Now, when it comes to spooky tales and ghastly ghosts, you can’t get much more dramatic than a headless horseman. But it is my experience that most ghosts are a fairly harmless and mundane bunch of characters. There are more grey ladies floating about the country than you can shake a stick at. and if I have heard of one phantom monk to be found at a ruined abbey, I have heard of a hundred. Such phantoms go about their business with little fuss and paying no heed to what we mere mortals might be up to. Of course, they can be frightening. There you are all alone when suddenly a chap in a cowl and cloak appears out of thin air, chants a plainsong and vanishes. It can be very unnerving.
But headless horsemen and the like tend to be more usual in horror movies and books than in real life. Was this just a made up story to keep children off the moors, or was there more to it than that? I took myself off to Sunderland Library to track down any legends or ghosts from Boldon Moor. I found additional stories about the ghostly farmer from Laverick Hall Farm, including several sightings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As for the headless horseman, back in the 1700s, what is now the A184 was, in most parts, little more than a country lane. It was busy, though and that was why a highwayman frequented the area, constantly harassing his victims to 'stand and deliver'. He was not, however, a particularly clever crook as he tended to spring out at his victims on the same stretch of road each time. The local Justices of the Peace rounded up a group of local men and set off to arrest the highwayman, which they did. In those unforgiving days the penalty for robbery on the King’s Highway was death, so the highwayman was hanged.
Quite why the highwayman’s ghost should be headless when he was hanged, not beheaded, is unclear.
This is an extract from Haunted Sunderland by Rupert Matthews