Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ghosts, Spectres and Apparitions

The following article entitled, Ghosts, Spectres, and the Apparition, first appeared in the February 8, 1941 edition of The Archon. It was written by faculty member, Harold MarshallCurtis, Jr., who taught English and Latin at the Academy in the early 1940s. The unidentified photograph of gravestones is from the Academy’s collection.

Ghosts, Spectres, and Apparitions

by Harold M. Curtiss, Jr.

If, some evening, you should suddenly come upon a ghostly shape gliding softly across the Mansion House lawn or if you should spy shadowy figures riding past Degen House along the Old Post Road, do not be alarmed. You will not be the first to have such an experience. Some sunny afternoon you may even meet the Devil himself, for he has visited Byfield Parish before. Merely keep out of the way and watch the fun. The ghosts and apparitions of Byfield are not to be regarded as objects pf terror, rather we should welcome them, feeling fortunate that our forefathers loved this locality enough to wish to return occasionally and reenact scenes from their earthly lives.

In this old New England community we live close to the past. Old traditions and customs have a strong hold upon us. The settlers of this locality were people with strong wills and deep-seated convictions, and it is not to be expected that even in death they should lose interest in the town which they helped to establish. Nor should we of this generation question the authenticity of the stories connected with their reappearances. It is a matter which transcends scientific research and beyond the bounds of factual investigation. The stories must be taken and handed down from generation to generation for what they are worth; the proof must lie with those fortunate enough to be witnesses to the shadowy scenes.

The most famous of all the ghosts or apparitions of this locality is the Byfield Spectre. It made its appearance on Sunday afternoon, April 27, 1778, and was seen by a large number of natives. Several eyewitness accounts of the event have been preserved and are incorporated in Mr. John L. Ewell’s Story of Byfield. The spectre, as described by Deacon Coleman and Deacon Chute, two stalwart worthies of the Byfield Parish Church, and whose opinion, therefore, must be considered unimpeachable, was “a giant certainly not less and probably more than twenty feet tall.” It was clothed in a long robe of black material, which, unlike cloth, did not move with the motion of the figure, but remained perfectly still and undisturbed. The dreadful giant suddenly appeared by the Mansion House about 2 o’clock on this beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon. It was first seen by a number of Academy boys who fled in abject terror. The apparition strode from the Academy grounds towards the Byfield parish Church, stalking at a “good horse’s pace” through the air about two or three feet above the ground. As it went along, the spectre glided through walls and fences without disturbing them, and constantly screamed in terrifying fashion.
Proceeding towards the church, the figure met a Mr. Within who was driving a herd of cows towards his barn. When the animals beheld the phantom, they roared and bellowed, some ran off in all directions, while others dropped dead of fright.

Upon its arrival at the Byfield Parish Church the spectre circled the building twice, screaming more than ever, and then rushed with increased speed to the top of Hunslow Hill where it turned to face the parish, flung out its arms, and with one final, terrific, ear shattering cry vanished into thin air.

The church people of the parish were naturally much disturbed by this unusual incident. The Reverend Dr. Parsons, pastor of the Parish Church, proclaimed that it was the Devil taking a walk. Deacon Coleman agreed that it was the Devil all right, but thought that he was doing a little more than merely taking a Sunday stroll. In fact he laid the blame right at the door of the good Doctor, stating that the Devil had appeared as an omen of divine displeasure against Dr. Parsons because he kept slaves. Whether Dr. Parsons released his slaves as a result is not recorded.

The real center of the ghostly traditions of the community is the Mansion House and it immediate surroundings. Local history has it that the front lawn of the Governor’s house was once the site of a bitter duel between a French officer and an English officer of his Majesty’s forces. After a prolonged battle with swords the Frenchman was victorious, and the English soldier succumbed near the front door of the Mansion House as the result of his wounds. According to eyewitnesses the duel is reenacted on moonlight August evenings just as it occurred in pre-Revolutionary days. All the formalities and participants are there, and the now peaceful lawn becomes once again the scene of violence and bloodshed.

The English officer who was killed also occasionally appears alone on the lawn, and his visits are not restricted to merely one month but may take place at any time of year. He is usually seen walking slowly across the lawn from Commons towards the Milestone. He is in full uniform with a beautifully embroidered cloak hanging from his shoulders. By his side swings a long sword and on his braided, cocked hat is a powdered wig with a short queue. As he walks, he appears to be in deep meditation and he is not frightened into disappearance by a beholder of his nocturnal stroll. It is said that one brave native who happened upon him determined to accost him, but the ghost merely quickened its pace in order to keep six feet between itself and the intruder. When it reached the proximity of the Milestone, it vanished from sight, for it never proceeds farther than that point.

To be continued……..

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