I set the dates for my Spectral Edition project at 1865 to 1918 for a reason. While there are a few ghost reports before and after those dates, it’s surprising how many there are between them. But those dates are more significant for other reasons.
1865 marks the end of the Civil War. The importance of this date is suggested in this excerpt from Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War:
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States embarked on a new relationship with death, entering into a civil war that proved bloodier than any other conflict in American history, a war that would presage the slaughter of World War I’s Western Front and the global carnage of the twentieth century.
Later, Faust adds:
The Civil War confronted Americans with an enormous task, one quite different from saving or dividing the nation, ending or maintaining slavery, or winning the military conflict—the demands we customarily understand to have been made of the Civil War generation. Americans North and South would be compelled to confront— and resist—the war’s assault on their conceptions of how life should end, an assault that challenged their most fundamental assumptions about life’s value and meaning.
In other words, in the wake of the war, Americans had to struggle with the trauma of knowing that thousands upon thousands of young men (and, presumably, some young women) had had their lives cut short.
Lives cut short really stand out among the ghost reports I’ve found. The phantoms of murder victims, suicides, even children show up frequently. Did such stories find their way into newspapers because American readers were aching for confirmation that those physical deaths — and, by association, the physical deaths of the many, many soldiers — were not the end for those individuals?
1918 is also significant in regard to death and, specifically, lives cut short. That’s the date World War I ended, and it’s the date that a flu pandemic claimed even more lives than the war had. (The pandemic ended in 1919, and if I find anything of relevance in the ghost reports, I’ll adjust my project accordingly.) With this in mind, 1865 and 1918 stand as grisly but appropriately ghostly bookends.
The inescapable presence of early death is one way of explaining why I’ve found so many reports on ghosts published during these decades. Another is something called the Second Industrial Revolution, which is often dated 1870-1914. This is a period of rapid technological innovation: telephone, electric lights, x-rays, motion pictures, and the first whispers of radio. It’s easy to think of these innovations in terms of disembodied voices, spectral images on film, and new forms of energy. It was a period when science struck some as moving toward proving that human beings survived death as some new form of energy, one able to communicate via disembodied voices or, perhaps, spectral flickerings. This new technology must have made the world seem to be a very ghostly place.
A third consideration is what was going on with journalism. From the early 1800s, American journalism was known for catering to sensationalism. No less than Charles Dickens described U.S. newspapers as the “licentious Press” and as existing in an “abject state.” Certain newspapers, such as New York’s The Sun, stand out as relying on scandal or outright fabrication to sell papers. Perhaps not surprising, then, The Sun and certain other newspapers show up repeatedly in my searches for ghost reports.
At the same time, the diversity and range of newspapers reporting on ghosts is impressive. I’ve found them in papers published from San Fransisco’s The Morning Call to Washington D.C.’s The Evening Times, from the The Semi-Weekly South Kentuckian to Michigan’s The True Northerner, and from The Akron Daily Democrat to The Arizona Republican. Clearly, reporting on ghosts was a widespread practice, not exclusive to papers known for yellow journalism.
Dealing with lives cut short on a massive scale. Seeing technology mirror ghostly manifestations. Catering to a thrill-seeking readership. I think all of these factors account for the well-over-200 ghost reports I’ve found.