Once upon a time, not so long ago, decks of cards were referred to as "the Devil's picture-books", for card games lead to gambling, and gambling leads to damnation. And there have been many tales told over the years to illustrate this point. Take for example the legend of the Holbeach Gamesters... Now Holbeach is a little market town in the fenlands of southern Lincolnshire, believed to date back to Roman times at least. And to this day, stories are still told that warn the unwary not only of the perils of card playing but also to steer clear of All Saints Church after nightfall. Like many old tales, there have been several variations told over the years, but the essential details remain the same.
According to most versions, the strange events took place in 1793 after a man named Codling, or sometimes Farmer Guymer, passed away. He was part of a group known locally as the Holbeach Gamesters, four friends who loved to play cards, often at the Chequers Hotel. After this jolly gent's passing, the surviving three, men named Watson, Slator and Barker according to most versions, were drinking together and mourning their friend. They were bemoaning the fact that their games would never be the same now their quartet was shrunk to a trio, when one of them had a great idea - well, what seemed a great idea to a drunken fellow that is - they would have one last game with their departed friend! So the three made their way from The Chequers Hotel over the road to All Saints Church. Many versions of the tale hold that there, Codling's coffin was already lying inside, ready for his funeral on the morrow. But some insist that the departed gamester was already buried, and so armed with lanterns, shovels, and pitchers of ale, the three friends set about disinterred him from his freshly filled in grave.
Either way, the end result was the three men ended up sat inside the church with the corpse of their friend, and set about a final session of cards with him. The tale often has them using the very altar as a table, others the coffin, and another version has them propping up the cadaver of their old chum by wedging him in the altar rail. However regardless of the specifics, a game of cards was had with the corpse playing a dummy hand (it is often said whist was their game of choice), or his surviving friends taking his turn for him. Full of ale, the gamesters had a fine old time, joking that the dear departed was doing better than ever. Of course, things were to take a darker turn. As the hands of the clock crept towards midnight, they noticed that their dead friend's face had developed a nasty leering grin. And worse was to come - for as the chimes of midnight sounded, the corpse began to laugh. One version goes further, and has our card playing fellows looking around to see the Devil himself taking the place of their dead compatriot.
What followed is the subject of some controversy. In some variants, the foolhardy fellows continued their game, determined to finish the hand even after these ominous events. However most versions end up in the same place - with demons or goblins rising up from the church floor or flying out of the crypt, and dragging the trio off to Hell. And according to some there is a final ghoulish detail, that the only trace of the gamesters was that on the morrow the congregation were met by the grinning corpse still propped up by the altar.
But one version reckons that Slator managed to avoid the clutches of the fiends and escaped out of the church door. He dashed back to the Chequers Hotel and there, no doubt fortified with yet more drink, he gathered a party of men and hurried back to rescue his friends from the horrors. However on reaching the benighted church, they did not dare enter. For coming from within, they heard peals of hideous laughter and horrible screams. It was only when morning broke that they chanced venturing inside. They found no sign of Watson and Barker.
But it is said that if you should pass by All Saints after dark, you may see flickering lights within the church. And should you be brave enough, or maybe that should be foolish enough, to take a look inside, there you will see the lost gamesters, presumably now damned to play for all eternity. And according to some, the phantoms will eagerly invite the foolish join them in their infernal never-ending game...
Now like many a folk-tale, this legend from Lincolnshire operates on a variety of levels. To begin with, it is simply an entertaining yarn, one that may raise a shudder or two, or depending on the teller, possibly some ghoulish laughter. And certainly it appears to have been a popular tale, given that it exists in several variations. For as a rule of thumb, the more enduring an old tale is, the more variants of it you can find.
Initially it would appear to be a fairly standard European folk-tale, and given that it features ghosts, goblins and the Devil himself dealing out supernatural vengeance or justice, you could be forgiven for thinking its origin was as a cautionary tale. Certainly its narrative seems tailor-made to illustrate the moral message that cards, ale, and disrespect for the dead and the church will drag you down to Hell. However there is more to the story of the Holbeach Gamesters than first meets the eye, for while it definitely fits the traditional pattern of the cautionary tale, a little research uncovers a rather different origin.
Now I first encountered a stripped down version of the tale in a most unusual place. British confectionery giant Trebor launched a new range of sweets at the end of the 1970s called Mummies. These rolls of black hard sweets promised a "taste of the tomb" in the form of "hidden fruit flavours". They came two varieties with different fillings - soft centres in red packets, and sherbert in green ones. However both varieties featured one of Trebor's marketing gimmicks - printed on the inside of the roll's paper sleeve was a "Tale from the Tomb". There were twelve to collect and featured some well-known spooky legends such as the curse of King Tut's tomb, but many featured more obscure tales drawn from folklore. And #2 in the series was entitled "The Gambling Corpse" - a pocket-sized version of the legend of the Holbeach Gamesters!
Now as we have noted there are several variations of the story, ranging from the simplest where the three friends break just into the church to play cards and disturb the body of woman laid for a funeral, to a more elaborate version recounted by a former vicar of All Saints that folklorist Ethel Rudkin recorded in 1931. Delving further back in time, we find the story being recounted in verse, with the very popular Victorian poet Eliza Cooke retelling the tale in the poem The Sacrilegous Gamesters which appeared in her collection Melaia, and Other Poems in 1843.
However the earliest properly dated version was written in 1800 by Thomas Hardwicke Rawnsley, a rector in Bourne, Lincolnshire, who is now best remembered for his friendship with the poet Tennyson. However Rawnsley penned some verse too, in particular this ballad, which when it was first printed was billed as a true story...
The Three Revellers; or Impiety Punished
A Legend of Holbech
In the bleak noxious Fen that to Lincoln pertains
Where agues assert their fell sway,
There the Bittern hoarse moans and the seamew* complains
As she flits o'er the watery way.
While with strains thus discordant, the natives of air
With screams and with shrieks the ear strike,
The toad and the frog croaking notes of despair
Join the din, from the bog and the dyke.
Mid scenes that the senses annoy and appal
Sad and sullen old Holbech appears,
As if doomed to bewail her hard fate from the Fall,
Like a Niobe washed with her tears.
From fogs pestilential that hovered around,
To ward off despair and disease,
The juice of the grape was most generous found.
Source of comfort, of joy, and of ease.
At the "Chequers" long famed to quaff then did delight
The Burghers both ancient and young.
With smoking and cards, passed the dull winter night.
They joked and they laughed and they sung.
Three revellers left, when the midnight was come.
Unable their game to pursue.
Repaired, most unhallowed, to visit the tomb
Where enshrouded lay one of their crew.
For he, late-departed, renowned was at whist.
The marsh-men still tell of his fame,
Till Death with a spade struck the cards from his fist
And spoiled both his hand and his game.
Cold and damp was the night; thro' the churchyard they prowled,
As wolves by fierce hunger subdued,
'Gainst the doors they huge gravestones impetuous rolled
Which recoiled at such violence rude.
From the sepulchre's jaws their old comrade uncased,
(How chilling the tale to relate),
Upreared 'gainst the wall on the table was placed
A corpse, in funereal state.
By a taper's faint blaze and with Luna's faint light
That would sometimes emit them a ray,
The cards were produced, and they cut with delight
To know who with "Dumby" should play.
Exalted on basses the bravoes kneeled round
Exulting and proud of the deed,
To Dumby they bent with respect most profound
And said "Sir! it is your turn to lead."
The game then commenced, when one offered him aid,
And affected to guide his cold hand
"While another cried out, "Bravo! Dumby, well played,
I see you've the cards at command."
Thus impious, they jokèd devoid of all grace.
When dread sounds shook the walls of the church,
And lo! Dumby sank down, and a ghost in his place
Shrieked dismal "Haste! haste! save your lurch!"
Astounded they stared; but the fiend disappeared
And Dumby again took his seat,
So they deemed 'twas but fancy, nor longer they feared
But swore that "Old Dumb should be beat."
Eight to nine was the game, Dumby's partner called loud
"Speak once, my old friend, or we're done
Remember our stake 'tis my coat or your shroud
Now answer and win — can you one?"
"What silent, my Dumby, when most I you need
Dame Fortune our wishes has crossed,"
When a voice from beneath, howled, "your fate is decreed
The game and the gamesters are lost."
Then strange! most terrific and horrid to view!
Three Demons thro' earth burst their way:
Each one chose his partner, his arms round him threw
And vanished in smoke with his prey.
* a local term for seagull
Now it is interesting to note that while this version is highly detailed, other versions of the tale do actually name the men involved. As we saw last week, one claims the men were Slator, Watson, Barker and Codling, while another puts two other fellows in the frame - Abraham Tegerdine, Mr Slater, Dr Jonathan Watson and Farmer Guymer. It is also curious that some versions actually give us a date for these eerie events at Holbeach, with the Barker/Codling variant reporting it took place in 1793, while other versions placing them a decade earlier in 1783. Now usually folklore tends to be somewhat vague on details such as names and dates, so then could this tale be, as Rawnley claimed, a true tale?
In the 19th century the first proper scholarly studies of folklore began - indeed the term 'folklore' was originally coined by the antiquarian William Thoms in 1846. Fortunately for us, the legend of Holbeach was one which was investigated by the pioneers of this new field of study, and the surprising truth is that the story was inspired by actual events! What really happened was this - there were indeed four fellows who loved a game of Long Whist - apparently named Dr John Watson, John Key, William Slator and a chap called Whedale. And in 1783 three of these fellows were indeed drinking in the Chequers Hotel, and mourning the death of their friend. Just like the legend, a mixture of grief and alcohol led these fellows to think it would be a fine idea to dig up their recently buried pal for one last game. And again just like the old tale, they broke into the church and sat round the altar with the corpse of their late friend to play cards.
But rather than ghosts and goblins breaking up the macabre party, it was something far more mundane. A local man was passing by All Saints and saw lights flickering inside the darkened church. He peered through the window and was rightly horrified by the ghoulish game, and hence ran to the Chequers and raised a gang of stout fellows to apprehend the gamesters. As far as we know the men escaped any criminal charges, but records preserved in local history tomes by Grant W. Macdonald, the clergyman at another Holbeach Church St. Marks in the 1890s, show that the gamesters did make payments for the damages to the grave.
However while they escaped criminal charges and the affair was very much hushed up, there was a deep sense of scandal with Ethel Rudkin reporting that years later the villagers still did not like to speak of it. In her introduction to The Sacrilegious Gamesters, Eliza Cooke claims that the stories she heard said that "the affair created so much horror and disgust, that the wretched profligates who enacted it were eventually compelled to quit the town". And according Rudkin, it was said that locals became a little nervous of venturing round All Saints after dark, and thus tales of a haunting began.
However, as ever with folklore, some mysteries still remain. Some twenty years later in 1803, one of the gamesters, Dr John Watson, apparently took his own life, although whether this was anything to do with the infamous gaming night at All Saints we do not know. What we do know though, is that ironically the doctor was denied a burial in the churchyard of All Saints. But this was nothing to do with his previous ghoulish antics, but because he was supposed a suicide, and therefore not allowed to be buried in consecrated soil. However rather being interred just outside the churchyard, Dr Watson was apparently buried in accordance with another piece of old folklore - out of town, on the Spalding Road, so that should he return as a ghost, his restless spirit would not be troubling the local people.