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Footsteps of the past - part IV

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Footsteps of the past - part IV | story.one

I visited my aunty's house the following day to find out more about the blood-chilling tale of the vampire in our family history and once she showed me the black and white photographs of poor Matthew Halsall's chained grave, I remembered seeing them decades ago. They must have been passed around relatives but no-one had uttered the word vampire to us children. And, as a child, I didn't pay much attention back then. My impression was he was a seafarer and that's what the chains symbolised - now I've learnt what really happened to him and how he was said to rise from the dead.

It's not a story which stretches back centuries, but to the mid-19th century, before the Irish author Bram Stoker immortalised Whitby Abbey through his best selling 1897 Gothic horror novel, Dracula.

Matthew is known as the vampire of Ellen Vannin and his grave rests in the churchyard of Malew on the south side of the Isle of Man, an ancient land steeped in history and known for its legends, folklore, myths, magic and fairies. Manx people still say hello to Mooinjey veggey, or fey folk, as they cross the Fairy Bridge and thank the faeries when they cut down flowers or berries off elder trees as it's said they inhabit their roots.

Little is known of Matthew's life, other than he possibly committed suicide in 1854, leaving behind a wife, Margaret. Some say he was buried on unconsecrated ground because of the manner of death, though that wouldn't explain the grave itself. He was likely to be a direct descendant of Sir Henry Halsall, who settled on the island in 1502. Legend says Matthew's friends and family gathered at his wake, drinking large amounts of alcohol as was the norm at such an event, only to be startled to hear haunting groans coming from his coffin.

Other versions of the story say he wasn't in his coffin yet but laid out to rest and not only groaned, but sat up in the process. I'm inclined to believe the former version of the tale which says the mourners - fearing they were about to bury someone still living, which could happen back then - prised open his coffin only to find his very dead corpse looking back at them. They immediately declared Matthew a vampire and drove at least one stake through his heart, shutting him back in his coffin once more. To make truly sure Matthew wouldn't rise up again, his grave was staked in four corners with huge iron spikes and then bound down in the earth with enormous metal chains rigged all the way across each side. A large slab was placed on top of the grave for good measure.

That's not the end of this supernatural story. The gigantic chains are said to be deadly to fairies living on the Isle of Man and they were removed, along with the spikes, perhaps to lay to rest the body of his wife with him when she died. Those present are said to have freaked out - understandably - when Matthew's ghostly apparition rose before them from the grave and they quickly drove the stakes back into the ground once more. It is said that since then his spectre has never been seen again, thankfully.

© Ruth Supple 2021-07-28

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