Charles Dickens, Ghost Hunter? Well…

Ghostology 101a

From A Christmas Carol to “The Signal-Man” and beyond, several gripping ghost stories came from the pen of Charles Dickens. Though a steadfast skeptic when it came to real hauntings, he maintained an interest in the possibility. At one point, he even attempted to become a bona fide ghost hunter. Sadly, the adventure was disappointing and short lived.

It seems that, as 1859 came to a close, Dickens had gotten into a public debate over ghosts with a more confirmed ghost hunter named William Howitt. Previously, the two had had a friendly working relationship. Dickens, editor of Household Words, had accepted stories and other kinds of writing by Howitt, but none of this material was related to the supernatural. Their more heated exchange about ghosts took place in a journal called The Critic, which I haven’t been able to locate online. It would be interesting stuff to read, sort of a precursor to the squabbles between Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle about fifty years later — and Agents Scully and Mulder long after that. One can find a hint of the debate, though, in an article in The Spiritualist Magazine, published in early 1860. This journal upholds the believers’ position, first challenging Dickens’s skepticism by referring to some of his fiction and ending by reprinting one of Howitt’s letters from The Critic.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in 1859, the same year his ghost hunt fizzled.

The debate was sparked when Dickens wrote to Howitt, asking for a list of haunted houses that he and some of his chums might investigate. Howitt made a few suggestions, and Dickens settled on a house in Cheshunt, which was conveniently close to London. Joining the great author on the outing were William Henry Wills, Wilkie Collins, and John Hollingshead. The latter devotes a few pages in his autobiography to the ghost hunt, and it’s there that we read about the group’s struggle to find anyone in Cheshunt who had heard of a haunted house in town. Finally, they met a resident old enough to recall a place once said to be haunted — but it had been torn down and replaced. In the end, there was no ghost and not even a house, reports Hollingshead, so the gents decided to settle down to “a substantial meal, after Dickens’s own heart, and the ale was nectar.”

Apparently, Dickens went on to use this disappointing ghost hunt as a way to publicly cast doubt on those who believe in haunted houses. At least, Howitt suggests as much in that letter reprinted in The Spiritualist. He responds by saying that Dickens had been too hasty in rebuffing the haunting, citing Catherine Crowe’s mention of it in The Night-Side of Nature* as well as his own follow-up investigation. Regarding the lack of a ghost, Howitt says that, “if Mr. Dickens and his friends had ever acquainted themselves with the laws of pneumatology,” they’d have known that “a ghost is not bound to remain in any particular spot for ever.” Ghosts, he contends, have just as much freedom to move around as do “a knot of jolly fellows” who’ve gone ghost hunting.

William Howitt
William Howitt , the Conan Doyle to Dickens’s Houdini

One might agree with Howitt’s claim that Dickens was too quick to abandon his ghost hunt or hadn’t taken it seriously from the start. But it would also be a mistake to assume that the ghost story writer was dismissive of specters in real life. If he were, he wouldn’t have been one of the most distinguished members of The Ghost Club.

In 1883, Anna Mary Howitt Watts, Howitt’s daughter, described the debate in The Critic as her father’s dêbut in the newspapers as champion of the Spiritualist cause.” Barely four years after this debut, Howitt’s formidably titled The History of the Supernatural in All Ages and Nations and in All Churches, Christian and Pagan, Demonstrating a Universal Faith was published. Dickens was then editing All the Year Round, where he reviewed Howitt’s book and titled his own piece “Rather a Strong Dose.” Describing his former friend as being “in such a bristling temper on the Supernatural subject,” Dickens refrains from debating him on specifics. Instead, he informs his readers that Howitt hopes they will forget the Reformation — indeed, Protestantism altogether — and

will please to believe . . . all the stories of good and evil demons, ghosts, prophecies, communication with spirits, and practice of magic, that ever obtained, or are said to have ever obtained, in the North, in the South, in the East, in the West, from the earliest and darkest ages, down to the yet unfinished replacement of the red men in North America.

For the remainder of the review, Dickens continues in this sarcastic vein, implying without subtlety that only the most gullible reader should bother with Howitt’s tome.

If nothing else, the fracture between Dickens and Howitt regarding ghosts reminds us that broad generalizations about what was believed by “people back then” rarely hold water. History — and certainly the history of ghosts — is probably best viewed less in terms of what people of a given period agreed upon and more in terms of what they debated. Humanity, after all, is and always has been a cantankerous species.

* Howitt specifies page 332 as the spot to find Crowe’s discussion of the haunted house in Cheshunt, but he must be looking at a different edition of The Night-Side of Nature than any I’m able to find online. My best guess is he’s referring to the account that starts with “About six years ago” in Crowe’s chapter titled “Haunted Houses.” I base this on the house’s proximity to London, the mention of Mr. C and Mrs. C —  whom Howitt reveal to be the Chapmans in his letter and in his book — and the fact that both writers say that subsequent residents of the house experienced strange events. Even if I’ve misidentified it as describing the Cheshunt haunting, the story Crowe relates is an intriguing one!

[A bit of later research bolsters my hunch that Crowe’s story about Mr. and Mrs. C is, in fact, an early version of Howitt’s chronicle of the Chapmans’ experiences in Cheshunt. John H. Ingram says as much in The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britian (1905).]


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