We often joke about being “frightened to death,” but it appears that in the nineteenth century some people really could be killed by fear. In 1864, as reported by a newspaper of the time, a young servant died after a dressing-up prank went horribly, terrifyingly wrong. In this extract from his recent book, Richard Sugg explains that the case shows how intensely our ancestors thought about the supernatural world.
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 29 January 1864
Something all in white threw the door wide open and appeared from the darkness
‘On Monday Mr H. Raffles Walthew held an inquest at the White Hart tavern, Kingsland Road, London, touching the death of Priscilla May, aged 19 years, who lost her life by the practical joke of a servant in dressing up as a ghost. Mr R. May, No. 145, Kingsland Road, said that deceased, his daughter, was a dressmaker. She was in perfect health when about four months ago she went to Mr Blyth’s house in Hyde Park Gardens. She returned three days afterwards looking seriously affected in health. She could hardly breathe. Her nostrils were greatly distended and were plugged. She said that she had been terribly frightened the night before. As she was going upstairs with the governess and the servant, past the bath-room, something all in white threw the door wide open and appeared from the darkness. She said that she instantly fell back screaming into the arms of the governess. Blood gushed from her nostrils, and she was carried downstairs insensible. A doctor was sent for and the servants remained up with her all night. It appeared that the apparition in white was a servant, who dressed her self in white for a practical joke. Deceased never recovered from the shock. She lost her appetite, and her mind became affected. She gradually sank and died on the 19th instant.
Sophia Sturgeon said that she was a servant in the employ of a gentleman, residing at 30, Upper Hyde Park Gardens, Bayswater. On the night in question witness was preceding Miss Clarke, the governess, and the deceased upstairs when she heard a supernatural scream to imitate “a ghost”. Deceased gave a scream – like a laugh – and fell. Witness said that Emma Frisley, the nursery governess, came to the door of the bath-room in her white night dress as a joke. Witness would swear none of the other servants were in the secret. Emma Frisley, nursery governess, said that she made her appearance in white merely to frighten the persons going upstairs. The other servants knew nothing of her intention. She told deceased that she was very sorry that she had so seriously frightened her. The whole affair was a frolic out of her own head.
Mr A. Chatterwood, surgeon, said that he was called in to deceased and found her suffering from loss of blood, nausea, sleeplessness, and want of appetite. Latterly she became affected in mind. She would not look at witness, nor answer when spoken to. He believed she died from an obscure affection of the brain conjoined with hysteria. Her death was decidedly accelerated by the fright. The coroner said that the fact of dressing up as a ghost was very foolish and very dangerous. In several cases it produced idiotcy, and in the present instance it caused death. It was but right to consider, however, that the young woman who caused the mischief did not intend anything seriously, and that she was evidently sincerely sorry for her folly. No doubt this case would act as a warning to young persons and in that way do a public good. The jury returned a verdict of death from obscure disease of the brain and hysteria, accelerated by a fright, and that her said death was caused by misfortune.’
When posing as a ghost was a criminal offence
Priscilla May was one of many people who died of the terror brought on by what now look like hopelessly crude ghost pranks. It is hard to think of a better measure of our distance from the nineteenth century supernatural world than this – not least because of all the trouble we go to, nowadays, to make ourselves scared. In 1857 a farm servant named John Percival spent three months in prison, charged with manslaughter, after gliding about under a white tablecloth, moaning, as 15-year-old John Mitchell passed by, one Monday evening the previous December. Even after Percival had thrown off the cloth and revealed his homely self, Mitchell went home wild-eyed and trembling with fear. In following days he refused food, vomited, and ‘raved in his bed’. By Friday evening he was dead. Percival was acquitted in spring 1857 – partly because the doctor testified to Mitchell’s very weak constitution; but partly also because the law, interestingly, could not decide if merely posing as a ghost was a criminal offence. Many thanks to Alex Landon for passing on the story of Priscilla May.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this story, now investigate the more mysterious case of the ghost in the water closet. Was it a poltergeist? A practical joke? Or just the knocking of water pipes? Read and vote for your favourite interpretation.