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Lord Lyttelton's Ghost






"Sir," said Dr. Johnson, "it is the most extraordinary thing that has
happened in my day." The doctor's day included the rising of 1745 and
of the Wesleyans, the seizure of Canada, the Seven Years' War, the
American Rebellion, the Cock Lane ghost, and other singular
occurrences, but "the most extraordinary thing" was--Lord Lyttelton's
ghost! Famous as is that spectre, nobody knows what it was, nor even
whether there was any spectre at all.

Thomas, Lord Lyttelton, was born in 1744. In 1768 he entered the
House of Commons. In 1769 he was unseated for bribery. He then
vanishes from public view, probably he was playing the prodigal at
home and abroad, till February, 1772, when he returned to his father's
house, and married. He then went abroad (with a barmaid) till 1773,
when his father died. In January, 1774, he took his seat in the House
of Lords. In November, 1779, Lyttelton went into Opposition. On
Thursday, 25th November, he denounced Government in a magnificent
speech. As to a sinecure which he held, he said, "Perhaps I shall not
keep it long!"

_Something had Happened_!

On the night before his speech, that of Wednesday, 24th November,
Lyttelton had seen the ghost, and had been told that he would die in
three days. He mentioned this to Rowan Hamilton on the Friday. {129a}
On the same day, or on Friday, he mentioned it to Captain Ascough, who
told a lady, who told Mrs. Thrale. {129b} On the Friday he went to
Epsom with friends, and mentioned the ghost to them, among others to
Mr. Fortescue. {129c} About midnight on 28th November, Lord Lyttelton
died suddenly in bed, his valet having left him for a moment to fetch
a spoon for stirring his medicine. The cause of death was not stated;
there was no inquest.

This, literally, is all that is _known_ about Lord Lyttelton's ghost.
It is variously described as: (1) "a young woman and a robin" (Horace
Walpole); (2) "a spirit" (Captain Ascough); (3) a bird in a dream,
"which changed into a woman in white" (Lord Westcote's narrative of
13th February, 1780, collected from Lord Lyttelton's guests and
servants); (4) "a bird turning into a woman" (Mrs. Delany, 9th
December, 1779); (5) a dream of a bird, followed by a woman, Mrs.
Amphlett, in white (Pitt Place archives after 1789); (6) "a fluttering
noise, as of a bird, followed by the apparition of a woman who had
committed suicide after being seduced by Lyttelton" (Lady Lyttelton,
1828); (7) a bird "which vanished when a female spirit in white
raiment presented herself" (Scots Magazine, November-December, 1779).

Out of seven versions, a bird, or a fluttering noise as of a bird (a
common feature in ghost stories), {130a} with a woman following or
accompanying, occurs in six. The phenomena are almost equally
ascribed to dreaming and to waking hallucination, but the common-sense
of the eighteenth century called all ghosts "dreams". In the Westcote
narrative (1780) Lyttelton explains the dream by his having lately
been in a room with a lady, Mrs. Dawson, when a robin flew in. Yet,
in the same narrative, Lyttelton says on Saturday morning "that he was
very well, and believed he should bilk the _ghost_". He was certainly
in bed at the time of the experience, and probably could not be sure
whether he was awake or asleep. {130b}

Considering the remoteness of time, the story is very well recorded.
It is chronicled by Mrs. Thrale before the news of Lyttelton's death
reached her, and by Lady Mary Coke two days later, by Walpole on the
day after the peer's decease, of which he had heard. Lord Lyttelton's
health had for some time been bad; he had made his will a few weeks
before, and his nights were horror-haunted. A little boy, his nephew,
to whom he was kind, used to find the wicked lord sitting by his bed
at night, because he dared not be alone. So Lockhart writes to his
daughter, Mrs. Hope Scott. {131} He had strange dreams of being in
hell with the cruel murderess, Mrs. Brownrigg, who "whipped three
female 'prentices to death and hid them in the coal-hole". Such a man
might have strange fancies, and a belief in approaching death might
bring its own fulfilment. The hypothesis of a premeditated suicide,
with the story of the ghost as a last practical joke, has no
corroboration. It occurred to Horace Walpole at once, but he laid no
stress on it.

Such is a plain, dry, statistical account of the most extraordinary
event that happened in Dr. Johnson's day.

However, the story does not end here. On the fatal night, 27th
November, 1779, Mr. Andrews, M.P., a friend of Lyttelton's was
awakened by finding Lord Lyttelton drawing his curtains. Suspecting a
practical joke, he hunted for his lordship both in his house and in
the garden. Of course he never found him. The event was promptly
recorded in the next number of the Scots Magazine, December, 1779.
{132}





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