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The Severed Head

Sir Richard Owen's Ghost Story

England. 1893.

The late scientist and physician Sir Richard Owen used to relate a remarkable ghost story. In his early days, when he held the post of surgeon to the prison at Lancaster, a man died in jail, and a postmortem as well as an inquest was necessary. After the inquest the young surgeon saw the body put in the coffin and the lid screwed down, to be ready for the funeral next day. Owen had at the time been already attracted to the study of comparative anatomy, and heads were not plentiful, so he made up his mind that this one should not be lost to the cause of science. In the evening he returned to the prison with a black bag containing a brick—from his official position he had no difficulty in getting admittance to the mortuary, where the coffin lid was unscrewed and screwed down again. During this process the brick and the dead man’s head changed places.

The ground outside the principal entrance to the jail had a considerable descent, and the time being winter, with snow and frost, Owen had scarcely passed out when he slipped and fell all his length —the bag went from his hand and the head tumbled out and rolled down the paved way. He got up, caught the bag, and following the head, clutched it just as it finished its career in a small shop where tobacco was sold. Pushing it into the bag again, he vanished out of the shop with all the speed he was capable of.

Next morning, when Owen was going to his usual duties at the prison, he was called in by the woman at the shop where the accident had occurred on the previous evening. She wished him to see her husband, who was very ill. He had had, she said, a fright the night before that caused him to look wild and dazed-like. The man, it turned out, was a retired sea captain who had been in many adventures among the islands where dark deeds were done that did not at that time require to be accounted for. Among these had been the killing of a man in which he had hand, and the transaction had left a touch of trouble on his conscience. After giving these details, the old captain told of the horrible event that took place the night before.

He was sitting in his shop. All was quiet, and it so chanced that he had been thinking of the murdered man, when suddenly he saw his severed head roll into the shop in front of the counter. The wayward head was followed by the devil all in black, with a black bag in his hand. The devil snatched up the head, and both disappeared through the earth like a flash of lightning.

The description was perhaps not quite complimentary to the young anatomist, but it was satisfactory so far that it showed that his identity had not been recognized.

Newspaper Citation. “SIR RICHARD OWEN’S GHOST STORY. It was fearfully real to the man who saw the severed head rolling in.” Knoxville, TN: Knoxville Daily journal, February 19, 1893. This article is in the public domain and is part of the cited work.