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A Medieval Ghost Hunter

The name of Dr. John Dee is scarcely known to-day, yet Dr. Dee has some
exceedingly well-defined claims to remembrance. He was one of the
foremost scientists of the Tudor period in English history. He was famed
as a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher not only in his native
land but in every European center of learning. Before he was twenty he
penned a remarkable treatise on logic, and he left behind him at his
death a total of nearly a hundred works on all manner of recondite
subjects. He was the means of introducing into England a number of
astronomical instruments hitherto unused, and even unknown, in that
country. His lectures on geometry were the delight of all who heard
them. In Elizabeth's reign he was frequently consulted by the highest
ministers of the crown with regard to affairs of State, and was the
confidant of the queen herself, who more than once employed him on
secret missions. He was interested in everyday affairs as well as in
questions of theoretical importance. The reformation of the calendar
long engaged his attention. He charted for Elizabeth her distant
colonial dominions. He preached the doctrine of sea-power, and, like
Hakluyt, advocated the upbuilding of a strong navy. He was, in some
sort, a participant in Sir Humphrey Gilbert's scheme for New World

In a word, Dr. John Dee was a phenomenally many-sided man in an age that
was peculiarly productive of many-sided men. Even yet, the catalogue of
his interests and accomplishments is by no means exhausted. Indeed, his
chief claim to fame--and, paradoxically enough, the great reason why his
reputation practically died with him--lies in the fact that he was one
of the earliest of psychical researchers. At a time when all men
unhesitatingly entertained a belief in the overshadowing presence of
spirits and their constant intervention in human affairs, Dr. Dee
resolved to prove, if possible, the actual existence of these mysterious
and unseen beings. To encourage him in his ghost-hunting zeal was the
hope that the spirits, if actually located by him, might reward his
enterprise by unfolding a secret that had long been the despair of all
medieval scientists--the secret of the philosopher's stone, of the
precious formula whereby the baser metals could be transmuted into
shining gold. With the heartiest enthusiasm, therefore, Dr. Dee went to
work, and although the spirits with whom he ultimately came into
constant communication brought him no gold but many tribulations, he
remained an ardent psychical researcher to the day of his death.

Just when he began his explorations of the invisible world it is
impossible to say. But it must have been at a very early age, for he was
barely twenty-five when a rumor spread that he was dabbling in the black
arts. Two years later, in 1554, he was definitely accused of trying to
take the life of Queen Mary by enchantments, and on this charge was
thrown into prison. For cellmate he had Barthlet Green, who parted from
him only to meet an agonizing death in the flames, as an arch-heretic.
Dee himself was threatened with the stake, and was actually placed on
trial for his life before the dread Court of the Star Chamber. But he
seems to have had, throughout his entire career, a singularly plausible
manner, and a magnetic, winning personality. He succeeded in convincing
his judges both of his innocence of traitorous designs and his religious
orthodoxy, and was allowed to go scot free. Elizabeth, on her accession
to the throne, naturally looked on him with favor, as one who had been
persecuted by her sister; and with the more favor since it was widely
reported that he was on the eve of making the grand discovery for which
other alchemists had ever labored in vain. A man who might some day make
gold at will was certainly not to be despised; rather, he should be
cultivated. Nor was her esteem for Dee lessened by the success with
which, by astrological calculations, he named a favorable day for her
coronation; and, a little later, by solemn disenchantment warded off the
ill effects of the Lincoln's Inn Fields incident, when a puppet of wax,
representing Elizabeth, was found lying on the ground with a huge pin
stuck through its breast.

As a matter of fact, however, Dee was making headway neither in his
quest for the philosopher's stone nor in his efforts to prove the
existence of a spiritual world. In vain he pored over every work of
occultism upon which he could lay his hands, and tried all known means
of incantation. Year after year passed without result, until at last he
hit on the expedient of crystal-gazing. As every student of things
psychical is aware, if one takes a crystal, or glass of water, or other
body with a reflecting surface, and gaze at it steadily, he may possibly
perceive, after a greater or less length of time, shadowy images of
persons or scenes in the substance that fixes his attention. It was so
with Dr. Dee, and not having any understanding of the laws of
subconscious mental action he soon came to the conclusion that the
shadowy figures he saw in the crystal were veritable spirits. From this
it was an easy step to imagine that they really talked to him and sought
to convey to him a knowledge of the great secrets of this world and the

The only difficulty was that he could not understand what they said--or,
rather, what he fancied they said. The obvious thing to do was to find a
crystal-gazer with the gift of the spirit language, and induce him to
interpret for Dr. Dee's benefit the revelations of the images in the
glass. Such a crystal-gazer was ready at hand in the person of a young
man named Edward Kelley. Among the common people, as Dee well knew,
Kelley had the reputation of being a bold and wicked wizard. He had been
born in Worcester, and trained in the apothecary's business, but,
tempted by the prospect of securing great wealth at a minimum of
trouble, he had turned alchemist and magician. It was rumored that on at
least one occasion he had disinterred a freshly buried corpse, and by
his incantations had compelled the spirit of the dead man to speak to
him. There was more truth in the report that the reason he always wore a
close-fitting skull-cap was to conceal the loss of his ears, which had
been forfeited to the Government of England on his conviction for
forgery. Of this last unpleasant incident Dr. Dee seems to have known
nothing. At any rate, with child-like confidence, he sent for Kelley,
told him of the properties of his magic crystal--which the now
thoroughly infatuated doctor represented as having been bestowed on him
by the angel Uriel--and asked Kelley if he would interpret for him the
wonderful words of the spirits.

Kelley, as shrewd and unscrupulous a man as any in the annals of
imposture, readily consented, but on pretty hard terms. He was to be
taken in as a member of Dr. Dee's family, retained on a contract, and
paid an annual stipend of fifty pounds, quite a large sum in those
times. On this understanding he went to work, and day after day, for
years, regaled the credulous Dee with monologues purporting to be
delivered by the spirits in the crystal. Everything Kelley told him, Dr.
Dee faithfully noted down, and many years later, long after both Dee and
Kelley had been carried to their graves, these manuscript notes of the
seances were published. The volume containing them--a massive, closely
printed folio entitled "A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for
Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits"--is one of the great
curiosities of literature. A copy of the original edition is before me
as I write, and I will quote from it just enough to show the character
of the "revelations" vouchsafed to Dee through the mediumship of the
cunning Kelley.

"Wednesday, 19 Junii, I made a prayer to God and there appeared one,
having two garments in his hands, who answered, 'A good praise, with a
wavering mind.'

"God made my mind stable, and to be seasoned with the intellectual
leaven, free of all sensible mutability.

"E. K. [said] 'One of these two garments is pure white: the other is
speckled of divers colors; he layeth them down before him, he layeth
also a speckled cap down before him at his feet; he hath no cap on his
head: his hair is long and yellow, but his face cannot be seen.... Now
he putteth on his pied coat and his pied cap, he casteth one side of his
gown over his shoulder and he danceth, and saith, "There is a God, let
us be merry!"'

"E. K. 'He danceth still.'

"'There is a heaven, let us be merry.'

"'Doth this doctrine teach you to know God, or to be skilful in the

"'Note it.'

"E. K. 'Now he putteth off his clothes again: now he kneeleth down, and
washeth his head and his neck and his face, and shaketh his clothes, and
plucketh off the uttermost sole of his shoes, and falleth prostrate on
the ground, and saith, "Vouchsafe, oh God, to take away the weariness of
my body and to cleanse the filthiness of this dust, that I may be apt
for this pureness."'

"E. K. 'Now he taketh the white garment, and putteth it on him.... Now
he sitteth down on the desk-top and looketh toward me.... He seemeth now
to be turned to a woman, and the very same which we call Galvah.'"

Side by side with the esoteric and transcendental utterances which
Kelley credited to the spirits, he cleverly introduced sufficient in the
way of references to the elixir of life and the transmutation of metals,
to keep alive in Dee's breast the hope of ultimately solving the crucial
problems of medieval science. All the money Dee could procure was spent
on ingredients for magical formulas, and to such lengths did his
enthusiasm carry him that before long he was reduced to poverty. He
became so poor, in fact, that when, in the summer of 1583, the Earl of
Leicester announced his intention of bringing a notable foreign visitor,
Count Albert Lasky of Bohemia, to dine with Dee, the unhappy doctor was
compelled to send word that he could not provide a proper dinner.
Leicester, moved to pity, reported his plight to the queen, who at once
belied her reputation for niggardliness by bestowing a liberal gift on
the Sage of Mortlake, as Dee was now styled at the Court. The dinner
accordingly took place, and was a tremendous success in more ways than

Lasky turned out to be an exceedingly excitable and impressionable man,
and his curiosity was so aroused by the occult discourse of his host
that he begged to be admitted to the seances. Always alert to the main
chance, Kelley, after a few preliminary sittings of unusual
picturesqueness, inspired the spirits to predict that Lasky would one
day be elected King of Poland. It needed nothing more to induce the
happy and hopeful count to invite both Dee and Kelley to return with him
to Bohemia. He would, he promised, protect and provide for them; they
should live with him in his many turreted castle, and want for nothing.
Here, indeed, was a pleasant way out of their present poverty, and Dee
and Kelley readily gave consent. Nor did they leave England a moment too
soon. Scarcely had they taken ship before a mob, roused to fury by
superstitious fears, broke into the philosopher's house at Mortlake and
destroyed almost everything that they did not steal--furniture, books,
manuscripts, and costly scientific apparatus.

Of this, though, Dee for the moment happily knew nothing. Nor, for all
his long intercourse with the spirits, was he able to foresee that he
was now embarking on a career of tragic adventure that falls to the lot
of few scientists. At first, however, all went well enough. Lasky
entertained his learned guests in lavish fashion, and, assuming their
garb of long, flowing gown, joined heartily with them in the ceremonies
of the seance room. But as time passed and their incantations redounded
in no way to his advantage, he gradually lost patience, and broadly
hinted that they might better transfer their services to another patron.
Whereupon, closely followed by the irrepressible Kelley, Dee removed to
the court of the emperor, Rudolph II, at Prague. He had dedicated one of
his scientific treatises to the emperor's father, and in his simplicity
firmly believed that this would insure him a warm and lasting welcome.
But Rudolph, from the outset, showed himself far from well-disposed to
Dee, Kelley, and their attendant retinue of invisible spirits. When Dee
grandiloquently introduced himself, in a Latin oration, as a messenger
from the unseen world, the emperor curtly checked him with the remark
that he did not understand Latin. And the next day a hint was given him
that, at the request of the papal nuncio, he and Kelley were to be
arrested and sent to Rome for trial as necromancers. Before night-fall
they were in full flight, to remain homeless wanderers until another
Bohemian count, hearing of their presence in his dominions, took them
under his protection on the proviso that they were to replenish his
exchequer by converting humble pewter into silver and gold.

In this, of course, they signally failed, and the next few years of
their lives were years of the greatest misery. This, at any rate, so far
as Dee was concerned. Kelley, with pitiless insistence, drew his pay
regularly, and when funds were not forthcoming, refused to act as
crystal-gazer and spirit interpreter. On one of these occasions Dee
tried to replace him by training his son, Arthur Dee, as a
crystal-gazer; but, try as he might, the boy said he could see in the
crystal nothing but meaningless clouds and specks. Had Dee not been
thoroughly infatuated this might have disillusioned him, and convinced
him that Kelley had simply been preying on his credulity. But the old
man--he was now well advanced in years--saw in his son's failure only
proof of Kelley's superior gifts, and by dint of great sacrifices
contrived to find the money necessary to persuade him to return to his
post. At last a day came when money could no longer be found, and then
Kelley definitely determined to break the partnership. According to one
account, he informed Dee that, for the sake of his immortal soul, he
could no longer have dealings with the spirits; that they were spirits
not of good but of evil, and Mephistopheles was their master; and that,
did he continue to traffic with them, Mephistopheles would soon have
him, body and soul. Another version--given by the astrologer, William
Lilly, who is said to have been consulted by the friends of King Charles
I. as to the best time for that unhappy monarch to attempt to escape
from prison--says that one fine morning Kelley took French leave of Dee,
running away with an alchemically inclined friar who had promised him a
good income. Whatever the facts of his final rupture with his
long-suffering master, it is certain that, after a romantic career, in
which he gained a German baronetcy, Kelley was clapped into prison on a
charge of fraud, and broke his neck while trying to escape.

Dr. Dee, in the meantime, a sadder if not a really wiser man, had found
his way back to England, where he essayed the difficult task of
retrieving his ruined fortunes. Elizabeth smiled on him as graciously as
ever, and at Christmas time sent to him a royal gift of two hundred
angels in gold. But he needed more than an occasional bounty; he needed
the assurance of a steady income, and the chance to pursue again his
scientific studies undisturbed by the phantoms of gnawing want. So, in a
memorial, "written with tears of blood," as he himself put it, Dee
begged the queen to appoint a commission to investigate his case and
review the evidence he would produce to prove that his services to the
nation warranted a reward. Promptly the commission was appointed, and as
promptly began its labors. This led to what Isaac Disraeli, perhaps
Dee's best biographer, has described as a "literary scene of singular

Let me depict it in Disraeli's little known words: "Dee, sitting in his
library," says Disraeli, "received the royal commissioners. Two tables
were arranged; on one lay all the books he had published, with his
unfinished manuscripts; the most extraordinary one was an elaborate
narrative of the transactions of his whole life. This manuscript his
secretary read, and, as it proceeded, from the other table Dee presented
the commissioners with every testimonial. These vouchers consisted of
royal letters from the Queen, and from princes, ambassadors, and the
most illustrious persons of England and of Europe; passports which
traced his routes, and journals which noted his arrivals and departures;
grants and appointments and other remarkable evidences; and when these
were wanting, he appealed to living witnesses.

"Among the employments which he had filled, he particularly alluded to a
'painful journey in the winter season, of more than fifteen hundred
miles, to confer with learned physicians on the Continent, about her
majesty's health.' He showed the offers of many princes to the English
philosopher, to retire to their courts, and the princely establishment
at Moscow proffered by the czar; but he had never faltered in his
devotion to his sovereign.... He complained that his house at Mortlake
was too public for his studies, and incommodious for receiving the
numerous foreign literati who resorted to him. Of all the promised
preferments, he would have chosen the mastership of St. Cross for its
seclusion. Here is a great man making great demands, but reposing with
dignity on his claims; his wants were urgent, but the penury was not in
his spirit. The commissioners, as they listened to his autobiography,
must often have raised their eyes in wonder, on the venerable and
dignified author before them."

Their report was terse, direct, and wholly favorable, inspiring the
queen to declare that Dee should have the mastership of St. Cross, and
that immediately. But days passed into months, and months into years,
and Elizabeth's "immediately" still belonged to the future. For some
reason she soon lost all interest in the returned Sage of Mortlake.
Again and again he memorialized her, once with a letter vindicating
himself from the accusation of practising sorcery. Her sole reply was to
grant him finally the uncongenial post of warden of Manchester College,
from which he retired after some mortifying experiences with the minor
officials. Nor did he fare better at the hands of Elizabeth's successor.
Steadily he sank lower in the scale of society, until at last he was
forced to sell his books, one by one, to buy bread. And still, for all
his poverty, he pressed constantly forward in his adventurings into the
invisible world. If his friends deserted him, he would at least have the
companionship of "angels." As his hallucinations grew, his youthful
buoyancy returned. He would leave England, would fare across to the
Continent, and there seek out men of a mind like unto his own. Joyfully,
he made ready for the journey; but, even while he packed and planned,
the call came for another and a longer voyage. In the eighty-first year
of his age, 1608, the aged dreamer became in very fact a dweller in the
spirit world.

Of his place in the history of mankind, it is not easy to write with any
degree of finality. There can be no doubt that he was utterly swept off
his feet by the domination of a fixed idea. And it is not possible to
point to any specific contributions which he made to the advancement of
learning, worldly or otherwise. Still, it is equally certain that he
was anything but a negative quantity in an age resplendent for its
positive men. He played his part, however mistakenly, in the
intellectual awakening that has shed such luster on the times of
Elizabeth; and, if only for his overpowering curiosity, and his intense
and unfailing ardor to get at the truth of all things, natural or
supernatural, he merits respect as a forerunner of the scientific spirit
which in his day was but feebly striving to loose itself from the
bondage of bigotry and intolerance.

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