The Drummer of Tedworth is a report of supernatural activity by Joseph Glanvill in the West Country of England, in his Saducismus Triumphatus. The book’s Latin title Saducismus Triumphatus means The Defeat of Sadducism or more accurately ‘The Triumph over Saducism’. The Sadducees denied the existence of the soul and possibility of life after death, thus contradicting the doctrines of Christ. As anti-Christ, they were seen by Glanvill as the cohorts of Satan. By Sadducism, Glanvill meant the position something close to that of a modern skeptic, the deliberate denial of the supernatural.
Early accounts reported that in 1661 a local landowner, John Mompesson, owner of a house in the town of Tedworth (now called Tidworth, in Wiltshire), had brought a lawsuit against an unlicensed drummer, whom he accused of collecting money by false pretences. After he had won judgment against the drummer, the drum was turned over to Mompesson by the local bailiff. Mompesson then found his house plagued by nocturnal drumming noises. It was assumed that the drummer had brought these plagues of noise upon Mompesson’s head by witchcraft. The story is considered by some to be an early account of the activity of a poltergeist, a mischievous spirit that makes noises unexplainable except by supernatural causes.
On Christmas Day 1667, Samuel Pepys, in his diary, records his wife, Elizabeth, reading the story to him. He found it to be “a strange story of spirits and worth reading indeed”.
In 1668, Glanvill published one of the earlier versions of Saducismus Triumphatus, his A Blow at Modern Sadducism … To which is added, The Relation of the Fam’d Disturbance by the Drummer, in the House of Mr. John Mompesson.
Charles Mackay, in his Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), considers the entire story a hoax. The story is more complex than Mackay suggests, and the way in which the narratives developed together with thereto undiscovered extant sources by Michael Hunter demonstrate how the tale became a point of conflict between Restoration science and superstition.
In Volume III of The Works of the Reverend John Wesley there is a reference to the Drummer at Tedworth. “The famous instance of this, which has been spread far and wide, was the drumming in Mr Mompesson’s house at Tedworth; who, it was said, acknowledged, ‘It was all a trick, and that he had found out the whole contrivance.’ Not so, my eldest brother, then at Christ Church, Oxon, inquired of Mr Mompesson, his fellow collegian, ‘Whether his father had acknowledged this or not:’ He answered, ‘The resort of gentlemen to my father’s house was so great, he could not bear the expense. He therefore took no pains to confute the report, that he had found out the cheat: although he and I, and all the family knew the account which was published, to be punctually true.’ “