“The Barber’s Ghost”: Tracking a Ghostly Folk Tale in Print

A Folk Tale Passed on Paper

A curious connection arose between my hunting for early occult detective fiction and my search for actual ghost reports that led to Spectral Edition: Ghost Reports in U.S. Newspapers, 1865-1917. The connection involves a tale titled “The Haunted Chamber.” This was published in The Waste Book, a journal printed in 1823 by “John Miller, Printer” from Providence (Rhode Island, I assume).

The tale is about a man who stops at a Massachusetts inn, hears that one of its rooms is considered haunted, and requests to stay in that room in order to debunk the rumors. The local legend explains that the ghost was a barber in life, and his spirit lingers to ask: “Do you want to be shaved?” Solving the ghostly mystery, the character then takes advantage of those who believe in the haunting by posing as the ghost to scare them. It’s fairly typical of an 1820s ghost story in that it urges readers to be skeptical about alleged hauntings. Think, for instance, of Washington Irving’s 1820 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in which superstitous Ichabod Crane is (most likely) bamboozled and scared out of town by Brom Bones. The moral here is that those who believe in ghosts can be easily manipulated.

The tale about the alleged spectral barber reappears in A Collection of Useful, Interesting, and Remarkable Events, Original and Selected, from Ancient and Modern Authorities, by Leonard Deming (Middlebury: J.W. Copeland, 1825). Though clearly the same story, it’s reduced considerably, and instead of being set in New England, it takes place in “one of the Southern states.” Furthermore, the traveler consents to sleeping in the haunted room rather than specifically requesting to do so, meaning he’s no longer a ghost hunter per se. Importantly, the title is now: “The Barber’s Ghost–A Fact.” In other words, it’s presented as if it really happened.

Barber's Ghost
Yorkville Enquirer, July 31, 1889

After the 1820s

It next appears in an 1833 issue of The Literary Journal, and Weekly Register of Science and the Arts. The introduction reads: “The substance of the following narrative was given, several years ago, as a contribution to a periodical work. It has now been revised and in part re-written, by the author, for insertion here.” Unfortunately, that author remains anonymous.

The abridged version might have served as the source of subsequent reprints in newspapers — at least, until newspapers started taking it from other newspapers. The earliest I’ve found is in the May 23, 1840, issue of the Camden Journala newspaper from South Carolina. The story is now set “the upper part of this State,” which would mean South Carolina in this case, but when that phrase is repeated elsewhere, the story hits close to home with any reader anywhere.

For instance, when the story appeared in the January 30, 1841, issue of the Salt River Journal from Bowling Green, Missouri, the setting is again “the upper part of this State.” But this printing prepares readers to recognize its status as — if not outright fiction — then something that’s hardly hard news. It opens: “The following story is old but a precious good one. We laughed heartily over it ‘long ago,’ and presuming many of our readers never heard of it, we serve it up for their edification.” The amusing anecdote now feels less like “a Fact” and more like a tall tale one might hear at, say, the barber shop.

Even into the 1860s

After an appearance in Gleason’s Literary Companion on (July 2, 1864), our spooky barber re-materialized in the Dayton Daily Empire on June 03, 1865. The setting returns to “one of the Eastern States,” but without the introduction that the Salt River Journal provided. A reader might have viewed it as a typical news article. The Cambria Freeman chose April 1st, 1869, to share the tale with its readers in Ebenburg, Pennsylvania. Despite it being April Fool’s Day, that introduction used in the Salt River Journal was included, too. And when South Carolina’s Yorkville Enquirer published it on July 31, 1889, the editor placed it in the Humorous Department column (as shown above.)

I very strongly suspect that many other newspapers ran the story throughout the 1800s and possibly into the 1900s. But this is enough evidence to see “The Barber’s Ghost” as a sort of tall tale transcribed, an American folk story passed around not only by word-of-mouth but via periodicals reprinting from other periodicals. In its wanderings, it often straddled the line between a factual news report and a humorous piece of fancy.

Those who wish to investigate the long life of this ghost story further might want to look at an academic article by Mac E. Barrick, titled “‘The Barber’s Ghost’: A Legend Becomes a Folktale” and published in Pennsylvania Folk Life (23.4 Summer 1974).

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