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Lord Lyttelton's Ghost

Categories: More Ghosts With A Purpose
Scary Books: The Book Of Dreams And Ghosts
: Andrew Lang

"Sir," said Dr. Johnson, "it is the most extraordinary thing that has

happened in my day." The doctor's day included the rising of 1745 and

of the Wesleyans, the seizure of Canada, the Seven Years' War, the

American Rebellion, the Cock Lane ghost, and other singular

occurrences, but "the most extraordinary thing" was--Lord Lyttelton's

ghost! Famous as is that spectre, nobody knows what it was, nor even

whether there
as any spectre at all.

Thomas, Lord Lyttelton, was born in 1744. In 1768 he entered the

House of Commons. In 1769 he was unseated for bribery. He then

vanishes from public view, probably he was playing the prodigal at

home and abroad, till February, 1772, when he returned to his father's

house, and married. He then went abroad (with a barmaid) till 1773,

when his father died. In January, 1774, he took his seat in the House

of Lords. In November, 1779, Lyttelton went into Opposition. On

Thursday, 25th November, he denounced Government in a magnificent

speech. As to a sinecure which he held, he said, "Perhaps I shall not

keep it long!"

_Something had Happened_!

On the night before his speech, that of Wednesday, 24th November,

Lyttelton had seen the ghost, and had been told that he would die in

three days. He mentioned this to Rowan Hamilton on the Friday. {129a}

On the same day, or on Friday, he mentioned it to Captain Ascough, who

told a lady, who told Mrs. Thrale. {129b} On the Friday he went to

Epsom with friends, and mentioned the ghost to them, among others to

Mr. Fortescue. {129c} About midnight on 28th November, Lord Lyttelton

died suddenly in bed, his valet having left him for a moment to fetch

a spoon for stirring his medicine. The cause of death was not stated;

there was no inquest.

This, literally, is all that is _known_ about Lord Lyttelton's ghost.

It is variously described as: (1) "a young woman and a robin" (Horace

Walpole); (2) "a spirit" (Captain Ascough); (3) a bird in a dream,

"which changed into a woman in white" (Lord Westcote's narrative of

13th February, 1780, collected from Lord Lyttelton's guests and

servants); (4) "a bird turning into a woman" (Mrs. Delany, 9th

December, 1779); (5) a dream of a bird, followed by a woman, Mrs.

Amphlett, in white (Pitt Place archives after 1789); (6) "a fluttering

noise, as of a bird, followed by the apparition of a woman who had

committed suicide after being seduced by Lyttelton" (Lady Lyttelton,

1828); (7) a bird "which vanished when a female spirit in white

raiment presented herself" (Scots Magazine, November-December, 1779).

Out of seven versions, a bird, or a fluttering noise as of a bird (a

common feature in ghost stories), {130a} with a woman following or

accompanying, occurs in six. The phenomena are almost equally

ascribed to dreaming and to waking hallucination, but the common-sense

of the eighteenth century called all ghosts "dreams". In the Westcote

narrative (1780) Lyttelton explains the dream by his having lately

been in a room with a lady, Mrs. Dawson, when a robin flew in. Yet,

in the same narrative, Lyttelton says on Saturday morning "that he was

very well, and believed he should bilk the _ghost_". He was certainly

in bed at the time of the experience, and probably could not be sure

whether he was awake or asleep. {130b}

Considering the remoteness of time, the story is very well recorded.

It is chronicled by Mrs. Thrale before the news of Lyttelton's death

reached her, and by Lady Mary Coke two days later, by Walpole on the

day after the peer's decease, of which he had heard. Lord Lyttelton's

health had for some time been bad; he had made his will a few weeks

before, and his nights were horror-haunted. A little boy, his nephew,

to whom he was kind, used to find the wicked lord sitting by his bed

at night, because he dared not be alone. So Lockhart writes to his

daughter, Mrs. Hope Scott. {131} He had strange dreams of being in

hell with the cruel murderess, Mrs. Brownrigg, who "whipped three

female 'prentices to death and hid them in the coal-hole". Such a man

might have strange fancies, and a belief in approaching death might

bring its own fulfilment. The hypothesis of a premeditated suicide,

with the story of the ghost as a last practical joke, has no

corroboration. It occurred to Horace Walpole at once, but he laid no

stress on it.

Such is a plain, dry, statistical account of the most extraordinary

event that happened in Dr. Johnson's day.

However, the story does not end here. On the fatal night, 27th

November, 1779, Mr. Andrews, M.P., a friend of Lyttelton's was

awakened by finding Lord Lyttelton drawing his curtains. Suspecting a

practical joke, he hunted for his lordship both in his house and in

the garden. Of course he never found him. The event was promptly

recorded in the next number of the Scots Magazine, December, 1779.