A Doctor’s Device
In the days of the Pennsylvania oil strikes I, then a young physician, was called to examine a man there, Samuel Granger, who had inherited a farm near which oil had been struck and whose brain was supposed to have been affected by the sudden turn of his fortune. He heard sounds no one else could hear, and at intervals a ghost came into his room at night. He lived with his aunt, who wanted to have him placed in an asylum.
I didn’t care to have the patient or his aunt know that I was going to examine him, so I wrote that I would arrive much later than I intended. One morning I went to the house without either the aunt or nephew knowing that I was coming. The door was opened by the aunt.
“I understand,” I said, “that this property is for sale. I would like to buy it if I can do so at a fair price and get a clear title.”
“You can’t buy it or get a clear title either. My nephew owns it, and he’s gone daft on account of its sudden rise in value.”
“Why don’t you have him adjudged incompetent to manage his affairs and a guardian appointed?”
“That’s what we’re trying to do. There’s a doctor coming down from the city in a few days to examine him. But I don’t believe it’ll do any good. Sam sees a ghost every now and then. There isn’t any ghost. Nobody but Sam sees it. He’s all right on other subjects, and I don’t know as you can call a man crazy because he says he has seen a spirit.”
“Has any one been with him when he has seen the ghost?”
“Don’t know that there has, excepting me.”
“How often does the ghost appear?”
“Oh, once in awhile!”
“Will he be likely to see it within the next few days?”
“Maybe, if he gets excited about anything.”
“I’ll tell you what I’d do If I were you. I’d tell him that the doctor is coming to examine him with a view to putting him in an asylum. Tell it to him the day before you expect the doctor. That will bring on the paroxysm, and he’ll fancy he’s seen the ghost again. That’ll give the doctor an opportunity to talk with him just after he has seen it.”
The woman made no reply to this, and, assuring her that I would give a large sum for the property as soon as it could be sold, I left her.
The next day but one I was expected to appear and examine the patient. The next afternoon I went up on a hill overlooking Sam Granger’s farm and watched. All I saw was a young man come to a window but a few feet above the roof of a piazza. After dark I stole down to the house and climbed up a trellis to the window. It was summer, and the window was open. There was no one in the room, but a light on a table showed me by the presence of clothing, pipes, tobacco and such things scattered about that it was a man’s room. I waited on the piazza roof till after 9 o’clock, when the young man entered, took ft his clothes and went to bed. He looked nervous and haggard.
What I was after was to see him under the influence of his vision without his knowing of my presence. His aunt had doubtless, excited him by telling him that I was coming, and he would be pretty sure to see the ghost. I could hear him tossing in the bed, but as the lamp was not lighted I could not see him. I waited till nearly 11 o’clock, when he had quieted down, and I thought he was asleep. But suddenly he gave a shriek, and I could faintly see him sitting up in bed, doubtless staring at his vision. I cast my eyes about the room, and to the left, near a door, I saw a luminous white figure, apparently of a woman.
For a moment I was taken aback. I had no idea of anything appearing except to the young man’s excited brain. Here was something that I could see myself. Then it occurred to me that the ghost’s garments had been rubbed with phosphorus. The figure stood a few moments and was turning to go before I gathered my faculties, but suddenly under an impulse I sprang into the window, dashed across the room and seized its skirts just as it got into the hall. Then with one arm around a buxom waist I drew the apparition back into the room, took out my matchbox and lit the lamp. My next move was to pull a piece of white muslin from the apparition and expose the head and shoulders of the aunt.
“Who are you?” she cried angrily.
“I’m the man that wants to buy this farm, alias the doctor who was to come here to examine your nephew. He doesn’t need any examination. It is plain that you are anxious to shut him up, doubtless with a view to being appointed his guardian and getting a hand on his property.”
The young man was astonished that his ghost was human and at the same time shocked at what his aunt had been doing. Then he fell into a rage with her and despite my efforts to prevent drove her out of the house.
When I returned to the city and related my experience to some of my young medical associates they all declared that I had mistaken my calling; I have been a detective. To this I replied that I had been especially stupid from a detective point of view, as I had not for a moment suspected the real cause of Sam Granger’s mental trouble.
WALTER B. PIXLEY.
The Daily Notes [Canonsburg PA] 15 March 1904: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil suspects that the author of the story above has changed the names (including his own) to protect innocent and guilty alike–she has not been able to find any Dr Walter Pixley in the contemporary medical association rosters. But the phosphorus-painted-on-muslin trick was well-known in Spiritualist circles and luminous, sheeted pranksters, flitting through darkened neighbourhoods, were frequently reported in the press. We have also previously read of X-ray spook parties, where a phosphorus preparation was applied to the “apparitions'” face and hair and the “weird ghost girls” dressed in costumes painted with phosphorus to mimic spirits in the dark. Here is a deadly DIY suggestion:
To Make the Hands and Face Luminous. Pat a piece of phosphorus, about the size of a pea, into an ounce or so of ether. After a time, portions of the phosphorus will dissolve, and if the hands and face be rubbed with this solution, which is perfectly harmless, the operator will seem on fire, and in the dark would pass for a respectable ghost.
Lake County Press 12 August 1886: p. 2
This lady had an unusual motive for her nocturnal flittings.
WOMAN WAS THE GHOST.
She Was Daubed with Phosphorus to Scare Her Husband.
Wallington, N, J., July 20. Elmer Ackerman, of Paterson, a motorman on the New Jersey Trolley Line, says he saw a white robed figure on his last trip through Wallington Friday night and pursued it.
He caught a young married woman with her face and hands smeared with phosphorus. The woman said she was around looking for her husband and a female companion he was in the habit of meeting at roadhouses. She played ghost, hoping to meet her rival and scare her. The woman was permitted to go without revealing her identity
The Scranton [PA] Tribune 21 July 1897: p. 1
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.