CLOSE
4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain
4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain

Tom Skelton: The Serial Killer Court Jester

4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain
4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain

Allegedly built on the site of an old Roman encampment, Muncaster Castle near the village of Ravenglass, Cumbria, on the far northwest coast of England, has been the ancestral seat of the local Pennington family for around 800 years. Like many of England’s castles and stately homes, Muncaster is supposedly haunted by more than its fair share of ghosts—among them, that of an infamous and murderous court jester named Thomas Skelton.

Although accounts of Skelton’s life are sketchy at best (because he was technically a servant, no detailed record of him was ever kept in the castle’s documents), it’s believed that he was hired by Sir Alan Pennington, possibly as a personal steward and teacher to the real Lord of Muncaster Castle, William Pennington, who was 14 when his father died in the mid-16th century. Precisely how the Penningtons came to know Skelton is unclear, but nevertheless he soon made a name for himself not only as a brilliant entertainer but—if local legend is to be believed—as a lethally dangerous practical joker.

According to one story, Skelton had a habit of sitting beneath a chestnut tree (which still stands today) on the castle grounds, where he would chat with and offer directions to travelers and passers-by on the road that ran by the castle. Anyone he took a dislike to, however, would not be helped on their way but instead be intentionally directed toward a perilous and all but undetectable patch of quicksand by the nearby cliffs, from which there was little chance of escape. How many people Skelton supposedly sent to their deaths this way is unknown—but whether true or not, even this grim story isn’t the worst thing attributed to him.

In 1825, a local journalist and editor named John Briggs published a series of essays and letters in which he recounted one particular story dating from Skelton’s time at Muncaster: Sir Alan’s young daughter Helwise dressed as a shepherdess and went to the village where she met and danced with a young carpenter named Richard, who eventually became her secret lover. But Wild Will of Whitbeck, who Helwise had shunned at the dance, was jealous and followed them until he learned her true identity.

He told the story to a knight, Sir Ferdinand, who had wanted to marry Helwise. He went into a fit of rage and contacted Skelton, who blamed Richard for stealing some money—and with Ferdinand’s backing went out to right several perceived wrongs.

Some versions of the story say that while entertaining Richard with jokes and magic tricks—and apparently agreeing to help him elope with Helwise—Skelton plied the young man with cider and, once he was suitably drunk, helped him back to his workshop. There, Skelton bludgeoned him to death with his own tools and, according to Briggs’s account, cut off his head with an axe and hid it beneath a pile of wood shavings. Skelton then returned to the castle and coolly told his fellow servants what he had done, joking that the carpenter “will not find [his head] so easily when he awakes as he did my shillings [that were stolen].” Quite what the other servants thought of this is, unfortunately, unrecorded. But Briggs does tell us Ferdinand's attempts to woo Helwise failed, and she went to go live in a nunnery while he went on to die in battle.

Briggs’s account of the carpenter’s murder is one of only a handful of details from Skelton’s life that we have on record, but given the lack of real evidence dating from Skelton’s own lifetime it’s impossible to say whether it’s a genuine account or not. Nevertheless, Skelton’s reputation continues to live on at Muncaster Castle: An eerie portrait of him in his full jester’s costume—and holding a copy of his own last will and testament, in which he apparently predicts his own death while reportedly all but admitting to directing people to their doom—is supposed to be the center of all kinds of ghostly phenomena at the castle. Perhaps because of his monstrous reputation, he became the last court jester of Muncaster for hundreds of years—that is, until the present-day Penningtons began hosting a competition each year to find a new annual fool. Hopefully, these new jesters only care about fun and games.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
arrow
olympics
The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Getty Images
arrow
presidents
President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
Getty Images
Getty Images

Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios