Friday, April 05, 2013

Frightened to death by Brockley Cemetery: more Spring Heeled Jack?

Brockley Cemetery, then known as Deptford Cemetery, was the scene of the strange case of a young woman being 'frightened to death' in the late 19th century. The British Medical Journal, April 7 1888, reported:

'The serious effects of shock to the nervous system, especially by fright, are constantly witnessed... Death itself is, fortunately, comparatively rare. It is reported in the newspapers to have occurred at Brockley, on March 21st, in the case of a girl, aged 18, who was frightened to death by a man dressed as a ghost, near the Deptford cemetery.

She arrived home after her fright, in the road by the Deptford Cemetery, at Brockley, looking very ill and excited. She is said to have taken off her waterproof, drawn a chair to the table to take supper, then fallen forward with her head on the table, and died after a short struggle. Mr Hollis, the medical man who was called in, made a post mortem examination, and reported that all the organs were healthy, but that the state of the heart, combined with the fright, would account for death... It is to be hoped the miscreant will be discovered, and receive the utmost punishment which the law allows. The coroner stated at the inquest that five other persons had been frightened at the same spot. We do not know why the jury did not record a verdict of 'Manslaughter' against some unknown person'.

The details resemble the Peckham Ghost panic of 1872, when a number of people were frightened by what was generally believed to be a man dressed up as a ghost in the Peckham/Dulwich/Herne Hill area. The Camberwell & Peckham Times (19 Oct 1872) reported one such sighting:

'He appeared...on [14 October 1872] to Sarah Ann Foster, a girl living opposite the Crystal Palace Tavern, and charing at Mr Smith’s, in Lordship-lane. It appears that she had been to fetch the supper beer, and on her return she was required to go on another errand, when she complained to her mistress that there was a tall man waiting in the road. Mrs Smith remonstrated with her on the folly of being frightened, and Mr Smith said he would watch her from the window. She started on her errand, but had not left the front garden when a figure in white rose from behind the fence. She screamed loudly, and rushed towards the doorway, and was clasped in the arms of her master, he having seen the apparition from the window, and in rushing out caught his foot in something which threw him forward, and instead of catching the ghost he caught the girl in his arms, who, thinking it was the unearthly spirit that had got hold of her, went into a fit, in which she remained two hours, and is now seriously ill. The description given by Mr Smith and the girl is as follows: – About six foot high, dressed in long overcoat (having white lining, which when thrown open, aided by a white waistcoat and outstretched arms, give the desired effect) a dark felt hat, and a plume of black feathers, with which he hides his ignominious features.’ [presumably this was the Crystal Palace Tavern on Crystal Palace Road, East Dulwich].

A local man, Joseph Munday, was later arrested and accused of being behind the Peckham Ghost incidents.

The Peckham events have often been linked to the wider 19th century legend of 'Spring Heeled Jack' - a monster or dressed up man (depending on interpretation) who similarly appeared to terrorise people, including a number of sightings in South London. For instance in Dulwich  the daughter of Plutarch Dickinson was reported to have been 'nearly deprived of her senses’ and taken to bed ‘in a very dangerous state’ after seeing a  figure 'enveloped in a white sheet and blue fire' (The Sun, 20 January 1838, cited in Mike Dash's overview of the phenomenon).

So perhaps the Brockley events should also be considered in this context. The man dressed as a ghost may have been imitating  these earlier scares, inspired by the accounts in Penny Dreadfuls such as 'Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London' (advert above is from 1886).  Though doubtless others may have more exotic explanations.


Anonymous said...

Peckham and East Dulwich are now only haunted by the restless spirit of the working classes who met an untimely end at the hands of the brutal yuppy invasion. TCoM.

Mike Dash said...

Thank you for the mention. You might like to know that there is another "frightened to death" case involving Spring-heeled Jack, from Liverpool in 1888:

Anonymous said...

Maybe the apparition was indeed that of JB Buckstone....who lies in the cemetery but whose spectral presence has disturbed many a foot tapping thespian!

Mike Guilfoyle