No one agrees where this story started or rather, there are as many beginnings as there are storytellers.
In the early days, Hampstead Heath was the only thing sinister about the area. Highwaymen flourished there, like Dick Turpin, whose ghost still loiters ’round the pub. The village of Highgate stood on a tall hill overlooking the city of London, sprawled across the river plain below. Highgate’s name described its function: it served as point of entry for farm goods coming from the countryside to feed and clothe the metropolis.
Following the nondenominational fashion set by Pere-Lachaise in Paris, Highgate Cemetery was founded in 1839. The “garden cemetery” was envisioned as a place of beauty where Londoners could escape the smoke and dirt of their city. It offered controlled nature — serene, park-like, and safe — beside the wilderness of Hampstead Heath.
The cemetery made the area fashionable. While it was no Kensal Green — final home of a Prince of England, William Makepeace Thackery, Wilkie Collins, Lady Byron, and friends of Shelley’s — Highgate managed to land Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, the family of Charles Dickens, as well as various balloonists, menagerists, scientists, and philosophers like Karl Marx.
Among the artistic souls buried in the western half of the graveyard was Elizabeth Siddal, muse, mistress, and eventually wife to Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A hat-maker’s assistant, beautiful Lizzie had been wooed by the dashing Italian immigrant, who refused to settle down after he’d won her heart. Increasingly depressed after a stillborn child, Lizzie took her own life with an overdose of laudanum in 1862. At the graveside service, distraught Rossetti placed a handwritten volume of poems on the pillow just before the coffin lid was sealed.
Rossetti’s fortunes faltered after his muse removed herself from the mortal plane. He became convinced that he was going blind and losing his painterly skill, that he was destined to be remembered as a poet rather than as a painter. His questionably scrupulous agent persuaded Rossetti that he could cement his reputation if only he’d publish the poems consigned to Lizzie’s grave. In October 1869, permission was granted to exhume the coffin, as long as it was done by night and did not upset the neighbors or patrons of the cemetery. By flickering torchlight, workmen peeled back the damp rich dirt of England.
This is perhaps where our story begins in earnest: When Lizzie’s coffin was forced open, all that remained of her beauty was the silken mass of her auburn mane. The grave robbers brushed tendrils of hair from the silk-bound manuscript, which was fumigated, then published by the profligate poet. Lizzie’s sad remains were returned to the cold autumn ground.
The story was leaked, possibly by one of the horrified torchbearers, to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. Elizabeth Miller in her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense theorizes that Bram Stoker read the news while working on Dracula, since the paper also reviewed the Lyceum’s production of King Lear, with which Stoker was involved. If that’s the case, Lizzie Siddal served in death as another man’s muse, transmuted into Lucy Westenra and given life beyond the grave. David J. Skal reports in V is for Vampire that Stoker was once a neighbor of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s.
Whether Highgate Cemetery was the churchyard described by Stoker remains a matter of debate. In Dracula, Van Helsing says, “Lucy lies in the tomb of her kin, a lordly death-house in a lonely churchyard, away from teeming London; where the air is fresh, and the sun rises over Hampstead Hill, and where wild flowers grow of their own accord.” The fictional newspaper reports of Lucy’s postmortem attacks on children are headlined Hampstead, the town west of the heath. Highgate lies on its eastern edge.
Whatever the true inspiration, the century turned. England endured World War I, in which one of every three soldiers perished. At the war’s end, the influenza pandemic swept the country, killing thousands. The young and vigorous, plucked in their prime, glutted the nation’s graveyards.
World War II finished the job, wiping out most of a generation of men. In the first decades of the century, whole families had ceased to exist. No one survived to tend the graves; no money came from new burials to pay the army of gardeners. In the 1940s, Highgate was abandoned to nature. And Nature ran rampant.
By the end of the 1960s, Highgate Cemetery was choked with weeds, shadowed by a dense forest of ornamental trees, and colonized by wildlife from the Heath that included foxes, hedgehogs, rabbits, songbirds, and hundreds of insect varieties.
In 1968, the cemetery featured in Taste the Blood of Dracula, one of Hammer Studio’s costume thrillers starring Christopher Lee as the immortal count. In the film, three bored businessmen contact a lord whose family cut him off for practicing Satanism in the family chapel. The men acquire a vial of dried blood and Dracula’s cape, then travel by carriage to Highgate. They climb over a fallen tree, fight through the underbrush, and find themselves at the creaking gate of the Egyptian Avenue. They navigate the sunken catacombs, then enter a towering mausoleum (whose interior existed only on a soundstage) to reconstitute the eponymous count. So, perhaps, our story begins.
In March 1969, the British Psychic and Occult Society heard tales of a tall black apparition amidst the graves at sunset or after dark. The original sighting was traced to an accountant referred to as Thornton in the Society’s report, Beyond the Highgate Vampire. Thornton had been exploring the cemetery. At dusk, as he attempted to leave, he became hopelessly lost. A sudden sense of dread caused him to turn. Over him loomed a dark specter that transfixed him with its glare. He lost all sense of time and felt drained of energy when it finally released him.
The Society investigated the cemetery. Mostly, it discovered widespread vandalism: “vaults broken open and coffins literally smashed apart.” A vault on the main pathway had been forced open and the coffins inside set afire.
Highgate Cemetery, photographed in June 2016 by Loren Rhoads.
Though this clearly had a human origin, sightings of the dark figure continued. The Society decided to perform a séance in the cemetery at midnight on August 17, 1970. They cast a protective circle on the ground, sealing it with consecrated water and salt. After the séance began, they heard muffled voices coming toward them. The police had decided belatedly to patrol the cemetery. Despite the dangers of leaving the circle before the spirits were banished, Society members scattered. Society president David Farrant was arrested as he tried to slip past the police. Among the paraphernalia he carried was a short wooden stake with a string for measuring out the magic circle. This was taken as evidence that he had been hunting vampires.
Farrant was acquitted, since legally Highgate was open to the public, even at midnight. The magistrate likened the hunt for vampires to the search for the Loch Ness Monster: foolish, but harmless.
In his book, Farrant meanders off on a justification of his Wiccan faith and the evils of Christianity. This is at odds with the photo of him included in the booklet (published 1997) “hunting a vampire” clutching a crucifix and “Holy Bible.” Apparently his beliefs about the efficacy of the crucifix have evolved over the last three decades. He posits a ley line that runs from a haunted pub in Highgate Village called Ye Olde Gatehouse under the old “yew” tree in the center of the cemetery’s columbarium. (In all other references, the tree is a cedar — hence, the area’s designation as the Circle of Lebanon.)
The British Psychic and Occult Society officially closed its examination in 1973 due, Farrant writes, to the “concern of the cemetery authorities and the police who saw the Society investigation as being responsible for a marked increase in damage and desecration at the cemetery.” He neglects to mention that he was in court again in June 1974. The prosecution contended that “Farrant was the vampire of Highgate,” according to Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her book Vampires Among Us. Farrant was charged with maliciously damaging a memorial to the dead, interfering with a dead body, tampering with witnesses by sending them poppets, and possession of a firearm. The last charge earned him several years in prison.
Perhaps this was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. Sean Manchester, then president of the British Occult Society (no relation to the British Psychic and Occult Society), claims to have begun investigating phenomena at Highgate Cemetery in 1967. Manchester interviewed two 16-year-old schoolgirls who reported seeing graves inside Highgate yawn open and corpses rise. Afterward, one of the girls, Elizabeth Wojdyla, suffered nightmares where a corpse-faced man tried to get into her bedroom.
When Manchester caught up with Elizabeth again in 1969, “her features had grown cadaverous.” Her neck had two “highly inflamed swellings” with holes in their centers. Manchester vowed to rescue her from the vampire obviously feeding on her.
In his quest, Manchester encountered another young woman whom he believed was under vampiric attack. In his book The Highgate Vampire, he refers to her as Lusia. Like Lucy Westenra, Lusia walked in her sleep. Manchester followed her from her apartment into Highgate Cemetery, up the “haunted icy path” through the Egyptian Avenue to the catacombs in the Circle of Lebanon. Lusia paused before one of the tombs and struggled to open it. Manchester flung a crucifix between her and the door. The girl collapsed and had to be carried home. Her parents must have been thrilled when Manchester showed up with her.
Manchester went to the press in February 1970. He told the Hampstead and Highgate Express, “We would like to exorcise the vampire by the traditional and approved manner — drive a stake through its heart with one blow just after dawn, chop off its head with a gravedigger’s shovel, and burn what remains.”
When no volunteers stepped forward to help, Manchester approached the media again in March, intruding while David Farrant was being interviewed by a television crew about the “hauntings” inside Highgate. Farrant stresses that he took great care to avoid the term vampire, but a “theatrical character” announced that he intended to lead a vampire hunt the following night.
Hundreds of people showed up to assist. The police arrived with spotlights. Despite the carnival atmosphere, Manchester and an assistant chopped a hole through the roof of the tomb in the catacombs. Manchester was lowered by rope into the vault, where he found three empty coffins. He sprinkled each with garlic and holy water, then encircled each with salt, according to Carol Page’s Bloodlust: Conversations with Real Vampires.
The exorcism didn’t halt the desecration of graves, the mutilation of corpses, or the slaughter of foxes and other small animals found drained of blood in the cemetery. In fact, after the exorcism, someone dragged a woman’s corpse from her grave, chopped off her head, drove a stake her through the heart, and left her body lying in the middle of a pathway.
In the winter of 1973, Manchester eventually traced the King Vampire to an abandoned mansion in north London (already investigated by Farrant’s BPOS as haunted), where he discovered an enormous black casket. Manchester and his assistant Arthur dragged it outside. Manchester kicked the coffin lid off and … Well, perhaps it’s best to let him tell the story: “Burning, fierce eyes beneath black furrowed brows stared with hellish reflection. Yellow at the edges with blood-red centres, they were unlike any other beast of prey.”
Manchester staked the corpse through its heart, shielding his ears “as a terrible roar emitted from the bowels of hell.” The corpse turned to brown slime. The stench was so awful, Arthur forgot to work his camera and the event passed unrecorded.
The two men built a pyre, tossed the coffin on, doused it with gasoline, and set it ablaze. Incredibly, no one in London noticed the explosion, the smell, or the smoke.
While he’s never been officially charged with vandalism or “interfering with a corpse,” Manchester remains persona non grata at Highgate Cemetery.
In 1975, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery formed after the cemetery’s owner shut down the Western Cemetery for economic reasons. FOHC volunteers worked on Saturday afternoons to clear brambles, fell invasive trees, and reopen access to gravesites. Eventually, FOHC bought the entire cemetery. They now sell guidebooks and offer tours to raise money for their work.
Which is where I come into the story. I visited Highgate for the second time in June 1995. I was determined to see the western side of the graveyard, where the Rossettis and Lizzie Siddal are buried. Outside the large “undertaker’s gothic” chapel, I paid three pounds to join a guided tour. Our guide explained that a tunnel runs from the Anglican chapel under Swain’s Lane to the “newer” eastern side of the cemetery (where the first burial occurred in 1860) so that a coffin never leaves consecrated ground once the body has been blessed.
The Friends of Highgate treat the western side of the cemetery as “managed wilderness.” Simply cutting back the ivy would be a full-time job, so they only trim enough of the brush to keep some paths open and remove trees whose roots threaten monuments. The British National Trust and British Heritage have both funded conservation efforts. For the most part, the Friends maintain the cemetery in its romantic decay. Only in the most extreme cases, like the Circle of Lebanon, do they resort to restoration.
Highgate’s Egyptian Avenue, photographed in June 2016 by Loren Rhoads.
One of the highlights of the tour was finally seeing the Egyptian Avenue for myself. It was originally painted red, blue, and yellow, to lure tourists to the cemetery. Now it is simple gray. An Egyptian arch with obelisks on either side leads to a sunken avenue open to the sky. Family tombs, carved into the hillside, line the avenue. Each is set apart from the next by columns with lotus bud capitals. The valley was wonderfully cool in the humid June afternoon.
We followed the avenue to its end in the ring of catacombs called the Circle of Lebanon. The old cedar in the center survives from the original Ashurst estate, predating the cemetery by at least 150 years. Its spreading branches curtained our tour group 20 feet below the surface of the ground. FOHC is concerned for the tree because of its age and having had the ground around cut away beneath it.
We passed Radclyffe Hall’s tomb without remark from the guide. I happened to turn at the right moment to read, “And if God choose, I shall but love thee better after Death,” the epitaph chosen by Hall’s surviving girlfriend. Una Troubridge had hoped to be buried beside the love of her life, but died in Rome and was never returned home. I snapped a quick murky photo as the tour group moved on without me.
The tour climbed up to the mausoleum of Julius Beer. It is the “largest and grandest of all the privately owned buildings in the Cemetery,” according to the FOHC guidebook. Its design was inspired by the tomb of King Mausolus (from whom we draw the word mausoleum) at Halicarnassus, Turkey — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Beer’s mausoleum has a stunning blue and gold mosaic ceiling. After it was broken into and its residents dragged out of their coffins, the mausoleum has been converted to a tool shed by the Friends of Highgate.
The Beer family mausoleum, Highgate, June 2016. Photo by Loren Rhoads.
In the Victorian era, the Jewish Beer family migrated to London from Frankfurt. Julius Beer owned the London Observer, but society shunned him because of his religion. In order to be buried in Highgate, he converted to the Church of England in the 1880s. Previous to that, people came to Highgate on weekends to picnic on the land above the Circle of Lebanon. Beer’s revenge on society was to construct his mausoleum to obstruct their view. Rumor insinuated that he had killed his family. His wife died first, followed by their eight-year-old consumptive daughter. Inside the mausoleum, a marble angel stoops to kiss a life-sized child — whose face was modeled on the death mask of Beer’s little girl. Beer himself died of apoplexy in his early 40s. His son Frederick took over the Observer and slid into madness.
Although he spent 5000 pounds on his mausoleum and owned a major newspaper, Beer did not receive an obituary in the London Times. If ever anyone deserved to come back as a vampire, I nominate Julius Beer. Persecuted for his religion in life, hounded by ugly rumors after his death, he seems most justified to be the demonic figure in black which inhabited Highgate Cemetery.