28 Dec The Melancholy of Herbert Solomon
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"The Melancholy of Herbert Solomon"Written by Michael Whitehouse
Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
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 a rather interesting tome hidden away in a dark and musty corner of the 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 were 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.
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 upon first viewing it.
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 of 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 monstrous. Prominent veins protruded from his forehead leading up to a pallid bald head, 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, and a rather unusual name: ‘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.
Within the book I found numerous mentions of Herbert Solomon, and it became clear quickly that he was indeed the emaciated man in the picture. He had lived in the 16th century on the outskirts of Ettrick 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 town. 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 the 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 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 only to take some wool over to the Munro place as way of a 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 and the people of Ettrick 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.
Herbert Solomon 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 watching the farmers till their land, and their children play in the fields. It was his fascination with children which left many feeling uneasy. Some of the town’s children 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, and being innocent children they could not know of the dangers therein.
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 the 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 Herbert Solomon.
Details of exactly what occurred that night are limited, but it seems as though the people of Ettrick town attempted to remove Herbert from his small cabin by setting it on fire. The crowds cheered as the heat grew and the fire rose. His screams echoed throughout the woods finally to be silenced by the flames.
The townsfolk believed that justice had been done, and while the grief of the parents whom 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 the entire town. 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 woken up during the night to 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 nearly die of shock 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 comprised of tightly pulled skin over a bony interior.
Another story consisted 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, but he refused to re-enter his premises.
It became clear to the townspeople that the vengeful ghost of Herbert Solomon was still searching for other victims from beyond the grave. His hate and hideous form haunting the town which 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.
Then the unthinkable happened; another child went missing. 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.
The screaming ceased quickly and moments later wandering aimlessly out of the fog came the menacing figure of Herbert Solomon. 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 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.
During a church service the unthinkable happened, 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.
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 McKenzie was asked by the people of Ettrick to use any sacred power which was ordained to him. In an attempt to destroy or banish the spirit of Solomon, a plan was provided. 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 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, McKenzie’s chosen waited. They did not, however, need to wait long. That night the lonely figure of Herbert Solomon appeared through the mist, walking the streets of Ettrick with purpose. Yells and screams rang out as people alerted one another that Solomon had returned.
Families held their children close as dark thoughts consumed the town: Please spare my child, take another’s.
McKenzie was the first to confront him. His will was shaken by the sight of Solomon’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 Herbert Solomon was surrounded. McKenzie instructed the men to slowly close the circle, drawing their swords with one hand while brandishing flaming torches with the other.
Fear gripped them, but they knew that this could be their only chance. McKenzie 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.
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 pathetic figure as it negotiated each street corner, lane, and courtyard in an attempt to escape their rage.
The noise alerted 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 way of a makeshift weapon. They flooded the streets and ran towards the protestations, shouts and screams of Solomon’s pursuers.
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.
McKenzie 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, McKenzie approached slowly reciting verses from the bible. Through dark eyes Herbert Solomon observed the townsfolk, their faces etched with hate and thoughts of revenge, moving towards him and then, he simply turned and entered an open doorway next to him.
The people gasped and MacKenzie 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 house, disappointed to find nothing.
Then something miraculous occurred, the little girl gasped for air – she was alive.
She had little or no strength, all she could do was utter one word: Below.
In the cellar of the house McKenzie found a grim and horrific scene. The floor was covered in blood and the quite 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 horrible winter slowly lifted and all seemed well. On regaining their strength, the children recounted what had befallen them.
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 whom had killed her. No one knew for sure, but many were aware of his bad temper and on more than one occasion he had beaten poor Alana.
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 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 untied one of the children and pinned 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, 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 was free, but too weak to run. She fainted 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 the events which I experienced several months after reading that old book, in the depths of St Andrews University.
A colleague and dear friend of mine invited me to stay at his family home for a few days in the countryside. I knew that the house was in the borders, not half an hour’s drive from Ettrick and could not miss the chance to have a closer look at the area. I had managed to persuade the powers-at-be to allow me to take the book from St Andrews and show it to my friend. He had a particular interest and not insignificant knowledge of the history of the area. I thought perhaps he could shine a light on this curious tale.
His family were very to kind to me, and the house and its grounds were serene in the summer sun, with his children playing in the fields having a carefree and happy time. After reading the book he told me that it was fascinating, and that he knew of a local poem which had been written in the 17th century about a man called Solomon who killed children, but he could not tell me any more.
The next day we heard screams coming from nearby the house; it was my friend’s little girl. We raced outside. Following the cries for help over an old fence and down a steep grassy hill, we reached a winding and furious river. The girl 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 my friend let out a scream of anguish as his daughter lost her grip, being 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 was throwing her around with such force that it was difficult to see how she could survive.
Filled with the abject terror that she could drown we finally made it to the water’s edge. As we rushed into the murky torrent we watched helplessly as the poor little girl was about to crash into the rocks.
We were too far away!
Suddenly our attention was 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, stared at us from across the water through darkened eyes as we ourselves clambered to safety, then turned and disappeared 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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