In 1848 the author Catherine Crowe published a book called The Night Side of Nature, it was an exploration of ‘ghosts and ghost seers’. The book quickly became a bestseller and interestingly it introduced its readers to a new word – Poltergeist. Originating in Germany in the mid-19th century poltergeist came from poltern meaning to ‘create a disturbance’ and geist the German word for ghost. But when the following events occurred in Truro in 1821 the terrified public and confused journalists didn’t have the word poltergeist in their vocabulary to be able to describe what had happened, however, most believed that the town had been visited by some kind of supernatural force.
“Poltergeists present themselves as violent energies connected to a focus person . . . The paradigm of these stories is usually a family under siege by a host of alarming and unpleasant phenomena . . . “Roger Clarke, a Natural History of Ghosts, 2012
In 1820 Cornwall’s only city was expanding. A new street of houses was built leading off Lemon Street in the heart of Truro. This terrace was named after the MP Sir Charles Lemon’s ancestral home, Carclew, and at its far end the elegant houses had gardens that backed onto Strangways Terrace on the hill above. Truro’s Army Barracks were situated on this grand old street, though by all accounts they were in a poor state of repair.
There were holes in the roof and according to one account the lodgings were so overrun with fleas that many of the soldiers chose to sleep with their horses in the stables instead. The security of the barracks was also considered to be pretty poor. Without a surrounding wall the men could just wander on and off ‘base’ at will, usually heading for the Daniell Arms public house close by. It may have been for these reasons that the army were using one of the new houses on Carclew Street to store their armaments.
“Near Carclew Street, a part of the town recently built, a house has been hired as a depot in which the arms of the militia regiment of Royal Miners are deposited.”Exeter Flying Post, 26th April, 1821
The depot house was occupied by the armorer, Thomas Ashburn, his wife, Jane and their children, while next door lived a serjeant-major, possibly called Candy. On Wednesday 18th April 1821 both households had a rather sleepless night.
No Mortal Hand
It was early evening on the 18th April 1821 when the armorer was startled by the sound of breaking glass. A number of the windows of the house had been broken with stones and Ashburn ran to the front door and into the street to see if he could see the perpetrator. There was no one in sight but the stones kept coming. .
“The affrighted armorer and the serjeant-major applied to the officers resident in the town, who repaired to the spot, but although they saw the stones strike the houses and were occasionally struck themselves, every attempt to discover the person who threw them, or the precise spot from whence they came, was unavailing.”Exeter Flying Post, 26th April, 1821
The stones flew like hailstones throughout the night and the unsuccessful searches to find who was responsible continued. By morning people in the neighbourhood had begun to suspect that something unnatural was happening – “that the stones were being directed by no mortal hand.” The mayor of Truro, John Ferris Bennallack, was informed and decided to come and view the scene for himself, bringing a number of constables with him.
Stones continued to fly in all directions, some even hit the mayor and a member of his staff but they were mostly aimed at the armoury house, leaving the houses on either side apparently largely untouched. The constables assisted in a thorough search and scouts were placed on the street corners but still the cause of the strange phenomenon remained a mystery. According to the West Briton the search was given up as hopeless and yet the attacks continued so the army boarded up the smashed windows on the armoury for security.
A week later and the house on Carclew Street was still be peppered with stones and the strange rumours began to spread across Cornwall. Crowds came to view the house that was supposedly being attacked by a ghost and newspapers across England reported the events. Superstitious folks, which included the armorer Ashburn, were beside themselves with worry, the West Briton wrote:
“Some assert that the stones smell of brimstone; others that they are quite warm; and one person who resides near the place very gravely assured us that the stones continue to enter the rooms and break cups and plates etc even though the windows were barricaded and the doors shut and that a few minutes before we arrived he had heard two fall inside.”
Malevolent Spirit – The Truro Poltergeist
By the beginning of May the incidents of flying stones on Carclew Street had slowed but not stopped. Thomas Ashburn, already not in the best of health, had apparently become a nervous wreck so decided to move his wife and young children to another house. They went to the home of the army surgeon Mr Potts on Charles Street but the malevolent spirit seemed to follow. According to the Royal Cornwall Gazette on the 5th May stones came through the window of the doctor’s ‘safe house’ breaking glasses on the table and the poor Mrs. Ashburn was thrown into utter panic, saying that she believed that “something was following her”.
In fear the family returned to Carclew Street but were not left in peace for long, in fact things seemed to escalate.
“Its [the ghost’s] gambols for the evening were soon renewed by a milk jug jumping from the window bench into the middle of the room, a tea-pot splitting to pieces on the table, a tea caddy flying about and depositing its contents upon the floor, and a candlestick jumping from the chimneypiece etc . . . “Royal Cornwall Gazette, 5th May 1821
The disturbances continued like this for three weeks. At one point a pile of pins was found outside one of the downstairs windows and on another occasion a mirror was found smashed inside the house on Carclew Street despite it being locked and empty all day. The local people began looking for someone or something, anything, to blame and on Tuesday 8th May a mob reportedly chased an unfortunate elderly woman through the streets.
” . . . the poor woman was hunted through the Truro streets last Tuesday, by a pack of boys and girls, who declared their intention of tearing her dress and drawing her blood, that she might have no power over them!”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 12th May 1821
Although many insisted that the goings-on were being directed by some ‘supernatural agency’ or by ‘witchery’ the newspapers and local officials began to suspect a hoax. Some journalists implied that it was the working class of Cornwall letting their imaginations run away with them, that the activity was just criminal mischief or a nasty prank. But the fact remained that despite intensive searching by the soldiers and police constables no human cause had been found . . . yet.
A Surprising Discovery
Serjeant Thomas Ashburn, the armorer in charge of the house on Carclew Street, had been an uncommissioned officer in the Royal Miners Militia but had been seriously injured while in Portugal in about 1810. His head injury had been so severe that he was left with a misshapen skull, a large indent that caused him constant pain and brought on fits.
By April 1821 he had been the armorer in Truro for 11 years and had six children. Edward was seventeen, Thomas, sixteen, Jane, 6, Peggy, 5, John, 3 and Henry was just 7 weeks old.
A few years before the events of 1821 the two eldest boys, Edward and Thomas, had been sent away to work in a cotton factory in Preston, Lancashire. They had lived with their maternal grandmother and life there had been incredibly hard for them. The boys found themselves working 15 hour days in terrible conditions. In fact, on top of the hard labour of the factory work, it seems as if their grandmother had also been mistreating them because when they arrived home to Cornwall sometime in 1820 they were both malnourished and very small for their age.
On the 12th May 1821 nearly a month after the strange incidents had started, a long letter, running to three columns, appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette. It had been written by L. H. Potts, surgeon to the Royal Miners Militia, the doctor that the family had tried to stay with on Charles Street.
Potts confirmed what had long been suspected in the newspapers – that the poltergeist was a hoax. The sixteen year old Thomas Ashburn Jnr had admitted to everything. He claimed that his mother often beat him and the other children with a poker and he had decided to play some tricks to scare her.
Thomas was agile, quick and clever. He described to Potts how he had climbed over hedges and walls to escape detection and had hidden stones in his mouth or his pockets, only throwing them around the room when he was sure no one was looking. He said he had taken his father’s keys to gain entry to the house on Carclew Street in order to leave stones inside, move objects and break the mirror when everyone was out. His father’s belief in the supernatural had only served to make sure the whole game got completely out of control.
After this announcement the newspapers gloated about how right they had been and made derogatory comments about the foolish and backward thinking of the lower classes. As far as they and the authorities were concerned the mystery was solved. There was no mystery.
Although the explanation that Thomas Ashburn Jnr was to blame for what occurred on Carclew Street that spring in 1821, rather than a poltergeist, is the most obvious one, I find I am left with a few questions. Thomas’ confession, or at least the one published in the paper, did not really explain all the strange happenings in the house. Unless events had been wildly exaggerated in the press it is hard to believe that Thomas could have been responsible for it all – peppering the house with stones unseen, even striking the mayor in the street and most confusingly of all making objects move about the room without anyone seeing him. Also I find it somewhat unlikely that a sixteen year old boy could hide himself so well while soldiers and police turn the neighbourhood upside down looking for the culprit. He claims that he acted alone yet witnesses stated that he was actually inside the house when some of the rocks were being thrown.
Then there is his behaviour just a couple of days before the confession. The surgeon Potts writes in his letter to the paper that he had been asked to attend the boy, who had been taken ill at a nearby bakery while on an errand for his mother. When the doctor found him he was in a trance-like, frozen state and Potts concluded that he was faking the behaviour for sympathy. But what if he wasn’t?
It makes sense that Thomas Jnr was angry with his parents, not only for the beatings but also for sending him away to Lancashire, however was he really responsible for the strange events on Carclew Street? Or was there something more sinister taking place? Could this have been paranormal . . . poltergeist activity? I suppose it really depends on what you believe is possible . . .
After the newspapers had all finished congratulating themselves on unveiling the hoax the Ashburn family disappeared back into anonymity and the house on Carclew Street has remained quiet . . . as far as I know anyway.