The subject of ghosts and the supernatural is one which appears again and again in satirical prints of the long eighteenth-century. This may have been the age in which the principles of rationalism and scientific enquiry first came to fruition, but it was also a time in which the superstitions and folk-lore of the early modern age continued to hold sway over the vast majority of ordinary Britons. Theirs was a world in which magic charms, peculiar home remedies and omens were features of everyday life and in which even the most trifling of setbacks could be attributed to the intervention of some supernatural agency.
London’s caricaturists mocked and despaired at the archaic beliefs of their less well-educated countrymen in equal measure. William Hogarth’s famous print Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism (1761) makes it eminently clear what the great artist thought of notorious supernatural hoaxers such as Mary Toft and William Kent and those who were foolish enough to be taken in by them. Such attitudes became a recurring theme in British satires, with caricaturists such as Richard Newton, Thomas Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank all producing images in which a stereotypical figure of fun – the country bumpkin, the Irishman or the pompous clergyman – flies into fits of terror after mistaking some innocuous item for a supernatural being.
In 1801 Laurie & Whittle published The Ghost or Poor Paddy and the Black Cat, in which an incredulous Irishman is frightened by a shadow in his room at night, only to find that it is in fact a stray cat. Oddly the print seems to have prefigured an actual series of strange events which were to take place in London some twenty-six years later and were subsequently reported in the newspapers under the title. The Ghost Detected – The Cat Acquited! It’s a story which could have almost stepped straight off the pages of a contemporary caricature print.
During the winter of 1827, rumours began to circulate around London of a strange spirit that was said to be plaguing a family who lived in a tenement located in the narrow confines of Rose Alley in the City. The residents of 17 Rose Alley ate a modest breakfast of bread and butter together each morning and then set off to work, being careful to secure the remains of their meal in a kitchen cupboard to serve as supper upon their return in the evening. One Tuesday in mid-November the family returned home to find the bread and butter missing, but the cupboard was still closed and fastened and the house was otherwise undisturbed. Thinking the incident odd but not knowing exactly how to respond, they replaced the missing produce, retired to bed and left for work again as usual the next morning. They returned home that evening to find their food had once again vanished from inside a closed cupboard. At first they assumed that their pet cat had somehow being breaking in to the kitchen cupboard and helping itself to their dinner. Fortunately for the cat, this theory was discredited when one of the more sensible residents of the house pointed out that a cat was unlikely to break into a cupboard, eat its owners dinner and then careful lock the door behind itself. Rats or mice were suspected next, but a thorough search of the cupboard revealed no holes through which even the most determined of vermin could have gained access to the food.
The perplexed occupants of number 17 then began to suspect that they had been the victim of a professional burglar, and even went so far as to begin approaching their neighbours to ask if they had seen anyone breaking into the house during the day, or making off with a half-eaten loaf of bread and some butter. An old lady who lived directly opposite swore blind that she had seen no-one entering the house during the days on which the thefts had occurred, noting that the narrowness of the alleyway made it impossible for someone to enter the house in question without passing directly in-front of her own window. She also questioned whether a professional picklock would bother breaking into a house in order to relieve its occupants of the half-eaten remains of their breakfast.
Things began to taken an even more sinister turn when the family members found themselves being woken in the dead of night be the sound of shuffling footsteps and doors being opened and closed in the darkness. Convinced now that they were being haunted by a powerful supernatural force, the residents of 17 Rose Alley sent for a local fortune-teller to try and make contact with the restless spirit, but finding her away from home they turned to the only available substitute – A local man whose ability to perform basic magic trick qualified him as the local expert on otherworldly matters. The magician arrived at the house, was appraised of the situation and immediately carried out an inspection of the premises. He paused over the fireplace for some moments before reaching up inside the chimney and removing a handful of lime plaster which it appeared had recently been dislodged from the inside of the flue. He then asked who lived next door and on learning that the premises had stood empty for several months, immediately insisted that the landlord was fetched and that a search of the premises be conducted.
On searching the abandoned house the magician and his companions found traces of bread and butter leading to a large linen cupboard. Throwing open the doors of the cupboard they were confronted by the earthly and decidedly recalcitrant features of a small boy of about nine or ten years old, who had clearly been eating and sleeping there for some time. The ‘ghost’ was duly dragged off to the local magistrate’s where he admitted under questioning that he had been living in the empty house for a number of days, ever since he had run away from his parent’s house in Cooper’s Gardens, Hackney.
Magistrate: “And how did you support yourself”
Boy: “I was in the waste house and eat [sic] the bread and butter”
M: “How did you contrive to get the bread and butter and what brought you into the cupboard?”
B: “I went up the chimney of one house, and down the chimney of the other, and brought the bread and butter with me the same way back, and slept in the cupboard for fear of the Bogeys”
M: “Who are the Bogeys?”
B: “The ghosts”
The magistrate, concluding that such a boy would be “a very dangerous instrument in the hands of a regular home breaker” decided to immediately dispatch him to the workhouse at Bethnal Green, from whence he would be returned to his mother and father in Hackney. The parish Beadle was called for but immediately smelt a rat, knowing the area quiet well he claimed that he was not aware of any young boy’s that had lived in Cooper’s Gardens for upwards of twenty years. The boy quickly offered to settle the issue by having the elderly caretaker of the workhouse escort him home to his father immediately. The Beadle acquiesced and ordered his assistant to convey the wayward child to Hackney and either discharge him into the care of his parents or bring him back for immediate punishment and consignment to the workhouse. When the pair arrived at Cooper’s Gardens and the parish caretaker asked his young charge to point out his father’s front door, the boy responded by sticking two fingers up to the astonished old man and running off at full tilt back towards the City. Thus the apparition of Rose Alley vanished without a trace.