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G.M. Woodward & R. Newton. The Haunted Cellar, 1792

Hauntings and other spooky goings-on were to become a recurring theme in English caricature from the 1790s onward. It was a trend that undoubtedly reflected the growing popularity of gothic novels rich in ghosts, goblins and funny little men living in ruined castles, as well as the first rumblings of an animist movement that would eventually flourish into the spiritualist craze of the Victorian-era. Some of these ghost prints were simply humorous images designed to raise a laugh at the expense of the stock figure of the incredulous yokel, while ghosts often played a more dramatically Shakespearean role when used in political satires.

Ghosts seem to have captured the imagination of the young Richard Newton and he was to produce several prints on the subject before he, rather ironically, went to an early grave in 1798. His 1792 aquatint The Haunted Cellar, is a particularly effective example of this odd sub-genre of caricature prints and shows a group of frightened plebeian figures bursting into confront a nesting owl which has been mistaken for a restless spirit. Surprisingly, it would seem as though such scenes may have had some basis in reality, as this article from the 24th February 1786 edition of the Stamford Mercury makes clear:

A GHOST!

The town of Sunderland has lately been much alarmed by an apparition of a female figure, all in white, with a child in its arms, which has appeared to many in the dead of night coming from the sea and advancing with solemn step up the streets. An unfortunately young woman having been drowned in that neighbourhood, it was generally believed to be her perturbed spirit. Some of the revenue officers, prowling in quest of legal prey, meeting her, and not thinking that their duty extended to the obligation of examining visionary beings, took care to give her large room…

The story becoming known to the officers of the military, one of them ordered a soldier to speak to it, should it appear on his guard, but he begged to be excused, for though he feared nothing living, he said he could not stand before a ghost; on which the officer … took his firelock and stood sentry…

He accordingly took his station, the ghost appeared, and when it advanced nearly opposite him he… received it, but with the coolest intrepidity; and finding that it began to quicken its pace as he approached, and that on nearer view it had more of the masculine than the feminine in its demeanour, he drew his sword, swearing if it was vulnerable, he would run it through – It then stopped, called for mercy, and stooping, delivered itself, not of a child, but of two kegs of Hollands [gin]; and throwing off a sheet, discovered not the semblance of a woman but the lean form of a stout smuggler…

Thus has his Majesty’s revenue there been happily relieved from the fraudful interference of a supernatural agency. Ghosts will now be suspected of smuggling, and customs house officers may lay violent hands on the spectre of the night without fear of premature perdition.

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