Cases of this kind are numerous, and easily imagined, so I shall dwell on them no farther ; but rather advert to at least an equally abundant class of ghost stories, in which the apparition is pleased not to torment the actual murderer, but proceeds in a very circuitous manner, acquainting some stranger or ignorant old woman with the particulars of his fate, who, though perhaps unacquainted with all the parties, is directed by the phantom to lay the facts before a magistrate. In this respect, we must certainly allow that ghosts have, as we are informed by the facetious Captain Grose, forms and customs peculiar to themselves.
There would be no edification, and little amusement, in treating of clumsy deceptions of this kind, where the grossness of the imposture detects itself. But occasionally cases occur like the following, with respect to which it is more difficult, to use James Boswell's phrase, " to know what to think."
Upon the loth of June, 1754, Duncan Terig, alias Clark, and Alexander Bain MacDonald, two Highlanders, were tried before the Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, for the murder of Arthur Davis, sergeant in Guise's regiment, on the 28th September, 1749. The accident happened not long after the civil war, the embers of which were still reeking, so there existed too many reasons on account of which an English soldier, straggling far from assistance, might be privately cut off by the inhabitants of these wilds. It appears that Sergeant Davis was amissing for years, without any certainty as to his fate. At length an account of the murder appeared from the evidence of one Alexander MacPherson, (a Highlander, speaking no language but Gaelic, and sworn by an interpreter,) who gave the following extraordinary account of his cause of knowledge :—He was, he said, in bed in his cottage, when an apparition came to his bedside, and commanded him to rise and follow him out of doors. Believing his visitor to be one Farquharson, a neighbour and friend, the witness did as he was bid ; and when they were without the cottage, the appearance told the witness he was the ghost of Sergeant Davis, and requested him to go and bury his mortal remains, which lay concealed in a place he pointed out, in a moorland tract called the hill of Christie. He desired him to take Farquharson with him as an assistant. Next day the witness went to the place specified, and there found the bones of a human body much decayed. The witness did not at that time bury the bones so found, in consequence of which negligence the sergeant's ghost again appeared to him, upbraiding him with his breach of promise. On this occasion the witness asked the ghost who were the murderers, and received for answer, that he had been slain by the prisoners at the bar. The witness, after this second visitation, called the assistance of Farquharson, and buried the body.
Farquharson was brought in evidence, to prove that the preceding witness, MacPherson, had called him to the burial of the bones, and told him the same story which he repeated in court. Isabel MacHardie, a person who slept in one of the beds which run along the wall in an ordinary Highland hut, declared, that upon the night when MacPherson said he saw the ghost, she saw a naked man enter the house, and go towards MacPherson's bed.
Yet though the supernatural incident was thus fortified, and although there were other strong presumptions against the prisoners, the story of the apparition threw an air of ridicule on the whole evidence for the prosecution. It was followed up by the counsel for the prisoners asking, in the cross-examination of MacPherson, " What language did the ghost speak in ?" The witness, who was himself ignorant of English, replied, " As good Gaelic as I ever heard in Lochaber."— " Pretty well for the ghost of an English sergeant," answered the counsel. The inference was rather smart and plausible than sound; for, the apparition of the ghost being admitted, we know too little of the other world to judge whether all languages may not be alike familiar to those who belong to it. It imposed, however, on the jury, who found the accused parties Not Guilty, although their counsel and solicitor, and most of the court, were satisfied of their having committed the murder. In this case, the interference of the ghost seems to have rather impeded the vengeance which it was doubtless the murdered sergeant's desire to obtain. Yet there may be various modes of explaining this mysterious story, of which the following conjecture may pass for one.
The reader may suppose that MacPherson was privy to the fact of the murder, perhaps as an accomplice, or otherwise, and may also suppose, that from motives of remorse for the action, or of enmity to those who had committed it, he entertained a wish to bring them to justice. But through the whole Highlands there is no character more detestable than that of an informer, or one who takes what is called Tascal-money, or reward for discovery of crimes. To have informed against Terig and MacDonald might have cost MacPherson his life ; and it is far from being impossible, that he had recourse to the story of the ghost, knowing well that his superstitious countrymen would pardon his communicating the commission intrusted to him by a being from the other world, although he might probably have been murdered, if his delation of the crime had been supposed voluntary. This explanation, in exact conformity with the sentiments of the Highlanders on such subjects, would reduce the whole story to a stroke of address on the part of the witness.
It is therefore of the last consequence, in considering the truth of stories of ghosts and apparitions, to consider the possibility of wilful deception, whether on the part of those who are agents in the supposed disturbances or the author of the legend. We shall separately notice an instance or two of either kind.
The most celebrated instance in which human agency was used to copy the disturbances imputed to supernatural beings, refers to the ancient palace of Woodstock, when the Commissioners of the Long Parliament came down to dispark what had been lately a royal residence. The Commissioners arrived at Woodstock 13th October, 1649, determined to wipe away the memory of all that connected itself with the recollection of monarchy in England. But, in the course of their progress, they were encountered by obstacles which apparently came from the next world. Their bedchambers were infested with visits of a thing resembling a dog, but which came and passed as mere earthly dogs cannot do. Logs of wood, the remains of a very large tree called the King's Oak, which they had splintered into billets for burning, were tossed through the house, and the chairs displaced and shuffled about. While they were in bed, the feet of their couches were lifted higher than their heads, and then dropped with violence. Trenchers " without a wish " flew at their heads, of free will. Thunder and lightning came next, which were set down to the same cause. Sceptres made their appearance, as they thought, in different shapes ; and one of the party saw the apparition of a hoof which kicked a candlestick and lighted candle into the middle of the room, and then politely scratched on the red snuff to extinguish it. Other and worse tricks were practised on the astonished Commissioners, who, considering that all the fiends of hell were let loose upon them, retreated from Woodstock without completing an errand, which was, in their opinion, impeded by infernal powers, though the opposition offered was rather of a playful and malicious than of a dangerous cast.