Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe

The screaming skull of Bettiscombe is probably the best known haunting of Dorset, certainly outside the county. And yet all is not what it may appear.

According to the generally accepted legend of the screaming skull, the story began in 1685 when James, Duke of Monmouth, landed in Dorset to raise a Protestant rebellion against his Catholic uncle King James II. Azariah Pinney, son of John Pinney who owned Bettiscombe, joined the Monmouth Rising. The rebellion ended in defeat and young Azariah, along with hundreds of others, was dragged before a court charged with treason. Found guilty, Azariah was sentenced to hang, though the authorities ruled his life would be spared if the sum of £65 could be found. Azariah’s sister Hester put up the money, so the young man was shipped as a slave to the West Indies instead of being  hanged.

Azariah later won his freedom and rose to be a prominent merchant on the island of Nevis. In 1705 John Pinney died and his son came home to take over the family estates. Azariah brought with him a faithful negro companion, a man who had once been a fellow slave on the sugar plantations of Nevis. As the first black man to be seen in that part of Dorset, the negro made a great impression on the local folk.

When he died, the negro was buried in Bettiscombe Church, but he did not rest in peace. Bettiscombe House was plagued by terrifying screams, slamming doors and crashing furniture. Only then did Azariah recall that he and his companion had sworn never to be separated. The body was dug up and, although only a few days had passed, the skull was found to be entirely clean of flesh of any kind. The gleaming, grinning skull was taken from the grave and carried to Bettiscombe House where it was put high up in the roof timbers, sitting on a brick chimney.

There it rested until the middle of the 19th century. Bettiscombe House was then being rented out as a farm and the new tenant did not much fancy his grim companion. He took down the skull and threw it into the nearby pond. At once the house was plagued by disturbances. Screams once more echoed through the rooms and doors were slammed shut by unseen hands. After less than a week, the farmer headed for the pond armed with a hay rake with which he combed the waters until he retrieved the skull. It has not left the house since.

In 1963 a professor of anatomy inspected the skull and declared it to be that of a European woman aged about 30. So much for the legend of a faithful black servant. It has been suggested that the skull may have come from one of the prehistoric barrows that dot the hills around Bettiscombe. Antiquarians of the 17th century were known to have dug open such tombs and taken the contents as souvenirs.

According to Michael Pinney, a descendant of the supposed slave owner, the whole story was concocted in the 1830s by another ancestor Anna Maria Pinney. This was the time when gothic horror stories, such as Frankenstein and Dracula, were hugely popular. Following the genre, young Anna took some genuine local tales and wove them together into the legend of the screaming skull.

The life story of Azariah and his escapades were true enough and the skull was a very real presence in the house - said to be a good luck charm. There was also a ghostly presence in the attic which took the form of heavy footsteps pacing back and forth. Imagination, it would seem, did the rest.

Whatever its origins may be, the skull of Bettiscombe retains a powerful aura. It is perhaps wise to leave it where it is.
 

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