'The Melancholy of Herbert Solomon' | A Ghost Story by Michael Whitehouse

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On several occasions my interest in the supernatural has taken me to some of the most prestigious seats of learning in the entire United Kingdom. From the venerable halls of Oxford and Cambridge, to the more humble surroundings of inner city colleges and schools, my pursuit of evidence to substantiate such claims has rarely been fruitful. However, while exploring the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I found an intriguing tome hidden away in a dark and musty corner of the old campus library.

The book itself was unusual, its cover bound in a weathered and blackened leather which unashamedly wore the wrinkles and cracks of time. It dated back to the 16th century, and seemed to contain various descriptions and accounts of the daily lives of the people of Ettrick; a small isolated town built in the south moorlands of the country.

Perusing the volume there was a variety of entries from a number of authors spanning a 60 year period. It seemed to have been handed down from town elder to town elder over that time, and to be quite frank most of it contained idle musings on the townsfolk and plans for a number of humble building projects and improvements. But just as I was about to conclude that the book was of little interest to me, I noticed on the inside of the back cover that someone had drawn a picture. It was elegantly depicted, but I would never have described it as a pleasing sight, in fact my immediate reaction was one of disgust. 

The combination of the harsh, almost angry black lines used and the stark imagery of the scene, as relayed by the artist, left me with a thoroughly unpleasant impression of its subject. I shuddered as I cast my eye over it in an attempt to take-in the picture of what seemed to be a man, tall with long, thin arms and legs. His face was partially obscured by one of his gaunt white hands, but what could be seen was certainly monstrous. Prominent veins protruded from his forehead leading up to a pallid balding head with wisps of greying hair, his eyes were deep set into his skull and the surrounding woods seemed to twist and lean away from him fearfully.

At first I assumed that the picture was some form of hideous graffiti, but at the bottom of the page was inscribed the date of 1578, along with two unsettling words: Herbert Solomon. Whether this was the name of the menacing figure in the drawing or of the artist, I did not know.

Disturbed yet compelled by that dark woodland scene, I decided that the book required further study. I desired greatly to know who this creature was, and why someone had felt the need to capture his strange form in a drawing; a drawing at the back of a book otherwise used to record the lives of the townsfolk. On closer inspection what surprised me further was that the same image seemed to recur elsewhere in the book, but drawn by apparently different individuals. Scribblings, uncertain, almost unfinished depictions. A visual record of someone very much alive and present in the minds of the book’s many authors.

Within its pages I found numerous mentions of Herbert Solomon, and a detailed account of what happened to him. He had lived in the 16th century on the outskirts of the town. It was a small and underdeveloped place, surrounded on all sides by the thick cover of Ettrick forest, which itself sat in the midst of a vast region of southern moorland. The town had a small parish church with one humble steeple, an inn normally used by those travelling through the unforgiving countryside, and quaint cobbled streets which wound their way around the stone cottages and town hall. 

According to the descriptions in the book, during the December of 1577 children began to disappear from the area. The first was a young girl by the name of Alana Sutherland. She had been playing with some friends by an old well on the outskirts of town, but had dropped a small toy doll down it accidentally, which had caused her much distress. Unable to retrieve it, she returned home to borrow some string and an old hook in the hopes of being able to fish the doll out of the water below. She was last seen walking towards the well just as the sun set.

In a panic the townsfolk searched, they dredged and emptied the well, they combed the wheatfields, and even sent several groups of those willing into the surrounding woods. Alas, the girl was not found. A few days later a young boy by the name of Erik Kennedy was running an errand for his grandmother. It was dark, but he had to take some wool over to the Munro place as way of thanks for the grain they had provided, and they lived but only a few streets away. It was assumed that at least the centre of the town would be safe, but the boy never completed his errand. He vanished, as if he were torn from existence.

By the end of January an unusually bitter winter had caused significant damage to the town and its people. Large, thick sheets of ice and snow covered each house and building. Several people died from the cold alone, and the general mood of Ettrick town was a sombre one. Despite these trying times, the townspeople were more concerned with the safety of their offspring. In total, seven children had now disappeared without rhyme or reason. Whole families wept in despair as everyone began to view one another suspiciously. They knew the truth; someone was taking their children from them.

By mid February two more had went missing and accusatory glances were now being shared between every family, and every member of the community. The town elder decided to act, and took upon himself the arduous task of identifying and catching the fiend. Bureaucratic discussions were had, church groups convened, and in every house, in every street, in every corner of Ettrick, one name crossed the lips of its inhabitants: 'Herbert Solomon'. The more the name was mentioned, the more certain his guilt became.

He was an outsider. He lived in a small wooden cabin amongst the woods which surrounded the town, and due to his unfortunate appearance tended to avoid human contact. What his malady was no one was sure and in the unenlightened times of 16th century Scotland, many believe that he was cursed. Modern eyes would have guessed him to be the victim of a wasting disease. He rarely ventured into town, except on a few occasions to trade for supplies and even in those instances he covered his face with a brown tarnished hat and a grey piece of cloth, which obscured his features below two deep set and darkened eyes.

Several of the townsfolk told stories of Herbert Solomon, according to these accounts he would stand on the edge of the forest bathed in shadow, watching the farmers till their land and their little ones play in the fields. It was his fascination with children which left many feeling uneasy. Some had returned home from playing near the woods on a number of occasions with beautifully crafted dolls and toys. They were a present, from Herbert Solomon they said, and being innocent children they could not know of the dangers a strangers gift could hold.

When the children began to disappear, eyes immediately turned to the strange man living in the woods. Accusations were carried by the whispers of fearful parents, and as those whispers increased in number so did their volume, until it was decided that Herbert Solomon must be stopped. 

On a cold February night the elders of the town decreed that Solomon should be arrested immediately. Grief, anger, resentment, and fear grew to a fever pitch with this news and every man woman and child set out across the fields, entering into the surrounding forest in search of the child killer. Details of exactly what occurred that night were only recorded briefly, but it seemed as though the people of Ettrick town removed Solomon from his small cabin by force. One paragraph within the book stated that he had been knocked unconscious, beaten and then hanged, his body left to rot on a tree by the fields. 

The townsfolk believed that justice had been done, and while the grief of the parents who had lost their children could never be quenched, there was at least the satisfaction of knowing that the man responsible was now dead. However, over the following few days an unease descended upon that place. Stories began to spread of strange encounters in the streets at night; a gaunt shadowy figure prowling the cobbled stones, hiding in the darkness. 

Within a week numerous residents claimed to have been disturbed during the night by the petrifying sight of an unwelcome visitor. One account was of an elderly lady who woke to the sound of something rustling under her bed, only to scream in terror as a tall, thin man pulled himself out from underneath. She fainted, but not before she saw his face; a withered complexion as if ravaged by disease, his eyes blacker than night and his hands composed of tightly pulled skin over a bony interior.

Another story told of a local tradesman who, while investigating a noise from his cellar, was confronted by a hideous figure so tall and gaunt that it had to hunch over to avoid the low ceiling entirely, its sheet-white face flickering in the candlelight. The man managed to escape the intruder’s grasp, but not before being hounded and chased out into the street.

When one of the elders himself spoke of finding the nightly intruder with his hands placed on the head of his sleeping grandchild, it became clear to the townspeople that the ghost of Herbert Solomon had returned to seek his revenge. He was still searching for other victims from beyond the grave. His hate and hideous form haunting those who had murdered him.

With each passing day the sightings grew in intensity and number. A fog descended on the town, and the people wept and grieved as the sound of Herbert Solomon terrorised each person, night by night. He was seen wandering amongst the wheatfields, in the cellars and lofts of cottage houses, his long gaping footsteps ringing out each night through the streets of Ettrick town. They had been cursed. In life Herbert Solomon had taken and murdered their children, and now in death he seemed to possess the twisted means to terrorize the entire town once again.

Families were encouraged to take turns watching their children at night, never leaving them alone as the stuttered footsteps of Solomon creaked from nearby darkened corners. Then the unthinkable happened; another child was taken. A young orphan girl - who often wandered the streets when she could not find a place to call home for the night - was heard screaming for her life. The townsfolk rushed to their windows, looking out but not daring to leave the imaginary safety of their houses. Paralysed by fear all they could do was yell from their windows, “Solomon is here, the beast has come!”. 

The screaming ceased quickly, followed moments later by the menacing figure of Herbert Solomon, wandering out of the fog no doubt pleased by his most recent prey. He rushed down the street, his lifeless arms bashing against the houses which he passed, scraping the doors and windows with his rigid fingers, emitting an unnatural yell of anger and hatred on his way.

The girl was gone, and the town grieved once more.

In the proceeding days the fog grew denser and with it came the unwelcome news of two more children taken. One a 14 year old girl whom after having a raging argument with her family, left the house never to be seen again. The other a boy named Matthew, the son of a notable drunk, who was taken from his own bed by the hands of Solomon while the father lay unconscious from drink.

Sacrilage was now added to the campaign of terror being waged against the people of Ettrick from beyond the grave. During a holy service Solomon appeared briefly in the aisles of the church, seemingly unaffected by consecrated ground. The congregation whimpered in horror and disdain as his warped, spindly form walked slowly behind a pillar and then vanished. It was indeed a show of influence. A statement that even their God could not save them.

Hope was almost lost. Not even a place of worship could deny him, and he was now capable of entering any home at night and then taking whatever, or whoever he wished. The town had to act, or abandon the place altogether, but there was no guarantee that the curse of Solomon would not follow.

The local vicar, a man by the name of Colville was asked by the people of Ettrick to use any sacred power which was ordained to him to exorcise the foul curse of the creature. In an attempt to destroy or banish the spirit of Solomon, a plan was formulated. The vicar and a few chosen individuals armed with torches, swords which had been blessed, and vials of holy water, would take guard over the town waiting for the cursed figure of that child killer to show his deformed face once more.

Then they would confront him.

Observing as much of the town as possible from several house windows, roofs, and strategic street corners, Colville’s chosen waited. They did not, however, have to wait long. That night the ominious figure of Herbert Solomon appeared through the suffocating mist, walking the streets of Ettrick with purpose. Yells and screams rang out, announcing in terror that Solomon had returned. 

Families held their children close as dark thoughts consumed the town: Please spare my child, take another's.

Colville was the first to confront him. His will was shaken by the sight of the beast’s hideous pallid face, rotten and ravaged. The gangly spindling figure stood staring intently at the vicar through black, clouded eyes. Another man now joined, then another, before long Solomon was surrounded. Colville instructed the men to slowly close the circle, drawing their swords with one hand while brandishing flaming torches in the other.

Fear gripped them, but they knew that this could be their only chance to banish the curse. Colville threw a vial at Solomon's lumbering feet and as he uttered a Christian Psalm, another man struck out with his torch. The blow crackled as the cloth covered arm of Solomon caught fire. Cheers rang out from the townsfolk watching from their homes above, but the man had strayed to close, providing a gap in the circle which Solomon claimed with purpose. 

He fled.

His spindling legs and flailing arms cast spider like shadows on the walls and cobbled streets as he passed. The townsfolk gave chase, following the murderous figure as it negotiated each street corner, lane, and courtyard in an attempt to escape their rage. 

The noise alerted all others in the town: Herbert Solomon is trying to flee!

From every home across the town, people poured out of their houses carrying whatever they could as a makeshift weapon. They flooded the streets and ran towards the protestations, shouts and screams of their brethren. With every turn of a cobbled street corner, Solomon was running out of places to hide. Finally, as he stumbled down the town's main street, he stopped. The townsfolk had blocked all escape routes; he was trapped. 

Colville pushed his way to the front of the crowd, asking for quiet and calm as he approached the hunched defeated figure of Herbert Solomon. He and his chosen few were going to rid the town of Ettrick of this abomination once and for all. Vial in hand, accompanied by several large bullish men brandishing swords, Colville stepped towards the twisted figure slowly, reciting verses from the bible. Solomon stared intently at the vicar through darkened eyes, before looking into the faces of the families he had terrorised; the fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the children he had brutally taken. The crowd now closed ranks, moving towards him, fear for such a wretch now replaced by thoughts of vengeance. Then, the foul figure simply turned and entered an open doorway next to him.

The people gasped as Colville and his followers rushed inside after him. The house they had entered was still, and lying on the hard wooden floor of the main hallway was the pale body of a young girl. The creaking of floorboards under weight sounded above as numerous pursuers searched the building, disappointed to find nothing. 

Then something miraculous occurred, the little girl gasped for air – she was alive. She had little or no strength left in her tiny body, all she could do was whisper one word into the attentive ear of the vicar: Below.

In the cellar of the house Colville’s men found a grim and horrific scene. The floor was covered in blood and the dead body of a man lay face down upon it. Chained to the walls of that dim place were the children who had been taken. They were partially drugged, malnourished, and traumatised, but they were alive.

The town rejoiced with the news, families were reunited, lives were mended. The mist of a bleak and morbid winter slowly lifted, and all seemed well. On regaining their strength the children described their horrible ordeal. Each of them had been taken by a man called Tom Sutherland. He was the father of the first girl who had went missing, and it appeared that it was he who had killed her. No one knew for sure, but many were aware of his bad temper and on more than one occasion he had struck poor Alana in public. 

Consumed by guilt and loss, Sutherland began taking children at knife point and locking them in his cellar. Often drugging them with a local herb and occasionally beating them while pathetically weeping in self pity. On the day that the children were found, Sutherland had entered the cellar drunk, carrying a knife and rope. He began striking the children once more, and told them that one would die that day. He chose a young girl as his victim - she would “know Alana’s pain”. He dragged her to the floor before pinning her to the ground with his knees. The knife hovered over her neck, but just as he was about to plunge the blade into her fragile body, someone entered the house.

Sutherland grew ferocious with anger, but whoever was standing at the top of the staircase struck such fear into him that he quickly back peddled into the cellar. Ducking under the doorway was the tall scarred figure of Herbert Solomon. At the sight of him, and now being free, the little girl crawled quickly between Herbert's long legs. She made it to the top of the stairs, but was too weak to run, fainting before she could escape the house.

Details of what happened to Tom Sutherland were muddied by the unstable, semi-conscious condition of the witnesses. But it was clear that his neck was broken, his head twisted with such force that it faced an unnatural, opposite direction.

There were various accounts of subsequent glimpses of Herbert Solomon, and some of the children claimed to find beautifully crafted dolls and toys on occasion sitting at the edge of the woods, but of course this cannot be substantiated. 

Indeed, I would have said that the entire story could not be substantiated, if it were not for a newspaper article during subsequent research. The article had been written roughly two years before I  had stumbled across the book at St Andrews, and what it contained moved me greatly. 

It spoke of a couple and their young daughter picnicking on the edge of Ettrick Forest. Their daughter, only four years old at the time, was sleeping soundly on a blanket, and so in the summer sun, both parents nodded off after a couple of glasses of wine. They were woken by screams coming from nearby, and the realisation that their daughter was missing. Panic stricken, they followed the cries  for help over an old fence and down a steep grassy hill, where they reached a winding and furious river. Their daughter had fallen in and was clinging to a large tree root which thrust out from the opposite embankment into the water. The root was wet and with screams of anguish, they watched as their daughter lost her grip. She fell and was swept down stream towards a large formation of huge sharp rocks which jutted out from beneath the surface. The river would not let go and threw the little girl around with such force that it was difficult to see how she could survive.
Filled with the abject terror that their daughter was about to be dashed against the rocks, no doubt growing soon after, the couple finally made it to the water's edge. As they rushed into the murky torrent they watched helplessly as the poor little girl was about to crash into the rocks.
They were too far away to do anything about it.
Their attention was then suddenly grabbed by the cracks and creaks of a tall gaunt figure at the other side of the river, rushing out of the woods at tremendous speed on the opposite bank. With one swift motion a thin, bony hand plunged into the violent water, prevailing against the immense currents, finally pulling the young girl to safety.
She was alive. Frightened, crying, but alive and unhurt.
The pale faced, emaciated figure placed the girl gently on the ground, patted her on the head, and then stared at the parents from across the water through eyes which they described as dark and sad. He then returned back into the woods, fading away to nothing but a memory.
Even in death Herbert Solomon was the kindest and gentlest of souls.




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Michael Whitehouse: 'The Melancholy of Herbert Solomon' | A Ghost Story by Michael Whitehouse
'The Melancholy of Herbert Solomon' | A Ghost Story by Michael Whitehouse
Michael Whitehouse
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