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

Ghostology 101a

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.

William Howitt
William Howitt: Ghost Hunter

Howitt had been born and raised in this region, and on a visit there, he overheard an elderly woman talking to a clergyman. She was asking for his help in exorcising some spirits haunting that farmhouse, which she now inhabited after Mr. Clamps had gone. The cleric, an Oxford-educated man, dismissed the woman’s notion of ghosts

But Howitt didn’t share this skeptical view, and so he asked others about the haunted cottage in the woods. He learned that several people confirmed the woman’s story. In years past, Mr. Clamps himself had claimed to have seen strange lights hovering and moving inside his house. They proved to be harmless, and the former resident had even grown fond of them, calling them his “glorious lights.” His neighbors had seen them, too, while visiting.

Howitt couldn’t resist. He embarked on a search for the elderly woman whose request for help had been waved off. He found Clamps-in-the-Wood, which the woman shared with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. Worrying about how these grandkids might react to the spectral lights had spurred their grandmother to seek the clergyman’s help. Like Mr. Clamps before them, however, the three adults living there had never felt much threat from the manifestations.

At the farmhouse, Howitt learned that most witnesses only perceived the ghostly lights, which would emerge from solid walls and sink down into the stone floor. The grandmother, though, was able to discern more.

[T]he old woman saw clearly dark figures at the centres of the lights. They were generally three, like short men, as black and as polished, she said, as a boot. Whilst they staid, she said, their hands were always in motion. . . . [They] seemed to take a pleasure in coming towards the warm fire, and looking at what was going on.

When Howitt asked if he might be allowed to stay and see the lights, he was disappointed to learn that they could only be seen during the dark months of winter. He was unable to come back then.

snow_white_1937_trailer_screenshot_2And yet the ghost hunter held to his conviction that the intriguing spirits were real. In fact, as the introduction of his article makes clear, he had a theory about the identity of these seemingly non-human entities. Now, the region of England that surrounds Clamps-in-the-Wood was known for lead mining, and mining is a key clue. Howitt explains, “We know that the miners of Germany and the North have always asserted and still do assert the existence of Kobolds and other Berg-Geister, or spirits of the mountains or the mines. . . .” Though he doesn’t discuss the spectral light, he reports that these spirits are drawn to the fires and the company of living humans. They’re innocuous, very black, and about four-foot-high. (Though much darker than the Disney depiction, these mining spirits remind me of Snow White’s seven dwarfs!) He makes quick mention of a miner in Wales who claims to have discovered copper with the help of such spirits.

The article ends with Howitt recounting the adventure of a friend of his, a “Captain D–,” who had plans to visit York for Christmas and offered to stop by Clamps-in-the-Wood on the chance of verifying the ghost lights. The good captain managed to find the remote cottage and was given permission to remain awake there through the night. After a few hours, he heard knockings, but he didn’t think much about them. His cloak then slipped off a table for no clear reason, and the old woman explained that the spirits were having a bit of fun. Finally, after his hostess went to bed, Captain D– did indeed see what he’d come for: “He saw a globular light about the size of an ordinary opaque lamp-globe issue from the wall, about five or six feet from the floor, and advance about half a yard into the room.” It only stayed a few minutes, then it receded the same way it had come. The captain quickly examined the wall, the windows, the chinks in the door — nothing was there to explain the light. And that was all he witnessed for the rest of the night.

I’ve found two subsequent articles related to the Clamps-in-the-Wood visitations. The first was published in an 1865 issue of Chambers’s Journal, and the anonymous narrative reads almost like it’s Captain D–‘s own version of his investigation. Pursuing the claims of “a friend who informed us of strange sights and sounds, nightly visitations, and other wonders,” this writer visits Clamps-in-the-Wood in January. The grandmother is asked about the manifestations. The coat slips inexplicably from a table. Some noises “like a drum gently beaten” are heard. A light is seen, but it disappears quickly. Subsequent examination fails to provide a physical explanation. There are one or two new wrinkles — a table leaf levitates, for instance — but this article doesn’t really add much information to Howitt’s from three years earlier.

Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899)

Ten years later, though, the second article appeared on the front page of the October 29, 1875, issue of the Banner of Light, a Spiritualist newspaper published in Boston, Massachusetts. There, Emma Hardinge Britten relates her own investigation, which she says was aided by her powers as a medium. Unlike the anonymous writer, Britten acknowledges Howitt’s earlier report, but her investigation occurred after Clamps-in-the-Wood had been abandoned. The medium was taken to another spot ripe for a ghostly encounter. There, Britten heard knocking along with experiencing what seems like poltergeist activity — kitchen items fell from shelves and a “rude door shook violently. . . .” Afterward, she saw “a row of four lights as large as the veritable ostrich’s egg which adorned the mantle shelf of the humble shanty.” Sure enough, the medium is able to discern a “faint outline of a miniature human form” within each light before they vanished into the wall behind.

Britten was next granted a second look at the glowing figures. “They were grotesque in shape,” she says, “with round shining heads, destitute of hair, perfectly black, and more human about the head than the body.” With playful expressions, they seemed to somersault for Britten before signalling the end of the show with a “strange duck with each little head” and then disappearing for good.

Folklore has a number of mine-associated spirits, be they the knocker of Wales, Cornwall, and the West Country of England; the bluecap from further north in the UK; the kobold of Germany; or the shubin of the Ukraine. Clearly, there are similarities between these tales and these three reports on supernatural manifestations in Clamps-in-the-Wood and the cottage visited by Britten. This wouldn’t be the only time that such elfish creatures would sneak over from folklore into journalism. Remember that, a few decades later, another ghost hunter named Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would write articles for The Strand regarding the validity of fairy photographs taken in Cottingley. As both Howitt and Britten explain at the start of their articles, the spirit world is populated by more than just the phantoms of human beings who have died. At least, this seems to have been the case from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.

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

Ghostology 101a

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

Ghostology 101a

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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A Book Report on D. Felton’s Haunted Greece and Rome

Ghostology 101aThis post might as easily go with those I categorize as “Unearthing the Unearthly: My Literary Digging.” It also has implications for the Spectral Edition clippings I post each Wednesday. This is because D. Felton’s enlightening book Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity (University of Texas Press, 1999) is as much about ghosts in literature as it is about actual historical records of ghosts. And it will appeal to readers interested in either.

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What Famous Authors Said about Ghosts

Ghostology 101aScanning my Ghostology 101: Recommended Reading list, I’m especially intrigued by the entries written by Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unfortunately, in her article titled “On Ghosts” (1824), the author of Frankenstein says: “For my own part, I never saw a ghost except once in a dream.” Shelley then goes on to recount ghostly encounters experienced by two people she knew. Perhaps more interesting is her introduction, which discusses of how believing in ghosts felt like a thing of the past in the early 1800s. That’s a point I’ve seen expressed frequently in writing from those decades following the Enlightenment swing toward rational, scientific thinking. Of course, Shelley shows that this feeling might be misleading once she gets to her two ghost stories.

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Samuel Johnson Misconstrued

Ghostology 101a“It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.”

Samuel Johnson

English author Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is frequently named as a prominent person who believed in ghosts. For instance, in Moby Dick (1851), Herman Melville writes: “Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend? There are other ghosts than the Cock-Lane one, and far deeper men than Doctor Johnson who believe in them.” A few years later, the anonymous author of “A Night in a Haunted House” (1855) had that tale’s narrator say: “Dr. Johnson declares it is impossible to account for the belief in ghosts among nearly all nations except by supposing the reality of their appearance.”

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