Human Animals Part 25

[141] "Quarterly Review," July, 1863, p. 245.

[142] Gibson, Frank, "Superstitions about Animals," 1904, pp. 140-2.



Certain animals are associated with certain families, and in many such instances the animal makes its appearance as a death-warning.

Sometimes the animal in question, which is in the nature of a totem of the clan, is the family crest and has an occult connection with its traditions and history.

The Ferrers, whose country seat is at Chartley Park, near Litchfield, have a peculiar breed of cattle on their estates. The colour of the cattle is white with black muzzles. The whole of the inside of the ear, and one-third of the outside from the tip downwards is red, and the horns are white, with black tips, very fine and bent upwards.

In the year in which the Battle of Burton Bridge was fought and lost, a black calf was born into this stock and the downfall of the Ferrers family occurred about this time, giving rise to a tradition which has never been falsified, that the birth of a dark or parti-coloured calf from the Chartley Park breed is an omen of death within the year to a member of the Ferrers family.

The "Staffordshire Chronicle," of July, 1835, says, "It is a noticeable coincidence that a calf of this description was born whenever a death happened in the family. The decease of the seventh Earl Ferrers and of his countess, and of his son, Viscount Tamworth, and of his daughter, Mrs. William Jolliffe, as well as the deaths of the son and heir of the eighth earl and of his daughter, Lady Francis Shirley, were each preceded by the ominous birth of the fatal-hued calf. In the spring of 1835 a black calf appeared at Chartley, and before long the beautiful countess, second wife of the eighth earl, lay on her death-bed.

Birds of various kinds frequently make their appearance in families as harbingers of death. When the Oxenhams of Devonshire were visited by the apparition of a white bird they knew that one of the family was doomed.

The well-known story is told by James Oxenham in a tract entitled "A True relation of an Apparition in the likenesse of a Bird with a white breast that appeared hovering over the death-beds of some of the children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monachorum, Devon, Gent."

One of the first members of the family to see the apparition was the famous John Oxenham, a young man of twenty-two, who was taken ill in the vigour of his youth, a great strapping fellow six foot and a half in height, well built, of comely countenance and of great intellectual gifts. He died on the fifth day of September, 1635, and two days before his death the bird with the white breast hovered over his bed.

Charles Kingsley made use of this incident in "Westward Ho!" John Oxenham, in the midst of drinking a toast, suddenly drops his glass on the table and staring in terror at some object which he seems to see fluttering round the room, he cries out "There! Do you see it? The bird! The bird with the white breast!"

No sooner was John Oxenham in his grave than the apparition showed itself to Thomasine, wife of James Oxenham, who died on the seventh of September, 1635. She was quite a young woman and, according to the witnesses, Elizabeth Frost and Joan Tooker, the strange phantom was seen clearly fluttering above her sick-bed. The next member of the Oxenhams to whom the warning appeared was Thomasine's little sister, Rebecca, a child of eight, who breathed her last on September the ninth, following. And no sooner had the little girl been laid in her grave than Thomasine, infant of the above-mentioned Thomasine and James Oxenham, was taken sick and died on the 15th of September, 1635, the bird appearing also in this case.

It is impossible not to wonder what disease it was that carried off so many members of the Oxenham family within a few days of one another, and whether the bird was fluttering through the rooms the whole of the time, or whether it disappeared between the various deaths. Certain it is that it was not seen hovering over the sick-beds of other members of the family who recovered health. An earlier visitation had occurred in 1618, when the grandmother of the said John, a certain Grace Oxenham, had yielded up her soul into the hands of her Maker. Many later appearances of the famous bird are on record. A Mr. Oxenham who lived in Sidmouth for many years and who died between 1810 and 1821, was attended by an old gardener and his wife, who gave evidence that they had seen a white bird fly in at the door, dart across the bed in which their master lay dying, and _disappear in one of the drawers of the bureau_, but when they opened all the drawers to find the apparition, they could discover no signs of it.

In 1873 the Rev. Henry Oxenham gave the following version of the family story, which may be found in Frederick George Lee's "Glimpses of the Supernatural."[143]

"Shortly before the death of my late uncle, G. N. Oxenham, Esq., of 17 Earl's Terrace, Kensington, who was then head of the family, this occurred: His only surviving daughter, now Mrs. Thomas Peter, but then unmarried and living at home, and a friend of my aunt's, Miss Roberts, who happened to be staying in the house, but was no relation, and had never heard of the family tradition, were sitting in the dining-room immediately beneath his bedroom about a week before his death, which took place on December 15, 1873, when their attention was aroused by a shouting outside the window.

"On looking out they observed a white bird--which might have been a pigeon, but, if so, was an unusually large one--perched on the thorn tree outside the windows and it remained there for several minutes, in spite of some workmen on the opposite side of the road throwing their hats at it, in the vain effort to drive it away.

"Miss Roberts mentioned this to my aunt at the time, though not, of course, attaching any special significance to it, and my aunt (since deceased) repeated it to me soon after my uncle's death. Neither did my cousin, though aware of the family tradition, think of it at the time.... My cousin also mentioned another circumstance, which either I did not hear of or had forgotten, viz. that my late aunt spoke at the time of frequently hearing a sound like the fluttering of a bird's wings in my uncle's bedroom, and said that the nurse testified to hearing it also."

A more tragic incident connected with the same legend was that when Lady Margaret Oxenham was about to be married a white bird appeared and fluttered about her head, and that she was stabbed at the altar by a rejected lover.

In another family a white crow was seen as a death-warning. In the late half of the eighteenth century the son of a rich landowner in North Wales was said to exercise an evil influence over his elder brother, who was heir to the estate. When the landowner died the eldest son disappeared mysteriously, and the second son took his place as heir. Wherever the new squire went he was accompanied by a white crow with black wings, and all the neighbours recognised the bird as his constant companion.

A few years passed and the squire found it necessary to make a journey to London on a matter of business, but thinking that the crow would cause an odd sensation if it followed him about the Metropolis, he decided, or let himself be persuaded, that it was better to leave the bird behind. On his way home from town, he stayed for a night or two at the house of a friend in Shrewsbury. During dinner the door of the dining-room was blown open suddenly, as though by an unexpected gust of wind, and the white crow flew into the room and perched on the squire's shoulder, as though well-contented to be once more in the presence of its master.

To satisfy the curiosity of the guests, the squire explained that the bird was his most faithful friend. When the diners left the table and went into the drawing-room a pet dog chased the bird, which had left its perch on the squire's shoulder and had flown on ahead. One of the visitors attempted to strike the dog, hoping to make it cease to persecute the bird, and by accident he hit the bird instead. Croaking piteously, the white crow wheeled about twice and fluttered to the ground dying. The squire who had lingered behind the others came forward at the noise of the fray and, seeing the dead crow, cried:

"Alas! You have killed one who was to me like a brother."

Then he turned to his host and took a hurried farewell, for, he added, "I have but three weeks more to live."

At this strange speech the host and his guests concluded that the squire was over-superstitious and they pooh-poohed his fears, which, however, proved only too correct. He died three weeks later, as he had himself prophesied, and then it was reported that the elder brother, on his disappearance, had taken the shape of a crow and that whoever owned the bird knew that he would only survive it by three weeks. A third brother inherited the estate, and to this day when a death is expected in the family, a white crow with black wings is seen hovering near the house.[144]

A bird is connected with a death-warning in the Lyttleton family, whose country seat is Hagley in Worcestershire. The first earl was a distinguished poet and historian, but his son, Thomas, the second earl, was known as "the wicked Lord Lyttleton," a title he had won by his extravagances and profligacy. He died on November 27th, 1779, at his town house in Hill Street, having been foretold of his death three days previously.

In the middle of the night of the 24th of November he was awakened by the fluttering of a bird about the curtains in his bedroom, and looking up, he saw the vision of a lovely woman dressed in white, upon whose wrist a small bird was perched like a falcon. As he lay watching the apparition, the woman spoke, warning him to prepare for death within three days.

Although he treated the matter lightly, and his friends seconded him in combating his superstitious fears, Lord Lyttleton died at the exact hour named by his ghostly visitor and the casement at which the bird was seen by the doomed man has since been frequently pointed out to people interested in the tradition.

Closeburn Castle, the seat of the Kirkpatricks in Dumfries-shire, was surrounded by a beautiful lake, and whenever any member of the family was about to die a swan appeared on the waters and remained there until the death had taken place, then disappearing as mysteriously as it came.

The story of this ghostly swan is a sad one. In former times a pair of swans made the lake their favourite resort in the summer season. Year after year the pair paid an annual visit to Closeburn to the delight of the family, for they were thought to bring good fortune in their train, and whatever misfortune or sorrow had been impending vanished like magic at their appearance.

One Lady Kirkpatrick had been sick unto death when the first information of the presence of the swans brought her speedily back to health. Another year the heir of the house, a mere babe, lay almost at his last gasp when the broken-hearted mother, gazing from the castle window one dark night, saw the two swans descend as though from the celestial world, and the next moment they were seen sailing majestically upon the lake. Full of joy at this good omen, she turned to her sick child and saw with thanksgiving and praise the first signs of returning health, a recovery which proved to be speedy. And so many stories were told of kindly influence exerted by the original birds and their successors, that for one hundred and fifty years the tradition held good. But after the elapse of that period a change occurred, which unfortunately reversed the omen.

At that time Closeburn Castle was in the possession of a boy of thirteen of the name of Robert. He was romantic by nature, but also mischievous, and it happened that one day he was permitted to go to the theatre in Edinburgh to see a performance of "The Merchant of Venice." The lines which Portia says of Bassanio, that he would

"Make a swan-like end Fading in music,"

struck his imagination very forcibly and afterwards he could not rest because he was so anxious to know whether the song of a dying swan was a fact and not merely a myth.

Moved by this absorbing impulse, he went a short time later into the Park at Closeburn with the intention of shooting sparrows with his cross-bow, and at that moment, unluckily, the prophetic swans came sailing upon the lake in his direction.

Without a thought as to what might be the result of his action, Robert aimed his bow at one of the swans, and the arrow, winging its way over the lake, hit its mark so surely that the swan perished on the spot. Its companion gave a shrill and lamentable scream and vanished forthwith.

Robert, filled with remorse at what he had done, buried the body of his victim, which had drifted to the shores of the lake, and told nobody what had taken place. But for many years, much to the surprise of the family, no swans came to Closeburn.

Much later, when the matter had been almost forgotten, a single swan returned, but, unlike the earlier visitants, it was shy to wildness, and upon its breast was seen a blood-red stain.

People shook their heads and said this phantom swan boded the family no good, and their prognostications came true, for though the swan with the bleeding breast came more rarely than the others had done, every time it appeared it heralded misfortune. First the sudden death of the Lord of Closeburn occurred at home and then one of his relatives was lost in a shipwreck. And again at the third nuptials of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick, the first baronet of that name, his son and heir Roger, who was in good health at the time, caught sight of the swan, and in full conviction that the warning was meant to tell of impending evil, he went home duly despondent. His father rallied him on his mood, which he said proceeded from a jealous dislike of his new stepmother. But Roger answered, "Perhaps before long, you too may be sorrowing," and that very night he gave up the ghost.

Since then, tradition says, that the mystic wounded swan has never been seen at Closeburn, and the tragic revenge has been completely fulfilled.

According to the account of Sir Walter Scott, supernatural appearances announce death to the ancient Highland family of the MacLeans of Lochbuy. The spirit of an ancestor who was slain in battle is heard to gallop along a stony bank and then to ride thrice around the family residence ringing his fairy bridle and thus intimating the approaching calamity. The reference to this legend occurs in "The Lady of the Lake."

Sounds, too, had come in midnight blast, Of charging steeds, careering fast Along Benharrow's shingly side, Where mortal horseman ne'er might ride.

A fox is an unusual animal to be responsible for a death-warning, except perhaps in Japan, where so many superstitions cling round this creature, but the Irish family of Gormanston is haunted by a small congregation of foxes whenever the head of the house is about to die.

Before the death of the twelfth viscount, in 1860, foxes were seen round about and even in the house for some days. A few hours before his death, "three foxes were playing about and making a noise close to the house, and just in front of the cloisters, which are yew-trees planted and trailed in that shape." They wandered about the grounds in pairs and sat under the viscount's window, barking and howling all night. Next morning they were crouching in the grass in the front of the house. Although they had access to the poultry yard, it was certainly strange that they never touched any of the birds. As soon as the funeral was over the animals disappeared suddenly.

When the succeeding viscount died, in 1876, the foxes were seen again, appearing constantly under the bedroom window, especially when the sick viscount was supposed to have taken a turn for the better, which, however, proved to be a false hope, for he passed away soon afterwards.

On the occasion of the death of the fourteenth Viscount Gormanston the coachman and gardener saw two foxes near the chapel and five or six more round the front of the house, and several were barking in the cloisters.

Lord Gormanston's son, the Hon. Mr. Preston, watched beside his father's body which lay in the chapel, and on one occasion, about three in the morning, he "became conscious of a slight noise, which seemed to be that of a number of people walking stealthily around the chapel on the gravel walk. He went to the side door, listened, and heard outside a continuous and insistent snuffling or sniffing noise, accompanied by whimperings and scratchings at the door. On opening it, he saw a full-grown fox sitting on the path within four feet of him. Just in the shadow was another, while he could hear several more moving close by in the darkness. He then went to the end door, opposite the altar, and on opening it found two more foxes, one so close that he could have touched it with his foot. On shutting the door the noises continued till 5 a.m., when they suddenly ceased."[145]

When a death is about to take place in the Baronet's family at Clifton Hall, in Nottinghamshire, a sturgeon is said to force its way up the river Trent, which runs at the foot of the beautifully wooded slope on which the Hall stands, and whenever white owls are seen perched on the family mansion of the Arundels of Wardour it is held to be an indication that a member of the family is near to death.

In one family a little white dog appears to give warning that a death is about to occur. The story is taken from J. A. Middleton's "Grey Ghost Book."[146] A relative of General French was sitting in the garden talking with a friend when the latter saw a little white dog run under her companion's chair. As it did not reappear she became curious and requested him to see what had become of it. The man rose and removed his chair, but the dog was not there, having suddenly and mysteriously vanished. Then he related that in his family a little white dog appeared before a death, and that this was a warning to him.

Chapter end

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