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The Wesley Ghost

Categories: Modern Hauntings
Scary Books: The Book Of Dreams And Ghosts
: Andrew Lang

No ghost story is more celebrated than that of Old Jeffrey, the spirit

so named by Emily Wesley, which disturbed the Rectory at Epworth,

chiefly in the December of 1716 and the spring of 1717. Yet the

vagueness of the human mind has led many people, especially

journalists, to suppose that the haunted house was that, not of Samuel

Wesley, but of his son John Wesley, the founder of the Wesleyan

Methodists. For the bett
r intelligence of the tale, we must know who

the inmates of the Epworth Rectory were, and the nature of their

characters and pursuits. The rector was the Rev. Samuel Wesley, born

in 1662, the son of a clergyman banished from his living on "Black

Bartholomew Day," 1666. Though educated among Dissenters, Samuel

Wesley converted himself to the truth as it is in the Church of

England, became a "poor scholar" of Exeter College in Oxford,

supported himself mainly by hack-work in literature (he was one of the

editors of a penny paper called The Athenian Mercury, a sort of

Answers), married Miss Susanna Annesley, a lady of good family, in

1690-91, and in 1693 was presented to the Rectory of Epworth in

Lincolnshire by Mary, wife of William of Orange, to whom he had

dedicated a poem on the life of Christ. The living was poor, Mr.

Wesley's family multiplied with amazing velocity, he was in debt, and

unpopular. His cattle were maimed in 1705, and in 1703 his house was

burned down. The Rectory House, of which a picture is given in

Clarke's Memoirs of the Wesleys, 1825, was built anew at his own

expense. Mr. Wesley was in politics a strong Royalist, but having

seen James II. shake "his lean arm" at the Fellows of Magdalen

College, and threaten them "with the weight of a king's right hand,"

he conceived a prejudice against that monarch, and took the side of

the Prince of Orange. His wife, a very pious woman and a strict

disciplinarian, was a Jacobite, would not say "amen" to the prayers

for "the king," and was therefore deserted by her husband for a year

or more in 1701-1702. They came together again, however, on the

accession of Queen Anne.

Unpopular for his politics, hated by the Dissenters, and at odds with

the "cunning men," or local wizards against whom he had frequently

preached, Mr. Wesley was certainly apt to have tricks played on him by

his neighbours. His house, though surrounded by a wall, a hedge, and

its own grounds, was within a few yards of the nearest dwelling in the

village street.

In 1716, when the disturbances began, Mr. Wesley's family consisted of

his wife; his eldest son, Sam, aged about twenty-three, and then

absent at his duties as an usher at Westminster; John, aged twelve, a

boy at Westminster School; Charles, a boy of eight, away from home,

and the girls, who were all at the parsonage. They were Emily, about

twenty-two, Mary, Nancy and Sukey, probably about twenty-one, twenty

and nineteen, and Hetty, who may have been anything between nineteen

and twelve, but who comes after John in Dr. Clarke's list, and is

apparently reckoned among "the children". {212} Then there was Patty,

who may have been only nine, and little Keziah.

All except Patty were very lively young people, and Hetty, afterwards

a copious poet, "was gay and sprightly, full of mirth, good-humour,

and keen wit. She indulged this disposition so much that it was said

to have given great uneasiness to her parents." The servants, Robin

Brown, Betty Massy and Nancy Marshall, were recent comers, but were

acquitted by Mrs. Wesley of any share in the mischief. The family,

though, like other people of their date, they were inclined to believe

in witches and "warnings," were not especially superstitious, and

regarded the disturbances, first with some apprehension, then as a

joke, and finally as a bore.

The authorities for what occurred are, first, a statement and journal

by Mr. Wesley, then a series of letters of 1717 to Sam at Westminster

by his mother, Emily and Sukey, next a set of written statements made

by these and other witnesses to John Wesley in 1726, and last and

worst, a narrative composed many years after by John Wesley for The

Arminian Magazine.

The earliest document, by a few days, is the statement of Mr. Wesley,

written, with a brief journal, between 21st December, 1716, and 1st

January, 1717. Comparing this with Mrs. Wesley's letter to Sam of

12th January, 1716 and Sukey's letter of 24th January, we learn that

the family for some weeks after 1st December had been "in the greatest

panic imaginable," supposing that Sam, Jack, or Charlie (who must also

have been absent from home) was dead, "or by some misfortune killed".

The reason for these apprehensions was that on the night of 1st

December the maid "heard at the dining-room door several dreadful

groans, like a person in extremes". They laughed at her, but for the

whole of December "the groans, squeaks, tinglings and knockings were

frightful enough". The rest of the family (Mr. Wesley always

excepted) "heard a strange knocking in divers places," chiefly in the

green room, or nursery, where (apparently) Hetty, Patty and Keziah

lay. Emily heard the noises later than some of her sisters, perhaps a

week after the original groans. She was locking up the house about

ten o'clock when a sound came like the smashing and splintering of a

huge piece of coal on the kitchen floor. She and Sukey went through

the rooms on the ground floor, but found the dog asleep, the cat at

the other end of the house, and everything in order. From her bedroom

Emily heard a noise of breaking the empty bottles under the stairs,

but was going to bed, when Hetty, who had been sitting on the lowest

step of the garret stairs beside the nursery door, waiting for her

father, was chased into the nursery by a sound as of a man passing her

in a loose trailing gown. Sukey and Nancy were alarmed by loud knocks

on the outside of the dining-room door and overhead. All this time

Mr. Wesley heard nothing, and was not even told that anything unusual

was heard. Mrs. Wesley at first held her peace lest he should think

it "according to the vulgar opinion, a warning against his own death,

which, indeed, we all apprehended". Mr. Wesley only smiled when he

was informed; but, by taking care to see all the girls safe in bed,

sufficiently showed his opinion that the young ladies and their lovers

were the ghost. Mrs. Wesley then fell back on the theory of rats, and

employed a man to blow a horn as a remedy against these vermin. But

this measure only aroused the emulation of the sprite, whom Emily

began to call "Jeffrey".

Not till 21st December did Mr. Wesley hear anything, then came

thumpings on his bedroom wall. Unable to discover the cause, he

procured a stout mastiff, which soon became demoralised by his

experiences. On the morning of the 24th, about seven o'clock, Emily

led Mrs. Wesley into the nursery, where she heard knocks on and under

the bedstead; these sounds replied when she knocked. Something "like

a badger, with no head," says Emily; Mrs. Wesley only says, "like a

badger," ran from under the bed. On the night of the 25th there was

an appalling vacarme. Mr. and Mrs. Wesley went on a tour of

inspection, but only found the mastiff whining in terror. "We still

heard it rattle and thunder in every room above or behind us, locked

as well as open, except my study, where as yet it never came." On the

night of the 26th Mr. Wesley seems to have heard of a phenomenon

already familiar to Emily--"something like the quick winding up of a

jack, at the corner of the room by my bed head". This was always

followed by knocks, "hollow and loud, such as none of us could ever

imitate". Mr. Wesley went into the nursery, Hetty, Kezzy and Patty

were asleep. The knocks were loud, beneath and in the room, so Mr.

Wesley went below to the kitchen, struck with his stick against the

rafters, and was answered "as often and as loud as I knocked". The

peculiar knock which was his own, 1-23456-7, was not successfully

echoed at that time. Mr. Wesley then returned to the nursery, which

was as tapageuse as ever. The children, three, were trembling in

their sleep. Mr. Wesley invited the agency to an interview in his

study, was answered by one knock outside, "all the rest were within,"

and then came silence. Investigations outside produced no result, but

the latch of the door would rise and fall, and the door itself was

pushed violently back against investigators.

"I have been with Hetty," says Emily, "when it has knocked under her,

and when she has removed has followed her," and it knocked under

little Kezzy, when "she stamped with her foot, pretending to scare


Mr. Wesley had requested an interview in his study, especially as the

Jacobite goblin routed loudly "over our heads constantly, when we came

to the prayers for King George and the prince". In his study the

agency pushed Mr. Wesley about, bumping him against the corner of his

desk, and against his door. He would ask for a conversation, but

heard only "two or three feeble squeaks, a little louder than the

chirping of a bird, but not like the noise of rats, which I have often


Mr. Wesley had meant to leave home for a visit on Friday, 28th

December, but the noises of the 27th were so loud that he stayed at

home, inviting the Rev. Mr. Hoole, of Haxey, to view the performances.

"The noises were very boisterous and disturbing this night." Mr.

Hoole says (in 1726, confirmed by Mrs. Wesley, 12th January, 1717)

that there were sounds of feet, trailing gowns, raps, and a noise as

of planing boards: the disturbance finally went outside the house and

died away. Mr. Wesley seems to have paid his visit on the 30th, and

notes, "1st January, 1717. My family have had no disturbance since I

went away."

To judge by Mr. Wesley's letter to Sam, of 12th January, there was no

trouble between the 29th of December and that date. On the 19th of

January, and the 30th of the same month, Sam wrote, full of curiosity,

to his father and mother. Mrs. Wesley replied (25th or 27th January),

saying that no explanation could be discovered, but "it commonly was

nearer Hetty than the rest". On 24th January, Sukey said "it is now

pretty quiet, but still knocks at prayers for the king." On 11th

February, Mr. Wesley, much bored by Sam's inquiries, says, "we are all

now quiet. . . . It would make a glorious penny book for Jack

Dunton," his brother-in-law, a publisher of popular literature, such

as the Athenian Mercury. Emily (no date) explains the phenomena as

the revenge for her father's recent sermons "against consulting those

that are called cunning men, which our people are given to, and _it

had a particular spite at my father_".

The disturbances by no means ended in the beginning of January, nor at

other dates when a brief cessation made the Wesleys hope that Jeffrey

had returned to his own place. Thus on 27th March, Sukey writes to

Sam, remarking that as Hetty and Emily are also writing "so

particularly," she need not say much. "One thing I believe you do not

know, that is, last Sunday, to my father's no small amazement, his

trencher danced upon the table a pretty while, without anybody's

stirring the table. . . . Send me some news for we are excluded from

the sight or hearing of any versal thing, except Jeffery."

The last mention of the affair, at this time, is in a letter from

Emily, of 1st April, to a Mr. Berry.

"Tell my brother the sprite was with us last night, and heard by many

of our family." There are no other contemporary letters preserved,

but we may note Mrs. Wesley's opinion (25th January) that it was

"beyond the power of any human being to make such strange and various


The next evidence is ten years after date, the statements taken down

by Jack Wesley in 1726 (1720?). Mrs. Wesley adds to her former

account that she "earnestly desired it might not disturb her" (at her

devotions) "between five and six in the evening," and it did not rout

in her room at that time. Emily added that a screen was knocked at on

each side as she went round to the other. Sukey mentioned the noise

as, on one occasion, coming gradually from the garret stairs, outside

the nursery door, up to Hetty's bed, "who trembled strongly in her

sleep. It then removed to the room overhead, where it knocked my

father's knock on the ground, as if it would beat the house down."

Nancy said that the noise used to follow her, or precede her, and once

a bed, on which she sat playing cards, was lifted up under her several

times to a considerable height. Robin, the servant, gave evidence

that he was greatly plagued with all manner of noises and movements of


John Wesley, in his account published many years after date in his

Arminian Magazine, attributed the affair of 1716 to his father's

broken vow of deserting his mother till she recognised the Prince of

Orange as king! He adds that the mastiff "used to tremble and creep

away before the noise began".

Some other peculiarities may be noted. All persons did not always

hear the noises. It was three weeks before Mr. Wesley heard anything.

"John and Kitty Maw, who lived over against us, listened several

nights in the time of the disturbance, but could never hear anything."

Again, "The first time my mother ever heard any unusual noise at

Epworth was long before the disturbance of old Jeffrey . . . the door

and windows jarred very loud, and presently several distinct strokes,

three by three, were struck. From that night it never failed to give

notice in much the same manner, against any signal misfortune or

illness of any belonging to the family," writes Jack.

Once more, on 10th February, 1750, Emily (now Mrs. Harper) wrote to

her brother John, "that wonderful thing called by us Jeffery, how

certainly it calls on me against any extraordinary new affliction".

This is practically all the story of Old Jeffrey. The explanations

have been, trickery by servants (Priestley), contagious hallucinations

(Coleridge), devilry (Southey), and trickery by Hetty Wesley (Dr.

Salmon, of Trinity College, Dublin). Dr. Salmon points out that there

is no evidence from Hetty; that she was a lively, humorous girl, and

he conceives that she began to frighten the maids, and only

reluctantly exhibited before her father against whom, however, Jeffrey

developed "a particular spite". He adds that certain circumstances

were peculiar to Hetty, which, in fact, is not the case. The present

editor has examined Dr. Salmon's arguments in The Contemporary Review,

and shown reason, in the evidence, for acquitting Hetty Wesley, who

was never suspected by her family.

Trickery from without, by "the cunning men," is an explanation which,

at least, provides a motive, but how the thing could be managed from

without remains a mystery. Sam Wesley, the friend of Pope, and

Atterbury, and Lord Oxford, not unjustly said: "Wit, I fancy, might

find many interpretations, but wisdom none". {220}

As the Wesley tale is a very typical instance of a very large class,

our study of it may exempt us from printing the well-known parallel

case of "The Drummer of Tedworth". Briefly, the house of Mr.

Mompesson, near Ludgarshal, in Wilts, was disturbed in the usual way,

for at least two years, from April, 1661, to April, 1663, or later.

The noises, and copious phenomena of moving objects apparently

untouched, were attributed to the unholy powers of a wandering

drummer, deprived by Mr. Mompesson of his drum. A grand jury

presented the drummer for trial, on a charge of witchcraft, but the

petty jury would not convict, there being a want of evidence to prove

threats, malum minatum, by the drummer. In 1662 the Rev. Joseph

Glanvil, F.R.S., visited the house, and, in the bedroom of Mr.

Mompesson's little girls, the chief sufferers, heard and saw much the

same phenomena as the elder Wesley describes in his own nursery. The

"little modest girls" were aged about seven and eight. Charles II.

sent some gentlemen to the house for one night, when nothing occurred,

the disturbances being intermittent. Glanvil published his narrative

at the time, and Mr. Pepys found it "not very convincing". Glanvil,

in consequence of his book, was so vexed by correspondents "that I

have been haunted almost as bad as Mr. Mompesson's house". A report

that imposture had been discovered, and confessed by Mr. Mompesson,

was set afloat, by John Webster, in a well-known work, and may still

be found in modern books. Glanvil denied it till he was "quite

tired," and Mompesson gave a formal denial in a letter dated Tedworth,

8th November, 1672. He also, with many others, swore to the facts on

oath, in court, at the drummer's trial. {221}

In the Tedworth case, as at Epworth, and in the curious Cideville case

of 1851, a quarrel with "cunning men" preceded the disturbances. In

Lord St. Vincent's case, which follows, nothing of the kind is

reported. As an almost universal rule children, especially girls of

about twelve, are centres of the trouble; in the St. Vincent story,

the children alone were exempt from annoyance.