Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières (1638-1694), an important French poet and philosopher, appears to have been very interested in revealing the natural causes behind what seems to be supernatural or spiritual. At the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, John J. Conley explains that Deshoulières “employed verse to argue that natural causes can adequately explain such apparently spiritual phenomena as thought, volition, and love. In metaphysics, Deshoulières argues that the real is comprised of variations of matter and that material causation adequately explains observed changes in the real.” Deshoulières held that instinctual behavior explains human behavior much more than many of us like to admit, and that “[m]aterial organs, and not the occult powers of a spiritual soul, produce such human phenomena as thought and choice.”
In other words, we humans are less ghosts in machines and more, well, simply machines.
This begins to explain a popular anecdote about Deshoulières that spread during the first half of the 1800s, when much was written about ghostly encounters being attributable to mistakes or delusions, not to spirits of the departed returned to the physical realm. The anecdote concerns the poet visiting a castle, bravely insisting on spending the night in its room reputed to be haunted, and calmly discovering a perfectly natural reason underlying the haunting. It turns out the “phantom” was only an inquisitive dog. This tale launches my bibliography The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction, even though its status as fiction is a bit debatable. (I’m nudged toward thinking the story is more parable than biography by the commonplace, canine explanation for the events that utterly horrify the gullible lord and lady of the castle.)
The earliest version of this tale that I’ve managed to unearth, titled simply “Madame Deshoulieres, the French Poetess,” appeared in the December 6, 1817, issue of The Literary Gazette. There, Deshoulières’ ghost hunting adventure is introduced as an example of “intrepidity and coolness which would have done honour to a hero.” The title was changed to “The Ghost Discovered” when retold in an 1818 issue of The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c. and changed again to “Seizing a Ghost” when it became part of The Percy Anecdotes, compiled by Joseph Clinton Robertson and Thomas Byerley (as Shoto and Reuben Percy) and published in 1820.
I’ve located a few re-tellings of the adventure in later publications, too. In 1835, the story became part of a longer article on Deshoulières in Elizabeth Starling’s Noble Deeds of Women. As late as 1867, the fable of courage surfaced in a weekly journal titled Our Boys and Girls, where it became a key part of May Mannering’s “A Ghost Story.”
Much like “The Barber’s Ghost,” another ghost hunter tale about a skeptic who debunks an alleged haunting, the anecdote about Deshoulières had lasting appeal with readers in the early 1800s. As suggested above, I don’t know for sure if her visit to a castle and debunking of its ghost ever actually happened. Even if it had, print re-tellings of the narrative transformed Deshoulières into a kind of ghost-hunting folk hero. Her adventure can be found among those found in Those Who Haunt Ghosts: A Century of Ghost Hunter Fiction, edited by myself and published by Coachwhip Publications. From tales such as these grew classic ghost-hunter stories by authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Ambrose Bierce, H.G. Wells, and H.P. Lovecraft — all conveniently collected in that same book.