Planning My Poe-grimage and New Documents on the Dickens-Howitt Ghost Debate

Ghostology 101aPartly due to superstition and partly for practical reasons, I’ve been very quiet about a book that I’ve been writing. After working on it in small increments for what has to be at least four years, I’m nearing the end of it.

And this book involves Edgar Allan Poe. To spur the book’s completion, I’m off on a Poe-centered vacation to Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland, in a few days. (Though he lived elsewhere, Poe spent most of his life in Richmond and Baltimore.) I’ve dubbed this journey my “Poe-grimage” because — let’s face it — I’m adorable. I plan to chronicle the trip via Facebook and Instagram. Feel free to follow me there. Continue reading “Planning My Poe-grimage and New Documents on the Dickens-Howitt Ghost Debate”

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William F. Barrett: A Solid Ghost Hunter

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By trade, William F. Barrett (1844-1925) was a physicist. He taught the subject at Ireland’s Royal College of Science, and his professional accomplishments earned him places in organizations ranging from the Royal Society and the Institute of Electrical Engineers to the Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of Literature.  If you wish to get a sense of the state of physics at the close of the 1800s, you might take a look at Practical Physics: An Introductory Handbook for the Physical Laboratory (1898), which Barrett co-wrote.

However, Barrett is probably better remembered today for his explorations on the borders of the physical realm: telepathy, Spiritualism, even dowsing. In addition, he was a key figure in the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in both the U.K. and the U.S. Like his fellow scientists on both sides of the psychical pond, he was accused of gullibility — of being too eager to believe in the phenomena he was investigating. Nonetheless, such accusations seemed not to deter his desire to extend scientific study into these fringe subjects.

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The Reverend Richard Dodge: Spectral Exorcist of Fearful Repute

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Should anyone be looking for a real-life figure upon which to base a fictional occult detective, let me suggest the Reverend Richard Dodge (c. 1653-1746).

It seems that little is known about the actual man, but his reputation as an exorcist of malevolent spirits made him legendary. Literally. He’s become part of Cornish folklore.

The earliest reference to Dodge that I’ve found (so far) is in a work written by Thomas Bond and delightfully titled Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Boroughs of East and West Looe, in the Country of Cornwall; with an Account of the Natural and Artificial Curiosities and Picturesque Scenery of the Neighbourhood (1823). There, we read that Dodge was vicar of Talland — and, “by traditional accounts, a very singular man.” Though rumored to know a few things about the black arts, the parson apparently used this knowledge to expel unsavory spooks. Bond says that many of these spirits “were seen, in all sorts of shapes, flying and running before [Dodge], and he pursuing them, with his whip, in a most daring manner.” Before presenting the tombstone inscription of this whip-wielding, Cornish clerical cowboy who fought the Powers of Darkness, Bond says Dodge “was a worthy man, and much respected; but had his eccentricities.”

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Joseph Glanvill and the Drummer of Tedworth: Setting a Foundation for Ghost Hunters

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Some deem Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680) the very first psychical researcher. It’s tough to settle on such historical firsts, so it might be safer to simply say that Glanvill was a man who believed witches and ghosts were real, and he chronicled accounts about them from this perspective. His own investigation into the Drummer of Tedworth haunting reads surprisingly like ghost hunts that would follow. In fact, his handling of this famous case, which involved poltergeist-like manifestations at the Mompesson house in the early 1660s, stands as a model — a foundation — for ghost hunts from the Cock Lane investigation conducted in the 1760s to several more from the Victorian era, roughly another century after that.

The Drummer of Tedworth is a tale often told as a true ghost story, popular enough to have appeared in everything from Horace Welby’s Signs of Death and Authenticated Apparitions (1825) and a journal titled Legends and Miracles and Other Curious Stories of Human Nature (1837) to the Dublin University Magazine (1848) and Henry Addington Bruce‘s Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters (1908). Those are just a few of the sources I consulted to put together my own version of the tale.

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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.

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A Study in Head Scratching: Arthur Conan Doyle’s First Ghost Hunt

Ghostology 101aFor a while now, I’ve been interested in the ghost hunts conducted by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Lately I’ve been focusing on his first investigation, probably conducted in 1894, but trying to sort out the facts has left me scratching my head. There are a few different, incompatible versions of the ghost hunt.

Let’s start with Doyle himself. In a book titled The New Revelation (1918), he prefaces a personal anecdote by saying, “About 1891, I had joined the Psychical Research Society. . . . ” He then reminisces:

It was about this time I had an interesting experience, for I was one of three delegates sent by the Psychical Research Society to sit up in a haunted house in Dorsetshire. It was one of these poltergeist cases, where noises and foolish tricks had gone on for some years. . . . On the first night nothing occurred. On the second, there were tremendous noises, sounds like someone beating a table with a stick. We had, of course, taken every precaution, and could not explain the noises; but at the same time we could not swear that some ingenious practical joke had not been played upon us.

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I’m Haunted by the Dickens – Howitt Ghost Debate

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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.

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Charles Dickens, Ghost Hunter? Well…

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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.

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William Howitt and the Intriguing Haunting of Clamps-in-the-Wood

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When Charles Dickens wanted to locate a haunted house not too far from London, he contacted William Howitt (1792-1879). Apparently, Howitt was something of an expert on haunted places. I’ve run into his name a couple of times in my historical research. He’s the author of “The Haunted House in Charnwood Forest” (1850), which is listed on my bibliography The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction. He also did some follow-up investigation into the haunting at Willington, a case I discuss in an earlier Ghostology 101 post.

This week, I came across a ghost hunt that Howitt appears to have initiated. He chronicles it in an 1862 article titled “Berg-Geister — Clamps-in-the-Wood.” The first part of this curious title means “mountain spirits” in German. The second part is the name of a farmhouse, one that that used to belong to a man named Clamps and that was in the woodlands near Thorpe in the East Midlands of England.

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A Low Tide for Ghosts: Disbelief in the Early 1800s

Ghostology 101a“Yet is it true that we do not believe in ghosts?”

— Mary Shelley, “On Ghosts”

While sniffing through 19th-century and early 20th-century non-fiction about ghosts, I have repeatedly bumped my nose on statements about belief in ghosts being a thing of the past. In almost all cases, the sources saying this are from the early 1800s. 1824, for instance, saw the publication of an essay titled On Ghosts,” written by Mary Shelley. The author of Frankenstein suggests that the advance of knowledge and time had taken the mystique — and yes, the ghostliness — out of life: “What have we left to dream about? The clouds are no longer the charioted servants of the sun, . . . the rainbow has ceased to be the messenger of the Gods, and thunder is no longer their awful voice, warning man of what is to come.” Fairies, witches, and ghosts, she continues, have similarly become endangered species. An ocean away, another important horror writer named Edgar Allan Poe would echo Shelley’s question about what’s left to dream about in “Sonnet to Science,” first published in 1829. The poet-speaker asks ever-advancing Science: “How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise, / Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering / To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies[?]”

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