Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Opprobrium of Hans Christian Andersen

I haven't told you about this ghost book I'm reading and I think it's because I don't like the way they punctuated the title. It's GHOSTS A NATURAL HISTORY: 500 YEARS OF SEARCHING FOR PROOF by Roger Clarke. If you're going to call it that, I guess you need two colons, but two colons would look weird, so don't call it that! I see in the fine print that the original British title was A NATURAL HISTORY OF GHOSTS. That's so much better. I can just imagine some jerk American publishing executive saying, "No, Roger, we have to LEAD with the GHOSTS or PEOPLE won't GET IT!" But that's not my point. I think it might be the best ghost book I've ever read, and I've read lots of ghost books. That's my point! Let me just quote three or four brief fragments to give you some flavor. 1) "In 1821, syphilitic, mercury-poisoned and deranged, he had his bed removed to a gardener's cottage and called in the dilapidators, watching with satisfaction as they knocked the house down." 2) "Mrs Crowe... possibly had a drug habit, which drew the opprobrium of Hans Christian Andersen on a visit to Scotland. On 17 August 1847, he describes her inhaling ether with another woman at a party, and with a frisson of misogynistic horror he describes 'the feeling of being with two mad creatures - they smiled with open dead eyes...'" 3) "Manning said of the man she had murdered and buried under the flagstones of her kitchen, 'I never liked him and I beat his skull with a ripping chisel.'" 4) "From around the time of the Hammersmith ghost, people's attitude toward ghosts was becoming confrontational. Young men sought to conquer their fears. Every evening, groups of them would be seen prowling the area, looking for the ghost, and anyone wearing light clothing could become a target." Clarke goes on to describe the sad story of a bricklayer named Thomas Milward who "wore the apparel traditional to his trade - white linen trousers, a white flannel waistcoat and a white apron." Some dummy mistook him for a ghost and he "threatened to punch the man's head." His mother-in-law told him to stop wearing white linen for his own safety but he was like, "No way!" (I paraphrase.) Then: "As he walked down Black Lion Lane, he was shot dead with a fowling gun by a frightened excise officer named Francis Smith, egged on after a drinking session with local watchman William Girder in the nearby White Hart pub. They had been exchanging tales about the ghost that had frightened the wife of a locksmith to death." Long story short, the king pardoned Francis Smith on the grounds of (and here I paraphrase again), "Hey, he thought he was shooting a ghost!" This is the same illustration of the Hammersmith Ghost that appears in the book.