Dividing Souls in the Graveyard

Folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 1791
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2013


  1. The Miller and the Tailor (England).

  2. The Bag of Nuts (Derbyshire, England).

  3. Mother Elston's Bag of Nuts (Devonshire, England).

  4. Tom Daly and the Nut-Eating Ghost (Ireland).

  5. Dividing the Souls (Virginia, USA).

  6. Dividing the Souls (North Carolina, USA).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Miller and the Tailor


The subjoined story is from the same source as "John Adroyns" and the " Maltman of Colebrook," and is at once more elaborate and more dramatic. It is in our estimation one of the drollest and best-sustained narrations of the kind in our language. The plot is slightly involved, but it is managed and developed with rare skill and felicity. The treatment of this and other narrations and pleasantries in the "Hundred Merry Tales" (1526), tends to corroborate the notion which we broached in 1887, that Sir Thomas More had a share in compiling the volume, which combines with unusual literary merit a singular freedom from grossness, and was evidently under the inspiration of some masculine intellect with a precocious sense of humour and a descriptive faculty at that time almost unique. Like the preceding relation, the particulars here found were by no means improbably derived from an actual fact, although the writer doubtless permitted himself more or less license in the way of romantic embellishment. [Note by Hazlitt]
There was a certain rich farmer in a village, who marvellously loved nuts, and planted trees of filberts and other nuts in his orchard, which through his whole life he cared for well; and when he died it appeared that his executors were to engage to bury with him in the grave a bag of nuts under pain of losing their executorship. So these executors did as they were bidden.

It so happened that on the very night after the burial a miller in a white coat came to the dead man's garden to steal a bag of nuts; and as he went along he met with a tailor in a black coat, an unthrifty fellow, and discovered to him his scheme. The tailor confessed in his turn that that same night he planned stealing a sheep. It was determined between them that each should effect his purpose, and that they should meet, later on, in the church porch, the one who came first to tarry for the other.

The miller gathered his nuts, and was the first to reach the porch; and while he waited for the tailor, he sat down and cracked nuts. It being about nine o'clock, the sexton came to ring the curfew; and when he looked, and saw a man in the porch dressed in white and cracking nuts, he weened that it was the farmer risen from his grave, cracking the nuts that had been buried along with him, and sped home in all haste and told a cripple, who lived in the same house what he had beheld. This cripple, when he heard the sexton so speak, reproved him, and said that, were it in his power to go to the place, he would conjure the spirit.

"By my faith, if thou art not afraid, I will carry thee on my back," said the sexton.

And the sexton took the cripple on his back, and brought him to the churchyard; whereupon the miller in the porch, seeing one approach with something on his back, and weening it had been the tailor with the sheep, rose up, and came toward them, saying, "Is he fat? Is he fat?"

The sexton, hearing these words, cast down the cripple, and said, "Fat or lean, take him as he is," and vanished; and the cripple by miracle was made whole, and ran as fast as the sexton, or faster.

The miller, perceiving that there were two, and that one ran from the other, thought that one was the owner of the sheep and had espied the tailor stealing it; and lest somebody might have seen him steal the nuts out of the orchard, he left the shells behind him, and hied home to his mill.

Presently came the tailor with the sheep on his back to seek him, as it had been arranged; and when he saw nought but nutshells, he concluded, as was indeed the truth, that the miller had gone home. So, throwing his sheep once more over his shoulder, he walked toward the mill.

Meanwhile the sexton, when he ran away, went not to his own house, but to the parish priest, to whom he shewed how the spirit of the dead man was seated in the church porch eating nuts; and they both proceeded back together to the place, that the priest might conjure the spirit.

The priest put on his stole and surplice, and took holy water with him; and as they went along, the tailor with the white sheep on his back met them, and in the dusk, taking the priest in his white surplice to be the miller in his white coat, shouted to him, "By God! I have him! I have him!" meaning the sheep which he had stolen.

But the priest, seeing the tailor all in black and a white thing on his shoulder, imagined it to be the devil bearing away the spirit of the man that had just been buried, and ran away at full speed, the sexton following at his heels. The tailor judged that the two had been following him to take him for stealing the sheep, and thought that the miller might have got into trouble for stealing the nuts. So he went on toward the mill, to see if he could be of any use to the miller, and to hear what news.

When he rapped at the mill-door, the miller called out, "Who is there?"

The tailor answered and said, "By God! I have caught one of them, and made him sure, and tied him fast by the legs."

Then the miller feared that the tailor had been taken and secured by the constable, and that he had now come to fetch him away for stealing the nuts; wherefore he ran out at a backdoor as fast as ever he could. The tailor heard the door open, and going to the other side of the mill saw the miller posting off; and for a few moments he stood musing there with his sheep on his back.

The parish priest and the sexton, who had been hiding near the mill for fear of the spirit of the dead man, presently caught sight of the black tailor and the white sheep again, and fled in dismay, and the priest, not knowing the ground, leapt into a ditch, where the mud almost reached his chin. Then the tailor, perceiving that the miller ran one way and the sexton another, and that the priest cried for assistance, and supposing that it was the constable, who had come at last to arrest him, cast down the sheep, and also disappeared.

Thus each man suffered misfortune, because some had done what was wrong and others what was foolish, and all were afraid without cause; and a good deal was owing to the time when it happened, for it was in the night that all this strange game of errors was played.

The Bag of Nuts

England (Derbyshire)

It happened once that two young men met in a churchyard, about eight o'clock in the evening.

One of them said to the other, "Where are you going?"

The other answered, "I'm going to get a bag of nuts that lies underneath my mother's head in this churchyard. But tell me, where are you going?"

He said, "I'm going to steal a fat sheep out of this field. Wait here till I come back."

Then the other man got the nuts that were under his dead mother's head, and stood in the church porch cracking them.

In those days it was the custom to ring a bell at a certain time in the evening, and just as the man was cracking the nuts the sexton came into the churchyard to ring it. But when he heard the cracking of the nuts in the porch he was afraid, and ran to tell the parson, who only laughed at him, and said, "Go and ring, fool."

However, the sexton was so afraid, that he said he would not go back unless the parson would go with him. After much persuasion the parson agreed to go, but he had the gout very badly, and the sexton had to carry him on his back. When the man in the porch who was cracking the nuts saw the sexton coming into the churchyard with the parson on his back he thought it was the man who had just gone out to steal the sheep, and had returned with a sheep on his back. So he bawled out, "Is it a fat one?"

When the sexton heard this he was so frightened that he threw the parson down and said, "Aye, and thou canst take it if thou lik'st."

So the sexton ran away as fast as he could, and left the parson to shift for himself.

But the parson ran home as fast as the sexton.

Mother Elston's Bag of Nuts

England (Devonshire)

Mother Elston used to go from place to place selling nuts, and before she died she begged that a bag of them might be put in her coffin. Her wishes were fulfilled, and she was buried, and then it began to be said her ghost used to sit on her grave and crack the nuts. Many people heard it, and the clergyman of the parish was told. He said that, if at any time it was made known to him that the ghost was there, to be seen or heard, he would come at once and lay it.

One fine night, after a neighbouring "revel," three men rather the worse for drink came by, and saw some sheep in a field close to the churchyard. The thought struck them that here was a good opportunity for helping themselves, and while one man went into the church porch to keep watch, the others went to steal the sheep.

Now, the man in the porch had brought a lot of nuts from the revel, and while waiting he began to eat them. Just then the sexton came by and heard nuts being cracked, sure enough. So off he ran to the vicarage to fetch the parson, who agreed to come at once. Unfortunately he was afflicted with St. Vitus' dance and could not walk, being obliged to go in a perambulator.

"Have you my perambulator?" said the parson.

"No, sir; I don't naw where he's to," replied the sexton.

"Never mind; this little way you can carry me on your back," said the parson.

So off they set, and just inside the churchyard they heard the nuts still being cracked. The sexton stopped.

"Go a little nearer," urged the parson. The sexton went a little nearer.

"Go a little nearer still"; and the sexton still went a little nearer.

Then the parson began saying something to lay the ghost. But the man in the porch thought they were one of his mates with a sheep. "Is he fat?" he called.

And the sexton was so frightened that he dropped the parson and ran away as fast as he could. But St. Vitus' dance comes with a fright and goes with a fright, they say, and the parson was quite cured from that minute, and could walk as well as ever he could after.

Tom Daly and the Nut-Eating Ghost


The value of the next story (which was told by the blind man), apart from the comic in its form and con tents, is the fact that nuts are buried for the godfather to eat after death. This is an interesting survival of primitive Gaelic belief. [Note by Curtin]
Tom Daly lived between Kenmare and Skneem, but nearer to Kenmare, and had an only son, who was called Tom, after the father. When the son was eighteen years old Tom Daly died, leaving a widow and this son. The wife was paralysed two years before Tom's death, and could rise out of the bed only as she was taken out, but as the fire was near the bed she could push a piece of turf into it if the turf was left at hand.

Tom Daly while alive was in the employ of a gentleman living at Drummond Castle. Young Tom got the father's place, and he looked on his godfather as he would on his own father, for the father and godfather had been great friends always, and Tom's mother was as fond of the godfather as she was of her own husband.

Four years after old Tom died the godfather followed him. He was very fond of chestnuts, and when he came to die he asked his friends to put a big wooden dish of them in his coffin, so he might come at the nuts in the next world.

They carried out the man's wishes. The godfather was buried, and the bedridden widow mourned for him as much as for her own husband. The young man continued to work for the gentleman at Drummond Castle, and in the winter it was often late in the evening before he could come home.

There was a shortcut from the gentleman's place through a grove and past the graveyard. Young Tom was going home one winter night, the moon was shining very brightly. While passing the graveyard he saw a man on a big tomb that was in it, and he cracking nuts. Young Daly saw that it was on his godfather's tomb the man was, and when he remembered the nuts that were buried with him he believed in one minute that it was the godfather who was before him. He was greatly in dread then, and ran off as fast as ever his legs could carry him. When he reached home he was out of breath and panting.

"What is on you," asked the mother, "and to be choking for breath?"

"Sure I saw my godfather sitting on the tomb and he eating the nuts that were buried with him."

"Bad luck to you," said the mother; "don't be belying the dead, for it is as great a sin to tell one lie on the dead as ten on the living."

"God knows," said Tom, "that I'd not belie my godfather, and 'tis he that is in it; and hadn't I enough time to know him before he died?"

"Do you say in truth, Tom, that 'tis your godfather?"

"As sure as you are my mother there before me 'tis my godfather that's in the graveyard cracking nuts."

"Bring me to him, for the mercy of God, till I ask him about your own father in the other world."

"I'll not do that," said Tom. "What a queer thing it would be to bring you to the dead."

"Isn't it better to go, Tom dear, and speak to him? Ask about your father, and know is he suffering in the other world. If he is, we can relieve him with masses for his soul."

Tom agreed at last, and, as the mother was a cripple, all he could do was to put a sheet around her and take her on his back. He went then towards the graveyard.

There was a great thief living not far from Kenmare, and he came that night towards the estate of the gentleman where Tom was working. The gentleman had a couple of hundred fat sheep that were grazing. The thief made up his mind to have one of the sheep, and he sent an apprentice boy that he had to catch one, and said that he'd keep watch on the top of the tomb. As he had some nuts in his pockets, the thief began to crack them. The boy went for the sheep, but before he came back the thief saw Tom Daly, with his mother on his back.

Thinking that it was his apprentice with the sheep, he called out, "Is she fat?"

Tom Daly, thinking it was the ghost asking about the mother, dropped her and said, "Begor, then, she is, and heavy!"

Away with him, then, as fast as ever his two legs could carry him, leaving the mother behind. She, forgetting her husband and thinking the ghost would kill and eat her, jumped up, ran home like a deer, and was there as soon as her son.

"God spare you, mother, how could you come!" cried Tom, "and be here as soon as myself?"

"Sure I moved like a blast of March wind," said the old woman; "'tis the luckiest ride I had in my life, for out of the fright the good Lord gave me my legs again."

Dividing the Souls

Virginia, USA

Once there were two men, an' they were out one afternoon fishin'. They caught a large basket of fish. It was growin' towards evening.

One of the men says, "Where shall we go to count the fish?"

The other man says, "Oh, we'll find a place."

So they went on till they come to a graveyard. So they stopped. They went in an' started a-countin', "One for me, an' one for you." They had dropped two fish on the road. They kept on saying, "One for me an' one for you, two for me an' two for you."

One of the preacher's friends come along. He stopped an' listened, an' they were in their fifties. He thought the Devil and the Lord was in the graveyard dividin' up people.

So he goes to the preacher's house. And he said, "Reverend John, your preachin's true, but the Devil an' the Lord's in the graveyard dividin' up people."

Says, "How do you know? I don't believe you."

Says, "Well, get your hat and come an' see."

When they had got to the graveyard, they heard the two fishermen say, "Let us go after the other two!"

So they both ran home as fast as they could go.

Dividing the Souls

North Carolina, USA

One time a colored man an' a white man out hick'ry-nut huntin'. Found big hick'ry nut an' small walnut. Lay 'em up on de gatepost.

Go into de graveyard. Say, "We'll divide what we got. You take this one, an' I'll take the other."

They divided all dey had in de graveyard. Then said, "We'll go up to de gate-pos' an' divide. You take the black, an' I'll take the white."

Man on outside goin' along, an' he heard 'em talkin'. An' he become frighten. An' he went back to his neighbor's house where there was an ol' man had the rheumatism. An' he said, "You go with me. I'll tote you."

Goes on with him, an' he says, "Jesus Christ an' the Devil is up there dividin' up the dead."

An' when they got along near the gate-post says, "You take the black one, an' I'll take the white one."

So he throws this white man down, an' he run off. An' the ol' man beat him back home.

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Revised February 27, 2013.