Signs Before Death

In my previous post, I referred to the fact that all of the false sightings and fabricated encounters with fairies that have been recorded over the centuries don’t negate the possibility that some sightings and encounters have been real. The author of a curious volume –Signs Before Death (1825) – put it more eloquently, although he was talking about the existence of ghosts:

“But now it has become fashionable to discredit the theory of apparitions. This may in some degree be attributed to the mummery and mysticism with which the records of such circumstances have been encumbered. They have supplied the imagery of poetry, and have been so mixed up with well-wrought fiction, so as to have sometimes parted with their matter-of-fact character.”

The author, a Mr. Horace Welby, then proceeds to document one hundred cases of “authenticated apparitions” that were involved in foretelling an unexpected death. These cases have quaint titles like “Warning to James IV, at Linlithgow, as related by Buchanan” and “The Drummer or Demon of Tedworth, Wilts, at the House of Mr. John Mompesson.” Many of these cases involve well known members of the British clergy, military, and nobility during the 16th and 17th centuries.The most interesting of these cases have an odd twist that can send a brief chill down your spine. They can also challenge your inclination to chalk them up to coincidence. The tale of the “seer and the bully” in The Never King is typical of the kind of “omen of death” story that you can find in the pages of British folklore.

It’s worth noting that Signs Before Death was written in an era in which the existence of the supernatural had been largely discredited. For example, the last witch was hanged in Great Britain somewhere around 1722 and in 1735 a Witchcraft Act recognized that witchcraft was an “impossible crime” since no one could actually commune with the devil and cast spells and charms. That act changed the crime from practicing witchcraft to pretending to practice it. As a result, it eliminated the extreme penalties of torture and death. However, you could still be fined and sent to prison. Indeed, as late as the 1940’s people were still being convicted and jailed under that law. Then in 1951 – after more than two centuries – the Witchcraft Act was finally repealed. It was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act which made witchcraft a crime only if you used it to make money by deceiving the gullible (e.g. by fortune-telling). That cleared the way for the emergence of Wicca which is a form of “white” witchcraft and a legitimate religion.

Of course, Thistle and Peter (the main characters in The Never King) would agree that most of the stories of witches and fairies and of ghosts and Second Sight are nothing but nonsense – but not all of them. Or as Hamlet said:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.