The ghost of Uncle Tom’s cabin

A trip to Murree’s Norwood Estate where macabre tales bring the past to life

The ghost of Uncle Tom’s cabin


ead men tell no tales. Are there are some exceptions to this rule? Occasionally, before vanishing into oblivion, some people leave behind written accounts, which even if they do not chill the spine, are macabre and incite inquisitive minds to delve deep into the facts of the tale and try to extract logical reasons for the strange events that occurred long ago.

This is one such tale, as recorded by a subaltern, who, after seeing off his friends after dinner, was smoking a cigar beside the road with his two dogs in attendance. Suddenly, he heard hoofs striking the road and then saw a rider in full evening dress, with a tall hat and white waistcoat, accompanied by two syces to steady the dark brown pony with a black mane and tail.

As they approached, knowing that the house was located at the edge of a precipice and the path went no further, the subaltern called out in vernacular, Koi hai. There was no answer, and the rider kept going forward. The two pet dogs sounded low, frightened whimpers and ran for the house.

He then demanded loudly in English, “Hullo, what the devil do you want here?” The group came to a halt, and the rider turned and stared at the subaltern. It was a clear night with a full moon so bright that one could read a book by its light.

The subaltern immediately recognised the rider as Lieutenant B..., but the lieutenant’s appearance was different from when he had last met him some years ago. He was much fatter and instead of being clean-shaven, he had a dark fringe of beard around his deathly pale face.

The ghost of Uncle Tom’s cabin

The subaltern ran towards the road, but while tackling the incline, he slipped and tumbled down. By the time he recovered and made it to the road, there was no trace of the rider or his attendants. This happened in the spring of 1854. The place was Murree.

A few days ago, Shahzad Hasan called me and excitedly asked if I had heard about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I told him that I had read the classic novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe while I was at Sadiq Public School, Bahawalpur. The anti-slavery theme of the novel was influential in starting the American Civil War of 1861-65. When President Lincoln met Ms Harriet after the war, he reportedly remarked, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Nevertheless, on that day, Shahzad Hasan was not interested in the novel. My batch-mate from civil services had never seen a ghost in his life; neither had I. However, he had spent a part of his childhood living next to a haunted house in Murree – the Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and he had some spooky stories to tell me.

His great-grandmother, a scion of the Sethi family of Peshawar, had purchased the Norwood Estate in Murree hills in the 1920s. His maternal grandfather studied at Lawrence College, Ghora Galli, and used to go to school daily on horseback. Aunty Najm-un Nisa Hasan, Shahzad’s mother, was born and brought up in this house in the 1950s and continuously shared stories about the glories of Murree, a town which was, until then, maintaining colonial cultural traditions.

She said she, along with her sisters and two cousins, all in their teens, was once walking back towards their home from Lintots, the famous cafe on Murree Mall, when they heard footsteps and muffled voices of a group following them. “It was dusk, and the sun was fast fading. We had just crossed a sharp bend on the sloping road, which was lined with tall trees and surrounded by dense vegetation. We presumed that other members of the family were catching up, so we decided to wait for a while, but nobody turned up. All of us heard the muffled laughter, after which the footsteps stopped. This was followed by an eerie silence. We went back to the sharp bend to see who was following us, but the road was deserted. We turned our tails and ran for the house. After this incident, the girls were not allowed to go out on a stroll after dark unless accompanied by a male member of the family.”

The ghost of Uncle Tom’s cabin

Hasan remembers that when he was studying at Aitchison College in the 1980s, he and his siblings used to spend the three-month summer vacation at the house. “At times, when my other cousins joined us, the house was full of children. The naughty children were repeatedly told that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a haunted house and that they must keep away from it. Their servants feared the place but had never seen anything strange happening. No one ever narrated a specific ghost story about this house, yet the house was considered haunted. It was owned by a powerful aristocratic family from Jhang. In those days, the derelict house had been abandoned for many decades. Its broken windows gave an unnerving look, especially when there was a full moon.”

Tasha, Hasan’s wife, recently found a book, The Catalogue of Ghost Sightings, by Brian Innes. In it, she discovered why this house was labeled as haunted. A remarkably detailed account of encounters with a ghost was recorded by General R Barter. In 1854, Barter was posted as a subaltern in Murree and lived with his young wife in a house known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin – the house adjacent to Norwood Estate, the abode of Hasan’s maternal family.

Immediately after his first encounter with the pale-faced rider, General R Barter made inquiries among the officers of Lieutenant B’s regiment. The Lieutenant had built this house in Murree two years earlier and named it Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was posted in Peshawar but became seriously ill and died in February 1854.

While on the sick list, he became very bloated and grew a dark fringe of beard. Lieutenant B had bought a pony from Peshawar some years ago that as dark brown with a conspicuous black mane and tail. He was killed while riding it recklessly downhill from Murree to Trete. These descriptions matched the apparition General Barter had seen on that clear night before it disappeared into thin air.

This is one such tale, as recorded by a subaltern, who, after seeing off his friends after dinner, was smoking a cigar beside the road with his two dogs in attendance.

Barter and his wife repeatedly heard someone riding rapidly down the path at night, though they did not see anything after that one incident. Once, when the galloping sound was very distinct, the general opened the door to look for the rider but only found his Hindu bearer trembling and looking aghast.

The bearer murmured, “Shaitan ka ghar hai” (it is a devil’s house). The reaction of the bearer and the behaviour of the dogs were enough to convince the couple that the house was haunted. Six weeks later, they left Uncle Tom’s Cabin and moved to another residence.

Sir Ernest N Bennett, a British academic, politician, explorer and writer, in his book Apparitions and Haunted Houses (1939), tried to explain it as a case where the phantom bears a relation to the place where it was seen rather than to the percipients themselves. Nevertheless, in this instance, the Lieutenant’s ghost took cognizance of General Barter’s voice, gathered the reins, halted, and turned its head to look at the general.

I walked into the Archives Department in Peshawar, looking for records to find clues about Lieutenant B who had died in Peshawar. Mohamad Ismail, after some prodding on his computer, produced two voluminous hardbound registers dating back to 1854. I scoured the archival record and found two similar names that fit into the net: Lieutenant GR Brown and Lieutenant Brown R Williams, both of the 2nd Royal Artillery Brigade.

They had simultaneously applied to the Chief Commissioner of Peshawar on January 25, 1854, for leave with permission to visit “Cashmere.” The record was silent thereafter, leaving me clueless about the actual Lieutenant B of our story and the circumstances of his death.

The records at the Archives Department are a treasure trove of history waiting to be discovered. I spent an entire day going through the official correspondence, which took my mind to the 19th-Century colonial Raj, almost as if I was changing gears in a car.

Coming across news items from a hundred years ago, it seemed that certain things had not changed. Was I daydreaming? In 1854, the deputy commissioner of Amritsar had sought directions from the chief commissioner about a ring belonging to Maha-Raja Runjeet Singh, which had been deposited with him by a Sikh dafedar.

In my imagination, the ring must be in the Toshakhana, unless misplaced or misappropriated. But these stories and many more, I must narrate separately.

Hasan and I planned a tryst with Lieutenant B’s ghost on a full-moon night. However, our night stay at his Norwood Estate with some friends was repeatedly postponed as weekends did not align the lunar dates. In the end, Ms Lubna Khan, our civil services batch-mate, made the decision.

On a Saturday morning, we took off for the hills, driving on the old Murree Road. In the times of the Raj, during long summers, tongas or horse-drawn carriages transported British families to the serene hill station, providing a welcoming escape from the sizzling plains.

We stopped some distance short of Murree to enjoy hot, spicy pakoras with milky tea. Here, the road widened along the sloping bend, and a natural stream filled an elongated trough with fresh water, most of which was used by drivers to wash their vehicles.

The ghost of Uncle Tom’s cabin

In the days of the Raj, this staging post was known as Trete, where the tonga horses were rested and refreshed with cold water. It was the place where, in 1852, Lieutenant B reckessly rode his dark brown horse to its death.

If you take a walk on the road down the slope from Pindi Point towards Lawrence College, you will pass by Norwood Estate, an elegant colonial house – or what is left of it. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, built much earlier and located behind this house, was at best partially visible from the old Lawrence College Road.

Shahzad Hasan’s maternal house at Norwood Estate is in a dilapidated condition. Shahzad had retrieved a classic crystal chandelier from the main living room, which was made in Austria in 1891, probably the year this house was built. After his grandparents’ death, the house went into disuse as the next generation, busy with their lives, did not find enough time to visit Murree – not even during summer vacations.

Underneath the sloped corrugated roofs, some of the rooms had collapsed, with the mud bricks peeking from beneath the thick plaster. The surviving fireplaces and wooden mantle pieces reminded us of harsh winters, in which the burning logs must have kept the rooms cosy.

Norwood Estate had a large landholding, surrounded by a thick coniferous forest, sloping pastures on its side, and a tennis court where Aunty Najm-un Nisa and her family had enjoyed evening games. The property was subsequently divided among her legal heirs. Making good use of his mother’s share, Shahzad Hasan had recently renovated the adjoining annexe to its glorious old architecture.

From the old Brewery Road, a path branches down the slope, bisecting the dilapidated Norwood house and its restored annexe. Lubna Khan had a plan for this restored building – she wanted Hasan to dedicate this place to the colonial ghost of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

We strolled past the Norwood house, down the weeded path, and came to a mound formed by the remnants of building material, now shrouded in vegetation. Sadly, this was all that remained of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beyond these ruins, the path ended abruptly at a precipice where, in 1854, the phantom of Lieutenant B, galloping on his dark brown pony with a black mane, repeatedly disappeared into thin air.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was pulled down by its owners in the 1990s. The surrounding thick forest was replaced by a concrete jungle. The unsavoury actions mortally disturbed the ghost of Lieutenant B. Nothing stirred that afternoon except the shadows of the clouds floating overhead.

The writer is a retired civil servant, a conservationist and an animal rights activist. He may be reached at

The ghost of Uncle Tom’s cabin