The Sampford Ghost of 1810 and the Surrounding Controversy

The Sampford ghost of 1810 became well-known after John Chave, his wife, and her brother, a Mr. Taylor, moved into a house owned by Mr. Talley. Before they moved in an agreement was reached between Chave and Talley that Talley would make necessary repairs to the house. (The repairs were detailed by Chave and included painting the house.) The house was in the village of Sampford Peverell. It was not considered in anyway unusual and in fact, the house was described as “very ordinary.” It had “a shop and kitchen below, a single staircase, communicating with the upper story, and in the latter a small ante-room or landing, and two rooms one leading into the other.”[1]

House of the Sampford Ghost

The haunted house of Sampford. Public domain.

Even though the house was not unusual and did not look haunted rumors began to circulate that the house was haunted even before Chave moved in. The ghostly activities reputedly began in April 1810, the same year and month that Napoleon Bonaparte married Marie Louise. Some of the ghostly activities noticed were reported by a young apprentice who “declared he heard inexplicable noises at night,”[2] although unusual noises also occurred during daylight. Soon the inhabitants also claimed to be plagued by thunderous noises. Moreover, if anyone stamped on the floor, the stamping was imitated by some “mysterious agency, which caused the very flooring to vibrate and send up smart spurts of dust.”[3]

The noises made by the Sampford ghost, which were claimed to originate from the floorboards, walls, and beam and joists, reportedly continued daily and were incessant for five weeks. These happenings were then succeeded by “still more curious and alarming [phenomena] … at night.”[4] For three years, the noises and happenings lasted, and, during this time, the supposed spirits grew more daring, threatening, and malicious until they began attacking residents.

These attacks were primarily instigated against the domestics — Mary Dennis (senior and junior), Martha Woodbury, Ann Mills, Mrs. Pitts and Sally Case. The domestic servants also claimed they were “beaten by invisible hands until they were black and blue.”[5] Mills noted that on one occasion she was the recipient of a huge bump, “as big as a turkey’s egg.”[6] She also swore an invisible hand beat her as she laid in bed. Dennis and Woodbury likewise claimed to have been beaten. In their case they saw no one and insisted that it must have been some invisible force. They reported they were “benumbed, and … sore for many days after.”[7]

Reverend Charles Caleb Colton, an eccentric English cleric, writer, and collector, who is probably best known for saying, “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery,”[8] heard the rumors about the Sampford ghost. Colton decided to investigate. He stayed six nights with the Chaves and interviewed several domestic servants who reported under oath:

“[My] night’s rest was invariably destroyed by violent blows from some invisible hand, by an unaccountable and rapid drawing and withdrawing of the curtains; by a suffocating and almost inexpressible weight, and by a repetition of sounds, so loud as at times to shake the whole room.”[9]

Colton also had his own ghostly experiences. He reported about ongoing and ever-present noises. He also claimed his own bed curtains violently agitated, despite them being tied together. He noted there was a loud “indescribable motion of the rings … resembling the tearing of linen,”[10] One night he witnessed the Sampford ghost and reported on “visible marks [the ghost left behind].”[11] According to Colton, he went into an “inner room and stood by the bed where the maids were [sleeping], and heard the blows rained on them. When he cried for a light, it was brought in, but no person could be seen by him who could have administered these blows.”‘[12]

Descriptions of those that had seen the Sampford ghost varied. One of the most oft-repeated descriptions was that the ghost resembled “a black rabbit, only wonderfully larger.”[13] Sometimes people had no description or claimed no ghost or monster was observed. For instance, one night, two domestics refused to sleep in their own room for fear of the ghost. They begged the Chaves to allow them to sleep in their bedroom. The Chaves agreed. Peace and quiet reigned for about a half hour, when all of a sudden “a large iron candlestick began walking rapidly about. … Chave, trying to ring the bell, then narrowly escaped being hit on the head by the candlestick, which came hurtling at him in the dark.”[14]

There were other stories. For example, there was also a version about a possessed mopstick with Talley being the victim of it. “Three different times … a ghost in the shape of a Mopstick … stuck to him like his shadow.”[15] Wherever he went, so did the mopstick. Several domestics also claimed to have seen some unusual and mysterious sights. One such sight was a white hand that unexpectedly appeared from under a bed. The white hand frightened one maid, and another domestic claimed to have “seen a livid arm hanging down from the ceiling.”[16]

After Colton’s experiences he sent a letter to the editor of the Taunton Courier detailing what he had witnessed. In the letter he noted, “I am utterly unable to account for any of the phenomena.”[17] Colton’s letter was published and reprinted in several other papers. His reports of bumpings, knockings, rattlings, thumpings, and buffetings created spectacular interest throughout England. This resulted in the Tauton Courier editor, a Mr. Marriott, examining Colton’s proof. Marriott, however, concluded Colton’s proof to be the result of a hoax.

According to Marriott, “Mr. Colton and his friends had been too credulous.”[18] Marriott went on explaining that a dispute had occurred between Chave and a painter, whose bill was thought to be “excessive,” and to get even the builder, “his workmen and agents … conspired to render the house uninhabitable, and proclaimed it haunted.”[19] Moreover, Chave had issues with Talley. Chave was “liable to ejectment, and desired to depreciate the property so as to hinder the incoming of a new tenant.”[20] Marriott also maintained a man was employed to strike the walls and ceilings with a mopstick and that the beatings of the maids was supposedly done by their own hands, as there was also a plot among them.

Marriott’s blunt remarks and Colton’s unabashed belief kept the controversy of a Sampford ghost alive. Marriott’s response to the hoax was titled Sampford Ghost!!! A Full Account of the Conspiracy at Sampford Peverell, near Tiverton; Containing the Particulars of the Pretended Visitations of the Monster. Colton responded with a pamphlet that had a title longer than his ghostly assertions: It was Sampford Peverell. A Plain and Authentic Narrative of those extraordinary occurrences, hitherto unaccounted for, which have lately taken place at the house of Mr. Chave, in the Village of Sampford Peverell.

Colton followed that pamphlet up with a second pamphlet. It also had a long title: Sampford Ghost. Stubborn Facts against Vague Assertions, being an appendix to a plain and authentic narrative of those extraordinary circumstance, hitherto unaccounted for and still going on at the house of Mr. Chave, in the Village of Sampford.

Despite Colton’s pamphlets supporting a ghost, the public sided with Marriott. They believed the whole thing was a hoax like the Bottle Conjuror, Ann Moore (the fasting impostor), or the Berners Street hoax of 1810. In fact, in 1811, there was an attack by a mob against Chave when he was recognized: The mob followed him home, broke his windows, and beat one of his employees. Chave and others inside the house fired upon the mob, and the result was one mob member died and another was seriously wounded and not expected to live.

To counter the critics, Colton offered a reward of a hundred pounds if a human hoaxer could be caught. One attempt to claim the reward involved an excise officer named Mr. Sully. He stayed overnight to ascertain the cause of the maid’s beatings. He positioned Taylor and Chave, who were assisting him, at the bedroom windows. Sully then had a woman act as bait who slept in the bedroom. At length Sully heard someone or something coming upstairs. It entered the bedroom, and when it began to beat the woman violently about the hips and the legs:

[I]n the midst of these blows, while they were in the greatest height, [Sully] instantaneously drew the door fully open. The moon shone very bright directly into the apartment; had any thing material attempted to escape, he affirms he must have seen or heard it, as the window [was] very large (occupying two thirds of the breadth of the whole room).[21]

Sully reported that he was “quite positive that he heard and saw nothing escape, and that … Taylor and … Chave kept their positions at the window.”[22] In the end, no human hoaxer was caught, and the matter was never resolved one way or the other. Thus, Colton’s generous offer of one hundred pounds was never claimed.

References:

  • [1] Snell, Frederick John, The Chronicles of Twyford, 1892, p, 235.
  • [2] Harper, Charles George, Haunted Houses, 1907, p. 123.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Baring-Gould, Sabine, Devonshire Characters and Strange Events, 1908, p. 288.
  • [5] Harper, Charles George, p. 123.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 124.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Colton, Charles Caleb, Lacon, Or, Many Things in a Few Words: Addressed to Those who Think, 1824, p. 114.
  • [9] The Edinburgh Annual Register, Vol. 3, 1812, p. 155.
  • [10] Harper, Charles George, p. 125.
  • [11] Braddon, Mary Elizabeth, Belgravia, Vol. 51, 1883, p. 183.
  • [12] Baring-Gould, Sabine, p. 289.
  • [13] The Edinburgh Annual Register, p. 156.
  • [14] Harper, Charles George, p. 124.
  • [15] Colton, Charles Caleb, Sampford Ghost, an Appendix to a Plain and Authentic Narrative, 1810, p. 11.
  • [16] Baring-Gould, Sabine, p. 291.
  • [17] The Edinburgh Annual Register, p. 154.
  • [18] Braddon, Mary Elizabeth, p. 185.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ibid., p. 185.
  • [21] Colton, Charles Caleb, Sampford Ghost, p. 16.

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1 Comments

  1. Jacob Choudhury on September 18, 2020 at 5:42 pm

    Fascinating article to say the Least. The movements of the curtains certainly sound familiar. .the Enfield poltergeist case allegedly had similar motions by bedroom curtains. It’s extremely unlikely the inhabitants of the house in Enfield – who were of lower than average IQ level – would have read about the Sampford poltergeist. I suspect strongly the Sampford poltergeist was real.

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