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Ghost Hunters Of Yesterday And To-day

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

Psychical research, of which so much mention has been made in the

preceding pages, may be roughly yet sufficiently described as an effort

to determine by strictly scientific methods the nature and significance

of apparitions, hauntings, spiritistic phenomena, and those other weird

occurrences that would seem to confirm the idea that the spirits of the

dead can and do communicate with the living. It is something

ively new--and like all scientific endeavor is the outgrowth of

many minds. But so far as its origin may be attributed to any one man,

credit must chiefly be given to a Cambridge University professor named

Henry Sidgwick.

At the time, Sidgwick was merely a lecturer in the university, a post

given him as a reward for his brilliant career as an undergraduate. He

was a born student and investigator, a restless seeker after knowledge.

Philosophy, sociology, ethics, economics, mathematics, the classics,--he

made almost the whole wide field of thought his sphere of inquiry. And

after awhile, as is so often the case, his learning became too profound

for his peace of mind. He had been born and brought up in the faith of

the English Church, and had unhesitatingly made the religious

declaration required of all members of the university faculty. But

little by little he felt himself drifting from the moorings of his

youth, and doubting the truth of the ancient doctrines and traditions.

Honestly skeptical, but still unwilling to lose his hold on religion, he

turned feverishly to the study of oriental languages, of ancient

philosophies, of history, of science, in the hope of finding evidence

that would remove his doubts. But the more he read the greater grew his

uncertainty, especially with respect to the vital question of the

existence of a spiritual world and its relation to mankind.

While he was still laboring in this valley of indecision, Sidgwick was

visited by a young man, Frederic W. H. Myers, who had studied under him

a few years earlier and for whom he had formed a warm friendship.

Myers, it seemed, was tormented by the same scruples that were harassing

him. It was his belief, he told Sidgwick, that if the teachings of the

Bible were true--if there existed a spiritual world which in days of old

had been manifest to mankind--then such a world should be manifest now.

And one beautiful, starlit evening, when they were strolling together

through the university grounds, he put to his old master the pointed


"Do you think that, although tradition, intuition, metaphysics, have

failed to solve the riddle of the universe, there is still a chance of

solving it by drawing from actual observable phenomena--ghosts, spirits,

whatsoever it may be--valid knowledge as to a world unseen?"

Gazing gravely into the eager face of his companion, and weighing his

words with the caution that was characteristic of him, Sidgwick replied

that he had indeed entertained this thought; that, although not over

hopeful of the result, he believed such an inquiry should be undertaken,

notwithstanding the unpleasant notoriety it would entail on those

embarking in it. Would he, then, make the quest, and would he permit

Myers to pursue it by his side? Long and earnestly the two friends

talked together, and when their walk ended, that December night in 1869,

psychical research had at last come definitely into being.

In the beginning, however, progress was painfully slow and uncertain.

"Our methods," as Myers afterward explained, "were all to make. In those

early days we were more devoid of precedents, of guidance, even of

criticism that went beyond mere expressions of contempt, than is now

readily conceived."

It was realized that no mere analysis of alleged experiences in the past

would do; that what was needed was a rigid scrutiny of present-day

manifestations of a seemingly supernormal character, and the collection

of a mass of well authenticated evidence sufficient to justify

inferences and conclusions. Earnestly and bravely the friends went to

work, and before long had the satisfaction of finding an invaluable

assistant in the person of Edmund Gurney, another Cambridge man and an

enthusiast in all matters metaphysical.

At first, to be sure, Gurney entered into psychical research in a

half-hearted, quizzical way, expecting to be amused rather than

instructed. And he derived little encouragement from the investigations

carried on by Sidgwick, Myers, and himself in the field of spiritistic

mediumship. Fraud seemed always to be at the bottom of the phenomena

produced in the seance room. But his interest was suddenly and

permanently awakened by the discovery, following several years spent in

patiently collecting evidence, of facts pointing to the possibility of

thought being communicated from mind to mind by some agency other than

the recognized organs of sense. At once he made it his special business

to accumulate data bearing on this point, his labors ultimately leading

him into an exhaustive examination of hypnotism, as he found that the

hypnotic trance seemed peculiarly favorable to "thought transference,"

or "telepathy."

Meantime, the example of this little Cambridge group had been followed

by other investigators; and in 1876, before no less dignified and

conservative a body than the British Association for the Advancement of

Science, the proposal was made that a special committee be appointed for

the systematic examination of spiritistic and kindred phenomena. The

idea was broached by Dr. W. F. Barrett, professor of physics at the

Royal College of Science, Dublin, and was warmly seconded by Dr. Alfred

Russel Wallace and Sir William Crookes, two distinguished scientists who

had already made adventures in psychical research and were destined to

wide renown as ghost hunters.

For some reason nothing was done at the time; but five years later

Professor Barrett renewed his suggestion, asking Myers and Gurney if

they would join him in the formation of such a society. That, they

replied, they would gladly do, provided Sidgwick could be induced to

accept its presidency. Having long before realized that the field was

too extensive for thorough exploration by any individual, however

gifted, Sidgwick willingly gave his consent. And accordingly, in

January, 1882, the now celebrated Society for Psychical Research was

formally organized, its first council including, besides Sidgwick,

Myers, Gurney, and Barrett, such men as Arthur J. Balfour, afterward

Prime Minister of Great Britain; the brilliant Richard Hutton; Prof.

Balfour Stewart; and Frank Podmore, than whom no more merciless

executioner of bogus ghosts is wielding the ax to-day.

Unfortunately, the first council also numbered several avowed

spiritists, notably the medium Stainton Moses; and the society's

birthplace was in the rooms of the British National Association of

Spiritualists. These two facts created a wide-spread suspicion that the

society was actually nothing more than an adjunct to the spiritistic

movement. Nor was confidence wholly restored by the hasty withdrawal of

the spiritistic representatives as soon as they learned that strictly

scientific methods of inquiry were to prevail; or by the accession, as

honorary members, of national figures like W. E. Gladstone, John Ruskin,

Lord Tennyson, A. R. Wallace, Sir William Crookes, and G. F. Watts.

To the scientific as well as the popular consciousness, the society was

little better than an assemblage of cranks, with strangely fantastic

notions, and only too likely to lose its mental balance and help

ignorant and superstitious people to lose theirs. Conscious, however, of

the really serious and important nature of their enterprise, and cheered

by Gladstone's comforting assurance that no investigation of greater

moment to mankind could be made,[R] the members of the society applied

themselves zealously to the business that had brought them together.

Sensibly enough, they adopted the principle of specialization and

division of labor. While one group carried on experiments designed to

prove or disprove the telepathic hypothesis, another engaged in a

systematic examination of the alleged facts of clairvoyance. A third, in

its turn, under the skilful guidance of Gurney, investigated the

phenomena of the hypnotic trance, with results unexpectedly beneficial

to medical science. A special committee was also appointed to collect

and sift evidence as to the reality of apparitions and hauntings, making

whenever possible personal examinations of the seers of the visions and

the places of their occurrence. Finally, there were various

subcommittees of inquiry into the physical phenomena of spiritism,--the

knockings, table turnings, production of spirit forms, and similar

marvels of the Dunglas Home type of "medium." From the outset, these

subcommittees demonstrated the value of psychical research, as a

protection to the interests of society, by exposing, one after another,

the fraudulent character of the pretended intermediaries between the

seen and the unseen world.

In this region of inquiry no one was more successful than a recruit from

distant Australia, by name Richard Hodgson. Hodgson, unlike Sidgwick and

Myers and many others of his associates, had not engaged in psychical

research from the hope that the truths of the Bible might thereby be

demonstrated. His motive was that of the detective eager to unravel

mysteries. From his boyhood he had had a singular fondness for solving

tricks and puzzles of all sorts; and when, in 1878, he came to England

to complete his education at Cambridge, he naturally gravitated into the

company of Sidgwick, Myers, and Gurney, as men busied in an undertaking

that appealed to his detective instinct. He was radically different from

them in temperament and point of view--not at all mystical, full of

animal spirits, fond of all manner of sports, and interested in occult

subjects only so far as they furnished working material for his nimble

and inquiring mind. The Cambridge trio, however, took kindly to him,

invited him to join the Society for Psychical Research, and two years

after its formation were instrumental in sending him to India to

investigate the methods of Madam Blavatsky, the high priestess of the

theosophic movement which was then winning adherents throughout the

civilized world.

From this inquiry he returned to England with an international

reputation as a detective of the supernatural. With the aid of two

disgruntled confederates of the theosophist leader, he had demonstrated

the falsity of the foundations on which her claims rested, and had shown

that downright swindling constituted a large part of her stock in trade.

With redoubled ardor he now plunged into the task of exposing the

spiritistic mediums plying their vocation in England, and for this

purpose enlisted the assistance of a professional conjurer, S. J. Davey,

who was also a member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Davey, after a little practice, succeeded in duplicating by mere sleight

of hand many of the most impressive feats of the mediums; doing this,

indeed, so well that some spiritists alleged that he was in reality a

medium himself. Hodgson, for his part, by clever analysis of the Davey

performances and of the feats of Davey's mediumistic competitors,

brought home to his colleagues in the Society for Psychical Research a

lively sense of the folly of depending on the human eye as a detector of

fraudulent spiritistic phenomena. His crowning triumph came with his

exposure of Eusapia Paladino, the Italian medium who is still enjoying

an undeserved popularity on the European continent.

But in time even Hodgson met his Waterloo. Sent to the United States to

investigate the trance phenomena of Mrs. Leonora Piper, he was forced to

confess that in her case the theory of fraud fell to the ground, and as

is well known he ended by developing into an out and out spiritist. A

few days before Christmas, 1905, he suddenly died in Boston; and, if

reports from the spirit world may be accepted, the once-renowned ghost

hunter has himself become a ghost, visiting in especial two of his

American colleagues, Prof. William James and Prof. James H. Hyslop.[S]

To return, however, to the early days of the Society for Psychical

Research. Valuable as were the results obtained by Hodgson and his

associates on what may be called the anti-swindle committees, they had a

distinctly negative bearing on the supreme object of inquiry--proof of

the existence of a spiritual world in which human personality exists

after the death of the body. Some enthusiasts did not hesitate to

proclaim at an early date that such proof had actually been secured,

basing this assertion on the seemingly supernatural facts brought to

light by the committees on telepathy, clairvoyance, and apparitions. But

the society, under the leadership of the cautious Sidgwick, who was its

president for many years, steadily refused to countenance this view, and

insisted that before any definite conclusions could be reached far more

evidence would have to be assembled. Thus the first ten years of the

society's existence were marked by few positive results,--the most

important being the statement of the case for telepathy and of its

possible relationships to apparitions and hauntings, as well as to the

purely psychical phenomena of spiritualism.

Indeed, the society formally expressed its acquiescence in the

telepathic hypothesis as early as 1884, in the words, "Our society

claims to have proved the reality of thought transference--of the

transmission of thoughts, feelings, and images from one mind to another

by no recognized channel of sense." But to no other dictum did it commit

itself until ten years more had passed when, following the so-called

census of hallucinations, it gave voice to its belief that between

deaths and apparitions of the dying person a connection existed that was

not due to chance. And since then the society has contented itself with

steadily accumulating evidence designed to throw light on the causal

connection between deaths and ghosts, and to illumine the central

problem of demonstrating scientifically the existence of an unseen world

and the immortality of the soul.

Individuals, of course, have been free to express their views, and from

the pens of several have come striking and suggestive analyses of the

evidence assembled in the course of the society's twenty-five years. In

this respect, beyond any question, primacy must be given the writings of

Myers. Even before the organization of the society, his personal

researches had led him to suspect that, whatever the truth about the

life beyond the grave, there was reason for radical changes of belief

regarding the nature of human personality itself. In the light of the

phenomena of the hypnotic trance, clairvoyance, hallucinations, and even

of natural sleep, it seemed to him that, instead of being a stable,

indivisible unity, human personality was essentially unstable and


And as the years passed and he was enabled to coordinate the results of

the investigations carried on by the different committees, he gradually

became convinced that over and beyond the self of which man is normally

conscious there existed in every man a secondary self endowed with

faculties transcending those of the normal wake-a-day self. To this he

gave the name of the "subliminal self," and, in the words of Professor

James, "endowed psychology with a new problem,--the exploration of the

subliminal region being destined to figure thereafter in that branch of

learning as Myers's problem."

Not content with this, he gave himself, with all the earnestness that

had originally drawn him into activity with Sidgwick, to the

formulation of a cosmic philosophy based on the hypothesis of the

subliminal self and its operations in that unseen world of whose

existence he no longer doubted. Here he laid himself open to the charge

of extravagance and transcendentalism, and undoubtedly exceeded the

logical limit. But for all of that his labors--cut short by death six

years ago, and only a few months after the death of his beloved master,

Sidgwick--have been little short of epoch marking, and amply suffice to

vindicate the existence of the once despised, and still by no means

venerated, Society for Psychical Research.

Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Mr. Frank Podmore are other

members of the society who have granted the outside world informative

glimpses of its workings and discoveries. Sir William Crookes, of

course, is best known as a great chemist, discoverer of the element

thallium, and inventor of numerous scientific instruments; while Sir

Oliver Lodge's most striking work has been in electricity, and more

particularly in the direction of improving wireless telegraphy. But both

have long been actively interested in psychical research, and perhaps

most of all in those phases of it bearing on the telepathic hypothesis,

their great aim being to discover just what the technique of telepathic

communication from mind to mind may be.

Mr. Podmore, on the other hand, like Richard Hodgson, has chiefly

concerned himself with psychical research from the detective, or

critical, standpoint. He began his labors late in the '70's, associating

himself with the Cambridge group, and has consistently maintained the

attitude of a skeptical, though open minded, investigator. To-day, to a

certain extent, he may be said to occupy the place so long filled by

Henry Sidgwick as a sane, restraining influence on the less judicial

members of the society, who would unhesitatingly brush aside all

objections and embrace the spiritistic hypothesis with all its

supernatural implications.[T]

Of course, psychical research has by no means been confined to the

English organization. All over the world investigators are now probing

into the mysteries of the seemingly supernormal. But, as a general

thing, their methods scarcely reach the strict standards set by the

organized inquirers of England, and as a natural consequence they are

more easily deceived by tricksters.

This is particularly true of the European ghost hunters, whose laxity of

procedure, not to say gullibility, was clearly shown by the ease with

which Hodgson exposed the pretensions of Eusapia Paladino after

Continental savants had pronounced her feats genuine. And it is even

more strikingly exhibited by the pathetic fidelity with which they still

trust in her, notwithstanding the Hodgson exposure, and the fact that

they themselves have on more than one occasion caught her committing

fraud. In the United States, however, psychical research worthy of the

name took root early, owing to the establishment of an American branch

of the English society under the capable direction of Dr. Hodgson. A

year or so ago, after his death, this branch was abandoned. But in its

place, and organized along similar lines, there has arisen the American

Institute for Scientific Research, the creation of Prof. James H.


Until a few years ago occupant of the chair of logic at Columbia

University, Professor Hyslop is unquestionably one of the most

conspicuous figures in psychical research in this or any other country.

Like Professor Sidgwick, he first became interested in the subject

through religious doubt, and forthwith attacked its problems with the

zeal of a man whose principal characteristics are intense enthusiasm,

resourcefulness of wit, and intellectual fearlessness. As everybody

knows, his experiences with Mrs. Piper led him to unite with Hodgson and

Myers in regarding the spiritistic hypothesis as the only one capable of

explaining all the phenomena encountered. But he is none the less able

and eager to expose fraud wherever found, and if only from the police

view-point his society will undoubtedly do good work. Associated with

him are many of the American investigators formerly identified with the

English society; some of whom, notably Prof. William James of Harvard,

the dean of psychical research in the United States, also keep up their

connection with the parent organization.

Summing up the results of the really scientific ghost hunting of the

last twenty-five years, it may be safely said that if the hunters have

not accomplished their main object of definitely proving the existence

of a spiritual world, their labors have nevertheless been of high value

in several important directions. They have exposed the fraudulent

pretensions of innumerable charlatans, and have thus acted as a

protection for the credulous. They have shown that, making all possible

allowance for error of whatever kind, there still remains in the

phenomena of apparitions, clairvoyance, etc., a residuum not explainable

on the hypothesis of fraud or chance coincidence. They have aided in

giving validity to the idea of the influence of suggestion as a factor

both in the cause and the cure of disease. They have given a needed

stimulus to the study of abnormal mental conditions. And, finally, by

the discovery of the impressive facts that led Myers to formulate his

hypothesis of the subliminal self, they have opened the door to

far-reaching reforms in the whole sociological domain,--in education, in

the treatment of vice and crime, in all else that makes for the

uplifting of the human race.