Thursday, November 29, 2007

The ghosts come calling at the Tower of London

TOWER OF LONDON, England — Ghosts don't come when they're called.

That's what I thought.

Then my new pen suddenly stopped working ...

I had come to the Tower of London to hear the stories of uneasy spirits that are said to share the landmark's 18 acres with 35 yeoman warders (sometimes called Beefeaters), a governor and two deputies, a pastor, a doctor and their families.

Secretly, I hoped to encounter one of the specters.

Phil Wilson, a sergeant among the men and one woman who are guardians of the 900-year-old fortress, met me as shadows oozed across the grounds and seeped over stones worn by history and its players.

Only a corporate group on a special tour and I invaded the nighttime privacy of the 100 or so year-round residents, soldiers on guard duty and those wraiths that piqued my curiosity. If I were ever to see a ghost, this could be the place.

Storied, historic and bloody, this mass of 21 towers beside the chilly River Thames has seen lives anointed, destroyed and redeemed. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard died here, victims of King Henry VIII's obsessive quest for a son. Among others who gave up their heads in the tower's sloping courtyard were Baron Hastings, an adviser to Edward IV who was executed by Edward's successor; Lady Jane Grey, queen for nine days; and the Earl of Essex, a traitorous favorite of the first Queen Elizabeth.

It was considered a benevolence to be dispatched within the fortress's confines, away from the baying crowds on Tower Hill, about 200 yards from the entrance at Middle Tower. And imprisonment in the tower's dungeons was reserved for nobles and educated people who ran afoul of the monarch's favor or agenda. Common criminals had their own jails and their own execution grounds elsewhere.

Although many dozens died on Tower Hill after being held in the fortress, only seven people were dispatched on Tower Green. It's some of these who are said to be among the wraiths that reside and occasionally roam in the tower.

"I won't believe until I see them," Wilson told me as we began a walk among the darkening passageways.

But he doesn't dismiss or belittle experiences reported by fellow yeomen, their kin, soldiers, workers or visitors.

Most occurred after dark. "There's too many people about" in the daytime, he says, suggesting perhaps that phantoms prefer privacy.

We pass through the black-painted gates of the Byward Tower and Wilson describes a watchman's experience. He was reading a newspaper when the lights dimmed and the hiss of his gas fire turned into crackling. He looked up to see two men dressed in red, with spindly legs, smoking long clay pipes on either side of a fireplace. One turned and looked at the watchman, Wilson says, then the pair vanished.

What intrigued the watchman, the warder says, was the question, "Was the past seeing the future or the future seeing the past?"

We walk beside the Bell Tower, where defender of Catholicism Thomas More was imprisoned before his beheading. The fragrance of incense has been reported near the doomed man's chamber, Wilson says.

By the scaffold site on Tower Green, he tells me that terrifying shrieks have been heard here on the anniversary of the death of the Countess of Salisbury, who was hacked to death May 27, 1541, by an executioner who chased her down. Also in May, a headless Queen Anne Boleyn is said to walk the area on the 19th, the date of her death in 1536.

Some of the most convincing reports of encounters with spectral beings are those from yeoman warders, all of them former military with long service and good conduct medals, and active military on duty at the landmark.

During World War II, a sentry reported seeing a procession in 14th-century clothes descending Tower Hill while bearing a headless body on a stretcher.

In recent years, a yeoman and his family moved into an apartment near the Bloody Tower, where the young princes Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, were held captive then, tradition holds, murdered. Shortly after the family settled in, the warder asked his young son whether he liked his new room. The child, who had been told nothing of possible ghosts at the tower, replied, "Yes, but the two boys that play outside at the back are really noisy and wear funny clothes."

Other yeomen have reported a feeling of being followed when no one was behind them, or the approach of people who vanish when challenged. Their wives talk of tendrils of smoke swirling purposefully, of items moved seemingly without human intervention, and of noises that have no apparent cause.

However frightening or inexplicable the tower's ghosts may be, they've harmed no one, although a guard in 1815 died two days after confronting a bear he said had materialized from a wisp of smoke. People also have reported feeling pushed on stairs (especially at the White Tower, where the original dungeon was) and sensing their chests being pressed toward suffocation.

The day before my walk with Wilson, yeoman warder Ken McGrath told me that a week earlier, a yeoman had heard prayers in Latin issuing from Beauchamp Tower. The warder entered, and the supplications stopped. He searched for a source, even asked others whether sounds were being piped in for effect. But no origin for the entreaties was found.

Just that week, a guard reported groaning coming from a small window at the Wakefield Tower, McGrath said.

But yeomen and military guards aren't the only ones to experience oddities. Visitors have reported cold spots and touches by unseen hands. A tour member once asked a warder as her group left the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, "Who was that woman in black standing behind you as you spoke?"

The chapel figures in numerous sightings, and the decapitated queens are among remains buried under its stone floor.

In one of the strangest reports by a visitor, an American tourist's photo of Traitors' Gate, taken when no one was near, contained a silk-cuffed hand. Kodak representatives assured her the image hadn't been doctored, Wilson says.

"Who knows?" he adds.

Two of his wife's friends, recently visiting the Wilsons' apartment in the Beauchamp Tower for the evening, went briefly to the unoccupied roof. "You know, we're not alone," one woman said. "There's a soldier on guard up here." She said she could see the man in boots and cape. He was waiting for someone, she said. The second woman said she saw nothing. As the pair descended stairs to the Wilsons' rooms, the first woman, suddenly trembling, said someone "ran through her." She told her friend, "It's you in another life."

Still, Wilson says there may be rational explanations for some occurrences.

Quite a few reports date to Victorian times, when the English were "besotted with death," he says. It was a time of spiritualists and people who wrote about the unseen of other worlds. Ghosts were rock stars of the macabre.

Also, electrification came slowly to the tower; for centuries the dark was held at bay only by flickering firelight or gaslights.

Sometimes, it isn't ghosts but commerce that creates a scare. Wilson and a colleague were on duty after dark years ago when screaming shattered the evening. The two, a distance apart, began to run toward each other, when a Thames tour boat outside the walls resumed a calmer narrative after its scary segment.

Also, warders have been known to play pranks, trying to scare one another, Wilson says, suggesting a very human source for unnatural phenomena.

Nonetheless, "When I get up (during the night), I always look at Tower Green. I always hope to see something, and I never do."

Thoughts of unearthly encounters aren't his alone. Moira Cameron, the first female yeoman warder in the tower's history, moved into quarters in July.

"I'm not a huge believer, but I'm not a disbeliever," she says. "Too many people see too many things." Because she lives in an apartment on the tower's interior street, and "the closest execution was spies from World Wars I and II," she doubts she'll encounter a wraith.

Says McGrath, "I don't know if I believe or not, but there must be some semblance of truth somewhere."

Perhaps, for me, a glimpse of that truth was in the Beauchamp Tower room where some time before a girl visiting with her mother had seemed to receive messages from the prisoners who had been held there.

Some inmates had carved tombstonelike tablets into the soft limestone walls. The girl was looking at one when she repeated, "So much suffering, so much suffering."

Reassured by the warder on duty that prisoners had left long ago, she responded, pointing to a space beside her, "He's still here."

Could the man invisible to others have been one of the prisoners lingering from long ago?

Wilson can't say, but he wants to show me a particularly handsome carving in a locked room next to this one.

He reaches into the pocket of his dark blue yeoman warder's uniform with its red applique of the queen's initials. No key. That's odd, he says, but reassures me that he knows where he left it. He asks me to wait here while he retrieves it.

In the quiet, I inspect other inscriptions left by men clearly educated and amazingly artistic, considering the fearsome straits they were in.

A puzzled Wilson re-enters the room. He can't find the key. "That really is strange," he says.

And just at that instant, as I'm copying words from the wall, the ink in my pen stops.

One beat, two beats, three. Nothing.

Then the blue flows again.

Was it an exclamation point from beyond? A signal for attention? A message as only spirits can send?

I am left to wonder.

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