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Haunted Bones: The Screaming Skulls
Haunted human remains are a trope popular in modern horror, from the twisted ivory puppet in the House on Haunted Hill to the skeletal corpses, floating in the swimming pool of Poltergeist, human bones have long held a place of fear, worship and power throughout history and cultures, eventually manifesting within the horror genre of the 20th Century. At the time of the English Civil War, the whisperings of an emergent folk tradition seeded its place in the popular imagination, when stories of skulls with seemingly supernatural powers began to seep from the large, rural manor houses throughout Britain. Screaming Skulls, as they became known, were kept in farm houses, rectories and family estates both for protection and through fear of what might happen if they were mistreated, a situation which sent stories spinning through the local vicinity. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Medieval Skulls, Holy Relics & The Oral Traditions of the 17th Century
Throughout history, heads have been removed and put on display, both as ritual and as a warning to others. As the seat of power within a living human, the head was seen as performing a very special function and in various cultures has become an object of worship. The vessel of a sacred force or the driving force behind each and every individual, the skull was an object to be revered and feared. One of the strongest shows of victory over an enemy was to spike the head for triumphant display, whilst the most valuable sacrifice could come from ritual beheading. At the same time, the guardian power of the skull rose up in parallel, with the bones of ancestors kept for protection and magic or sold for ingredients in powerful potions. In the medieval period, the skulls of saints were worshipped across Europe, whilst various trinkets were used to impart good luck upon the owners of a newly built, or renovated house. Witch potions, horses skulls, live cats and magical runes have all, at one time or another, been used to ward off evil spirits or to protect a household and in time, the ultimate of these trinkets became the human skull, expanding from the practice of saintly worship to a less exclusive audience.
In a mix of pagan religions, ancestor worship, oral folklore and modern twists of ghosts and spirits, the skull has had a long and tangled past, though always given a position of some veneration. One of the more bizarre folk traditions that seemed to surface during the 17th century was the creation of the screaming skull. The bones of a dead ancestor, or departed tenant of a certain house, usually the largest, most well historied manor of an area, became an item of some curiosity. Imparting protection upon those it favoured and striking misfortune upon those who disobeyed its wishes, the screaming skulls blossomed in oral traditions throughout the period.
Writing in 1999, academic David Clarke identified thirty-two such stories of screaming skulls that existed throughout the British Isles. Some skulls were far more famous than others. Some had much more robust backstories than others and some were just plain weird. What they all had in common was a story dating back many hundreds of years and though their wailing may have often been absent, their various other supernatural powers were not. In most cases, the living, breathing, owner of the skull had passed from life through some form of violence or unkindness, often with traumatic leanings and had, before departing the mortal coil, wished for their remains to be kept upon the premises, for one reason or another. The legends then grew around the skull and the fortunes it brings to those that comply, or misfortune it brings down upon to those that chose to ignore these dying wishes.
Dickie of Tunstead Farm & Victorian Literature
One of the earliest documented reports of a screaming skull from the 19th Century is also one of the most famous today and concerns a skull known as “Dickie”, who lives on a window sill in Tunstead Farm in the County of Derbyshire, deep in the Peak District, an area of National Parklands, perched at the foot of the Pennines, to the South of Manchester. Records of the farm exist dating it back as early as 1216 and through its life it has played host to as venerable tenants as Francis Tunstead, Gamekeeper to the King. In the nearby area, remains of a bronze age settlement lie in the ruins of an ancient stone circle. For hundreds of years, the farmhouse changed family ownership only on a couple of occasions, the Tunsteads holding it as part of their estate for over three hundred years, before it found its way to the Brocklehurst family in the 17th Century, who held it for a further century. In 1809, whilst writing his travel book of sorts, John Hutchinson brought the skull to wider attention when his “Tour through the High Peak of Derbyshire” was published.
“Having heard a singular account of a human skull being preserved in a house at Tunstead, near the above place, and which was said to be haunted, curiosity induced me to deviate a little, for the purpose of making some enquiries respecting these natural and supernatural appearances.”
“That there are three parts of a human skull in the house is certain, and which I traced to have remained on the premises for near two centuries past, during all the revolutions of owners and tenants in that time. As to the truth of the supernatural appearance, it is not my design either to affirm or contradict:- Though I have been informed by a credible person, a Mr Adam Fox, who was brought up in the house, that he has not only repeatedly heard singular noises, and observed very extraordinary circumstances, but can produce fifty persons, within the parish, who have seen an apparition at this place.”
The skull, however, he reassured readers, was seen as something of a “Guardian Spirit”, never disturbing the owners of the house unless to warn them of approaching death and illness. The skull apparently appeared to only “shew its resentment” when it was “spoken of with disrespect, or when it’s own awful memorial of mortality is removed.” Hutchinson recorded two occasions when the skull had been removed from the Farm House, once during renovation work and a second time when it was buried in a nearby church yard, at which point the skull gave the house “no peace” and “no rest” until it was returned. The skull, he was told, was named DIckie, though the question as to why the owners believed it to be that of a female and yet it had been christened with a male name was not lost on the curious author. The skulls origins were mired in vague oral traditions, but Hutchinson related a story that it had belonged to one of the houses previous Heiresses who had been murdered and requested that her bones should remain in the property forever.
Later investigation into the skull found that Hutchinson had only heard half of the story. In fact Dickie had been taken to the church yard and buried on two different occasions, on both however, disturbances kept the tenants of the house awake all night until it was returned and once, it had been tossed into a nearby lake, only to the same end that saw all the fish dead and the skull being promptly fished back out and put back on the window sill in a downstairs room with a view across the farmland, known affectionately as “Dickies Land”. As for the origins, the story told by Hutchinson was quickly superseded by another tale that said the skull original owner had been one Ned Dixon, a soldier who had lived on the farm during the sixteenth Century. Ned left Derbyshire and travelled to France to fight in the French Wars of Religion, taking place throughout the latter half of the century when Catholics and Huguenots lived in a prolonged state of conflict. During the fighting, at the Battle of Ivry, Ned found himself severely wounded when he threw himself on the line in order to save Lord Willoughby. After this premature exit from the fighting, Ned returned home to Tunstead Farm, to find that his cousin, Jack Johnson and his wife had taken control of the farm, presuming Ned to be dead. Not willing to give up their new found status as home owners so easily, they invited Ned to stay the night and then killed him in his sleep, burying him in secret.
It was not all sunshine and rainbows on the farm, however and soona after Neds murder, the livestock was said to fall ill, crops failed and unnacountable noises rattled throughout the farmhouse at night. The couple were advised to seek the help of an old wisewoman, who told them they should dig up neds body and keep his skull within the confines of the house, telling them that “he will then feel he has got his fair share.” The pair took the advice and just as the woman had told, peace returned to the farm.
It works as a nie origin story, however sadly for the facts, the Dixons did not actually live on the farm during the time the story is set, suggesting that at least some embellishment has been made to the story, if not fabricated entirely. When the skull was later inspected and said to have belonged to a young woman, the story variously changed to having belonged to a witch, who once lived on the farm and a young lady tenant who had lived on the farm with her sister and upon her deathbed, she wished for her bones to remain in the house forever. After her death, the house fell to a spat of hauntings, until the skull was dug up and placed on the window sill of the room the lady was said to have passed away in. This story dovetails nicely with several stories of a ghostly vision said to have been seen all over the farm, of a young lady. One tale tells of how an owner in the late 1800s was sitting in a chair in the downstairs room when a woman he presumed was a maid came down the stairs and moved over to the fireplace to his child’s crib. Upon seeing the woman approach the child, the man warned her to be quiet as to not wake it and mentioned they would soon be going upstairs to bed. As he spoke, however, the woman simply disappeared. Soon after the baby passed away and the vision was attributed to Dickie and considered a warning of the coming illness.
For as much as the origins of the skull are muddled, the stories told of what would happen if the skull were to be removed, or disrespected in any way, are far from it. Dickie watches over the land with a keen eye and at night, people are said to have been followed across the farm by a black dog attributed to the skull that disappears into the hillsides once the farm boundaries are left. When an old merchant was riding a wagon loaded with hay was foolish enough to swear upon dickies name, he found his cart toppled over. Voices are heard on the wind all around the farm and on at least one occasion, though the stories suggest it may have happened twice, when the skull was stolen from the frm and taken to Manchester, the disturbances laid out upon the thieves was so great, including “deafening and fearful noises” that the thieves returned the skull voluntarily.
A guardian for the farm, a ghostly visage and a prankster with a dark sense of humour to those that paid little respect, Dickie is widely known and highly spoken of throughout the local area, but the skulls greatest claim was cemented in 1863, when the London and Northwestern Railroad proposed to construct a new rail line straight through the middle of Dickies Land. Dickie, none too keen on this idea, took it upon himself to sink the bridge that was marked to carry the track repeatedly into the surrounding marshland until the railway were forced to reconsider and rebuild a new bridge, diverting the line around the farm. This event saw Dickie immortalised, both in local legend as the bridge became known as “Dickies Bridge” and in song, when a ballad was written of the exploit by Samuel Laycock and published in newspapers throughout July of 1863.
“Neaw, Dickie, be quiet wi’thee, lad,
A’let navvies an’ railways a be;
Moa, tha shouldn’t do soa, — it’s to’bad,
What harm are they doin’ to thee?
Deod folk shouldn’t meddle at o’,
But leov o’ these matters to th’ wick;
They’ll see they’re done gradelen an know,-
Dos’t yer what aw say to thee, Dick?
New dunna go spoil ‘em i’ th’ dark
What’s cost so mich labber an’ thowt;
Iv tha’ll let ‘em go on wi’ their wark,
Tha shail ride drawn to Buxton for nowt;
An’ be a “director” too, mon;
Get thi beef an’ thi bottles o’ wine,
An’ mak’ as much brass as tha con
Eawt o’ th’ London an’ North Western Line.
Awm surprised, Dick, at thee bein’ here;
Heaw is it tha’rt noan i’ thi grave?
Ar’t come eawt o’ gettin’ thi beer,
Or havin’ a bit ov a shave?
But that’s noan thi business, aw deawt,
For tha hasn’t a nair o’ thi yed;
Hast a wife an’ some childer abeawt?
When tha’rn living up here wurt wed?
New, spake, or else let it a be,
An’ dunna be lookin’ soa shy;
Tha needn’t be freeten’d o’ me,
Aw shail say nowt abeawt it, not I!
It’ll noan matter mich iv aw do,
It can do thee no harm iv I tell.
Mon there’s moor folk nor thee bin a foo’,
Aw’ve a wife an’ some childer misel’.
Heaw’s business below; is it slack?
Dos’t yer? Awm noan chaffin thee, mon;
But aw reckn ‘at when tha goes back
Toa’ll do me o’ th’ hurt s tha con.
Neaw dunna do, that’s a good lad,
For awm freeten’d to depth very nee,
An’ ewar betty, poor lass’ hoo’d go mad
Iv aw wur to happen to dee!
When awm cleaver’d upo’ th’ hearston’ awhoam,
Awm inclined, very often, to boast;
An awm noan hawve as feart as some,
But aw don’t loike to talk to a ghost.
So, Dickie, awve written this song,
An’ aw trust it’ll find thee o’ reet;
Look it o’er when tha’rt noan very throng,
An’ tha’ll greatly oblige me, — good neet.
P.S – I’v tha’rt wanton’ to send a reply,
Aw can gi’e thee mi place ov abode.
It’s reet under Dukinfilt sky,
At thirty nine, Cueetham Hill Road.
Awm awfully freeten’d dos’t seem
Or else aw’d invite thee to come,
An’ ewar Betty, hoo’s softer nor me,
So aw’d rather tha’d tarry awhoam.”
Stories of Dickie persisted right up through the 20th Century, until, at some point in the 1980’s, it simply disappeared after the house changed ownership several times. The last owners to have spoken about the skull when asked simply stated they had no idea of its existence on the farm and had never seen it since their arrival.
Dickie may have been one of the most famous 19th Century accounts of a screaming skull, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. By the Victorian era, stories slowly seeped out of the woodwork in antiquarian journals and esoteric publications on local history, one such account being that of the mysterious skull of Burton Agnes Hall.
The Skull of Burton Agnes hall
Standing proudly in the centre of acres of long, flat farmland in the Eastern extremity of Yorkshire, sixty miles to the North East of Leeds, in Northern England. The first dwelling to have been built at the site of Burton Agnes Hall, a large, grand old mansion built of imposing red brick, was the smaller, original manor house, owned by Roger de Stuteville in 1173. Since this time, the estate, now vastly expanded upon over the centuries, has passed down through generations without once being sold to anyone outside of the family. Home to a towering gatehouse, two listed buildings and sprawling grounds with included woodland, the old Manor has a more mysterious secret, bricked away within its walls, in the form of a screaming skull.
Oral traditions in the area tell that the skull comes from one of the daughters of Sir Henry, who owned the hall at the turn of the seventeenth Century and who passed away in 1620. Sir Henry had three daughters, named Frances, Margaret and Catherine, better known by her birth name, Anne. IAt the turn of the seventeenth Century, a large Red Brick hall was built onto the property, a project which Anne was said to have been passionately involved in. Shortly after the completion of the building works, however, Anne was attacked, robbed and left for dead by two beggars whilst visiting family in a nearby village. On her deathbed, she told her surviving sisters that she wished for her head to be removed from her body and stored in a table within the newly built hall and the sisters nodded along, assuring her they would keep the promise. After Ane passed, the sisters discarded this macabre concept and opted instead to bury their sister like most normal families would do. This disobeying of Anne’s final wish was soon the focus of regret, when loud bangs, knocking sounds and disturbances were heard all throughout the night. The sisters visited a local priest and told them of their sisters’ wish and upon his advice, arranged to have Annes body exhumed and her head removed, in order for them to place her skull in the Hall, as she had wished. Once the process had been carried out, the disturbances at once fell quiet.
The skull has been removed on only two documented occasions over the centuries, first by a housemaid who upon taking a disliking to the skull, tossed it out the window onto a passing manure cart. As soon as the skull landed in the back of the wagon, however, the pulling horses stopped in their tracks and refused to budge another inch until the skull was removed and returned to its rightful place in the hall. The second time it was removed was much later after the Boyntons inherited the property. Feeling the skull might be better off buried, they sunk it into the earth in the grounds of the house, however, this only lead to more disturbances throughout the nights,
“The most dismal wailings and cries kept the house in a state of disquietude and alarm until it was dug up and restored to its place in the hall, when they ceased.”
The last of the Boyntons to own the hall in the mid 20th Century put an end to the skulls public presence by choosing to brick the skull up in a secret location, behind a wall in the house, rather than remove it entirely. Rumours suggest that it is stored safely in a small custom built cubby hole behind the fireplace in the Queens State Bedroom, in the Northern Wing of the house, a room which is said to be haunted by a ghostly image of Anne, known as “Old Nance”. This location is disputed locally, however and an old builder who remembers the work undertaken to brick up the skull believes it to have been above a doorway somewhere “in an upper passage.”
The story attached to the skull of Burton Agnes Hall, is, like many others, very neat and tidy, until one investigates the history behind the names mentioned, as was the case with Anne, who was promptly found to not exist in any records for the family. Sir Henry did at one point have three sons and two daughters, though none were called Catherine, nor Anne and only two, a daughter named Frances and a son named Henry, made it to their teenage years alive. The records are not complete, however and a teaser for the oral tradition does exist in the form of a portrait hung in the hall, dated 1620, of three women, one of which is Frances, and one, presumably Anne, who is wearing black, suggesting that the portrait was painted posthumously. The mystery behind the skulls ownership is an interesting twist that walks in a grey area between oral tradition and recorded history and not completely answered either way.
By the late 19th Century, folklore surrounding screaming skulls became far more prominent, centered upon two stories, which were brought to public attention through the publication of an 1874 edition of the popular quarterly “Notes and Queries”, a scholarly journal published four times a year since 1849, where all manner of literary, historical and antiquarian matters are discussed via readers submissions. In this particular issue, a writer told the tale of a skull in Dorset, which prompted the reply of another reader who questioned the first, suspecting he may have the story confused, as he knew of a skull just like the one described, but that this skull lay in a house in nearby Somerset. What followed was the uncovering of two tales, now widely known and commonly referred to as the skulls of Theophilus Broome and of Bettiscombe Manor.
The Head of Theophilus Brome
The Parish of Chilton-Cantelo, a tiny hamlet consisting of around thirty houses, lying near the outskirts of Somerton, twenty miles to the East of the town of Taunton and five miles North of Yeovil in Somerset, is a small collection of old, grey stone houses, in the centre of which stands the Church of St James, a small cross shaped building, whose tower dates from the early 15th Century, though the lower sections date back much earlier. Lying to the rear of the building, a small churchyard is home to a handful of headstones, many of which are now transplanted from their original standing place and propped up against the back of the church building itself. In the late 18th Century, at the entrance to a crypt lying beneath the Northernmost corner of the church itself is an aged piece of carved Limestone, into which, a coat of arms adorned with three sprigs of Broom is chiselled into the worn surface. Below the Arms, the inscription reads,
“Here lyeth the body of Thephilius Brome, of the Bromes, of the house of Woodlowes, neere Warwick towne in the County of Warwick; who deceased the 18th of August 1670, aged 69. A man just in the actions of his life; true to his friends; Forgave those that wronged him; and dyed in peace.”
The crypt would be otherwise unassuming, the contents long decayed and forgotten, if not of course, for the fact that the body inside was buried, as per Brooms instructions, without his head.
“There is a tradition in this Parish, that the person here interred, requested that his head might be taken off before his burial, and be preserved at the farm house near the church, where a head, chop-fallen enough, is still shewn, which the tenants of the house have often endeavoured to commit to the bowels of the earth, but have been as often deterred by horrid noises, portentive of sad displeasure; and about twenty years since (which perhaps, was the last attempt) the sexton, in digging the place for the skulls repository, broke his spade in two pieces, and uttered a solemn asseveration never more to attempt an act so evidently repugnant to the quiet of Bromes head!”
Broome’s story is once more a messy tangle of oral tradition, eventually committed to paper in “History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset” in 1791, by a Reverend and historian named John Collinson, published just two years before his untimely death at the age of only 36. The earlier and lasting oral story follows that before his death in 1670, Broome had been an active Royalist, fighting in the English Civil War during the 1640s, but upon witnessing the horrid crimes of his fellow soldiers, defected to the side of the roundheads, who fought for the parliamentarians against the “divine right of the kings” to rule the country. One of the more twisted practices carried out at the time, was for the royalists to behead the most traitorous victims and mount the heads on spikes as trophies to warn others against opposing their might. Probably the most famous example of this was the head of Oliver Cromwell, the man who had taken over the commonwealth after the end of the Civil War, who died in 1658. When the King returned from exile in 1661, he had Cromwell’s body exhumed, taken to Tyburn Gallows, the principal place for hangings of London’s criminals for over 250 years. Once his body arrived, it was hanged for several hours before being cut down, Cromwell’s head was then removed and placed on a twenty foot tall spike above Westminster Hall, where it lived for almost thirty years, before being blown down in a storm.
In 1670, when the skull was still firmly on display and Broome lay on his deathbed in a dim bedroom of Higher Farm cottage in Chilton-Cantelo, he insisted to his sister that before his burial, his head should be removed and kept within the old farm house to ensure that if any lingering Royalists were to exhume his body, they would be unable to find a head and therefore, unable to mount it as a trophy.
Today, Broomes skull sits in a cabinet in the old farm house of Higher Farm, which has remained under ownership by the same family for multiple generations, opposite the church that sits atop the rest of his body, entombed in its crypt. The current owners also hold a manuscript that dates back to 1829, which contains statements from various parishioners throughout the years confirming the traditions of the skull and relating tales of its supernatural history. One story within the manuscript, added by Ann Dunman appears to be a version of the story published in 1791, by Collinson.
“Farmer Priddle and Edward Flooks remembered when the Scull [sic] was brought down
Stairs and put in the Cupboard. Edward Flooks went to Yeovil and bought a new Spade, and went to his Relation, Mr Clarke, who said ‘now Uncle Doctor, let us go and bury the Scull,
When we have had a crust of bread and cheese’ he said he would not; but after sometime he went,but with an ill will, to bury it in the Churchyard. The Spade broke off at the first spit,
And so they took it back again, he thought it presumptuous to attempt it, as the Man had begged that some part might be buried there and the rest in some other places.”
Interestingly, the part of this story that speaks of Broomes burial, suggests that Broome was buried in several parts. This is likely a reference to an oral tale that surrounded the skull that believed Broomes body to have been separated, with parts buried in three different locations, however, we know this to be untrue, as Broomes crypt has since been opened during restoration work at the church, undertaken in the 18th Century and his body documented as remaining whole, minus the head.
Over the years, several other tales of attempts to reunite the skull with the body in the crypt have been made, all apparently being thwarted by disturbances thought to have been attributed to the skull. Interestingly, in 1826, during renovations carried out on the farmhouse, the builders were said to have drunk beer from the skull, using it like some form of twisted goblet, with no detrimental effects. Renowned parapsychologist and author, Peter Underwood, who wrote on the skull in 1988 in his book “Ghosts of Dorset”, theorised that this story only strengthened the claims that the skull only let out screams, or caused paranormal activity to take place if any attempts to reunite it with its body were to be made. Broome, after all, never stipulated that his skull should not be used as a drinking vessel.
Contrary to this, however, Underwood then goes on to tell a story involving two journalists who were said to have visited the skull in 1977 and who were said to have questioned its authenticity. On their return trip to London, the journalists wound up in a car accident that saw the driver injured, whilst the passenger later suffered severe burns from dropping a match into the hem of his trousers as he attempted to light a cigarette. Sadly there exists no evidence that any of this story is little more than an extension of the oral folklore that surrounds the skull.
Whilst the current owner does not believe in the stories that the skull causes any disturbances, telling academic and historian, David Clarke, in 1998 that he “had always been a quiet and respected gentleman,” he does believe that the skull brings protection and good luck to the family, provided it is left alone and not mishandled.
The Bettiscombe Skull
The tale of the second skull mentioned in 1874’s “Notes and Queries” is that of the original submission that prompted the story of Theophilus Brome to be retold and is perhaps one of the most famous of the skull cases, over the years becoming archetypal of the particular skull genre.
Lying 6 miles to the North-West of Bridport, Bettiscombe Manor sits at the feet of ‘Sliding Hill’. It’s a large “U” shaped brick and stone house, rebuilt on the ancient land in 1694 and owned by a singular family, the Pinneys, for a handful of generations. Previously, the site had seen both an ancient Roman Fort and, during medieval times, a settlement owned by an enclave of monks from Normandy. The earliest oral traditions of the skull were first put to print in 1847, when Mrs Anna Maria Pinney, the wife of the then owner of the house, uncovered a series of writings on the subject in family papers and arranged for a visit to the house to see the skull for herself.
“…Mrs Groves of the farm, politely took us over the whole, and on opening a long dark cupboard upstairs, said, not very mysteriously! “As you know ma’am all about Bettiscombe, of course you have heard of the “Skull of Bettiscombe House”, [and] from the depths of the closet she produced a white and perfect human skull! — While this skull is kept here no ghost
will ever infest Bettiscombe House”, said Mrs G, to which I added, “I thought it very probable, though I was beginning to feel myself rather like a being of another century in that dwelling…”
The story was then later built upon in 1874 when Judge and Antiquarian John Udal wrote a letter to “notes and Queries” describing the story, which, in a follow up from one Doctor Goodford, was then linked back to the previous skull story of Chilton-Cantelo, when he wrote to ask if Udal had not mistaken the name of the skulls home.
“At a farmhouse in Dorsetshire at the present time, is carefully preserved a human skull, which has been there for a period long antecedent to the present tenancy. The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year. It is strangely suggestive of the power of this superstition that through many changes of tenancy and furniture the skull still holds its accustomed place “unmoved and unremoved!”
Udal assured him in a further reply that he had the name of the Manor House correct, and further went on to furnish Goodford with his account of the skulls origin. Through this and one other account of the skull, the origin story is two-fold and one story is quite different to the other. The first tells of Azariah Pinney, a seventeenth century owner of the Manor, who had been transported to the island of Nevis in the West-Indies after he had been convicted of High Treason in Dorchester in September of 1685 following the failure of the Monmouth Rebellion, a military coup attempted by the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of the king popular in the West Country, where contempt for the situation was still rife after the conclusion of the Civil War. Pinney had been tried along with 250 other men and was one of 13 who were sentenced to execution in Bridport, though it appears that this sentence was later commuted in favour of transportation and forced labour, as the story goes on to relate that Pinney, having won, or more likely, bought his freedom in Nevis, living as an exile rather than convict labour, set himself up on a sugar plantation which quickly prospered.
Azariah’s son, John Pinney returned to England in the late 17th Century and in tow, brought along with him a faithful slave who had been employed on the plantation, whom he had named “old Bettiscombe”. The slave, however, was far from a free man in England, and John Pinney was said to have kept him in a small cupboard and fed by having his food pushed through the bars of an iron grille that fronted the enclosure. Upon the slaves deathbed, he made a wish that his body might be laid to rest in “in his native land” and that if this wish were to be ignored, then the house would have no peace.
This version of the story seems to have persisted throughout the history of the skull, with various retellings and embellishments through various oral transitions. At times, the slave was a man of noble birth and others a simple plantation hand who had served the Pinney family faithfully and journeyed to England with John Pinney of his own free will. Either way, the story is unlikely to be true, as it turned out, that when the skull was inspected by Dr Gilbert Causey, the Professor of Human and Comparative Anatomy of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1963, he found the skull to be that of a woman.
“The skull is complete except for the mandible and a break in the left zygomatic arch. The whole bone structure is rather lightly made and the muscle markings are not prominent. It is probably a female skull aged between twenty five and thirty years, probably nearer thirty… I think all these quantitative data lead to just one conclusion; that this is a normal European skull, a bit small in its overall dimensions, but certainly not negroid.”
This finding did, however, tally much better with Udals second theory of the skull. The second origin story had once again been the subject of oral tradition in the area and Udal had heard it told that the skull had belonged to a murdered woman who had been kept confined within a hastily made cell in the attic of the house.
More modern theories exist, and some propose that it is ancient in origin, dating back as far as the Celts and was perhaps buried as part of a ritual in a nearby hillfort or spring, on account of the discolouration of the bone. Of course, stories have since sprung up about this too, claiming that the skull was dug up from the spring as part of a “foundation sacrifice” when the house was rebuilt in 1694, or that it was unearthed during the building works and kept as a good luck charm.
However the skull came to be, it has genuinely stood in the house for several hundred years. It’s original home was said to be atop a rafter by the attic, but when that was removed, it was kept in a box, secreted away in a small cubby hole within the attic itself, which is where Udal saw the skull for himself in the mid 1880s,
“Its surroundings were certainly of a character to add to the mystery of its existence there. The dark attic extended over the entire area of the house ; the floor was in a very unsound and unsafe condition, and evidently, from its appearance, had long been the home of bats, owls, and other ” fearful fowl,” for which easy access was afforded by the many openings in the ancient, massive, and dilapidated stone-tiled roof ; to say nothing of a nest of young birds I myself discovered close to the skull’s resting-place.”
Holed up towards the rear of the attic, behind a small partition wall and through a small, poorly constructed doorway, the skull sits in a chamber room 15ft by 12ft, next to a small brick fireplace in the chimney breast. Within its time at the house, it has had various stories attached to both its guardian powers of protection and of powers less benevolent. Primary among the latter, is the idea that if one were to attempt to remove the skull from the house, they would die within one year, a story attested to by visitors to the Manor in the mid 20th Century, when the son of a former tenant of the house paid the skull a visit from Australia, telling the Pinney family that he had grown up hearing stories of the skull from his mother. His father, he said, had been a former tenant of the house before the family had emigrated, who, during a lively Christmas Party, had tossed the skull into a nearby duck pond. The following morning, the skull mysteriously reappeared on the manors doorstep. The family had forgotten all about the skull and Bettiscombe was a distant memory, when the father died shortly after landing in Australia. The visitor told the pinneys that his mother had brought him up with the story, convinced that his father had been cursed by the skull.
This story may sound far fetched, however, it is given further credence, or at least, can be tied back to a story related by Udal in 1910, who said that he had heard a story of a former tenant who had thrown the skull into the duck pond, only to be seen fishing it out, two days later after he had suffered “a bad time of it” and had been “disturbed by all kinds of noises!” Though in this version, it has obvious differences, namely that the skull was fished out, rather than mysteriously appearing on the doorstep. In fact, the skull being thrown into the water is a common theme as the very earliest oral traditions of the skulls, said to date back to the 1770’s, told of the skull being thrown into a lake and until returned to the house two days later, kept the owner awake by causing thumps and bangs throughout the house all through the night. Once the ksul had been returned, the house stood quiet once again.
Outside of causing death, the skull is said to cause agricultural grief for those that attempt to remove the skull, killing crops, livestock and driving farms into the ground. Then of course, comes the screaming. In earlier accounts, the skull seemed to cause only disturbances within the house, as was the case when a young boy who lived there tried to test the legend for himself by taking the skull outside and hiding it within a bail of hay. For two nights before the boy returned the skull, the house was said to have suffered from “noises as though all the china in the house were being broken.” In another account, slithering noises were heard outside the bedroom at night. By the early 1900s, however, it had moved on to screaming, truly earning its name. In one account, the skull was removed from its place in the attic, only to lead to nightly screams, “so loud that apart from the occupants of the house, they were heard by farmworkers in the field outside.” Though quite what they were doing working at night is anyone’s guess. In the 1960’s, a story was related by an old farmhand who had worked the farmland as a boy and who said he had once heard the skull, “screaming like a trapped rat in the attic.”
Interestingly, just ten miles away, another skull exists known as the Waddon Skull, which shares many similar legends to the skull of Bettiscombe, suggesting that over time, the stories have intermingled and muddled one another. The waddon skull was once again said to be from a black slave whose owner, on this occasion, murdered him by striking him in the head with a sword after mistaking him for a burglar. Upon its rediscovery in the basement of Waddon House, it was put forth for inspection at Southampton University, where it was once again found to be European in origin. Marks were found in the bone suggesting the head had been struck by a sharp instrument, though the present owners put forth a theory that the skull is from a fallen soldier on a nearby Civil War battlefield.
As the 20th Century progressed, so to do the stories of screaming skulls and not wanting to seem boring with only a single skull, the area of Bradshaw Brook, in Lancashire, Northern England claims nothing short of a trio. The first two were said to have been fished out of the brook in 1751 and placed by the fireplace in a nearby farmhouse at Timberbottom Farm, on the outskirts of Bolton. The story progressed in 1880, when oral traditions spoke of the skulls as belonging to a pair of would be burglars, who attempted to rob the farm one evening, until a servant caught them in the act and somehow beheaded the pair. Later, a second servant tossed the skulls into the brook, where they were later fished from following a series of disturbances that only stopped once the skulls were returned. The skulls were said to have caused pots and pans to fly about the kitchen if disturbed and in the mid 20th century, the owners reported seeing a pair of men fighting in the kitchen dressed “in strange old costume” whilst a woman looked on in horror. The scene was said to have replayed on a monthly schedule, prompting the removal of the skulls and their burial in a nearby churchyard, though when this had no effect on the haunting, they were dug up and returned. When the skulls were displeased, cows were said to give little to no milk. Finally, Colonel Hardcastle, of Bradshaw Hall suggested to the owners that he take the skulls and keep them on his family bible. The owners agreed and the skulls were removed, putting an end to the ghostly activity. In 1949, the skulls were gifted to the local council for their display in what would become a local folk museum at Turton Tower, a 15th Century manor house in Bolton. Today the skulls are locked away in an upstairs storeroom and though the owners claim to have no belief in the skulls supposed paranormal powers, they’re kept upon a bible, just in case.
The two skulls pulled from Bradshaw Brook are linked with a third skull, residing in The Pack Horse Inn, in Greater Manchester. The building is an old, white stone block of a structure, built in the 15th Century on a medieval packhorse route. The pub laid claim to a skull which in life, was said to have been the property of a local farmer named George Whowell, who returned home one day during the Civil War to find his family murdered by Royalists. After the local leader of the Royalists, The Earl of Derby was captured, George took it upon himself to volunteer to carry out his execution in revenge. After the restoration and, apparently Georges death, his body was said to have been exhumed and his skull placed in the pub for ridicule, where it stayed, sat atop the bar, for several hundred years. In 1949, when the then licencee of the pub sold up and moved on, he declined an offer from the local museum to take the skull, saying that “ill luck is supposed to dog the footsteps of those who interfere with it.” An alternative story of the skull links it with Timberbottom Farm, saying that it the third skull of a trio that was fished from the brook in 1751. If this were true, it’s anyone’s guess as to how it wound up in the pub, though it does tie in nicely with the story of the haunting in the kitchen, where there were three ghostly figures, rather than just two.
The 20th Century and the Popularisation of the Screaming Skull
Interestingly, as the skull stories move into the 20th Century, the solid, factual and checkable history gives way more and more to vague rumour and oral traditions built upon shakey Victorian foundations. In 1925, a skull came to light, living in parsonage Manor, Kent, in the South-East of England,
“…years ago a young girl was murdered in the vicinity and her skull evidently found a resting place in a cupboard at the top of the attic stairs. Discovered there by a new tenant of the farm some years ago it was reverently buried in the ground, but the internment was followed by the sounds of groans within the house. Someone who understood the ways of distressed spirits suggested that the skull be returned to its old sanctuary, the cupboard of the attic stairs, and the result brought happiness to everyone. So there the skull still lies, no groans disturb the stillness of the night and all is well.”
Local oral legend said that the skull had originally belonged to a nun, who had shipped to England from France around the time of the Civil War and been murdered, somehow, as a result of “unrequited love”. Her bones were originally buried within the cellar of the house, but later removed to the grounds outside, though the skull mysteriously returned, bricked up in the cellar wall. When the house changed hands, the old owner told the new not to ever remove the skull, however they went and did so anyway, boxing it up and placing it in the attic. Consequently, the couples business soon went bankrupt and they eventually sold the house and moved away from the area. The skull seems to have been lost, sometime around the 1990’s and its current whereabouts is unknown.
The origins of the individual screaming skulls is no less muddled than the origins of the oral traditions at large. Whether they were leftover products of celtic beliefs, pagan rituals, saintly worship or a deep seated veneration for the human spirit, human skulls have held an undeniable draw throughout the ages. Across the world we can see skulls that give power, divine the future, provide protection, summon gods, haunt old village halls or serve as a warning to would be enemies, the screaming skulls seem to be a folk legend that has evolved from a long extant tradition spanning centuries and continents.
In reality, the “Screaming Skull” folklore is something of a misnomer, as most skulls were not originally thought to scream at least until it became a firm trope, tacked on to many legends in the early 20th Century. The complicated backstories of each skull, that twist and wind over the years, lend both an air of mystery to the tales and an obvious flaw in their veracity. Regardless, their stories have survived and even flourished, with the explosion of the gothic ghost stories of Victorian times and the flood of modern horror from the mid 20th century onwards, the motif of the haunted skull continues. Nowadays it becomes harder and harder to find an owner of a screaming skull who publicly admits to believing in the skulls supernatural powers, but interestingly, in many cases, far fewer are keen to remove them from their places of rest.