A Dispiriting Sport: James John Hissey, Frustrated Ghost Hunter

Ghostology 101a

From the 1880s to around World War I, James John Hissey wrote fourteen books about his travels through Britain. Frequently, these travelogs include quick mentions of ghosts as the sightseer recounts local legends told in some of the spots he visits. But ghosts are mentioned so frequently throughout his books that Hissey seems to have been deliberately keeping a eye out for haunted houses. Or haunted inns. Or haunted castles. Or haunted streets or haunted hills.

Indeed, Hissey claimed to be a ghost hunter — but a frustrated one because he never witnessed a ghost himself. The closest he came to a personal encounter with a phantom is discussed in The Charm of the Road: England and Wales (1910): “Hunting after haunted houses is in one sense a dispiriting sport, for though haunted houses abound, I never could run down a ghost; at least only once, and then it hastily ran away from me.” Staying at a house in Scotland, Hissey learned that a spectral figure was said to appear out in the yard during nightly prayers (his host being a strict Presbyterian). During one of those prayer sessions, Hissey “conveniently had a bad headache” and slipped outside to pursue the ghost. Sure enough, he spotted it!

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A Ghost Report from The Citizen on October 9, 1912

Spectral EditionOn September 30, 1911, the citizens of Austin, Pennsylvania, suffered a terrible flood, which killed 78 people. It wasn’t until well afterward that people remembered the ghost sightings preceding the flood: a very tall specter, dressed in black, had appeared and disappeared amid the local train cars.

Was this, perhaps, a spirit come to warn of the flood?

1912-10-09 p3 The Citizen [Honesdale, Pennsylvania]

Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles The Big Séance and the History Goes Bump podcasts — or listen to previously released recordings here.

Haunted by Irresolution: “Wanted–An Explanation” (1881)

Unearthing the Unearthly

This week, I added another story to The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction: A Chronological Bibliography, one titled “Wanted–An Explanation.” With no author named, this novella appeared in four weekly issues of Household Words during June of 1881. (This was a revival of a journal that Charles Dickens had begun and edited in the 1850s.)

The work is an interesting one, and I was very excited as I first started to read it. It spotlights one of the rare female ghost hunters on my bibliography, Lady Julia Spinner. Serving as narrator, Lady Julia is an enjoyably crusty, no-nonsense woman who has never married and probably sees no reason why she would. In some ways, she’s like my own ghost hunter, Vera Van Slyke. She becomes a bit snarky, though, when first hearing that a manor called Hunt House is haunted. You see, very much unlike Vera, Lady Julia is a committed ghost hunter — who doesn’t believe in ghosts.

“I do not believe in their existence at all,” I responded with sharpness. “I have been a hunter of ghosts all my life, and have never been able even to meet with a single person who has seen one.”

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A Ghost Report from the Evening Telegraph on July 26, 1869

Spectral Edition

A boarding house on Boston’s Springfield Street is haunted by bell ringing and door knocking. One gruff and ghostly voice has been heard, but multiple apparitions have been seen.

The Chief of Police is baffled, and the boarders are leaving quickly.

1869-07-26 p1 Evening Telegraph [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania]

Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles The Big Séance and the History Goes Bump podcasts — or listen to previously released recordings here.

Crossing Great Distances: Bayard Taylor’s “The Haunted Shanty”

Unearthing the UnearthlyAs my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives suggests, American writers played a key role in establishing the occult detective cross-genre. There’s Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” (1840), set in the New Hampshire/Vermont region. Fitz-James O’Brien wrote two Harry Escott stories (1855 and 1859), both set in New York. And there’s Bayard Taylor’s “The Haunted Shanty” (also available here), set on the Western frontier. Of course, since this story is from 1861, that frontier is still in the prairies of Indiana and Illinois instead of the plains of, say, Oklahoma or the Dakotas.

Warning: there be spoilers ahead.

Eber Nicholson, a key character, hasn’t pushed West so much as was pushed West — by guilt. He left a woman named Rachel Emmons behind, the woman he loved. His strict father disapproved and demanded Eber marry a more financially secure woman. And so Eber did. But now Rachel Emmons haunts him. Psychologically and supernaturally. In spirit and in spirit!

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A Ghost Report from the Daily Dispatch on March 11, 1884

Spectral EditionBlissville is far from blissful. The residents have heard spectral cries coming from Calvary Cemetery, near Saint Raphael’s Church.

And a few citizens have witnessed a strange, melancholy woman — dressed in black and unresponsive to the living — walking the streets near the cemetery.

Can August Heffner, a ghost hunter, solve the case? 1884-03-11 p 4 Daily Dispatch [Richmond, Virginia]Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles The Big Séance and the History Goes Bump podcasts — or listen to previously released recordings here.

“The Barber’s Ghost”: Tracking a Ghostly Folk Tale in Print

Unearthing the Unearthly

This article belongs almost as much among my Spectral Edition posts as here with the Unearthing the Unearthly: My Literary Digging ones. That’s because a curious connection arose between my hunting for early ghost hunter fiction and my search for actual ghost reports printed in U.S. newspapers between 1865 and 1918.

The connection involves a tale titled “The Haunted Chamber.” This was published in The Waste Book, a journal printed in 1823 by “John Miller, Printer” from Providence (Rhode Island, I assume). That’s the earliest publication that I’ve managed to find, and since I haven’t found anything before that, it’s how I’ve listed this work in my bibliography called The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction: A Chronological Bibliography.

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A Ghost Report from the Winchester News on October 19, 1908

Spectral EditionAlexander Sutherland of Buffalo, New York, was shot in the chest and died. Not long afterward, Fred Maigh saw a ghost fitting the description of the murdered man, a specter that held its hand over its chest.

Fred’s brother, Charley, was skeptical. That is — until he saw the ghost, too.

1908-10-19 p2 Winchester News [Kentucy]Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles The Big Séance and the History Goes Bump podcasts — or listen to previously released recordings here.

A New Theory on Robert E. Howard’s Conrad and Kirowan Tales

Unearthing the UnearthlyAmong the selections in Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-Lived Occult Detective Series by Six Renowned Authors, I present Algernon Blackwood’s four Jim Shorthouse stories in what I assume is a brand new order. I had hoped to give this otherwise disjointed series character a bit more cohesion by showing that he develops in both facing fear and being an occult detective if the stories are arranged in a particular order.

Robert E. Howard’s Conrad and Kirowan tales present a far tougher challenge, but I’ve come up with a theory. A tentative theory. A theory I hope to revise with feedback from those interested enough to bother reading through it. I know it might seem to be a futile project. After all, if Howard had wanted this handful of stories to be read in a particular order, he would’ve have made his intentions much clearer. So maybe I’m being OCD here (but, hey, isn’t that an acronym for OCcult Detective?).

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A Ghost Report from the Mexico Weekly Ledger on September 18, 1884

Spectral Edition

There’s road on a hill in Mexico, Missouri. Accidents happen there remarkably often. Sometimes, they’re fatal accidents.

Various ghost stories are told about why horses become spooked there, but one stands out. It involves a ghost that resides in a nearby cave. An investigation proved fruitless, though, leaving the town to wonder: what causes all of those accidents on Haunted Hill?

1884-09-18 p1 Mexico Weekly Ledger [Missouri]Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles The Big Séance and the History Goes Bump podcasts — or listen to previously released recordings here.