Tag Archives: omens of death

Pigeons of Doom: 1700

 

Doves in a funeral flower arrangement, 1885

Both doves and pigeons are constantly associated in the popular mind with death. Every reader of Westward Ho! will remember the white dove which was the habitual death-token of the Oxenham family.

We have in Shropshire a less poetical record of a similar death-warning, which, however, seems to have been attached not so much to a particular family as to a particular house. The narrative shall be given verbatim from the pages of the old writer who has preserved it for us.

‘Beecause many maryages of persons in this parish of Myddle have beene made with persons of Cayhowell, I will say something of that farme. . . . There is a wounderfull thing observable concerning this farme, of which I may say, in the words of Du Bartas—

Strang to bee told, and though believed of few,

Yet is not soe incredible as true.

It is observed that if the chiefe person of the family that inhabits in this farme doe fall sick, if his sicknesse bee to death, there come a paire of pidgeons to the house about a fortnight or a weeke before the person’s death, and continue there untill the person’s death, and then goe away. This I have knowne them doe three severall times. 1st. Old Mrs. Bradocke fell sicke about a quarter of a yeare after my Sister was maryed, and the paire of pidgeons came thither, which I saw. They did every night roust under the shelter of the roofe of the kitchen att the end, and did sit upon the ends of the side raisers. In the day time they fled about the gardines and yards. I have seene them pecking on the hemp butt as if they did feed, and for ought I know they did feed. They were pretty large pidgeons; the feathers on their tayles were white, and the long feathers of theire wings, their breasts, and bellyes, white, and a large white ring about theire necks ; but the tops of theire heads, their backs, and theire wings (except the long feathers,) were of a light browne or nutmeg colour. (My brother-in-law, Andrew Bradocke, told mee that hee feared his mother would die, for there came such a pair of pidgeons before his father’s death, and hee had heard they did soe beefore the death of his grandfather.) After the death of Mrs. Bradocke, the pidgeons went away. 2ndly. About three-quarters of a year after the death of Mrs. Bradocke, my father goeing to give a visit to them at Kayhowell, fell sicke there, and lay sicke about nine or ten weekes. About a fortnight beefore his death, the pidgeons came; and when hee was dead, went away. 3rdly. About a yeare after his death, my brother-in-law, Andrew Bradocke, fell sicke, the pidgeons came, and hee died; they seemed to me to bee the same pidgeons at all these three times. When I went to pay Mr. Smalman, then minister of Kynerley, the buriall fee for Andrew Bradocke, which was in April, Mr. Smalman said, this is the fiftieth Corps which I have interred here since Candlemas last, and God knows who is next, which happened to bee himselfe. Andrew Bradocke died of a sort of rambeling feavourish distemper, which raged in that country, and my sister soone after his decease fell sicke, but shee recovered, and dureing her sicknesse, the pidgeons came not, which I observed, for I went thither every day, and returned att night. Afterwards my Sister sett out [= let] her farme to John Owen, a substantiall tenant, who about three yeares after fell sicke; and my Sister comeing to Newton, told mee that shee feared her tenant would bee dead, for hee was sicke, and the pidgeons were come; and hee died then.’

From Richard Gough, Antiquityes and Memoyres of the Parish of Myddle, 1700, Ed. 1875, pp. 45-48

Shropshire folk-lore: a sheaf of gleanings, edited by Charlotte Sophia Burne, 1885: p. 227-9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: On several recent mornings Mrs Daffodil has noticed the mourning doves making moan in the shrubberies. The creatures visit only intermittently and Mrs Daffodil does not know whether to take it as an omen or a directive…

Doves and pigeons are often conflated in folk-lore. One suspects that their reputation as downy death omens comes from their role as a symbol for the Holy Spirit.  In some parts of England there was a superstition that if pigeon feathers were found in the feather bed or pillow of a dying person, that person would not be able to pass on until the offending feathers were removed. See this post on “Feather Superstitions” for the particulars of death-preventing feathers.

 

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.

 

The Swans of Closeburn: 1700s

swan

Whenever any member of the Kirkpatricks of Closeburn in Dumfries-shire was about to die, a swan that was never seen but on such occasions was sure to make its appearance upon the lake surrounding Closeburn Castle, coming no one knew whence and passing away mysteriously when the predicted death had taken place. In connection with this omen the following legend is told: In days gone by the lake was the favourite resort during the summer season of a pair of swans, their arrival always being welcome to the family at the castle, from a long-established belief that they were ominous of good fortune to the Kirkpatricks. No matter what mischance might have before impended, it was sure to cease at their coming, and so suddenly as well as constantly that it required no very ardent superstition to connect the two events as cause and effect.

But a century and a half had passed away, when it happened that the young heir of Closeburn, a lad about thirteen years of age, in one of his visits to Edinburgh, attended a performance of The Merchant of Venice at the theatre. In the course of the play he was surprised to hear Portia say of Bassanio that he would

Make a swanlike end.

Fading to music.

Wondering whether swans really sang before dying, he determined at the first opportunity to test the truth of the words for himself. On his return home he was one day walking by the lake, when the swans came rushing majestically towards him, and at once reminded him of Portia’s remark. Without a moment’s thought he lodged in the breast of the foremost one a bolt from his crossbow, killing it instantly. Frightened at what he had done he made up his mind that it should not be known, and as the dead body of the bird drifted towards the shore he lifted it and buried it deep in the ground.

No small surprise, however, was created in the neighbourhood when for several years no swans made their annual appearance. As time passed it was thought that they must have died, but one day, many years later, much excitement was caused by the appearance of a single swan with a deep blood-red stain upon its breast. As might be expected, this unlooked-for occurrence occasioned grave suspicions even among those who had no great faith in omens; and that such fears were not groundless was soon abundantly clear, for in less than a week the Lord of Closeburn Castle died suddenly. Thereupon the swan vanished and was seen no more for some years, when it again appeared to announce the loss of one of the house by shipwreck.

The last recorded appearance of the bird was at the third nuptials of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick, the first baronet of that name. On the wedding day his son Roger was walking by the lake, when, on a sudden, as if it had emerged from the waters, the swan with the bleeding breast appeared. Roger had heard of the mysterious swan, and although his father’s wedding bells were ringing merrily, he himself returned to the castle a sorrowful man, for he felt convinced that some evil was hanging over him. On that very night the son died, and here ends the strange story of the swans of Closeburn.

The Occult Review March 1916: pp. 164-5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Some might take this as a warning about the evil influence of the play-house on Impressionable Youth.

The exact quote is

Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.
(The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.46)

Of course, the term “swan-song” is proverbial; swans were believed to burst into beautiful song as they were dying.

Swans are also considered to be a death omen for the Marquises of Bath. When the Marquis is about to die, it is said that one of the swans flies away from the lake at Longleat and does not return.

“The present Lord Bath told author [Christina Hole] that during World War I, when his elder brother, then the Marquis, was fighting in France, his mother saw a swan fly away as she stood by a window. Five swans flew toward her, then circled the mansion. One swan then turned out of the formation and flew into the distance while the four returned to the lake. The following morning she received the official telegram informing her of her son’s death.” The Psychic Power of Animals, Bill Schul

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.

 

The Dead Lights: 1882

shipwreck 1848

A STORY OF SECOND SIGHT.

“Towards the close of a dark cold evening,” he said, “the 23rd October, if I remember rightly, I found, much to my annoyance, that I had quitted the high road leading to Portree and was wandering about in the most helpless manner possible amidst innumerable bogs and morasses. What was to be done? To retrace my steps was simply impossible. There was nothing to indicate the proper route. The moon had not yet risen. Darkness enveloped me like a curtain, and I was alone. Once I paused and whistled, but no human voice made answer. The sole response was the beat of the wild sea surf on the distant shore.

Stumbling and falling till I was footsore and weary, I came at length within sight of the sea. I could distinguish its billows, foam-crested and angry, as they cleft the darkness; and O, joyful sight! I also perceived twinkling lights at some little distance off along the shore. I was then in the neighbourhood of cottages, in one of which I might pass the night.

The threshold of the nearest gained, I knocked at its door. After some little delay this was opened by a middle-aged and rather gaunt looking female. My request for shelter was listened to in silence. After a moment’s reflection, she went back a few paces, threw a hurried glance over her shoulder into the interior, and then beckoned me to enter. I did so.

The room or kitchen into which she ushered me was miserable in the extreme. The plenishing consisted of a wooden table, two straw pallets in one corner, and three chairs, on one of which, cowering over the embers that glowed on the hearth, sat an aged white-haired man. Raising his faded eyes for a moment on my entrance, he again lowered them to the hearth, moaning and muttering the while in the strangest fashion.

“The woman looked on him with an unmistakable expression of awe and fear on her face, then placed for me a chair on the opposite side of the hearth, while she herself took one some little distance off. Her knowledge of English was much too limited for us to indulge in anything like conversation; still she could both understand me when I asked questions and make herself understood when she replied, which was about as much as I expected.

“Her father, she said, pointing to the old man, could talk English well, for he had been gamekeeper in his youth to a south-country gentleman, and the little she knew she had learned from him.

“A few sentences exchanged, we lapsed into silence, which I was on the point of breaking with some trivial remark when the door opened and there entered a tall, handsome girl enveloped in a chequered plaid. Darting a hasty glance at me, she addressed the woman hurriedly in Gaelic, a language with which I was but slightly acquainted. What she did say, however, seemed in some way to have reference to the old man, for my hostess, while making answer, looked at him and shook her head.

“Much to my surprise, although he must have known he was the subject of their conversation, he never once looked up nor took the slightest notice of his visitor. His dim eyes still remained riveted on the fire, and he moaned and sighed and shivered as if with cold. I could see I also was being made the subject of remark, for once more the maidens fine dark eyes turned in my direction, as mine hostess replied to some questions of hers. Her curiosity in respect to my presence apparently satisfied, the girl, having previously refused with a smile the chair I offered her, seated herself on the floor beside the woman, and conversed with her in low, anxious tones, while her eyes frequently reverted to the clock with looks of anxiety.

“I was beginning to feel perplexed and curious as to the existing state of matters in this solitary household. Was the old man ill or out of his mind? Was the handsome stranger any relation of the couple, or was she merely a sympathising friend? Why did she look so repeatedly at the clock? Had she any—here an end was put to my mental soliloquy by the girl giving a sudden start, and seizing hold of her companion’s wrist, while she raised her forefinger as if enforcing silence. An ashen hue overspread the woman’s harsh features as her visitor did this, and she remained rigid and motionless as a statue in the attitude of listening. I, too, listened.

“Mingling with the dull roar of the billows, I distinctly heard a crashing sound as though some wooden substances were being crushed together; to this succeeded a noise like the dragging of chains. The women also hearing it, a look of terror swept over their faces, and my hostess uttered, half aloud, the pious ejaculation—‘Lord, have mercy on them!’ Then both rose to their feet. The younger one, eager and trembling, undid the bar that fastened the casement, opened it, and they gazed out in silence. My curiosity now intensely excited, I also arose, and, noiselessly treading the floor, took my station immediately behind them. The wild scene I then saw I shall never forget. The moon, struggling through a dense mass of storm cloud, threw broad streams of light on the heaving billows as they broke in rude shocks on the shore. Lying at anchor, out of reach of the waves, were several fishing-boats; and, strange to say, although there was a profound calm, these were being dashed up against each other in the most unaccountable manner, while the chains by which they were fastened, creaked and rattled as though they were being dragged about by powerful hands. Then a moaning sound seemed to pervade the air.

‘“There—there it’s again! O! isn’t it dreadful?’ whispered the girl.

“‘Did you tell them about this?’ said her companion.

“‘Yes; but they only laughed at me.’

“‘Then, they’ll go.’

“‘Sure and certain.’

“‘Poor things! then I doubt they’ll never come back. O, look there!’ Again the boats were dashed to and fro; the chains emitted the same harsh grating sound, but this time I could see several little blue twinkling lights moving along the shore.

“‘The dead lights!’ groaned the elder woman. The young one, shivering, buried her face in her hands.

‘“Aye, the dead lights!’ was shouted in frenzied tones behind us. I looked round in amaze; so did the women. The old man was standing bolt upright; his hair upon end; his eyes glaring wildly into space; his hands outstretched and quivering.

‘“Aye, the dead lights! and they’re not there for nought. Death! Death! nothing but death! I see it all! There they are! The boats! dancing merrily over the sea—there—there! Three in all! Away—away! No fear of danger. Stout hearts and strong arms. The bread winners for the wives and children. The wind rises—but what of that? There is no danger! The boats are stout—and the fishers brave, and stalwart, and young! Ha! ha! A sudden squall—Good God! Down goes the foremost—and another—and another— gone, all gone. Neil, Duncan—and—Farquhar—!’

“As the old man uttered this name, the girl, with a loud cry, sank senseless on the floor, at the same time that the speaker relapsed into his moaning shivering posture by the hearth.

“When we had succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, I inquired of the woman the meaning of all this.

“‘O, sir, he has had the “second sight,”’ she said, ‘he was telling us, as he has done for the last three nights, that our fisher lads will be drowned, and poor Mary’s (pointing to the now weeping girl) lover, Farquhar Macdougall, is among them—so he said to-night.’

“‘Surely they will not go when they hear of this,’ I said.

“‘They must, sir, or we should all starve,’ was her sad answer; ‘that is they will go, though we have done our best to prevent their going this week, for should they be drowned, we’ll starve all the same.’

“Painfully impressed with what I had seen, and unwilling any longer to intrude my company upon them in their distress, I placed some silver in the woman’s resisting hand, and told her the moon being now up, if she would kindly direct me how to get to Portree, I should wish to continue my journey.

“She did so, at the same time saying how sorry she was that her father should have been taken in my presence.

“With a few words expressive of hope that he would turn out to be a false prophet, I bade her good evening, and bestowing a farewell glance on the sorrowing maiden, I went my way pondering on what I had seen and heard.

“Not many days afterwards I read in the Inverness Courier of the melancholy loss of three boats with their fishers while fishing off Skye.

“Amongst the names of the drowned were those mentioned by the aged seer.”

Psychological Review, May 1882

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The grinding noise of the fishing boats is reminiscent of the so-called “Tolaeth before the Coffin,” or the sound of phantom carpenters sawing, planning, and hammering as they make a coffin for a person soon to die. You will find a post on this subject here and another on “corpse candles“–the death lights–which presaged death. “The Blood-stained Cap” is another exceptionally chilling post about a token of death in a fishing community.

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.