Sarah Bow’s Hand: 1830s

The Christian Age, reprints from the Ladies’ Home Journal, of Philadelphia, a weird story entitled “The Wife of Ben Bow,” a tale of Brook Farm, by Hezekiah Butterworth. The story is prefaced by the following note of the author:

The story is substantially true. I have taken the story-teller’s licence in giving it form, making some changes in names and places, adding a little here and there for the sake of the movement of the narrative, but the psychological incidents remain intact. I give them as the honest and simple witnesses believed them to be. I have never known anyone to fully credit the tale, except one physician, who said: “I can believe it all: it is not stranger than a birthmark, or the stigmata of the Middle Ages. Mental impressions, if the faith be perfect, may be a deathstroke.”— The Author.

Whether true or false it is weird enough. The story tells how some sixty years ago two young ladies, who were frequent visitors at Brook Farm community, called at the farm-house on a young farmer called Benjamin Bow. His wife was a woman of character, much given to the speculation as to the inward world. When she was a little girl the middle forefinger of her right hand had to be amputated owing to an accident in the mill. The farmer and his wife had one child. When she was dying, she sent a message to the ladies who had called upon her, asking them to come and see after her child. She added,”I shall know if it is treated well, I shall know.” The doctor who told the story of the death scene said:

There was a nurse there whose name was Cone. As I was sitting by the bed the child cried. The dying woman started, and said with a look that was fearful: “Margaret Cone, Margaret Cone, if you or any one else ever injure that child, this dead hand will appear to you, or to whoever it be.” She lifted the hand from which the forefinger was missing. I have seen that scene ever since. There seemed to be something of hidden meaning in it—something like a prophecy. Then she grew calm, and lay uttering poetry.

Another year passed when Ben Bow married Margaret Cone, and after a time the two ladies were waited upon by a neighbouring farmer, who asked them to go and look after the child as it was being treated so badly. They rode over accordingly to ask how the child was getting on. The step-mother received them coldly, and said that the child was the worst youngster she ever knew. She was breaking his will and made him stop crying for his mother. The child was called in, and asked what was his mother’s name. He immediately gave the name of his real mother not of his step-mother. “Did you ever see anything like that for wilfulness?” said the step-mother. “That woman lies out on the hills in the cold without a grave stone, and never will have one if I can help it. That woman was never any good to Ben Bow. One mother is enough for the child,” said she. “When the dead Mrs. Bow wants to see you,” she said to her visitors, “she will send for you. Say, what was that?”

There came a heavy rap on the front door.

“There have been strange noises about the house ever since Sarah died,” said the woman. “Let me go and look out of the window and see who is there. That door hasn’t been opened since Ben banked up the house.”

Margaret Bow went to the window and threw up the curtain, and stood silent. She presently said: “There don’t seem to be anybody there.”

She sat down in an old rocking-chair and began to rock violently. She looked disturbed, and she presently said: “Now, I am going to tell ye how bad that child is.”

There fell a succession of loud, echoing raps on the door. Margaret Bow looked around wildly. A gust swept by the corner of the house. The two ladies turned apprehensively toward each other. The boy shared the fear, and came hesitatingly to his stepmother and buried his face in her lap.

“What do you come to me for? You told these folks that Sarah was your mother. If Sarah is your mother let her look out for ye and protect ye.”

Raps fell upon the door, almost causing the house to shake. Another gust of wind whirling the lone leaves swept around the corner of the house.

“Here, take the brat,” were the words of Margaret Bow, as she pushed the child from her. “Let me go and open the door.”

The visitors heard Margaret Bow unlock the door and slowly open it. They felt a sharp gust of wind sweep into the rooms. They heard a door in the entry fly open. There followed an awful shriek, a heavy fall. They opened the door of the room. Margaret Bow lay on the floor, moaning. They tried to lift her, but she was convulsed. They asked her what had happened. She at last gasped:

“Sarah’s hand!”

“What—tell us?”

“It met me at the door, and struck me on the forehead here. It was her hand—I knew it—I can’t tell ye how. Send for Ben.”

She curled up in a heap on the floor and lay motionless.

“Where is your husband?” asked the ladies over and over, but they received no answer. They asked the boy, but he could only answer: “He’s chopping wood,” but where he could not tell.

“The woman is dying,” said Mary Needham. “She must not be left alone. You go over to Brook Farm and call the doctor, and I will remain here with the child.”

At sunset Ben Bow came home, and Dr. Fifield and his sister met him on the road and told him all that had happened. They entered the dreary house, and found Margaret Bow lying unconscious where she had fallen. The doctor examined the prostrate form.

“She is dead,” he said.

“What was it?” asked Mary Needham.

“Paralysis,” said Dr. Fifield.

“No, it were not,” said Ben Bow. “That wam’t no paralysis.”

“What then?” asked Miss Needham.

“It were a conscience stroke. I know that woman’s soul. I know things that I wouldn’t want to tell. You may call it what you will—it were a conscience stroke. She’s been a-hearin’ noises. People who have wrong in their souls have haunted minds. Poor critter, may the Lord forgive her; she was constituted so.”

“She said that Sarah’s hand came and struck her on the forehead,” said Mary Needham. “Her forehead does look strange.”

They took up the form and laid it on a bed. Her hair fell over her high forehead and white face.

When the day of the funeral came the country side assembled. It was the custom for the visitors to take a farewell glance at the corpse before the coffin lid was fastened down.

Dr. Fifield, his sister, and Miss Needham rode over to the place in the morning, and the ladies prepared the body with suitable dress for the last rites, and waited the ceremonies which would begin with the opening of the coffin lid.

The clock struck one. The sexton who had been given the “charge of the funeral,” made his way through the crowd and opened the coffin lid. He started back, staring. What had happened? An elderly woman arose and bent over the coffin. A strange look came into her face. She stood there until a wild expression came into her eyes. She then sank down into her chair and whispered: “Something has happened—she don’t look natural!”

Others looked, and shut their eyes and turned away. The good old deacon now came forward and looked down. He, too, seemed to receive a shock. He turned around and said: “She don’t look natural at all. She ought not to be seen. I would shut down the lid again. Send for Ben.”

Benjamin Bow came, leading the child by the hand. He lifted the boy up in his arms, and bent over the dead face. One glance, and he uttered a cry:

“Sexton!” said he, “she is changing. Close the lid.”

Dr. Fifield leaped to his feet as the sexton came forward. He looked into the coffin. On the upper part of the white face and forehead there was the impression of a hand as black as ink. And the middle forefinger was gone.

Borderland Vol. 4, 1897, pp. 98-9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: When Mrs Daffodil saw that this story was written by “Hezekiah Butterworth,” she gave a knowing chuckle, believing it to be a pseudonym denoting one of those painfully home-spun New England humourists, writing in the quaint Yankee dialect. Well. Mrs Daffodil stands corrected. The name is the gentleman’s own and he was a noted author, travel writer, platform lecturer, and hymnologist. He also told a superlative and shiver-making ghost story.

Mrs Daffodil really has no patience with widowers who remarry in haste and allow their children to repent their parent’s imprudence at leisure. Yet it was Margaret that the first Mrs Bow visited, not the husband…. But, after all, it is something of a cliché in supernatural literature that ghostly mothers return to see that their children are not mistreated by a wicked step-mother. Mrs Daffodil has previously shared a dire story of a very young woman haunted by her husband’s  ghostly first wife. 

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.

 

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