A young woman transgresses against the strict gender roles of her time. Katharine Edgar considers the seed of truth behind ghost stories such as Sarkless Kitty
Between 1787 and 1809, at Lowna in the valley of Farndale in the North Yorkshire Moors, 18 men were killed by the same woman, according to the local guidebooks. Born around 1767, local girl Kitty Garthwaite was an unlikely serial killer. Not least because, according to the same legend, she died earlier in 1787, before the alleged murders even began.
Kitty Garthwaite was, of course, a ghost. She haunted the ford, or so we read, under the name of ‘Sarkless Kitty’. ‘Sark’ was a local name for a shift or undershirt. ‘Sarkless’, or entirely naked, Kitty would sit either in the ford or on a branch next to it, depending on the version of the legend you read, and lure innocent and unwary male travellers to their doom. She did so for revenge: having been seduced and abandoned by a local farmer she is said to have drowned herself in the ford while pregnant. Then, it seems, she visited her vengeance first upon her lover and next upon a succession of innocent men, until a service of exorcism put paid to the murders.
When I came across this story, I found it haunting me (excuse the pun). I could not stop thinking about the reality that might be buried underneath the creepy legend. What happens if we refuse to take the story at face value and think instead about what else it is telling us? If Kitty Garthwaite really was a young girl who broke the rules about sexual activity outside marriage, then the story shows her being punished for this transgression both while still alive and after her death. The ghost story, I think, can shine an interesting light on hostility to women and how it is perpetuated. What is more, by buying into ghost stories like this one, appealing as they are, we run the risk, as I shall argue here, of being complicit in this punishment. It is time for feminism to reclaim this legend.
As with many legends, it is difficult to work out exactly where the truth lies with regard to the events behind this tale. Local legends tend to be repeated without a source being given. Indeed, writers retelling the story will embellish by making up details without admitting they have done so. According to Harry Mead’s 2001 A Prospect of the North York Moors, a man named George Calvert wrote a manuscript account of the 1809 exorcism in 1823. Calvert’s account was described about 110 years ago by a moorland folklore collector, Richard Blakeborough. This makes it likely that deaths really did take place in the ford and there really was an exorcism carried out there.
A 1905 retelling of the story by Gordon Home in Pickering: The Evolution of an English Town describes Kitty as a “lewd hussey”. In 1947, local historian Wilf Crosland gave another detailed account of the story which seems to have owed much to his imagination: he included a claim that he had found new manuscript sources, a family Bible with notes written in it, which proved elements of the story to be true. But as Mead notes, Crosland was an imaginative storyteller and no trace of the supposed Bible has ever been found. Finally, in 1988 a retired policeman, Peter N. Walker, considered the story as part of a book on Murders and Mysteries of the North York Moors.
Given the confusion and lack of firm evidence I do not propose to try to work out exactly what happened in Kitty’s life, though I will mention some interesting insights raised by Peter Walker’s attempt to solve the mystery. Instead I will look at what this story, and its retellings, can tell us about misogyny and the treatment of women, now and in the past.
The first point that arises from a feminist re-reading of the story is of course the sexual double standard. While this standard persists in our own culture today, with men admired for promiscuous sexual activity while women are denigrated for it, it was immensely harsher and more severe two centuries ago. A woman who had sex before marriage could find her life literally ruined, as the doors to marriage or work were firmly closed to her, while the impact on an errant father was comparatively negligible. Not surprisingly, suicide in these cases was common. If Kitty drowned herself in Lowna ford this would not have been an uncommon reaction to a desperate situation. However, suicide would be followed by a further punishment: the refusal of burial in consecrated ground. In a society where religion was part of daily life and belief in an afterlife was common, this might have seemed like a substantial price to pay.
Not content with forcing Kitty to suicide through its double standards on sexual activity and then punishing her further through denying her a proper Christian burial, however, society had another punishment in store for this particular young woman. Where most people are remembered simply as themselves, Kitty Garthwaite became the victim of the complete destruction of her posthumous reputation. Dead and unable to defend herself, Kitty would be helpless against any lies that were told about her.
It was claimed, first of all, that she had appeared repeatedly after her death sitting naked in the ford. Such a story would, of course, confirm any prior beliefs that she was sexually aggressive, lacking in the modesty that women were meant to show. Doubtless this would confirm any thoughts that she deserved her abandonment by the man who had been supposed to marry her. We do not know, of course, what sort of a person Kitty Garthwaite really was. Maybe she did rip off her sark and swim naked. Maybe she enjoyed herself with half the local farming population. Maybe she was simply average, normal in her enjoyment of sex, like most of us. Or maybe she was in fact a ‘good’ girl who only ever slipped up once. (One version of the legend even has her married to the farmer who deserted her.) We simply don’t know. But the fact is, whatever the reality was, it has now been replaced utterly with the image of Kitty as a ‘slut’.
Secondly, Kitty was blamed for the series of drownings that took place at the ford. This shows her in the light of pure evil – vindictive, vengeful, deliberately taking revenge on men as a whole for the wrong that was done to her. As calumnies against one woman these are, of course, cruel and unkind. But both these libels can be seen in a wider light, as examples of misogyny: women are seductresses, murderers, vengeful, all-powerful in their evil. The story shows a general fear of female sexuality: respond to the beckoning of the naked woman and you will drown! The monster Sarkless Kitty was, in all probability, built upon a sad, helpless young woman, utterly defeated by the patriarchal double standard that surrounded her, which is a pathetic irony.
All this assumes, of course, that the basic grammar of the story – Kitty abandoned while pregnant, commits suicide – is true. But the former policeman Peter Walker’s Miss Marple-like analysis of the story has suggested a further, more disturbing possibility. Based on the fact that when Kitty’s body was found it was either naked or wearing only a sark, he considers the possibility that she may have been murdered by her lover. Other readers of the story have noted that her naked body may suggest not only a crime, but a sex crime.
Bearing in mind the context of the time, it is not hard to find a motive for why Kitty’s lover might have killed her – to avoid being ‘entrapped’ into a marriage or forced to support a child he did not want. As we know today, not only are women fairly frequently killed by partners, but a woman is often at particular risk of domestic violence during pregnancy. Walker decides against his own murder hypothesis in favour of a (in my view more far-fetched) suggestion that Kitty died attempting to save her lover from drowning, ripping off her clothes to make it easier to swim. But the murder theory cannot be dismissed with certainty; the best we can say is that we do not know for sure how Kitty Garthwaite died.
If ‘Sarkless Kitty’ really was murdered, or even raped, then the creation of a ghost story around these events becomes even more disturbing. We are familiar with the idea of ‘victim blaming’, particularly when the victim is a woman and the crime was one of violence, sexual violence in particular. Rape victims even today in England have their character assassinated in court. Victims of domestic violence are assumed to have encouraged it by nagging. Is the ‘Sarkless Kitty’ legend really just an extreme example of victim blaming, where the victim’s character is posthumously assassinated so that the victim becomes perpetrator, the murdered woman becomes herself a murderer? Such a reversal would not only let the real perpetrators off the hook, whether by that we mean an actual murderer, or just a cruel system that gives a pregnant unmarried woman no better option than suicide, it would also offer a post-hoc justification, providing a sense of justice that was lacking. Rather than being a helpless victim, it would show that the woman who died clearly deserved to – after all, it turned out she was a slut and an actual serial killer!
Before ascribing the stories to a vengeful patriarchy we should note that we do not actually know how the stories first arose, and that we should not ignore the possibility that elements of them may have actually served as a comfort to those who sympathised with the victim. “At least she got him back in the end,” Kitty’s friends might have said on hearing that her errant lover was himself dead later that summer. The helplessness you would feel on seeing a friend or a sister or daughter ruined and drowned or murdered might be lessened slightly if you could convince yourself she had had her revenge on those responsible; the Kitty-as-killer tale might represent helpless rage against the patriarchy rather than, or as well as, defamations by the patriarchy. Read like this, though, the exorcism still represents her final defeat – a ceremony performed by men, long before women were permitted to officiate in the church, would dramatise male victory over a female power.
One of the more touching elements of the Sarkless Kitty story concerns those who acted against the prevailing religious norm. Like suicides, Quakers were not permitted burial in consecrated ground. Instead, therefore, they operated their own burial grounds, including one at Lowna a short walk up the river from the ford where the drownings occurred. The Lowna Quaker burial ground, in use from 1675 to 1854, is an atmospheric place in the woods, overhung by heavy trees and surrounded by low walls entered by a small wooden gate. No gravestones stand in the burial ground and the site is used now as a place of contemplation and peace, its purpose noted only by a plaque on the wall. According to Wilf Crosland, the imaginative antiquary mentioned above, Kitty’s body disappeared before its burial by the side of the road could take place, and was later discovered to have been removed by Quakers. Out of compassion for Kitty, they had found a place for her in their own burial ground, sparing her the indignity of a suicide’s grave. Again, the detail is insecure – Crosland gives names for the Quakers involved who do not match with local records. Perhaps it is the unbearable cruelty of the story without this coda that makes it so necessary to the narrative.
While the Quaker burial ground at Lowna can still be visited, the ford was replaced by a bridge in 1826. The rivers that drain off the Yorkshire Moors can be dangerous and it is not hard to find a realistic practical reason why a number of men might have drowned there, swept away by flood water. There is no need to find an evil female to blame.
Ghost stories are, I think, well worth reading sceptically. The supernatural can provide a vehicle for stories about good and evil. What misogyny does is to deny good, and impute evil, to a whole gender. Therefore in looking at a ghost story it is sometimes possible to tease apart the threads which weave a misogynistic narrative. It is worth doing so in honour of the memory of Kitty Garthwaite and any other girls like her who were punished heavily by society for disobeying rules about the proper behaviour of women. Perhaps we can try to rescue their reputations. But it is also worth doing so for ourselves, to help us spot the places where women, as a whole sex, are being misrepresented.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Mumsnet feminists, particularly D, SEA, SGM and E&M, for inspiring and encouraging me to write this article.
Picture of a young maiden illustrated by Alfred Walter Bayes and engraved by the Dalziel Brothers (Edward and George Dalziel). Line art drawing of a ducking stool by Pearson Scott Foresman.