A Figure of Cornish Legend
Should anyone be looking for a real-life figure upon which to base a fictional occult detective, let me suggest the Reverend Richard Dodge (c. 1653-1746). Little is known about the actual man, but his reputation as an exorcist of malevolent spirits made him legendary. Literally. He’s become part of Cornish folklore.
The earliest reference to Dodge that I’ve found is in a work written by Thomas Bond and delightfully titled Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Boroughs of East and West Looe, in the Country of Cornwall; with an Account of the Natural and Artificial Curiosities and Picturesque Scenery of the Neighbourhood (1823). There, we read that Dodge was vicar of Talland — and, “by traditional accounts, a very singular man. He had the reputation of being deeply skilled in the black art, and could raise ghosts, or send them into the Red Sea, at the nod of his head.” Bond says that many of these spirits “were seen, in all sorts of shapes, flying and running before [Dodge], and he pursuing them, with his whip, in a most daring manner.” Before presenting the tombstone inscription of this whip-wielding, Cornish clerical cowboy who fought the Powers of Darkness, Bond says Dodge “was a worthy man, and much respected; but had his eccentricities.”
As I say, if this isn’t fodder for an occult detective character, then I don’t know what!
Another Version of the Dodge Legend
The next chronicle of Dodge that I’ve located is “The Spectral Coach,” Thomas Q. Couch’s record of a Talland legend he once heard “by a country fire-side.” At least, that’s what he says in The History of Polperro: A Fishing Town on the South Coast of Cornwall (1871), where it’s reprinted in an appendix. The transcribed tale first appeared in Popular Romances of the West of England: Or, The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall (1865) and, afterward, wound its way into The Haunters & the Haunted: Ghost Stories and Tales of the Supernatural (1921), an interesting mishmash of ghostly fiction and folktales. Couch tells us that Dodge was kind and well respected, albeit eccentric. He lived in a time when ghosts “had more freedom accorded them, or had more business with the visible world, than at present, and the parson was frequently required by his parishioners to draw from the uneasy spirit the dread secret which troubled it.” But, along with dealing with sorrowful spirits, the vicar could handle the sinister ones, too. “Mr. Dodge had a fame as an exorcist,” says Couch, and it is his talents in this area that make up the heart of Couch’s tale.
Indeed, according to a letter sent to Dodge, the phantom of “a man habited in black, driving a carriage drawn by headless horses” had been terrorizing a moor in Lanreath. As any occult detective worth his (protective circle of) salt would, the vicar takes the case. All I’ll say about this story is that it opens with those in need calling upon the ghost-busting services of Dodge — and ends with Dodge proving to be the right man for the job.
Were Dodge’s Theatrics a Diversion?
Couch says that Dodge “was fearless in reprehending” smuggling among his parishioners, However, it has been implied that the parson’s nighttime battles with demons and their kin were theatrics intended to frighten the locals away from his own smuggling operation. At least, Charles G. Harper suggests as much in his 1909 book, The Smugglers. Who knows? All I’ll say is that I prefer Dodge as a ghostbusting superhero than as a charlatan of the cloth.
Even so, Dodge’s legend makes great occult detective material. And he’s even found his way from folklore to folk music! Here’s a song by John Langford about Reverend Dodge: