Athenodorus (c. 74 BC-7 AD). According to the letters of Pliny the Younger (61 AD-113 AD), Athenodorus learned of a haunted house in Athens and bravely rented it. A specter bound in chains appeared to him there. He followed the ghost, marking the spot where it vanished. The next day, Athenodorus led an effort to dig at that spot, and a chained skeleton was discovered below. Reburying the bones in more proper fashion elsewhere ended the haunting. This letter opens with Pliny asking Sura, his correspondent, if he thinks ghosts are real, and Pliny comments that he believes the account told of Athenodorus’s ghost hunt is trustworthy. I discuss this anecdote and its “evil twin,” written by Lucian (125 AD–180 AD), here.
Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680). Though it’s technically a witch hunt more than a ghost hunt, Glanvill’s investigation of the famous Drummer of Tedworth case has important similarities with ghost hunts in centuries to follow. Indeed, the haunting of John Mompesson’s house in Tedworth, England, has been since attributed to a poltergeist rather than the witchcraft of the drumming begger William Drury. I clarify all of this here.
Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières (1638-1694). The story goes that Deshoulières debunked a haunting by keeping watch in a room alleged to be visited nightly by a phantom. However, I’ve only found this story in journals from the 1800s, about two centuries after Deshoulières lived. As such, her investigation might be more a parable than verifiable history. Nonetheless, this real-life contemporary of Glanvill stands as an important — if legendary — skeptic on the topic of ghosts. Read my post about her serving as a ghost-hunter exemplar here.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). A respected man of letters, Dr. Johnson joined an investigation of the famous Cock Lane Ghost. Even though he debunked the case, he was afterward pegged as an intellectual gullible enough to believe in ghosts. I discuss this in a post titled “Samuel Johnson Misconstrued”.
William Howitt (1792-1879). Author of The History of the Supernatural in All Ages and Nations and in All Churches, Christian and Pagan, Demonstrating a Universal Faith (1863), Howitt became one of his era’s leading advocates of having faith in Spiritualism and other supernatural phenomena. In separate posts, I’ve written about Howitt’s follow-up work on a ghost hunt in Willington, England, and about the haunted house investigation he initiated in Clamps-in-the-Woods, also in England, about fifteen years later.
Catherine Crowe (1803-1876). Famous for writing The Night-Side of Nature; or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers (1848), an influential compendium of purportedly true ghost encounters, Crowe personally participated in at least one ghost hunt. She recounts the investigation in the “Eighth Evening” chapter of Ghosts and Family Legends (1859).
Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Following a suggestion from William Howitt (see above), the author of some of the best ghost stories written attempted to track down a haunted house in Cheshunt, England. The results were disappointing, but the public debate between the skeptical yet open-minded Dickens and the believer Howitt became the subject for two posts, which you can find here and here.
William F. Barrett (1844-1925). A respected physicist and a key figure in the founding of the Society for Psychical Research both in the U.K. and the U.S., Barrett wrote books on topics such as Spiritualism and dowsing. His main contribution to ghost hunting is an 1877 article titled “The Demons of Derrygonelly,” which appeared in The Dublin University Magazine. Despite its title, Barrett’s chronicle describes his investigation of poltergeist activity in a rural cottage in Ireland. Learn more about him and one of his ghost hunts here.
James John Hissey (1847-1921). Not all ghost hunters get to encounter a ghost — or even ghostly activity. A writer of travel books, Hissey kept a sharp eye out for haunted sites. But his personal attempts at investigating them proved fruitless. Read about his sadly humorous ghost hunts here.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). According to his autobiographical writings, the creator of Sherlock Holmes participated in a few ghost hunts. However, his narrative of the first investigation, which involved a house in Charmouth, England, is contradicted by other writers — and even by a letter he himself wrote shortly after his visit to the house. The baffling mystery of Doyle’s first ghost hunt is the subject of this post.