Dr. Elliott Coues: Ghost-Smeller

Ghostology 101aSo far as I can tell, Dr. Elliott Coues wasn’t exactly a ghost hunter. Instead, he was an internationally recognized ornithologist who, at one point in his life, advocated that phenomena commonly dubbed “supernatural” be placed under the eye — and even the microscope — of scientific study. Not surprisingly, such a position got Coues into trouble.

In 1884, Coues caused a bit of a stir by attempting to join a debate being held in Science. This lofty journal had published an exchange between Simon Newcomb and Edmund Gurney. Newcomb first challenged the work being done by the Society for Psychical Research, Gurney then defended that work, and Newcomb rebutted with an essay titled “Can Ghosts Be Investigated?” Coues had an answer to that question, so he wrote a letter to the Science editor — a letter that was promptly rejected as being without evidence and contrary to “accepted laws of matter.”

Coues then forwarded his letter to the editors of The Nation, which published it in full. There, Coues certainly does make some provocative claims. Ghosts can be investigated, he opens, and investigated with one’s nose: “‘Ghosts’ frequently (not usually) emit a perceptible odor, sometimes very strong, sometimes fragrant, sometimes the reverse, nearly always peculiar to themselves.” He notes this before mentioning that one can also see and hear ghosts. He then points out that ghosts can even be weighed “on any suitable platform scales, in the same way that any other object, as the investigator himself, might be weighed.” As if deliberately intending to sabotage his own credibility, he next adds that a scientist can make a “physical, chemical,or microscopical examination of detached portions of [ghosts], as hair, nails, or pieces of any substance which may envelop them more or less completely,” a method of investigation Coues states he himself has used.

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Elliot Coues (1842-1899)

Needless to say, the suggestion that Coues had closely studied the hair or the fingernails/toenails of smelly ghosts left him open to mockery from the scientific community. About half a year later, the editor of Science reported on a Theosophical society proclaiming that it had put itself in charge of censoring work being done by American Society for Psychical Research, and its head censor was “the well-known ghost-smeller,” Dr. Coues. This time, the letter Coues wrote in response was accepted by Science. Interestingly (if not unfortunately), the letter becomes a platform for Coues’ theory that all plants, animals, and minerals possess a substance that he dubbed “biogen.” This mostly spirit/slightly material substance explains why the editor, an acquaintance of Coues, was allergic to cats. Exactly how sarcastic Coues is being here is a bit difficult to tell.

It seems that Coues reined in his eccentric beliefs about the supernatural afterward. In an 1892 article titled “Can Ghosts Be Photographed?” he opens by pointing out that an answer to the title question begins by determining if ghosts really exist. “The fact is,” he writes, “there are certain natural phenomena which have given rise to our notion of ghosts, be that notion a whole truth, or a half-truth, or no truth at all.” After contending that a careful study of ghosts might prove them to be “a figment of the imagination, resulting from a delusion of the sense,” he goes on to write:

My main object in this article is to exhibit some spurious specimens of spirit photography, show when, where and by whom they were executed, and to explain the trick. It is obviously impossible, within the limits of a magazine article, to traverse the whole ground. Much will be gained if I can clearly detect and expose the sham, without undertaking to adduce the genuine.

He makes no final decision regarding the possibility of genuine ghost photography; however, the photos he discusses in this article are, in his estimation, fake.

If Coues doesn’t exactly qualify as a ghost hunter, he must surely be the only person who came close to that distinction who also had a sub-species of deer named for him. The Arizona Game and Fish Department even produced a short video about the Coues deer.

This might seem less surprising when we remember that most of Coues’ life was devoted to the natural sciences. Indeed, his legacy leans more on his being a naturalist than a “supernaturalist.” More information on Coues’ remarkable life can be found in Paul Russell Cutright and Michael J. Brodhead’s Elliott Coues: Naturalist and Frontier Historian (U. of Illinois Press, 1981), and the chapter titled “Theosophy and Spiritualism” focuses on his journey through supernatural subjects.

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