The account of the disturbances that gripped Hinton Ampner was first set down by Mary Ricketts, who, with her children, servants, and her brother, witnessed manifestations of a most eerie and frightening sort. Ricketts was intelligent and widely read, and her reputation for truthfulness forever went unsullied. Her brother, John Jervis, was named Baron Jervis and Earl St. Vincent for his distinguished naval services. The Hinton Ampner case was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in April 1893.
In 1757, Mary had married William Henry Ricketts of Canaan, Jamaica, and they moved into the large country home outside of Hinton Ampner, England. From the very first there had been disturbances, the sound of doors slamming, the shuffling of footsteps. Ricketts had spent many nights watching for the "prowlers" that he was convinced had somehow gained entrance into the house. They had lived there for about six months when their nurse swore that she saw a gentleman in a drab-colored suit of clothes go into the yellow room. Such things as these the Rickettses tolerated for four years, firmly convinced that the noises were the result of wind and prowlers, and that the gray man and a once-sighted figure of a woman were the products of the servant's imagination.
For several years, Mary Ricketts accompanied her husband on his frequent business trips to the West Indies, but, in 1769, having now mothered three children, she decided to remain alone in England at the old manor house that they occupied. Because they were convinced of a natural explanation for the disturbances, William had no pronounced anxiety when Mary told him that she felt that she should remain in England with the children while he made the trip to Jamaica. After all, she did have eight servants to assist her, and it was quite unlikely that any prowler would try to take on such odds.
The phenomena seemed almost to have been waiting for William Ricketts to leave on an extended trip before it began its manifestations in earnest. He had only been gone a short time when, one afternoon while lying down in her room, Mary heard the noise of someone walking in the room and the rustling of silk clothing as it brushed the floor. She opened her eyes to see absolutely no one. She called the servants and a thorough search was made of the upstairs rooms and closets. The cook reminded her mistress that she had heard the same rustling noise descending the stairs on several occasions and had once seen the tall figure of a woman in dark clothes. Ricketts found herself being less dismissive of the servants' stories now that she, too, had heard the spectral rustling of an invisible lady.
Nocturnal noises continued, and, one night, as Mary Ricketts lay sleeping in the yellow room which the "gray man" had been seen to enter, she was awakened by the heavy plodding steps of a man walking toward the foot of her bed. She was too frightened to reach for the bell at her bedside. She jumped from her bed and ran from the room into the nursery. The children's nurse was instantly out of her bed, rubbing her sleep-swollen eyes and wondering what on earth had so upset the mistress of the house. The nurse became immediately awake when Mary Ricketts told her about the heavy footsteps. The rest of the servants were summoned and again a fruitless search was made to discover some human agency who might be responsible for the disturbance.
It was in November that the knocking and rappings began. A few months later, after the first of the year, Mary Ricketts and her household noticed that the entire house seemed to be filled with the sound of a "hollow murmuring." A maid, who had spent the night in the yellow room, appeared at the breakfast table palefaced and shaken over the dismal groans that she had heard around her bed most of the night.
By midsummer the eerie sound of voices in the night had become intolerable. They began before the household went to bed, and with brief intermissions were heard until after broad day in the morning. Mary Ricketts could frequently distinguish articulate sounds. Usually a shrill female voice would begin, and then two others with deeper and manlike tones joined in the discourse. Although the conversation often sounded as if it were taking place close to her, she never could distinguish actual words.
At last, Mary Ricketts appealed to her brother, the Earl St. Vincent, to come to her aid. Earlier, he had spent a few days at Hinton Ampner and had heard nothing, but now the urgency in his sister's letter convinced him that whatever was troubling her was real—at least to her and the servants. When the Earl St. Vincent arrived at the mansion, he had in his company a well-armed manservant. The earl was convinced that some disrespectful pranksters had conspired to annoy his sister and her household, and he was determined to deal out swift justice. Captain Luttrell, a neighbor of the Rickettses, joined in this campaign to exorcise the spooks. Captain Luttrell was familiar with the old legends of the area and had accepted the possibility of a supernatural agency at work, but he had volunteered his services to determine the cause of the disturbances, regardless of their origin.
The three armed men were kept on the go all night by the sound of doors opening and slamming. Mary Ricketts's brother became a believer in the world unseen. He soon concluded that the disturbances were definitely not the results of any human activity. Captain Luttrell declared that Hinton Ampner was unfit for human occupancy and urged Mary Ricketts to move out at once.
The Earl St. Vincent agreed with his sister's neighbor, but he realized that she could not quit the house so easily. She needed a certain amount of time to notify her husband and landlord of her decision, and the necessary preparations had to be made to obtain a different house. He told Mary that he would stand guard every night for a week, sleeping by day and watching by night.
The brother had maintained his vigil for about three nights when Mary was awakened by the sound of a pistol shot and the groans of a person in mortal agony. She was too frightened to move, but she felt secure in the knowledge that her brother and his servant were quite capable of handling any monster.
When her brother awakened the next afternoon, Mary quickly questioned him about the struggle that she heard the night before. The Earl St. Vincent frowned and shook his head in disbelief. He had heard no shot nor any of the terrible groaning.
The earl himself was forced to experience the frustration of hearing sounds that no one else could perceive on the next day. He was lying in his bed, having just awakened from his afternoon's sleep, when he heard a sound as if an immense weight had fallen through the ceiling to the floor. He leaped out of bed, fully expecting to see a gaping hole in both ceiling and floor. There was not the slightest splinter, nor had anyone else in the mansion heard the crash. Even his servant, who slept in the bedroom directly below, had heard nothing.
The earl insisted that his sister leave at once, and, because he was unable to stay at Hinton Ampner any longer, he ordered his Lieutenant of Marines to the mansion to assist Mary in her moving chores and to maintain the nightly watch. Mary Ricketts gave notice to her landlord, Lady Hillsborough, and immediately set the servants to work packing trunks and bags. The night after her brother left, she and the entire household heard a crash such as the one that he had described. The crash was followed by several piercing shrieks, dying away as though sinking into the earth.
To disguise her fear, the nurse flippantly remarked how pleasant the sound was and how she would love to hear more noises such as that. The unfortunate woman was troubled with horrid screaming and groaning in her room every night until the household moved.
Mary Ricketts returned to Hinton Ampner only once after she had moved away. She entered the house alone and heard a sound that she had never heard before, a sound that she said caused her "indescribable terror."
Lady Hillsborough sent her agent, a Mr. Sainsbury, to stay a night in the house and to test the truth of the rumors about her manor. Mr. Sainsbury did not last the night.
In 1772, a family named Lawrence moved into Hinton Ampner. Their servants reported seeing an apparition of a woman, but the Lawrences threatened their servants not to make any statements. They lasted a year before they moved out. After their occupancy, the house was pulled down to be used in the construction of a new manor.
When Mary Ricketts resided in the mansion, an old man had come to her with a tale about having boarded up a small container for Lord Stawell, the original owner of Hinton Ampner. He had suggested that the small box might have contained treasure and might offer a clue to the haunting. Workmen discovered the container when they were stripping the mansion. It was found to conceal the skeleton of a baby.
When Mary Ricketts learned of this startling discovery, it seemed to offer the final key to the legend of Hinton Ampner. The villagers said Lord Stawell had engaged in illicit relations with the younger sister of his wife, who had lived with them at the manor. It had been the subject of ancient gossip that his sister-in-law had borne his child—a child that had been murdered at its birth. When Lady Stawell died, her sister, Honoria, became the mistress of Hinton Ampner. The past wrongs began to form a chain of evil: The first Lady Stawell, wronged by a younger sister and an indiscreet husband; the innocent babe, born of an illicit union, murdered, its body boarded up in the walls of the manor. Lord Stawell, the perpetrator of most of the sins, was himself left on his bed in the yellow room to die in agony, while his family waited outside, ignoring his groans of pain.
It was shortly after Lord Stawell's death in 1755 that the groom swore that his old master had appeared to him in his room. The groom knew that it was the master because of the drab-colored gray clothing that Lord Stawell was so fond of wearing. From that time on, the "gray man" and his groans and plodding footsteps were heard in the corridors of Hinton Ampner. The lady was said to have been the phantom of the first Lady Stawell.