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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Dr. Elliott Coues: Ghost-Smeller

Ghostology 101aSo far as I can tell, Dr. Elliott Coues wasn’t exactly a ghost hunter. Instead, he was an internationally recognized ornithologist who, at one point in his life, advocated that phenomena commonly dubbed “supernatural” be placed under the eye — and even the microscope — of scientific study. Not surprisingly, such a position got Coues into trouble.

In 1884, Coues caused a bit of a stir by attempting to join a debate being held in Science. This lofty journal had published an exchange between Simon Newcomb and Edmund Gurney. Newcomb first challenged the work being done by the Society for Psychical Research, Gurney then defended that work, and Newcomb rebutted with an essay titled “Can Ghosts Be Investigated?” Coues had an answer to that question, so he wrote a letter to the Science editor — a letter that was promptly rejected as being without evidence and contrary to “accepted laws of matter.”

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A Dispiriting Sport: James John Hissey, Frustrated Ghost Hunter

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From the 1880s to around World War I, James John Hissey wrote fourteen books about his travels through Britain. Frequently, these travelogs include quick mentions of ghosts as the sightseer recounts local legends told in some of the spots he visits. But ghosts are mentioned so frequently throughout his books that Hissey seems to have been deliberately keeping a eye out for haunted houses. Or haunted inns. Or haunted castles. Or haunted streets or haunted hills.

Indeed, Hissey claimed to be a ghost hunter — but a frustrated one because he never witnessed a ghost himself. The closest he came to a personal encounter with a phantom is discussed in The Charm of the Road: England and Wales (1910): “Hunting after haunted houses is in one sense a dispiriting sport, for though haunted houses abound, I never could run down a ghost; at least only once, and then it hastily ran away from me.” Staying at a house in Scotland, Hissey learned that a spectral figure was said to appear out in the yard during nightly prayers (his host being a strict Presbyterian). During one of those prayer sessions, Hissey “conveniently had a bad headache” and slipped outside to pursue the ghost. Sure enough, he spotted it!

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Arthur Conan Doyle’s Ghost Hunts: A Tentative Timeline

Ghostology 101aRead my reviews of Sherlock Holmes movies or the handful of references to that detective in my Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries, and it won’t be surprising that I take an interest in Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

I knew that Doyle had done some ghost hunting in real life, and I thought it might be interesting to try to nail down the when and where of those investigations. As such, I sketched a tentative timeline. I’ll tinker with it in the coming months, re-posting this when significant changes are made. Feel very free to let me know of good evidence that will correct any mistakes here.

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A Book Report on Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters

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Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin Press, 2006), by Pulizer-Prize winning author Deborah Blum, might disappoint readers looking for true stories of actual ghost hunts in haunted houses and the like. Instead, the book focuses on scientists from the late 1800s and early 1900s who investigated spiritualist mediums, clairvoyants, and the like. William James, brother of the fiction (and ghost story) writer Henry James, was among those scientists, and he serves as the hub of Blum’s book.

However, this isn’t exactly a biography of James, either. Rather the book spans the interest in psychical research of many scientists and scholars — William Crookes, Edmund Gurney, Oliver Lodge, Nora and Henry Sidgwick, et al. — so many, in fact, keeping some of the names straight can become a challenge. Nonetheless, readers get a good sense of the opposition facing these intellectuals from both Europe and the U.S. Blum also explores the internal tensions felt between these figures, who became the key players in forming the Society for Psychical Research and its American branch. Continue reading “A Book Report on Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters”

Dr. Edward Drury: Humble(d) Ghost Hunter

Ghostology 101aIn the mid-1800s, an ordinary-looking house in the village of Willington became one of England’s most famous haunted sites. The first published record of it appears to be a pamphlet titled “Authentic Account of a Visit to the Haunted House at Willington near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne” (Newcastle: Richardson, 1842), but within the year, the same publisher reprinted that account in a volume called The Local Historian’s Table Book. Told mostly through letters, the narrative spotlights an overnight ghost hunt of the house conducted by Edward Drury, a local doctor.

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