Irreverent musings on a ghostly code of conduct from ‘Yankee Notions’, 1838:
Believing in ghosts, somebody remarks, is like the sea-sickness when it first comes on.
Nobody will confess, but everybody has misgivings. I must make myself an exception; for I am willing to confess both ghosts and sea-sickness. Beyond a certain point, however, I am not disposed to place the two phenomena upon an equality, for I am bound to confess that I should prefer seeing twenty ghosts to being sea-sick once. Ghosts, indeed, are favourites with me; and having enjoyed the advantage of seeing a great number, I can speak with some confidence about them. A great many people talk sheer nonsense on the subject ; indeed, not one in ten ever speaks of a ghost in a becoming style. All this has led to many mistaken notions in demonology. The long and the short of it is, that ghosts have been very badly treated by people in general, and if we do not turn over a new leaf, I am under some apprehensions that the whole army of sprites will discontinue their visits, in resentment of these affronts, so that before long, there will not be a ghost to be seen for love, money, or murder. This catastrophe, I grieve to say, seems to be approaching already, for ghosts are not half so common as they were in the days of my grandmother.
Strict justice, however, compels me to say, that the ghosts themselves are somewhat to blame in the matter, their behaviour at times being a little antic and anomalous. There are faults on both sides ; which hoping I may remedy, I offer the following suggestions for the consideration of both parties, and let ghosts and ghost-seers lay them to heart.
In the first place, a ghost should never wear a night-cap. Some readers may doubt whether the thing has ever been done ; but the fact is unquestionable ; ghosts in night-caps have been seen by too many credible persons to allow of any doubt upon this point.
I protest, however, against any such head-dress for a member of the tartarean regions; it is unghostly, and ought to be abandoned. If a ghost has any sense of propriety, let him appear with a bare sconce; it is much more respectable. Some indulgence may perhaps be claimed for a bald ghost, especially considering the coolness of the night air. My great-grandfather, who was a ghost-seer of some talent, used to recommend a wig; but this, I think, would never be endured: a ghost in a wig! what an unspiritual costume. No, — wigs will never do. A white handkerchief might serve every purpose, provided it were not tied on, for that would look night-cappish again.
Secondly, a ghost should never pull a man by the nose. Here again I may be asked, “Have ghosts ever been addicted to nose-pulling?” I am not certain; but the story goes that they have. I pronounce it wrong in toto; it is undignified and improper. If a ghost wishes to give any person so sensible a token of his presence, let him bestow a sound bang upon his noddle: this would be emphatic and decisive ; there would be no mistake about it. But as to our noses, — hands off! No ghost that has any regard for his character, will clap his digits to your olfactory projection. This suggests another thought.
Ought a ghost to be allowed to take snuff? My aunt Grizzel says, yes, if he can keep from sneezing. On mature consideration, I say no, unless it be the ghost of a tobacconist.
Thirdly, a ghost should be nice in his eating : he should not eat too much, nor of the wrong dishes. Some kinds of victuals are unfit for a ghost to eat, and sound very oddly when they are mentioned in connection with a visitor from the invisible world. An old lady of my acquaintance knew a ghost that came one Saturday night into her kitchen and
ate half a dozen pig’s trotters and a plate of minced fish. Another drank a quart of sour cider, but was observed to make a horrible wry face at it. These ghosts might plead their appetite, having travelled probably a good distance; but I think they ought to have gone further and fared worse. In fact, I object to eating altogether; but if it must be done, let them help themselves to light food, and by all means join the temperance Society.
Fourthly, a ghost, when he appears in metamorphosis, should come in a shape befitting the sublimity of his character. I knew a ghost once that came in the shape of a teapot, and another that took the form of a leg of mutton. These are unghostly shapes; for what have legs of mutton and tea-pots to do in the invisible world ? My uncle Tim saw
one in the shape of a militia colonel: it is a pity that any ghost should ever have made such a fool of himself. A justice of peace once told me that he saw a ghost in the shape of a great jackass ; but it was probably nothing more than his own shadow.
Fifthly, there are various points of behaviour in ghosts, to which we may reasonably object.
Ghosts may walk or run as fast as they please, but they ought not to cut capers. Some may say it is difficult for them to avoid this, considering how light they are; but that is their affair and not ours. A ghost, I maintain, ought to behave with sobriety, and not play fantastic tricks. My aunt Grizzel, for instance, saw a ghost jump over a broomstick, and another grinding coffee: now any body could do these things, therefore a ghost ought not to do them. A ghost was seen once, that jumped over a dining-table, flung three somersaults in the air, and made sixteen pirouettes on the tip of his right toe, without putting himself out of breath: I have no doubt this was the ghost of a Frenchman.
Sixthly, besides the rules I have laid down on the subject of night-caps, ghosts ought to be particular in their dress. Some ghosts dress so absurdly that they are not worth looking at when the lights burn blue, as enough such figures may be seen by broad daylight. Ghosts have been known to wear snuff-coloured breeches ! and I have even
known a ghost in cow-hide boots! Is this fit costume for a hobgoblin ? Really, such ghosts ought to be taught better. Habiliments like these can never inspire a ghostly dread in any spectator, even in a church-yard by the light of the moon or when the clock strikes midnight: they are entirely out of keeping. I have heard of a ghost that always came in a new coat, smartly buttoned up, and a spandy clean dickey. This must have heen the ghost of a tailor. A tolerably good colour for a ghost is black ; pepper-and-salt will hardly do: though I should not have much objection to that sort of homespun called thunder-and-lightning. But, after all that can be said in favour of fancy colours, nothing is equal to a white sheet; for, when gracefully thrown on, there is nothing becomes a ghost so well.
Seventhly, ghosts should talk good English, and by all means avoid poetry, for most of the ghost-rhymes current are as bad as any stuff I ever saw in the newspapers. Ghosts ought to maintain a certain tone of loftiness and dignity in their conversation, and not gabble like so many tinkers. What could a ghost be thinking of, who talked in this manner : ” Then says the man to the ghost, Who are you ? ‘ — ‘I’m the ghost of old Slouch, the red-nosed tallow-chandler,’ says he. ‘ What do you want here ? ‘ says the man. ‘ I ‘m only haunting this soap-barrel, ‘says the ghost. I smell brimstone,’ says the man. 4 Merely candle-snuff,’ says the ghost. Know of any money buried here ? ‘ says
the man. ‘ Only five shillings in the toe of a stocking,’ says the ghost. ‘ Well,’ says the man, l in all my life, I never heard a ghost talk as you do,’ ” &c. &c. Yet this conversation actually passed as related. My great-grandmother’s second cousin knew the man perfectly well, and he was a person of undoubted veracity. This ghost certainly did not maintain the majesty of his character: and it is a mark of improvement in demonology, that ghosts stand more upon their dignity nowadays.
People who are troubled with ghosts may be anxious to know the best means of laying them, and whether they ought to be sent to the infernal regions, or the Red Sea. On the latter point I may remark that I consider the Red Sea the safest, because, if sen: to the first-mentioned place, some people might find themselves under a necessity of renewing acquaintance with them another day. Some ghosts are more difficult to lay than others.
The hardest of all is the ghost of a deputy sheriff. When once a man is haunted by such an apparition, his case is desperate. No sprite or hobgoblin sticks closer to a man than this. He walks by day as well as by night, and his spectral form glides up and down ‘change, as well as the church-yard. The phantom stares you in the face at the turning of every corner, and lucky will you be if you feel not the magic influence of his touch, which is able to communicate a more disagreeable shock than a torpedo or a galvanic battery. This spirit can flit through key-holes and under the crack of a door, and if he once taps you on the shoulder, you are fixed by enchantment to the spot, the only effectual mode of laying the ghost is by certain charmed scraps of paper, all covered over with cabalistical figures and marks of 5 — 10 — 20, &c, which being waved in the air before his face, the spectre disappears.