The nearest approximation which can be generally made to exact evidence in this case, is the word of some individual who has had the story, it may be, from the person to whom it has happened, but most likely from his family, or some friend of the family. Far more commonly, the narrator possesses no better means of knowledge than that of dwelling in the country where the thing happened, or being well acquainted with the outside of the mansion in the inside of which the ghost appeared.
In every point, the evidence of such a second-hand retailer of the mystic story must fall under the adjudged case in an English court. The judge stopped a witness who was about to give an account of the murder upon trial, as it was narrated to him by the ghost of the murdered person. " Hold, sir," said his lordship " the ghost is an excellent witness, and his evidence the best possible ; but he cannot be heard by proxy in this court. Summon him hither, and I'll hear him in person; but your communication is mere hearsay, which my office compels me to reject." Yet it is upon the credit of one man, who pledges it upon that of three or four persons who have told it successively to each other, that we are often expected to believe an incident inconsistent with the laws of nature, however agreeable to our love of the wonderful and the horrible.
In estimating the truth or falsehood of such stories, it is evident we can derive no proofs from that period of society when men affirmed boldly, and believed stoutly, all the wonders which could be coined or fancied. That such stories are believed and told by grave historians, only shows that the wisest men cannot rise in all things above the general ignorance of their age. Upon the evidence of such historians we might as well believe the portents of ancient, or the miracles of modern, Rome. For example, we read in Clarendon of the apparition of the ghost of Sir George Villiers to an ancient dependant. This is, no doubt, a story told by a grave author at a time when such stories were believed by all the world ; but does it follow that our reason must acquiesce in a statement so positively contradicted by the voice of Nature through all her works ? The miracle of raising a dead man was positively refused by our Saviour to the Jews, who demanded it as a proof of his mission, because they had already sufficient grounds of conviction ; and, as their believed them not, it was irresistibly argued by the Divine Person whom they tempted that neither would they believe if one arose from the dead. Shall we suppose that a miracle refused for the conversion of God's chosen people was sent on a vain errand to save the life of a profligate spendthrift ? I lay aside, you observe, entirely the not unreasonable supposition that Towers, or whatever was the ghost-seer's name, desirous to make an impression upon Buckingham, as an old servant of his house, might be tempted to give him his advice, of which we are not told the import, in the character of his father's spirit, and authenticate the tale by the mention of some token known to him as a former retainer of the family. The duke was superstitious, and the ready dupe of astrologers and soothsayers. The manner in which he had provoked the fury of the people must have warned every reflecting person of his approaching fate ; and, the age considered, it was not unnatural that a faithful friend should take this mode of calling his attention to his perilous situation. Or, if we suppose that the incident was not a mere pretext to obtain access to the duke's ear, the messenger may have been imposed upon by an idle dream—in a word, numberless conjectures might be formed for accounting for the event in a natural way, the most extravagant of which is more probable than that the laws of nature were broken through in order to give a vain and fruitless warning to an ambitious minion.
It is the same with all those that are called accredited ghost stories usually told at the fireside. They want evidence. It is true that the general wish to believe, rather than the power of believing, has given some such stories a certain currency in society. I may mention, as one of the class of tales I mean, that of the late Earl St. Vincent, who watched with a friend, it is said, a whole night in order to detect the cause of certain nocturnal disturbances which took place in a certain mansion. The house was under lease to Mrs. Ricketts, his sister. The result of his lordship's vigil is said to have been, that he heard the noises without being able to detect the causes, and insisted on his sister giving up the house. This is told as a real story, with a thousand different circumstances. But who has heard or seen an authentic account from Earl St. Vincent, or from his " companion of the watch," or from his lordship's sister ? And as, in any other case, such sure species of direct evidence would be necessary to prove the facts, it seems unreasonable to believe such a story on slighter terms. When the particulars are precisely fixed and known, it might be time to enquire whether Lord St. Vincent, amid the other eminent qualities of a first-rate seaman, might not be in some degree tinged with their tendency to superstition ; and still farther, whether, having ascertained the existence of disturbances not immediately or easily detected, his lordship might not advise his sister rather to remove than to remain in a house so haunted, though he might believe that poachers or smugglers were the worst ghosts by whom it was disturbed ?
The story of two highly respectable officers in the British army, who are supposed to have seen the spectre of the brother of one of them in a hut, or barrack, in America, is also one of those accredited ghost tales, which attain a sort of brevet rank as true, from the mention of respectable names as the parties who witnessed the vision. But we are left without a glimpse when, how, and in what terms, this story obtained its currency ; as also by whom, and in what manner, it was first circulated ; and among the numbers by whom it has been quoted, although all agree in the general event, scarcely two, even of those who pretend to the best information, tell the story in the same way.