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The Haunting Of The Wesleys

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

The Rev. Samuel Wesley is chiefly known to posterity as the father of

the famous John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and of the hardly less

famous Charles Wesley. But the Rev. Samuel has further claims to

remembrance. If he gave to the world John and Charles Wesley, he was

also the sire of seventeen other Wesleys, eight of whom, like their

celebrated brothers, grew to maturity and attained varying degrees of


He was himself a man of distinction as preacher, poet, and

controversialist. His sermons were sermons in the good, old-fashioned

sense of the term. His poems were the despair of the critics, but won

him a wide reputation. He was an adept in what Whistler called the

gentle art of making enemies. Though more familiar with the inside of a

pulpit, he was not unacquainted with the inside of a jail. He raised his

numerous progeny on an income seldom exceeding one thousand dollars a

year. And, what is perhaps the most astonishing fact in a career replete

with surprises, he was the hero of one of the best authenticated ghost

stories on record.

This visitation from the supermundane came as a climax to a series of

worldly annoyances that would have upset the equanimity of a very

Job--and the Rev. Samuel, in temper at any rate, was the reverse of

Job-like. His troubles began in the closing years of the seventeenth

century, when he became rector of the established church at Epworth,

Lincolnshire, a venerable edifice dating back to the stormy days of

Edward II., and as damp as it was old. The story goes that this living

was granted him as a reward because he dedicated one of his poems to

Queen Mary. But the Queen would seem to have had punishment in mind for

him, rather than reward.

Located in the Isle of Axholme, in the midst of a long stretch of fen

country bounded by four rivers, and for a great part under water,

Epworth was at that epoch dreariness itself. The Rev. Samuel's spirits

must have sunk within him as the carts bearing his already large family

and his few household belongings toiled through quagmire and morass;

they must have fallen still farther when he gazed down the one

straggling street at the rectory of mud and thatch that was to be his

home; and they must have touched the zero mark, zealous High Churchman

that he was, with the discovery that his peasant parishioners were

Presbyterian-minded folk who hated ritualism as cordially as they hated

the Pope.

Whatever his secret sentiments, he lost no time in endeavoring to stamp

the imprint of his vigorous personality on Epworth. Forgetful, or

unheedful, of the fact that the natives of the Isle of Axholme were

notoriously violent and lawless, he began to rule them with a rod of

iron. Thus they should think, thus they should do, thus they should go!

Above all, the Rev. Samuel never permitted them to forget that in

addition to spiritual they owed him temporal obligations. In the matter

of tithes--always a sore subject in a community hard put to extract a

living from the soil--he was unrelenting.

Necessity may have driven him; but it was only to be expected that

murmurings should arise, and from words the angry islanders passed to

deeds. For a time they contented themselves with burning the rector's

barn and trying to burn his house. Then, when he was so indiscreet as to

become indebted to one of their number, they clapped him into prison.

His speedy release, through the intervention of clerical friends, and

his blunt refusal to seek a new sphere of activity, were followed by

more barn burning, by the slaughter of his cattle, and finally by a fire

that utterly destroyed the rectory and all but cost the lives of several

of its inmates, who by that time included the future father of


The bravery with which the Rev. Samuel met this crowning disaster, and

the energy with which he set about the task of rebuilding his home--not

in mud and thatch, but in substantial brick--seem to have shamed the

villagers into giving him peace, seem even to have inspired them with a

genuine regard for him. He for his part, if we read the difficult pages

of his biographers aright, appears to have grown less exacting and more

diplomatic. In any event, he was left in quiet to prepare his sermons,

write his poems, and assist his devoted wife (who, by the way, he is

said to have deserted for an entire year because of a little difference

of opinion respecting the right of William of Orange to the English

crown) in the upbringing of their children. Thus his life ran along in

comparative smoothness until the momentous advent of the ghost.

This unexpected and unwelcome visitor made its first appearance early in

December, 1716. At the time the Wesley boys were away from home, but the

household was still sufficiently numerous, consisting of the Rev.

Samuel, Mrs. Wesley, seven daughters,--Emilia, Susannah, Maria,

Mehetabel, Anne, Martha, and Kezziah,--a man servant named Robert Brown,

and a maid servant known as Nanny Marshall. Nanny was the first to whom

the ghost paid its respects, in a series of blood-curdling groans that

"caused the upstarting of her hair, and made her ears prick forth at an

unusual rate." In modern parlance, she was greatly alarmed, and hastened

to tell the Misses Wesley of the extraordinary noises, which, she

assured them, sounded exactly like the groans of a dying man. The

derisive laughter of the young women left her state of mind unchanged;

and they too gave way to alarm when, a night or so later, loud knocks

began to be heard in different parts of the house, accompanied by sundry

"groans, squeaks, and tinglings."

Oddly enough, the only member of the family unvisited by the ghost was

the Rev. Samuel, and upon learning that he had heard none of the direful

sounds his wife and children made up their minds that his death was

imminent; for a local superstition had it that in all such cases of

haunting the person undisturbed is marked for an early demise. But the

worthy clergyman continued hale and hearty, as did the ghost, whose

knockings, indeed, soon grew so terrifying that "few or none of the

family durst be alone." It was then resolved that, whatever the noises

portended, counsel and aid must be sought from the head of the

household. At first the Rev. Samuel listened in silence to his spouse's

recital; but as she proceeded he burst into a storm of wrath. A ghost?

Stuff and nonsense! Not a bit of it! Only some mischief-makers bent on

plaguing them. Possibly, and his choler rose higher, a trick played by

his daughters themselves, or by their lovers.

Now it was the turn of the Wesley girls to become angry, and we read

that they forthwith showed themselves exceedingly "desirous of its

continuance till he was convinced." Their desire was speedily granted.

The very next night paterfamilias had no sooner tumbled into bed than

there came nine resounding knocks "just by his bedside." In an instant

he was up and groping for a light. "You heard it, then?" we may imagine

Mrs. Wesley anxiously asking, and we may also imagine the robust

Anglo-Saxon of his response.

Another night and more knockings, followed by "a noise in the room over

our heads, as if several people were walking." This time, to quote

further from Mrs. Wesley's narrative as given in a letter to her absent

son Samuel, the tumult "was so outrageous that we thought the children

would be frightened; so your father and I rose, and went down in the

dark to light a candle. Just as we came to the bottom of the broad

stairs, having hold of each other, on my side there seemed as if

somebody had emptied a bag of money at my feet; and on his, as if all

the bottles under the stairs (which were many) had been dashed in a

thousand pieces. We passed through the hall into the kitchen, and got a

candle and went to see the children, whom we found asleep."

With this the Rev. Samuel seems to have come round to the family's way

of thinking; for in the morning he sent a messenger to the nearby

village of Haxey with the request that the vicar of Haxey, a certain Mr.

Hoole, would ride over and assist him in "conjuring" the evil spirit out

of his house. Burning with curiosity, Mr. Hoole made such good time to

Epworth that before noon he was at the rectory and eagerly listening to

an account of the marvels that had so alarmed the Wesleys.

In addition to the phenomena already set forth, he learned that while

the knocks were heard in all parts of the house, they were most frequent

in the children's room; that at prayers they almost invariably

interrupted the family's devotions, especially when Mr. Wesley began the

prayers for King George and the Prince of Wales, from which it was

inferred that the ghost was a Jacobite; that often a sound was heard

like the rocking of a cradle, and another sound like the gobbling of a

turkey, and yet another "something like a man, in a loose nightgown

trailing after him"; and that if one stamped his foot, "Old Jeffrey,"

as the younger children had named the ghost, would knock precisely as

many times as there had been stampings.

None of these major marvels was vouchsafed to Mr. Hoole; but he heard

knockings in plenty, and, after a night of terror, made haste back to

Haxey, having lost all desire to play the role of exorcist. His fears

may possibly have been increased by the violence of Mr. Wesley, who,

after vainly exhorting the ghost to speak out and tell his business,

flourished a pistol and threatened to discharge it in the direction

whence the knockings came. This was too much for peace-loving,

spook-fearing Mr. Hoole. "Sir," he protested, "you are convinced this is

something preternatural. If so, you cannot hurt it; but you give it

power to hurt you." The logic of Mr. Hoole's argument is hardly so

evident as his panic. Off he galloped, leaving the Rev. Samuel to lay

the ghost as best he could.

After his departure wonders grew apace. Thus far the manifestations had

been wholly auditory; now visual phenomena were added. One evening Mrs.

Wesley beheld something dart out from beneath a bed and quickly

disappear. Sister Emilia, who was present, reported to brother Samuel

that this something was "like a badger, only without any head that was

discernible." The same apparition came to confound the man servant,

Robert Brown, once in the badger form, and once in the form of a white

rabbit which "turned round before him several times." Robert was also

the witness of an even more peculiar performance by the elusive ghost.

"Being grinding corn in the garrets, and happening to stop a little, the

handle of the mill was turn [sic] round with great swiftness." It is

interesting to note that Robert subsequently declared that "nothing

vexed him but that the mill was empty. If corn had been in it, Old

Jeffrey might have ground his heart out for him; he would never have

disturbed him." More annoying was a habit into which the ghost fell of

rattling latches, jingling warming pans and other metal utensils, and

brushing rudely against people in the dark. "Thrice," asserted the Rev.

Samuel, "I have been pushed by an invisible power, once against the

corner of my desk in the study, a second time against the door of the

matted chamber, a third time against the right side of the frame of my

study door."

On at least one occasion Old Jeffrey indulged in a pastime popular with

the spiritistic mediums of a later day. John Wesley tells us, on the

authority of sister Nancy, that one night, when she was playing cards

with some of the many other sisters, the bed on which she sat was

suddenly lifted from the ground. "She leapt down and said, 'Surely Old

Jeffrey would not run away with her.' However, they persuaded her to sit

down again, which she had scarce done when it was again lifted up

several times successively, a considerable height, upon which she left

her seat and would not be prevailed upon to sit there any more."

Clearly, the Wesley family were in a bad way. Entreaties, threats,

exorcism, had alike failed to banish the obstinate ghost. But though

they knew it not, relief was at hand. Whether repenting of his

misdoings, or desirous of seeking pastures new, Jeffrey, after a

visitation lasting nearly two months, took his departure almost as

unceremoniously as he had arrived, and left the unhappy Wesleys to

resume by slow degrees their wonted ways of life.

Such is the story unfolded by the Wesleys themselves in a series of

letters and memoranda, which, taken together, form, as was said, one of

the best authenticated narratives of haunting extant. But before

endeavoring to ascertain the source of the phenomena credited to the

soi-disant Jeffrey, another and fully as important inquiry must be made.

What, it is necessary to ask, did the Wesleys actually hear and see in

the course of the two months that they had their ghost with them? The

answer obviously must be sought through an analysis of the evidence for

the haunting. This chronologically falls into three divisions. The first

consists of letters addressed to young Samuel Wesley by his father,

mother, and two of his sisters, and written at the time of the

disturbances; the second, of letters written by Mrs. Wesley and four of

her daughters to John Wesley in the summer and autumn of 1726 (that is

to say, more than nine years after the haunting), of an account written

by the senior Samuel Wesley, and of statements by Hoole and Robert

Brown; the third, of an article contributed to "The Arminian Magazine"

in 1784 (nearly seventy years after the event) by John Wesley.

Now, the most cursory examination of the various documents shows

remarkable discrepancies between the earlier and later versions. Writing

to her son Samuel, when the ghost was still active, and she would not be

likely to minimize its doings, Mrs. Wesley thus describes the first


"On the first of December, our maid heard, at the door of the

dining-room, several dismal groans like a person in extremes, at the

point of death. We gave little heed to her relation and endeavored to

laugh her out of her fears. Some nights (two or three) after, several of

the family heard a strange knocking in divers places, usually three or

four knocks at a time, and then stayed a little. This continued every

night for a fortnight; sometimes it was in the garret, but most commonly

in the nursery, or green chamber."

Contrast with this the portion of John Wesley's "Arminian Magazine"

article referring to the same period:

"On the second of December, 1716, while Robert Brown, my father's

servant, was sitting with one of the maids, a little before ten at

night, in the dining-room which opened into the garden, they both heard

one knocking at the door. Robert rose and opened it, but could see

nobody. Quickly it knocked again and groaned.... He opened the door

again twice or thrice, the knocking being twice or thrice repeated; but

still seeing nothing, and being a little startled, they rose and went up

to bed. When Robert came to the top of the garret stairs, he saw a

handmill, which was at a little distance, whirled about very swiftly....

When he was in bed, he heard as it were the gobbling of a turkey cock

close to the bedside; and soon after, the sound of one stumbling over

his shoes and boots; but there were none there, he had left them

below.... The next evening, between five and six o'clock, my sister

Molly, then about twenty years of age, sitting in the dining-room

reading, heard as if it were the door that led into the hall open, and a

person walking in, that seemed to have on a silk nightgown, rustling and

trailing along. It seemed to walk round her, then to the door, then

round again; but she could see nothing."

As a matter of fact, the contemporary records are silent respecting the

extraordinary happenings that overshadow all else in the records of 1726

and 1784. In the former, for example, we find no reference to the

affair of the mill handle, the levitation of the bed, the rude bumpings

given to Mr. Wesley. There is much talk of knockings and groanings, of

sounds like footsteps, rustling silks, falling coals, breaking bottles,

and moving latches; allusion is made to the badger like and rabbit like

apparition; and there is mention of a peculiar dancing of father's

"trencher" without "anybody's stirring the table"; but the sum total

makes very tame reading compared with the material to be found in the

accounts written in after years and commonly utilized--as it has been

utilized here--to form the narrative of the haunting. Not only this, but

a rigorous division of the contemporary evidence into first hand and

second hand still further eliminates the element of the marvelous.

Admitting as evidence only the fact set forth as having been observed by

the relators themselves, the haunting is reduced to a matter of knocks,

groans, tinglings, squeaks, creakings, crashings, and footsteps.

We are, therefore, justified in believing that in this case, like so

many others of its kind, the fallibility of human memory has played an

overwhelming part in exaggerating the experiences actually undergone;

that, in fine, nothing occurred in the rectory at Epworth, between

December 1, 1716, and January 31, 1717, that may not be attributed to

human agency.

Who, then, was the agent? Knowing what we do of Wesley's previous

relations with the villagers, the first impulse is to place the

responsibility at their door. But for this there is no real warrant.

Years had elapsed since the culminating catastrophe of the burning of

the rectory, and in the interim matters had been put on an amicable

basis. Moreover, the evidence as to the haunting itself goes to show

that the phenomena could not possibly have been produced by a person, or

persons, operating from outdoors; but must, on the contrary, have been

the work of some one intimately acquainted with the arrangements of the

house and enjoying the full confidence of its master.

Thus our inquiry narrows to the inmates of the rectory. Of these, Mr.

and Mrs. Wesley, may at once be left out of consideration, as also may

the servants, all accounts agreeing that from the outset they were

genuinely alarmed. There remain only the Wesley girls, and our effort

must be to discover which of them was the culprit.

At first blush this seems an impossible task; but let us scan the

evidence carefully. We find, to begin with, that only four of the seven

sisters are represented in the correspondence relating to the haunting.

Two of the others, Kezziah and Martha, were mere children and not of

letter-writing age, and their silence in the matter is thus

satisfactorily accounted for. But that the third, Mehetabel, should

likewise be silent is distinctly puzzling. Not only was she quite able

to give an account of her experiences (she was at least between eighteen

and nineteen years of age), but it is known that she had a veritable

passion for pen and ink, a passion which in after years won her no mean

reputation as a poetess. And, more than this, she seems to have enjoyed

a far greater share of Jeffrey's attentions than did any other member of

the family. "My sister Hetty, I find," remarks the observing Samuel,

"was more particularly troubled." And Emilia declares, almost in the

language of complaint, that "it was never near me, except two or three

times, and never followed me as it did my sister Hetty."

Manifestly, it may be worth while to inquire into the history and

characteristics of this young woman. Her biographer, Dr. Adam Clarke,

informs us that "from her childhood she was gay and sprightly; full of

mirth, good humor, and keen wit. She indulged this disposition so much

that it was said to have given great uneasiness to her parents; because

she was in consequence often betrayed into inadvertencies which, though

of small moment in themselves, showed that her mind was not under proper

discipline; and that fancy, not reason, often dictated that line of

conduct which she thought proper to pursue."

This information is the more interesting, in the present connection,

since it contrasts strongly with the unqualified commendation Dr. Clarke

accords the other sisters. From the same authority we learn that as a

child Miss Mehetabel was so precocious that at the age of eight she

could read the Greek Testament in the original; that she was from her

earliest youth emotional and sentimental; that despite her intellectual

tastes and attainments she gave her hand to an illiterate journeyman

plumber and glazier; and that when the fruit of this union lay dying by

her side she insisted on dictating to her husband a poem afterward

published under the moving caption of "A Mother's Address to Her Dying

Infant." Another of her poems, by the way, is significantly entitled,

"The Lucid Interval."

There can, then, be little question that Hetty Wesley was precisely the

type of girl to derive amusement by working on the superstitious fears

of those about her. We find, too, in the evidence itself certain

fugitive references directly pointing to her as the creator of Old

Jeffrey. It seems that she had a practice of sitting up and moving about

the house long after all the other inmates, except her father, had

retired for the night. The ghost was especially noisy and malevolent

when in her vicinity, knocking boisterously on the bed in which she

slept, and even knocking under her feet. And what is most suggestive,

two witnesses, her father and her sister Susannah, testify that on some

occasions the noises failed to wake her, but caused her "to tremble

exceedingly in her sleep." It must, indeed, have been a difficult matter

to restrain laughter at the spectacle of the night-gowned, night-capped,

much bewildered parson, candle in one hand and pistol in the other,

peering under and about the bed in quest of the invisible ghost.

To be sure, it is impossible to adduce positive proof that Hetty Wesley

and Old Jeffrey were one and the same. But the evidence supports this

view of the case as it supports no other, and, taken in conjunction with

the facts of her earlier and later life, leaves little doubt that had

the Rev. Samuel paid closer attention to the comings and goings of this

particular daughter the ghost that so sorely tried him would have taken

its flight much sooner than it did. Her motive for the deception must be

left to conjecture. In all probability it was only the desire to amaze

and terrorize, a desire as was said before, not infrequently operative

along similar lines in the case of young people of a lively disposition

and morbid imagination.