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Ch. 9: The Truth About 'Fisher's Ghost'

Everybody has heard about 'Fisher's Ghost.' It is one of the stock 'yarns' of the world, and reappears now and again in magazines, books like 'The Night Side of Nature,' newspapers, and general conversation. As usually told, the story runs thus: One Fisher, an Australian settler of unknown date, dwelling not far from Sydney, disappeared. His overseer, like himself an ex-convict, gave out that Fisher had returned to England, leaving him as plenipotentiary. One evening a neighbour (one Farley), returning from market, saw Fisher sitting on the fence of his paddock, walked up to speak to him, and marked him leave the fence and retreat into the field, where he was lost to sight. The neighbour reported Fisher's return, and, as Fisher could nowhere be found, made a deposition before magistrates. A native tracker was taken to the fence where the pseudo Fisher sat, discovered 'white man's blood' on it, detected 'white man's fat' on the scum of a pool hard by, and, finally, found 'white man's body' buried in a brake. The overseer was tried, condemned, and hanged after confession.

Such is the yarn: occasionally the ghost of Fisher is said to have been viewed several times on the fence.

Now, if the yarn were true, it would be no proof of a ghost. The person sitting on the fence might be mistaken for Fisher by a confusion of identity, or might be a mere subjective hallucination of a sort recognised even by official science as not uncommon. On the other hand, that such an illusion should perch exactly on the rail where 'white man's blood' was later found, would be a very remarkable coincidence. Finally, the story of the appearance might be explained as an excuse for laying information against the overseer, already suspected on other grounds. But while this motive might act among a Celtic population, naturally credulous of ghosts, and honourably averse to assisting the law (as in Glenclunie in 1749), it is not a probable motive in an English Crown colony, as Sydney then was. Nor did the seer inform against anybody.

The tale is told in 'Tegg's Monthly Magazine' (Sydney, March 1836); in 'Household Words' for 1853; in Mr. John Lang's book, 'Botany Bay' (about 1840), where the yarn is much dressed up; and in Mr. Montgomery Martin's 'History of the British Colonies,' vol. iv. (1835). Nowhere is a date given, but Mr. Martin says that the events occurred while he was in the colony. His most intimate surviving friend has often heard him tell the tale, and discuss it with a legal official, who is said to have been present at the trial of the overseer.* Other living witnesses have heard the story from a gentleman who attended the trial. Mr. Martin's narrative given as a lowest date, the occurrences were before 1835. Moreover, the yarn of the ghost was in circulation before that year, and was accepted by a serious writer on a serious subject. But we have still no date for the murder.

*So the friend informs me in a letter of November 1896.

That date shall now be given. Frederick Fisher was murdered by George Worrall, his overseer, at Campbelltown on June 16 (or 17), 1826. After that date, as Fisher was missing, Worrall told various tales to account for his absence. The trial of Worrall is reported in the 'Sydney Gazette' of February 5, 1827. Not one word is printed about Fisher's ghost; but the reader will observe that there is a lacuna in the evidence exactly where the ghost, if ghost there were, should have come in. The search for Fisher's body starts, it will be seen, from a spot on Fisher's paddock-fence, and the witness gives no reason why that spot was inspected, or rather no account of how, or by whom, sprinkled blood was detected on the rail. Nobody saw the murder committed. Chief-Justice Forbes said, in summing up (on February 2, 1827), that the evidence was purely circumstantial. We are therefore so far left wholly in the dark as to why the police began their investigations at a rail in a fence.

At the trial Mr. D. Cooper deposed to having been owed 80 pounds by Fisher. After Fisher's disappearance Cooper frequently spoke to Worrall about this debt, which Worrall offered to pay if Cooper would give up to him certain papers (title-deeds) of Fisher's in his possession. Worrall even wrote, from Banbury Curran, certifying Cooper of Fisher's departure from the colony, which, he said, he was authorised to announce. Cooper replied that he would wait for his 80 pounds if Fisher were still in the country. Worrall exhibited uneasiness, but promised to show a written commission to act for Fisher. This document he never produced, but was most anxious to get back Fisher's papers and to pay the 80 pounds. This arrangement was refused by Cooper.

James Coddington deposed that on July 8, 1826, when Fisher had been missing for three weeks, Worrall tried to sell him a colt, which Coddington believed to be Fisher's. Worrall averred that Fisher had left the country. A few days later Worrall showed Coddington Fisher's receipt for the price paid to him by Worrall for the horse. 'Witness, from having seen Fisher write, had considerable doubt as to the genuineness of the receipt.'

James Hamilton swore that in August 1826 he bluntly told Worrall that foul play was suspected; he 'turned pale, and endeavoured to force a smile.' He merely said that Fisher 'was on salt water,' but could not or would not name his ship. A receipt to Worrall from Fisher was sworn to by Lewis Solomon as a forgery.

Samuel Hopkins, who lived under Fisher's roof, last saw Fisher on June 17, 1826 (June 16 may be meant), in the evening. Some other people, including one Lawrence, were in the house, they left shortly after Fisher went out that evening, and later remarked on the strangeness of his not returning. Nathaniel Cole gave evidence to the same effect. Fisher, in short, strolled out on June 17 (16?), 1826, and was seen no more in the body.

Robert Burke, of Campbelltown, constable, deposed to having apprehended Worrall. We may now give in full the evidence as to the search for Fisher's body on October 20, 1826.

Here let us first remark that Fisher's body was not easily found. A reward for its discovery was offered by Government on September 27, 1826, when Fisher had been dead for three months, and this may have stimulated all that was immortal of Fisher to perch on his own paddock-rail, and so draw attention to the position of his body. But on this point we have no information, and we proceed to real evidence. From this it appears that though a reward was offered on September 27, the local magistrates (to whom the ghost-seer went, in the yarn) did not bid their constable make SPECIAL researches till October 20, apparently after the seer told his tale.

'George Leonard, a constable at Campbelltown, stated that by order of the bench of the magistrates he commenced a search for the body of the deceased on the 20th of October last: witness WENT TO A PLACE WHERE SOME BLOOD WAS SAID TO HAVE BEEN DISCOVERED, and saw traces of it on several rails of a fence at the corner of the deceased's paddock adjoining the fence of Mr. Bradbury, and about fifty rods from prisoner's house: witness proceeded to search with an iron rod over the ground, when two black natives came up and joined in the search till they came to a creek where one of them saw something on the water: a man named Gilbert, a black native, went into the water, and scumming some of the top with a leaf, which he afterwards tasted, called out that "there was the fat of a white man" [of which he was clearly an amateur]: they then proceeded to another creek about forty or fifty yards farther up, STILL LED BY THE NATIVES, when one of them struck the rod into some marshy ground and called out that "there was something there:" a spade was immediately found, and the place dug, when the first thing that presented itself was the left hand of a man lying on his side, which witness, from a long acquaintance with him, immediately declared to be the hand of Frederick Fisher: the body was decayed a little, particularly the under-jaw: witness immediately informed Mr. William Howe and the Rev. Mr. Reddall, and obtained a warrant to apprehend the parties who were supposed to be concerned in the murder; the coroner was sent for, and, the body being taken out of the earth the next morning, several fractures were found in the head: an inquest was held, and a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown was returned: witness particularly examined the fence: there appeared to have been a fire made under the lower rail, as if to burn out the mark: the blood seemed as if it were sprinkled over the rails. . . .

'The declaration of the prisoner' (Worrall) 'was put in and read: it stated that, on the evening of the 17th of June, a man named Lawrence got some money from the deceased, and together with four others went to a neighbouring public-house to drink: that after some time they returned, and the prisoner being then outside the house, and not seen by the others, he saw two of them enter, whilst the other two, one of whom was Lawrence, remained at the door: the prisoner then went down to the bottom of the yard, and after a little time heard a scuffle, and saw Lawrence and the others drag something along the yard, which they struck several times. The prisoner then came forward, and called out to know who it was. One of them replied, "It is a dog." The prisoner coming up said, "It is Fisher, and you have prevented him from crying out any more." They said they had murdered him in order to possess themselves of what money he had, and bound the prisoner by a solemn pledge not to reveal it.

'For the prisoner Nathaniel Boom deposed: he knew deceased, and intended to institute a prosecution against him for forgery when he disappeared.

'Chief-justice summed up: observed it was a case entirely of circumstances. The jury were first to consider if identity of body with Fisher was satisfactorily established. If not: no case. If so: they would then consider testimony as affecting prisoner. Impossible, though wholly circumstantial, for evidence to be stronger. He offered no opinion, but left case to jury.

'The jury returned a verdict of guilty. Sentence of death passed.'

'February 6, 1827. Sydney Gazette.

'George Worrall, convicted on Friday last of murder of F. Fisher, yesterday suffered the last penalty of the law. Till about 5 o'clock on the morning of his execution, he persisted in asserting his innocence, when he was induced to confess to a gentleman who had sat up with him during the night, that he alone had perpetrated the murder, but positively affirmed it was not his intention at the time to do so.'

We need not follow Worrall's attempts to explain away the crime as an accident. He admitted that 'he had intended to hang Lawrence and Cole.'

It is a curious case. WHY WAS NOBODY INTERROGATED ABOUT THE DISCOVERY, ON THE RAIL, OF BLOOD THREE MONTHS OLD, if not four months? What was the apparent date of the fire under the rail? How did the ghost-story get into circulation, and reach Mr. Montgomery Martin (1835)?

To suggest a solution of these problems, we have a precisely analogous case in England.

On October 25, 1828, one William Edden, a market-gardener, did not come home at night. His wife rushed into the neighbouring village, announcing that she had seen her husband's ghost; that he had a hammer, or some such instrument, in his hand; that she knew he had been hammered to death on the road by a man whose name she gave, one Tyler. Her husband was found on the road, between Aylesbury and Thame, killed by blows of a blunt instrument, and the wife in vain repeatedly invited the man, Joseph Tyler, to come and see the corpse. Probably she believed that it would bleed in his presence, in accordance with the old superstition. All this the poor woman stated on oath at an inquiry before the magistrates, reported in the Buckinghamshire county paper of August 29, 1829.

Here is her evidence, given at Aylesbury Petty Sessions, August 22, before Lord Nugent, Sir J. D. King, R. Brown, Esq., and others:

'"After my husband's corpse was brought home, I sent to Tyler, for some reasons I had, to come and see the corpse. I sent for him five or six times. I had some particular reason for sending for him which I never did divulge. . . . I will tell my reasons if you gentlemen ask me, in the face of Tyler, even if my life should be in danger for it. When I was ironing a shirt, on the Saturday night my husband was murdered, something came over me--something rushed over me--and I thought my husband came by me. I looked up, and I thought I heard the voice of my husband come from near my mahogany table, as I turned from my ironing. I ran out and said, 'Oh dear God! my husband is murdered, and his ribs are broken.' I told this to several of my neighbours. Mrs. Chester was the first to whom I told it. I mentioned it also at the Saracen's Head."

'Sir J. D. King.--"Have you any objection to say why you thought your husband had been murdered?"

'"No! I thought I saw my husband's apparition and the man that had done it, and that man was Tyler, and that was the reason I sent for him. . . . When my neighbours asked me what was the matter when I ran out, I told them that I had seen my husband's apparition. . . . When I mentioned it to Mrs. Chester, I said: 'My husband is murdered, and his ribs are broken; I have seen him by the mahogany table.' I did not tell her who did it. . . . I was always frightened, since my husband had been stopped on the road." (The deceased Edden had once before been waylaid, but was then too powerful for his assailants.) "In consequence of what I saw, I went in search of my husband, until I was taken so ill I could go no further."

'Lord Nugent.--"What made you think your husband's ribs were broken?"

'"He held up his hand like this" (holds up her arm), "and I saw a hammer, or something like a hammer, and it came into my mind that his ribs were broken."

'Sewell stated that the murder was accomplished by means of a hammer. The examination was continued on August 31 and September 13; and finally both prisoners were discharged for want of sufficient evidence. Sewell declared that he had only been a looker-on, and his accusations against Tyler were so full of prevarications that they were not held sufficient to incriminate him. The inquiry was again resumed on February 11, 1830, and Sewell, Tyler, and a man named Gardner were committed for trial.

'The trial (see "Buckingham Gazette," March 13, 1830) took place before Mr. Baron Vaughan and a grand jury at the Buckingham Lent Assizes, March 5, 1830; BUT IN THE REPORT OF MRS. EDDEN'S EVIDENCE NO MENTION IS MADE OF THE VISION.

'Sewell and Tyler were found guilty, and were executed, protesting their innocence, on March 8, 1830.

'Miss Browne, writing to us [Mr. Gurney] from Farnham Castle, in January 1884, gives an account of the vision which substantially accords with that here recorded, adding:--

'"The wife persisted in her account of the vision; consequently the accused was taken up, and, with some circumstantial evidence in addition to the woman's story, committed for trial by two magistrates--my father, Colonel Robert Browne, and the Rev. Charles Ackfield.

'"The murderer was convicted at the assizes, and hanged at Aylesbury.

'"It may be added that Colonel Browne was remarkably free from superstition, and was a thorough disbeliever in 'ghost stories.'"'*

*From Phantasms of the Living, Gurney and Myers, vol. ii. p. 586.

Now, in the report of the trial at assizes in 1830 there is not one word about the 'ghost,' though he is conspicuous in the hearing at petty sessions. The parallel to Fisher's case is thus complete. And the reason for omitting the ghost in a trial is obvious. The murderers of Sergeant Davies of Guise's, slain in the autumn of 1749 in Glenclunie, were acquitted by an Edinburgh jury in 1753 in face of overpowering evidence of their guilt, partly because two Highland witnesses deposed to having seen the ghost of the sergeant, partly because the jury were Jacobites. The prisoners' counsel, as one of them told Sir Walter Scott, knew that their clients were guilty. A witness had seen them in the act. But the advocate (Lockhart, a Jacobite) made such fun out of the ghost that an Edinburgh jury, disbelieving in the spectre, and not loving the House of Hanover, very logically disregarded also the crushing evidence for a crime which was actually described in court by an eye-witness.

Thus, to secure a view of the original form of the yarn of Fisher's Ghost, what we need is what we are not likely to get--namely, a copy of the depositions made before the bench of magistrates at Campbelltown in October 1826.

For my own part, I think it highly probable that the story of Fisher's Ghost was told before the magistrates, as in the Buckinghamshire case, and was suppressed in the trial at Sydney.

Worrall's condemnation is said to have excited popular discontent, as condemnations on purely circumstantial evidence usually do. That dissatisfaction would be increased if a ghost were publicly implicated in the matter, just as in the case of Davies's murder in 1749. We see how discreetly the wraith or ghost was kept out of the Buckinghamshire case at the trial, and we see why, in Worrall's affair, no questions were asked as to the discovery of sprinkled blood, not proved by analysis to be human, on the rail where Fisher's ghost was said to perch.

I had concluded my inquiry here, when I received a letter in which Mr. Rusden kindly referred me to his 'History of Australia' (vol. ii. pp. 44, 45). Mr. Rusden there gives a summary of the story, in agreement with that taken from the Sydney newspaper. He has 'corrected current rumours by comparison with the words of a trustworthy informant, a medical man, who lived long in the neighbourhood, and attended Farley [the man who saw Fisher's ghost] on his death-bed. He often conversed with Farley on the subject of the vision which scared him. . . . These facts are compiled from the notes of Chief-Justice Forbes, who presided at the trial, with the exception of the references to the apparition, which, although it led to the discovery of Fisher's body, could not be alluded to in a court of justice, or be adduced as evidence.'* There is no justice for ghosts.

*Thanks to the kindness of the Countess of Jersey, and the obliging researches of the Chief Justice of New South Wales, I have received a transcript of the judge's notes. They are correctly analysed by Mr. Rusden.

An Australian correspondent adds another example. Long after Fisher's case, this gentleman was himself present at a trial in Maitland, New South Wales. A servant-girl had dreamed that a missing man told her who had killed him, and where his body was concealed. She, being terrified, wanted to leave the house, but her mistress made her impart the story to the chief constable, a man known to my informant, who also knew, and names, the judge who tried the case. The constable excavated at the spot pointed out in the dream, unearthed the body, and arrested the criminal, who was found guilty, confessed, and was hanged. Not a word was allowed to be said in court about the dream. All the chief constable was permitted to say was, that 'from information received' he went to Hayes's farm, and so forth.

Here, then, are two parallels to Fisher's ghost, and very hard on psychical science it is that ghostly evidence should be deliberately burked through the prejudices of lawyers. Mr. Suttar, in his 'Australian Stories Retold' (Bathurst, 1887), remarks that the ghost is not a late mythical accretion in Fisher's story. 'I have the authority of a gentleman who was intimately connected with the gentleman who had the charge of the police when the murder was done, that Farley's story did suggest the search for the body in the creek.' But Mr. Suttar thinks that Farley invented the tale as an excuse for laying information. That might apply, as has been said, to Highland witnesses in 1753, but hardly to an Englishman in Australia. Besides, if Farley knew the facts, and had the ghost to cover the guilt of peaching, WHY DID HE NOT PEACH? He only pointed to a fence, and, but for the ingenious black Sherlock Holmes, the body would never have been found. What Farley did was not what a man would do who, knowing the facts of the crime, and lured by a reward of 20 pounds, wished to play the informer under cover of a ghost-story.

The case for the ghost, then, stands thus, in my opinion. Despite the silence preserved at the trial, Farley's ghost-story was really told before the discovery of Fisher's body, and led to the finding of the body. Despite Mr. Suttar's theory (of information laid under shelter of a ghost-story), Farley really had experienced an hallucination. Mr. Rusden, who knew his doctor, speaks of his fright, and, according to the version of 1836, he was terrified into an illness. Now, the hallucination indicated the exact spot where Fisher was stricken down, and left traces of his blood, which no evidence shows to have been previously noticed. Was it, then, a fortuitous coincidence that Farley should be casually hallucinated exactly at the one spot--the rail in the fence--where Fisher had been knocked on the head? That is the question, and the state of the odds may be reckoned by the mathematician.

As to the Australian servant-girl's dream about the place where another murdered body lay, and the dreams which led to the discovery of the Red Barn and Assynt murders, and (May 1903) to the finding of the corpse of a drowned girl at Shanklin, all these may be mere guesses by the sleeping self, which is very clever at discovering lost objects.

Andrew Lang