One cold foggy Sunday night in the autumn of 1871, 68-year-old Lionel Harland, a respected Rodney Street doctor, left his surgery and walked up Liverpool’s Maryland Street, when he heard footsteps approaching. The shadowy figure of a tall wiry man wearing a top hat and a flowing cape was emerging from the swirling fog, a hundred yards ahead.
Dr Harland hesitated at the corner of Maryland and Rodney Street and felt a shiver run up his spine, even though he wore a heavy fur coat on this chilly September night.
The silhouette advanced towards the doctor with an almost military gait, and as it came within range of the flickering yellow flame of a lamppost, the elderly doctor saw to his horror that the approaching figure was the very same one he had encountered twenty years before.
It was not a living person at all, but the ghostly shade of a dead man - a dead man the doctor had known personally many years ago. It was the terrifying apparition of James McKenzie, an evil and wicked man who gambled with the Devil and lost his soul as a result, forever condemned to walk the earth without rest until Judgement Day.
Before the doctor could cross the cobbled road to escape the terrifying ghost, the apparition let out a spiteful laugh and sneeringly said: “Ha! Hospital Sunday!” The spectre was referring to a charity collection the doctor held on Sundays to raise funds for poor people needing hospital treatment.
Halfway across the road, Dr Harland was brave enough to take a single glance at the cursed phantom, and he almost fainted with fear. McKenzie’s face looked as if it was lit up by a red flame, and his eyes were ink-black and lifeless. As the doctor shivered, the figure in black walked straight through the wall of the cemetery.
The trembling doctor reached the house of his friend Daniel Jackson in Blackburne Place, and after giving a garbled account of his meeting with McKenzie’s ghost, he clutched his heart and collapsed onto the hearth rug.
Mr Jackson and a servant managed to revive the doctor and gave him a shot of brandy. Dr Harland nodded, then said: “Mr Brocklebank; tell him about McKenzie. He knows the story.” Moments later, the surgeon quietly died in the fireside armchair.
The only Brocklebank Daniel Jackson knew of was the wealthy philanthropist and ship-owner Ralph Brocklebank, so after his friend’s funeral, he forwarded a letter to the local tycoon about the strange story of Dr Harland, but did not expect a reply. He certainly did not expect a personal visit from the affluent Mr Brocklebank in response to his correspondence.
The 70-year-old millionaire paid his unexpected visit to Mr Jackson’s house shortly before 11 pm. He alighted from a hansom cab in an anonymous black Ulster coat with a black felt fedora pulled over his eyes.
Brocklebank was led to the drawing room by a servant who he rudely dismissed with a wave of the hand. Daniel Jackson offered his illustrious guest a finely-cut tumbler of Hoagland’s eight-year Scotch Whisky, rumoured to be Brocklebank’s favourite tipple, but the mogul shook his head and in a cavalier manner he told his host to go over the story he’d related in the letter.
Mr Jackson gave his account of Dr Harland’s final moments, and Brocklebank became very uneasy. He sat on the edge of the fireside armchair, jabbing the glowing coals of the fire with a poker with a tense expression.
After he had listened to Mr Jackson, he told a very strange story indeed which threw some light on the McKenzie ghost. It was a tale of greed, murder and the supernatural. Brocklebank seemed to see the events he described in the flames of the grate ashe spoke.
He said, “I remember James McKenzie. He was one of those people who are born old and crooked. Even then he was in his fifties. I was 25-years-old when I first met him, and your deceased friend was 23 and fresh out of medical school.
“McKenzie made and lost fortunes most men can only dream of. He backed the early railways and financed George Stephenson’s locomotive machines. He was seen as pillar of the community and a backer of commerce and industry; but there was another unsavoury side to the man few people were aware of. He was a compulsive gambler and an ardent atheist.
“Someone told me that he put his family Bible on the fire after his sweetheart died from a fever. They say he hated God because of her death. And there were strange rumours about the man.”
In 1826, eleven bodies were found in barrels in the cargo hold of a ship at Liverpool Docks. The police traced the barrels to a house at Number 8 Hope Street. That house was being looked after by a James MacGowan, who was an associate of James McKenzie.
Anyway, the police arrested Mr MacGowan after they found 22 corpses of men women and children that had been dug up from the local cemetery. Mr MacGowan refused to name names, but everyone suspected Mr Mackenzie of being the instigator.
There were whispers that he had turned Number 8 Hope Street into a body-snatcher’s warehouse, where the corpses were pickled in barrels, ready to be shipped to the medical schools in Scotland. The going rate was £15 per corpse, be it a man, woman or a baby. But Mackenzie needed the money.
But in October 1850, something happened which I will never forget. McKenzie became acquainted with a mysterious gentleman known only as Mr Madison. Madison was the sharpest poker player McKenzie had ever met, and on this memorable occasion, they played a game throughout the night. McKenzie lost everything to the unbeatable Madison.
Just before dawn, the weary and defeated McKenzie was making preparations to leave when Madison made a bizarre proposal. He said: “One more game Mr McKenzie sir?”
McKenzie was literally penniless and said he had nothing left to gamble for. Mr Madison said, “What about your soul?” McKenzie said, “This is not the time for jests, please leave.”
But Madison made it plain that he was not joking. He really did want to play a game of poker for McKenzie’s soul. McKenzie nervously and said, “I think I know who you are.” And Mr Madison said, “If you sir, are an atheist, then what have you to lose? For a man who does not believe in a creator cannot believe he was given a soul.”
McKenzie was too proud to acknowledge the existence of the Almighty, and the fool played a game of poker for ‘his soul - and Mr Madison won. James McKenzie fell to ‘his knees with fear when Mr Madison presented his ‘winning hand, but his opponent, who was really the ‘Devil laughed and said to him: “Fear not, vain and defeated one. I will not take your soul until you are ‘laid to rest in your grave.”
And when McKenzie glanced up, Mr Madison had vanished, but there was an aroma of something burning in the room. This explains why Mr McKenzie was entombed in his little pyramid above ground sitting up at a card table with a winning poker hand.
It was his desperate attempt to cheat the Devil out of claiming his soul. As long as McKenzie’s mortal remains are above ground, Lucifer can’t claim his soul. But because McKenzie rejected eternal rest with God, he has condemned himself to walk the night as a restless ghost until Judgement Day.
When old Mr Brocklebank was leaving the house in Blackburne Place, Daniel Jackson said to him, “Sir, did you actually meet - you know who? Mr Madison?” Before the millionaire walked off into the jade fog, he nodded twice and with a worried look, he replied “You don’t think I accumulated my wealth through hard work do you? But I’ll have the devil to pay when my time comes.”