The Black-Whiskered Sailor: 1840s

‘A story with much more of the supernatural about it was related to me by Mrs. Hughes the other day which is, I think, one of the best authenticated ghost stories in existence. It was narrated to her by Mrs. Hastings, wife of Captain Hastings, R.N., and ran to the following effect:

‘Captain and Mrs. Hastings were driving into Portsmouth one afternoon, when a Mr. Hamilton who had recently been appointed to a situation in the dockyard there, made a third in their chaise, being on his way to take possession of his post. As the vehicle passed the end of one of the narrow lanes which abound in the town, the latter gentleman, who had for some little time been more grave and silent than usual, broke through the reserve which had drawn a remark from the lady, and gave the following reason for his taciturnity :—

‘”It was,” said he, “the recollection of the lane we have just passed, and of a very singular circumstance which occurred to me at a house in it some eighteen years ago, which occupied my thoughts at the moment, and which, as we are old friends, and I know you will not laugh at me, I will repeat to you.

‘”At the period alluded to, I had arrived in the town for the purpose of joining a ship in which I was about to proceed abroad. On enquiry, I found that the vessel had not come round from the Downs, but was expected every hour. The most unpleasant part of the business was, that two or three King’s ships had just been paid off in the harbour, a county election was going on, and the town was filled with people waiting to occupy berths in an outward-bound fleet which a contrary wind had for some days prevented from sailing. This combination of events, of course, made Portsmouth very full and very disagreeable. After wandering half over the town without success, I at length happened to enquire at a decent-looking public-house situate in the lane alluded to where a very civil, though a very cross-looking, landlady at length made me happy by the intelligence that she would take me in, if I did not mind sleeping in a double-bedded room. I certainly did object to a fellow-lodger, and so I told her; but, as I coupled the objection with an offer to pay handsomely for both beds though I should occupy only one of them, our bargain was settled, and I took possession of my apartment.

‘”Having retired for the night, and having, as I thought, carefully locked the door to keep out intruders, I undressed, jumped beneath the clothes, and fell fast asleep.

‘”I had slept, I suppose, an hour or more, when I was awakened by a noise in the lane below. I was turning round to recompose myself, when I perceived, by the light of the moon which shone brightly into the room, that the bed opposite was occupied by a man, having the appearance of a sailor. He was only partially undressed, having his trousers on, and what appeared to be a Belcher handkerchief tied round his head by way of a nightcap. His position was half sitting, half reclining on the outside of the bed, and he seemed to be fast asleep.

‘”I was, of course, very angry that the landlady should have broken her covenant with me, and at first felt half disposed to desire the intruder to withdraw; but as the man was quiet, and I had no particular wish to spend the rest of the night in an altercation, I thought it wiser to let things alone till the morning, when I determined to give my worthy hostess a good jobation for her want of faith. After watching him for some time, and seeing that my chum maintained the same posture, though he could not be aware that I was awake, I reclosed my eyes, and once more fell asleep.

‘” It was broad daylight when I awoke in the morning, and the sun was shining full in through the window. My slumbering friend apparently had never moved, and I had a fair opportunity of observing his features, which, though of a dark complexion, were not ill-favoured, and were set off by a pair of bushy black whiskers that would have done honour to a rabbi. What surprised me most, however, was that I could now plainly perceive that what I had taken in the moonlight for a red handkerchief on his forehead was in reality a white one, but quite saturated in parts with a crimson fluid, which trickled down his left cheek, and seemed to have run upon the pillow!

‘”At the moment the question occurred to me—how could the stranger have procured admission to the room? as I saw but one door, and that I felt confident I had locked, while I was quite positive my gentleman had not been in the chamber when I retired to bed.

“I got out and walked to the door, which was in the centre of one side of the room, nearly half-way between the two beds; and as I approached it, one of the curtains interposed for a moment so as to conceal my unknown companion from my view. I found the door fastened, with the key in the lock, just as I had left it. Not a little surprised at the circumstance, I now walked across to the farther bed to get an explanation from my comrade, when to my astonishment he was nowhere to be seen! Scarcely an instant before I had observed him stretched in the same position which he had all along maintained; and it was difficult to conceive how he had managed to make his exit so instantaneously, as it were, without my having perceived or heard him. I, in consequence, commenced a close examination of the wainscot near the head of the bed, having first satisfied myself that he was concealed neither under it nor by the curtain. No door nor aperture of any kind was to be discovered.

‘”I was the first person up in the house ; a slipshod being, however, soon made its appearance, and began to place a few cinders, etc., in a grate not much cleaner than its own face and hands. From this individual I endeavoured to extract some information respecting my nocturnal visitor, but in vain; it ‘knowed nothing of no sailors,’ and I was compelled to postpone my enquiries till the appearance of the mistress, who descended in due time.

‘”After greeting her with all the civility I could muster, I proceeded to enquire for my bill, telling her that I certainly should not take breakfast,  ‘nor do anything more for the good of the house,’ after her breach of promise respecting the privacy of my sleeping-room. The good lady met me at once with a Marry come up!’ a faint flush came over her cheek, her little grey eyes twinkled, and her whole countenance gained in animation what it lost in placidity.

“What did I mean? I had bespoke the whole room, and I had had the whole room, and, though she said it, there was not a more comfortable room in all Portsmouth; she might have let the spare bed five times over, and had refused because of my fancy. Did I think to ‘bilk’ her? and called myself a gentleman, she supposed!

‘”I easily stopped the torrent of her eloquence by depositing a guinea (about a fourth more than her whole demand) upon the bar, and was glad to relinquish the offensive for the defensive. It was, therefore, with a most Quaker-like mildness that I rejoined, that certainly I had not to complain of any actual inconvenience from the vicinity of my fellow-lodger, but that, having agreed to pay double for the indulgence of my whim, if such she was pleased to call it, I, of course, expected the conditions to be observed on the other side; but I was now convinced that they had been violated without her privity, and that some of her people had doubtless introduced the man into the room, in ignorance probably of our understanding.

‘”‘What man?’ retorted she, briskly. ‘There was nobody in your room, unless you let him in yourself; had you not the key, and did not I hear you lock the door after you?’

‘”That I admitted to be true. ‘Nevertheless,’ added I, taking up my portmanteau and half turning to depart,’ there certainly was a man—a sailor—in my room last night; though I know no more how he got in or out than I do where he got his broken head or his unconscionable whiskers.’

‘”My foot was on the threshold as I ended, that I might escape the discharge of a reply which I foreboded would not be couched in the politest of terms. But it did not come, and as I threw back a parting glance at my fair foe, I could not help being struck with the very different expression of her features from that which I had anticipated.

‘”I hesitated, and at length a single word, uttered distinctly but lowly, and as if breathlessly spoken, fell upon my ear; it was ‘WHISKERS!!’

‘”‘Ay, whiskers? I replied; ‘I never saw so splendid a pair in my life.’

‘”‘And a broken head! For Heaven’s sake, come back one moment,’ said the lady. ‘Let me entreat you, sir, to tell me, without disguise, who and what you saw in your bedroom last night.’

‘”‘No one, madam,’ was my answer, ‘but the sailor of whose intrusion I before complained, and who, I presume, took refuge there from some drunken fray to sleep off the effects of his liquor, as, though evidently a good deal knocked about, he did not appear to be very sensible of his condition.’

‘”An earnest request to describe his person followed, which I did to the best of my recollection, dwelling particularly on the wounded temple and the remarkable whiskers, which formed, as it were, a perfect fringe to his face.

‘”‘Then, Lord have mercy upon me!’ said the woman, in accents of mingled terror and distress; ‘it’s all true, and the house is ruined for ever!’

‘”So singular a declaration only whetted my already excited curiosity, and the landlady, who now seemed anxious to make a friend of me, soon satisfied my enquiries in a few words.

‘”After obtaining a promise of secrecy, she informed me that, on the third evening previous to my arrival, a party of sailors were drinking in her house, when a quarrel ensued between them and some marines. The dispute at length rose to a great height. The landlady in vain endeavoured to interfere, till at length a heavy blow, struck with the edge of a pewter pot, lighting upon the temple of a stout young fellow of five-and-twenty, one of the most active of the sailors, brought him to the ground senseless and covered with blood. He never spoke again, but, although his friends immediately conveyed him upstairs and placed him on the bed, endeavouring to staunch the blood, and doing all in their power to save him, he breathed his last in a few minutes.

‘”In order to hush up the affair, the woman admitted that she had consented to the body’s being buried in the garden, where it was interred the same night by two of his comrades. The man having been just discharged, it was calculated that no enquiry after him was likely to take place.

‘”‘But then, sir,’ cried the landlady, wringing her hands, ‘it’s all of no use! Foul deeds will rise, and I shall never dare to put anybody into your room again, for there it was he was carried ; they took off his jacket and waistcoat, and tied his wound up with a handkerchief, but they never could stop the bleeding till all was over; and, as sure as you are standing there a living man, he is come back to trouble us, for if he had been sitting to you for his picture, you could not have painted him more accurately than you have done.’

‘”Startling as this hypothesis of the old woman’s was, I could substitute no better; and as the prosecution of the enquiry must have necessarily operated to delay my voyage, without answering, as far as I could see, any good end, I walked quietly down to the Point; and my ship arriving in the course of the afternoon, I went immediately on board, set sail the following morning for the Mediterranean, and have never again set foot in Portsmouth from that hour to this.”

‘Thus ended Mr. Hamilton’s narrative.

‘The next day the whole party set out to reconnoitre the present appearance of the house, but some difficulty was experienced in identifying it, the building having been converted into a greengrocer’s shop about five years before. A dissenting chapel had been built on the site of the garden, but nothing was said by their informant of any skeleton having been found while digging for the foundation, nor did Mr. Hamilton think it advisable to push any enquiries on the subject.’

The life and letters of the Rev. Richard Harris Barham, Richard Harris Barham,1880: pp. 104-113

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Dark doings, indeed, at Portsmouth! Mrs Daffodil wonders whose hand it was that held the fatal pewter pot? Despite her initial vain intervention, the landlady no doubt knew a trick or two about quelling customers’ disputes.

At this time the city was the greatest naval port in the Empire, and, like most seaports, no better than it should be.  It was a town of great bustle and ferment; it was no wonder a lone seaman, even one adorned with a set of splendid whiskers, could disappear without trace. Since traditional apparitions often haunt until they are “properly” buried, Mrs Daffodil wonders why the whiskered seaman did not haunt the back garden or, later, the chapel, instead of the bedchamber. Perhaps he was a Dissenter and was finally able to rest.

Another maritime ghost story: Guts, the Ghostly Sailor-Cat

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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