Ghostly Goings-on at Hackness

How were Cayleys connected with a ghost?

Imagine the scene. It is 21 November 1717. It is evening in the vicarage of Hackness near Scarborough in Yorkshire. Candles have been lit where the parson and his family are sitting, but there would be strong shadows in part of the room. A disembodied voice from nowhere calls out, “Amy, Amy!” Two evenings later there is a mysterious knocking three times on the inner door of the porch. The same again the next day.

On the 25th, this time at 8 am, the same knocks are followed by kitchen pots being thrown around, and then a spade is fetched out of the stable and placed against the door, followed by more knocking. At lunchtime Amy Richardson, daughter of the vicar Richard Richardson, goes to her room and finds a grey-clad young man on her bed, his face hidden by a hat: she shrieks, and her parents go into the room – the young man has vanished, but there is an impression of his body on the bedclothes. A few hours of ordinariness are succeeded by knocking on the inner door at 6 pm. This time the parish clerk, one Francis Prowd, has agreed to spend the evening at the vicarage. The parson’s wife asks whoever is knocking to enter – no response.

A bit later, Amy  is doing some knitting when her headgear is removed and pins are stuck in her necklace. She goes to the door, and one of her shoes is mysteriously taken off. Going outside with the maid, she sees a youth standing a nearby brook. The maid does not see him. The youth comes towards her, seizes her hand, and pulls her into the water. Amy asks her maid to fetch her parents, and recites, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” to ward off the apparition. The youth bids her – in words which echo appearances of angels in the King James Bible – to “be not afraid.” He promises to cause her no harm and says that he has been dead a year and has voyaged thousands of miles to see her. He gives her a piece of gold which he asks her to burn and show nobody, and the key to her trunk, which he has somehow abstracted, adding that he is dwelling in a happy place. He asks her to meet him at Westow Church, a little over 20 miles away, late morning on the 28th, and he will reveal why he has appeared to Amy. She still does not know who he is.

So begins the tale of the Hackness Ghost, in which three Cayleys became caught up. If it reads like the start of a work of supernatural fiction – well, everything I am describing is in attested papers. Remember, this was a period in which there was a very widespread belief in ghosts, even among well-educated people, even among clergy.

What self-respecting girl could refuse the apparition’s request? Amy goes to Westow Church with her father, the Vicar of Hackness, and Francis Prowd the parish clerk. There she says some prayers to avert evil, and the young man greets her, in white clothes with ruffs, a white shirt, stockings, black shoes, white gloves ornamented with silver and a black hat, but somewhat en déshabille for his shirt is open, exposing his chest (a nice touch for an unmarried vicar’s daughter). She leaves her father and the parish clerk at the churchyard gate and the apparition draws her by the hand to the church porch. There he declares that he Is Phillip Bempde and that his father has defrauded hers of £50. Amy must tell his father that he must repay the money on Midsummer Day 1718. To show he is not a demon, the youth adds a further message to his father: to be good to the poor. The young man tells Amy that, if she does not pass on the messages, she will be racked with lifelong torment. He vanishes, singing as he does so, and Amy “cheerfully” – her word – rejoins her father and Francis Prowd.

On 6 December, Amy writes a long letter to Phillip’s father, John Bempde, who is in London, relating everything that has happened.

On about the same day, Amy wakes and finds a jewelled wire ring covered with a silver ribbon on the fourth finger of her right hand, which is wrapped in a silk handkerchief.

Christmas Day 1717. Amy attends church. As she comes out she finds red braid on her right arm. When she takes off her right glove, there is a gold ring on one of her fingers. Under it is a small piece of paper with the message, “Phillip Bempde gave Amy Richardson a ring of gold on Crismas (sic) day.”

On 5 January a Mr Bradshaw, who has talked to Amy, writes to John Bempde. She has added some more details about what the young man said to her at Westow Church: that he told her that Francis Prowd, the parish clerk, was blessed; and that there should be prayers at the Vicarage on Christmas Night and her father must read aloud some specified passages from the New Testament.

31 January 1717-1718 (1718 by our way of reckoning the calendar). In a dramatic development, Amy is seized by the spirit at night and borne through the air over many towns to London, where she sees John Bempde sitting with a book in his house in Pall Mall. Three hours later she is returned to her room. At some point during this, the spirit has bitten her finger. The next day, Amy shows the tooth-marks to a number of people.

Further unexplained knockings on the porch door occur over the following days and weeks, in the presence of witnesses. The Richardsons seems to have made a habit of holding what might be called “ghost parties” so that their friends and acquaintances could enjoy the frisson of the supernatural. Those present attested to the happenings before they left the Vicarage.

Roll on a few months, during which there have been no more developments. It is now 27 June 1718, and Midsummer Day was three days earlier by the calendar reckoning of the time. 16 people are gathered at Hackness Vicarage, among them John Bempde’s steward Mr Vincent. They are singing Psalm 103. There is a succession of loud knocks on the porch door. All 16 people present signed a document witnessing that they had heard them. The next day, late evening, when there are 18 witnesses, the same thing happens, only this time Amy’s trunk key was thrown over her head.

Much the same happened three evenings later, on 31 July, after the Vicar has asked for candles to be removed so that the room is in darkness. One John Cockerill is in the usual gathering at the Vicarage for the first time.  Asked to sign the customary document that he had witnessed the knocking and throwing of the key, he hesitates but eventually agrees after much pleading by others. On the way out, he knocks three times on the porch door: Mrs Richardson comes out of the parlour where some people are still assembled, and asks if the ghost has knocked again. A few days later Mr Vincent, John Bempde’s steward, who has been frequently present at the vicarage, asks John Cockerill what he can say about the apparition. John Cockerill tartly responds that he would say it “before better men.” Mr Vincent calls him a rogue who wants to pretend the Richardsons and their circle are all liars.

The story is by now widely known, and it at this point that Cayleys become involved. William Cayley Esq (I am not sure which William – there are several possible candidates) comes from Brompton by Sawdon, the Cayley baronets’ seat, on the evening of 1 July. Once again, quite a crowd are gathered in Hackness Vicarage. William insists that all the visitors leave apart from the two who accompanied him. There is yet more knocking. One of William’s companions is Mr Farside, Curate of Fylingdales. The other is a Captain Key. When more knocks are heard, he spots a hand very like Amy’s, moving from the wainscot panelling. Amy gets up from her chair “in beaming confusion.” A little later he tries knocking on the wainscot: the sound is virtually identical to what had been heard earlier. Captain Key asks Amy to move her chair to the middle of the room, and sits immediately in front of her.

A little later, her hand moves under her apron, which she throws over her shoulder. There is a jingling sound, and Captain Key finds a key near her petticoat. Amy says that it is the key to her trunk which has been missing since late afternoon. Later again, there is the sound of a latch being lifted. After searching around, Captain Key, William Cayley and Mr Farside found Amy’s mother crouching behind an outhouse door, having held down its latch. They went back into the house and confronted Amy and her father. Captain Key put Amy’s trunk key in his pocked, and said they would expose the Richardsons as impostors unless they managed to get the key back without his knowledge within 24 days.

29 August 1718. Giles Pennant, a Hackness yeoman who has been to the Vicarage several times when knockings and throwing of Amy’s trunk key have occurred, testifies that he went back twice more to try and establish the cause. On the first of these occasions, after a candle was put out he saw Amy kneeling by the door of the room, knocking at it with one of her feet. On the second he saw Amy pass her trunk key covertly to her sister Dorothy. When Giles Pennant said he thought the whole affair might be a cheat, Francis Prowd, the parish clerk, threatened him with a summons before the Spiritual Court at York. He had received that summons a few days before 19 August. Two other residents of Hackness testified in similar terms.

The game was now up. Enter Cornelius Cayley, one of my ancestors, a lawyer and one of the government prosecutors of participants in the First Jacobite Rebellion, and who probably enjoys what must be an unusual bit of legal business. On 1 September he writes to Richard Richardson saying that John Bempde is strongly minded to prosecute all the participants in the scandal “to the utmost” and the Richardsons are likely to be ruined. They would be well advised to make a full confession and throw themselves on John Bempde’s mercy. On 4 September the Vicar goes to Cornelius Cayley’s house and admits everything. He offers to make a full confession to Sir Arthur Cayley (the third baronet) and others, begging that his daughter Amy be spared public humiliation. On 7 September Amy writes to John Bempde, admitting she was wrong to cast aspersions “upon a person so honourable as you,” but still claiming there had been supernatural goings-on and that she had been misled by an evil spirit pretending to be John’s son Phillip.

John Bempde replies to Amy’s father on saying he does not want to see him and his family publicly exposed, and asks for a private full acknowledgement.

Finally, on 10 September 1718, Richard and Amy Richardson and Francis Prowd make a full and frank confession that they had conspired to extort £50 from John Bempde by completely fraudulent pretences of supernatural events, with Amy as the one who had devised the scheme.

Source: Hackness Manuscripts and Accounts, pub. Yorkshire Archaeological Society 1938