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The Story

Written and illustrated by Jessica Barton

Images digitised by Luke Holloway

The Acteson manuscript presents a complicated story, involving multiple female figures and several encounters with ghosts and devils. Below, a storyboard of the manuscript's story is given to highlight some of the key events.

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Since 1774, Cadwallader Acteson, a candle-maker from Cork, has been married to Mary Creed, the daughter of a merchant. Cadwallader is an abusive husband, yet Mary tolerates his wicked behaviour. In early 1784, Cadwallader meets Sarah Harris in a porter house and they both have a secret affair. After two years, Sarah falls ill. Ashamed of her sinful affair, she decides to repent and ends her relationship with Cadwallader before she dies. Yet, within a few months, Cadwallader acquires a new mistress – the maid who resides in his father-in-law's household. The maid wishes to replace the position of Mary. After some time, she makes an oath to Cadwallader, refusing to continue the affair until he murders his wife. The maid buys poison and gives it to Cadwallader, who plans to put it in his wife's tea.
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On an August night in 1788, Cadwallader is awakened by a noise in his bedroom. A heavenly figure in white stands in the room. It is the ghost of Sarah Harris. Sarah warns him to repent for his sins and to abandon his murderous intentions. Cadwallader chooses to ignore Sarah's warning and continues with his plan. Five weeks after the first ghostly encounter, Cadwallader is again visited by Sarah's ghost. She is angry and displeased at Cadwallader's ignorance. "Repent – or vengeance will seize you speedily, and your damnation is sure", she warns. Startled by the second visit from Sarah, Cadwallader goes downstairs. Waiting is a red monster with three long claws: Satan. Cadwallader runs back to bed, sweating and breathless. The following night, on the 26th September 1788, Sarah visits for the third time and gives a final warning. If he does not repent before the next Sabbath Day, Cadwallader's damnation will be sealed.
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Finally shocked by Sarah's words, Cadwallader confides in his wife. He retells his experiences to Mary, who cries and prays with him. Cadwallader turns to religion and begins to read the Bible. Mary helps her husband burn the poison and locks up his sword and musket. Cadwallader's religion is tested. The devil continues to haunt and assault him. He has a fight with an invisible Satan and cries for mercy. One evening, while Cadwallader is praying in his bedroom, the door flies open and flames fill the room. There is a strong smell of sulphur. Cadwallader cries for mercy again. A sweet voice rushes through the fire, bringing joy to Cadwallader. He cries with his wife and they pray together. He finds deliverance through religion.