Epworth Rectory Poltergeist was a haunting of a lonely rectory in Lincolnshire, Isle of Axholme, England, in the early 18th century. For about two months, the household of Reverend Samuel Wesley was plagued by Poltergeist disturbances such as Rappings and the movement of furniture. The poltergeist, however, had some unusual habits.
Epworth Rectory had been presented to Reverend Wesley by Queen Mary, to whom he dedicated a poem on the life of Christ. Members of his family, however, had a low opinion of the locale: one daughter, Hetty, described the nearest village, Wroot, as “a place devoid of wisdom, wit or grace.” In 1709, the rectory was burned down, and Wesley’s cattle were maimed, by villagers who disapproved of Reverend Wesley’s Hanoverian principles. The rectory was rebuilt.
For 20 years of their marriage, Mrs. Wesley was either in a state of pregnancy or post-delivery. She bore 19 children, 14 of whom died in infancy. Her only year of respite occurred in 1701–02 when Reverend Wesley deserted her on account of her Jacobite sympathies. As their son, John, recorded:
The year before King William died my father observed that my mother did not say Amen to the prayer for the King. She said she could not, for she did not believe the Prince of Orange was king. My father vowed he would never cohabit with her till she did. He, then, took his horse, and rode away; nor did she hear anything of him for a twelvemonth. He, then, came back and lived with her as before. But I fear his vow was not forgotten before God.
This conflict between the two apparently was never resolved; Reverend Wesley gave in and returned home of his own accord. It is possible that deep and repressed hostility, especially on the part of Mrs. Wesley, played a role in the poltergeist disturbances which broke out without warning on December 1, 1719 (some accounts give the date as 1716).
The servants were the first to hear the unusual noises. On December 1 or December 2, one of the maids and Reverend Wesley’s manservant, Robin (also given as Robert) Brown, heard groans, like those of a dying person, at the dining room door at about 10 P.M. Thinking it was a neighbour, Mr. Turpine, who was very ill and who visited on occasion, Brown opened the door, but no one was there. The knocks sounded again two or three times, and each time Brown opened the door to find nothing. The servants then went to bed. When Brown went to his room in the garret, he saw at the top of the stairs a handmill whirling swiftly. The handmill was empty. As he lay in bed, Brown then heard sounds of someone walking about in jack boots and stumbling over Brown’s shoes and boots. He also heard a turkey-cock gobble. Again, no one was present.
The children began to hear noises at night: knockings, rumblings by the stairs and in the garret, sounds of dancing, footsteps running up and down the stairs, chains clanking and door latches being rattled.
Reverend Wesley seemed to be the only member of the household oblivious to the noises, and at first, no one wanted to advise him of them, out of fear that they heralded his death or the death of someone else in the family. Finally, however, the knocks sounded in Rev. and Mrs. Wesley’s bedchamber.
A pattern developed. The noises would begin every night about 9:45, always preceded by 15 minutes of sounds variously described as a jack winding up, a saw creaking, or the planing of a windmill as it changed direction. It was as though the poltergeist was winding up its energy for the evening. Raps and knockings would then sound all over the house, and sometimes the house itself shook. Once, sounds like bottles being dashed to pieces were heard below the stairs; an inspection revealed nothing out of place. Similarly, it once sounded like the pewter was being thrown about the kitchen, yet nothing was out of place when family members went to check. Brown was so frightened by the nightly visitations that he took the family mastiff to his room. The first night the dog was there, it barked violently just before the noises began. After that, it whined and ran and afforded the poor man no comfort at all.
Mrs. Wesley was for a time convinced that the disturbances were caused by rats, and she called for a horn to be blasted throughout the house to scare them away. After that, the noises sounded during the day as well as at night, as though the spirit were getting even for the horn.
The children, who were quite frightened at night by the noises, nicknamed the unknown spirit “Old Jeffrey.” It was also speculated that the spirit might be “Old Ferries,” the name of someone who had died in the house. Daughter Emilia blamed witchcraft, as there had recently been a disturbance nearby that “undoubtedly” had been caused by witches.
Attempts to communicate with the poltergeist had limited success. If a member of the family rapped, the spirit would rap back in the same fashion. It never, however, responded to questions, and never spoke with a voice of its own. One night, hearing knockings in the nursery, Reverend Wesley followed them and became angry at the spirit. According to son John’s account:
He . . . said sternly, “Thou deaf and dumb devil, why dost thou frighten these children that cannot answer for themselves? Come to me to my study that am a man!” Instantly it knocked his knock (the particular knock which he always used at the gate) as if it would shiver the board in pieces, and we heard nothing more that night. Till this time my father had never heard the least disturbance in his study. But the next evening, as he attempted to go out into this study (of which none had the key but himself), when he opened the door it was thrust back with such violence as had like to have him thrown down.
The poltergeist was particularly active when the family said their prayers, knocking furiously when Rev. Wesley said prayers for King George and the prince, and at the utterance of “Amen.” If prayers for the king were omitted, the poltergeist did nothing.
Other manifestations included a bed Levitation with one of the daughters, Nancy, on it, and two specters. One, seen by Brown in the kitchen, appeared to look like a rabbit. Another, seen by Emilia in the nursery, looked like a badger.
Others urged Rev. Wesley and his family to leave the house, but Wesley was determined not to be run off by “the devil.” He did decide to summon his oldest son from London, but he cancelled the visit when the disturbances stopped, as mysteriously as they had started, at the end of January 1720.
There is reason to think that the poltergeist was not supernatural, but was psychokinetic energy unleashed by one or more of the Wesley family members. Certainly Mrs. Wesley must be suspected, especially since the poltergeist was its noisiest at the mention of the names of King George and the prince, the sovereignty of whom was of sufficient issue to split the Wesley marriage for a year. Mrs. Wesley also may have harboured long-term frustrations, resentment and weariness at producing a child every year, only to see most of them die.
Of all the children present in the house during the disturbances, daughter Hetty was most troubled. When the noises occurred, she did not wake up, but slept fitfully and with skin flushed. It is not known how old she was at the time—estimates are from ages 14 to 19—but she may have been a prime agent. She harboured bad feelings about her surroundings, and perhaps may have been deeply affected by the rift between her father and mother.
- Sitwell, Sacheverell. Poltergeists: Fact or Fancy. New York: Dorset Press, 1988. First published 1959.