, almost any place can be host to a haunting. Obviously, old buildings that have a long and dolorous history are likely candidates, but even a brand new home can be the site of a paranormal event or haunting.
Such was the case one Yuletide in the village of Monkton Heathfield, located outside the town of Taunton in Somerset, England. In was close to Christmas, 1923, when a certain Mr. Gardiner, a construction contractor was bedeviled by a series of unexplained incidents in his brand new home. Monkton is a small but venerable village, named after the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, whose estates the village once resided in.
The trouble began about a week before Christmas, when Gardiner heard a strange noise, quickly followed by a blow to the back of the head. The object which struck him was an orange, which moments before had been in a bowl on a nearby dresser. No one else was present to blame the assault on the contractor, which was peculiar, since oranges don’t have legs to move about with.
Soon other inanimate objects also started to become quite animated. A chair suddenly jumped from the floor onto a table. A watch-box sitting on a table in the kitchen rose into the air and came crashing down with a thud. Then a pair of boots emerged backwards from the cupboard where they were stored and several books flew from the bookshelf where they were lodged and flew across the room. Nor was mid-day supper exempt from such happenings; while seated for the repast Father and son saw their knives move from one end of the table to the other and the pepperbox did the cake-walk in front of them. The climax to these uncanny events occurred when, in front of a room full of witnesses, a lamp arose from the table and gracefully glide onto the kitchen floor.
The frequency and oddity of happenings inside the Gardener household became such that Mr. Gardener and his son were forced to move out of their household just before Christmas. Whatever spirit or entity was active in the new house was left in possession of the home for the holidays. Whether the Gardeners ever were able to reclaim their domicile from the unnamed poltergeist is not recorded.
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!
As all no doubt are aware, telling ghost stories at Yuletide is an ancient tradition which we have inherited from England. The fact is that ghosts seem oft to make their presence felt at Christmas. Some say it is because our thoughts harken back to loved ones no longer with us; others aver that it is because the holiday coincides with the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year when the worlds of the living and the dead are closest. Or perhaps it is simply because, like old Uncle Scrooge, we all have had too much mince meat and hot toddies and our senses play tricks on us. Regardless, ghosts do seem to cluster close around the season—perhaps even more so than at Halloween.
For example the Queen’s residence at Sandringham House in Norfolk, England, has long known to experience poltergeist activity that begins activity from Christmas Eve, as well as other fey encounters. The estate has been occupied since the Elizabethan era, but it was in 1771 that architect Cornish Henley cleared the site to build Sandringham Hall. The hall was modified during the 19th century by Charles Spencer Cowper, a stepson of Lord Palmerston, who added an elaborate porch and conservatory. Today it is the private domain of Queen Elizabeth II and not considered public Crown property, as many royal residences are.
The spectral activity at Sandringham House manifests strongly in the servants quarters and the unseen spirits would seem to have a particular dislike for Christmas cards. The cards are frequently scattered, thrown and generally moved around. In addition, blankets are pulled off of beds and something very creepy breathes down the necks of the maids who serve the royal family.
There are old parts of the mansion, little used, that nobody wishes to go alone in. According to one account, Prince Charles and his valet once went exploring in an old wing of the palatial building in search of old prints. They suddenly both felt very cold and had the feeling that somebody—or something—was following them. Neither saw anything, but the experience was quite unnerving.
The library of the House is regarded as one of the most haunted rooms of the rambling manse. A napping servant was once awakened to the sight of books flying off the shelves. The hands on an old clock in the room often move by themselves as well.
The chamber maids believe that the most frightening spot in the house is the Sergeant Footman’s corridor on the second floor. They are so terrified of this part of the palace that they only clean that area of Sandringham in pairs or groups. According to reports, light switches are turned on and off, footsteps are heard walking down the corridor, and doors are heard opening and closing. They also report hearing a terrifying noise like a wheezing sound that, “resembles a huge, grotesque lung breathing in and out.”
With as long a history as Sandringham House has had, it is believed a number of ghosts haunt the building at Christmas. Members of the royal family died there in the nineteenth century and more recently one of Queen Elizabeth’s loyal retainers, Tony Jarred, the Queen’s favorite steward, died there in the cellar in 1996. Rumor has it that the Queen herself has seen Jarred at Sandringham, although as usual with the Royal Family, no one will speak publicly about it. Nor is Jarred the only ghost Her Majesty has seen in her long life.
The haunting of Sandringham is reported to begin on Christmas Eve and endures for about six to seven weeks, after which the spirits seem to become dormant until the next Yuletide. This year should be especially interesting, since Kate Middleton will be spending her first Christmas at Sandringham House. Bonny Kate has been duly informed about the Christmas ghosts there and also been advised to not make any jokes about ghosts to the Queen, who apparently takes her royal hauntings quite seriously.
While I normally focus my ruminations on strange doings below the Mason-Dixon Line, this go round we are casting our net farther afield.
As we all know–or y’all should know–St. Nicholas, an orthodox Christian saint, has as his special domain is Yuletide and that in particular he is the patron saint of children.
How St. Nicholas became the patron of children is where the supernatural weirdness enters the tale.
The story goes (and who am I to question Holy Mother Church in matters of faith). That St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, in Lycia an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (modern Turkey), had a strong reputation for piety and good works. Like St. Valentine, he was known to give young unmarried girls money for their dowry, so they could get married instead of being sold to a brothel by their father (yes Virginia, times were tough back then). To this day in some places, on his feast they still give bags of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to make them look like money.
One day, news came of a terrible crime. Three young children had been murdered and their bodies were found pickled by a fiend named Garum, who bore a strange resemblance to Peter Lorrie in M. Why the killer pickled them is a mite obscure, but the general theory is that he pickled them to prepare their flesh for being turned into meat pies (or the Roman equivalent)—à la Sweeney Todd.
Arriving on the scene of the crime, Old Saint Nick was anything but jolly at what he found. The children were most thoroughly dead—some renditions of his life claim they had already been chopped into cutlets in preparation for cooking. Then Saint Nicholas did something no one expected. He reanimated the dead corpses of the three children and reunited them with their grieving parents.
According to the version told by Anatole France, an angel appeared to Nick and bade him lay his hands on the pickle vat:
The angel said:
“Nicolas, son of God, lay your hands on the salting-tub, and the three children will be resuscitated.”
The blessed Nicolas, filled with horror, pity, zeal, and hope, gave thanks to God, and when the innkeeper reappeared with a jug in either hand, the Saint said to him in a terrible voice:
“Garum, open the salting-tub!”
Whereupon, Garum, overcome by fear, dropped both his jugs and the saintly Bishop Nicolas stretched out his hands, and said:
At these words, the lid of the salting-tub was lifted up, and three young boys emerged.
“Children,” said the Bishop, “give thanks to God, who through me, has raised you from out the salting-tub.”
The murderous innkeeper ran screaming into the dark and stormy night and has not been seen since.
Saint Nicholas also performed other feats of magic/miracles. One time, while traveling at sea a terrible tempest arose and his sailing ship was in danger of sinking. Again Old Nick stretched forth his hands over the waters and the sea was immediately calmed. It is because of these aforementioned good works and miracles that St. Nicholas is not only the patron saint of children, but mariners, virgins and prostitutes. This is why you will see icons of St. Nicholas with a boat in his arms and sometimes with gold balls. The gold balls are a bit enigmatic, but either are analogs to the sack of coins he gives to virgins for their dowries or as rewards to his more shady female devotees for their devotion to him. The gold balls may also relate to him being the patron saint of pawnbrokers, although how he took them under his wing is beyond me.
The notion that St. Nick is always a “jolly old elf” has been promoted mostly by the corporate types using him as a marketing ploy to commercialize a season which should be celebrating the advent of Jesus and the triumph of light over dark. In fact, St. Nicholas had a bit of a temper if you got on his bad side. During one church council, the bishops and other church officials were hotly debating the Arian Heresy, at the time being actively spread by a priest name Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ. Well, the “debate” got so heated that “Jolly Old St. Nick” hauled off and punched Arius, knocking him down on the ground and out for the count. I’m surprised that St. Nicholas isn’t also the patron saint of prize fighters.
Now a person who raises the dead from the grave for any purpose is by definition a necromancer and is necromancy is considered the blackest of the Black Arts. That Jolly Old Saint Nicholas had the power (albeit God-given) to raise the dead speaks volumes about his spiritual (ie magical) abilities. He may well be a merry old soul, but he is also not someone to get on the bad side of.
One hint that there is a darker side to Old Saint Nick is his “helper” the Krampus. You never hear about Krampus in the U.S., but in Austria and Germany they know better. One night on the Jimmy Fallon Show, Christophe Waltz gave American audiences a short education about Krampus. While the “elf on a shelf” is merely a snitch for Santa, Krampus is his enforcer—kind of like what happens if you don’t pay the Mafia loan-shark what you owe him. The best way to describe Krampus is if Bigfoot had sex with the Devil and they had a child together, who took some really bad LSD, Krampus would be the result. This creature is seriously demented.
If Saint Nicholas comes with “praise and presents and wisdom,” Krampus comes with a stick and a bag and if you’re bad you get tossed in the bag and hit with a stick. Actually, that is the least that Santa’s not so jolly helper will do to you.
He is fond of pulling pretty girl’s golden braids and doing God knows what else to them when no one is looking, and there are even some hints that Krampus has cannibal tendencies, like the aforementioned innkeeper.
Although it is not widely mentioned, St. Nicholas the Necromancer is held in great awe among practitioners of Voodoo, where he is identified with the African entity Gran Solé or in the Santeria Cult, Gran Soler. In the Spanish speaking lands of the Caribbean, Gran Soler and San Nicolas del Sol are one and the same. Which brings us to why St. Nicholas is connected to Christmas in the first place. No one actually knows when Jesus was born, but the early Church fathers placed his birthday around the same time as the Winter Solstice–the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. All fall, the days grow shorter and shorter, and the sun is “dying.” But with the Winter Solstice the dying ceases and the sun returns from the “dead.” St. Nicholas the Necromancer is closely tied with this annual miracle of nature.
That Nicholas of the Sun can raise the dead at will connects him closely with the Voodoo cult of the zombie as well. Imagine, if you will, that with St. Nicholas/Gran Solé’s help, at a wave of the hand you could summon an army of reanimated corpses back from the dead to do your will—what kind of power would you wield? Fortunately, that has not come to pass—yet.
So, let us hope you did not trample too many people on Black Friday, or run over too many pedestrians in your haste for a parking space. You better be good, you better be nice and better think twice–and forget about the sugar plums and spice–lest Krampus and St. Nicholas the Necromancer decide to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.
Many female devotees of the Late Unpleasantness are great admirers of the fictional heroine of Gone with the Wind, Scarlet O’Hara. Her wilfulness, her ability to manipulate men and her all around bitchiness have made her a role model for generations of GRITS (Girls Raised In The South). Outside of Middle Tennessee, however, there are few who know that there was a real life Southern belle whose actual antics put the fictional Scarlet to shame. Her name was Adelicia Acklen, the Mistress of Belmont Mansion.
Not that Adelicia was at all unpleasant or, shall we say bitchy. Oh no; butter would not melt in her mouth; she was a godly woman and prolific progenetrix. And she was very, very wealthy.
Where once rows of magnolias blossomed, today stands Music Row; other vestiges of Adelicia’s estate have also gone with the wind (or kudzu as the case may be) but the mansion she once resided in, Belmont, remains and–at least at Christmastime–so does she.
Adelicia started off her career as a humble country girl in Sumner County, with several thousands of acres of prime farmland and a few dozen champion show horses to her name. Her father was a simple farmer whose wealth could only be counted by a handful of accountants working night and day. However, wealth begets more wealth, and the young and beautiful Adelicia married a prosperous doctor who amplified her estate and sired several children with her. Poor thing, his health was not so strong as her loins and he died prematurely, leaving her a wealthy widow.
However, beautiful Adelicia did not long remain a widow. She remarried, this time to a far wealthier man, Joseph Acklen, who owned large and profitable plantations on the lower Mississippi, all of which produced bountiful crops of cotton.
In due course, Adelicia bore Joseph a bountiful crop of several more children and he in turn built her the magnificent Italianate mansion of Belmont. Sitting on a long sloping hill, one approached Belmont in the old days as if one were ascending Mount Olympus to visit the gods. Downton Abbey would have been a pauper’s hut compared to Belmont in its heyday. All went well, until the War.
In February, 1862, Nashville fell to the invading Yankee hordes and the miles between the Rock City and the Acklen cotton plantations in Louisiana were long indeed; for most of the war the area between the two waas a no man’s land in which the various armies marched and fought.
Not long into the conflict, husband Joseph headed south to look after their financial interests along the Mississippi, lest their family fortune be ruined. Adelicia remained home to look after her growing brood of children and her thoroughbred horses. She was devoted both to her children and her horses.
Then one fateful day came word that her beloved Joseph had died of a fever tending to their cotton (some say it was a carriage accident).
Adelicia sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, saying “What am I to do, what am I to do!” and then it struck her: what about the cotton? Where the hell was it; had it been harvested; was it ready to be shipped—and how?
Adelicia, for all her beauty, was not one to simply fan herself and stand idly by while her family fortune went up in flames. With no further ado, she piled a female cousin and two loyal servants in a carriage and headed into the hundreds of miles of lawless no-mans land, where deserters and robbers and guerillas on both sides would sooner kill you as look at you.
In the end Adelica saved the cotton. Through cajolery and charm, she shipped it abroad and sold it in England for premium prices, emerging even wealthier than before the war—a feat unique among Southern planters. In the postwar Dixie for many years she was the queen of Southern society and her evening parties and Christmas Balls were legendary. Belmont became the epicenter of the postwar South’s high society.
After she died, the aura of Belmont as a grand and elegant place continued on. It became an aristocratic girl’s finishing school, Ward-Belmont, and ultimately a well respected modern academic institution, Belmont University. But over the years, various alumni and staff have had odd encounters within its august halls, things that cannot be explained by natural causes.
No one has actually seen Adelicia roaming the halls; but on more than one occasion, student, faculty and staff have had fey and uncanny experiences in the mansion, especially at Christmastime, that make them believe she is indeed still inhabiting the old manse.
One of the annual Christmas celebrations at Belmont is called “Hanging of the Green” and the students stage an elaborate ritual revolving around a tall winding staircase. Over the years, students involved in the Yuletide ritual have reported feeling a female presence there, while waiting for the ceremony to begin. Others hear the rustling of crinoline dresses, when no one is there. Other unexplained encounters also occur with uncanny frequency, especially around Christmas.
So, do Adelicia and other members of her ghostly clan really still inhabit the august halls of Belmont Mansion?
In old London town, down where the richer sort cavort, lies the venerable Hampton Court Palace.
Hampton Court actually started as a grange—or barn—for the Knights of St. John, otherwise known as the Knights Hospitallers. It was this order that, most famously, would give the Holy Roman Emperor a falcon every year–The Maltese Falcon. But that Medieval structure was replaced in Tudor times by Hampton Court, which itself has been added to and rebuilt many times over the centuries. The one constant about the grand building that all agree on is that it is most seriously haunted.
After various and sundry changes, it eventually became the palace of the famous cleric turned politician, Cardinal Wolsey. Cardinal Wolsey gifted the palace to Henry. But the cleric evidently liked the palace so much he continues to hang about, long after his demise. Over the centuries Wolsey has been sighted under one of the archways. His last documented appearance was in 1966 sighting by an audience member attending a show at the palace.
Today, Hampton Court is one of the many notable tourist attractions London has to offer. But when visitors aren’t looking, strange things happen at Hampton.
Especially around Yuletide, security guards at the palace will find doors, which have been closed firmly, strangely open but a short time later.
Finally, one Christmas, the cause of the strange occurrences was discovered. On closed circuit security cameras the heavy palace doors can be seen flying open. It happened one Christmas on three consecutive nights.
At first nothing is seen on screen, but soon the spooky cause appeared. A robed figure, materializing out of nowhere, was seen pulling the doors shut again.
Who the Christmas ghost or ghosts may be is not known; some say it may be Cardinal Wolsey, others Henry VIII himself. Still other former denizens of its haunted halls have been suggested.
Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was arrested in a hallway of the palace on suspicion of adultery.
It is said she broke away from her captors in an attempt to plead with her husband for mercy. But mercy was not to be had from her vindictive and suspicious spouse. Ever since, her arrest and execution, that part of the palace has been called “The Haunted Gallery.”
Visitors will feel a chill or have other odd sensations in the hallway.
On separate occasions women have fainted away on entering the passageway.
On another occasion, two American women became hysterical, escorted out of the hall screaming in terror, claiming to have seen the apparition of a headless woman in a dark gown walking down the Queen’s Gallery towards them.
Other parts of the palace are associated with other phenomena–and other ghosts. The Queen’s Staircase, which has had a number of reports of being haunted, is believed to be the abode of Lady Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife.
At one time a professor of psychology was brought in to try to “debunk” all the sightings, charting all the sightings by location and observer’s beliefs. Yet despite the best attempts of the professional debunkers, no one has yet explained away the presence of the Christmas ghosts in Hampton Court.
While I have written about this haunting before, notably in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and briefly in passing in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, it does fit in with the current theme of this blog, as it is most certainly a Yuletide ghost. So for those of you who have read my books, please forgive the redundancy; but as I’m sure there are many who haven’t yet, please bear with me.
We must go back more than one hundred fifty years, to the ill-fated Autumn Campaign of 1864, which was the last gasp of the Confederacy. In a bold maneuver the gallant Army of Tennessee marched northward, even as Sherman’s marched southward to burn and pillage their way to the sea. The idea was to capture Nashville, restock the Confederate army there with the abundant warehouses full of supplies and then chase the Yankees back into Kentucky, take Louisville, burn Cincinnati and hopefully make the North sue for peace. Perhaps it was a vain and hopeless quest to start with; or perhaps in the hands of a better general than John Bell Hood, it just may have had a chance for success.
In any case, after several delays and missed opportunities, the Rebel army lay before the town of Franklin, less than a days march from Nashville. In their way stood two Yankee corps, doing their best to avoid being annihilated by Hood, yet still stall the Rebels advance on Nashville. Just the night before the Yankees, under General John Schofield, had escaped from the trap set them near Springhill, escaping in the dark and filtering into Franklin by the dawn’s early light.
In a rage Hood pursued, ready to attack anyone and anything that dared get in his way. On the southern outskirts of Franklin the Yankees had been entrenching all day, posting their cannon and rearguard behind trench and wall to keep the Rebs at bay. Hood was advised to simply go around the town and outflank the rearguard; to use his cavalry to cut them to ribbons on the road into Nashville; but he would hear none of it. Attack, he said; the enemy is before us; attack!
And so, late on the afternoon of November 30, 1864, even as the sun was westering on the horizon, the gallant Army of Tennessee advance over a broad plain of cleared fields, marching as if on parade and fully exposed to the deadly rifle and cannon fire of the enemy. They talk about Pickett’s charge being an ill conceived attack at Gettysburg; it had nothing over the charge at Franklin, where the distance to cover was far greater and equally clear of cover. Yet the men advance behind their colonels and brigadiers, some quietly reciting the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with its refrain, “someone had blundered.”
Among this band of brothers in butternut was one who knew the ground well. Todd Carter had grown up in Franklin, and like his older brothers, had volunteered for service in the Confederacy. As quartermaster of his regiment, he was not required in the front lines; but there he was nonetheless, advancing with the rest. Half a league, half a league onward the army advance, with shot and shell growing fiercer and more accurate as they closed with the Yankee lines, whose center lay just before the carter home.
With a blood-curdling yell the Rebels rushed the Yankee defenses which sat astride the Columbia Pike and for a crucial few minutes it seemed as though they might win the day. In the end, however, they were forced back from the parapets, and though the fighting continued on into the darkness, despite the Rebel soldiers best efforts, the enemy slipped away in the night.
The next morning, the carnage was ghastly to behold; men heaped in piles, horses, five generals and twenty colonels lay among their men; fully a third of the Confederate army dead or wounded—among the Captain Todd Carter. His family found him lying close to the Union lines, shot more than once, but still clinging to life. They brought him home, put him in a room in the rear of the house and nursed him as best they could.
Todd Carter was alive, but his wounds were serious. He lingered to life for a few days; but the wounds were too serious and he finally died. He was waked in the front parlor of his home and buried nearby in the family plot. But though he was buried, he was hardly laid to rest.
For every year, about the time of his wounding and death, visitors will report seeing a young man, all bandaged up, in that room in the rear ell where he lay before dying.
I have been to the Carter House and seen the hundreds and hundreds of bullet holes still in the brick and wood; I have been to the room where Todd Carter died, and while I saw no ghost, I felt his presence nonetheless.
So if you go, let me know, if you see the yuletide ghost of Todd Carter.