A Fight with a Ghost

In ghost history there are many mentions of encounters of ghosts which results in violence, the most famous case is that of novelist Captain Frederick Marryat who while staying at Raynham Hall decided to ‘ghost hunt’. While walking along an upstairs hallway he encountered the Hall’s infamous Brown Lady, she was carrying a lantern and glided past them through a door. Marryat noticed she was grinning at him so he leapt out and fired a pistol at her sending the bullet straight through her head, lodging in a wall.

There have been many questions about Marryat’s claims, but none so on the following, equally perplexing is the following story of James Durham, a Darlington night watchman’s encounter with fight with a ghost.

James Durham gave a witness statement to Rev Harry Kendal, a Congregational Minister in the late 19th century, at Darlington. The statement said that James Durham was a night-watchman at the Old Darlington and Stockton Station, dated 9th December, 1890:-

“I was a night-watchman at the old Darlington and Stockton Railway Station, at the town of Darlington, a few yards from the first station that ever existed. I was there 15 years. I used to go on duty about 8 pm and came off at 6 am.

“I had been there a little while, perhaps two or three years, and at about midnight, or 12.30 am, I was feeling rather cold standing here and there, so I said to myself, “I will go away down and get something to eat”. There was a porters’ room, where a fire was kept on, and a coal-house was connected to it. So I went down the steps, took off my overcoat and had just sat down on the bench opposite the fire, and turned up the gas, when a strange man came out of the coal-house, followed by a black retriever dog. As soon as he entered, my eye was upon him and his eye upon me, and we intently watched each other as he moved on to the front of the fire.

“There he stood, looking at me, and a curious smile came over his countenance.

He had a stand-up collar and a cut-away coat, with gilt buttons and a Scotch cap. All at once he struck at me and I had the impression that he had hit me. I upped with my fist and struck back at him. My fist seemed to go through him and struck against the stone above the fireplace, and knocked the skin off my knuckles. The man seemed to be struck back into the fire, and uttered a strange unearthly squeak. Immediately, the dog gripped me by the calf of my leg, and seemed to cause me pain. The man recovered his position, called off the dog with a sort of a click of the tongue, and then went back into the coal-house, followed by the dog. I lighted my dark lantern and looked into the coal-house, but there was neither dog nor man, and no outlet for them except the one by which they had entered.

“I was satisfied that what I had seen was ghostly, and it accounted for the fact that when the man had first come into the place where I sat, I had not challenged him. Next day, and for several weeks, my account caused quite a commotion, and a host of people spoke to me about it, among the rest, old Edward Pease, father of railways and his three sons, John, Joseph and Henry. Old Edward sent for me to his house and asked all particulars. He and others put this question to me: “are you sure that you were not asleep and had a nightmare?”

My answer was quite sure for I had not been a minute in the cellar and was just going to get something to eat. I was certainly not under the influence of strong drink, for I was then, as I have been for 49 years, a teetotaler. My mind at that time was perfectly free from trouble.

“What increased the excitement was the fact that a man, a number of years before, who was employed in the office of the station, had committed suicide and was carried into this very cellar. I knew nothing of this circumstance, nor of the body of the man, but Mr Pease, and others who had known him, told me my description exactly corresponded to his appearance and the way he dressed, and also he had a black retriever just like the one that gripped me. I should add that no mark or effect remained on the spot where I seemed to be seized”.

Mr Kendall made his own comments on the case:-

“Mr Durham has attended my church for 25 years and I have testimony going back that length of time to the effect that he has given the same account of the extraordinary experiences. It is a long time since he retired from the post of night-watchman, and he has since become a wealthy man. He is one of the strongest men I have ever met, able to do his 40 miles a day, walking and running with the hounds and not feel stiff the day after. I forwarded this strange narrative to Prof. Sidgwick, President of the S.P.R., who expressed a wish for fuller assurance that Mr Durham was not asleep at the time of the vision. I gave, in reply, the following four reasons for believing that he was awake:-

“Firstly, he was accustomed, as a night-watchman, to be up all night, and therefore not likely to feel sleepy from that cause. Secondly, he had scarcely been a minute in the cellar and feeling hungry was just about to get something to eat. Thirdly, if he was asleep at the beginning of the vision, he must have been awake enough during the latter part of it, when he knocked the skin off his knuckles. Fourthly, there was his own testimony, which was confident. I strongly incline to the opinion that there was objective cause for the vision, and that it was genuinely apparitional”.

Mr Kendall visited the station and was taken to the porters’ room, down the steps. He noted that the coal-house was still there and also the gas bracket that Mr Durham had turned on the night in question. His guide, an old railway official, remembered the clerk, a man called John Winter, who had committed suicide, and showed Mr Kendall the place where Winter had shot himself with a pistol. In dress and appearance, Winter corresponded exactly with the phenomenon described by James Durham, and he had certainly owned a black retriever.

In October 2000, two amateur historians, Olive Howe and Irene McCloud confirmed the identity of the ghost that appeared to James Durham. During a trawl of Darlington’s archives they found the death certificate of a “ticket clerk” called Thomas Munroe Winter, who committed suicide in 1845, aged 29.

In a quote to The Northern Echo the women told “When we bought a copy of his death certificate we were elated to find that his cause of death was ‘shot himself with a pistol, being in a state of unsound mind’ and his occupation was ‘ticket clerk’. We had found the ghost.”