Bettiscombe is a small village and civil parish in west Dorset, England, situated in the Marshwood Vale 4 miles (6.4 km) west of Beaminster. Dorset County Council’s 2012 mid-year estimate of the population of the civil parish is 70.
This version of the legend comes to us from The Castle of Spirits website: “84 Bettiscombe Manor located in a village of the same name, near Lyme Regis in Dorset, England is the home of the very famous legend of the screaming skull. There are a few stories around that involve screaming skulls but this would be the most famous. The original story tells of Azariah Pinney who was banished to the West Indies in 1685 for supporting the Duke of Monmouth. He soon became a very successfull businessman and returned back to his home of England with one of his black slaves. The slave, often thought to have been a West Indian native but could also have been African, as most slaves were in those days, became ill and upon his death bed made one last request, that his body be buried back in his native home. Here we find some variation in the story – he also was said to have demanded that his body be returned to native ground or a terrible curse would befall Bettiscombe.
“Azariah promised him that he would fulfill that last request and the slave passed away soon after. The promise was never kept and Azariah buried him in the local churchyard located a short distance from the house. As soon as the body was buried people began hearing roars, moans and screams coming from where the body was buried. The locals didn’t take too kindly to the noisy corpse who both terrified and annoyed their peaceful country village and Azariah was forced to removed the body at once. The slave was then removed and placed up in a loft back at Bettiscombe Manor where it slowly perished and somehow only the skull remained (some versions of this story tell of the body being shipped back to it’s home in West Indies/Africa and the skull remaining behind).
“Over the years many attempts to get rid of the skull have been made only to find soon after it’s removal that screams and other strange phenomena would soon follow it’s removal and not cease until it was placed back inside the manor. One instance the skull was thrown into the depths of a nearby pond, by a resident of the manor – he was said to be so appaled by the appearance of the skull that he immediately ran outside and threw it into the local pond. The resident was trouble by screams and moans all night long and the next day quickly retrieved the skull and replaced it back inside the manor where it resided for a while nice and quietly. GraveyardIt is said that on one particular night of the year a ghostly coach hurtles up the road from Bettiscombe Manor to the local Churchyard, the locals call this incident “the funeral procession of the skull”. A writer by the name of Eric Marple spent a night in the manor with the skull in the 1960’s and claimed to of not heard any screaming but was apparently plagued by nightmares. He declined an offer to stay a second night and hastily left the manor.
“The owners of Bettiscombe manor are now never bothered by the skull – they of course never remove it from it’s home in a box in a bureau drawer. The skull has plenty of mystery surrounding it – no one is sure if any of the stories are true.In 1963 an archaeologist named Michael Pinney owned Bettiscombe manor and had the skull examined by a pathologist, who determined the skull did not belong to a Negro man at all. Rather it belonged to a European woman who died 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The fossilised skull is believed to have been submerged in the well near the manor house, at the foot of Pilsdon Pen, a hill that covers an Iron Age ritual plot. The skull may have come from the hill itself, and the shiny surface of the skull may be the result of its immersion in the well and the minerals contained therein.
“Skulls or severed heads were often used as offerings to water spirits in ancient times – they were placed in wells and ponds and believed to hold spirits who would protect and guard the homestead as long as they were treated with respect. The sacred heads were feared so much that many would not even speak of where the heads lay for fear of bad luck. Stone heads were also used for guardian and luck purposes and can still be seen to this day around England and the UK.
To add further to the confusion about the skulls origins another popular story is that Azariah and the slave originally had a fight to the death, the skull being the only thing that remained of the looser, only nobody knows which one lost!.
“In 1874, Judge J.S. Udal recorded that the skull had been preserved on the premises ‘for a time long antecedent to the present tenancy’ and ‘the peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house, the house itself would rock to its foundation, while the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year’.”
Wikipedia provides a some different details: “Bettiscombe Manor, a manor house in the village, is known as ‘The House of the Screaming Skull’ due to a legend dating from the 17th century. Other ghost stories are also associated with the manor.
‘The legend maintains that the skull is that of a Jamaican slave. John Frederick Pinney disposed of the Nevis estates and returned to the family home of Bettiscombe Manor in the early nineteenth century, accompanied by one of the family’s faithful black servants. While in his master’s service, the servant was taken seriously ill with suspected tuberculosis. As he lay dying, the servant swore that he would never rest unless his body was returned to his homeland of Nevis, but when he died, John Frederick Pinney refused to pay for such an expensive burial and instead had the body interred in the grounds of St. Stephen’s Church cemetery. After the burial, ill fortune plagued the village for many months and screams and crying were heard coming from the cemetery. Other disturbances were reported from the manor house, such as windows rattling and doors slamming of their own accord. The villagers went to the manor to seek advice. The body of the servant was exhumed and the body taken to the manor house. In the process of time the skeleton has long since vanished, except for the skull where it has remained in the house for centuries.
‘In 1963 a professor of human and comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons stated that the skull was not that of a black man but that of a European female aged between twenty-five and thirty.
The website Mountravers Plantation (Pinney’s Estate), Nevis, West Indies (by Christine Eickelmann and David Small) tells us about the island plantation at the center of this story. “Mountravers, also known as ‘Pinney’s Estate’, was a medium-sized sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Nevis. It was made up of several estates and tracts of land. From the late seventeenth century until slavery was abolished in 1834, more than 750 enslaved people are now known to have lived on Mountravers. Successive members of the Pinney family owned the plantation, among them John Pretor Pinney, who settled in Bristol, England, in 1784. His family home in Bristol is now the city’s Georgian House Museum. Nevis was the premier landing point for slaves in the Leeward Islands between 1675 and 1730, and Bristol was the most important British slaving port in the 1730s.”
Dark Dorset by Robert J. Newland and Mark J. North explains, “By the time John Pretor Pinney left Nevis in 1783 to settle down in Bristol, the Mountravers plantation was one of the most successful estates in all the Caribbean. Dependent on the labour of their black slaves, the estate produced about 30,000 kg (66,000 lb) of sugar annually and 32,800 litres (7000 gallons) of rum, and comprised of 393 acres, extending from the top of Mount Nevis on down to the sea. His combined estates have about 2000 slaves; a male slave was then worth about £50, a woman £37 and children about £14. John Prector Pinney’s son John Frederick Pinney (the second), in 1811 begins the sale (finalised in 1816) of the estate including, Mountravers and other properties to Edward Huggins for £35,650 (about £1.75 million today).” Anne Marie Pinney’s notes on the family’s papers mentions “the skull,” but no other mention is made.
Mountravers, also known as ‘Pinney’s Estate’, was a medium-sized sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Nevis. It was made up of several estates and tracts of land. From the late seventeenth century until slavery was abolished in 1834, more than 750 enslaved people are now known to have lived on Mountravers. Successive members of the Pinney family owned the plantation, among them John Pretor Pinney, who settled in Bristol, England, in 1784. His family home in Bristol is now the city’s Georgian House Museum.
Nevis was the premier landing point for slaves in the Leeward Islands between 1675 and 1730, and Bristol was the most important British slaving port in the 1730s.
This folktale brings us to the America writer, Francis Crawford. Francis Marion Crawford (August 2, 1854 – April 9, 1909) was an American writer noted for his many novels, especially those set in Italy, and for his classic weird and fantastic stories. Several of his short stories, such as “The Upper Berth” (1886; written in 1885), “For the Blood Is the Life” (1905, a vampiress tale), “The Dead Smile” (1899), and “The Screaming Skull” (1908), are often-anthologized classics of the horror genre. An essay on Crawford’s weird tales can be found in S. T. Joshi’s The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004); there are many other essays and introductions. The collected weird stories were posthumously published in 1911 as Wandering Ghosts in the U.S. and as Uncanny Tales in the UK, both without the long-forgotten “The King’s Messenger” (1907). The present definitive edition is that edited by Richard Dalby as Uncanny Tales and published by the Tartarus Press (1997; 2008).
A footnote follows the story of The Screaming Skull, which reads [Note. – Students of ghost lore and haunted houses will find the foundation of the foregoing story in the legends about a skull, which is still preserved in the farm-house called Bettiscombe Manor, situated, I believe, on the Dorset coast.]