On Groom’s Hill, Greenwich, there resides a friend of mine, Mr. H—–d, a gentleman of great respectability, of varied attainments and of considerable mental ability, a student of literature, religion, and science. His position is that of an underwriter at Lloyd’s, and in the society of his wife and children, he enjoys a wholesome domestic life. Among those persons engaged in this comfortable household in the year 1866, was a young widow named Mrs. Potter, whose services were occasionally required for various periods as a needlewoman and general assistant. She had one son named Tom, a bright, handsome, delightful boy: he could sing and play; he was clever and accomplished; he excelled in any study to which he gave his attention, and though he was wayward and restless, he was the favorite of everyone who knew him. This brave and troublesome boy was provided with a home and educated at the neighboring Roman Catholic orphanage, under the direction and mastership of an able and enlightened priest, Dr. T—-d.
Those who knew this kind and estimable ecclesiastic will not require to be reminded of his many excellent qualities. His learning and intelligence, his affability and wide sympathy, his devotion to the cause of education and religion, and his high principles, have endeared him to all those who are honored with his friendship. His heart is as tender as his mind is acute and sagacious. You might impose upon his good nature, but not upon his intellect.
Tom Potter, the restless and impetuous scholar, caused many an anxious thought to his mother and her friends, and at last, they raised a general chorus of “What shall we do with Tom Potter?” About the year 1863-4, when he was probably 14 years of age, he was placed in a first-rate house in Manchester, but his vocation was evidently not in dry goods; he would not settle down to a mercantile life—he determined to go to sea; and at last his friends most reluctantly consented that his whim should be gratified, as they could make nothing of him onshore. He was placed onboard a training-ship at Woolwich, and in due time drafted on board one of Her Majesty’s ships of war. After a voyage or two, Tom got tired of the navy and rebelled. In company with some other naughty boys, he deserted the ship, and after some disastrous adventures, he returned in a piteous light—weary, famished, and half-naked—to his Greenwich home.
The tables were soon turned upon the young and interesting truant; he became very ill, and a warrant was issued for his apprehension. His mother and her patrons immediately raised a despairing cry, and asked, with more emphasis than ever, “What shall we do with Tom Potter?” Dr. T. again intervened with his kind offices and intercession. The captain of the ship consented to receive back again, with only nominal punishment, the irresistible and pardoned culprit; and at last, Tom was fairly shipped off on board the Doris frigate bound to the West Indies.
Tom’s mother having thus provided for her son, left the H—-d family altogether; got married again, and became Mrs. Cooper. After a time a new servant, who had never heard of either Mrs. Potter or Mrs. Cooper, arrived and filled the office of the housemaid. This new servant we will call Mary; and so ends the first chapter of my tale.
On the night of the 8th of September, 1866, Mr. H.’s street doorbell was rung. Mary, the housemaid, answered it; the door was duly opened, and, after a little confabulation, the door was shut again. Mrs. H., who was unwell, was in her bedroom, which commands a view of, and is within earshot of the entrance hall. She listened and distinctly identified the voice of Tom Potter. She was surprised, and called out, “Mary, who was that at the door?” The servant replied, “Oh, ma’am, it was a little sailor-boy: he wanted his mother; I told him I knew nothing of his mother and sent him about his business.”
Mrs. H., whose anxiety was roused, asked Mary, “what the boy was like?”
“Well, ma’am, he was a good-looking boy in sailor’s clothes, and his feet were naked. I should know him again anywhere. He looked very pale and in great distress; and when I told him his mother wasn’t here, he put his hand to his forehead, and said, “Oh dear, what shall I do?”
Mrs. H. told her husband what an unwelcome visitor had been to the house, and gave him the unpleasant intelligence that “she was sure Tom Potter had run away from his ship again.” The family now laid their heads ominously together, and vexatiously exclaimed, “Goodness gracious! What shall we do with Tom Potter?”
They sent to make inquiries of the mother, but she had heard nothing of her son; then they thought he was lost, and they upbraided themselves for turning him away from their door.
In their trouble, they went to consult the genial Dr. T., but his opinion only increased their perplexity and astonishment. He told them, “It is almost impossible Tom Potter can have deserted his ship. I had a letter from the boy himself only about two months ago, and then he was getting on capitally.”
It was then arranged that Mary should have an interview with Dr. T., and be examined by him. She was accordingly ushered into Dr. T.’s presence, and invited to take part in the council. Dr. T. had a store of photographs of many of his pupils, and among them was a carte of Tom Potter. He laid a number of these portraits before Mary, and requested her to pick out the one that resembled the boy she saw; at the same time with the view of testing her accuracy to the utmost, he called her attention to one which was not a photograph of Tom Potter, and quietly remarked, “Do you think that is the boy? he was very likely to run away from his ship.” “No,” said Mary, positively, “that was not the boy I saw; this is the one;” at the same time pouncing upon the likeness of Tom Potter; “I could swear to him.”
The mystery became more mysterious, but the only decision the conclave could wisely make was to await the issue of events; in the meantime, they could do nothing but patiently exercise their faculty of wonder. A solution of the mystery was at hand. In the next month of October, Dr. T. received a letter from the Admiralty, stating that they communicated with him because they did not know the address of Tom Potter’s mother. The letter gave the sad intelligence that on the 6th of September, just two days before he was seen at the door of Mr. H.’s house, Tom Potter breathed his last, in consequence of a dreadful accident on board the Doris frigate at Jamaica. He fell from the mast-head on the 24th of July 1866 and was frightfully injured. He lingered a few weeks and died raving, and calling for his mother.
It was at Mr. H.’s door that the ill-fated boy parted from his mother, and there saw her for the last time in life. This circumstance may account for the spirit of the boy having been mysteriously attracted to the spot where he left his mother, of whose departure he was not aware. Disembodied spirits only know what comes within the compass of their experience and capacity. Their intelligence and information are sometimes very limited. The facts of this story are certain and indisputable. I have taken great pains to verify them.
“Spiritual Magazine,” Volume 8 (1873):