It was a dark and stormy night, less than a month before Halloween, when the leading story in The Examiner volleyed the first chilling claim of the morbidly resurrected: “It may startle our readers to advance such an opinion, but really the most vivacious persons, now living, and making the most noise in the world, seem to be dead men” (561).
Indeed, in the frosty days of fall, dead statesmen were top news for England’s press. It seemed that nary a dead man could refrain from leaving his grave to wreak new havoc on the world. Louis Alexandre Berthier, for example, was reported dead by the Dresden newspapers, only to reemerge a week later as the Major-General of Napoleon’s French armies. Napoleon himself, The Examiner declared, “was assassinated many years back, since which time he has more than once met his death in a similar way, and is now, with a want of sympathy hardly to be expected in a dead man, preparing for new scenes of slaughter in Germany” (561). Even the late Queen of France (actually confirmed dead) was sending letters from beyond the grave, urging her nephew, the Austrian Emperor, to take up arms against Napoleon. Of course, as The Examiner asserts, these politicized ghost stories were often just a hoax – the result of rumor or sloppy journalism gone awry. At least, this seemed to be true in every case but one: the unexplained sightings of former Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger.
William Pitt, heralded by Wilberforce and others as one of England’s greatest Prime Ministers, had died in 1806. But by August of1813, reports were circulating that Mr. Pitt had been seen alive and well, strolling through the streets of London in his characteristic leather-breeches. (And in case you’re wondering what Mr. Pitt’s “characteristic leather-breeches” looked like, here’s an extremely unhelpful portrait):
One surprised witness, a Mr. Francis Murray, immediately launched rumors of Mr. Pitt’s resurrection. The story goes something like this: Murray was a tradesman in Westminster and had been employed by Mr. Pitt for twenty years before his death. One day, while passing along London-road, he met Mr. Pitt riding on horseback. Murray was so convinced he had seen Mr. Pitt (or his apparition) that he became obsessed with discovering the truth of the matter and began to “stalk” the ghost. He traced the apparition to Richardson’s stable-yard in Westminster road, where he heard Pitt’s ghost addressed by the name of “Chapman.” Convinced that this was only an alias, and that the man he was following must be some incarnation of Mr. Pitt, he determined to speak with him. After several days of following him around the city, Murray finally got up the nerve to publicly accost the ghost as he lingered in the doorway of Lord Castlereagh’s Office in St. James’s Park. Somewhat fatigued and looking a bit maniacal (undoubtedly from the hardships of his stalking), Murray accused the specter of being “the Right Honorable William Pitt.” Upon hearing this accusation, Chapman apparently “looked exceedingly terrified, and hastened indoors without speaking a word” (560). Murray publicly repeated these accusations several times in the ensuing months, and even ventured to request that Pitt pay him the sum of 30l. (an amount that Pitt had the audacity to owe Murray at the time of his passing). Chapman/Pitt, sufficiently unhinged by Murray’s persistence, paid the sum and even promised to procure him a place, if he would cease to molest him (though Murray complained he never kept his word).
Incensed and desperate, Murray solicited the help of a Mr. Whitbread – and this is where the ghost story begins to resemble a conspiracy theory. Mr. Whitbread handed the problem over to one of his friends in Parliament (someone who could identify Pitt), and asked him to attend Murray. So Murray took the gentleman to confront Mr. Pitt and, having pointed him out, watched as the gentleman walked across the square and called out “For God’s sake turn back, turn back, Sir, you are discovered!” (562). Horrified, Murray returned to Mr. Whitbread and insisted that he get involved to help him prove the “resurrection” of Pitt. Mr. Whitbread finally agreed to meet Pitt’s “ghost.” But, of course, after meeting Chapman, Whitbread declared that he was, in fact, not the honorable Mr. Pitt. He claimed, in writing, that Mr. Chapman was considerably shorter than Pitt, though he did confess that Chapman bore a striking resemblance to the deceased and that his penchant for leather-breeches only enhanced these similarities (apparently Pitt really loved the leather-breeches). Murray, however, continued to insist that Pitt had returned from the grave.
There are two things to note about this story:
First, The Examiner was quite invested in proving that the ghost story was false. They claimed:
We have been in the habit, it is true, of talking of a kind of metaphorical existence of his, – of saying that he survived in his measures, and was manifest in such and such a proceeding, but the most enthusiastic even of those who called him “immortal,” would never have expected to hear of him in propria persona, taking the air as if nothing had happened, or walking up Downing Street in a pair of posthumous leather-breeches…our readers will see at a glance the whole history of this absurdity. (561)
There is, it would seem, something profoundly unsettling about a great man – a man who has received his fair share of historical glory and whom the world has properly placed in his grave – actually appearing reincarnate.
Second, rumors of Pitt’s “resurrection” came on the heels of the erection of a monument in Westminster Abbey dedicated to his memory. The Examiner describes the monument as depicting Mr. Pitt in the midst of delivering a speech, attended by two figures: the allegorical personifications of Anarchy and History. Anarchy, depicted as a strong, muscled figure with tortuously snaked hair and chained arms, signified Pitt’s suppression of the revolutionary fervor which threatened to emerge from England’s fringes during the French Revolution. History, a graceful female attendant, gazes upon the Minister, about to record his transactions on her tablet. This, at least, is how The Examiner describes it. (see image below)
Considering that these two stories (Pitt as ghost and as monument) appear back-to-back in The Examiner, one might wonder how the two are connected. In other words, we might consider how ghosts affect society’s penchant for transforming great statesmen into great statuary. What is it about death that inspires us to carve things into rocks? Do we envision death as a kind of quick-dry cement? Do we imagine that there is some immortal ghost waiting to be extracted from every desiccated corpse? What seems ironic, then, is how monuments aren’t ghostly. Rather, they give weight and substance to something ethereal; they represent an attempt to encase memory in material form. Murray’s account of Pitt’s ghost disrupts the monumentalizing imagination; it offers a revision to what had literally been written in stone. Instead of a heroic ideal, Murray gives us a man of cowardly deception. So maybe the only reason we get to have monuments is because we don’t have ghosts. Ironically then, our attempt to immortalize great men seems to be secretly founded on a desperate belief in man’s absolute mortality – a conviction that he won’t be able to come back and contradict our material projection of him.
But what do you think about this little ghost story? How else might we think about monuments, memory, and ghosts?
The Examiner: 1813, vol. 6 (London: Pickering, 1996), 560-562.