I’m Haunted by the Dickens – Howitt Ghost Debate

Ghostology 101a

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a feisty exchange between Charles Dickens and William Howitt that was intermingled with Dickens’s far-from-productive ghost hunt. Although it’s really no more than a footnote in Dickens’s life, I’ve become fascinated by trying to document what led up to the public skirmish. Here’s what I’ve found.

It seem that the trouble began in 1859, when Dickens published a series of anonymous articles in All the Year Round, his new journal following Household Words. That series was titled “A Physician’s Ghosts,” and Parts I and II appeared on August 6, Part III on August 13, and Part IV on August 27. Previously, Dickens had had a cordial relationship with Howitt, having published his writing in Household Worlds. Howitt was not pleased with “A Physician’s Ghosts,” however.

In fact, Howitt was peeved enough to have written Dickens a letter of discontent, which he then had reprinted in the British Spiritual Telegraph. In that reprint, the letter is prefaced by Howitt himself with an explanation that the anonymous writer attempts to explain ghostly encounters as a matter of thought transference occurring at the point of death — a moment of clairvoyance — instead of as the lingering spirit of a deceased person. (This idea, called “crisis apparitions,” would go on to gain great interest to members of the Society of Psychical Research and similar investigators.) Howitt, a traditional ghostologist, scoffs at this notion and brings up the haunted house in Cheshunt to prove his point. Cheshunt is where Dickens would aim his ghost hunt a few months later.

Oddly, Howitt also mentions the case of Captain Wheatcroft, the so-called War Office Ghost, which actually seems to fit with the clairvoyance theory in “A Physician’s Ghosts.” Captain Wheatcroft was off at war, but he appeared as a ghost to his wife one day. She then learned of her husband’s death. The official date of death, though, was the day after her ghostly encounter, and a subsequent report confirmed that Wheatcroft had died on the day he appeared to his wife. Apparently, this case had gained a lot of attention. (Interestingly, Howitt then asks Dickens if he’s heard of The Ghost Club. He offers one of the earliest descriptions of that organization that I’ve stumbled across.)

Howitt’s letter is dated September 2, 1859. A return letter from Dickens is dated four days later. There, Dickens explains that he doesn’t personally subscribe to the theories of the series author. Instead, he personally maintains an open — yet cautiously doubtful — mind on supernatural subjects: “I do not in the least pretend that such things are not.” Even so, he ends by saying that he’d need much more evidence to be convinced of the War Office Ghost case. (Sadly, he makes no mention of The Ghost Club.)

From here, the trail becomes a bit hit-and-miss. There’s a subsequent letter from Dickens to Howitt dated — interestingly enough — October 31. This is the one that seems to have begun Dickens’s unspectacular ghost hunt, and it’s followed by a couple more letters, dated November 8 and November 15, arranging that hunt. However, as early as November 2, Dickens privately expressed a bit of irritation at Howitt. In a letter to his brother with that date, Dickens describes the War Office Ghost case as “not very intelligible” — and Howitt himself as the “Arch Rapper of Rappers.” The term “rappers” was a unflattering nickname for Spiritualists, who relied on the raps of spirits to communicate with the living. This same letter confirms that Howitt was upset over the “A Physician’s Ghosts” series.

As discussed in my earlier post, Dickens went on to be disappointed by that ghost hunt. I’m not sure if Dickens himself then turned to The Critic as a forum for besmirching Howitt’s belief in haunted houses — or if a writer at The Critic sparked the debate. Either way, Howitt used the opportunity to defend and promote his beliefs.

About two years later, Dickens published an article titled “Four Stories” in All the Year Round.  The first three of these purportedly true stories involve those “crisis apparitions” that had become an issue when discussed in the “A Physician’s Ghosts” series. Perhaps this was Dickens’s way of making sure the door would remain open on alternate ideas about ghosts.

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