Interred in 1851, William MacKenzie’s name is mentioned
in many Liverpool guidebooks owing to the fact that his grave is marked with an
impressive fifteen foot (4.57 metre) pyramid shaped tombstone.
The story, often told as a sworn truth, goes that McKenzie
was a keen gambler and left instructions that he should be entombed above
ground within the pyramid, sitting upright at a card table and clutching a
winning hand of cards . Some tellers go one step further, asserting that
MacKenzie ensured that his body was never committed to the earth as a means of
cheating Satan out of claiming his immortal soul. It follows almost naturally
that tales of MacKenzie’s ghost roaming the overgrown churchyard and
surrounding area are told today.
The inscription on MacKenzie's Pyramid door reads:
"In the vault beneath lie the remains of William
MacKenzie of Newbie Dumfrishire, Esquire who died 29th October 1851 aged 57
years. Also, Mary his wife, who died 19th December 1838 aged 48 years and Sarah,
his second wife who died 9th December 1867 aged 60 years. This monument was
erected by his Brother Edward as a token of love and affection A.D. 1868. The
memory of the just is blessed".
Is William McKenzie sitting inside this tomb on Rodney Street clutching a winning hand of cards?
However, there are two completely different stories about
how McKenzie came to be involved with the Devil in the first place. One says
that he asked for the Devil’s help to win a high-stakes poker game; the Devil
agreed,but only in return for his soul. The other version has McKenzie becoming
an atheist on the premature death of his sweetheart and leading a life of
drinking and (successful) gambling. One night, he meets his match playing
poker, in the form of the mysterious Mr Madison. McKenzie loses literally all
of his money, and Madison invites him to play one last hand. McKenzie protests
that he has nothing left to gamble with, but Madison asks “What about your
soul?” McKenzie initially refuses, now suspecting who ‘Mr Madison’ really is.
Madison challenges him that if he is an atheist then he cannot believe in the
reality of the soul, and therefore has nothing to lose. McKenzie finally
agrees, and of course loses the game. Madison says that he will take McKenzie’s
soul after he is buried, and immediately vanishes.
St Andews Rodney Street
But is there any foundation for the ghost story? Certainly,
there are enough different versions to please a sceptic, but William McKenzie
did exist and was a successful railway contractor described as “one of the most
important figures in the civil engineering world of the second quarter of the
nineteenth century”. When he died, after an extended period of ill health, he
was certainly not penniless, as he left a £383,500 estate and a widow called
Sarah. But there is no evidence that he was a gambler – so how did the legend
develop? Well, any unusual edifice – such as a pyramid-shaped tomb – is bound
to attract speculation and folklore, and there’s nothing Scousers like better
than a good yarn; so, why let facts get in the way of one?
Sources Liverpool Central Library Liverpool Records Office Robert F Edwards