A Flash of Fire: A Ghost Story: 1863


little girl with candle

There was something very agreeable to me, in my boyhood, in lingering among its simple denizens and listening to their traditions and passing experiences—none of which, however, were more interesting to a psychologist than what I am now about to relate, as happening to a person still living there in Philip Spencer’s cottage.

Philip and his first wife, Martha, who was a cousin of mine, having no children of their own, adopted the little daughter of a young woman who went to live at Derby. The child called them father and mother as soon as she could speak, not remembering her own parents—not even her mother. While yet very young, she one day began to cry out that there was a young woman looking at her, and wanting to come to her; and according to her description of the person it must have been her mother. As no one else saw the apparition, and the child continued for more than half an hour to be very excited, Philip took her out of the house to that of a neighbour; but the apparition kept them company, talking by the way. They then went to another house, where it accompanied them still, and seemed as though it wanted to embrace the child; but at last vanished in the direction of Derby—as the little girl, now a young woman, describes it—in a flash of fire. Derby is about fourteen miles distant from Holloway, and as in that day there was neither railway nor telegraph, communication between them was much slower than at present. As soon, however, as it was possible for intelligence to come, the news arrived that the poor child’s mother had been burnt to death; that it happened about the time when it saw her apparition; and, in short, that she was sorrowing and crying to be taken to the child during the whole of the time between being burnt and her expiration. This is no “idle ghost story,” but a simple matter of fact, to which not only Philip, but all his old neighbours can testify; and the young woman has not only related it more than once to me, but she told it in the same artless and earnest manner to my friend, the late Dr. Samuel Brown, of Edinburgh, who once called at the cottage with me,—repeating it still more clearly to Messrs. Fowler and Wells on our recent visit. Those people who ridicule all psychical phenomena they may not themselves have seen, will possibly be disposed to explain away this fact; but all we need say to such is what Shakespeare said long ago—” There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Nor could I well quit Holloway on this occasion without recording the story.

Days in Derbyshire, Dr. Spencer T. Hall, 1863

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Another queer tale of “second-sight,” made all the more striking by the child having never known her own mother, yet seeing an apparition of her description. Such a vision was often a token of the seer’s own death and one would very much like to know whether the child survived. These apparitions are a common theme in the literature of the supernatural: ghostly loved ones are seen by the dying and their attendants, even though they have not been told of the loved one’s death. Here is another example:


Sudden Demise of Woman After “Seeing Ghost.”

New York, Dec. 2. The death of Mrs. Margaret Smith while she was visiting friends in this city has all the uncanny surroundings of a real ghost story. Friends believe that she expired after seeing an apparition for a moment before she fell to the floor the woman raised her eyes to the ceiling and exclaimed: “Why, Frank, where did you come from?”

Only a few hours previous Mrs. Smith’s favorite grandson, Frank Kane, had died at his residence in West Sixteenth street, but Mrs. Smith had not been advised of it.

Physicians who examined the body pronounced her death as due to heart failure, but those who witnessed the dramatic scene think otherwise despite their non-belief in spirits or ghosts. Mrs. Smith was a well to do widow and lived at Seaford, N.J. Little Falls [MN] Herald 4 December 1908: p. 4

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

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

For more stories in a funereal vein, see The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, a look at the popular culture of Victorian mourning.




4 thoughts on “A Flash of Fire: A Ghost Story: 1863

  1. Ann

    “. . . the young woman has not only related it more than once to me, but she told it in the same artless and earnest manner . . . .” clearly suggests that this is the child who has grown up and remembers the incident clearly.


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Yes, indeed. And the fact that the anecdote appears, not in a sensational book with a Shrouded Spectre on the cover, but a memoir of rambles among the hedgerows and cottages of Derbyshire, renders it all the more plausible. Whether this fact is tempered by the detail that the author was a phrenologist, mesmerist, and spiritualist, Mrs Daffodil will leave to her readers.
      Best Wishes,
      Mrs Daffodil


  2. Susan M.

    Mrs. Daffodil, thank you so much for these two stories. Dr. Hall’s quotation from Shakespeare is one of my personal favorites.


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Many thanks for visiting! That particular Shakespearean quote–so apropos–was almost obligatory in stories of the supernatural. Shakespeare’s “the bourne from which no man returns” was also much-quoted and used as a euphemism for death. One can always rely on the Bard for just the right phrase.
      Best Wishes,
      Mrs Daffodil



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