The 17th century ghost and the fresh nightcap

A ghostly figure on a staircase in 1899.
A ghostly figure on a staircase in 1899. Catalogue ref: COPY 1/439

We’re used to finding stories of spooks (of the spying variety) in the archives, but spooks of a ghostly type appear rather less frequently. One such ghost from the Civil War period, however, can be found hovering in the pages of a volume of letters from the reign of Charles II.

Extract from a letter from Exeter, c.1682.
Extract from a letter from Exeter, c.1682. Catalogue ref: SP 29/421, part 2 item 164

Described as an extract from a letter from Exeter, this piece of text tells the tale of two unexpected finds made by men digging at the Bell Inn in the 1670s.

The first man uncovered a dead man’s bones and a night cap ‘still so fresh that the marke letter I. H. could well be read upon it’. The second man, while digging a coal hole in the same area some time after, was visited by a spirit standing on the stairs. The ghost told him that he had been murdered for his money some 30 years previously by the innkeeper, John Holder and his wife.

John Holder was also dead by the time the ghostly apparition made its appearance, but eventually the accusation against his widow was heard by the local magistrates. One of the inn servants gave evidence that about 30 years earlier a visitor had arrived, very unwell, and had asked to borrow a night cap. She had lent him one of her master’s, marked with the initials I. H. 1

Sent off milking by her mistress early the next morning, she then hurried back to the inn hoping for a tip from the unnamed visitor. The innkeeper’s wife said that he had left, but the servant found his boots and cloak in his room and a sheet missing. The ostler also told her the visitor’s horse was still in the stable. How can he have left without his clothes and horse?

A second maid from the inn then gave evidence. She said the information given by the first maid was untrue. Immediately, the extract says, she was struck deaf, dumb and blind and dropped dead. The last words she spoke, her tongue swelling in her mouth, were ‘Oh Mrs Holder, Mrs Holder!’ Mrs Holder refused to confess and was released on bail. And there the story ends.

A second extract from a letter from Exeter, c.1682.
A second extract from a letter from Exeter, c.1682. Catalogue ref: SP 29/421, part 2 item 164

Peter Elmer, in his book ‘Witchcraft, Witch-hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England’, identifies this story as one circulating among non-conformists in the late 1670s. John Holder was a fervent Royalist during the Civil War and his Exeter inn had been the scene of many intrigues in support of Charles I, so Elmer suggests that the emergence of this story some 30 years later was probably an attempt to discredit him and his wife by people with opposing political views.

I was struck by how convenient it was that the ghost appeared after rather than before the bones were found and that a nightcap managed to escape decomposition despite being buried for 30 years. Perhaps not everything we read in the State Papers is entirely true …

By the way, I jotted down the details of this story many moons ago, thinking it would be good material for a blog. Today, I was unable to find the notes I took or the relevant entry in State Papers Online. No matter what keywords I used, I could not find them. Having searched all over for about an hour, I finally found myself staring at my notes in the folder where I initially looked for them. Now, I don’t think I believe in ghosts but surely some shadowy hand was involved in this during the week before Hallowe’en. Make of that what you will!


  1. The same capital letter was often used for both I and J at this period.

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