The whole matter was, after the Restoration, discovered to be the trick of one of their own party who had attended the Commissioners as a clerk, under the name of Giles Sharp. This man, whose real name was Joseph Collins of Oxford, called Funny Joe, was a concealed loyalist, and well acquainted with the old mansion of Woodstock, where he had been brought up before the Civil War. Being a bold, active, spirited man, Joe availed himself of his local knowledge of trap-doors and private passages, so as to favour the tricks which he played off upon his masters by aid of his fellow domestics. The Commissioners' personal reliance on him made his task the more easy, and it was all along remarked, that trusty Giles Sharp saw the most extraordinary sights and visions among the whole party. The unearthly terrors experienced by the Commissioners are detailed with due gravity by Sinclair, and also, I think, by Dr. Plott. But although the detection, or explanation, of the real history of the Woodstock demons, has also been published, and I have myself seen it, I have at this time forgotten whether it exists in a separate collection, or where it is to be looked for.
Similar disturbances have been often experienced, while it was the custom to believe in and dread such frolics of the invisible world, and under circumstances which induce us to wonder, both at the extreme trouble taken by the agents in these impostures, and the slight motives from which they have been induced to do much wanton mischief. Still greater is our modern surprise at the apparently simple means by which terror has been excited to so general an extent, that even the wisest and most prudent have not escaped its contagious influence.
On the first point, I am afraid there can be no better reason assigned than the conscious pride of superiority, which induces the human being in all cases to enjoy and practise every means of employing an influence over his fellow-mortals ; to which we may safely add, that general love of tormenting, as common to our race as to that noble mimic of humanity, the monkey. To this is owing the delight with which every schoolboy anticipates the effects of throwing a stone into a glass shop; and to this we must also ascribe the otherwise unaccountable pleasure which individuals have taken in practising the tricksy pranks of a goblin, and filling a household, or neighbourhood, with anxiety and dismay, with little gratification to themselves besides the consciousness of dexterity if they remain undiscovered, and with the risk of loss of character, and punishment, should the imposture be found out.
In the year 1772, a train of transactions commencing upon Twelfth Day, threw the utmost consternation into the village of Stockwell, near London, and impressed upon some of its inhabitants the inevitable belief that they were produced by invisible agents. The plates, dishes, china, and glass-ware, and small movables of every kind, contained in the house of Mrs. Golding, an elderly lady, seemed suddenly to become animated, shifted their places, flew through the room, and were broken to pieces. The particulars of this commotion were as curious, as the loss and damage occasioned in this extraordinary manner were alarming and intolerable. Amidst this combustion, a young woman, Mrs. Golding's maid, named Anne Robinson, was walking backwards and forwards, nor could she be prevailed on to sit down for a moment, excepting while the family were at prayers, during which time no disturbance happened. This Anne Robinson had been but a few days in the old lady's service, and it was remarkable that she endured with great composure the extraordinary display which others beheld with terror, and coolly advised her mistress not to be alarmed or uneasy, as these things could not be helped. This excited an idea that she had some reason for being so composed, not inconsistent with a degree of connexion with what was going forward. The afflicted Mrs. Golding, as she might be well termed, considering such a commotion and demolition among her goods and chattels, invited neighbours to stay in her house ; but they soon became unable to bear the sight of these supernatural proceedings, which went so far, that not above two cups and saucers remained out of a valuable set of china. She next abandoned her dwelling, and took refuge with a neighbour ; but finding his movables were seized with the same sort of St. Vitus's dance, her landlord reluctantly refused to shelter any longer a woman who seemed to be persecuted by so strange a subject of vexation. Mrs. Golding's suspicions against Anne Robinson now gaining ground, she dismissed her maid, and the hubbub among her movables ceased at once and for ever.
This circumstance of itself indicates that Anne Robinson was the cause of these extraordinary disturbances, as has been since more completely ascertained by a Mr. Brayfield, who persuaded Anne, long after the events had happened, to make him her confidant. There was a love story connected with the case, in which the only magic was the dexterity of Anne Robinson, and the simplicity of the spectators. She had fixed long horse hairs to some of the crockery, and placed wires under others, by which she could throw them down without touching them. Other things she dexterously threw about, which the spectators, who did not watch her motions, imputed to invisible agency.
At times, when the family were absent, she loosened the hold of the strings by which the hams, bacon, and similar articles were suspended, so that they fell on the slightest motion. She employed some simple chemical secrets ; and, delighted with the success of her pranks, pushed them farther than she at first intended. Such was the solution of the whole mystery, which, known by the name of the Stockwell ghost, terrified many well-meaning persons, and had been nearly as famous as that of Cocklane, which may be hinted at as another imposture of the same kind. So many and wonderful are the appearances described, that, when I first met with the original publication, I was strongly impressed with the belief that the narrative was like some of Swift's advertisements, a jocular experiment upon the credulity of the public. But it was certainly published bond fide; and Mr. Hone, on the authority of Mr. Brayfield, has since fully explained the wonder.*