The Ghostly Velocipede: 1860s

By José Guadalupe Posada

By José Guadalupe Posada

It is, Mrs Daffodil is assured, “National ‘Bike’ Month.” Pursing her lips dubiously  about Americans who create holidays for inanimate objects, she will nevertheless indulge her readers with two tales of spectral wheels.


An Engineer Tells a Strange Story of a Velocipede

He Was Glad to Change His Run on the Railway—A Horrible Accident Reenacted.

“I read an account in the Evening News not long ago of a spook on a bicycle and it reminded me quite forcibly of a ghastly experience of that kind that I had many years ago,” said an old gentleman this morning. The speaker said his name was C.H. True, and that he was a retired railway engineer. He is on a visit to some relatives in San Jose.


“It was before the days of bicycles when wooden wheeled velocipedes were creating considerable excitement,” he continued. “I then had charge of an engine on the Baltimore and Ohio road. One morning when we were going at a good speed I saw ahead a man riding along on a smooth strip near the track. I did not pay any attention to him for I knew there was enough room for us to pass him. When I first saw him however, I noticed that he acted unsteady as if he was not a skillful rider.

“But from the time I first saw the man till we were thundering by him was so short that I did not have time to make calculations of any kind. The next second the bell rang for me to stop. I did so as quickly as I could with a heavy freight train and then we backed slowly down the track. When I got orders to stop I did so, and looking just ahead of me I saw a terrible sight. There was the velocipede, and between it and the iron rails were two human feet, the legs having been completely severed from below the knees.


“I soon learned that the unfortunate rider had in some manner been thrown from his wheel under the cars and every bit of his body outside of his feet had been mangled beyond the semblance of humanity. We gathered up the remains as best we could and took them to Pittsburg, where they were recognized by friends of the deceased and buried. No blame was ever attached to the railway company or any of its employees in the matter.

“The next day when we passed the spot where the terrible accident had happened, I out of natural curiosity took a look at it again. What was my surprise and horror when I saw the velocipede coming towards me. It was going in the same direction that it had been on the previous day, but we were on our return trip and therefore did not go in the same direction as the wheel on that day. At first I thought the velocipede was entirely without a rider, but afterwards I discovered that there were feet on the pedals going like lightning.


“I was not at the time and never have been a believer in spiritualism. I have never had any other manifestations before or since, but I am sure of what I saw then, and that the apparition was not merely produced by an excited imagination, for I saw the spectacle every time I passed that spot on the road. Invariably the velocipede with the flying feet on the pedals would whizz by.

“At first I called the attention of the fireman and then some of the train hands to what I saw, but they laughed at the idea and said they could see nothing. For fear of being ridiculed, after that I kept my own counsel, but you may believe I was very glad when my runs were shifted to another portion of the road.

Evening News [San Jose, CA] 4 October 1892: p. 3

Rather less grim (if more skeptical) is this account:


It is a characteristic of ghosts, as all learned in spookology know, to resume, on their periodical or occasional return to old scenes, their accustomed habits. The medieval gentleman who had his customary garments made by a blacksmith went clanking about the ancient passageways in steel armor and frightening the butler and cook as of old. The red faced squire who galloped after the hounds across his tenants’ fields and garden patches, to the utter ruin of their crops and then exacted the last penny of rent and who at last, to everybody’s satisfaction, came a nasty cropper at a stone fence and broke his thick neck, continued as a specter to gallop at midnight across country, on a steed snorting blue fire from its nostrils until frightened back to spookland by a locomotive. Old Hans Vanderdecken, the Dutch skipper when reduced to ghostly condition, clad in spectral bag breeches trod the deck of his specter ship in centuries of storm. Murderers went on stabbing through all time and their victims pointed forever with ghostly fingers to spectral gashes or to the closets where their moldering bones had lain for ages. This last class of ghosts usually appeared in white sheets, probably because they were killed when asleep and the frightened ghost, forgetting where its day garments lay, had caught up the bed sheet in a hurry.

Times change and manners with them, even spooks are amenable to the laws of change. Spectral trains now run down ghosts trespassing on the track in remote and uncanny places, but the latest and most thoroughly fin de siècle spook rides a bicycle. He, she, or it—being a ghost of uncertain sex, the proper pronoun is probably “it”—made its appearance some nights ago at Woodsburg, N.Y., and has been seen every night since mounted on a phantom wheel and wearing a winding sheet instead of the bicycle suit which the tailors of Spooktown have not yet learned to make. From its hollow eye sockets a pale phosphorescent light shines and “its ghostly visage bears the stamp of death.” It is a skillful wheeler, for on its first appearance it “cavorted about in the rough roadway, cut a figure 8, then sailed gracefully over a fence and went skimming along over a newly plowed field and disappeared in a patch of woods.”

Several envious bikers, who are not skillful enough to skim plowed fields and jump fences on their wheels, are laying for that spook with shotguns. If their aim is good and the winding sheet is made of penetrable stuff the ghostly biker may have to ride its wheel standing. Or, perhaps, some Woodsburg liar may have to “take a tumble.”

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 12 January 1896: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  It is rather fascinating how quickly ghosts adapt to modern methods of transportation. One used to hear of phantom Black Dogs roaming the road-ways. Then there were ghostly coaches drawn by headless horses and the ubiquitous spectral highwaymen galloping up hill and down dale.  We have just read of ghosts on the newly-popularised machines: the velocipede and the safety bicycle. What is next? A phantom auto-mobile, aeroplane, or omnibus? Or perhaps flying tea-cups from the outer reaches of Space!

A story about a man who raced a phantom cyclist–and won, as well as others in a similarly blood-curdling vein may be found in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales From the Past, by Chris Woodyard. You may peruse a table of contents here. If you enjoy historical ghost and horror stories, you might also enjoy Mrs Woodyard’s The Face in the Window and The Headless Horror.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

1 thought on “The Ghostly Velocipede: 1860s

  1. Pingback: A Race with a Phantom: 1892 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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