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The Wesley Ghost

No ghost story is more celebrated than that of Old Jeffrey, the spirit
so named by Emily Wesley, which disturbed the Rectory at Epworth,
chiefly in the December of 1716 and the spring of 1717. Yet the
vagueness of the human mind has led many people, especially
journalists, to suppose that the haunted house was that, not of Samuel
Wesley, but of his son John Wesley, the founder of the Wesleyan
Methodists. For the better intelligence of the tale, we must know who
the inmates of the Epworth Rectory were, and the nature of their
characters and pursuits. The rector was the Rev. Samuel Wesley, born
in 1662, the son of a clergyman banished from his living on "Black
Bartholomew Day," 1666. Though educated among Dissenters, Samuel
Wesley converted himself to the truth as it is in the Church of
England, became a "poor scholar" of Exeter College in Oxford,
supported himself mainly by hack-work in literature (he was one of the
editors of a penny paper called The Athenian Mercury, a sort of
Answers), married Miss Susanna Annesley, a lady of good family, in
1690-91, and in 1693 was presented to the Rectory of Epworth in
Lincolnshire by Mary, wife of William of Orange, to whom he had
dedicated a poem on the life of Christ. The living was poor, Mr.
Wesley's family multiplied with amazing velocity, he was in debt, and
unpopular. His cattle were maimed in 1705, and in 1703 his house was
burned down. The Rectory House, of which a picture is given in
Clarke's Memoirs of the Wesleys, 1825, was built anew at his own
expense. Mr. Wesley was in politics a strong Royalist, but having
seen James II. shake "his lean arm" at the Fellows of Magdalen
College, and threaten them "with the weight of a king's right hand,"
he conceived a prejudice against that monarch, and took the side of
the Prince of Orange. His wife, a very pious woman and a strict
disciplinarian, was a Jacobite, would not say "amen" to the prayers
for "the king," and was therefore deserted by her husband for a year
or more in 1701-1702. They came together again, however, on the
accession of Queen Anne.

Unpopular for his politics, hated by the Dissenters, and at odds with
the "cunning men," or local wizards against whom he had frequently
preached, Mr. Wesley was certainly apt to have tricks played on him by
his neighbours. His house, though surrounded by a wall, a hedge, and
its own grounds, was within a few yards of the nearest dwelling in the
village street.

In 1716, when the disturbances began, Mr. Wesley's family consisted of
his wife; his eldest son, Sam, aged about twenty-three, and then
absent at his duties as an usher at Westminster; John, aged twelve, a
boy at Westminster School; Charles, a boy of eight, away from home,
and the girls, who were all at the parsonage. They were Emily, about
twenty-two, Mary, Nancy and Sukey, probably about twenty-one, twenty
and nineteen, and Hetty, who may have been anything between nineteen
and twelve, but who comes after John in Dr. Clarke's list, and is
apparently reckoned among "the children". {212} Then there was Patty,
who may have been only nine, and little Keziah.

All except Patty were very lively young people, and Hetty, afterwards
a copious poet, "was gay and sprightly, full of mirth, good-humour,
and keen wit. She indulged this disposition so much that it was said
to have given great uneasiness to her parents." The servants, Robin
Brown, Betty Massy and Nancy Marshall, were recent comers, but were
acquitted by Mrs. Wesley of any share in the mischief. The family,
though, like other people of their date, they were inclined to believe
in witches and "warnings," were not especially superstitious, and
regarded the disturbances, first with some apprehension, then as a
joke, and finally as a bore.

The authorities for what occurred are, first, a statement and journal
by Mr. Wesley, then a series of letters of 1717 to Sam at Westminster
by his mother, Emily and Sukey, next a set of written statements made
by these and other witnesses to John Wesley in 1726, and last and
worst, a narrative composed many years after by John Wesley for The
Arminian Magazine.

The earliest document, by a few days, is the statement of Mr. Wesley,
written, with a brief journal, between 21st December, 1716, and 1st
January, 1717. Comparing this with Mrs. Wesley's letter to Sam of
12th January, 1716 and Sukey's letter of 24th January, we learn that
the family for some weeks after 1st December had been "in the greatest
panic imaginable," supposing that Sam, Jack, or Charlie (who must also
have been absent from home) was dead, "or by some misfortune killed".
The reason for these apprehensions was that on the night of 1st
December the maid "heard at the dining-room door several dreadful
groans, like a person in extremes". They laughed at her, but for the
whole of December "the groans, squeaks, tinglings and knockings were
frightful enough". The rest of the family (Mr. Wesley always
excepted) "heard a strange knocking in divers places," chiefly in the
green room, or nursery, where (apparently) Hetty, Patty and Keziah
lay. Emily heard the noises later than some of her sisters, perhaps a
week after the original groans. She was locking up the house about
ten o'clock when a sound came like the smashing and splintering of a
huge piece of coal on the kitchen floor. She and Sukey went through
the rooms on the ground floor, but found the dog asleep, the cat at
the other end of the house, and everything in order. From her bedroom
Emily heard a noise of breaking the empty bottles under the stairs,
but was going to bed, when Hetty, who had been sitting on the lowest
step of the garret stairs beside the nursery door, waiting for her
father, was chased into the nursery by a sound as of a man passing her
in a loose trailing gown. Sukey and Nancy were alarmed by loud knocks
on the outside of the dining-room door and overhead. All this time
Mr. Wesley heard nothing, and was not even told that anything unusual
was heard. Mrs. Wesley at first held her peace lest he should think
it "according to the vulgar opinion, a warning against his own death,
which, indeed, we all apprehended". Mr. Wesley only smiled when he
was informed; but, by taking care to see all the girls safe in bed,
sufficiently showed his opinion that the young ladies and their lovers
were the ghost. Mrs. Wesley then fell back on the theory of rats, and
employed a man to blow a horn as a remedy against these vermin. But
this measure only aroused the emulation of the sprite, whom Emily
began to call "Jeffrey".

Not till 21st December did Mr. Wesley hear anything, then came
thumpings on his bedroom wall. Unable to discover the cause, he
procured a stout mastiff, which soon became demoralised by his
experiences. On the morning of the 24th, about seven o'clock, Emily
led Mrs. Wesley into the nursery, where she heard knocks on and under
the bedstead; these sounds replied when she knocked. Something "like
a badger, with no head," says Emily; Mrs. Wesley only says, "like a
badger," ran from under the bed. On the night of the 25th there was
an appalling vacarme. Mr. and Mrs. Wesley went on a tour of
inspection, but only found the mastiff whining in terror. "We still
heard it rattle and thunder in every room above or behind us, locked
as well as open, except my study, where as yet it never came." On the
night of the 26th Mr. Wesley seems to have heard of a phenomenon
already familiar to Emily--"something like the quick winding up of a
jack, at the corner of the room by my bed head". This was always
followed by knocks, "hollow and loud, such as none of us could ever
imitate". Mr. Wesley went into the nursery, Hetty, Kezzy and Patty
were asleep. The knocks were loud, beneath and in the room, so Mr.
Wesley went below to the kitchen, struck with his stick against the
rafters, and was answered "as often and as loud as I knocked". The
peculiar knock which was his own, 1-23456-7, was not successfully
echoed at that time. Mr. Wesley then returned to the nursery, which
was as tapageuse as ever. The children, three, were trembling in
their sleep. Mr. Wesley invited the agency to an interview in his
study, was answered by one knock outside, "all the rest were within,"
and then came silence. Investigations outside produced no result, but
the latch of the door would rise and fall, and the door itself was
pushed violently back against investigators.

"I have been with Hetty," says Emily, "when it has knocked under her,
and when she has removed has followed her," and it knocked under
little Kezzy, when "she stamped with her foot, pretending to scare

Mr. Wesley had requested an interview in his study, especially as the
Jacobite goblin routed loudly "over our heads constantly, when we came
to the prayers for King George and the prince". In his study the
agency pushed Mr. Wesley about, bumping him against the corner of his
desk, and against his door. He would ask for a conversation, but
heard only "two or three feeble squeaks, a little louder than the
chirping of a bird, but not like the noise of rats, which I have often

Mr. Wesley had meant to leave home for a visit on Friday, 28th
December, but the noises of the 27th were so loud that he stayed at
home, inviting the Rev. Mr. Hoole, of Haxey, to view the performances.
"The noises were very boisterous and disturbing this night." Mr.
Hoole says (in 1726, confirmed by Mrs. Wesley, 12th January, 1717)
that there were sounds of feet, trailing gowns, raps, and a noise as
of planing boards: the disturbance finally went outside the house and
died away. Mr. Wesley seems to have paid his visit on the 30th, and
notes, "1st January, 1717. My family have had no disturbance since I
went away."

To judge by Mr. Wesley's letter to Sam, of 12th January, there was no
trouble between the 29th of December and that date. On the 19th of
January, and the 30th of the same month, Sam wrote, full of curiosity,
to his father and mother. Mrs. Wesley replied (25th or 27th January),
saying that no explanation could be discovered, but "it commonly was
nearer Hetty than the rest". On 24th January, Sukey said "it is now
pretty quiet, but still knocks at prayers for the king." On 11th
February, Mr. Wesley, much bored by Sam's inquiries, says, "we are all
now quiet. . . . It would make a glorious penny book for Jack
Dunton," his brother-in-law, a publisher of popular literature, such
as the Athenian Mercury. Emily (no date) explains the phenomena as
the revenge for her father's recent sermons "against consulting those
that are called cunning men, which our people are given to, and _it
had a particular spite at my father_".

The disturbances by no means ended in the beginning of January, nor at
other dates when a brief cessation made the Wesleys hope that Jeffrey
had returned to his own place. Thus on 27th March, Sukey writes to
Sam, remarking that as Hetty and Emily are also writing "so
particularly," she need not say much. "One thing I believe you do not
know, that is, last Sunday, to my father's no small amazement, his
trencher danced upon the table a pretty while, without anybody's
stirring the table. . . . Send me some news for we are excluded from
the sight or hearing of any versal thing, except Jeffery."

The last mention of the affair, at this time, is in a letter from
Emily, of 1st April, to a Mr. Berry.

"Tell my brother the sprite was with us last night, and heard by many
of our family." There are no other contemporary letters preserved,
but we may note Mrs. Wesley's opinion (25th January) that it was
"beyond the power of any human being to make such strange and various

The next evidence is ten years after date, the statements taken down
by Jack Wesley in 1726 (1720?). Mrs. Wesley adds to her former
account that she "earnestly desired it might not disturb her" (at her
devotions) "between five and six in the evening," and it did not rout
in her room at that time. Emily added that a screen was knocked at on
each side as she went round to the other. Sukey mentioned the noise
as, on one occasion, coming gradually from the garret stairs, outside
the nursery door, up to Hetty's bed, "who trembled strongly in her
sleep. It then removed to the room overhead, where it knocked my
father's knock on the ground, as if it would beat the house down."
Nancy said that the noise used to follow her, or precede her, and once
a bed, on which she sat playing cards, was lifted up under her several
times to a considerable height. Robin, the servant, gave evidence
that he was greatly plagued with all manner of noises and movements of

John Wesley, in his account published many years after date in his
Arminian Magazine, attributed the affair of 1716 to his father's
broken vow of deserting his mother till she recognised the Prince of
Orange as king! He adds that the mastiff "used to tremble and creep
away before the noise began".

Some other peculiarities may be noted. All persons did not always
hear the noises. It was three weeks before Mr. Wesley heard anything.
"John and Kitty Maw, who lived over against us, listened several
nights in the time of the disturbance, but could never hear anything."
Again, "The first time my mother ever heard any unusual noise at
Epworth was long before the disturbance of old Jeffrey . . . the door
and windows jarred very loud, and presently several distinct strokes,
three by three, were struck. From that night it never failed to give
notice in much the same manner, against any signal misfortune or
illness of any belonging to the family," writes Jack.

Once more, on 10th February, 1750, Emily (now Mrs. Harper) wrote to
her brother John, "that wonderful thing called by us Jeffery, how
certainly it calls on me against any extraordinary new affliction".

This is practically all the story of Old Jeffrey. The explanations
have been, trickery by servants (Priestley), contagious hallucinations
(Coleridge), devilry (Southey), and trickery by Hetty Wesley (Dr.
Salmon, of Trinity College, Dublin). Dr. Salmon points out that there
is no evidence from Hetty; that she was a lively, humorous girl, and
he conceives that she began to frighten the maids, and only
reluctantly exhibited before her father against whom, however, Jeffrey
developed "a particular spite". He adds that certain circumstances
were peculiar to Hetty, which, in fact, is not the case. The present
editor has examined Dr. Salmon's arguments in The Contemporary Review,
and shown reason, in the evidence, for acquitting Hetty Wesley, who
was never suspected by her family.

Trickery from without, by "the cunning men," is an explanation which,
at least, provides a motive, but how the thing could be managed from
without remains a mystery. Sam Wesley, the friend of Pope, and
Atterbury, and Lord Oxford, not unjustly said: "Wit, I fancy, might
find many interpretations, but wisdom none". {220}

As the Wesley tale is a very typical instance of a very large class,
our study of it may exempt us from printing the well-known parallel
case of "The Drummer of Tedworth". Briefly, the house of Mr.
Mompesson, near Ludgarshal, in Wilts, was disturbed in the usual way,
for at least two years, from April, 1661, to April, 1663, or later.
The noises, and copious phenomena of moving objects apparently
untouched, were attributed to the unholy powers of a wandering
drummer, deprived by Mr. Mompesson of his drum. A grand jury
presented the drummer for trial, on a charge of witchcraft, but the
petty jury would not convict, there being a want of evidence to prove
threats, malum minatum, by the drummer. In 1662 the Rev. Joseph
Glanvil, F.R.S., visited the house, and, in the bedroom of Mr.
Mompesson's little girls, the chief sufferers, heard and saw much the
same phenomena as the elder Wesley describes in his own nursery. The
"little modest girls" were aged about seven and eight. Charles II.
sent some gentlemen to the house for one night, when nothing occurred,
the disturbances being intermittent. Glanvil published his narrative
at the time, and Mr. Pepys found it "not very convincing". Glanvil,
in consequence of his book, was so vexed by correspondents "that I
have been haunted almost as bad as Mr. Mompesson's house". A report
that imposture had been discovered, and confessed by Mr. Mompesson,
was set afloat, by John Webster, in a well-known work, and may still
be found in modern books. Glanvil denied it till he was "quite
tired," and Mompesson gave a formal denial in a letter dated Tedworth,
8th November, 1672. He also, with many others, swore to the facts on
oath, in court, at the drummer's trial. {221}

In the Tedworth case, as at Epworth, and in the curious Cideville case
of 1851, a quarrel with "cunning men" preceded the disturbances. In
Lord St. Vincent's case, which follows, nothing of the kind is
reported. As an almost universal rule children, especially girls of
about twelve, are centres of the trouble; in the St. Vincent story,
the children alone were exempt from annoyance.

Next: Lord St Vincent's Ghost Story

Previous: The Dancing Devil

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