The ghostly drummer of Tedworth, from Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus, 1681
In March, 1661 John Mompesson of Tedworth (located in Wiltshire, England) brought a lawsuit against a local drummer whom he accused of collecting money under false pretences. The court found the drummer guilty, confiscated his drum, and gave it to Mompesson.  Soon afterwards, Mompesson discovered that an angry, drumming spirit had invaded his house. The spirit drummed loud tunes on the bed of his children, moved objects around in the house, threw shoes, and wrestled with servants.

The case of the ghostly drummer of Tedworth soon became famous throughout England. Its notoriety prompted Joseph Glanvill, a clergyman and member of the Royal Society, to visit the Mompesson household and investigate the spirit. He collected eyewitness accounts of the spirit’s activities, recorded hearing noises himself, and eventually became convinced that the spirit was real. He published this conclusion in 1668 in a work titled A Blow at Modern Sadducism ... To which is added, The Relation of the Fam’d Disturbance by the Drummer, in the House of Mr. John Mompesson.

Many witnesses of the ghostly drummer concluded that the human drummer whom Mompesson had tried was somehow responsible (through witchcraft) for the mysterious sounds and spectral disturbance, but when they tried to locate the human drummer they learned that he had been recently deported to the colonies for other crimes. However, the man eventually escaped from his exile and returned to England, whereupon Mr. Mompesson charged him with the crime of employing an evil spirit. The drummer was found guilty and sent to Salisbury Gaol, though eventually he was released on appeal.

Other people, however, believed that there was no ghostly drummer, and that Mr. Mompesson had invented the entire story, either as a way to make some money or to gain some notoriety. These critics pointed out various problem’s with Mr. Mompesson’s claims. First of all, no one was ever allowed to inspect his cellar. Why not? Was someone hiding down there creating all the sounds and commotion? Second of all, the drumming almost always happened at night and seemed to come from outside the house, not inside of it. In other words, someone could easily have been hiding outside banging on the walls of the house with a hammer. Finally, the King himself sent some gentlemen to investigate the haunting, but when they arrived they found no evidence of spectral activity at all.

Whether Mr. Mompesson was really beset by an angry spirit, or whether the entire event was an elaborate hoax was never determined, and so the ghostly drummer of Tedworth passed into legend.

The Ghostly Drummer Reappears

Decades later the spectral timpanist re-emerged on the other side of the Atlantic near Philadelphia.

His reappearance was announced in April, 1730 in a letter that was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The correspondent told the story of two local Reverends who had recently had an encounter with an angry, drum-beating ghost which was described as being “not a whit less obstrepreous, than the Tedsworth Tympanist.“

According to this correspondent, the Reverends in question had been attending a meeting of ministerial brethren at a town near Philadelphia. The clergymen, who were sharing a room in an inn, had retired to bed but were kept awake the entire night by a drum-beating spirit. The spirit beat repeatedly on one side of the bed, and then the other. It also drummed out popular tunes such as the ‘Scots Travaller’ and the ‘Grenadiers March.‘

The drumming continued all night, but to the surprise of the exhausted clergymen, as they staggered down to breakfast the next morning, no one else in the inn had heard anything.

The next night, the two clergymen again retired to bed, and this time were able to get to sleep. But soon one of them was,

“seized violently and forcibly by the great Toe, ... but that upon the Beating of the Drum, which happen’d at the same Instant, his Toe was released; and that to prevent any future Attacks, they hoisted their Knees up to their very Noses; and the Noise still growing louder, they felt a most prodigious Weight on them, heavier, as he said, than the Night-Mare; that by his voice they presently discovered it to be one of their Brethren, who had come into their Room on purpose to scare them; either believing that they had told him a Fib, or that they were under such potent Influences the Night before, as made them imagine they heard a Drum, when in Reality they did not.“

The correspondent concluded his story by claiming that on account of learning the Reverends’ experience “I who used to sleep without drawing my Curtains, am now so fearful, that I pin them every Night I go to Bed with corking Pins, and cover my self Head over Ears with the Clothes.“

This letter had an obvious satirical tone to it. In fact, the primary goal of the correspondent seemed to be to mock the credulity of these two clergymen who believed they had been set upon by a ghost (and also poke fun at local clergy who were known to be fairly liberal with the imbibing of spirits, i.e. the “potent influences” the two clergymen had been under).

Two weeks later a letter of protest appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette. This second letter, which was signed PHILOCLERUS, defended the clergymen.

Philoclerus argued that religion was necessary for the maintenance of an orderly society, and that ministers should therefore be kept free of ridicule. He then went on to argue that the clergymen were not credulous for believing they had been attacked by a ghost, because there was nothing fantastic or implausible in the story they had told. In fact, their story should be believed since “both concur’d in the same Testimony; and it cannot be imagin’d what Interest they should have in contriving together to impose a Falshood of that Nature ... since they could expect Nothing but to be ridicul’d for their Pains.“

It is not clear how much, if any, of the story detailed in these two letters is true. The first letter mocked a pair of credulous clergymen and the second letter ostensibly defended them. It is probable that both letters were part of an extended literary hoax composed by Benjamin Franklin, publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Franklin was well known for his embrace of deistic rationalism and his disdain of clericalism. It is probable that either Franklin, or a friend of his, invented the story of these two credulous, ghost-ridden clergymen, and then wrote one letter satirizing them and a second letter defending them, in order to add a patina of credibility to the first correspondence.

So the ghostly drummer of Tedworth has made two appearances throughout history—once in 1661 and a second time in 1730. The first appearance was probably a hoax, while the second appearance almost certainly was.

Franklin composed and published a number of other hoaxes in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The most famous of these was the witch trial at Mount Holly, published on October 22, 1730.