The Ghost upon the Rail

fisher's ghostThis story by John Lang is set in Australia in the early 1800s. John Fisher had come to Australia as a convict. He worked hard, won his freedom and became rich. One day a neighbor tells everyone that Fisher has returned to England. He says that Fisher asked him to sell all he owns and send the money to him. They all believe this until Fisher’s ghost turns up and spoils the neighbor’s day.

Although this story is far from a , it is an important part of Australian literary history. As well as being the best-known short story of John Lang, Australia’s first native born ist, it is also thought to be the first example of Australian fiction. Lang claims that the story is true. To learn how closely it follows real events, read our Comments below.

English Learner Vocabulary Help

The words and expressions in our Pre-Intermediate level Simplified English story which are not in our 1200 word list are: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , and .

There are also four words that are in our Pre-Intermediate word list but have a meaning in the story which is different to the one most commonly used:

  • We are told that there was a film on the top of the water where Fisher’s body was found. Here the word means a thin layer on or over the surface of something.
  • The men take the body to Fisher’s house. Mr Cox rides along with them, heading the party. In this case the word means a group of people who do something together.
  • Smith did not want a lawyer at his trial, but spoke for himself. At the end of the case, he gave a long address to the jury to tell them why he was innocent. Here the word means a formal speech.
  • At the end of the story, Smith tells the priest that he killed Fisher with a single blow from a hand axe. In this case means a hard hit using a part of the body or an object.

General Comments on the Story

fisher's ghost festivalThis is Australia’s first and best-known ghost story. It has become so popular that Fisher’s Ghost is celebrated each year in a major in the city where the events are said to have taken place. The story first appeared in writing in an 1832 poem The Sprite of the Creek. Four years later it featured in an titled Fisher’s Ghost: A Legend of Campbelltown in Tegg’s Monthly magazine. However, it was John Lang’s short story that made the of Fisher’s Ghost famous.

The story first appeared in Lang’s book Botany Bay; or True Stories of the Early Days of Australia, first published in 1859. This is available as an here. The story was well-known throughout England before the book was published. Six years earlier, a written by Lang had appeared under the name “Fisher’s Ghost” in Charles Dickens’s popular magazine Household Words.

It is quite likely that the source for Lang’s story was the magazine article referred to above. Its publisher, James Tegg, published Lang’s first novel, Legends of Australia in 1842. In England, Tegg’s father (Thomas) was the publisher of Dickens’s Household Words and his brother (William) published Botany Bay; or True Stories of the Early Days of Australia.

It is interesting to consider just how closely Lang’s final version of the story matches real events. The murder referred to is that of Frederick Fisher, who was killed by George Worrall at Campbelltown on June 16 (or 17), 1826. The names and locations are different in Lang’s story, but this was explained in the introduction to the book where he wrote that these had been changed so as not to hurt the feelings of the surviving families of those involved.

A list of some other differences can be found here. The basic is the same. A rich man who was once a convict is murdered by a friend. The friend hides the body and tells everyone that the man has returned to England. Later, the murdered man’s ghost is seen. This helps the police to find the body and solve the case. Unfortunately, not only is most of the detail of Lang’s story fictional, but it would appear that he has added to the story to support the sighting of the ghost. In his Household Words story, the ghost is seen on two occasions rather than one. In the book version, two extra people (including a policeman) witness the second sighting. One must wonder how closely Lang’s other “True Stories of the Early Days of Australia” match real events.

Was there really a Ghost?

Although this is one of the best documented legal cases in Australian history, there is no mention of a ghost in any of the official records. In court, the jury were told that Fisher’s body was found by aboriginal s after police followed up blood stains that two boys had noticed on a fence.

The story about the ghost came from a man named John Farley, who claimed to have come across it when returning home late one night from a local hotel. Farley told how the ghost was sitting on the rail of a bridge over a , with one arm pointing behind him in the direction of where the body of Fisher was later to be found. The rail that the ghost was sitting on was in the same part of the fence that the blood stains were found. He is said to have reported his story to a local magistrate, but no record of this has ever been found.

Possible reasons for the ghost story being kept out of the trial were discussed by Scottish and historian Andrew Lang (no relation to John Lang) in his book The Valet’s Tragedy and Other Studies which is available as an e-book here. In the chapter titled The Truth about ‘Fisher’s Ghost’, Lang d:

The case for the ghost stands in my opinion. the silence (about it) at the trial, Farley’s ghost-story was really told before the discovery of Fisher’s body, and led to the finding of the body.

Whether Farley really saw Fisher’s Ghost or made the story up is another matter. As he lay dying, he is reported to have sworn to his doctor that he really did see the ghost. However, after Farley’s death his wife Margaret claimed that he had ed the story of the ghost. She said that he had been drinking with Fisher and Worrall the night Fisher disappeared and had seen them walk home together. She believed that Farley was so sure that Worrall had something to do with Fisher’s disappearance that he made up the ghost story to bring him to justice.

Margaret Farley’s version of events does not make sense unless her husband had witnessed the murder. Otherwise, how would he have known the correct rail to say the ghost was sitting on, and in which direction Worrall had taken the body? And if he was a witness, why would he make up a story about a ghost rather than tell the police what he knew? Especially as a large reward had just been announced for information leading to the finding of Fisher’s body!

The truth or otherwise of the story of Fisher’s Ghost died with Farley. However, it is much nicer to believe that there really was a ghost as opposed to the story being made up or, even worse, a of a drunk man’s imagination.


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masterpiece(n: masterpiece pl masterpieces) A great book, painting, piece of music, movie, etc; one of the best examples of creative or artistic work of its kind. 7000

novel(n: novel pl novels) A long written story, usually about imaginary characters and events.
(n: novelist pl novelists) The writer of a novel. 4000

dracula book cover(adj: gothic) Used to ​describe writing or ​films in which ​strange things ​happen in ​frightening ​places. Common characteristics are depressing settings (haunted houses and other dark or mysterious places), supernatural beings (ghosts, vampires, zombies, etc), and high emotions (isolated or fallen heroes, romance, tragedy, madness, etc). 8000

aborigine(n: aborigine pl aborigines) 1. A member of the original people to live in an area. 2. A member of any of the native peoples of Australia.
(adj: aboriginal) Of or relating to aborigines or the things that have been in a region from the earliest time. 9000

arrest(v: arrest, arrests, arrested, arresting) 1. To capture or take hold of a person because he or she has broken the law. The police arrested the robber. 2. To stop the progress or movement of something. Economic difficulties arrested the growth of industry. 3000

auction(n: auction pl auctions) A public sale at which things are sold to the people who offer to pay [bid] the most. He made several bids at the auction. 5000

butter(n: butter, noncount) A soft, yellow substance made from milk or cream that is spread on food or used in cooking. 2000

cart(n: cart pl carts) A vehicle with two wheels that is pulled by an animal such as a horse or donkey. The farmer packed the vegetables into his cart to take them to market. 3000

cattle(n: cattle, plural) A group of cows, bulls, or steers that are kept on a farm for meat or milk. 4000
(n: cattle-dog pl cattle-dogs) A special breed of dog developed in Australia for driving cattle over long distances across rough country.

certificate(n: certificate pl certificates) A document that is official proof that something has happened, that you own something, or that you have finished school or a course of training. 3000

cheque(n: cheque pl cheques; U.S. check) A piece of paper that is used to make a payment using the money in a bank account. Can I pay by cheque? 2000
(n: chequebook pl chequebooks; U.S. checkbook) A book of cheque forms. 9000

coffin(n: coffin pl coffins) A box for a dead body to be kept, buried or cremated in. 5000

(n: colony pl colonies) 1. An area that is controlled by or belongs to a country and is usually far away from it. 2. A group of people sent by a country to live in such an area.
(adj: colonial) Of or relating to a colony. 4000

convict(v: convict, convicts, convicted, convicting) To declare that someone is guilty of a crime in a court of law. She was convicted of murder.
(n: convict pl convicts) A convicted person who has been sent to prison; a prisoner. 4000

(n: coroner pl coroners) A public official whose job is to find out the cause of death when people die in accidents or in sudden, unexpected ways. 10000

crowd(n: crowd pl crowds) A large group of people who are together in one place.
(v: crowd, crowds, crowded, crowding) 1. To come together in a large group. (ชุมนุม) 2. To fill too full by coming together.
(adj: crowded) Having or containing a lot of people or things. Crowded buses. 2000

dust(n: dust, noncount) A fine powder made up of very small pieces of earth, sand, etc. The furniture was covered in dust.
(adj: dusty; dustier, dustiest) Filled or covered with dust. He cleaned the dusty shelf. 2000

equipment(n: equipment, noncount) The clothes, machines, tools etc necessary for a particular kind of work, activity etc. He could not fix the car at home because he did not have the right equipment. 2000

evidence(n: evidence pl evidences) 1. Information etc that gives reasons for believing something; proof that something is true. Have you enough evidence to arrest him? 2. An indication or sign of something. Her bag on the table was the only evidence she was there. 1000

exact(adj: exact) 1. Very careful and accurate. Please make sure it is the exact size we need. 2. Fully and completely correct or accurate. Those were his exact words.
(adv: exactly) In an exact way or manner. 1000

gallows(n: gallows pl gallows) A structure on which a criminal who has been sentenced to death is killed by being hanged. He was sentenced to death on the gallows. 12000

guilt(adj: guilty, guiltier, guiltiest) 1. Feeling bad because you know or think that you have done something bad or wrong. She feels guilty about forgetting his birthday. 2. Responsible for a crime or for doing something bad or wrong. Fingerprints proved he was guilty. 2000

handcuffs(v: handcuff, handcuffs, handcuffed, handcuffing) To put handcuffs on someone. They handcuffed the prisoner before moving him.
(n: handcuffs, plural) A set of two metal rings that are joined together and locked around a person's wrists. 6000

handkerchief(n: handkerchief pl handkerchiefs or handkerchieves) A small usually square piece of cloth used for wiping your face, nose, or eyes. 4000

hangman(n: hangman pl hangmen) A person whose job is to kill criminals by hanging them. 12000

hurry(v: hurry, hurries, hurried, hurrying) To [cause to] to move, act, or go quickly. I must hurry or I will be late for the train. 2000

innocent(adj: innocent) 1. Not guilty of a crime or other wrong act. She was found innocent of all charges. 2. Not deserving to be harmed; not intended to cause harm or trouble. An innocent victim/bystander/question. 3. Not having experience with the world and the bad things that happen in life. An innocent child
(adv: innocently) In an innocent way. She smiled innocently at him. 4000

instruct(v: instruct, instructs, instructed, instructing) 1. To teach or train [someone]. 2. To order or direct [someone to do something].
(n: instruction pl instructions) 1. The action or process of instructing. 2. An order or direction. 3. A statement that describes how to do something. 2000

jail(n: jail pl jails) A place where people are kept when they have been arrested and/or are being punished for breaking the law; a prison. 4000
In some old stories you will see this word spelled as gaol. This spelling is not used in modern English.

jury(n: jury pl juries) A group of people [usually members of the public] who are chosen to make a decision in a legal case. The jury found him guilty/innocent. (คณะลูกขุน) 2. A group of judges for a competition, contest etc. (คณะกรรมการตัดสินการแข่งขัน) 4000

(n: magistrate pl magistrates) A local official who has some of the powers of a judge and is able to try minor criminal cases and to conduct preliminary examinations of persons charged with serious crimes. 4000

murder(n: murder pl murders) The crime of deliberately killing a person. 2000

pocket-knife(n: pocket-knife pl pocket-knives) A knife with one or more blades that fold into the handle so that it can be carried in the pocket. Also known as a 'jack-knife' or 'pen-knife'. 10000

(n: Power of Attorney) [A legal document that provides] the right to act and make decisions for another person in business and legal matters. Mrs. Smith gave her son power of attorney to act on her behalf when she traveled overseas.

priest(n: priest pl priests) A man who leads people in the worship of a god or group of gods; a man who leads or performs religious ceremonies. 4000

rail(n: rail pl rails) 1. A [usually horizontal] bar of metal, wood etc used in fences etc, or for hanging things on. Don't lean over the rail. A curtain-rail, towel-rail, etc. 2. [usually plural] A long bar of steel which forms the track on which trains etc run. 1000

sale(n: sale pl sales) 1. The act of selling something. 2. [in a shop etc] An offer of goods at lowered prices for a short time. 3. An event at which goods are sold. An auction/book sale. 1000
(n:ˈsalesman plˈsalesmen; saleswoman plˈsaleswomen) A person who sells, or shows, goods to customers in a shop etc. 4000

(n: sentence pl sentences) 1. A group of words that form a complete statement and express a statement, question, command, or wish. (ประโยค) 2000 2. The punishment given by a court of law.
(v: sentence, sentenced, sentenced, sentencing) To officially state the punishment given to (someone) by a court of law. The judge sentenced him to three years in prison. 8000

signature(n: signature pl signatures) A person's name written in that person's handwriting. There is a place for your signature at the bottom of the form. 3000

animal tracksbush track(n: track pl tracks) 1. A mark left on the ground by a moving animal, person, or vehicle. (ร่องรอย) 2. A path or narrow, rough road that is made by animals, people or vehicles traveling through a field, forest, etc. (ถนน) 3. A pair of metal bars that a train, tram, or subway car rides along. (รางรถไฟ) 4. An often circular path or road that is used for racing. A race/running track. (ลู่)
(v: track, tracks, tracked, tracking) 1. To follow and try to find (someone or something) by looking for its tracks and other signs that show where it has gone. He tracked the deer for a mile. 2. To follow or watch the path of (something). The ship can track incoming missiles with radar. (ตามรอย) 2000

trial(n: trial pl trials) A meeting in a court in which information about crimes, disagreements, etc., is presented so that decisions can be made according to the law. He gave evidence at the trial. (การพิจารณา) 2000

witness(n: witness pl witnesses) A person who has seen or was present at a crime, event, etc. (พยาน) 2. A person who makes a statement in a court about what he or she knows or has seen. (พยาน) 3. A person who is present at an event and signs a document to say that it happened. (ผู้ลงชื่อเป็นพยาน) 2000

film(n: film pl films) 1. A special material that is used for taking photographs or recording movies. 2. A story, play etc shown as a motion picture in a cinema, on television etc.; a movie. 3. A thin layer on or over the surface of something. A film of ice/dust. 1000

party(n: party pl parties) 1. A social event in which entertainment, food, and drinks are provided. Are you going to the company Christmas Party? 2. A group of people who do something together. A rescue/search party. A party of tourists. 3. A group of people with the same ideas and purposes, especially political. A political party. 1000

address(n: address pl addresses) 1. The name of the house, street, town etc where a person lives. His address is 245 Highland Road, Edinburgh. 2. A formal speech. He gave a long and boring address. 1000

blow(v: blow, blows, blew, blown, blowing) 1. [of a current of air] To be moving. The wind blew more strongly. 2. To cause air or something carried by air to move. Please blow into this tube!
(n: blow pl blows) 1. A hard hit using a part of the body or an object. 2. A sudden event that causes trouble, damage, sorrow, etc. 1000

festival(n: festival pl festivals) A special time or event when people gather to celebrate something. 4000

article(n: article pl articles) A piece of writing about something in a newspaper, magazine, on the Internet, etc. 2000

legend(n: legend pl legends) A story from the past that is believed by many people but cannot be proved to be true.
(adj: legendary) 1. Mentioned etc in legend. King Arthur is a legendary hero. 2. Very famous because of being very great, good etc. He was a legendary football player. 6000

e-book(n: e-book pl e-books) A book whose contents are in an electronic format so that it can be downloaded and read.

version(n: version pl versions) 1. A story or description that is different in some way from another person's story or description. The boy gave his version of what had happened. (เรื่องราว) 2. A form of something (such as a product) that is different in some way from other forms. A new version of the software should be available soon. (รุ่น) 2000

(n: plot pl plots) The series of events that form the story in a movie, novel, play, etc. 3000

(adj: colonial) Of or relating to a colony.
(n: colony pl colonies) 1. An area that is controlled by or belongs to a country and is usually far away from it. 2. A group of people sent by a country to live in such an area. 4000

tracker(n: tracker pl trackers) A ​person who is ​able to ​find ​animals or ​people by ​following the ​marks they ​leave on the ​ground as they ​move over it. An ​Aboriginal tracker ​led them to the ​place where the ​plane had ​crashed. (คนตามล่า) 2000

creek(n: creek pl creeks) A small stream. 10000

author(n: author pl authors) The person who has written something; someone who writes books or stories, especially a person who has written many books or stories. I enjoyed the book, but I can't remember the name of its author. 3000

conclude(v: conclude, concludes, concluded, concluding) 1. To stop or finish; to come or bring to an end. He concluded the meeting. 2. To form or state an opinion; to decide [something] after a period of thought or research. Many studies conclude that smoking is dangerous. 4000

despite(prep: despite) Without being prevented by; in spite of something. Used to say that something happens or is true even though there is something that might have prevented it from happening or being true. 2000

invent(v: invent, invents, invented, inventing) 1. To create or produce (something) for the first time. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. 2. To create or make up (something, such as a story) in order to trick people. 3000

imagine(n: figment pl figments) Something produced by the imagination; something that does not really exist. Usually used in the phrase 'figment of your imagination'. I thought I heard her voice, but I guess it was just a figment of my imagination. 12000

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