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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1896 John Ashton published his work ‘The Devil in Britain and America’. Within it, he reproduced a curious image from 1532 (some claim 1539), accompanied with the explanation ‘Facsimile of the only known specimen of the Devil’s handwriting.’.
In Ashton’s introduction, his main gripe with previous works concerning Satanism and witchcraft was that such works were not only repetitive, but that none were illustrated. Thanks to Ashton’s pictoral obsession, this devilish calligraphy was re-introduced to the western world.
Ashton himself was not the originator of the image, merely the reproducer. The writing itself first appeared in Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi’s snappily titled ‘Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam Syriacam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas’, which, for non-Latin buffs, roughly translates as ‘Introduction to the language of the Chaldean, Syrian, and Armenian, and the ten other languages.’
Understandably, this is far from being some Encyclopedia Satanica; rather an early (western) study into Syriac and Armenian languages, with a hefty glossary of alphabets and brief studies into the roots of European languages. If you’re so inclined, there are many full, free copies available online. Just remember to brush up on your Latin fluency beforehand.
Albonesi’s satanic calligraphy is said to have come about by the conjuring abilities of Ludovico Spoletano, an Italian man of which little else is known. It would seem that Albonesi himself may have encountered the story via his correspondence with the French linguist, Guillaume Postel, with whom he discussed many supposed ‘magical’ alphabets.
It is said that Spoletano summoned Satan himself and asked him a series of questions. The Devil, famous for his consideration and compliance, answered by writing his responses on a piece of paper in his own hand. However, Satan is said to have delivered his answers by levitating the man’s pen and quickly scribbling his answers.
The Devil’s answers have never been deciphered as they follow no known, coherent languages. Most notably, the script contains a series of pitchfork characters, some upright, some upturned – which, understandably, has created very powerful images in the thoughts of the devout and occult-minded alike. Contemporary linguists and cipher-enthusiasts have continued to study the ‘devils handwriting’. The writer behind ‘ciphermysteries.com’, interpreted the script as possessing bat-like symbols, in keeping with the devilish theme of pitchforks, and is potentially based on a Latin or Italian root. However, even they conclude that the text makes little sense and may well be ‘nothing more than a joke making fun of Albonesi or Postel’!
Ashton himself comments that, although the responses have never been deciphered, he was ‘told by experts’ that ‘some of the characters may be found…(in)…Amharic, a language spoken in its purity in the province of Amhara’ (Amhara being an ethnic division within Ethiopia). As interesting as such an Ethiopian root may be, it is his final comment that undoubtedly grips the imagination. Amharic, he adds, ‘according to a legend, was the primeval language spoken in Eden.’
While there are many reported instances of man directly communicating with Satan, there are few that have retained considerable interest over the centuries. It would seem that the fact that this (supposed) interaction produced, tangible, physical ephemera has led to the myth’s longevity.
For what may well be a cipher of pure gibberish, the devilish curiosity of Satan’s handwriting has garnered interest for over 500 years. While it may never be deciphered, its hellish place has been truly reserved in paranormal and occult history.
Like most twenty-somethings, I am in possession of a 100 year old amniotic sac. Thanks to this slice of dried-out tissue, I’ve never feared drowning.
As much as I’d adore to leave this post as simply the tag-line alone, I feel some context is needed.
My preserved piece of amniotic sac is what is commonly referred to as a ‘caul’ and is only marginally weird. Stick with me.
A caul is a piece of the amniotic sack that is attached to the baby’s person after birth. Many accounts make particular reference to its presence on a baby’s face; hence, why a caul birth can also be referred to as being ‘born with a veil’. The caul may adhere itself during birth or gestation, but the effect is the same and most ae easily removed by simply peeling it from the baby’s face/person after birth.
Nowadays, a caul birth is incredibly rare, with estimates sitting around the 1 in 80,000 range. Some very patient midwives who endured my questioning all agreed that en caul births are ‘almost always premature births’.
A more specialised birth with a similar root name is that of an en caul birth. Despite incredibly rare and requiring specialist intervention, images of such babies are frequently shared across medical social media accounts. An en caul birth is when the child is delivered within a fully intact amniotic sac. Understandably, these images are very striking and are frequently misinterpreted by non-specialised media outlets. It should be noted that as dramatic as these photos are, medical professionals usually rupture the membrane artificially, immediately prior to delivery if it were intact. This means that the baby’s airway would not be obstructed, avoiding further risk of trauma. Understandably, this was not a possibility in years gone by, hence why caul births were infrequent but not completely uncommon.
Due to the rarity of caul births, many cultures latched onto the image of the veiled baby and began to view cauls as possessing extra significance or other-worldly powers. Subsequently, cauls were frequently preserved – predominantly by drying and attaching said membrane to a piece of paper, or similar flat surface. Through preserving them, they could be kept upon one’s person for a variety of positive or healing properties.
There are varying worldwide examples of superstitions attached to a birth caul, for example;
Roman midwives were known to have taken cauls and sold them at high prices to lawyers as a talisman to aid them in legal victory. In Croatia (supposedly Dalmatia, in particular) cauls were sometimes placed under the pillow of a dying person with the belief that such an act would soothe their passing. In Belgium, it was believed that if the caul was buried in a field, the child would have a long and lucky life, they were also used in potion making in a variety of cultures, mostly for curing diseases such as malaria.
Not all preserved birth cauls are presented like my own – my flimsy object d’art is adhered to a piece of paper, which seems to have been the norm for most preserved cauls (from what I’ve seen within the UK). To preserve one in such a manner is incredibly easy, with the midwife requiring to do little other than press a piece of paper across the baby’s face; the caul would then adhere to it and your fibrous keepsake would be removed intact.
However, there are some excellent examples of creative caul presentation. The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has in its collection a glass rolling pin from 1855 which once contained a child’s caul. Despite its decidedly domestic purpose, it too was used by a sailor and is decorated with scenes of ships under full sail. A more delicate method of preservation can be found in London’s Victoria and Albert museum. Within its current, displayed collection is a small gold locket with engraving from 1597. Within the heart-shaped locket lies part of the caul of John Monson, who most probably received the trinket as a baptismal gift. This is not to say that Elizabethan baptism gifts were exclusively restricted to bits of desiccated tissue (as delightful as that image may be), as spoons, cups and things made from precious metals were most common.
In the UK, as with many other European countries, the caul is most associated with sailors. It has been a long-standing maritime superstition that to be in possession of a baby’s caul is to protect oneself from drowning. Understandably, due to the scarcity of such objects, sailors for centuries have been paying extortionate amounts for cauls, carrying them as added protection on voyages. A sailor, as recorded in Henderson’s ‘Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties’, paid fifteen pounds in the 19th century for a caul which he then kept as a talisman for thirty years.
In literature, Dicken’s David Copperfield features a scene where David’s own caul is auctioned – with the character noting that he ‘felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at part of myself being disposed of in that way’ with the caul being purchased by an old woman who ‘never drowned, but dies, triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two’.
Despite our modern ambivalence to the whereabouts of a partial amniotic sac, there remains a small group of people who interpret their own caul births as a sign of their special-ness. This (predominantly online) community collectively refer to themselves as ‘Caulbearers’. This community often see themselves as overly empathetic with the ‘sensation of precognition’ and potentially in possession of an array of (predominantly wet) supernatural abilities; such as the ability to find underground water supplies, predict weather changes, anticipate bountiful catches/harvests etc. Additionally, Caulbearer.org makes the claim that ‘The purpose of the caulbearer is to serve mankind, and to guide men and women to understand themselves and the world and universe within which we live.’
Cauls understandably became less prized as the mechanics of birth become less mysterious, however their curious nature still prompts occasional interest. Primarily through nifty lists of famous faces that were once covered by a membrane –
So, I’ll leave you with the fun fact that Napoleon, Liberace, Lord Byron and Sigmund Freud were all ‘caulbearers’, and none of them died by drowning. Coincidence? (Yes).