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The Upper Berth₁

From Punch Magazine 1891

From Punch Magazine 1891

There is nothing more enjoyable during the long cold winter evenings then sitting down and scaring yourself witless reading a good ghost story. It was during one of these rare moments (granted it wasn’t evening, cold or winter but I was by myself!) that I began to re-read one of my favourite ghost stories, ‘The Upper Berth’ by the American writer, F. Marion Crawford. Apparently I am not alone in my feeling that this is one of the creepiest stories ever written. Rumour has it that the master of the ghost story, M.R. James also found the story pretty darn scary. In brief, the story is recounted to a group of friends by the main character, Brisbane who tells them what happened to him whilst travelling to England aboard the Kamtschatka and his grisly experience of the ‘dead thing’ in cabin 105. Below is a brief extract.

“Have you a room-mate?”

“Yes; a deuce of a fellow, who bolts out in the middle of the night, and leaves the door open.”

Again the doctor glanced curiously at me. Then he lit the cigar and looked grave.

“Did he come back?” he asked presently.

“Yes. I was asleep, but I waked up, and heard him moving. Then I felt cold and went to sleep again. This morning I found the porthole open.”

“Look here,” said the doctor quietly, “I don’t care much for this ship. I don’t care a rap for her reputation. I tell you what I will do. I have a good-sized place up here. I will share it with you, though I don’t know you from Adam.”

I was very much surprised at the proposition. I could not imagine why he should take such a sudden interest in my welfare. However, his manner as he spoke of the ship was peculiar.

“You are very good, doctor,” I said. “But, really, I believe even now the cabin could be aired or cleaned out, or something. Why do you not care for the ship?”

“We are not superstitious in our profession, sir,” replied the doctor, “but the sea makes people so. I don’t want to prejudice you, and I don’t want to frighten you, but if you will take my advice you will move in here. I would as soon see you overboard,” he added earnestly, “as know that you or any other man was to sleep in 105.”

“Good gracious! Why?” I asked.

“Just because on the last three trips the people who have slept there actually have gone overboard,” he answered gravely.

The intelligence was startling and exceedingly unpleasant, I confess. I looked hard at the doctor to see whether he was making game of me, but he looked perfectly serious. I thanked him warmly for his offer, but told him I intended to be the exception to the rule by which everyone who slept in that particular state-room went overboard. He did not say much, but looked as grave as ever and hinted that, before we got across, I should probably reconsider his proposal. In the course of time we went to breakfast, at which only an inconsiderable number of passengers assembled. I noticed that one or two of the officers who breakfasted with us looked grave. After breakfast I went into my state-room in order to get a book. The curtains of the upper berth were still closely drawn. Not a word was to be heard. My room-mate was probably still asleep.

the upper birth

As I was reading, I started to think about all the ghost stories both fiction and real life testimonies where the haunting takes place in a bedroom. Often the occupant lies shaking with fear as footsteps and voices are heard in the room; bed coverings are removed by unseen hands; objects are moved; beds are rattled and oppressive figures are felt standing over the bed, at the foot of the bed or scarier still in the bed.

This again led my thoughts on a new trajectory. With all these haunted bedrooms, has anyone ever changed the furniture, and if they have, has the haunting ceased? Are the hauntings rooted to the place or linked to the furnishings? There are numerous stories about haunted possessions such as mirrors, dolls, teddy bears and paintings, so why not a bedroom suite!

A portal to hell?

Image from wikimedia

Image from wikimedia

It is not surprising that bunk beds are considered sinister. It is strangely unnerving to be lying in bed and not be able to see the other person. You can hear noises and see movement but in general, whether or not you are in the lower or upper bunk the other occupant can feel like a disembodied presence. One of the most famous cases of a haunting is believed by the family to have been caused by a cursed bunk bed.

In the spring of 1986, Allen Tallman along with his pregnant wife, Debbie and their two children, Kenny and Mary Ann moved into a house in Larrabee Street, Horicon, Wisconsin. Initially all was peaceful but in 1987 inexplicable incidences started to occur. Doors would close on their own; footsteps were heard; a radio dial moved on its own; chairs rocked and a basement window was removed and placed on the floor. The children repeatedly became sick and the family started to suffer from terrible nightmares. Kenny and Mary Ann also testified to seeing a strange hag-like figure in the bedroom. Kenny’s description of the figure appeared in a newspaper,

I saw an old lady standing in the door of my room. A little old lady, really ugly, with long black hair and a glow about her like fire.”₂

On the TV show ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ Allen Tallman related how he finally had enough of the situation and challenged the presence to a fight. Shortly after this, he was returning home from work in the early hours of the morning when he saw what he describes as something glowing “…inside the garage, an orange red. There were flames coming out of the overhead door. There were two eyes in the windows.” Terrified he ran into the kitchen where he was attacked. His words had obviously angered the spirit who he heard whisper to him once when he was sleeping on the floor of his daughters’ room “you’re dead”₃. Pastor Wayne Dobratz was brought in to investigate and concluded that the presence was not only evil but demonic. Finally the family had had enough and left their house never to return.

The house on Larrabee Street. [image from newsfromthespiritworld.com]

The house on Larrabee Street. [image from newsfromthespiritworld.com]

The family strongly believe that the source of the haunting was that of a second hand bunk bed which they had bought in February 1986. The bunk bed was moved into the girls’ room in the May of that year and it was in that room that the children and relatives saw the figure of the old woman (it would be interesting to know if the basement window was removed whilst the bunk bed was being stored there!). The bunk bed was eventually disposed of and buried in a landfill site. What is fascinating is that despite the local legend which surrounds the house no subsequent owner has ever reported anything sinister or supernatural and the family themselves have never experienced any other supernatural incidents. This does support the Tallman’s view that it was the bunk bed and not the house that was cursed.

The curse of the cot

Haunted chamber in Chambercombe Manor – the cradle on the left is said to rock by itself

There is a well-known superstition that parents should never place their baby in a cot or use a mattress or blanket which is second hand. Many people strongly believe that these objects can be either haunted or cursed with the spirit of a new born who has died threatening the life of a living child. One woman describes how shortly before she gave birth she was given an old white wicker crib. The first night it was in the house she was awoken by the sound of a baby crying. She finally realised that the sound was coming from the crib. Believing the crib to be haunted by the soul of a dead child, she placed it in the attic and bought a new basinet. This did not stop the haunting cries which continued to be heard even during the day. The sound was so loud that “My mother and even the neighbors heard the shrill cries coming from my house and thought I had given birth prematurely.”₄ In the end she sold the crib and never found out what happened to it.

Maybe that is one of the reasons why I found it so hard to find the stories I was looking for.  People who have bought beds with an ‘unusual’ history normally want to sell them on quickly and decide to omit certain details that could make potential buyers think twice. The exceptions seem to be people who become fascinated by their strange beds and keep them in spite of their history or people who have lived with the objects all their lives and have become used to them.

The haunted four poster

 

Haunted chamber in Chambercombe Manor,

Haunted chamber in Chambercombe Manor, complete with fourposter bed and haunted cradle (it is said to rock by itself)

I came across one such story submitted by an Australian teacher to a website on ghosts and mysteries (website link is shown below). In his post he describes how his neighbours at that time bought an antique four poster bed. Strange things began to happen. At first it was just that the cat would not sleep on it, then they noticed a cold damp patch at the end of the bed, later they both began to sense a presence sitting on the bed. They sold it on to a second hand dealer. The author continues that twenty years later he happened to read about a couple who had bought the exact same bed and had experiences similar to that of his old neighbours

“However, they found it fascinating rather than scary. They kept the bed and slowly the haunting progressed. Finally, they were able to make out the form of a woman sitting on the end of the bed, and hear her sobbing. Fascinated, they began the task of tracing the provenance/history of the bed. Back they went through several owners. And yes, all had similar experiences. They included my neighbours from the 1970’s and most, like them, had sold on the bed without telling anyone of the haunting. Further back they researched, through more people. Finally they found a gruesome story involving the bed. A young woman had been attacked, viciously stabbed, and bled to death on the end of the bed…The last couple felt sympathy rather than fear for the young woman’s ghost and decided not to try and get rid of it.”₅

The Great Bed of Ware

 

The Great Bed at V&A Museum ©V&A Images

The Great Bed at V&A Museum ©V&A Images

Lastly I wanted to write about a very special bed whose history has been well documented and has been a source of wonder for me ever since I saw it on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The beautifully carved oak bed is thought to have been made in the late 16th century by Jonas Fosbrooke, a German craftsman for an inn in Ware, possibly as a publicity stunt. The enormous bed is over three meters wide and weighs about 641kg and is believed to be able to easily accommodate four couples. It is first referred to in 1596 by a German prince staying at the White Hart Inn.  During its long history the bed moved around between five inns in Ware, The White Hart, The George, The Crown, The Bull and the Saracen’s Head. In 1870 the bed was bought by Henry Teale and taken to Rye House, Hoddesdon, as a visitor attraction for his pleasure garden.

Although large beds were not uncommon in public houses where space was at a premium and men often slept in the same bed to save money, the Ware bed had to have been unusual considering how famous it became. Its fame was such that it was even mentioned by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night when his character Sir Toby Belch describes a sheet of paper as “big enough for the Bed of Ware”. It was also referenced in Ben Jonson’s 1609 play ‘The Silent Woman’ and in George Farquhar’s 1706 play ‘The Recruiting Officer’. There is also a story which appeared in the London Chronicle in July 1765₆ about how in 1689 the bed became the subject of a bet when 26 butchers and their wives agreed to spend the night in it! Not sure how they would have physically managed that but it would have sure given a different meaning to the expression ‘sleep tight’.

The bed is reputedly haunted by the ghost of its maker. It appears from all accounts to be either a snobbish or prudish spirit, depending on which story you wish to believe. One version is that the ghost takes offence to any person of a rank lower than royalty sleeping in the bed and the other that he dislikes couples having sex in the bed. Whenever such a ‘despicable’ act would occur he was reported to take direct action to put a halt to their amorous activities by pinching the couple until they stopped (he must have been furious with the butchers and their wives!).

Ware Drama Society in the Great Bed of Ware, 1964 [Image from ourhertfordandware.org.uk]

Ware Drama Society in the Great Bed of Ware, 1964 [www.ourhertfordandware.org.uk]

Last thoughts before I say goodnight!

Night time when we are surrounded by darkness and silence is when we feel at our most vulnerable. It is the time when people are alone with their thoughts. Fears, sadness and anxieties built up through the day come to the surface and prey on unguarded minds. It is also the time of the witching hour when it is believed that the veil between the unseen and seen world is at its thinnest and people are most susceptible to demonic and unnatural forces.

If you then start reckoning into the mix the number of deaths, both natural or through murder or suicide that take place in beds; the countless cases of invalids lying in bed, often alone for hours, maybe thinking unpleasant or depressive thoughts and scenes of jealousy and anger as wives and husbands have discovered their adulterous spouses, it is not then unexpected that so many ghost stories take place in bedrooms. What is strange is how few stories both fictional and ‘real’ seem to exist about haunted beds as opposed to haunted bedrooms. It could be that unlike more portable items such as mirrors, rocking chairs and paintings in many cases it is just more convenient to sell bulky antique beds with the house or it could be as I previously said that people just prefer to remain quiet when selling dubious bedroom suites.

Despite how fascinating this topic is, I would just give a word of warning, if you are out looking for a bed, maybe play it safe and head to Ikea!

6419513-11_a

James McBryde’s 1904 illustration for Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad from M R James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Some ghost stories for Halloween…

You can find the F Marion Crawford’s terrifying tale ‘The Upper Birth’ in full, along with several other spine chilling tales, in the Portmanteau of Terror section of this blog.  Enjoy….

Happy Halloween!
Happy Halloween!

Notes:

  1. The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford
  2. News from the Spirit World, Haunting Tales: Ghost of Larrabee St. (Tallman’s Ghost), http://newsfromthespiritworld.com/2013/01/24/haunting-tales-ghost-of-larrabee-st-tallmans-ghost/
  3. News from the Spirit World, Haunting Tales: Ghost of Larrabee St. (Tallman’s Ghost), http://newsfromthespiritworld.com/2013/01/24/haunting-tales-ghost-of-larrabee-st-tallmans-ghost/
  4. Real Haunted Beds; http://www.hauntedamericatours.com/haunted/Curesbedtroubles.php
  5. The haunted bed, http://www.ghost-mysteries.com/viewstory.php?id=6023
  6. History Extra: The Great Bed of Ware, http://www.historyextra.com/bedofware

Bibliography:

  1. The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford
  2. News from the Spirit World, Haunting Tales: Ghost of Larrabee St. (Tallman’s Ghost); http://newsfromthespiritworld.com/2013/01/24/haunting-tales-ghost-of-larrabee-st-tallmans-ghost/
  3. Real Haunted Beds; http://www.hauntedamericatours.com/haunted/Curesbedtroubles.php
  4. The haunted bed; http://www.ghost-mysteries.com/viewstory.php?id=6023
  5. History Extra: The Great Bed of Ware; http://www.historyextra.com/bedofware
  6. The Great Bed of Ware; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Bed_of_Ware
  7. Ware, Hertfordshire; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ware,_Hertfordshire
  8. Local Legends; http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=48421
  9. 10 objects believed to be haunted; http://www.mandatory.com/2012/09/21/10-objects-believed-to-be-haunted/

 

 

 

 

 

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