Hidden Treasures of Arnos Vale – A Visitor’s Perspective

[NOTE: This post first appeared on arnosvale.org.uk as a guest article]

 

It is no secret that I love Arnos Vale. Since moving to Bristol, I have spent many days traipsing its winding paths, admiring the headstones and, of course, drinking its coffee. My social media is filled with images of mossy headstones and stone angels, and there are few events in the Spielman Centre that haven’t piqued my interest.

But, despite my frequent visits, each time I walk through the lanes, I am met with a new symbol, a new flower or a new artefact I had yet to notice. Arnos may well be a historical site, but it changes so drastically with the seasons, it would be foolish to think you knew the cemetery at all.

Arnos Vale is simultaneously a working cemetery, a heritage site, a habitat and a veritable art gallery of historical remembrance. To write a thorough guide to all that Arnos offers would probably take until my own death. So, before I dash to choose my own headstone, please enjoy a rather abridged guide to the hidden treasures of Bristol’s finest cemetery.

Many of us take shortcuts through cemeteries on our way to work or as a cut-through to the shops, which makes it so easy to skim over the sheer variety and beauty of headstones.

While Arnos has been accepting burials since its creation in 1837, many of its older interments are easy to spot, thanks to the elaborate memorial choices of the Victorian Era.

 

The Victorian interest in symbols and speaking without words particularly took root in the world of grave and monument ornamentation. Alongside names and dates, 19thcentury headstones are often topped by a carving – hands, flowers, birds etc., each possessing a hidden message of their own. There are hundreds to list, but a few popular symbols are –

  • Hands – These are one of the most varied carvings out there, each gesture symbolising something different about the deceased. A few variations are:
    • Shaking Hands represent a farewell to earthly life. Often these have distinguishable male and female (lacy/frilly) cuffs which may denote a spouse left behind.
    • Pointing upwards infers that the deceased has ascended to heaven.
    • Pointing down DOESN’T mean the opposite! This often represents a sudden death, the hand being that of God.
  • Ivy and/or Grapes – As ivy is evergreen and can continue to thrive on dead trees, it is a plant that has come to represent the immortal soul. Also, it was often used as a Victorian shorthand for friendship and remembrance.
  • Lilies – Much like hands, lilies have a plethora of meanings.
    • Lilies in general represent death and mourning.
    • Lily of the Valley, however, represents a return of happiness.
    • The Victorians loved using flowers as a means of expressing their emotions, (both positive and negative!) so lilies outside of the cemetery context can be tricky to decipher.
  • Butterflies – These delicate carvings, often accompanying a cut flower, represent resurrection. These are often found on memorials to the young and are particularly poignant.

 

It is such a thrill to walk through a cemetery or churchyard and feel as though you are privy to some secret insight into the past. I absolutely urge any visitors, especially those with families in tow, to take time to search for these symbols and decipher them along the way. Spotting pictures and imagining the stories behind the woodland burials is a healthy and creative way to engage with your surroundings and feel less detached from centuries of fascinating lives that are waiting to be rediscovered and reimagined.

Arnos has thousands of these symbols, intricately carved into headstones and tombs – however, larger Victorian monuments hold similar hidden meanings and are rather easier to spot from the paths!

There are some beautiful column memorials within Arnos Vale, a particularly clear example being visible just opposite the cloisters. This column, standing over 6 feet in height, looks as though a mason has cruelly chiselled it in two. However, a broken column represents a life cut short. Other columns closer to the Anglican Chapel feature broken columns with wreaths, which show victory over death.

Obelisks, huge tombs and angels often afforded the grieving family more space to memorialise the deceased and often feature whole paragraphs of achievements and addresses. These are often thought-provoking and, should you be inclined, easy to research further. As such huge monuments were incredibly costly in their day, the financial, political or historical status of the deceased means you are a mere click or two away from a wealth of information.

Should you not be feeling especially ‘outdoorsy’, Arnos’ buildings are filled with fascinating artefacts and exhibitions. The museum opposite the West Lodge is always worth a visit and the Anglican chapel is a beautifully serene structure that shines out as a love letter to conservation done right! However, it is in the depths of the Spielman Centre (accessible via the stairs in the Atrium) that a true hidden treasure is kept.

Arnos-Vale-Woodland-Burial-Hidden-Treasures

In a large glass-topped case lies Arnos Vale’s own ‘Immortelle’, a curious painted plaster wreath of flowers which was uncovered during conservation efforts in recent years. ‘Immortelles’, from the French word for ‘everlasting’, were popular grave decorations from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down. For a piece that spent around a century under a protective blanket of soil and moss, Arnos’ example is a stunning treat for the eyes.

Keeping our thoughts on subterranean treats, it would be foolish not to spend a little time on Arnos Vale’s famous nocturnal inhabitants, bats!

Bat walks throughout the year are fantastic experiences for all ages – they help nurture a love for nature and conservation, but also dispel any silly myths about one of Britain’s most endangered and beautiful native species.

To end on a lighter note, it is no surprise that Arnos Vale is incredibly popular as a unique wedding venue and forest school. Its peaceful woodland setting, wildflowers, birds and nocturnal creatures offer an idyllic moment of quiet clarity from the city’s roar.

Arnos has a wonderful variety of British trees, from high, swaying poplars to mighty pines, many housing tawny owls, buzzards and song birds whose calls carry across the cemeteries’ 45 acres!

While operating as a habitat for larger animals such as badgers, there are several examples of micro habitats within its grounds – a simple wall leading from the war graves by Soldiers’ Corner may at first seem little more than a structural or architectural feature. However, the bricks and foliage offer an ideal habitat for smaller animals, such as reptiles like slow worms and common lizards.

To walk the Victorian cobbled path (just down from the top lodge) while holding a handrail, crafted from Arnos’ own Ash saplings shows a considered approach to conservation that many heritage sites can only hope to mimic.

I won’t spoil any more of Arnos’ secrets for you, but be sure to find some of your own during your next visit. And if you spy me lurking between the graves, hunting for a butterfly or carved hand, don’t worry, you’ll be doing the same before you know it!

The Spectre of Newby Church

Britain has its fair share of famous 20th century ghost images; from national landmarks to tiny hamlets, no square inch is spared from spectral display.

Newby Hall, an 18thcentury house near Ripon in Yorkshire, is both a family tourist attraction and the scene of one of the most captivating (supposed) paranormal images of the 1960s.

b720031

The ‘Newby Monk’ (otherwise known as the ‘Spectre of Newby Church’) is the name given to the ghostly apparition developed in a photograph taken on the grounds of Newby Hall’s own Church of Christ the Consoler. The Reverend Kenneth F Lord took the image in 1963 and remarked that the infamous ‘monk’-like shape was not present at the time of taking the photograph.

When the image was developed and circulated, speculation began as to what or who the murky humanoid shape may be. As with all good British hauntings, the first port of call was mysterious clergy, with many suggesting that the figure bears a similarity to a 16thcentury monk. The white blur concealing his face is generally referred to as a shroud, possibly concealing leprosy or a similar facial disfigurement.

1345478

Naturally, there’s a school of thought that the monk is little more than an accomplice taffled in bedsheets (Or similar. I happen to like the bedsheet image.) While many believe the figure to stand at 9 feet tall, considering the monk’s feet are not visible, sceptics argue that the accomplice is simply standing on a box.

Nonetheless, the blurred scream-mask of the monk permeated public imagination and was adopted by tabloids and paranormal groups alike. There are multiple reports of photographic experts examining the image and finding no evidence of tampering. However, many other investigators cite it as having all the hallmarks of a double exposure image. (Double exposure being where two or more images are superimposed to give the appearance of being one singular image.) To date, there has been no clear explanation as to the reason and method of production of the Newby Monk, which only adds to its enduring quality!

Skelton-cum-Newby_exterior_820x530_© GWhite
c) Graham White

Newby Church itself is not a place of ghost hunts or repeated clams of paranormal events – indeed, the 1960s spectre has the monopoly on spirit activity. Comparatively speaking, the church is a young one, founded in 1876.

Its reason for construction is similarly unique; in the April of 1870, Frederick Vyner (of noble heritage) and several other titled British and Italian tourists were ambushed and kidnapped during their travels through Greece.

A few days later, a ransom was demanded for the release of the party. While a large portion of the funds were gathered for the groups’ release, a failed rescue attempt saw three of the tourists murdered, including Frederick.

Frederick’s mother was understandably heartbroken, and saw to it that the remainder of the accumulated ransom money was used in the construction of two churches in memory of her murdered son. The first, Christ the Consoler, was built on her own land in Newby, the other at his sister’s land at Studley Royal.

skeltoncumnewby_christtheconsoler_820x530_151215

While I am not theologically qualified, I would argue that a church founded in the 19thcentury would have little reason for 16thcentury monks to have taken up residence.

Has this stopped the spectral monk in his tracks? Not at all. The Reverend’s questionable image has its own autonomy and continues to captivate and unnerve to this day.

 

 

 

 

Sources / Further Reading:

 

http://www.theparanormalguide.com/blog/the-ghost-monk-of-newby-church

 

https://forums.overclockers.co.uk/threads/newby-ghost-photo-ever-proved-a-fake.17930883/

 

http://www.daffadillies.co.uk/trigger/b720031

 

Elizabeth Siddal – The Exhumed Muse

The 11th February marks the 157th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. While not exactly a household name, she is an icon, a muse, an artist and a beautifully tragic figure of the Victorian art world. Similarly, while the 157thanniversary of anything isn’t cause for great celebration, it is a welcome chance to introduce Lizzie to a new audience.

Like most women with an over-dramatic bent, I have had an affinity for Pre-Raphaelite muses since my teens. Lizzie Siddal with her flame-red hair and tragic life, became an icon of my own. Her life was fraught with turmoil, betrayal and beautiful art; she was celebrated as a model and is immortalised in some of the world’s most famous artworks.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais
Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais

Elizabeth Siddal was ‘discovered’ in her youth by the artist Walter Deverell, who saw her working as a shop girl in a milliner’s. In 1850 Deverell went on to paint her as Viola in Twelfth Night, however she was quickly accosted by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, with whom she sat for several seminal works. Through her association with the group, she is most commonly known because of her depiction of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Famously, while sitting for Ophelia in an iron bath, the candles warming the water extinguished. While Millais was too engrossed in his work to notice, Lizzie was too dedicated to complain, and as a result of her silence, she developed pneumonia and lay close to death for several weeks.

 

Siddal has long been a tragic, romantic figure due to her association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a pre-Raphaelite artist, poet, and philanderer. Their relationship was intense, dramatic and troubled; they were involved on and off for over a decade, before they finally married. Following the trauma and depression following a stillbirth, Lizzie’s addiction to the opiate Laudanum spiralled and she died in 1862, aged just 32.

siddal-photo-vh1

Lizzie was buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Rossetti family plot. She shares her resting place with Dante Rossetti’s parents, sister Christina and several other family members.

 

Dante, wracked with guilt and sadness, buried Lizzie alongside the only manuscript of his poems, tucked into her auburn hair. This was supposedly a last sign of devotion from her straying husband, an apology for what trauma he may have caused and that the finest of his works would lay with her, and her alone, for all eternity.

However, Lizzie’s undisturbed sleep only lasted for several years, before Rossetti’s ego came knocking. His unpublished works troubled him and, under cover of lamp light, Lizzie was exhumed. Rumour spread that when her coffin was opened, it was filled with her endless, flowing red hair that had continued to grow after her death.

While this is a biological impossibility, the image caught hold in the public imagination and only helped to increase her post-mortem longevity in popular culture.

 

Rossetti’s poems and sonnets were all later published. A large chunk of sonnets under the title ‘The House of Life’, which is often argued to be his greatest written work, if a little erotic for Victorian sensibilities.

When Rossetti himself died in 1882, he was buried in Birchington-on-Sea in Kent and Lizzie was free from any further disturbance.

2012 Photograph of Lizzie's Grave
2012 Photograph of Lizzie’s Grave

In 2012 I took a long-overdue trip to Lizzie’s final resting place at Highgate Cemetery where her grave, now off the beaten path, covered with dead leaves, was only accessible by special request of the tour guide. Nonetheless, to see her name in stone and to be able to pay tribute to a life cut short was worth the train fare alone.

 

Elizabeth Siddal’s life is so fascinating and varied that I implore you to read some of the following links to learn more about her. While a tragic figure, primarily defined by the male gaze, she was an artist and a writer in her own right and deserves to be more widely appreciated.

_______________

 

[Should you wish to visit Elizabeth’s grave – Old Highgate is now too overgrown and brittle for visitors to enter unattended, but tours are frequent and many of Highgate’s highlights are offered. But the urge to run off unsupervised, like a naughty morbid toddler is almost crippling.]

 

LINKS:

 

http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/

 

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/elizabeth-eleanor-siddal-494

 

http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com(Primarily concerning Fanny Cornforth, but is an excellent resource and Kirstie’s books are great reads.)

Introducing Immortelles

When considering grave decorations, we in western cultures generally think of framed photographs, plastic flowers and weather-worn teddy bears. Our ideas of remembrance and sentimentality are generally personalised and frequently mimic the gifts we’d leave the individual in life.

Passing through any contemporary burial site will bring you to piles of ribbons, laminated poems and unsmoked cigarettes. Alongside these personal effects nestle ornaments of cherubs, resin angels and plastic flowers. These mass-produced indicators of loss and grief are only a small step away from our forebears mourning efforts – while rising costs and health and safety may forbid the erection of a four-foot angel statue, a high street florist can sell you a small cherub and still leave you with change from £10.

While stone cherubs and angels last indefinitely, flowers are the most common decoration in mourning, retaining their place by the graveside for centuries. Flowers may well be a traditional necessity of sorts, but they have a limited lifespan. Plastic flowers may last longer, but discolour and weather over time and similarly must be replaced. However, Victorian ‘Immortelles’ (from the French word for ‘everlasting’) offered a more lasting floral graveside option.

The term ‘Immortelles’ generally refers to the huge beaded wreaths left at gravesides predominantly in western Europe, particularly France. These wire-wrapped, beaded creations could reach up to four feet in diameter and were generally displayed above a mausoleum or tomb. While not directly personalised for the interred person, these wreaths incorporated flower motifs, words, crosses and even preserved flowers in domes.

Over time, the fine wire securing the beads would weather and disintegrate, leaving the immortelle as a pile of black beads, ready to be reused for another project or simply lost and scattered to time.

‘Immortelle’ is also applied to ceramic and glass-domed wreaths that were particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down.

Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery has a beautiful Immortelle on display beneath their Spielman centre which was uncovered several years ago while clearing a grave site. Arnos employee and academic Janine Marriott reported that ‘The plaster wreath got covered in dirt and leaf debris during the years Arnos Vale was neglected which actually protected this delicate item from animals, vandalism and weather.  Once it was lifted from the grave, it was then cleaned and repaired before being returned to the archives in the cemetery.’

The wreath now sits pride of place in their cemetery where it may be enjoyed for generations to come. Similarly, Market Lavington museum in Devizes has two beautiful immortelles in their possession which were in situ until the 1930s. These differ from the Arnos wreath as they were protected from the elements by both glass domes and external cages.

il_1140xN.1303580458_jnb1

While wreaths are most common, much like contemporary mourners, many Victorian and Edwardian mourners chose to decorate graves with plaster motifs such as clasped hands, bibles, singular flowers and birds. These are far more commonplace in historical cemeteries as they generally lay lower and flatter to the grave, meaning that if vegetation takes hold, they are protected from the elements far better than a glass dome or brittle petal. It is these simplistic monuments that most mimic our modern cherubs and sentimental carved stones.

Are there any immortelles in cemeteries or museums near you?

 

 

https://kaionegal.typepad.com/the_art_of_nothing/2012/08/french-generals-chateau-getaway-day-1st-antonins-cemetery.html

 

https://arnosvale.org.uk/life-death-and-the-rest-logo/

 

https://marketlavingtonmuseum.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/an-immortelle/

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/545865954/memento-mori-grave-funeral-victorian

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/658389548/rare-victorian-cemetary-grave-immortelle?ref=landingpage_similar_listing_top-1

 

https://time4us2retire.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/our-treasures-immortelle/

The World of Victorian Grave Dolls

After experiencing the death of a loved one, especially those who pass away in the midst of infancy or youth, our mourning practises may include collecting mementos, old photographs, writing diaries. And of course, you might make a full-sized effigy of the deceased to place in their room.

 

In the 19thcentury, death played far a greater role in everyday life. Children and adults were frequently and openly exposed to death and deceased loved ones. As we know through examples of hair jewellery, post-mortem photography and death masks, methods of remembrance and memorialisation could be far more direct and graphic. Hair bracelets and wax heads aside, Victorian mourning dolls are one of the more overlooked element of the Victorian grief process.

1860s Wax Mourning Doll
1860s Wax Mourning Doll

By the tail end of the 19thcentury, it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite. Of course, leaving toys at the grave of a child remains familiar sight, but ‘mourning dolls’ were no shop-bought playthings.

 

The life of the Mourning Doll began at the funeral/wake of the infant, where a wax likeness was made and presented in the child’s own clothes. Often, the doll’s realism was enhanced by wearing cuttings of the child’s own hair. Frequently pictured lying with the deceased on their deathbed, they were also displayed in miniature coffins as an idealised image of peaceful death. Considering that many infant mortalities were caused by disfiguring and draining illnesses such as smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria, the doll offered an idealised reality of their loss. While their child may have departed gaunt and bloody, the wax effigy would look as though it had simply closed its eyes and gone to sleep.

 

Subsequently, these peaceful dolls were often sculpted with flat backs and heads to ease placement in frames, coffins and at the graveside. As the years passed, tastes changes and weather and vandalism played their part, many of these dolls were left and scattered with the years.

7383327046f696376c0630b43212643b

Grave decoration, aside from the obvious towering monuments, was commonplace in the Victorian era. Ceramic hands, books, flowers and wreaths were often placed on graves from the 19thcentury and beyond. These, like most Victorian methods of memorialisation, were rich with symbolism. Many French cemeteries popularised beaded ‘Immortelles’, which were beautifully beaded wreaths which slowly disintegrated into piles of glistening beads over time.

 

However, those that survive today had very different treatments; they were not left open to the elements, but were often kept at home, displayed in the bed of the deceased and cared for and re-dressed as though they were the deceased. To mimic the feel of a real child, these dolls were weighted with sand and heavy cloth. In some ways, these wax infants seem not unlike the popular ‘re-born’ dolls of today, where hyper-realistic silicon babies are collected by doll enthusiasts and grieving parents alike.

 

Those that remain today were preserved in large glass boxes and, typically, depict a child between 0-3 years. Older children tend to have been depicted merely from the shoulders up – Which is understandable from a cost and size perspective! A wax baby might be comforting; a six foot wax teenager is the stuff of nightmares.

little-girls-would-practice-mourning-with-funeral-dolls-photo-u1

Wax likenesses weren’t the only death-related dolls associated with Victorian children. In life, many little girls were presented with so-called ‘Death Kits’, which included a doll and miniature coffin. In play, the child would then ‘practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, placing it in the coffin, and facilitating a funeral. She might also be expected to practise attending to the grief of the doll’s mourners.’ So says The Order of the Good Death’s Louise Hung.

 

These dolls were ideal primers for young women who, should they survive to adulthood, would almost certainly be called upon to care for their own dead.

 

As mortality rates decreased, tastes changed and wartime reduced the popularity of excessive or overly-materialistic mourning, wax dolls lost their popularity. Today, many of us find realistic likenesses unnerving or macabre, but feel compelled to decorate graves with cherubs and photographic likenesses. The days of the wax child may be over, but I’d keep an eye on the ceramic toddler…

 

 

 

Sources

https://victoriantraditions.blogspot.com/2016/04/wax-dolls-montanari-and-pierotti-dolls.html

 

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cabinet-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls

 

http://www.inherited-values.com/2016/10/the-lovely-disturbing-the-history-of-wax-dolls/

 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4814519.kirsty_stonell_walker/blog?page=13

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_mourning_dolls

Helen Peters Nosworthy: The Medium Behind ‘Ouija’

Spirit Boards, Talking Boards, Ghost Boards; Whatever you call them, they’re all synonymous with one name – Ouija. Without thinking, we attribute Ouija’s creation and branding to a huge faceless company, peddling plastic ponies in one hand and sprit communication devices in the other.

But while stocks and patents are sold and traded, Ouija’s roots are far more legitimate than many of us would expect.

In 2018, The Talking Board Historical Society did immense work in documenting the true roots of the Ouija board.

1890-helen-peters
Helen Peters Nosworthy and her husband Earnest

While we see ‘Ouija’ boards as being solely marketed as a parlour game in the US, the more wider world of ‘talking boards’ – i.e boards printed with letters which one uses to communicate with spirits etc – has rather more historic roots.

Historically, prior to this, talking boards had been used worldwide for centuries. In China, there is evidence of usage as far back as 1100AD where they were used ritualistically and as a means of spirit communication. That is, until they were banned by the Quing dynasty around 1644.

The American spiritualist movement similarly saw widespread usage of printed alphabet boards as a means of contacting the dead. But the nuances of historic spirit contact, although vast and fascinating, aren’t for discussion today. It was not until Elijah Bond, a seasoned inventor, lawyer and businessman, saw to patent his particular planchette and board combination and launch the Ouija board into new realms.

In 1901, production was taken over by William Fuld, who began to produce the boards under his own name, suggesting that it was him personally who named the board. When asked of the roots of ‘Ouija’, he initially remarked that he learned the name from the board itself, and that it was an old Egyptian term, meaning ‘good luck’. Later, when popularity increased, Fuld went on to say that ‘Ouija’ was simply a combination of the French and German words for ‘yes’ (‘Oui’/’Ja’). Questionable claims aside, Fuld’s boards flooded the market and reached peak popularity in the 20s and 30s. To this day, his name is synonymous with the manufacture and popularisation of the board.

But why are Ouija boards truly called as such? Was Fuld’s claim correct? While this is widely accepted as the true etymological roots of the name, new research begs to differ.

ouijamania

Talking boards existed long before Ouija, and will last long after, but it’s the trademarked name that still holds clout in popular culture.

In a labour of love, Talking Board Historical Society (TBHS) founder Robert Murch found long forgotten references to Nosworthy’s input in the archives of the Baltimore Sun newspaper. In a series of publically-printed letters, Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond, co-creators of the board, aired their dirty laundry in newsprint

In these letters, it was recorded that Elijah Bond (the patent holder) brought his sister-in-law, Miss Peters, to patent meetings to demonstrate the power of the board. Helen was noted as being a ‘strong medium’ who, when testing the board, asked the unnamed device what it would like to be called. The board replied with ‘O-U-I-J-A’, which, when pressed was revealed to mean ‘good luck’.

Obtaining a patent for a device to contact the unknown was problematic, even in the 19thcentury. When Elijah Bond began to file for patents, the local patent office replied that they were unable to grant such a patent to an untested and unproven device. Subsequently, the pair travelled to Washington DC where their device was repeatedly brushed aside by inspectors until the chief patent officer’s interest was piqued by the strange board.

Supposedly, it was then that the officer promised to grant the patent, should the board be able to spell out his name, which was unknown to Bond and Peters.

goodnight2_board
Goodnight Board

A relative of Nosworthy recently recounted the story to Robert Much, stating that –

“The Patent Office told them that they couldn’t get a patent on Ouija unless they came to Washington to show them that it really worked. They headed down and Helen sat at the board. Inspector after inspector passed them on and up the chain. No one wanted to be the one to give them the patent. Finally, the chief of the patent office came in and said “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. If this contraption can spell out my name you’ve got your patent.” When the board finished spelling out his name the chief got up and started to walk out. He turned around white as a ghost and said to them “You’ve got your patent” and he walked out in a hurry.”

The patent was granted and the Ouija board began its life beyond Baltimore.

helen-peters-nosworthy-2-web
Helen Peters Nosworthy

Interestingly, Helen’s relationship with the Ouija board was not as pleasant and as enduring as one would have presumed. A family rift saw Helen’s relationship with the Ouija irreparably severed.

Robert Murch explains –

‘The Peters were a southern family and many served in the Confederacy….(the children were told) that after a battle had been fought in on their property, Helen and her brothers and sisters went out and cut off the buttons of the dead soldier’s uniforms and took them home. They kept this collection of buttons proudly displayed. One day they noticed the buttons were missing. They asked the Ouija board what happened and it answered that one of their own had stolen them. They asked who, and it spelled out which family member it was, and BAM, the Peters Family Feud was born. Half the family believed the board and half didn’t, Helen among the latter. It split the family in two, broke Helen’s heart, and she disavowed the Ouija board right then and there.’

Murch goes on to explain that Nosworthy spent the rest of her life telling her family to avoid the board, professing that it ‘told lies.’ It would seem that her family followed her commands, and the Nosworthy interest in Ouija ended with a theft.

Nosworthy, who was also an early stockholder in the company, later married and moved to Denver, a year after Ouija’s introduction into the world.

She died in 1940 and was buried in a family plot in Denver’s Fairmont Cemetery. Sadly, as time rolled on, the Nosworthy family grave fell into obscurity and their grave was unmarked.

helen-peters-ouija-grave-final
The Proposed Headstone

However, following the efforts of TBHS, funds were raised for a fitting memorial to Helen’s place in Ouija history and now a substantial memorial stands on her and her family’s resting place. A fine memorial to an influential and under-appreciated woman.

 

 

frontstone

 

 

 


 

Links/Sources

 

Robert Murch’s research into Helen’s life is truly wonderful and I implore you to visit the links below to learn more about Helen’s life and his vivid journey in uncovering this hidden history.

 

 

https://www.facebook.com/talking.boards/photos/a.567074803327714/584596474908880/?type=1&theater

 

https://www.robertmurch.com/project/helen-peters-nosworthys-gravestone/

 

https://www.facebook.com/talking.boards/

 

Talking Board Historical Society

 

https://tbhs.org/?fbclid=IwAR185BsZnz2oQ6X1HiScTHEeDNS2c2MI2ss7AI5hJ6BSHBmpi9CTSrf-tZg

 

https://tbhs.org/helen-peters-nosworthy/

 

 

Images Courtesy of RobertMurch.com and tbhs.com

No copyright infringement intended.

Francis Bacon’s Ghost Chicken

With Christmas behind us, New Year on our minds and the lingering scent of roast poultry clinging to the curtains, I have been racking my mind for a seasonal topic.

While spirit snowmen are a thing of horror fiction, it would seem that ghostly chickens have their claws firmly lodged in the niche echelons of British folklore.

Before I am reminded by a helpful reader that ghost turkeys would arguably be more festive, in the true spirit of a family Christmas dinner, I say to you; ‘you get what you’re given’.

Sir Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English statesman, philosopher and an early purveyor of scientific methods and reasoned scientific thought. According to John Aubrey’s vivid account, Bacon died as a result of failed experiments In preserving meats.

On a particularly cold night in January, Bacon was travelling to Highgate with the King’s Physician, when he was suddenly struck with the thought of using snow to prevent meat perishing.

Bacon and the Dr Winterbourne were so keen to test his theory that they alighted the carriage, and rushed to a ‘poor woman’s cottage at the bottom of Highgate Hill’, where they purchased a chicken. After delightfully commanding the woman to slaughter, pluck and remove the bird’s innards, Bacon went about filling the carcass with snow.

Shortly after his poultry-stuffing efforts, Bacon caught such a severe chill that he was unable to return home and was laid up in nearby Arundel House. Bacon’s sudden ill health was worsened by his hosts lodgings, Aubrey describing his bed as ‘damp’ and unused for some time; resulting in his death from pneumonia in ‘2 or 3 days’.

Aubrey’s accuracy in his accounts has been criticised for many years, by his contemporaries and modern academics alike. However, this is all immaterial; Bacon is a minor character in this feathery tale.

Since Bacon’s untimely death, there have been multiple accounts of a spectral white bird, resembling a plucked chicken, scuttling around Pond Square, Highgate. The chicken appears to run in wild circles before disappearing into the ether.

In 1943, an account given by Aircraftman Terence Long states how, after crossing Pond Square late at night, he was startled to hear the thundering clatter of a horse and carriage. Following this terror, he found the ensuing silence pierced by the shriek of a bird, after which a chicken appeared, racing in circles, before disappearing.  Similarly, another wartime sighting was recorded by a Mrs J Greenhill who reported seeing the chicken on several occasions, describing it as a ‘large whitish bird’.

In the 1960s, a stranded motorist encountered the same plucked vision, as a chicken appeared, winding in circles, before dissipating into the night air. However, in the 1970s, the bird took the form of the ultimate passion-killer by manifesting directly next to an amorous couple who were intertwined on a park bench.

Rather disappointingly, I have failed to find any especially recent accounts of this spectral fowl, but I live in hope. Perhaps the chicken is finally at peace with its fate. Perhaps the human imagination is a wonderful, if bizarre thing.

In the meantime, here’s a festive thanks to you, ghost chicken, for your part in scientific progress and for the future joy the British people experience, knowing our freezers can be filled to the brim with breaded fleshy offcuts every festive season.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bacon#Biography

 

http://www.haunted-london.com/pond-square-ghost.html

 

https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/the-strange-case-of-sir-francis-bacon-and-the-frozen-chicken/

 

The Hand of Glory

When packing your kit for a casual night of burglary and thieving, you may be tempted to stick with the old tried-and-tested balaclava, torch and crowbar combination.

However, dear reader, may I suggest bucking the trend? Instead, try arming yourself with a tried-and-tested illuminating aid from yesteryear; the severed hand of a hanged man.

Lightweight and versatile! Let me tell you about it…

 

A Hand of Glory was of particular interest to burglars and house-breakers of yesteryear. It was a widely-held belief that using the dried and pickled hand of a hanged man as a candle or candle holder would transfer somewhat magical powers to the bearer. While the specifics vary between countries and regions, the desiccated hand generally assisted in robbery.

The hand’s powers were recorded in many 18thcentury documents and varied in inventiveness and severity.

These included, but were not limited to:

  • Possessing the ability to burn forever; providing endless light.
  • Providing a light only visible to the perpetrator and not to the householder.
  • Holding the ability to unlock any door.
  • Magically rendering any person motionless upon presentation of the hand.

 

The most consistent and well known of these abilities was that placing the hand outside or on the doorstep of a house would render all the occupants in such a deep sleep that the burglars movements could not wake them.

While using the hand as a candle holder seems the most practical of setups, there are many stories in which the fingers themselves act as candles. In such accounts, each finger that catches alight signals the number of inhabitants within the house who are sleeping. Subsequently, once the finger begins to burn, that person was believed to be unable to wake. However, an unlit finger could create confusion; the lit fingers could signal that all inhabitants were sleeping, but did not account for everyone within the house. An unlit finger could signal there were no more inhabitants or that one was still awake. There are similar accounts of burglars misjudging the amount of people within the house on account of inhabitants outnumbering flaming fingers.

The practicalities of lighting fingers may not have suited all criminals, so a popular alternative was purported to be bending the fingers around a separate candle which was itself sculpted from the deceased’s fat with the man’s hair as a makeshift wick.

Hand of Glory Varients
Hand of Glory Varients

But how does one create their own hand of glory? Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have been a task requiring specialist work, and it was certainly no mean feat to find an abundance of hanged men in the 18thcentury.

When creating your mystical severed appendage, there were rules to be followed. Your hand had to come from a man who was still swinging from the gallows. A right hand is preferred, especially if your chosen felon was a murderer – the right hand being regarded as ‘the hand that did the deed’. However, even severed hands aren’t black and white and some preferred to use the other, as left hands were traditionally thought of as the ‘sinister hand’ in Christian tradition.

Preferably, you should remove the hand at night, unless there’s a mad rush following the hanging. Afterwards, a series of blood-draining, finger positioning, pickling and mummifying follows.

In 1722, Petit Albert recorded how to prepare a hand yourself –

 

‘Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gibbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well. Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat, nitre, salt and long peppers, the whole well powdered. Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days until it becomes quite dry. If the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain. Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie, and use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold this candle when lighted, and then those in every place into which you go with this baneful instrument shall remain motionless.’

 

Examples of ‘Hand of Glory’ usage have been noted all over Europe for around 400 years. The name itself is thought to derive from the French term ‘main de gloire’, a version of ‘mandragore’, meaning ‘mandrake’. Mandrakes have long been regarded as having magical properties. Some historians believe the folk-beliefs surrounding the hand of glory relate directly to these mandrake beliefs. It was thought to be a plant that would grow beneath the gallows of a hanged man, directly from his ‘seed’. Which is a thought to dwell on in itself.

Mandrake
Mandrake

Mandrake leaves were also thought to resemble hands, which is an understandable reference. Similarly, in Saxon times, it is said that mandrakes were thought to shine at night, which similarly may have fed into the legend of the Hand of Glory’s powers.

But how does one protect their household from the mystical powers of a severed hand?

18thCentury householders had several options. A popular option was that, upon finding a burning hand, one could extinguish the flame with sterilised milk or blood, rendering it useless. However, no historical preventative ritual would be complete without an elaborate concoction of animal bits –

‘The Hand of Glory would become ineffective, and thieves would not be able to utilize it, if you were to rub the threshold or other parts of the house by which they may enter with an unguent composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen, and the blood of the screech-owl.’

 

Whitby Museum's Hand of Glory
Whitby Museum’s Hand of Glory

 

As most Hand of Glorys have been lost to the fleshy sands of time, there are few remaining today. As far as I am aware, the only remaining hand in the world rests in Whitby Museum where it is very nicely displayed beside a monumental Victorian jet and fossil collection.

Whitby’s hand was found in the early 20thcentury, hidden in the wall of a thatched cottage in Castleton by stonemason Joseph Ford. It has been in the museum’s possession since 1935 and continues to be a draw to this day.

As hanging and extreme superstitions lost their place in society, so did the Hand of Glory. And although only one hand remains, those of you living in historical houses might find some withered treats within your walls should you ever wish to take on renovations…

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Whitby Museum, North Yorkshire

http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins15607-the-hand-of-glory.html

https://whitbymuseum.org.uk/whats-here/collections/special-collections/hand-of-glory/

https://www.thewhitbyguide.co.uk/hand-of-glory/

 

Images-

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-severed-hands

evil.wikia.com

And author’s own.

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

The photo of The Brown Lady of Raynham hall is not just one of Britain’s most famous spectral photographs, but is world-renowned. Since its development in 1936, the ghostly image of the Brown Lady descending the stairs of the Norfolk country house has been widely circulated irrefutable proof of ghosts’ existence.

Now, with Halloween just behind us and dark winter nights drawing ever-closer, this famous photo is doing its rounds online, nestled amongst other famous compatriots as one of ‘ten frightening photos’.

But I think our Brown lady is worth a little more explanation than internet lists permit.

image
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

 

The legend of the Brown Lady was not a product of the infamous photograph, but has been part of Norfolk lore for centuries; the ghost captured on film has supposedly been a constant presence at Raynham Hall, Norfolk since the 19thcentury.

The haunting figure is frequently referred to by two names online, namely Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726) or ‘Lady Townsend’. Nonetheless, the women are one and the same. The Lady suffered an unfortunate existence in life – her husband was cruel and ill-tempered and, when learning of her adultery, punished her disloyalty by locking her in her chambers, refusing to let her leave Raynham hall (even to visit her children) until her death in old age from smallpox. Since her death, she is said to roam the Hall in a brown satin dress, carrying a lantern.

 

There are numerous reported sightings of the brown lady, including one from King George IV who saw the lady standing beside his bed at night.

However, one of the more elaborate claims originates in 1835 and was recorded at a Christmas gathering by Lucia C Stone. Visiting guests Colonel Loftus and Hawkins claimed to have seen a spectral woman in a brown dress as they retired to their bedrooms for the night. The next day, Colonel Loftus saw the lady again, but this time, closer. He reported that the woman had empty eye sockets that stood out darkly against her ghostly glowing face.

The next year in 1836, Captain Frederick Marryat (Navy officer and father of Florence Marryat, author of the classic Spiritualist work ‘There is no Death) specifically asked to spend the night in the supposed haunted room. Apparently, he aimed to prove that any such hauntings were in fact the work of local smugglers who aimed to frighten people away from the area. In fact, Captain Marryat’s experience was anything but mundane. His daughter, Florence recounted his experience in 1891;

 

…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. 

…The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father.

…I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham”.

 

Firstly, late-night gun comparisons with visiting youths doesn’t seem to be an idea way to spend ones time. Secondly, Captain Marryat shot a ghost in the FACE. There’s being sceptical, then there’s trying to execute the undead.

 

There have been several other reported sightings since Marryat’s gun-toting days, but none are as dramatic or violent.

raynham-hall-main
Raynham Hall

The photograph that gives us the lasting image of the Brown Lady was not taken by an investigator hunting for the woman’s apparition, but was the work of Captain Hubert C Provand, a photographer working for Country Life magazine. He and his assistant, Indre Shira were photographing the Hall for a general article and seemingly had no intent to cover the spectral legend.

After taking an initial photography of the Halls grand staircase, they were making preparations for a second when Shira saw the gradual formation of a “vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman”.

Upon Shira’s instruction, Provand quickly took another photograph and, upon development, the infamous image of the ‘Brown Lady’ was revealed.

Instead of the supposed planned article on Raynham Hall, Provand and Shira’s experience, complete with photographs, was printed in Country Life on December 26th1936.

brownlady_001
Country Life Magazine, 1936

Since the Country Life photograph, sightings of Raynham Hall’s ghost have been sparse to say the least. Many believe she now haunts Houghton Hall and Sandringham House in a more youthful form of herself. Therefore, our lasting image of the Raynham haunting remains frozen in time. This spectre is a busy one.

 

Ever since publication, the image has been used as proof of ghost existence and visitation and has been subject to investigation by several high-profile paranormal sceptics. Generally, accounts of the images’ legitimacy are far more prolific in print, as they grab our imaginations far stronger than explanations by sceptics.

 

Nonetheless, there are many available explanations for the ghostly image; many cite a double exposure or smear of grease on the lens. Generally, consensus between critics is that the image is not of a spectre, but of either a living figure concealed beneath a sheet, or a simple superimposition of a draped Madonna statue. Many critics have said that the image of the ghost appears to have its hands raised in prayer and the square stand or mount beneath it is more than visible when one examines the shadows! In short, the 1936 image is generally regarded to be little more than a composite of two images.

 

Real ghost, planned hoax, or spur of the moment mischief, the ghostly image certainly afforded Provand and Shira their infamy in the paranormal history books. And a ghostly article in a country living magazine is certainly a pleasant break from the day-to-day photography of the wealthy and well-to-do.

And, most importantly, at least they weren’t armed. Marryat, you’re on your own with that one.

 

 

Sources:

 

http://hoaxes.org/raynham.html

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_Lady_of_Raynham_Hall

 

http://home.worldonline.co.za/~townshend/dorothywalpole.htm

 

https://fern-flower.org/en/articles/ghost-rayham-hall