In 1665, in Cornwall, a boy named Sam was harassed by a ghost as he walked to school. He recognized the ghost as being that of Dorothy Dingly (or Dingley or Dinglet), a young woman from the area who he remembered had died and was buried. The phantom wouldn’t let poor Sam be, gliding up to join him even when he tried to take a different route. Sam’s parents — who scoffed at the notion of ghosts — took the problem to a visiting minister, bidding him to investigate the validity of Sam’s story. After confirming Sam really was being visited by a ghost, the Reverend Mr. Ruddle (or Rudell or Rudall) went to work. He did his homework, he revisited the specter, and after he shared some conversation with her, spectral Dorothy went away, never to return.
This story has taken various forms over the years, and a debate arose over who first brought it before the reading public. The first time it was published appears to be as part of Duncan’s Campbell’s Pacquet (1720), where it’s titled “A Remarkable Passage of an Apparition.” The piece was then tacked onto a re-release of The History of the Life and Adventures of Duncan Campbell. In the 1800s, some contended that Daniel Defoe was the author, the same man known for having penned Robinson Crusoe and the ghost story, “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal.” Others disagreed, arguing that Ruddle himself wrote the narrative. (Sure enough, the piece uses a first-person narrator named Ruddle — but Robinson Crusoe uses a first-person narrator named Crusoe, and that’s widely deemed to be a work of fiction.)
This early version of the tale is less an edge-of-your-seat ghost story and more a parable about believing in the Unseen. Sam is derided by his skeptical family and friends until Ruddle investigates and proves he was right all along. Ruddle himself becomes a believer in ghosts rather than starts out as one. You see, he wasn’t summoned because of his reputation for banishing otherworldly entities, which would make him predisposed to believe in such things. No, Sam’s parents asked for Ruddle’s help solely because they heard him give an impressive eulogy. And keeping the tale’s emphasis more on teaching a moral lesson and less on thilling its audience, Ruddle’s final confrontation with the ghost is lackluster and disappointing: “[A]fter a few words on each side, it quietly vanished, and neither doth appear since, nor ever will more, to any man’s disturbance.” The narrator never reveals why Dorothy returned from the dead or how he convinced her to go away. Nope. Just some indeterminate chitchat.
The next time the story appeared in print appears to be in C.S. Gilbert’s A Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall. Gilbert tweaked a few things. Sam’s family is given the name “Bligh, from Botathan,” for instance, and the haunted field changes from “Higher-Broom-Quartils” to “Higher Broomfield.” Ruddle’s name becomes “Ruddell” here, and “Dingly” become “Dingley.” Otherwise, the minister’s credentials are as unimpressive and the story ends as disappointingly.
It took another vicar, Robert Stephen Hawker, to spice up the tale and fill in several details, and he did so by claiming to have come across a “diurnal” (a fancy name for a journal) written by none other than Rudall. Yep. That’s how Hawker spells it. Titled “The Botathen Ghost,” this version appeared in Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round in 1867. Now, we might never know whether this “diurnal” thing was real or just a really imaginative ruse to turn the earlier transcribed folk tale into a much more gripping and proper Victorian ghost story. Not surprisingly, this is the version that often gets anthologized.
Here, instead of an ordinary (albeit eloquent) guy who gets snagged into acting as ghost hunter, Rudall is described as “a powerful minister, in combat with supernatural visitations.” We get nice details on Dorothy’s ghostliness: “There was the pale and stony face, the strange and misty hair, the eyes firm and fixed, that gazed, yet not on us, but on something that they saw far, far away. . . .” While in the earlier version, the minister simply goes home where he “studied the case,” Hawker has Rudall arrange an audience with the bishop to solicit “license for my exorcism.” I like to picture that as being similar to a driver’s license — but, you know, more for driving away demons and such. Wearing a special ring, this Rudall draws a protective circle and pentagram in order to banish the ghost. Now, we’re flirting with the methods of a duly licensed occult detective!
Hawker also explains why Dorothy D. haunted the field. Rudall learns that she had harassed poor Sam because ghost law stipulates that a specter “must seek a youth or maiden of clean life, and under age, to receive messages and admonitions.” It seems Dorothy needed Sam to convey a message to his own father, a message about “a certain sin.” The juicy details are left to the Victorian reader’s imagination, but Rudall takes it upon himself to confront “that ancient transgressor,” who consequently shows “horror and remorse” and “entire atonement and penance.” Afterward, telling Dorothy that her mission is fulfilled, Rudall “did dismiss that troubled ghost, until she peacefully withdrew, gliding toward the west.” Hmm, maybe there was another sinner in Canada with whom she had business.
Despite the likelihood that Hawker’s discovery of the diurnal was a ploy to give the folk tale the crisp details and satisfying closure of a literary short story, some readers believed it wasn’t fiction at all. Among them was the Reverend R. Wilkins Rees, who wrote a fascinating article titled “Ghost-Layers and Ghost-Laying,” printed in The Church Treasury of History: Custom, Folk-lore, Etc. He summarizes (at length!) Hawker’s story, and then discusses some of Rudall’s fellow ghost-busting clergymen who also lived in Cornwall at about the same period. Thomas Flavel is an interesting one, and there’s the fiery Richard Dodge. The latter is already listed in my Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame.
And now John Rudall is in that Hall, too. Eager to become even more confused by what is fact and what is fiction in the muddle of Rudall? I recommend Alfred Robbins’ article in The Cornish Magazine and S. Baring-Gould’s chapter in his Cornish Characters and Strange Events.