31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare.
Kensal Green Cemetery in London (all photographs by Allison Meier)
The following story was first published in 1936, in a collection titled True Ghost Stories. The book’s authors, Marchioness Townshend and Maude Ffoulkes, introduced the tale with the statement, “The facts of this story were vouched for by the late Hon. Alec Carlisle, who told them to Maude M.C. Ffoulkes.”
Our aristocratic source tells the story of a publisher in London. A man of common birth, through determined networking and resourcefulness in business this individual had, over time, managed to propel himself into the upper echelons of society.
His success was not without sacrifice, however; along the way, our protagonist had abandoned his former love. The girl, Elise, is described by the Hon. Alec Carlisle as being in possession of “no working brains, and no money to speak of.”
The publisher had decided that the company of this lowborn girl was unbefitting of his rapid social ascent, and so he left her where she was. By the time she was carried to an early grave, he had already long forgotten her.
Many years later, the publisher was attending the funeral of a colleague held at London’s Kensal Green Cemetery.
Kensal Green is the oldest of London’s “Magnificent Seven,” a series of Victorian burial grounds designed to reduce the strain on overflowing graveyards in the city centre — as well as alleviating fear of disease — by removing the dead to spacious plots in the capital’s suburbs.
The cemetery at Kensal Green in northwest London opened in 1833, and by the time of our tale it was perhaps the most fashionable burial ground in the British Empire. Beneath its elaborate tombs and mausoleums sleep some of Britain’s most prestigious names: Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine (although not all of him, part of his brain is in the Hunterian Museum), as well as the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, author Anthony Trollope, the painter J. W. Waterhouse, and pioneering merchant W. H. Smith.
After the ceremony, our protagonist wandered deep in thought, through the winding passages and tree-shaded avenues of Kensal Green.
The publisher was startled out of his reverie when he came across Elise’s grave. It lay in one of the wilder corners of this 72-acre cemetery, an untended grave far removed from the grand mausoleums of Kensal Green’s more affluent interments. The plain cross was planted in bare clay, leaning at a crooked angle, “as if tired.”
The sight left him with pangs of guilt, and though the publisher tried to swallow his emotions, he nevertheless felt somehow obliged to improve the resting place of his one-time love.
Rather than have his own name associated with the grave of a lowly girl, however — and suffer the gossip and speculation that would no doubt bring — the publisher decided to act through an agent. He settled on the plan of calling his stockbroker, and having the man put forward funds for a more fitting memorial to Elise.
The publisher was out of sorts by the time he returned home that evening, his mind filled with long-forgotten memories of Elise. He picked up the phone to dial for his stockbroker, but in his confused state found himself reciting a Kensal Green plot number to the operator.
He was about to correct himself, but the operator had already put him through. Moments later the call was picked up, a muffled voice asking, “yes; who’s calling?”
The bemused publisher spoke his name, to be met with a gasp of delight. The voice, becoming clearer now, was unmistakably that of Elise.
“Why, it’s never you, darling!” she said. “Do you want me? Of course, I’ll come!”
The publisher wanted to refuse, to put the phone down, but found himself stunned into silence.
“I won’t be long,” said Elise, “but I was very far away, darling, when you rang up.”
There was a click, and the line went dead.
The publisher, now in a state of some shock, retired to his study. Dismissing his servants, he poured himself a tall brandy… and then another, as he waited in anticipation. He was already well intoxicated by the time he heard his front door open, followed by footsteps in the hall. The sounds, “sluggish, stiff and scraping,” came closer, and closer, until the study door began to move, its handle operated from the other side.
At this point the hapless publisher passed out, his faint induced by a cocktail of fear and brandy.
The publisher awoke the next morning to find streaks of dark clay on his carpet, tracing a path from his front door along the hallway to his study. There was clay on the door handle, on his chair, even on his jacket; but no sign of his midnight visitor.
While ghost stories of this variety often end with a moment of revelation, the transformation of a character suddenly inspired towards a life of charity, the late Hon. Alec Carlisle reported no such change in his protagonist.
Instead, the publisher remained as miserly and antisocial as he had ever been — only from this point on he suffered a strong aversion to clay, and never once attended another funeral.
As for the cemetery itself, no evidence has ever been found to support — or disprove — the story. Elise’s grave remains undiscovered; just another faded cross amongst the 65,000 burial sites that form London’s sprawling Kensal Green Cemetery.
LIVING DEAD GIRL: KENSAL GREEN CEMETERY, London, England
True Ghost Stories by Marchioness Townshend and Maude Ffoulkes
The Paranormal Blog: Kensal Green
Click here for more of our 31 Days of Halloween, where each day we’re celebrating the strange-but-true unsettling corners of the world.