Discover “The Ghost Club,” the Historic Paranormal Society Whose Members Included Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle & W.B. Yeats

If you were to ask a ran­dom group of rea­son­ably well-edu­cat­ed 21st cen­tu­ry peo­ple to name the most press­ing issues of the 1800s, you would like­ly find at the top of the list words like “slav­ery” or “the ‘woman ques­tion.’” And indeed, these issues deter­mined much of the course of 19th cen­tu­ry his­to­ry (and the furi­ous and hair-tear­ing­ly frus­trat­ing pol­i­tics of today). But if you were to trav­el back in time to ask a num­ber of 19th cen­tu­ry peo­ple to name their top­most con­cerns, you’d like­ly find that not a few of them would dis­cuss the prob­lem of.… Ghosts.

Along with Abo­li­tion­ism and Fem­i­nism, one of the most sig­nif­i­cant move­ments to emerge from the Vic­to­ri­an era was Spir­i­tu­al­ism, and it was a seri­ous busi­ness, in both an idiomat­ic and eco­nom­ic sense. Psy­chics and medi­ums preyed on cred­u­lous and grief-strick­en peo­ple hop­ing to recon­nect with lost loved ones. Hoax­es abound­ed, skep­tics and true believ­ers formed soci­eties and pub­lished lit­er­a­ture. You might say that for Vic­to­ri­ans, “Spir­its” had all the cul­tur­al pow­er that UFOs had for post-war Amer­i­cans. So influ­en­tial was Spir­i­tu­al­ism that it inspired many of the lead­ing intel­lec­tu­als in Eng­land to found an exclu­sive club devot­ed to pur­su­ing the para­nor­mal.

The mem­ber­ship of “The Ghost Club,” as it was called, includ­ed since its offi­cial found­ing in 1862 such lumi­nar­ies as Charles Dick­ens (an orig­i­nal mem­ber), W.B. Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a fair num­ber of promi­nent writ­ers and aca­d­e­mics, cler­ics, politi­cians, and sci­en­tists. “This was not a club for your aver­age schlub,” writes author Julia Tib­bott, giv­en its “ori­gins on the hal­lowed grounds at Cam­bridge” with infor­mal con­ver­sa­tions in the 1850s. With its intel­lec­tu­al bent, it was also not an orga­ni­za­tion prone to blind faith, but func­tioned at times like a gen­teel type of Myth­busters. “The mem­bers of the club would not only talk about the para­nor­mal,” explains Kel­ly McClure at the Des­ti­na­tion Amer­i­ca blog, but they would

…use their com­bined book smarts to attempt to prove or de-bunk claims of the oth­er­world­ly. One of the first inves­ti­ga­tions they con­duct­ed was to deter­mine if The Dav­en­port broth­ers could real­ly con­tact the dead using some­thing they called a “spir­it cab­i­net.” In the end it was con­clud­ed that, no, they could not.

The ques­tion of spir­its in the 19th cen­tu­ry was treat­ed as both a meta­phys­i­cal and a sci­en­tif­ic one, and was pur­sued with vig­or next to all kinds of oth­er log­i­cal meth­ods and pieties. “Zeal­ous defend­ers of the tra­di­tion­al Chris­t­ian doc­trine like Thomas Car­lyle or John Ruskin,” explains Dick­ens schol­ar Soumya Chakrabar­ty, “argued in favour of the suprema­cy of spir­i­tu­al vision,” and thus the pos­si­ble valid­i­ty of ghost sight­ings. Sir Wal­ter Scott “saw ghost sight­ings as opti­cal illu­sions,” and Scot­tish physi­cian John Ferriar—who wrote an ear­ly trea­tise on the sub­ject—“saw ghosts sim­ply as vivid visu­al mem­o­ries that keep com­ing back.”

Of course many peo­ple dis­ap­proved of such inves­ti­ga­tions, con­sid­er­ing them hereti­cal to reli­gious, philo­soph­i­cal, or sci­en­tif­ic doc­trines. There­fore, the Ghost Club “kept scant records of their meet­ings, so mem­bers were able to speak freely about their beliefs with­out fear of ridicule—sort of a ‘Spir­i­tu­al­ists Anony­mous.’” It was also very much a boy’s club, such that when a lat­er orga­ni­za­tion, the Soci­ety for Psy­chi­cal Research, admit­ted women, Ghost Club mem­bers were “spooked,” remarks Tib­bott, and became an even more “secre­tive, select broth­er­hood (they actu­al­ly called each oth­er ‘Broth­er Ghost’).” They final­ly admit­ted women in the 20th cen­tu­ry.

Despite its secre­cy, the club attract­ed a good deal of atten­tion. It could hard­ly be oth­er­wise, giv­en the fame of its mem­bers. At one time they were reput­ed by the North British Review, remarks Leo Ruick­bie, “to have amassed over 2,000 cas­es of appari­tions.” Their rep­u­ta­tion for tak­ing a crit­i­cal approach pre­ced­ed mem­bers as well. George Cruik­shank, Charles Dick­ens’ illus­tra­tor, ded­i­cat­ed his book A Dis­cov­ery Con­cern­ing Ghosts to the Ghost Club, either as a joke, or to “demon­strate the skep­ti­cal turn of mind of the Club’s mem­bers, for Cruikshank’s slim vol­ume sets out to debunk the whole idea of appari­tions.”

Despite his lit­er­ary use of spir­its as a nar­ra­tive device (see anoth­er of Dick­ens’ illus­tra­tors, Amer­i­can artist E.A. Abbey, inter­pret the appear­ance of Jacob Mar­ley’s ghost, above), Dick­ens him­self began and like­ly end­ed his tenure in the Ghost club—which he left in 1870—as a skep­tic. In 1853, he wrote in an arti­cle titled A Haunt­ed House:

That there are on record many cir­cum­stan­tial and minute accounts of haunt­ed hous­es is well known to most peo­ple. But, all such nar­ra­tives must be received with the great­est cir­cum­spec­tion, and sift­ed with the utmost care; noth­ing in them must be tak­en for grant­ed, and every detail proved by direct and clear evi­dence, before it can be received.

In his 1865 An Unpatent­ed Ghost, Dick­ens mocked “the com­mer­cial tone which has been giv­en to the sub­ject,” and the use of Spir­i­tu­al­ism to ensnare the gullible for prof­it. It is unfor­tu­nate that lat­er mem­bers did not retain the crit­i­cal spir­it of the club’s most famous founder. Part of the rea­son for the Ghost Club’s inten­si­fied secre­cy in its lat­er years has to do with some very bad press. For exam­ple, one promi­nent member—chemist, Roy­al Soci­ety Fel­low, and pub­lish­er of the Chem­i­cal News, Sir William Crookes—announced in 1871 that he had “sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly mea­sured and test­ed,” Roger Luck­hurst notes, “the exis­tence of a new force in nature, which he called ‘psy­chic force,’ that he believed was exer­cised by medi­ums in séances.”

Crookes report­ed sev­er­al sight­ings of a ghost named “Katie King,” but most peo­ple believed he had been duped by his test medi­um, a teenag­er named Flo­rence Cook. His “appar­ent creduli­ty made this one of the great sci­en­tif­ic con­tro­ver­sies of the age,” and the result­ing uproar near­ly ruined his busi­ness and his cred­i­bil­i­ty. The club’s activ­i­ties lapsed after Dick­ens’ depar­ture and the Crookes inci­dent, but was revived in 1882 by cler­gy­man and medi­um William Stain­ton Moses, a believ­er in ghosts, who wrote about the para­nor­mal trans­mis­sion of spir­i­tu­al mes­sages through auto­mat­ic writ­ing.

Moses also endorsed the “spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy” of Édouard Isidore Buguet, even after Buguet was exposed as a fraud. (See one of Bud­get’s ghost pho­tos above.) Like many peo­ple tak­en in by hoax­es, Moses refused to believe the truth and dou­bled down when pre­sent­ed with evi­dence, spec­u­lat­ing that Bud­get’s con­fes­sion had been coerced. A sim­i­lar fate befell anoth­er Ghost Club mem­ber, Arthur Conan Doyle, who in 1920 fell vic­tim to a hoax per­pe­trat­ed by two young girls, who con­vinced him of the exis­tence of fairies with doc­tored pho­tographs. (We may laugh at these obvi­ous fakes, but then peo­ple one hun­dred years from now will laugh at the pho­to­shopped images that fool so many of us now.)

Despite these embar­rass­ing inci­dents, the Ghost Club con­tin­ued to attract those with para­nor­mal research inter­ests, and still con­tin­ues today, though it is hard­ly the exclu­sive gentleman’s club it was in Dick­ens’ day. Though still based in the UK, the club “has mem­bers all over the world.” They invite any “gen­uine­ly open-mind­ed, curi­ous” indi­vid­ual, “whether “an inter­est­ed skep­tic, an aca­d­e­m­ic, or sci­en­tist” to join the still fas­ci­nat­ing­ly incon­clu­sive jour­ney into the para­nor­mal.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Arthur Conan Doyle & The Cot­tin­g­ley Fairies: How Two Young Girls Fooled Sher­lock Holmes’ Cre­ator

Browse The Mag­i­cal Worlds of Har­ry Houdini’s Scrap­books

Hear the Voice of Arthur Conan Doyle After His Death

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Evandro says:

    Fan­cis­co Xavier, one of the world’s most famous medi­ums, wrote 400 books through auto­mat­ic writ­ing. Com­mer­cial writ­ters would have made a for­tune under this impres­sive num­ber, but Xavier died a hum­ble man, and is one proof that we can com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple from the oth­er side

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