Thursday


Midnight terror of the phantom bird


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The night was shattered by the scream of a man on the frontier of fear...

The cold February wind blew the bleak bare branches of the plane trees to and fro across the light of gas lamps and men and women muffled against the cold, trudged through the slush on their way home.

It was 7pm on the last Tuesday in February 1913 and Lincoln's Inn, a centre of London's legal system, was ending another unruffled working day.

Suddenly the calm of a winter's evening was shattered by a terrified scream — the cry of a man being driven far beyond the frontiers of fear.

A group of men, mainly porters and cab-drivers, chatting in a sheltered doorway on the western side of the square, fell silent as they stared up at the lighted window from where the scream had come.

Transfixed, they claimed to see the shadow of a man who was battling desperately with some unseen attacker. Then they rushed up the stairs to the first floor chambers and burst open the door.

They were too late. Charles Appelby, a young barrister making a name for himself on the Midlands judicial circuit, lay dead on the carpet in front of his desk, killed by appalling wounds which had nearly severed his head from his body. Of his attacker there was no sign.

During the next few months as police sought vainly for the killer of Charles Appelby, the first floor chambers acquired a sinister reputation and a regular turnover of tenants.

Clerks gossiped about a "feeling of evil" hanging over the rooms and there were stories of movements in the shadows. But eventually another advocate moved in — John Radlett, an ambitious and talented barrister, totally unimpressed by the rumours of evil.

But one evening before he was due to defend a murderer at the Old Bailey the following day, Radlett was found dead in his chambers. He had died from what appeared to be a heart-attack caused by a violent shock.

On the inside of the locked door were scratches which could have been made by something with talons, perhaps a huge bird...

Eventually stories about some phantom creature filtered into nearby Fleet Street and reached Ralph Blumenfeld and Sir Max Pemberton, two of England's most successful editors who decided to investigate the mystery for their papers.

As the chambers were, not surprisingly, un-let they arranged to rent them for a week. All furnishings, curtains and carpets were removed and the windows shuttered and securely bolted.

The two editors and a posse of reporters from both papers moved into the chambers for the night but only Blumenfeld and Pemberton would remain in the haunted room.

At 11pm everyone else left the room and the floor was sprayed with powdered chalk. The two editors set up a card-table and folding chairs and proposed to spend the time playing bridge and waiting for something to happen.

As midnight approached, nothing had happened and the two men were silently playing cards beneath a single gas lamp. Finally Pemberton suggested that they were wasting their time and should go home.

A few minutes later, according to independently written reports by both men, the door of the room, which had been carefully locked, bust open. The window also flew up and the light went out.

Blumenfeld was to write: "A gale-like wind blew through the doorway and in the darkness I heard a rapid beating noise. We sat there not daring to move a muscle. There was definitely something in the room. Then the wind dropped and the light came on again."

A few moments later footsteps pounded up the corridor and the reporters who had heard the doors and windows fly open, rushed into the room.
All the men stared in astonishment at the floor which had been carefully covered with powdered chalk. From the middle of the room to the far corner was what looked like a set of enormous claw-marks.

When the newspaper accounts were published a number of people came forward to claim that they had also heard the sound of wings in the building, including an eminent King's Counsel and a judge!

Further psychic investigations were held in subsequent years but nothing out of the ordinary was recorded.

Just what the spectre could have been and why it haunted Lincoln's Inn was never discovered. The building was bombed in the World War II and a new set of chambers built on the site.

Since then nothing out of the ordinary has been recorded ... and yet...

I recently walked through Lincoln's Inn and passed the site of the once-haunted building. It was a still evening with not even enough breeze to stir the leaves of the ancient plane trees.

Presumably it was only imagination which made me wonder whether I could hear the rustle of giant wings.

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