This story of a companionable ghost at Cambridge was originally found in The Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1778.
Apparition at Cambridge.
Letter.—Rev. Mr. Hughes to the Rev. Mr. Bonwicke.
Jesus College, Jan. 9, 1706-7.
[After relating college news, the letter proceeds] These are all the scraps that I could pick up to entertain you withal; and, indeed, I should have been obliged to have ended with half a letter, had not an unusual story come seasonably into my relief.
One Mr. Shaw, formerly Fellow of St. John's College, and late Minister of a college living, within twelve miles of Oxford, as he was sitting one night by himself, smoaking a pipe, and reading, observed somebody to open the door: he turned back, and saw one Mr. Nailor [or Naylor], a fellow-collegian, an intimate friend, and who had been dead five years, come into the room. The gentleman came in exactly in the same dress and manner that he used at college. Mr. Shaw was something surprised at first; but in a little time recollecting himself, he desired him to sit down: upon which Mr. N. drew a chair, and sat by him; they had a conference of about an hour and a half. The chief of the particulars were these: he told him, "that he was sent to give him warning of his death, which would be in a very short time;" and, if I mistake not, he added, that his death would be sudden. He mentioned, likewise, several others of St. John's, particularly the famous Auchard, who is since dead.
Mr. S. asked if he could not give him another visit: he answered no, alleging, "that his time allotted was but three days, and that he had others to see, who were at a great distance." Mr. Shaw had a great desire to enquire about his present condition, but was afraid to mention it, not knowing how it would be taken. At last he expressed himself in this manner: "Mr. N., how is it with you in the other world?" He answered, with a brisk and chearful countenance, "Very well." Mr. Sh. proceeded, and asked, "Is there any of our old friends with you?" He replied, "Not one." After their discourse was over, he took his leave, and went out. Mr. Shaw offered to go with [him] out of the room; but he beckoned with his hand that he should stay where he was. Mr. Nailor seemed to turn into the next room, and so went off. This Mr. Shaw the next day made his will, the conference had so far affected him; and not long after, being taken with an apoplectic fit while he was reading the divine service, he fell out of the desk, and died immediately after. He was ever looked upon to be a pious man, and a good scholar; only some object, that he was inclinable to melancholy. He told this story himself to Mr. Groves, a Fellow of St. John's, and a particular friend of his, and who lay at his house last summer.
Mr. G., upon his return to Cambridge, met with one of his college who told him that Mr. Auchard was dead, who was particularly mentioned by Mr. Shaw. He kept the business secret, till, hearing of Mr. Shaw's own death, he told the whole story. He is a person far enough from inventing such a story; and he tells it in all companies without any manner of variation. We are mightily divided about it at Cambridge, some heartily embracing it, and others rejecting it as a ridiculous story, and the effect of spleen and melancholy. For my own part, I must acknowledge myself one of those who believe it, having not met with anything yet sufficient to invalidate it. As to the little sceptical objections that are generally used upon this occasion, they seem to be very weak in themselves, and will prove of dangerous consequences, if applied to matters of a more important nature.
I am, dear sir, yours, most sincerely,
The printing of this letter roused a flurry of correspondence from other Cambridge associates such as the Rev. Richard Chambre, who left a manuscript recounting virtually the identical story, told by Mr Grove, the public register of Cambridge, albeit filtered through a lengthy chain of Right Revs. and Fellows. Several other correspondents corroborated Mr Shaw’s story or produced memoranda of the apparition, written at the time. It seemed as though a great many people had either heard the story first- or second-hand or had made note of it.
The entire Gentleman’s Magazine correspondence is too lengthy to recount here, but there are wonderful little miniatures of life at Cambridge: Mr Shaw sitting up late, smoking over his book; the ghost wearing his usual robe and cassock, with his hands clasped before him, Mr Auchard dying in his chair when his bedmaker went from him to fetch his commons for supper, Mr Nailor’s answer to Mr Shaw that there was not one of their old acquaintances with him, “struck him to the heart.” One letter notes, “It is remarkable that Mr. Shaw was a noted enemy to the belief of apparitions, and used always in company to dispute against them.”
The “cosy” and parochial atmosphere of life at University comes through vividly in the letters, reminding us of another sceptical teller of ghost stories from Cambridge, M.R. James who used the same minutiae of University life to set the stage for those dreadful things that happen when one isn’t careful. One is fairly certain that James would have known and enjoyed this classic Cambridge ghost story and we can readily imagine that if the ghost of a late friend had walked into his study, he would have offered it a chair and some tobacco, and asked it how it did, just as the unflappable Mr Shaw did so many years before.
About the Author
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
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This post copyright © Chris Woodyard, 2015.