The Vampire of Croglin Grange
Which came first: the publication of this famous vampire story, or its associated family tradition?
By now, in the annals of Skeptoid, I feel compelled to point out why we do what we do here, why we bother to take a skeptical look at an old vampire story. There's nothing interesting or surprising in doing documentary research that finds a lack of evidence that an actual vampire was running around biting people, and thus little to learn from such an exercise — or even to be much entertained by it. But the value comes into clearer focus when put it into the context of popular phenomena today, that we're all exposed to on a daily basis, that have no more plausibility and yet are commonly believed. The same lazy thought processes that lead people to embrace harmful modern pseudosciences are the same that drove belief in vampires in centuries past. And thus, we now find ourselves enriched with a justification for spending our valuable time examining an old mystery of a nighttime attack by a bloodsucking undead being long ago. It really is a much more fun way to sharpen our skills at navigating our modern world.
And so we return to the year of our lord 1874, to the village of Croglin, in what is today Cumbria county in the northwest of England. Three siblings, a sister and two brothers, vacationed in the rented country house Croglin Grange. One night, the sister looked out her bedroom window and saw two strange lights approaching. Soon she saw that they were the glowing eyes of a monstrous, humanlike being with a withered, brown, leathery face. She was paralyzed with fright as it used its long fingernails to pick at the lead seams in her window, finally popping one pane of glass out. It reached in, opened the window, and entered. Before she could react it sprang to her bedside and bit her deeply in the neck. Summoned by her screams, her brothers burst in, and the being fled the way it had entered.
The following year they returned and rented the same house, and just as before, the sister saw the hideous creature enter her room. But having the experience of the previous year, the brothers were ready this time with a pistol. What happened next is told here by folklorist Deborah Hyde, editor of the UK magazine The Skeptic, who has done quite a lot of work on Croglin Grange:
The body was burned, and there were never any more reports of the vampire.
So that's the story, and if you've read much horror folklore at all you've likely heard of the Croglin Grange vampire. But you may not have known much about it. Was it a character from fiction? Is it known from an ancient historical document? Is it something that's generally believed as being a true story, either among vampire believers everywhere or just in the vicinity of Croglin?
The story has its origin — meaning its first mention in print — in the 1900 book The Story of My Life, written by socialite Augustus Hare. In it, Hare recounts a dinner he had with his neighbor, a certain Captain Edward Fisher-Rowe, in 1874. Over dinner, Fisher-Rowe told him the Croglin Grange story as having happened to his family. Unfortunately, Fisher-Rowe gave no exact names or dates, so all we know is that it had to have been in, or before, 1874.
Since Hare's book, many other authors and researchers have traveled to Croglin to try and nail down the details. In short, much difficulty was encountered. First of all, the village of Croglin is very small and it was easy to establish that there is not now, and never has been, a house called Croglin Grange. Hare's third-hand account stated that the house overlooked the churchyard that the vampire escaped into, and it was easy for visiting researchers to verify that there simply isn't anything like that in Croglin, and hadn't ever been. Also, there are no cemeteries around that have vaults or crypts which could have been disturbed as described in the story.
These authors have included Charles Harper, with his 1907 book Haunted Houses; F. Clive-Ross with a 1963 article in the magazine Tomorrow, and Richard Whittington-Egan who dug up property ownership and rental records for the magazine Contemporary Review in 2005. What gradually formed over all of this documentary and onsite research was a picture that eventually does — more or less — check some of the boxes to support Hare's account of Fisher-Rowe's account.
Just under two miles away from Croglin, across farmlands and creeks, is a country house called Croglin Low Hall. Property deed records show that, prior to 1720, Croglin Low Hall was sometimes referred to as Croglin Grange. When Clive-Ross visited, not only did he find that the story was very well known throughout the village, but the current tenant of Croglin Low Hall, a Mrs. Mary Watson, happily showed him the very window traditionally believed to be the one through which the vampire had come and gone. There were even descendants of the Fisher family still living in the area, for whom the Croglin Grange story was a long-standing family tradition.
The churchyard, however, was a problem. There are no churches anywhere remotely near Croglin Low Hall. But it turns out that wasn't always the case. At least one map from the late 1600s — the Robert Morden map of 1695 — shows Croglin Low Hall as Crogling Parva, and immediately beside it was Crogling Church.
Little seems to be known about this church other than its name and that it once existed. It is traditionally believed to have been destroyed in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms between 1638 and 1651, but its appearance on a 1695 map casts this date into some doubt. Todays its stones are said to have been re-used in other buildings, so little remains on the site.
To almost connect the dots even further, Whittington-Egan discovered that the Fisher family became the tenants of Croglin Low Hall in 1809, something around a century after the church was destroyed; however, a contradictory family tradition holds that there was a Fisher family crypt in the yard of Crogling Church. The pieces of the story are all there — enough that if we re-arrange them, we have enough to form the foundation for a piece of local folklore.
Croglin Grange is the most famous English vampire story, and yet, it isn't much of one. There was one victim who was not seriously injured, in a very small, very out of the way village, and no other attacks on other victims are part of the story. This relatively insignificant story's fame stems in part from the fact that it turns out to be one of only a very few mentions of vampires from that era in England. Once we exclude modern 20th century fiction, it turns out that vampires were simply never a big part of English folklore. Certainly vampirism as a subject of popular horror dominated parts of Europe — obviously Transylvania but much of the rest of Europe as well — but it's just not something that was ever popular in the British Isles, at least not until later, say the late 19th century.
Clearly it's a standout story. It was relatively extraordinary that it existed in the first place, thus explaining its prominence in books of English horror lore. Well, at least, in all such books published after 1900. But prior to that? Whether the story did take place in the 1600s or the 1800s, we'd expect that such a remarkable event would have enjoyed its celebrity ever since it happened. But it turns out that's not the case. When British paranormal author Geoff Holder researched Croglin Grange for a chapter in his 2012 book Paranormal Cumbria, he surveyed many books on Cumbrian folklore published between 1874 and 1900 and found not a single mention of Croglin Grange. Holder himself was quick to acknowledge that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I've seen this happen too many times in too many Skeptoid episodes to give it any less than a massive amount of credence. Without any reasonable doubt, no publicly known version of the story existed until Captain Edward Fisher-Rowe shared his family anecdote with Augustus Hare over a whisky in 1874.
If a scary, creepy person of any type had climbed into the sister's bedroom, even attacked her, and even done it twice, that's not a good thing but it wouldn't have warranted inclusion in books of local folklore. But if the extraordinary part of the story had happened — everyone in the village was gathered, the graveyard was found to be trashed, and a freshly shot vampire was found in his coffin, confirmed by the wound, and then publicly burned — well, you can bet that would have made it into the folklore, even more so given how unusual the idea of vampirism was in England at the time. Moreover, something like that would likely have made it into regular newspapers, and to date there is no record of any researcher finding any such thing.
Hare's quarter-century delay in publishing the story as told to him had given other authors of local folklore between 25 and 225 years to be the first to write up a story said to be among the most famous in Cumbria. Not a single one did so. We've no reason at all to doubt the history of the house and its rental tenants going all the way back, and also no reason to doubt that some unknown local creeper may have forced his way into some unknown sister's bedroom when she rented it with her brothers. But as for such a monumental event as the public discovery and burning of a vampire in the graveyard, we are best advised to file that under author-generated fiction, and the timeline of mentions in print means we can likely assign the responsibility for that onto Mr. Augustus Hare — very probably the source of what the local 20th century Fishers in Croglin came to believe had been a long-standing family legend.
And so, as promised at the top of this episode, we've enjoyed the lark of an excursion back through an old mystery story, and used it to underscore a lesson that applies to so many quandaries we face in our daily modern lives. Whenever you hear a claim that sounds too extraordinary to be true, you have very good reason to be skeptical.
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