The Demon Drummer of Tedworth: Exploring The Truth Behind the Story
As a species, mankind has always been obsessed with things that go bump in the night. Whether it be around a campfire, written down in a book, or shown on the big screen, we’ve been telling each other spooky tales for thousands of years. The 17 th century case of the Demon Drummer of Tedworth may be Britain’s earliest recorded ghost story, and many believe it is true.
What was the Demon Drummer of Tedworth?
The Demon Drummer of Tedworth is often attributed as being the first recorded encounter with a poltergeist in England. A poltergeist by definition is a type of ghost responsible for physical disturbances. They tend to make loud noises, move objects, and generally make a huge nuisance of themselves. Most cultures seem to have some version of poltergeist folklore and there are records of poltergeist activity dating back to the first century AD.
However, stories of poltergeist activity became much more common during the 17th Century. Why? The popularity of the Drummer of Tedworth probably has something to do with it.
The devil and the drum, from the frontispiece to the third edition of Saducismus Triumphatus, 1700 (Public Domain).
Details vary from account to account and the tale has likely been sensationalized both at the time and since. The story goes something like this.
In 1661, John Mompesson, who for ease's sake we’ll refer to as a magistrate here, was visiting Ludgershall in Wiltshire, England. Whilst there, he ran across a local vagrant (homeless man) called William Drury. There had been many complaints in the area that Drury had been annoying the locals.
Drury had been playing his drum non-stop and begging for money. Mompesson got himself involved and, upon confronting Drury, discovered that Drury’s busking permit was fake. As a direct result of this the local bailiff took away Drury’s drum, but the whole case never went to court.
After doing his ‘good deed’ for the day and taking away a homeless man’s livelihood, Mompesson went home to Tedworth. Unfortunately for him, when he got home he found that the bailiff had, for some unknown reason, forwarded the drum to Mompesson’s home.
What follows is your classic spooky story. The haunting started with scary noises. The family was plagued by strange knocks and bangs and of course, ghostly drumming.
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The Drummer of Tedworth ( Public Domain )
As time went on the haunting appeared to intensify. After a month of near-constant haunting, the family was suitably terrified. Mompesson had tried to chase away the ghost with a pistol, but unsurprisingly that hadn’t worked.
Things became more sinister however when the haunting began to focus on Mompesson’s children’s room. Loud screeching came from under their beds, the beds themselves would shake and, worst of all, the children would begin to levitate several feet above their beds. On one occasion, six men endeavored to hold the children down, but to no avail.
This haunting went on for two years. The demon/ poltergeist had in some ways a short attention span. Whilst seemingly tied to the house, it soon moved on to Mompesson’s staff. Objects would levitate around them, the children would be levitated from their beds or even pinned to their beds, unable to move.
As time went on the haunting appeared to become more mischievous. People’s bedclothes would be pulled down while they slept, and objects would be moved around rooms, but the worst of the haunting seemed to have abated.
Of course, this being the 17 th century, Mompesson got a priest involved, backed up by some very sleep-deprived neighbors. The incessant drumming meant no one was getting any sleep.
The priest supposedly found that when they all prayed, the sounds and drumming would stop. But as soon as the praying stopped the noises would come back worse than ever. It would seem that the demon drummer of Tedworth wasn’t a fan.
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17th century illustrations showing the legend of the Demond of Tedworth (Public Domain)
Theory 1: Drury the Wizard
At the time, Drury received the blame. He would eventually admit to having essentially cursed Mompesson. He claimed that the haunting was his revenge for Mompesson confiscating his drum and livelihood. If Mompesson would only return his drum the haunting would stop.
If we take this line of thinking, then the Demon Drummer is no poltergeist but some kind of curse or demon. Its dislike for priests and habit of hiding bibles would support this.
Eventually, Drury was tried as a Wizard and convicted. As was the English habit at the time, he was shipped off to one of the colonies (Pennsylvania). It appears that around the same time the haunting finally came to a stop.
Theory 2: It Was a Hoax
The prevalent theory, however, is that demons don’t exist and that the Demon Drummer of Tedworth was a hoax.
Some experts at the time, such as Joseph Glanvil, a clergyman and proto-demonologist, blamed the children. It’s thought that since the majority of the hauntings happened in the children's room, and kids will be kids, they did it.
The rest can be chalked up to good old-fashioned hysteria and religious fervor.
Or, it was Drury’s pals helping get his revenge. It is thought that perhaps Drury got some old buddies in on the prank and they all made it their life's mission to ruin Mompesson’s life for a couple of years.
A final theory is that it was gypsies either playing a prank or harnessing some of that terrifying gypsy magic. Around the same time as the hauntings began, Mompesson had royally irritated a local group of gypsies, after having one of their band arrested.
Who or What Was Really Responsible?
As is so often the case with history, we're dealing with a whole lot of unreliable witnesses here. Many of them were scared out of their minds. Some of them were deeply religious and some of them were probably trying to make a quick buck.
If you want to believe the story of the Demon Drummer of Tedworth, go ahead. For my money, it sounds very much like Mompesson had a habit of annoying those less fortunate for himself. I have a feeling that as the story spread more and more, people who had grievances against him decided to scare him and his family.
Whether that be a poor old drummer boy, a band of gypsies, his long-suffering staff, or even his own daughters!
Hunter, M. 2005. New light on the ‘Drummer of Tedworth’: conflicting narratives of witchcraft in Restoration England . Birkbeck University of London. Available at: https://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/id/eprint/250/1/Hunter4.pdf
Smith, J. 1837. Legends and Miracles and Other Curious and Marvellous Stories of Human Nature . B-D Cousins, Licnoln’s-Inn Fields. Available at: https://books.google.com.tr/books?id=W3GAPZbJLTAC&pg=PA41&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
Wilson, C. 1981. Poltergeist: A Study in Destructive Haunting . New York : Perigree Books.