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!

I saw a mysterious white figure coming quietly along; just when it had arrived between myself and the window I rushed at it with raised stick; I heard quite a human shriek and plainly saw two human feet beneath what I took to be a white sheet,—but, alas! I lost my balance and fell down to the bottom of the dry moat. I hurt myself somewhat, but so effectually did I scare that particular ghost, that he or she never appeared again, at any rate during my stay. . . . And that is the sole outcome of over twenty years’ hard ghost-hunting.

This brief anecdote stands as one of the two records of Hissey’s overt ghost hunting that I’ve managed to find. Luckily, the other investigation is much more involved, filling about twenty pages and reaching from the end of one chapter to start of the next.

The more detailed investigation appears in Over Fen and Wold (1898). Here, Hissey tells of his visit to Halton Holgate, near Spilsby, Lincolnshire. He first presents two newspaper articles about a haunted farmstead there. Readers learn that the farmhouse was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. The couple had been hearing strange knockings and other sounds, but it was the wife alone who spotted the phantom of a round-shouldered, old man standing at the top of the stairs one night. This apparition seemed to presage the next creepy event: the discovery of human bones under the floor of the house!

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A gifted artist, Hissey drew illustrations for his own books.
Here are  some of the spooky sites he visited.

Inspired by these news articles, Hissey questioned the landlord of the inn where he had been staying in nearby Wainfleet. The innkeeper pooh-poohed the haunting, so the tenacious ghost hunter went to the source. Asking a villager in Halton Holgate the whereabouts of the haunted house, Hissey found his way there.

james-john-hissey
James John Hissey (1847-1921)

“Nothing could well have been farther from our ideal than what we beheld; no high-spirited or proper-minded ghost, we felt, would have anything to do with such a place,” writes Hissey about seeing the farmstead. But the farmer living there appeared to be a straightforward and honest man. He retold the story related by the newspapers, and then Mrs. Wilson gave Hissey a tour of the place. She showed the staircase where she saw the “little, bent old man with the wrinkled face standing on top and looking steadily down at me.” Hissey saw the uneven bricks that marked where they had “found some bones, a gold ring, and some pieces of silk” buried under the floor.

In classic ghost hunter fashion, Hissey asked if he might be allowed to spend the night in the haunted room. Mrs. Wilson said no, though, explaining that they had promised a couple of London reporters the “first rights” to that experience. Hissey is left to lament:

I feel quite hopeless now of ever seeing a ghost, and have become weary of merely reading about his doings in papers and magazines. I must say that ghosts, both old and new, appear to behave in a most inconsiderate manner; they go where they are not wanted and worry people who positively dislike them and strongly object to their presence, whilst those who would really take an interest in them they leave ‘severely alone!’

Many of Hissey’s books are easily found online, and they’re pretty charming. Still, readers should expect a lot of leisurely descriptions of perfectly natural landscapes, villages, and buildings — not a ghost hunter’s casebooks. Zero in on those pages that actually do discuss haunted locales, however, and one can easily get the impression that Hissey sincerely hoped to witness a ghost firsthand. He kept a gentle sense of humor about never having done so, but there’s something gloomy lurking under the humor that reveals his frustration.

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