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Phantom Drummers

By Thomas D'Agostino

Percussion is the foundation of a musical piece. The drummer or percussionist sets the tempo and rhythm of the score and the band follows in time to the beat. It creates quite a pleasure for the ears but when that drumming is the omen of ill or death, it is a horrible concert to behold.

Phantom drummers have been around since the Middle Ages and always foretell of some calamity or fulfill a curse thrown upon the listeners. Here are a few quick accounts that I remember reading about as a child. I am sure there are more but this will be a good introduction to the music from the other side.

The phantom drummer of Cortachy haunts the Scottish Earls of Airlie, the Ogilvys. The drummer is said to beat his drum before the death of a family member. The origin of this countenance hails back to medieval times when the messenger of an enemy appeared at Cortachy Castle with some unwanted news. The Oglivys stuffed the poor man in his drum and threw him over the side of the castle wall into the moat below. Another legend states it was a member of the Carlisle family who happened to incur the wrath of the lord of the castle. Before he was dispatched he swore he would haunt the family forevermore.

Since then the family has been haunted by the sound of drumming before the demise of an Ogilvy. Each time the drumming was heard the family would live in fear, wondering who would be the next to die. One of the most celebrated sightings of the drummer took place in 1844. The lady of Airlie and some guests heard the drumming while attending a dinner party at the castle. The lady soon took ill and died but before she passed she related to those at her side that she knew the drumming was for her. The phantom drummer of Tedworth is another product of a curse placed on a family.

In 1661, John Mompesson, a justice of the peace was sent before him a drummer named Drury who was accused of forging a note for money. Mompesson confiscated the man’s drum and instead of arresting him, sent him away without his prized instrument. The drummer then placed a curse on the Mompesson family that they should get no rest until his drum is returned to him. In the meantime Mompesson had the drum taken to his home for safekeeping.

Soon strange knocking began to wake the family at night. Then the drumming started. It came from the roof and seemed to fill the house. It always began just after the family retired for the evening. After about a month, the sounds moved inside the home and became louder. Many came to witness the annoying sounds of the constant drumming but could do nothing to quiet the rapping.

Drury, the man whose drum Mompesson had confiscated, was being held in the Gloucester Gaol where he had been sentenced for thievery. Upon questioning, he freely admitted bewitching Tedworth's justice of the peace. He boasted that he had plagued him and that Mompesson would have no peace until he had his drum returned to him. There is no conclusion as to whether the drum was returned or not but by the fact that the phantom drumming eventually ceased, Drury may have had his instrument returned to him.

America has its own phantom drummer legends. During the American Revolution, a British Colonel named Howell met the daughter of a wealthy farmer and a courtship followed. Because the family was fighting for the American cause, their meetings were held in a secret grove surrounded by trees as so not to be seen.

On the night the colonel proposed to his beloved the beating of a drum began in the distance and grew louder as it approached the couple. The invisible drummer continued his banging, passing by two until it disappeared in the distance. Colonel Howell then explained in fear that a family member hears the phantom drums when a change in fortune is about to take place.

The next day the Colonel was shot in a skirmish and brought to the farmhouse where the girl’s father helped care for him and even took a liking to him. Colonel Howell recovered from his wound and with the consent of the father, went on the desert the British army and marry his love. The ceremony took place in the farmer’s great parlor to fit the large amount of guests invited. The moment the Colonel slipped the ring on her finger, the faint sound of drumming permeated the air. The sound came into the room and after passing the astonished guests, passed through the far wall. In an instant all was silent until the pounding on the door broke the spell. It was British soldiers that had come to arrest the Colonel for desertion. One of the family servants, in their hatred for the British had relayed the Colonel’s intentions to officers of the other side.

Howell was tried, convicted and shot for desertion. The very moment he was shot, the sound of a drum roll could be heard fading off into the distance.