The Haunted Piano: 1880s

THE WEIRD MUSICIAN.

Ten years ago, while visiting friends in Thistledown, Pa., I was told the following story, and will here relate it, word for word, as it was given, as far as memory will permit:

“Thistledown has just had a sensation,” said my hostess, Mrs. Doree, “a veritable ghost story. Shall I tell you about it?”

“Certainly, but I warn you not to impose too much upon my credulity, for I am not very superstitious.”

“Oh, I know you are a sad skeptic in such matters. However, this is a true story, an actual occurrence. Did you notice the occupants of the pew directly in front of us this morning at church?”

“Yes. A gentleman, a sweet little girl with a young woman who looked like a nurserymaid. The man wore a light tweed suit, has tawny hair and mustache and the most cynical face I ever saw.”

“The same. His name is Cornelius Butterfield. He is a native of London, England, and the little girl is his only child. Pansy, he calls her. He came here five years ago, and entered into partnership with McLeod & Co. His wife, report said, was the daughter of an English nobleman. She was a fair, blue-eyed, delicate-looking lady. Her age was about twenty years. She was highly educated, an accomplished musician, and the most romantic, sensitive being I ever knew. Her maid accompanied her to this country, but after a few weeks returned to England.

“The Butterfields moved into a new, uncomfortable-looking house uptown, where the young wife, who had never dressed herself alone or arranged her gold-colored hair without the aid of her maid, was obliged to do her housework and sewing. Of ‘course, this was very distasteful to one who had been tenderly reared in a luxurious London home. The lady could not help being homesick and unhappy. It is said that she made many mistakes in the culinary department—that her husband was harsh and cruelly impatient with his young, inexperienced wife. Poor thing! He even denied her many of the necessaries as well as all of the luxuries of life, I was told. It seems that it was an elopement. Mrs. Butterfield had a highly cultivated voice. She could play on the piano with taste and expression, but her husband refused to get her an instrument. She would plead with him for hours for a piano, with tears in her eyes, and declare that she should be less homesick if she could amuse herself with music when her work was done; but he did not wish to gratify her in this respect. It is said that her family across the ocean sent frequent sums of money to her. If they did, he must have kept the money, for the piano did not come to cheer her.

“It is reported that he used to beat her, but I am not sure that this was true, although I have heard him scold her for boiling the coffee too much or too little, and then reproach her for crying.

“When I found that she could play so finely, I invited her to come here whenever she had time to practice. She was very thankful, I can assure you; and would come in and sing for hours at a time. I must say again, that I still think Alice Butterfield’s touch and voice were both the finest and sweetest I have ever heard. Her selections were new to most of us. Indeed no one in Thistledown could play any of her pieces; for her music was of a higher class than ours, I wish you could have heard her.”

“How did it please her husband to have her practice here?” I asked. “Not very well. He told me that she was crazy to sing in public and he wanted to discourage her. That ‘she had been trained for the opera.’ But, how homesick and distract she was before her baby was born! Her playing only seemed to revive old memories and associations; for her cheeks were usually wet with tears when she rose from my piano;—yet one could not question her.

“I did not see her alive after her little girl was born, although I called frequently. The doctor or her husband was always on guard, and would say: ‘She is raving with fever, you cannot see her to-day;’ or, ‘she is sleeping, and ought not to be disturbed.’ One day when I went to the foot of the chamber stairs to inquire about her, she heard me, and cried out: ‘Let Mrs. Doree come up! I tell you I must and will see her!’ But the doctor came hurrying downstairs, and told me that his ‘patient did not know what she was saying;’ that my ‘presence might excite her too much.’ That, ‘her very life depended on her being kept quiet.’

“I went away fearing, I knew not what. She died that night; and when I again called, she was in her coffin. Her husband was present. ‘He has never left her since the beginning of her sickness,’ the nurse said, ‘not even for his meals. He only wanted me to take care of the baby and bring things upstairs when they were needed,’ she added, ‘He was the real nurse, and the doctor was always in the house. He ordered me to keep her baby out of the sick-room, and people out of the house, as his wife could not be disturbed by visitors. So nobody went into her room except himself and the doctor, but I could hear the poor lady raving and crying all day long for a piano, or money to go home to London, to her mother.’

“Mr. Butterfield and the physician prepared the dead woman for the grave. She was dressed in her beautiful wedding gown, white satin and real lace. A Queen Elizabeth ruche was placed high about her neck, and her breast and throat were covered with white roses, for her corsage was cut low. Her face seemed to rise out of a thick mass of white flowers and lace. They buried her very quickly, I think—the second morning after she died. The funeral was private, only a few being present, except the doctor and clergyman. We wondered why the corpse was so profusely decorated with flowers, as she was not a bride. Her dead face was beautiful. It seemed to glorify that poorly furnished apartment, yet Mr. Butterfield, I remember, did not once raise his head from his hands or take one farewell look at his dead wife. After a short prayer they placed the white casket in a hearse and drove directly to the cemetery.

“Mr. Butterfield’s apparently undue haste in burying his wife, as well as the privacy attending both her sickness and funeral obsequies, caused no little stir in Thistledown. There was talk of unfair play on the part of her husband and the physician, and a coroner’s inquest was spoken of. Then the story leaked out that in her delirium Alice Butterfield had attempted suicide by cutting her throat so badly as subsequently to cause her death. That Dr. Webb had hoped to save his patient until the very last, he said, ‘by keeping her quiet, and not allowing any one to see

or talk to her until the wound had healed. That is why I excluded everybody except her husband and nurse from the room. But she died from her own hand.’

“Mr. Butterfield’s apparent penuriousness ceased soon after his wife’s death. He rented a larger house uptown, furnished it handsomely and purchased a grand Steinway piano. He employed a cook and nurserymaid, then sent for his sister to come and preside over his establishment. She came.

“Miss Butterfield was no longer young, but she talked and dressed like a woman accustomed to good society. She played accompaniments for church music and songs, but lacked Alice’s nice touch for the piano and classical knowledge of instrumental music, as well as her innate delicacy and fine culture. Still, we rather liked her and tried to make the English lady feel at home with us, although her reserved manner repelled our well-meant overtures of friendship.”

About a fortnight after Elizabeth Butterfield’s arrival both she and her brother were startled in the dead of the night by hearing some one playing on the new piano. The style of the nocturnal visitor was not only brilliant, but was unmistakably like that of the late Mrs. Alice Butterfield. Instrumental music of a high order, portions of celebrated operas, nocturnes and classical compositions, rarely heard in an inland town like Thistledown. The sweet notes trembled all through the house, thrillingly clear and wonderfully pure, closing with Mendelssohn’s wedding march.

Brother and sister and maids rushed downstairs, and stared at each other in alarm when they met at the door of the drawing-room.

“‘I thought it was you, Elizabeth,’ said Mr. Butterfield.

“‘And I thought it was you, Cornelius, but wondered how you had learned to play so well since you left England. But how did the player get in? I have the key in my pocket, upstairs.’

“Her brother tried the door and found it locked, as his sister had said. ‘It is very strange,’ he whispered, in an awe-struck manner, then to his sister: ‘Run and get the key. We will solve this mystery at once.’

“When they opened the door they found that the fine-toned instrument was being played by invisible fingers, for the music still continued, although the music stool was unoccupied and they were the only visible occupants of the room. They listened in alarm—looked at each other with terror-stricken faces until the music ceased. Then Mr. Butterfield asked:

“‘Can you play any of those pieces?’

“‘No, Cornelius. I never learned any difficult music; you know I only play simple chords and accompaniments,’ was the answer. They looked into and under the piano, then in every room and closet in the house; examined the windows and outbuildings—but no one was to be found. They took off the lid of the piano to see if a mouse could have set it to playing, or to see if a music box could have been hidden within it; searched everywhere in vain for the performer. The following night it was the same, and so on for several nights in succession. Neighbors were called in, and declared that the parlor was haunted. The servants left the house in fear. Still the grand Steinway awoke the inmates of the house nightly with its dulcet tones. The keys could be seen moving up and down, while marches, quicksteps, bits of operas followed each other in rapid succession— now swelling like martial music, grand and glorious; again dying away to a whisper, then rising like the sound of a storm or furious battle.

“The first intimation we had of their parlor being haunted was when its owner asked Mr. Doree if his piano ever got out of order and played right on, of its own accord, and, when answered in the negative, told us why he had asked the question. He acknowledged that he was greatly puzzled—said he could give no solution to the mystery. He remarked that the keys were certainly manipulated by ‘invisible fingers.’ Then, after a silence of a few minutes: ‘The strangest part of it is that neither my sister nor myself are able to play this class of music, which we recognize as the work of the old masters, and the servants cannot tell one note from another. Our neighbors are unable to whistle a single bar of it, let alone playing it. There is not another instrument of the kind on our street. My sister thought that some wag had hidden a music box inside of the piano, but we have had it taken all apart, had it tuned over anew and searched everywhere, but found nothing. It plays beautifully such music as I have heard my late wife play on her father’s piano.’

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘it is clear that the house is haunted. It would hardly be safe for you if we were living in the witch-burning age.’ He laughed rather nervously, I fancied, and said, ‘Good night, come and hear it for yourselves,’ and we went.

“He told my husband’s partner the same story. All the people in the town declared that his dead wife had come back to punish him for not buying her an instrument, while the more malicious gossips of the town said that ‘there must have been foul play in the manner of Mrs. Butterfield’s death.’ There was talk of lynching the young widower—of disinterring his poor wife’s remains, and every one was for avenging her wrongs, when he suddenly closed his house, sold his effects, including the haunted piano, and sent his sister back to England.”

“Well, does the instrument still entertain its new owners?”

“Oh, no! That is the oddest part of the whole story. The lady who owns it has never been disturbed by any nocturnal music. The ghost has stopped playing. No invisible spirit hands now touch the keys. Both herself and daughters play very unscientifically. If poor Alice did return, she did so to punish her cruel husband and no one else. He is still boarding at the hotel uptown, but it is rumored that he will soon marry Pansy’s nurse. Some people are yet suspicious of his neglect, of possible foul play in his wife’s last sickness, but Dr. Webb is a Christian gentleman, whose veracity has rarely been doubted, and his testimony ought to be believed, I suppose. He affirms that the poor lady was delirious and destroyed her own life; that the husband went to him in great distress of mind and begged him, the doctor, to save the sick woman, if possible. Of course, Mr. Butterfield or any other man would not half-commit a deed of that kind and stand the chance of being exposed by the victim and brought to trial, if not to the gallows,” she added.

“No—that certainly is in his favor. If he alone had heard the music we might have accounted for it on the score of a haunted conscience; but, as others heard it, one does not know what to think of it,” I said. “But who was the musician?”

“Little Pansy is now four years old. She is still under the care of her nurse,” said Mrs. Doree. I subsequently heard the same story from a number of the town’s people, and have given it to the reader as it was told to me, unmodified in any particular.

Modern Ghost Stories, Emma May Buckingham, 1905: pp. 75-82

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is not so sure about the idea that Mr Butterfield or any other man would not half-commit a deed of that kind. Such men generally have short attention spans and would be impatient to have an invalid wife put out of the way quickly. Any risk of being exposed by the victim could be explained away as “delirium.” How easy to wait until the doctor stepped out of the room to wound poor Mrs Butterfield in a convincingly half-hearted way that would still ensure her death. Dr Webb, in keeping visitors away and accepting this exceedingly thin story–pray, Doctor, why was anything sharp allowed within her reach?–proved himself an able accomplice.

Young Mrs Butterfield, who had so little agency in her earthly life, seems to have chosen a delightful method of ghostly revenge: She got to play to her heart’s content, while publicly unnerving her husband. Win, as they say, win.

Depend on it: a man who talks about how the music from a haunted piano sounds like that played by his late wife has something more than marital cruelty on his conscience.

Had he not moved and sold the piano, Mrs Daffodil rather fancies Mr Butterfield would have “cracked” and perhaps even confessed. But then, all his talk of a haunted piano would have laid the ideal ground-work for an insanity defence. We live in a sad world when the ghost of a murder victim cannot even haunt her murderer into the grave.

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 anecdote

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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