Apparitions by Albany Poyntz

The following anecdote is contained in one of the letters of Pliny, the younger, which we select from many which figure in the annals of antiquity as a type reproduced in various forms, with a change of scenery, by an infinite number of chroniclers.

“There was at Athens a spacious and convenient house, which was abandoned because in the dead of night its inhabitants were invariably disturbed by a clash of iron, and rattling of chains, which appeared to approach gradually, and afterwards grow fainter and fainter. A spectre at length appeared, in the shape of an old man with a venerable beard, and his hair standing on end, with chains on his feet and hands, which he shook furiously; so that those who had courage to take shelter in the house passed fearful and sleepless nights. This privation of rest produced illness, which increasing by constant panic, death often ensued.

“The philosopher Athenodorus having arrived at Athens, and heard the story of the deserted house, hired it, and took up his residence.

“When evening set in, he had his bed put up in the front apartment; and his tablets, lights, and writing implements placed on the table; after which, his attendants retired to the rear of the house. Lest his imagination should conjure up phantoms, he concentrated his whole attention in writing.

“At the beginning of the night, a deep silence prevailed. But at a later hour, he heard the ring of chains, but continued to write on disbelieving the evidence of his ears.

“The noise becoming louder, seemed to approach his chamber door; and on looking up, he beheld the spectre we have described; which seemed to beckon him with its finger. Athenodorus made sign to his visitor to wait, and continued his writing. The spectre shook its chains anew in the ears of the philosopher; who, perceiving it to be still beckoning, rose, took up the light, and followed it. The phantom walked as if sinking under the weight of its chains; and on reaching the court-yard vanished, leaving Athenodorus picking up herbs and leaves to mark the place of its disappearance.

“On the following day, he sought the magistrates of the city, and begged to have the scene of the adventure examined. On due investigation, a human skeleton, entangled in chains, was found interred on the ominous spot. The bones were carefully collected, and publicly buried; and after receiving the sacred rites of the dead, the spectre never again troubled the repose of the house.”

Pliny does not relate this story as deserving of credence; but offered it to his contemporaries as an ingenious lesson upon the influence of the imagination, serving to inculcate the respect due from the living towards the dead. Honours have been offered to the mortal remains of illustrious men in all times and countries; and a reverence towards the grave may be accepted as an indication of civilization.

Plato affirmed that he saw the souls of the departed flitting about like shadows; a prejudice we forgive the more readily in the man who first revealed the existence of the soul, of which, in the name of Socrates, he consecrated the immortality.

Pausanias relates that whole armies reappeared after death with their arms and baggage.

“Four hundred years after the battle of Marathon,” says he, “the neighing of horses and cries of soldiers were heard upon the scene of action.”

The object of Pausanias was to hold up to the Athenians the example of their illustrious ancestors by immortalizing the heroic combatants of that memorable battle. But he no more heard the neighing of horses on the spot, than Napoleon beheld forty centuries surveying his army from the apex of the Pyramids, as figurately described in his sublime address to his troops.

Unmindful of the moral sense of things, and prone to judge the recitals of antiquity according to the standard of our own ideas, regardless of the changes of time, in our efforts to rectify the errors of our predecessors, we fall into new ones. Due allowance ought to be made for time and place in perusing such recitals as the following:

“St. Spiridion, Bishop of Trimitonte, in Egypt, had a daughter, named Irene, who died a virgin. After her decease, an individual presented himself and claimed a deposit which had been in her custody, unknown to her father, which was vainly sought for by St. Spiridion. Proceeding, however, to his daughter’s tomb, he called aloud her name, and demanded what she had done with the object confided to her? ‘You will find it buried in such a spot!’ replied a voice from the tomb; and proceeding to the place pointed out, the treasure was found.”

St. Martin of Tours, disgusted by the reverence paid in his neighbourhood to a pretended Saint, proceeded to his tomb, and enjoined him to arise. The dead man issued from his grave, confessed that he was a robber justly punished for his crimes, and condemned to eternal punishment.

To appreciate these two miracles, we must revert to the times of those two saints, that is, to the reign of superstition; in which the priesthood officiated with magisterial power, keeping in check, by their moral influence, the licentiousness of manners, and the perpetration of crime. Of these Bishops, the one saw fit to defend the reputation of his daughter, and inculcate the sacred nature of a trust; while the other chose to exhibit the untenability of an assumed reputation. In both instances, this was probably accomplished by means to which the priesthoods of all countries have not disdained to resort; finding them far more effectual with an unenlightened populace than abstract argument.

A somewhat similar instance is related by Martinus Polonius, Platinus, and Pierre Damien, of Pope Benedict IX. This Pontiff, they assure us, not only rose again from the grave; but in the form of a wild beast, having the head of an ass, the body of a bear, and the tail of a cat. As he wandered in the forest, a holy hermit met and conversed with him.

The truth is that the three authors of this story were Guelphs, and chose to convert the Ghibeline Pontiff into a monster, by a pretended apparition. So is it ever with party-writers, who do not disdain to have recourse to the most absurd and disgraceful means in order to discredit their opponents.

As regards the vulgar family of ghosts, there can be little doubt that such persons as really believe themselves to have been exposed to spectral visitation, were affected either by some optical delusion, similar to that of the “Fata Morgana” on the coast of Sicily, or the “mirage” of the desart; in most cases, produced by the fatigue of over-study, and infirmity of digestion. Such effects are, also, easily produced by the interposition of malicious or jocose persons, in the way of phantasmagoria.

A celebrated instance of this kind is on record. The wife of the Provost of Orleans dying in that city, limited by her will to the sum of six golden crowns the expenses of her funeral; which was to take place at the Convent of the Cordeliers. Her heirs conformed strictly to her injunctions; thereby greatly incensing the friars, who determined to be revenged.

The Superior of the Convent caused a young monk to be secreted in the vaults, and instructed him to cry aloud, and utter strange shrieks during the performance of matins, and if invoked, to give no other answer than by knocking thrice. The youth faithfully executed his charge; and, at the moment agreed upon, made a hideous noise; so that the affrighted monks suspended the sacred office. The officiating priest adjured the disturbed spirit to tell them what was the matter; when three solemn knocks formed the only answer, which was repeated three days consecutively.

The phenomenon was soon bruited abroad by the monks; and on the days of holy office, the noise was louder than usual; till the faithful deserted the church in consternation. At length, they had recourse to exorcism; and when the exorciser conjured the phantom, demanding to know whose was the soul in torment, and naming in succession the various persons buried in the church, no answer was returned till they came to the name of the offending lady, when three loud knocks were distinctly audible. The spirit was next interrogated whether she were not condemned to eternal punishment for having secretly embraced the doctrines of Luther; and three, knocks instantly confirmed the charge. She was next asked whether it would not assuage her torments if her body were carried out of the Catholic Church to be more appropriately interred; and three knocks again replied in the affirmative. The Chapter being convoked, decided upon giving up the lady to her husband, as being convicted of Lutheranism. But the Provost, instead of giving credence to the opposition, submitted the case to the tribunals of Paris, obtaining a special commission from the Chancellor Duprat for the purpose. The result was the confession of the secreted friar; whereupon the Superior of the Cordeliers and his confederate were condemned to fine and imprisonment.

Such delusions have been frequent from the time the Preaching Friars of Bordeaux took occasion to relieve souls of purgatory in proportion to the offerings placed before them, to that of the Convulsionaries, who, at the commencement of the last century, exhibited their freaks on the site of the cemetery of St. Médard.

The most diverting piece of imposition is that related by Erasmus of a priest, who, finding the fervour of his flock relax to the evident diminution of his revenues, let loose one night in his burying-ground a quantity of cray-fish, each having a lighted taper attached to it. The parishioners instantly repaired to their pastor, who affirmed that these wandering lights were souls from purgatory in search of masses; a considerably supply of which was ordered on the spot. Owing, however, to the carelessness of the priest, a cray-fish, with a piece of taper adhering to it, was picked up the following day in the church-yard.

Let those who are disposed to yield credit to ghost stories, visit but once a good exhibition of Ombres Chinoises, or Fantasmagoria, or the display of some able ventriloquist; and they will perceive that a good ghost story is as easy of manufacture as a hat or a pair of gloves.