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Smaller Ghost and Treasure Stories and Family and Local Traditions (Thirteen Tales)



BUT the belief in ghosts, though it exists, as we have seen by the above specimens, is by no means generally diffused. 'No! [1] I don't believe such things,' is the general reply I have received when inquiring for them. I could not, indeed, help being annoyed with the strongmindedness of an old woman one day, who asserted her contempt for the idea so persistently that she quite 'shut up' two others who were inclined to be communicative of their experiences.

               'I've often slept in a room where it was said the ghost of a woman who was killed there, walked about with her head under her arm; but I never saw her,' said I, to set the thing going.

               'Oh! I wouldn't have done that for the world!' exclaimed Nos. 2 and 3 together.

               'And why not?' said No. 1. 'There was nothing to be seen, of course. There are no such things as ghosts!' [2]

               'Ah! Some see them and some don't see them, and you're one of those who don't see them. That's where it is,' said No. 2.

               'Yes,' added No. 3; 'I know lots of people who have seen them,' and she was going on to give examples, but No. 1 put her down.

               'Did you ever see one yourself?' interposed I, to keep the ball rolling.

               'Well, yes ... so far that ...' she began, hesitatingly; but No. 1 broke in again with her vehement iteration that there are no ghosts.

               'I know there are, though,' persisted No. 2; 'for my mother has told me there is a house....'

               'Here in Rome?' asked I.

               'Yes, here in Rome, where she used to work, where there was a ghost [3] that used to pull the bedclothes off anyone who slept in that particular room, and leave him uncovered. As fast as you pulled them over you, the spirit pulled them off again;' and she imitated the movement with her hands.


'OIBO!' interposed No. 1. 'I'll tell you what ghosts are. Ghosts are most often robbers, who get people to think they are ghosts, in order to be able to rob in peace. There was a famous one, I remember well, about the year 1830, who used to be called the Ghost of St. John's, [4] because he used to make himself heard in the houses about St. John Lateran. There were several robberies in the same neighbourhood just at the same time, but no one thought of connecting the two things, till at last one bethought him of it, and he laid in wait, pistol in hand, till the ghost came by.

               'By it came; and "pop!" went the pistol. And there, on the spot, lay the body of one whom the police didn't see for the first time.

               'That's what ghosts are!'

               'That may have been,' replied Nos. 2 and 3; 'but that doesn't prove that there are no ghosts for all that.'


'GHOSTS! ghosts! are all in silly people's own heads!' exclaimed No. 1. 'I can tell you of one there was in an old palace at Foligno. No one would sleep there because of the ghosts, and the palace became quite deserted. At last a sportsman, [5] who was a relation of mine, said he wasn't afraid; he would go up there one night, and give an account of it. He went there, pistol in hand. At the time for the ghosts to appear, in through a hole over the window did come a great thing with wings. The sportsman, nothing daunted, fired at it; and, lo and behold, a large hawk [6] fell dead on the floor; then another, and another, up to five of them.

               'That's what ghosts are, I tell you!'

The following is from another narrator.


SOME friars were going round begging for their convent, when night overtook them in a wood.

               'What shall we do if any wolves come? I don't believe there is any habitation in these parts, and there will be no place to run to and no one to help us. We must commend ourselves to the Madonna, and wait the event.'

               They had scarcely done so when one of them saw a light sparkling through the trees. They thought it came from some woodman's cottage, and followed its leading; but instead of a cottage they came to a handsome inn. As the door stood invitingly open they went in: a fire blazed on the hearth; a repast was spread on the table; a number of maidens, attired in pure and shining white, flitted about and brought all they wanted. When they had well supped, these led them to a room where was a bed apiece, and in the morning again they gave them breakfast.

               Before they started again, the friars asked the maidens to take them to offer their thanks to the mistress of the house, and they led them into a room where was a most beautiful lady, who inquired kindly if they had been well served and wished them a good journey. Moreover, as they went she gave them a folded paper.

               The friars, unused to be so entertained, were much bewildered, and wondered what lady it could be who lived all alone with her maidens in that wild wood; and they turned back to look at the inn that they might know it again, but it had entirely disappeared, nor was there a vestige of it to be found.

               Then they opened the folded paper the lady had given them, and by the shining letters within they knew it was the Madonna herself had entertained them.


ANOTHER, who didn't believe there were ghosts to be seen--'she had heard plenty of such stories, but she didn't give her mind to such things,'--yet told me, she believed there were treasures hid in countless places, [7] but people could seldom get at them; there was always a hailstorm, or an earthquake, or something, which happened to stop them; the Devil wouldn't let people get at them.


ANOTHER,  whose belief in ghosts was doubtful, reckoned she knew various cases to be facts, in which men hid treasures under a spell, that could be removed if a person could devise the counterspell, by hitting, even accidentally, on what the original spell had been. [8]


'IF YOU want ghost-stories, I can tell them as well as another; but mind I don't believe such things,' said another.

               'Tell me what you've heard, then.'

               'Well, I have heard say that there was a woman in the Monti, [9] and not so long ago either, who was always finding money about the house, and that too, in places where she knew no one could have put it. The first thing in the morning when she got up she would find it on the floor all about the room. Or if she got up from her work in the middle of the day, though she knew no one had come in, there it would be.

               'One day she saw three silver papetti [10] on the floor. It wasn't that there was no silver money ever to be seen, and nothing but dirty paper notes, and half of them false, as it is now o' days. It was in the time of the Pope, and there was plenty of silver for those who had money at all, but still, to see three silver papetti lying on the floor all of a sudden was a sight for anyone.

               'It looked so strange that she hesitated before she picked it up. But at last she made up her mind and took it. No sooner had she done so than a spirit appeared before her, and said, "Come down with me into the cellar and I'll show you something."

               '"No, thank you, sir," said the woman, not knowing what to do for fear.

               '"Nonsense! come down, you shan't be hurt," said the spirit.

               '"I'd rather not, sir, thank you," was all the woman could stammer out.

               '"You must come! I'll give you something to make you rich for good and all," persisted the spirit; and, somehow, she didn't know how, she felt herself obliged to follow him.

               'Down in the cellar was another spirit awaiting her, and the moment she got down they took her, the one by the head and the other by the feet, and laid her into a coffin [11] which stood there all ready on a bier. [12] One at each end, they took it up, with the woman in it, and walked round and round the cellar with it, chaunting the "Miserere," and she was too frightened to call out, much more to attempt to move.

               'By-and-by they set the bier down, and as she heard nothing more she concluded the spirits were gone; still she durst not move till some few rays of daylight began to peep through; then she summoned up courage to get out of the coffin.

               'When she did so she saw it was all of solid gold, as well as the bier. There was gold enough to have made her rich to the end of her days, but she was so frightened that she wasn't able to enjoy it, but died at the end of a month; for riches that are got in ways that are not straightforward never profit anyone.

               'That's the story as it's told; but I don't believe those things, mind you.'


'AH! I remember, too, when I was quite a girl and lived with my father and mother in a house near Piazza Barberini, I remember one day my little sister Ghisa coming running up out of the cellar crying out there was a spirit which had stood waving its hand, and beckoning to her.

               'And when the others went down to see what it was all about, they did find some human bones in a corner of the cellar, and no one knew how they got there. But that didn't prove that the child had actually seen a ghost.'


The above story of the golden coffin, it will be observed, was told as of a particular district in Rome. Another time, it was told me of a village in the Campagna; the narrator said she knew the name well, but could not recollect it at the moment. In other respects, there were few differences of detail; but the countrywoman was more robust and courageous than the town woman, and this is how she got on.

'SHE was always finding half-pence about the ground where she worked. One day she found a silver piece; as she went to pick it up she saw "One" standing by. "Come with me!" he said; and the countrywoman, not at all afraid, went with him. He led her by solitary ways till he came to a lone empty cottage, when he left her. Quite undaunted, she walked in. There was a large empty room in the midst, all lighted up with ever so many lights.

               '"Don't touch, don't touch!" screamed an anxious voice. "Touch! touch!" shouted a more gloomy voice. At last she did touch.'

               'Touched what?' asked I; 'the lights, or the floor, or what?'

               The narrator was posed by the question.

               'Oh, I don't know what she touched. It must be supposed she touched something.'

               'Instantly all the lights went out, and she stood in the strange place in the dark. Still she was not frightened. She had the courage to strike a light. By its means she saw there was now a large coffin in the midst of the room. She went straight up to it and opened it. It was full of money! Waiting till daylight, she took home with her as much as ever she could carry. But she kept her own counsel, and never told anyone, and when she wanted money she went back there and took it.

               'But if she never told anyone, how did anyone know the story?'


'THIS one now is quite true, for Sora Maria (you know who I mean) told me of it, and she knew the woman as well as her own sister.

               'This woman lived near the church of S. Spirito de Napoletani--you know it?'

               'Yes, in Via Giulia.'

               'Exactly. Well, she used to take in washing to make a little for herself more than what her husband gave her. But he didn't like her doing it, and was very angry whenever he saw her at it. But as he was out all day at his work, she used to manage to get through with it in his absence pretty well.

               'One day the water would not boil, all she could do. First she got excited, then she got angry. "It isn't that I care," she said; "but if my husband comes home and sees what I am doing he'll be so angry! What will he say! What shall I do! I would give my soul to the devil only to get it boiling in time!"

               'Scarcely had she said the words when blu, blu, blu! the water began to bubble up in the pot, boiling furiously all of a sudden, and though it was now so short a time before her husband came back, all the work was done and out of sight, and he perceived nothing.

               'In the night came a paino, [13] and stood in the doorway of the bedroom and beckoned to her; and as she looked she saw that every now and then flames and sparks flew about, out of him.

               'At last she could stand it no longer, and she woke her husband and told him all. The husband could see nothing, and tried to quiet her, but she kept crying out, now, "Here he is, here!" and now, "There he is, there!" till at last he was obliged to call the friars of S. Spirito de' Napolitani to her to exorcise the spirit; and it was very difficult, because she had promised to give her soul to the devil; but it had been thoughtlessly done, and in the end the apparition was got rid of.'

It so happens, however, that the church of S. Spirito de' Napolitani is served by secular priests, and not friars.


'HERE'S another thing I have heard that will do for you.

               'There were two who took a peasant and carried him into the Campagna.'

               'What! two ghosts?'

               'No, no! two fellows who had more money than they knew what to do with. They took him into the Campagna and made an omelette very good, with plenty of sweet-scented herbs in it, and made him eat it.

               'Then they took a barrel and measured him against it, and then another, till they found one to fit, and killed him and filled it up with money, and made a hole in the earth and buried it.

               'And they said over it, "No one may disturb you till one comes who makes an omelette with just the same sweet-scented herbs as we have used, and makes it just on the top of this hole. Then, come out and say, 'This gold is yours.'"

               'And, of course, in the ordinary course of things, no one would have thought of making an omelette with just those same herbs, just on the top of that hole. But there was one who knew the other two, and suspected something of what they were going to do, and he went up and hid himself in a tree, and watched all that was done, and heard the words.

               'As soon as they were gone he came down and took some nice fresh eggs, and just the same sweet-scented herbs the others had used, and made an omelette just over the hole where he had seen them bury the barrel with the money and the man in it.

               'He had no sooner done so than the man came out all whole and well, and said: "Oh, how many years have I been shut up in that dark place" (though he hadn't been there half-an-hour) "till you came to deliver me! Therefore all the gold is yours."

               'Such things can't be true, so I don't believe them; but that's what they tell.'


'AND don't they tell other stories about there being treasures hid about Rome?'

               'Oh, yes; and some of them are true. It is quite certain that ----' (and she named a very rich Roman prince) 'found all the money that makes him so rich bricked up in a wall. They were altering a wall, and they came upon some gold. It was all behind a great wall, as big as the side of a room--all full, full of gold. When they came and told him he pretended not to be at all surprised, and said: "Oh, yes; it's some money I put away there; it's nothing; leave it alone." But in the night he went down secretly and fetched it away, [14] and that's how he became so rich; for his father was a money-changer, who had a table where he changed money in the open street, and my father knew him quite well.'


'THEN there's the ----' (another rich family). 'They got their money by confiscation of another [15] family, generations ago. That's why they're so charitable. What they give away in charity to the poor is immense; but it is because they know how the money came into the family, and they want to make amends for their ancestors.'


These treasure stories are common everywhere. In Tirol, especially, they abound, and are of two kinds. First, concerning treasure hidden in the earth, arising out of the metal mines that were formerly worked there, and the carbuncles which are still found; and the second, precisely like these, of money walled-up in old houses and castles. A countryman, who saw me sketching the old ruin of Monte Rufiano, on a height not far from the banks of Lake Thrasimene, told me a story about it, just like a Tirolese story, of treasure hidden ever so deep under it, and guarded by twelve spectres, who went about, carrying torches in procession, on a Good Friday.

               Senhor de Saraiva tells me there is a great variety of such stories in Portugal, where the treasures are generally said to have been hidden by the Moors, and are supposed to be buried under a gigantic depth of rock. A place was once pointed out to him, where there were said to be two enormous jars, one full of gold, and the other of boiling pitch. If, in digging, a man came upon the right one, he would be rich enough to buy up the whole world; but if, by ill luck, his spade first reached the other, the pitch would overflow and destroy everyone on the face of the earth; so that no one dared to make the attempt. The people believe that such localities may be revealed to them in dreams. But they must dream the same dream three nights running, and not tell it to anyone. If they tell it, they will find the money all turned to charcoal. Brick boxes of charcoal have frequently been found buried under Roman boundary stones in Portugal, and in this, he thinks, lies the origin of this latter fancy.

               It is remarkable how many odds and ends of history remain laid up in the memories of the Roman people, like the majolica vases and point-lace in their houses. A great favourite with them is the story of Beatrice Cenci, which they tell, under the name of 'La bella Cenci,' with more or less exaggeration of detail.

               'Do you know the story of "Sciarra Colonna?"' said an old woman, who seemed scarcely a person likely to know much about such matters.


[1] 'Ma che!' is a very strong and indignant form of 'No!' about equivalent to 'What are you thinking of?' 'How can you?' In Tuscany they say, 'Che! Che!'

[2] 'Fantasimi,' for 'fantasmi,' apparitions.

[3] 'Spirito.'

[4] 'Il fantasimo di S. Giovanni.'

[5] 'Cacciatore' is a huntsman or sportsman of any kind; but in Rome it designates especially a man of a roving and adventurous class whose occupation in life is to shoot game for the market according to the various seasons, as there are large tracts of country where game is not preserved.

[6] 'Falcaccio,' a horrid, great hawk.

[7] Cancellieri (Mercato, § xvi.) mentions the actual finding of such a treasure; or at least of 'thousands of pieces of gold money, in a hole leading to a drain of the fountain in Piazza Madama, on May 30, 1652, by a boy who had accidentally dropped a toy into this hole.' One such fact would afford substance to a multitude of such fictions: though they doubtless had their origin in the discovery of mineral wealth.

[8] See conversation at the end of the 'Serpe bianca.' Further details of a similar nature were given me in connection with a number of brigand stories which I have in MS.

[9] 'Monti,' Rione Monti, the most populous district in Rome.

[10] 'Papetto,' equal to two pauls; about three halfpence more than a (silver) lira or franc. In use in Rome until the monetary convention with France in 1868.

[11] 'Cataletto,' a kind of large roomy coffin, with a hollow wagonheaded lid, in which dead or wounded persons are carried.

[12] 'Barretta' or 'bara,' is the bier on which the 'cataletto' is carried; but it is most often made all in one, and either word is used for either, as also 'feretro.' 'Aver la bocca sulla bara,' is 'to have one foot in the grave.'

[13] 'Paino,' see n. 3, p. 264.

[14] It must be a very quaint condition of mind which can imagine that a fortune of something like three millions sterling can be quietly removed in secret in gold coin from a cellar to a bedroom in the small hours of the night. But then to persons like the narrator a few pieces of gold seem a fortune.

[15] I do not give the names because, though the tradition is probably true enough of somebody, the particular names introduced were decidedly incorrect historically.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Smaller Ghost and Treasure Stories and Family and Local Traditions (Thirteen Tales)
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

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