A 1787 Chapter on Ghosts — and the Fiction that Followed

I stumbled upon a very interesting overview of ghosts that was published in 1787. It appears in the last section of Francis Grose’s A Provincial Glossary with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions, which also summarizes folk beliefs about witches, sorcerers, fairies, second-sight, and more. It’s a very useful source for learning what the general take on such subjects were among the English in the late 18th century.

Grose offers several curious, even humorous, bits of ghost lore. For example, being born on Christmas Eve reduces one’s ability to see a spirit, and if a candle burns blue, it means a ghost just might be in the vicinity. (Apparently, the latter idea still carries weight with some 21st-century ghost hunters!) Grose adds, “Dragging chains is not the fashion of English ghosts,” a matter of spectral style that poor Jacob Marley defied.

Grose’s introduction to the book’s Superstitions section suggests the author views such beliefs through the eyes of an anthropologist rather than an advocate. Though he looks back on the “horrid consequences attending the belief in witchcraft,” he mostly refrains from judging whether superstitions are good or bad. They’re simply notions that are absorbed in childhood and that persist into adulthood, albeit to a lesser degree than with previous generations. Nonetheless, some of Grose’s comments give insight into fictional ghost stories from the following century, and there’s a glimpse of the thinking that crystallized into occult detectives, too.

Those who, like myself, read far too many Victorian ghost stories will recognize the ghost who returns to reveal a hidden will. It’s the plot of Fitz-James O’Brien’s “A Pot of Tulips” (1855) and Georgianna S. Hull’s “A Legend of All Hallow Eve” (1879), to name just two such tales. Here’s what Grose says about that:

Sometimes the occasion of spirits revisiting this world, is to inform their heir in what secret place, or private drawer in an old trunk, they had hidden the title deeds of the estate; or where, in troublesome times, they buried their money or plate.

Francis Grose (1731-1791)

A variation on this is the ghost who helps to reveal hidden treasure, often with a descendant reaping the reward. “Karnly Fort” (1864) and “A Needle in a Bottle” (1874), both anonymous, are examples of stories following this line.

We step closer to occult detective fiction when the ghost returns to solicit aid in exposing a murderer. The spirit becomes a supernatural client to a still-living detective in stories such as Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” (1840), A.M. Hoyt’s “The Ghost of Little Jacques” (1863), Willa Cather’s “The Affair at Grover’s Station” (1900), and many more. Interestingly, Grose points out that ghosts follow their own logic in picking a detective/living liaison to assist with their quest for justice:

It is somewhat remarkable that Ghosts do not go about their business like persons of this world. In cases of murder, a Ghost, instead of going to the next justice of the peace, and laying its information, or to the nearest relation of the person murdered, appears to some poor labourer who knows none of the parties, draws the curtains of some decrepit nurse or alms-woman, or hovers about the place where the body is deposited.

Of course, this was written before the rise of modern police and private detectives, so perhaps such wronged ghosts had limited options. True to this tradition, the ghosts in Herbert’s and Hoyt’s tales appeal to ordinary folks to act as their corporeal cops, adding to the literature of the both the amateur detective and the occult detective.

Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680)

A side note: to provide solid — well, ethereal — evidence for his “general rules of ghosts,” Grose leans heavily on Saducismus triumphatus, a work published 1681 and written by Joseph Glanvill. Glanvill has been named as one of the earliest psychical researchers, if not the first, and this book reveals his belief in witches and ghosts. (Remember, it was written a century before Grose’s.) In fact, it includes an account of Glanvill’s own investigation into the Drummer of Tedworth, making him a founding figure among ghost hunters and real-life occult detectives! Glanvill is someone I’ll research further in the future.

For now, Grose’s chapter on ghosts is fascinating stuff, recommended equally for students of ghostly history and for fans of ghost stories written during the Victorian era. For easier reading, I edited and modernized Grose’s section on ghosts, and you can find that version here. The original is linked above, though, for those who kind of enjoy sorting out the f’s from the s’s.


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