site logo

A Medieval Ghost Hunter

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

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

eath 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.