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Terrifying Haunting or Clever Hoax?
Was Mompesson's ghost a genuine spirit?
C.H.L. George (aeogae)     Print Article 
  Published 2006-05-18 11:24 (KST)   
In 1662 English landowner John Mompesson began telling the world that his household was haunted by an evil and mischievous spirit.

In a letter to William Creed, Regius professor of Divinity at Oxford and a relation by marriage, he said that he had initially thought that the disturbances were the work of burglars, before being forced to conclude that they could only be supernatural.

He blamed the visitations on the witchcraft of William Drury, a drummer he had caused to be arrested in March for claiming money under false pretences.

The alleged events began in April, shortly after Drury's confiscated drum had been sent to Mompesson's house. However this is not the only reason why he held the drummer responsible. The haunting included unpleasant smells, increases in temperature, strange lights, moving objects and mysterious noises; but its defining feature was the loud beating of a drum.

In the same letter to Creed, Mompesson described the haunting in frightening terms. He said that the spirit shook his children's bed and drummed the tune to a popular song, then made scratching noises on the floor and further upset the youngsters.
"It returned with mighty violence and applied it self wholly to my youngest children, whose bedsteeds it would beat, when there have been many strangers as well as ourselves present in the roome, that we did at every blow expect, they would have fallen in pieces, and we hold our hands upon those bedsteeds all the while and could feel no blowes but feele them shake extremely, and for an houre together play the tune called Roundheads and Cuckolds goe digge, goe digge, and never misse one stroke, as sweetly as skillfully as any Drummer in the World can beat . . . Then it will run under the bed-teeke [under the bed], and scratch as if it had iron talons, and heave up the children in the bed, and follow them from roome to roome, and come to none else but them."
Mompesson suggested that the spirit was particularly attracted to the children because the devil was drawn to innocence.

The events at Mompesson's house were widely publicised and even discussed at the royal court. The Earl of Chesterfield and the Earl of Falmouth were sent by King Charles II to investigate, but they did not see or hear anything. Chesterfield later claimed that when Mompesson met the King he confessed that the haunting was a hoax.

In another letter to Creed, Mompesson vehemently proclaimed his honesty. He told the Oxford professor about a group of disbelieving gentlemen who had mocked the spirit and searched the room for hidden trickery.
"They rose and ran up into the roome, so they heard the knocking it usually made; they began to search and very curiously to look where or no they could discover any secret Angles or holes where any body might be put to make noises to deceive them, but found none: then they calld out Satan, Doe this and that, and Whistle if thou canst . . . I protest I was afraid at their cariage, and begd of them to be more sober and to withdraw."
Mompesson expressed outrage that anyone could think that he had fabricated the haunting.
"If any be so uncharitable as to believe that a whole family can be monstrously impious as to fast and pray, and to desire the help of Ministers and other good people to remove that which themselves have contrived to deceive the world, I wish them better Christians And to no other end can it be, but to bring down the vengeance of God upon them, to expose themselves to the censure of the world, and so bring an irreparable damage upon their Estates."
It is possible that Mompesson was himself the innocent victim of a hoax orchestrated by his servants or other parties. In which case it is easy to understand why he was so upset by doubters. On the other hand, one can not help thinking of Shakespeare's famous line about the lady who "doth protest too much."

Many people did think that the haunting was genuine. Belief in the existence of witches was common and the infamous Salem witch trials were still thirty years away in the future.

In December 1662 Mompesson's cousin Thomas advised him that the witch could be attacked with swords, but he added, "doe not discourse of it in your house nor in any other place neer, nor yet make any shew of what you intend; for the Witch is often present there as well when there is no noise as when there is noise."

Thomas told his cousin of a case in France where a group of men had succeeded in making a witch visible by wounding her.
"All presently fell to cutting and slashing in all parts and places of the roome both underfoot and overhead and in every corner; this sport continued for almost half an houre, and they never could hit her (by reason of the faculty Witches have of passing in the Aire) yet laying about them so fast, it happened at length that a blow lighted on her, which drawing bloud of her she presently fell down, and could no longer keep herself from being visible."
In 1668 the haunting was made even more famous by supporter and clergyman Joseph Glanvill, who included it in his book A Blow at Modern Sadducism. In Some Philosophical Considerations about Witchcraft.

British historian Michael Hunter suspects that Glanvill may be the author of an anonymous eye witness account found in the State Papers.

If the account is an accurate report of events it is difficult to imagine how hoaxers could have produced the following effect. Of course one explanation is that the author was highly suggestible.
"I put my hand on the place where it seemed to bee & it bore up so strongly against it as if somebody had thrust against mee. The children use to feel it so under them sometimes like an Eale [Eel] and other times like a bowle which seemes to make a hole & passe through the Bed."
Was Mompesson's family haunted by a genuine poltergeist or was it an exceptionally clever trick? If you are still undecided you might like to read Michael Hunter's paper "New light on the 'Drummer of Tedworth:' conflicting narratives of witchcraft in Restoration England." It is freely available online and contains the full versions of the texts quoted in this article.

- Terrifying Haunting or Clever Hoax?, by C.H.L. George 

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter C.H.L. George

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