The Epworth parsonage must have been a lively place when 10 children occupied its spaces. There were seven spirited daughters, three sons, a mother and father and a maid to care for the younger children.
But for five months between December 1716 and April 1717 the occupants increased in number by the visitation of a ghost — a poltergeist. Call this a “preternatural” increase. This presence was invisible but, with each visitation, noisy in a number of ways.
Beginning between nine and ten o’clock at night when the girls were about to retire, there would be thumps under the floor, raps on the walls, the rattle of chains, the smashing of glass, and the sound of coins clattering to the floor.
The hardiness and composure of Samuel and Susanna in the face of these baffling phenomena was quite amazing. W. H. Fitchett reports, in his book, Wesley and His Century, that during one of the visitations Mrs. Wesley “walked hand-in-hand with her husband, at midnight downstairs to the room whence the noises came.” Even though hand-in-hand, that was probably not a romantic walk. She later wrote that “a large pot of money seemed to be poured out at my waist and run jingling down my nightgown to my feet.”
The daughters must have used nervous humor to brace one another as they became tolerant of these preternatural demonstrations, because they named the poltergeist, “Old Jeffrey” and the name stuck.
But we can be sure that the manifestations and the family’s responses were more than merely the results of overheated imaginations. When the thumps sounded and doors slammed and in one case a bed was raised, even the children who were already asleep and did not hear the sounds were agitated and trembled in their sleep.
The father, Samuel, appeared uncommonly brave about what was going on. Again, Fitchett reports that he “pursued the noise into almost every room in the house, chased it into the garden; tried to open a conversation with the ghost, even engaged the services of a mastiff (huge dog) to put it down. But when the ghost began to discourse the dog tried ignobly to get under the bed in sheer terror.”
On another occasion, in one particular room the poltergeist was knocking violently. Samuel Wesley tried to address it but without results. Then he said to his daughter, Nancy, “These spirits love darkness. Put out the candle and perhaps it will speak.” She did as he requested but the only response was continued knocking.
Mrs. Wesley, on the other, hand appealed to this annoying, invisible presence not to disturb her between five and six in the morning because that was her quiet hour and she wanted all noise suspended during that time. “Old Jeffrey” respected her wishes. In fact, regardless of whatever else one can say, this ghost did not show signs of hostility and on occasion did show signs of respect.
It may be argued today that the story took on hype and color and became increasingly sensationalized as it is passed from generation to generation. This cannot be true because all members of the family wrote their accounts at the time and John collected them. Each account has an age-related perspective but the story’s core is solid and has to be addressed as the account of a serious but mysterious phenomenon.
Commentators vary in their opinions of what was really going on. Some, of a more skeptical bent, attributed the goings-on to the trickery of one of the girls, probably Hetty. Others thought it the skilful tomfoolery of town enemies. Many chalk it up to the devil. Though the devil is tricky and cunning he is never as nice as this visitant. Whatever we do with it, the word “preternatural” best describes it. That is, the phenomena are not supernatural but do go beyond the natural as we experience it every day. There it rests in mystery.
Although John Wesley was 13 at the time and away to school at Charterhouse, he collected the family’s written reports and listened attentively to other reports of ghostly visitations. In his mature years, Wesley retained a respect for this family experience and from the descriptions his siblings and parents had written he created an article which he published in his magazine, The Arminian.