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The Axe of Death

Dreamed around 1830 by Catherine McDiarmid Paton;
her son sent this account of her dream to writer Catherine Crowe

Wooer's Alley-Cottage,
Dunfermline-in-the-Woods,
Monday Morning, 31st May, 1847.

Dear Mrs. Crowe,

That dream of my mother's was as follows:

She stood in a long, dark, empty gallery: on her one side was my father, and on the other my eldest sister, Amelia; then myself, and the rest of the family according to their ages. At the foot of the hall stood my younger sister, Alexes, and above her my sister Catherine -- a creature, by the way, in person and mind more like an angel of heaven than an inhabitant of earth. We all stood silent and motionless. At last it entered -- the unimagined something that, casting its grim shadow before, had enveloped all the trivialities of the preceding dream in the stifling atmosphere of terror. It entered, stealthily descending the three steps that led from the entrance down into the chamber of horror: and my mother felt it was Death. He was dwarfish, bent, and shrivelled. He carried on his shoulder a heavy axe; and had come, she thought, to destroy 'all her little ones at one fell swoop.'

On the entrance of the shape, my sister Alexes leapt out of the rank, interposing herself between him and my mother. He raised his axe and aimed a blow at Catherine: a blow which, to her horror, my mother could not intercept; though she had snatched up a three-legged stool, the sole furniture of the apartment, for that purpose. She could not, she felt, fling the stool at the figure without destroying Alexes, who kept shooting out and in between her and the ghastly thing.

She tried in vain to scream; she besought my father, in agony, to avert the impending stroke; but he did not hear, or did not heed her; and stood motionless, as in a trance. Down came the axe, and poor Catherine fell in her blood, cloven to 'the white halse bane." Again the axe was lifted, by the inexorable shadow, over the head of my brother, who stood next in the line. Alexes had somewhere disappeared behind the ghastly visitant; and, with a scream, my mother flung the footstool at his head. He vanished, and she awoke.

This dream left on my mother's mind a fearful apprehension of impending misfortune, 'which would not pass away.' It was murder she feared; and her suspicions were not allayed by the discovery that a man -- some time before discarded by my father for bad conduct, and with whom she had, somehow, associated the Death of her dream--had been lurking about the place, and sleeping in an adjoining outhouse on the night it occurred, and for some nights previous and subsequent to it. Her terror increased; sleep forsook her; and every night, when the house was still, she arose and stole, sometimes with a candle, sometimes in the dark, from room to room, listening, in a sort of waking nightmare, for the breathing of the assassin, who she imagined was lurking in some one of them. This could not last. She reasoned with herself; but her terror became intolerable, and she related her dream to my father, who of course called her a fool for her pains -- whatever might be his real opinion of the matter.


Three months had elapsed, when we children were all of us seized with scarlet fever. My sister Catherine died almost immediately--sacrificed, as my mother in her misery thought, to her over-anxiety for Alexes, whose danger seemed more imminent. The dream-prophecy was in part fulfilled. I also was at death's door -- given up by the doctors, but not by my mother: she was confident of my recovery; but for my brother, who was scarcely considered in danger at all, but on whose head she had seen the visionary axe impending, her fears were great; for she could not recollect whether the blow had, or had not, descended when the spectre vanished. My brother recovered, but relapsed, and barely escaped with life; but Alexes did not. For a year and ten months the poor child lingered; and almost every night I had to sing her asleep; often, I remember, through bitter tears, for I knew she was dying, and I loved her the more as she wasted away. I held her little hand as she died; I followed her to the grave -- the last thing that I have loved on earth. And the dream was fulfilled.

True and sincerely yours,

J. NOEL PATON.

Axe murderer looking rather sad.
NOTE

This is an excerpt from The Night Side of Nature by Catherine Crowe, 1848. Crowe pioneered psychic research, decades before the craze in the late 1800s. She has a taste for the lurid, and collects anecdotes uncritically, usually failing to name her sources fully; I chose this example because, aside from its sheer drama, it's a signed account with names, places and dates--and they are all real. Sir Joseph Noel Paton (b. 1821) was a prominent painter, as was his brother, while Amelia (b. 1820) became a sculptor. Going public this way means Noel was confident his whole family recalled it more or less like this.



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