"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Haunted Mill

The haunted mill at Willington


In its day, that bit of High Strangeness known as the "Willington Ghost" was the talk of England. Hundreds of people regularly flocked to the site of its appearance in the hope of seeing the "Ghost" for themselves. However, in the decades since the event, the haunting has been largely forgotten in favor of more famous, if not necessarily more interesting, ghost tales.

It's high time to remedy that omission.

Ground Zero for this particular ghost was a steam-corn mill and adjacent home in Willington, Northumberland. In 1831, the buildings, which dated from 1800, were purchased by Joseph Procter and his wife. For three years, the family lived at the residence without incident. After that, however, life got suddenly and unaccountably weird.

The household began hearing mysterious noises. When the servants would go out to fasten the garden gate every evening, they would hear footsteps behind them. When they turned around, no one was there. Inside the house, they would regularly hear the sound of something heavy falling from the roof, hitting floor after floor until a loud thump was heard at the bottom. They would hear a loud commotion in the kitchen, as if someone was throwing things around. When they went to investigate, the residents were oddly comforted to find the room empty. It was, the Procters sighed in relief, "only the ghost."

One night, the mill's foreman, Thomas Mann, heard a water-cart creaking as if it were being dragged out of the yard. Upon investigating, he saw nothing. The cart had not been moved. On several different occasions, a number of witnesses reported seeing a woman dressed in a shroud standing outside the house. Perhaps eeriest of all, one day Mrs. Procter called to the family's nursemaid. The familiar voice answered back. The trouble was, the nurse was not in the house at the time...

In June of 1835, while the Procters were away from home, one Edward Drury and a friend, Thomas Hudson, obtained permission to spend the night alone in the now-notorious "haunted house." What happened next is best related in Drury's own words, from a letter he later sent to Mr. Procter:
I sat down on the third story landing, fully expecting to account for any noises I might hear in a most philosophical manner; this was about 11 o'clock p.m. About 10 minutes to 12 we both heard a noise, as if a number of people were pattering with their bare feet upon the floor; and yet so singular was the noise that I could not minutely determine from whence it proceeded. A few minutes afterwards we heard a noise as if some one was knocking with his knuckles among our feet; this was immediately followed by a hollow cough from the very room from which the apparition proceeded. The only noise after this was as if a person was rustling against the wall in coming up stairs. At a quarter to one I told my friend that, feeling a little cold, I would like to go to bed, as we might hear the noises equally well there. He replied that he would not go to bed till daylight. I took up a note which I had accidentally dropped and began to read it; after which I took out my watch to ascertain the time, and found that it was ten minutes to one. In taking my eyes from the watch, they became riveted upon a closet door, which I distinctly saw open, and also saw the figure of a female, attired in greyish garments, with the head inclined downwards, and one hand pressed upon the chest as if in pain, and the other, that is the right hand, extended towards the floor, with the index finger pointing downwards. It advanced with an apparently cautious step across the floor towards me; immediately as it approached my friend, who was slumbering, its right hand was extended toward him. I then rushed at it, giving at the time, as Mr. Procter states, a most awful yell, but instead of grasping it I fell upon my friend, and I recollected nothing distinctly for nearly three hours afterwards. I have since learnt that I was carried downstairs in an agony of fear and terror.
Good to know that these ghosthunters got their money's worth.

A Mr. Dodgson, a brother of Mrs. Procter, had his own run-in with the ghost. A contemporary account of his experiences published in "Howett's Journal" described him as "of a peculiarly sensible, sedate, and candid disposition, a person apparently most unlikely to be imposed upon by fictitious alarms or tricks." When he visited the Willington home, he immediately found himself disturbed by "the strangest noises."
As he lay in bed one night he heard a heavy step ascend the stairs towards his room, and some one striking as it were with a thick stick the balusters as he went along. It came to his door, he essayed to call, but his voice died away in his throat. He then sprang from his bed, and opening the door found no one there, but now heard the same heavy steps deliberately descending (though perfectly invisible) the steps before his face, and accompanying the descent with the same loud blows on the balusters. He proceeded to the room of Mr. Procter, who he found had heard the sounds, and who also now arose, and with a light they made a speedy descent below, and a thorough search there, but without discovering anything that could account for the occurrence.

When two sisters of Mrs. Procter stayed at the home, they felt their bed being lifted up under them and shaken. Its curtains were drawn up, and they saw a female figure emerge from the wall, bend over them, and re-enter the wall. One day, one of the sisters, along with Thomas Mann and his wife and daughter, were standing outside the mill when they had yet another disturbing experience. They were treated to the sight of a man in a flowing robe like a surplice, gliding along about three feet from the ground. The figure entered the wall of the house at the second-story level. It then stood still in a window. It was semi-transparent and luminously bright. After a moment, it took on a blue aura, and gradually faded away. No one--that is to say, no living human--was in or near the house at the time.

On one occasion, the Procter's cook heard the latch on her door open. The candle next to her bed was suddenly snuffed out. As she sat in the darkness, a...something hit the headboard and she saw a dark shadow hovering by the bed. When she had sufficiently recovered from her fright to be able to move, she went to her door, only to find it still locked.

The family continued to be pestered by having their beds lifted up and shaken by invisible hands, accompanied by loud bangs on the wall. One night, Mrs. Procter felt a cold hand pressing upon her chest. One of the Procter's young sons complained of being picked up by a "large dog." The children also reported regularly seeing a woman dressed in grey. She had no eyes. One night, two of the Procter boys were awakened by a loud scream coming from the foot of their bed. Another night, the children were tormented by sounds of moaning, followed by running footsteps. On one occasion, a disembodied head was seen in the children's bedroom. The family continually heard what sounded like children's pattering footsteps on the upper floor, varied with the sounds of a heavy box being dragged across the floor. Periodically, ghoulish laughter could be heard. One day, the family was nonplussed to see what looked like a white towel walk across a room, slide under the door, and heavily walk up the stairs.

At times, the house resembled a Fortean zoo. Residents would see large catlike creatures, luminous sheep, monkeys wearing boots, silently gliding donkeys.

The ghost later took to ringing bells and calling family members by name. By this point, the Procter children were in such a state of terror that they refused to go into any room alone, even in daylight. As can be imagined, the Procters found it very difficult to keep servants.

By 1847, the strange sights and sounds had diminished appreciably, but the Procters had had enough. They sold the house and moved what they judged to be a safe distance away. Subsequent residents of the house reported few unusual happenings, and the "Willington Ghost" gradually faded from the public's memory.

Many legends sprang up attempting to "explain" the haunting--colorful tales of old murders committed at the site or of mysterious stone slabs buried in the home's cellar--but such tales were never verified. The truth is, no one has ever found any reason for why the mill was such a bedeviled place.

That may be the spookiest detail of all about this story.

1 comment:

  1. There's a lesson to modern movie-makers in the fact that nothing really violent or harmful occurred to any occupant of the house, and yet there are some truly terrifying scenes described. I would not stay long with the 'shadow' bending over me while I was in bed, and I suspect it was a good thing Drury rushed at the grey woman who was advancing upon his friend. Even so, no true violence, but plenty of horror.

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