Thursday, 15 July 2010

St Swithin's Day

It being St Swithin's Day today, I thought I'd reprint the following local ghost legend from Gilmer County, West Virginia:

Annie Reaser had come to help with the house-work, as a member of the family. Our flattering attention to her store of folklore brought out the tale of a ghost who caused forty days rain because he did not like his resting place.
'He was a good man' said Annie 'And he liked the church so well that he never missed a meeting day, and he was there for evening prayer meeting, in time to light the candles and hand the hymn books around.
'When his time came to die, seeing he was a lone man with no row of family graves in the churchyard, the deacons thought of letting him lie close to the church he had served so long.
'So they laid him right near, but a little too close, for when a rain came, the drip from the eaves of the church fell right down on the new-made grave. Careless like, too, they forgot to bury his measuring rod alongside his coffin.
'Soon, strange tales were told about folks hearing a clatter at the back of the church, and some said the measuring rod was never laid twice in the same place. But the noise stopped when anybody went to look, and few did that, for it rained and rained all that spring, and no one could put in crops, nor a garden either.
'Week after week, that rapping agin the church walls kept time to the hymn-tunes the folks sang, and the rain beat on the roof like drums. At last, one late spring Sunday, the deacons and elders had a meeting, after the preaching, and all agreed something must be done. Next morning, they came with spades and shovels, and picked out a place at the far end of the churchyard.
'No sooner was the first spadeful of ground dug up, than the sun shone through the mist, and the sky cleared off. So they laid the old man alongside his friends - and his measuring rod, they buried that too. They read the burial service over him once more, for good measure, and there he lies, quiet and peaceful, till the Judgement day. But you watch and see - if there comes a hard rain on the fifteenth of July (they say that was his birthday), it'll still rain every day for forty days.''
(Blanche Whiting Keysner, 'The Measuring Rod', Keystone Folklore Quarterly, 1.2 (1956), 14-16)

Blanche Whiting Keysner, who recalled Annie Reaser's tale, noted that this was a migratory version of St Swithin's story, although his name had been lost along the way. According to the local English tale, rain on St Swithin's Day will be followed by 40 days of rain as the saint's burial was delayed for 40 days by bad weather. Here that motif survives, but it doesn't really make sense in the context so it's expanded by the slightly confusing detail about rain on the coffin, and augmented with another local tradition about burying the measuring rod.

I came across the article because Indiana University is making freely available online some journal holdings that are not so easily found (certainly in British libraries). These will migrate eventually to Google Books, but at the moment they're hosted on the HathiTrust Digital Library. They include: Keystone Folklore; Keystone Folklore Quarterly; Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review; and Folklore Historian.

HathiTrust has some other holdings of interest for folklorists. I suspect I'll be spending some time with them over the next few days - after all, it has just started raining.


  1. "These will migrate eventually to Google Books, but at the moment they're hosted on the HathiTrust Digital Library."

    Actually, whatever Google does with these titles, they will remain in HathiTrust.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for clarifying that. It wasn't clear from the original e-mail I saw, and I'm pleased to hear it.