The New Spookology (1891)

The following essay by Henry Hoyt Moore represents a transitional phase in the scientific study of “spiritualistic” phenomena, during which it was supposed that, if ghosts did not exist, then perhaps those phenomena might be explained by unknown powers of the mind, such as telepathy.

This iconoclastic nineteenth century has renovated pretty much everything in the world, what with its divers inventions—its new zoölogy, new astronomy, new education, new criticism, new theology; it were a pity if the ghosts and the haunted houses of the old days did not share in the general house-cleaning. For a while it certainly looked as if Science were going to clear out altogether these uncanny things, or stow them away in her garret where she keeps all the lumber of the past. But she seems latterly to have decided to keep them around awhile longer, in order to examine them a little more thoroughly.

Some new “spooks,” even, have been produced in these unfavorable times. They are not as interesting as the old ones in some particulars; the older sort had a more distinct personality, a definite reason for being, and when they bade us good-by we knew just why they went. They were the shades of aggrieved persons who came to earth to perpetuate the memory of their wrongs and to secure justice, or they were unhappy spirits who felt the pangs of remorse too late, and were

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in their days of nature

Are burnt and purged away.

The new “spooks” are not so reasonable, but perhaps on that very account are the more mysterious. They have no particular predilections for gloomy old mansions, nor for haunting the scene of a crime. They come at no yearly anniversary, as the clock strikes the hour of midnight. They are sporadic and occasional, and will not “come when they are called.” They clank no chains, and do not rattle their bones, if they have any; the beholder’s teeth are the only rattling bones. Indeed, they are usually dressed in modern costume. And when they finally disappear, it seems as if they just grew tired of their bootless work, and “moved on.”

The modern “spook” owes his scientific status to the Society for Psychical Research, which has with great patience and voluminousness collected, dissected, analyzed, and labeled him. The Society takes no second-hand ghosts; no “I knew a man who had a blood-curdling experience one night” stories are accepted. And it has collected a great mass of testimony from persons who have “seen spooks;” intelligent men and women who tell their stories in a plain, straightforward way, without embellishment. Such stories as this, told by an English physician:

The narrator, a healthy lad at the time, was playing cricket, and, with a companion, ran after the ball in the direction of a low hedge. When he got near the hedge he saw the apparition of his half-brother, dressed in a shooting suit, with a gun on his arm. The figure vanished, and the boy, profoundly impressed, went up to his uncle and told him of the occurrence; the uncle noted the time. Two days after came a letter informing him of the death of his brother, who had been distant a hundred miles, and who had burst a blood-vessel while in the act of declaring that he must see his favorite brother; he died at the precise time that the vision was seen.

This is but one of scores of narratives of similar character, while of experiences in haunted houses, told by intelligent people, some of them members of the Society, there are numerous and impressive recitals.

It is these stories that the Society has undertaken to collect and sift, on an exclusively scientific basis. Many of the phenomena are accounted for on the principle of thought transference, or telepathy, by which is meant the communication of thought without any visible or tangible means of communication. Experiments conducted by the Society have shown that a “sensitive “person in one room may receive an “impression ” of a picture drawn by a person in another room, and can then roughly reproduce the picture without any communication through the ordinary channels.

Similarly, at a time of intense mental agitation on the part of a suffering or dying person, he may be able to impress upon the person of whom he would naturally think at such an hour, an image of himself at the time of the calamity. Expectancy would account for some of the apparitions seen in “haunted houses,” but frequently the same apparition has been seen at different times by persons who were entirely unexpectant.

Even if it is proved that the “spooks’ are exclusively subjective, the question remains to be answered, what occult conditions produce the hallucination ? The power which some persons seem to possess of divining the thoughts of others, under certain favorable conditions, has been largely exploited of late years by professional “mind-readers,” whose mystifying performances have been so often “explained ” and “exposed” that probably most people are still in doubt as to whether there is “anything in it.”

To such the testimony of a man like Robert Browning should be interesting, alike from the vigorous mentality of the poet and from the fact that he was a skeptic to the reality of thought-transference. He was in Florence, and there met one day an Italian—a Count, it seems superfluous to add—who claimed to possess mysterious powers of which he proposed to give Browning a proof. He asked the poet whether he had any relic or memento about him. It happened that by an odd chance Browning was that day wearing a pair of gold wrist-studs, which had been lying in a forgotten drawer for years. He handed one of these studs to the Count, who, after placing it in his hand, ejaculated in Italian: “There is something here which cries out in my ear, “Murder Murder!'” “And truly,” says Mr. Browning, “those very studs were taken from the dead body of a great-uncle of mine, who was killed on his estate in St. Kitts, nearly eighty years ago. The occurrence of my great-uncle’s murder was known only to myself, of all men in Florence, as certainly was also my possession of the studs.”

The Society has made some remarkably interesting investigations on the subject of clairvoyance, which seem to show that some persons have a “sixth sense” which enables them to travel, while in a kind of mesmeric sleep, to any locality which the questioner may suggest, and there see and describe events then taking place, which may be contrary to the expectations and knowledge of the normal-minded persons present; as in the case of a gentleman who had been for some days absent from his home (never seen by the clairvoyant), and whose house had a dilapidated porch when he left it; the clairvoyant described the house accurately with the exception of saying that there was a nice new porch, and stuck to her statement on being corrected; on returning home the gentleman found that his wife had built a new porch during his absence.

These investigations, conducted by men of admitted honesty, education, and scientific attainments, promise to rescue the whole subject of the supranormal aspect of life from the hands of superstition and charlatanry, and at last to throw the white light of science on problems that may prove of the most surpassing interest to humankind. It is too soon to express a dogmatic opinion on any of the phenomena under investigation, but it is not too soon to demand the most unexceptionable evidence before science shall acknowledge the reality of this occult world.

Some of the work of the Society has not been wholly satisfactory in this respect, and it is easy for an expert to pick flaws in some of the testimony. A great many “ghost stories” are, of course, pure invention; a very large percentage are explainable through ordinary natural causes which have been regarded as preternatural by fright or credulity; and it remains for men of science to find the true solution of the remainder, if they find any remainder.  Whatever that solution may be, we may confidently expect it to be in harmony with natural facts in a natural world.

The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by [Jaher, David]

Although the skeptic vs. spiritualist rivalry between Harry Houdini and Mina Crandon (a.k.a. “Margery the Medium”) has been well-documented previously, we’ve never seen it explained in such exacting detail nor depth, nor so well contextualized in the social and intellectual mileu of Jazz Age America, as in David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street.

The book is social history written with a novelistic sensibility (and has recently been optioned as the basis for a feature film), delineating the peculiar personality politics of the post-First World War spiritualism controversy.

Our only criticism is that perhaps too much space was devoted to play-by-play descriptions of “Margery’s” seances, which – although obviously a key point of interest – did tend to repetitively resolve into “weird things happening in a dark room”. That minor quibble aside, this is a must-read book for anyone interested in the causes and effects of the ’20s seance craze.


“Houdini’s Girl Detective” now available

The anthology Houdini’s ‘Girl Detective: The Real-Life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg is now available in both print and ebook editions.

Following the devastating losses of human life incurred during the First World War and then the Spanish Influenza Pandemic,  bereaved families turned to the nascent religion of Spiritualism, which promised them contact and communication with the spirits of the dead.  Sadly, but inevitably, most of those families fell prey to the cynical trickery of “ghost racketeers”, whose seances were con games designed to separate their victims from their hard-earned cash.

Enter Rose Mackenberg, a private detective trained by the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini to infiltrate and expose the ghost racket.  Rose became the most prominent and prolific member of Houdini’s “secret service” of investigators.  Throughout the 1920s, she was instrumental in debunking hundreds of phony spirit mediums.

Houdini’s Girl Detective is an illustrated anthology of Rose’s original expose articles, first published in several North American newspapers during 1929.  Each chapter addresses a different aspect of the ghost racket, offering a deeply skeptical take on ectoplasm, spirit rapping, table-tipping, “love and luck potions” and similar chicanery.

Recommended for anyone with an interest in the causes and effects of the Jazz Age spiritualism craze.


First trailer for “Planetarium”, starring Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as spirit mediums in ’30s Paris

The decadent worlds of spirit mediumship and film-making come together in this forthcoming feature from French director Rebecca Zlotowski.

Planetarium tells the story of the Laura and Kate Barlow, American sisters who arrive in Paris after touring Europe with their chic spiritualism performances.  There they attract the attention of avante-garde filmmaker André Korben, who becomes their patron in a project that aims to fuse art with the occult – but which also seems to portend the rise of the Third Reich.

Planetarium will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival (August 31 – September 10).