Mr Justice Powell Meets a Ghost: c. 1710

Some Ghosts and Spectres owe their Existence to a timorous or distempered Imagination, in the Midst of a dark and gloomy Interval; others take their Rise from the reciprocal Pleasure of deluding, and of being deluded: And for the rest, we must impute them to the early Errors of Infancy, and a motley Mixture of the low and vulgar Education Mothers and Grandmothers, Aunts and Nurses, begin the Cheat, and from little Horrors and hideous Stories of Bugbears, Mormoes [bogey-men] and Fairies, Raw-head and Bloody Bones, Walking Lights, Will-a Whisps and Hobgoblins, they train us up by Degrees to the Belief of a more substantial Ghost, and Apparition. Thus instructed, or thus imposed upon we begin to listen to the old legendary and traditional Accounts of local Ghosts, which, like the Genii of the Ancients, have been reported, Time immemorial, to haunt certain particular Family-Seats, and Cities, famous for their Antiquity and Decays. Of this Sort are the Apparitions that are Natives and Denizons of Verulam, Silchester, Reculver, and Rochester; the Daemon of Tedworth [also known as the Phantom Drummer], the Black Dog of Winchester, and the Barr Guest [Black Dog entity] of York. From hence we proceed to many other Extravagancies of the same Kind, and give some Share of Credit to the out-lying Night-Walkers and suburbian Ghosts, rais’d by petty Printers, and Half-Penny Pamphleteers.

The Apparition of Madam Veal, [controversially said to be by Daniel Defoe] because it recommends the Original Author, Mons. Drelincourt, and his elaborate Discourse upon Death, to all Readers, must therefore be of singular Use to the Translator as well as the Editor: And there are many others, of which no Account can be given but from Trick and Design, to promote some Temporal Interest; as, to bring a hard-mouth’d Malefactor to Confession; to oblige an unrelenting Parent to be reconcil’d to a Son or Daughter; or to sink the Rents of a House: And some Houses are said to be haunted just as some old Women are said to be Witches, only because they are squallid and uncouth, dilapidated and out of Repair.

But when he come to read of the Ghost of Sir George Villers, of the Piper of Hammell, the Daemon of Moscow, or of the famous German Colonel, mention’d by the Sieur Ponti, and see the great Names of Clarendon, Boyle, &c. affixed to these Accounts, we begin to find Reasons for our Credulity, ’til at last we are convinc’d by a whole Conclave of Ghosts, met together in the Works of a [Joseph] Glanvill [author of Saducismus Triumphatus] or a Moreton [another of Defoe’s pen names.]

Various Methods are proposed by the Learned for the Laying of Ghosts. Artificial ones are easily quieted, if we only take them for real and substantial Beings, and proceed accordingly. Thus, when a Fryar, personating an Apparition , haunted the Apartment of the late Emperor Joseph; the present King Augustus, then at the Imperial Court, slung him out of the window, and laid him upon the Pavement so effectually, that he never rose or appear’d again.

I shall conclude with a memorable Conference between the late Dr. Fowler, Bishop of Gloucester, and the late Mr. Justice Powell; the former a zealous Defender of Ghosts, and the latter somewhat sceptical about them. They had had several Altercations upon the Subject; and once when the Bishop made a Visit to the Justice, the latter contracting the Muscles of his Face into an Air of more then usual Severity, assur’d the Bishop that since their last Disputation, besides his Lordship’s strong Reasons, he had met with no less Proof than ocular Demonstration to convince him of the real Existence of Ghosts. How ! (says the Bishop) ocular Demonstration? Well! I have preach’d, I have printed upon the Subject; but nothing will convince you Scepticks but ocular Demonstration. I am glad, Mr. Justice, you are become a Convert: But pray, Sir, How went this Affair? I beseech you, let me know the whole Story. My Lord , (answers the Justice) as I lay one Night in my Bed, and had gone thro’ the better Half of my first Sleep, it being about Twelve, on a sudden I was wak’d by a very strange and uncommon Noise, and beard something coming up Stairs, and stalking directly towards my Room. I had the Courage to rouze myself upon my Pillow, and to draw the Curtain just as I heard my Chamber Door Open, and saw a faint glimmering Light enter my Chamber. Of a blue Colour, no doubt , (says the Bishop). Of a pale Blue (answers the Justice). But give me your Favour, my good Lord! the Light was followed by a tall, meagre, and stern Personage, who seem’d to be of the Age of seventy, in a long dangling Rug Gown, bound round his Loins with a broad Leathern Girdle: His Beard was thick and grizly; he had a large Fur Cap on his Head, and a long Staff in his Hand; his Face was full of Wrinkles, and seem’d to be of a dark and sable Hue. I was struck with the Appearance of so surprising a Figure, and felt some Shocks which I had never before been acquainted with. Soon after the Spectre had entered my Room, with a hasty, but somewhat a stately Pace, it drew near my Bed, and star’d me full in the Face. And did you not speak to it? (interrupted the Bishop, with a good deal of Emotion). With Submission, my Lord (says the Justice) and please to indulge me only in a few Words more. But Mr. Justice! Mr. Justice! (replies the Bishop still more hastily) you should have spoken to it: There was Money bid, or Murder committed; and give me Leave to observe, that Murder is a Matter cognizable by Law, and this came regularly into Judgment before you. Well, my Lord, you will have your Way; but in short I did speak to it. And what answer, Mr. Justice, I pray you, What Answer did it make you? My Lord, the Answer was, not without a Thump with the Staff, and a Shake of the Lanthorn, That he was a Watchman of the Night, and came to give me Notice, that he had found the Street Door open; and that unless I rose and shut it, I might chance to be robb’d before Break of Day .

The Moment these Words were out of the good Judge’s Mouth, the Bishop vanish’d with much more Haste than did the suppos’d Ghost, and in as great a Surprize at the Justice’s Scepticism, at the Justice was in at the Bishop’s Credulity.

The Virginia Gazette [Williamsburg, VA] 21 March 1751

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Let Mrs Daffodil don, not the black cap, but her Relentlessly Informative hat to mention that the two characters mentioned above are Dr Edward Fowler, Bishop of Gloucester and Mr Justice John Powell, also of Gloucester. As one of his biographers says, “His judicial character, both for learning and fairness, stood high. He was humane, as is shown by his remark on a charge of witchcraft in the case of Jane Wenham, who was alleged to be able to fly: ‘There is no law against flying;’”  He obtained a royal pardon for the convicted “witch” and made sure that she was safely relocated. “Swift, who met him at Lord Oxford’s, writes of him to Stella, 5 July 1711, as ‘an old fellow with grey hairs, who was the merriest old gentleman I ever saw, spoke pleasing things, and chuckled till he cried again.’” His joke at the expense of the credulous Bishop was entirely in character.

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2 thoughts on “Mr Justice Powell Meets a Ghost: c. 1710

  1. SallyCampbell & Ike Renfield

    Egad! I am glad to be of mature years. When I read such tales at a tender age I was a miserably disconcerted child at bedtime. (I *would* beg my parents to let me watch the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode set in Guanahuato.) The death /ghost poppet photograph is as disturbing as any momia.

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    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      That sounds utterly distressing! Mrs Daffodil is familiar with Mr Hitchcock’s moving-pictures, but cannot recall the photo-play you mention. Is it set in the mummy catacombs of Mexico?

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