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Headless Ghosts I Have Known

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 16.4, December 2006

In the popular imagination, ghosts are a form of “energy” that survives death. Yet ghosts are invariably portrayed as wearing clothing, uniforms, or costumes of their era, even though articles of dress are inanimate objects—an obvious contradiction.

Moreover, the science of physiology has established the simple fact that once the brain has been destroyed, brain function ceases, and so, too, surely ends the ability to think and move. Science therefore considers ghosts—alleged spirits of the dead who yet supposedly speak and walk about—to be figments of the imagination. Doubly unlikely, it would seem, are headless ghosts, whose existence utterly defies logic.

Nevertheless, storytellers have produced many colorful examples, notably Washington Irving’s 1818 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which tells how schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is frightened out of town by his rival, masquerading as a headless horseman. In contrast, many headless-ghost tales are told as true—or ostensibly so, for the teller’s tongue may occasionally seem to stray into his cheek. I have investigated several of these.

Specter of McClannahan Hill

In the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, there are many such folk narratives, including an interesting one I learned growing up in Morgan County. It concerns a Civil War skirmish that occurred on McClannahan Hill (approximately four miles northwest of the county seat of West Liberty, my hometown).

The story begins on October 6, 1863, when some Union soldiers (from Company B, Fifth Ohio Independent Cavalry Battalion) had passed through West Liberty en route to Morehead. Rebel Captain John T. Williams was able to cut across the river and reach McClannahan Hill ahead of them. He and his band waylaid the Federals, firing upon them from behind fallen trees.

Reportedly, one soldier was killed and a few others were wounded. (One of those was taken to the home of my great-great-grandfather, Milton B. Cox, himself then a second lieutenant serving in the Confederacy. There, the Cox family, in one of the common acts of the war, nursed the enemy soldier back to health [Nickell 1991].)

Over time, the superstitious Appalachian folk yielded up a tale about the ambush. “Some still say,” wrote my old schoolteacher Arthur Johnson (1974, 330), “that a man with no head has been seen walking around on top of the hill there. It is believed that this is a ghost of the Union soldier who was killed there.”

Well, so “it is believed.” But I recall once mentioning the tale to my father, the late J. Wendell Nickell, who had come to own the woodland property in question. A skeptic about such things, he retorted that in all his time on the site, he had never once seen the headless ghost of McClannahan Hill.

How the man supposedly lost his head is not explained. That he did is, in fact, doubtful, because—almost certainly—the ambushing rebels were without cannon; neither is there any other suggestion from the historical record of any beheading having taken place by that or any other means during the skirmish (Nickell 1991).

Therefore, I suspect we do not have the wandering ghost of a headless soldier, but rather the wandering motif (or story element) of a headless ghost that travels from region to region and tale to tale via the process known as folklore.

Such a narrative can take many forms, like the following example of what we might call “jokelore.” It was related by the late Kentucky writer Joe Creason (1972, 217):

“Two boys in eastern Kentucky were discussing their town ghost. Just the night before, one vowed, he was walking past the haunted house when the ghost, head conveniently tucked under arm, floated out a window toward him.

“‘What was that ol’ ghost doin’ the last time you saw him?’” the other kid asked breathlessly.

“‘Son,’ came the logical answer, ‘he was fallin’ behind, fallin’ behind!’”

Ghost at a Rhine Chapel

One of the defining characteristics of folklore is the existence of different versions of a tale—called “variants”—which are indicative of the oral tradition behind them. On an investigative tour of Germany, in October 2002—accompanied by Martin Mahner, Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry/Europe—I saw evidence of such variants in several interesting cases (including that of “Satan’s Footprint” [Nickell 2003, 27—28]).

An intriguing example turned up in an investigation that took us to two sites—Reichenstein Castle and a nearby chapel—located in the beautiful Rhine Valley. According to Dennis William Hauck’s The International Directory of Haunted Places (2000, 113—114), the castle headquartered a gang of robber-knights. In 1282, they were captured, whereupon their leader, Dietrich von Hohenfels, entreated emperor Rudolf von Habsburg to spare his nine sons. The emperor stated that Dietrich was to be beheaded but, with his sons lined in a row, every one he would afterward run past would be spared. When the executioner’s sword fell, “Dietrich’s head rolled to the ground, but his bloodied torso stood erect and lunged forward, stumbling and swaying, until it passed every one of his sons. Finally, the headless body fell to its knees, a fountain of blood shooting high into the air where his head had been.” The sons were spared, and afterward, on the execution site, the repentant family erected the St. Clement Chapel. According to Hauck, Dietrich’s headless ghost is sometimes seen inside the chapel. Also, “Dietrich is buried on the property and his red sandstone marker depicts a knight in armor with no head.”

Actually, the stone, described by Victor Hugo after visiting the castle, did not bear Dietrich’s name, and Hugo said it was from the fourteenth century. In any event, it had been in a pile of rubble, and its whereabouts are now unknown. As to the chapel, an archaeology student at work there, Mirko Gutjahr, told us the chapel existed before the time of Dietrich’s purported execution and that it was probably built in memory of sailors who drowned in the rough waters of the Rhine. Moreover, according to a history of the castle (Tour, n.d.): “Contrary to the legend, Dietrich of Hohenfels was not decapitated, but escaped. His ‘companions’ were hung on the trees in the valley by order of Rudolf von Habsburg.”

Significantly, Martin Mahner recalled a variant of the beheading tale and tracked down a source (“Pirate” 2002). The tale features a pirate, Klaus Störtebeker, who was captured in 1401. Kneeling before the executioner, he proposed a deal: “All those companions should be reprieved whom he could manage to walk by after being beheaded. This way he saved the lives of eleven pirates before the malicious executioner tripped him.”

I suspect the robber-knights’ tale is actually a late variant derived from the pirates’ tale, but that both—describing a physiological impossibility (the post-beheading walk)—seem ultimately to derive from a fictional account.

Phantom of the Well

At the mouth of the Niagara River—where four Great Lakes flow into Lake Ontario—stands Old Fort Niagara. For over three centuries, garrisons maintained defenses at the site, beginning with the French (1678—1759), then, following a siege, the British (1759—1796), and, as a result of negotiations after the Revolutionary War, the Americans (1796—1963). It was subsequently restored as a historic site, open to the public, the only vestige of active military use being a Coast Guard station located there (Dunnigan 1985).

I have paid several visits to the fort and spent many pleasant hours there, much of the time investigating the reputed haunting of the well inside the “French Castle.” The nucleus of the original fort, that structure is said to be “probably the oldest building in North America between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River” (Dunnigan 1985, 44).

According to an elaborate folktale, the stone building was once the site of a gruesome tragedy. During the French occupation, the garrison was supposedly hosting a frontier ball, the dance being intended to relieve the long winter months. Unfortunately, an excess of wine sparked an argument over one of the Indian women. Two men drew their swords, and, after much dueling, one forced the other down the stairs to the ground-floor vestibule. The latter lost his step and fell, whereupon the other ran him through.

The victor panicked, fearing the consequences of his act, and determined to dismember and dispose of the body in turbulent Lake Ontario. However, no sooner had he dispensed with the head than he heard others coming and quickly heaved the body down the well. Reportedly, “The evidence disappeared with a splash, and the fate of the missing officer was never discovered. For years afterwards, however, on nights of a full moon, British and American occupants of the castle often saw and heard a headless apparition restlessly seeking its missing head!”

The earliest published version of the ghost story is much skimpier. Appearing in Samuel De Vaux’s The Falls of Niagara in 1839, it reads:

There were many legendary stories about the fort . . . and it was a story with the soldiers and believed by the superstitious, that at midnight the headless trunk of a French general officer was often seen sitting on the curb of the old well, where he had been murdered and his body thrown in.

Over the years, raconteurs and authors of local guidebooks embroidered the tale, which became known across the Niagara region (Dunnigan 1989).

Despite ghostly shenanigans such as unexplained noises and other occurrences—potentially the result of misperceptions of mundane phenomena (a loose shutter on one occasion, for instance)—“the elusive ghost of the French Castle has yet to appear to modern eyes,” according to castle historian Brian Dunnigan (1989, 104). Dunnigan himself once thought he saw the ghostly figure sitting hunched on the well, but when he got closer, he recognized the shape was a heap of Christmas greenery and other decorations to be disposed of (Diachun 2003). The apparition was a simulacrum (a random pattern which the brain interprets as something specific—the face of the Man in the Moon, for example [see Nickell 2004]).

Tour guide Elaine Kasprzyk (2002) confirmed that, to date, no one had reported seeing the ghost during overnight stays there. She added that the story was implausible in its details—for instance, there never would have been such a party with the Indians. Moreover, excavation of the well failed to uncover the expected bones of the murdered soldier. She said that typically (as did happen on our tour) a child would persist in believing the haunting tale. After she had explained that the story was untrue and the ghost nonexistent, a boy or girl would ask, “Have you ever seen the ghost?” or “Has he ever found his head?”

Spirits at the Tower

Among the world’s most famous headless ghosts is that of Anne Boleyn (1507—1536), King Henry VIII’s second wife, who in 1536 was beheaded at the Tower of London. Hers is “one of the gruesome ghosts” alleged to haunt the medieval fortress and royal palace turned prison (Hauck 2000, 52). It is called “England’s Most Haunted Building” (Jones 2004, 59). Anne was among many—including one of her accusers, Thomas Cromwell, and a later wife of Henry, Catherine Howard—who were beheaded at the Tower.

As with the later Catherine, Anne Boleyn was charged with adultery. Actually, Henry had tired of her and had fallen in love with another (Jane Seymour, who would become her immediate successor), and the charges seemed largely or completely trumped up. All of her six alleged lovers denied the accusations, although the torture chamber elicited a confession from one (Hibbert 1971, 52—55). The charge against another, her half brother, with whom she allegedly committed incest, was “invented by Thomas Cromwell” (Webster’s 1997, 147). Perhaps the most celebrated of the accused was Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503—1542) the poet who introduced the Petrarchian sonnet to England. (Interestingly, my own ancestry traces back—through Rev. Haute Wyatt, a minister at Jamestown—to the famous bard.1) Wyatt was twice imprisoned in the Tower but never lost his head.

Also reportedly seen at the Tower is the apparition of Lady Jane Grey (1537—1554). A nominal queen of England during a power play, she reigned just nine days before she and her husband were imprisoned and beheaded. It is unclear whether her specter is headless, being described as a “white shapeless ghost” (Hauck 2000, 52).

The same uncertainty attends the most dramatic of the Tower’s spirits, the reputed ghost of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. A target of Henry VIII’s political vengeance (her son had vilified his claim to be head of the Church of England), she was ordered executed. The tough old lady supposedly refused to kneel for the executioner, who chased her screaming around the scaffold and “literally hacked her to death” (Jones 2004, 61). A less sensational account (Hibbert 1971, 65) states that

The proud woman had refused to put her gray head on the block as that was what traitors did. She had so shaken it from side to side—as though inviting the executioner to get it off as best he could—that her neck and shoulders were hideously hacked about before the decapitation was accomplished.

Nevertheless, suiting the more dramatic version of the events, in some tales, her head has been restored so that “her screaming phantom continues to be chased throughout eternity by a ghostly executioner” (Jones 2004, 61). A quite serene ghost of Margaret Pole reportedly also haunts Dundridge Manor in St. Leonards, Buckinghamshire. It is “seen in broad daylight walking through the manor corridors, and sometimes the swishing of her skirts can also be heard.”

Markedly different apparitions aside, we find that, as is typically the case at other reputed haunting sites, apparitions are really relatively scarce. Richard Jones, author of Haunted London (2004, 8), admits that hauntings can assume many different forms. It is, in fact, very rare for people to actually “see” a ghost. People sense them, smell them, and hear them, but a full-blown manifestation tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

This is consistent with the skeptics’ view that there are no haunted places, only haunted people. Seeming to sense a ghostly presence may be no more than the imagination at work. Apparitions can result from a “waking dream” (that occurs in the twilight between being fully awake or asleep) or other dissociative state (such as daydreaming), when imagery can well up from the subconscious and be superimposed briefly on the visual scene, something of a mental double exposure. Ghosts are thus invariably clothed as expected, a requisite of the apparitional story and setting (Nickell 2001).

When I visited the Tower of London many years ago2—walking among the regalia-clad Yeomen Warders known as Beefeaters, exploring the forbidding white Tower with its winding corridors, and perusing the dazzling Crown Jewels—I neither saw nor experienced any ghosts. Yet, like anyone else, I could feel the impress of history and, had I been so inclined, could easily have imagined myself in the midst of a ghostly drama, subjectively directing whether the ghosts would be headless or not.


  1. This is according to the genealogical chart of my mother, the late Ella T. Nickell (n.d.) which records Rev. Haute Wyatt as her eighth great-grandfather. He was a great-grandson of Sir Thomas Wyatt (Perkins 2004).
  2. December 30, 1970.


Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at