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Phantom Drummer

A Pennsylvania Ghost Story 

Now when Colonel Howell of the British Army chanced to meet the daughter of the wealthy farmer Jarrett, who owned land near Valley Forge, he fell head-over-heels in love. Howell had a bit of a reputation as a womanizer, but it faded away after he met Ruth. The girl had a brother serving under Washington and none of her family liked the red coats, but so overwhelming was Howell’s love for her that it conquered the reluctant maiden’s heart.

Ruth and her British soldier met in a secret place near the wall of her garden, which was hidden by a small grove of trees. On the night that Howell proposed, they were standing near the wall when the sharp, merry sound of a drummer rang through the garden. At first they ignored the noise, caught up in their plans for the future, but as the sound of the drum grew nearer, Howell started looking about nervously and even peering over the wall, trying to see the drummer.

Ruth was puzzled by Howell’s reaction. No one could see them in this little grove, which was why they used it for their trysts.

"What is wrong?" she cried, hurrying to him.

"There is no one there," Howell told Ruth hoarsely.

Ruth stared at him, frightened by his words. The roll of the drum still rang through the fields beyond the wall.

"But surely…" she began. She was interrupted by a phantom rat-a-tat-tat. The sound drew closer. As they listened in horror, it came right through the garden gate just beyond the trees. The invisible drummer entered their little hollow and passed right through the wall next to them. Only when it ceased altogether did Howell snap out of the fear-induced trance he was in. He convulsively clasped Ruth to his chest. No less frightened, Ruth begged Howell to tell her what it could mean.

"For the last three generations," Howell said shakily, "a phantom drummer has appeared to warn my family of a change in fortunes, some for good, most for ill." Seeing the look on Ruth’s face, he tried to shake off his terror. He spoke a few words of reassurance to his newly betrothed, which neither of them believed, kissed her goodbye, and galloped away.

In a skirmish the next day, Colonel Howell was shot. He was brought to Farmer Jarrett’s house for nursing, though Ruth’s father was reluctant to have a British soldier under his roof. To Ruth’s relief, the wound was fairly minor and would soon heal. To add to her joy, her father grew fond of the young man and consented to their marriage if Howell would leave the British army. The Colonel made this promise willingly and a secret marriage was soon arranged.

Then tragedy struck. Orders arrived demanding that Howell rejoin his regiment on the eve of an impending battle. Howell knew that to honorably resign his commission would take months, and he would be forced to fight and kill the Americans in the battle the next day. So he decided to marry Ruth, desert the British army, and hide himself away until it was safe to rejoin the Jarrett household.

Divesting himself of the British uniform, he donned the clothes of a civilian and stood with Ruth before a minister in the parlor of the Jarrett house. As he slipped the wedding ring on his beloved’s finger and bent to kiss her, the roll of a drum sounded from outside. Howell and Ruth turned fearfully and listened as the invisible drummer climbed the steps, walked through the room, and exited via the far wall.

Ruth clung to her new husband in terror, while the guests and clergy murmured in awe. Then they heard rough voices outside and someone pounded on the front door. Suddenly the house was full of British soldiers, come to capture Howell based on the testimony of one of the Jarrett servants, who hated the red coats and had betrayed them. Howell was arrested, tried, and shot for desertion. At the moment he died, Ruth, sobbing alone in her bedchamber at home, heard the faint, unmistakable roll of a phantom drum.


S.E. Schlosser

S.E. Schlosser

S.E. Schlosser is the author of the Spooky Series published by Globe Pequot Press. She has been telling stories since she was a child, when games of “let’s pretend” quickly built themselves into full-length tales acted out with friends. A graduate of both Houghton College and the Institute of Children’s Literature, Sandy received her MLS from Rutgers University while working as a full-time music teacher and a freelance author.