Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 18, 2013 19:00:19 GMT -5
The Headless Horseman and the Death Coach
Despite being one of the best-known revenants, the headless ghost is decidedly less common in modern ghost lore than it was a few centuries ago. Even then there were very few actual “sightings” of headless phantoms and these originated primarily from folklore, myth and legend. The most prominent types of this macabre phantom are the headless horseman, the solitary ghost carrying his head under his arm and the headless spectral coachman. The tradition of the headless apparition is found in diverse cultures worldwide and exhibits broadly the same characteristics connected to death and death warnings wherever it occurs. Popular tradition attributes such hauntings to the wandering spirits of those who have died by beheading, either by execution or accident.
Often the headless spectre returns to haunt localities where a murder was committed or at the site of a suicide or fatal accident. These revenants usually “walk” at midnight and are sometimes dressed in white, which suggests a shroud – the clothing of the grave. In their indispensable volume on English folklore, The Lore of the Land (2005), Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson offer the astute observation that the stereotypical headlessness of ghosts represents “a shorthand way of talking about apparitions, like ghosts being dressed in white.” In other words, the headlessness relates to how a spirit is, or was in centuries past, expected to appear. Thus, it would make perfect sense for the headless spirit to speak (as does the headless ghost of Thomas Boleyn) and a description by a 19th century Norfolk countrywoman of the phantom Black Shuck as being headless, but with saucer eyes, is not a contradiction, but merely a traditional way of succinctly indicating that the “being” is not of this world.
Perhaps the origin of this type apparition can be found partly in the ancient practice of beheading corpses, either in an attempt to prevent the dead from returning to plague the living or in connection with regeneration rituals. One of the oldest headless corpses ever recovered comes from Goat’s Hole cave, Paviland, on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. Misnamed the “Red Lady of Paviland,” the burial was of a young man who died some 26,000 years ago during the Paleolithic period. The man’s bones were deeply stained with red ochre and there were also accompanying grave goods, all suggesting fairly elaborate death rituals, of which decapitation may have been a part. At the remarkable Neolithic settlement of Çatalhyük in modern southern Turkey, which originated as far back as 7500 BC, there were a number of headless bodies deposited beneath the floors of buildings (a common burial practice at the site). Examination of one particular burial at the site, “Burial 492,” the remains of a headless adult, revealed the body had been decapitated and the head taken long after the body had been placed in position in the original pit. Perhaps the removal of the skull was intended to symbolize the end of the life of the building and was removed for burial beneath a new building. Further ancient headless bodies have been found in excavations in the island of Vanatu in the South Pacific, dating back around 3,800 years, and the Nasca culture (AD1 to AD 750) cemetery site of La Tiza on the southern coast of Peru. In the latter case, the excavator of the site, archaeologist Christina A. Conlee of Texas State University, believes that in one of the burials – that of a male of 20-25-years-of-age – the head was removed either at the time of death or very soon afterward. She says, “The decapitation of the La Tiza individual appears to have been part of a ritual associated with ensuring agricultural fertility and the continuation of life and rebirth of the community.”
Supernatural legend and fiction has had a profound effect on the development and characteristics of the headless ghost. In the medieval Arthurian tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight challenges Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, to behead him with an axe. Sir Gawain obliges, but the huge knight is undaunted and immediately stands up, retrieves his severed head and places it beneath his arm. The Green Knight then laughs and tells Gawain to meet him on the morning of the following New Year’s Day to take his turn. In a similar tale, Sir Gawain, along with Sir Kay and Bishop Baldwin, are staying with the “Carle of Carlisle” (“Carle” is Saxon for “lord”) in northern England. Their host turns out to be a violent, sadistic giant who puts Gawain and his company through a series of bizarre and cruel tests, which, again, includes a request for Sir Gawain to behead him. This the knight reluctantly agrees to do, but as soon as his head and body are separated, the Carle returns to his normal height and rejoices at being released from “the witchcraft,” which had forced him to behave so murderously, in the past, having killed enough guests “to make five cartloads of bones.”
Perhaps the most direct influence on accounts of “headless revenants” is European legend and folklore. In The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm, there is a tale of the Wild Hunt called Hans Jagendteufel (“Jack the Hunting-Devil”), which relates events said to have taken place in the year 1644. At the beginning of the story, we find this: “It is believed that if a man commits a crime punishable by decapitation and it remains undiscovered during his lifetime, he will have to wander around after his death with his head under his arm.” This is a succinct description of the archetypal headless ghost. Hans Jagendteufel describes how, one Sunday morning in 1644, a woman from Dresden was out gathering acorns in a nearby forest. While close to a place called Lost Waters, she heard the loud blast of a hunting horn followed by a heavy falling sound. She turned around to see a headless man in a long grey coat sitting on a grey horse. The apparition wore boots and spurs and had a hunting horn hung over his back. Fortunately for her, on this occasion, the headless rider passed on without doing her any harm.
The Dullahan (also Durahan, Ganceann), a type of unseelie (wicked) fairy who thunders through the darkened lanes of the Irish countryside, especially in remote parts of counties Sligo and Down, is also relevant. The Dullahan is usually headless, clad in a black flowing cape and gallops through the night on a black horse, which spews forth sparks and flames from its nostrils. This terrifying specter also uses a human spine as a whip and carries his head, sometimes said to be luminous, either under one arm or in his right hand like a lantern. The head has a wide hideous grin and by holding it aloft, the Dullahan can use it to scan the countryside for mortals about to die. When the Dullahan and his horse come to a halt, it is a sigh that someone nearby will die. All locks and gates are useless against the Dullahan; the only defense against him is gold. One story form Galway, in the west of Ireland, describes a man who met the fearful phantom and outsmarted him by dropping a gold coin on the road, at which the Dullahan vanished. According to Irish antiquary Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854) anyone who has the misfortune to glimpse the mounted specter is rewarded by having a basin of blood thrown in his face or being struck blind in one eye by the spectre’s whip. In some parts of Ireland, such as County Tyrone, the Dullahan drives a coach drawn by a team of six black horses.
Certainly one of the most influential pieces of fiction regarding American ghost lore, and the Headless Horseman in particular, is Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This story, contained in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., was first published in 1820, while Irving was living in Birmingham, England. Irving traveled extensively in Europe where he probably picked up some of the elements he used in the story. Indeed, the headless ghost motif was known in German folklore at least as early as 1505 when it was recorded in a sermon written by Geiler von Kaysersberg, who mentions headless spirits being as part of the Wild Hunt. There is a story by German poet Goffried August Bürger called Der wilde Jäger, which was translated by Sir Walter Scott as The Wild Huntsman (1796), which may have influenced Irving. Despite these northern European influences, the majority of historians agree it is from Irving’s childhood in New York, where he grew up listening to stories told by Dutch immigrants, and his knowledge of the folk tales and characters of the Hudson Valley area, that the most telling influences on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow come.
Irving’s dark story of the headless Hessian soldier who rides forth every night through the dark lanes of Sleepy Hollow and the dénouement of the tale involving a supernatural wild chase through the woods, has had a significant affect on the nature of American hauntings. The influence of Irving’s tale on popular culture is evident as recently as 1999, with the release of the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. In his 1944 article for The Journal of American Folklore, “The Ghosts of New York: An Analytical Study,” Louis C. Jones noted 15 examples of the headless ghost motif in New York alone, including four headless horsemen. Another headless ghost tale was reported to the Western Kentucky Folklore Archive in the 1950s by Robert Morris, a Western Kentucky State College student. This tale is set on a hot, dry August day in the distant past when a rancher was sending his entire herd of cattle to the railroad at Cheyenne. Some way into the long journey, the cowboys decided to take a much-needed rest. While searching the horizon with his field glasses, the trail boss spotted what looked to be a headless rider. After handing the glasses to a companion to confirm the strange sight, the two rode off in search of the phantom, only to discover no trace of a horse or rider. Returning to camp, the cowboys discovered their herd had vanished, leaving no tracks behind. There is a tradition that on hot summer nights, one can still see the headless horseman leading the lost cattle over the Wyoming hills.
In the mid-1960s in the United Kingdom, Ian Rodger collected accounts of no less than five different headless horsemen from a single location – Brill in Buckinghamshire – who roamed the four roads and one field track leading into the village. One of these phantoms was said to be a Roman soldier who galloped from a nearby Roman marching camp, another was that of a phantom cavalier who appeared near a 16th century manor house, and a third was said to be the highwayman Dick Turpin. Other reports from the UK include a rider astride a black steed who patrols Tyndall Avenue on the campus of the University of Bristol, another who trots down the High Street in the village of Pettistree (Suffolk), and yet another who rides along the street of Pluckley (Kent), said to be England’s most haunted village. Two additional examples of headless horsemen come from northern Staffordshire. The first, who rides a white horse, gallops along the road from Onecote over Butterton Moor to Warslow and it is said this apparition is either that of a peddler murdered by robbers who cut off his head and placed his body on a horse, or the spirit of a knight killed fighting the Scots, whose horse brought home his headless corpse. After meeting this particular apparition at a crossroads in the 1930s, one countryman is said to have exclaimed, “A man on a horse without a yed on, an awful gory sight!” The other headless revenant is clad in armor and rides a spectral white horse along the road between Alton and Farley.
Headless ghosts are not confined to horsemen. In a letter to the editor of the English journal Folklore in March 1939, a Mrs. J.M. Biggs recalled that in 1908, there were stories of a headless apparition in a lane running along the River Stour near Tuckton Bridge in Southbourne, Hampshire. She claimed that one evening while she was walking along the lane, she noticed a man sitting on a field gate “leaning towards the river (as I thought) as if on the lookout for someone in a boat.” As she drew closer, she noticed the gentleman had no head. She insisted she knew noting of the legend associated with the spot, but later learned of a story concerning a governess at Wick House who “had a clandestine affair with a handsome groom whom she threw over for a more eligible suitor, whereupon the groom disappeared, his headless body being found in the river many months later.”
The headless woman is a relatively common phantom in English ghost lore and often serves as a death warning. In the 1880s at Alverston, Warwickshire, a ploughboy by the name of Charles Walton is said to have met a phantom black dog on nine successive evenings while making his way home from work. On the final occasion, the hound was accompanied by a headless lady in a silk gown who rushed past him. The following day, Walton received word that his sister had died. One case reported by antiquarian and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould, published in the very first issue of Folklore in March 1890, described a spectre at Dalton, North Yorkshire. A tramp was asleep in an old barn in the village when he was awoken at midnight by a light. Sitting up, he saw a woman approaching from the other end of the barn, carrying her head in her hands as though it were a lantern “with light streaming out of the eyes, nostrils and mouth.” Horrified, the transient immediately sprang to his feet and broke through the barn wall in his desperate to escape. Baring-Gould adds, “This hole I was shown some years ago. Whether the barn still stands I cannot say.” It is not recorded whether the headless apparition served as a death-warning on this particular occasion.
In the village of Duddon in Cheshire, there is a pub called the Headless Woman and its signboard is that of a woman holding her severed head beneath her arm. In 1866, writer Jacob Larwood mentioned the pub displayed a notice, which purported to recount the origin of the headless woman:
A party of Cromwell’s soldiers, engaged in hunting down the Royalists in the Chester district, visited Hockenhall Hall, but found that the family being warned of their coming had buried all the silver and other valuables and then fled for safety, leaving only a faithful old housekeeper in charge of the Hall, thinking it unlikely that the soldiers would do her any harm. The soldiers, being incensed at finding nothing of value, locked up the housekeeper in the top room and proceeded to torture her to tell them where the valuables were hidden. She remained faithful, and was finally murdered by the soldiers cutting off her head. Tradition says that afterwards, on numerous occasions she was seen carrying her head under her arm, walking along the old bridle path between Hockenhall Hall and the spot where it comes out on the Tarporley Road near the public house.
As macabre as this story is, the origin of the pub has a much more prosaic explanation. Inn signs displacing an image of headless woman were often used by pubs with names such as the Silent Woman or the Quiet Woman and derive from a joke aimed at women who talk so much that only the loss of their heads could silence them. One such example is the Quiet Woman in the hamlet of Earl Sterndale, Derbyshire, where the sign (pictured above) depicts a headless woman along with the words: “Soft words turneth away wrath” where the head should be. The sign is reputed to depict a woman known as “Chattering Chartris,” the wife of a former landlord, who nagged him so incessantly that he sliced off her head. Apparently she was not particularly popular in Earl Sterndale because the villagers contributed to the cost of her headstone.
A particularly common form of the spectral apparition, especially in Britain and Ireland, is the Phantom or Death Coach. The origins of this particular motif can perhaps be traced back to the Herlething (Wild Hunt) of northern, western and central Europe, and the ominous “hell waine,” a wagon that carried off the souls of the damned, recorded by Reginal Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) as among apparitions common at the time. In later ages, the Herlething was transformed in popular lore into the spectral huntsman and his hounds and this motif itself was gradually superseded by the spectral coach with its headless driver and horses, the driver sometimes being identified as the Devil. This phantom vehicle is also known as the Death Coach, because it often serves as a death omen for someone important (or wicked) in the locality where it is seen, and also because of its black color. The coach, which usually travels rapidly and noiselessly at night along country roads and sometimes across fields, is an ominous thing to witness. Occasionally, especially in Ireland, the Death Coach is only heard rumbling along the land and not seen.
Writing in Folklore in December 1942, Mrs. Cowie notes more than 60 examples of phantom coaches in England and there are many others that have been discovered by researchers since. In the English spectral coach stories, the driver of the coach, if there is one who can be identified, is frequently a local landowner or perhaps a notorious individual of the area. One of the best-known Death Coach stories is from the 17th century, that of Bliclking Hall in Norfolk. This English country house was once owned by Sir Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, and his wife Elizabeth. Their daughter Anne became the second wife of King Henry VIII in January 1533, only to be arrested on trumped up charges of adultery, incest and treason, which led to her beheading May 19, 1536. In Notes and Queries (Number 29, May 18, 1850), the Reverend E. S. Taylor relates a story concerning the apparition of Sir Thomas:
The spectre of this gentleman is believed by the vulgar to be doomed, annually on a certain night in the year, to drive, for a period of 1,000 years, a coach drawn by four headless horses, over a circuit of twelve bridges in that vicinity ... Sir Thomas carries his head under his arm, and flames issue from his mouth. Few rustics are hardy enough to be found loitering on or near those bridges on that night, and my informant averred, that he was himself on one occasion hailed by this fiendish apparition, and asked to open a gate, but “he warn’t sich a fool as to turn his head; and well a’ didn’t, for Sir Thomas passed him full gallop like” and he heard a voice which told him that he [Sir Thomas] had no power to hurt such as turned a deaf ear to his requests, but that had he stopped he would have carried him off.
The warning to turn “a deaf ear to his requests” is a common motif in supernatural lore, where it is often recommended not to acknowledge or speak to apparitions, the devil, or fairies. Why Sir Thomas, who died a natural death in 1539 at his family mansion of Hever, in Kent, should careen around Blickling Hall as a headless specter is hard to explain. Perhaps rumors of his unbridled ambition and alleged refusal to help his daughter and her brother George Boleyn (Viscount Rochford), when both faced execution, endowed him in the minds of the country folk with this ferocious character.
Sir Thomas is not the only headless ghost at Blickling. On the anniversary of her execution, Anne Boleyn’s spirit, dressed all in white, her bloody head in her lap, is also said to haunt Blickling Hall, riding down the avenue in a phantom coach drawn by four black headless horses.
Fitzford House, near Tavistock in Devon, is home to another female headless ghost. According to local tradition, the Lady Frances Howard (who died in 1671), wife of the owner of Fitzford House, Sir Richard Granville, had murdered her first three husbands. Because of these wicked acts, she was condemned to ride out every night at midnight in a coach of human bones with skulls at the four corners, driven by a headless coachman and pulled by four headless horses. A spectral black hound, sometimes said to be Lady Howard herself, with a single eye in the middle of its forehead, also accompanies this terrifying apparition. When the phantom coach arrives at Okehampton Castle, it is the strange tasks of this demon dog to pluck one blade of grass from the castle mound and bring it back to the gate of Fitzford House. The hound must continue to perform this task every night until all the grass has been plucked from the mound, which of course will never happen because the grass grows faster than the spectral animal can pluck it. In some versions of this tale, the coach stops to pick up the souls of the dying, which surely indicates that similar to so many spectral coach tales, Lady Howard’s phantom coach is the personification of death itself. As Devon folklorist Theo Brown has pointed out, Lady Howard did not in fact own a coach and as the country folk of Devon in the late 17th century would not have known what such a vehicle looked like, the phantom coach motif must have been added to her story at a much later date.
In Irish lore, the phantom or death coach is usually know as the “Coach-a-Bower” (Coshta Bower). Because it is sometimes attached to certain families as an omen of death, the Coach-a-Bower is associated with both the banshee and Dullahan and the latter is sometimes said to be the driver of the spectral vehicle. In the late 19th century, antiquary Thomas J. Westropp collected five stories of the Coach-a-Bower from County Clare on the western coast of Ireland. The general theme of these stories is that when the Coach-a-Bower is seen or heard, all gates should be thrown open so the phantom will not stop at the house to claim a member of the family, but pass by and instead foretell the death of a relative at a distance. On the night of December 11, 1876, a servant of the MacNamaras at Ennistymon House (now The Falls Hotel) was out at Ennistymon in “a beautiful spot in a wooded glen, with a broad stream falling in a series of cascades” (the River Ingh, which runs through the village of Ennistymon and has some small rapids known as “the Falls”). The man heard the rambling of wheels along the lane and realized that no “mortal vehicle” would be abroad at such a late hour in that place. He realized it must be the Death Coach and hurried to open the three gates to Ennistymon House before throwing himself down on his face as the unearthly carriage went clanking past. It did not stop at the house and its sound gradually disappeared into the night. On the following day, Sir Admiral Burton MacNamara died in London.
In certain parts of France, particularly Brittany, in the northwest of the country, there are tales of a skeleton ghost called “the Ankou” (Karrigell an Ankou), who travels about the countryside at night in a creaking cart or coach drawn by four black horses collecting the souls of the recently departed. According to local belief, the last man to die in the parish in a particular year must serve as Ankou the following year. In tales of the Ankou (pictured above), it is usually the sound of squeaking wheels along the roadway outside one’s house that heralds the arrival of this Breton personification of death’s servant. Traditionally, the Ankou is tall, wears a wide-brimmed hat and long dark coat and is accompanied by two skeletons that follow behind tossing the dead into his rattling cart.
In the United States, as would be expected, the phantom coach stories very much echo those of England and Ireland. John Q. Anderson published an interesting spectral coach story from Ayish Bayou in eastern Texas in the October 1963 issue of American Folklore. Although the story contains some of the hallmarks of Anglo-Irish lore, it has obviously been influenced by 19th-century romantic fiction. The coach is not black, for example, but gold, and there are no horses, headless or otherwise. The events occurred before the Civil War and the report was made by an eyewitness, a colored coachman named Ben Smiley. The story involves a local planter’s daughter who met a young man at a social gathering. The two fell in love and became engaged. On the night of their engagement, “in the light of the full harvest moon,” the young couple decided to take one of the family coaches outside the young woman’s house and go for a ride. But both the coach and courting pair disappeared and were never seen again. Years later, when the incident was all but forgotten by everyone except the families involved, the parents of the missing girl were hosting a party at their home. The various coachmen were gathered outside in the moonlight talking among themselves when one of their number happened to glance toward the dark bayou where he beheld “a golden, shapeless glow” noiselessly approaching. As the light drew nearer, the men could make out the shape of an old-fashioned coach, without horse or driver. Then the terrified onlookers were able to discern the vague shape of a woman inside as the spectral vehicle silently passed and faded into the autumn night. On the occasion of every full moon thereafter, “the golden coach with its spectral passenger moved up the drive to the lost girl’s home and continued to do so until her parents died,” after which it was seen no more.
Source: Lore of the Ghost: The origins of the Most Famous Ghost Stories Throughout the World by Brian Haughton.
See also “Headless Ghosts and Creatures”: whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/edit/3373