Shades of Opinion:
The Great Ghost Debate of Eighteen Eighty-One

AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 2 OCTOBER 2022

Wayfarer startled by a ghostly hand on his shoulder. Frederick Simpson Coburn / Washington Irving The Legend of Sleepy Hollow 1899 Putnam edition.

In 1881 The Daily Telegraph printed a remarkable series of letters submitted by its readers to the editor. In total there were almost seventy and they all appeared in October, the first on the 6th and the last on the 28th. While some were no longer than a single paragraph, others were many paragraphs in length, and a few extended over more than one column. Some endorsed or rebutted points made by earlier letters: others attracted no such friendly or hostile attention. But they all shared a single theme, which was the truth, if there was one, about ghosts.

Among other striking features of the letters were the pseudonyms adopted by their authors. Some — ‘Sceptic’, ‘Incredulous’, ‘A Firm Believer in Ghosts’ — expressed a point of view with complete transparency. Others — ‘Ancient Briton’, ‘A Student of Nature’, ‘The Ghost of David Hume’ — opted for a learned opacity. There were letters signed with initials and only one or two with the author’s proper name.

Master of Arts

The letter that lit the fuse, as it were, was written by ‘Master of Arts’. The argument put forward was that there may be more out there than our limited sensory capabilities make us aware of, and that science, which has learnt to accommodate such extrasensory forces as electricity and magnetism, should now investigate the so-called supernatural phenomena.

What followed was a veritable storm of competing opinions. For example, it was pointed out by ‘Umbra Romana’ that Romania certainly had ghosts, and, as Romania was ‘only three day’s journey from Charing Cross’, there was no reason why England should not also. Then again ‘Anselm’ was sure that ghosts, in which he sincerely believed, were sent by God to comfort the bereaved.

Attila the Hun?

Against this type of reasoning it was argued by Joseph Mortimer Granville, a doctor of medicine, that ghosts were merely the product of morbid imaginations. Or the product of extreme mental disorders, announced ‘C. L. M. I.’, such as mania or delirium. But the strangest denunciation must surely have been that of ‘Attilla’ — did the writer mean ‘Attila’? — who wrote the following:

SIR — It seems to me that there can be no better proof that the appearances which are called ghosts are merely caused by some hallucination of the brain than the fact that they are all described by those to whom they appear as either clothed in the ordinary dress which they wore during life, or in some other sort of garment — the full uniform of an officer, for instance. I don’t believe in ghosts in any way; but, if I were disposed to do so, this circumstance alone would prevent me.

Ghostly scenes inspired by the letters in the Daily Telegraph, including the ghost clad in a suit of armour at the bottom right of the page. The Illustrated Police News 29 October 1881.

All shapes and sizes

A number of the letters were simply anecdotal and ran the full gamut of supernatural conventions. At one extreme we have the simple matter of doors slamming shut, and at the other the appearance and disappearance of a spectral carriage and pair, complete with two flunkies sitting on the box and wheels travelling noiselessly over the cobblestones.

In between we have ghostly hands gripping a stair rail, the mournful sound of distant bagpipes, shimmering figures haunting bedrooms — one clad from head to foot in armour and with the visor pulled down — and a man without a head dressed in white and standing in the middle of a meadow.

They are everywhere!

These apparitions had been spotted over a wide geographical area. As we have seen, one writer had a great deal to say about ghosts in Romania. But we also hear about a drum beating in the corridor of a Scottish castle, a deceased army officer walking through his brother’s mess tent in America, and a murder victim in Australia returning as a ghost in order to bring his killer to justice.

And it will come as no surprise that London, a city of ancient buildings and dark alleys and passages, had its share of unnerving incidents, which included strange presences in a West End club, and dead men visiting houses in Islington and Camden. But first prize for a London story must surely go to the following tale, which appeared on 19 October and was attributed to a source known simply as ‘Examiner’.

At the window

In 1880 a retired Church of England clergyman and his wife took up residence in a square in the West End of London. They had only themselves and their servants for company and they were at that stage in life when the prospect of any further domestic upheaval had become unpalatable. Accordingly they furnished and decorated their new home with a view to staying there for as many years as were left to them.

Before moving in, though, they decided to visit the house in order to see how the workmen were getting on. As they were about to go in, the clergyman’s wife happened to look up and was startled to see a face looking down at her from the bottom pane of a window. The face was that of a child or a youth, who seemed to be sitting at a heavy marble table that had been placed in the window.

The clergyman’s wife looked long and hard at the face, but she did not recognise it, and its appearance at the window of her new home was disturbing. Once inside she found the room where the young person who had been staring at her ought to have been. However, there was no such person in that room. Nor could there have been, for the room was full of workmen, who had seen nothing that might account for the face at the window.

Classic image of a haunted house. The Illustrated London News 30 September 1854.

An unknown gentleman

In spite of this inauspicious experience the clergyman and his wife duly moved into the house, only to be troubled by a series of chilling incidents. In the first of these a housemaid was going up one night to prepare the rooms for her master and mistress when she encountered a figure on the shadowy stairs. At first she assumed that the figure was one of her fellow servants, but all of a sudden it disappeared, the effect of which so terrified her that ran down into the kitchen, where she became hysterical.

The second incident occurred some time later when another servant came to her mistress in great distress. ‘Madam,’ she said, ‘I have just seen a gentleman standing at the master’s dressing room door.’ What had unnerved her was not simply seeing someone she had never seen before, and who had no right to be outside the clergyman’s dressing-room, but seeing him more than once, for she had encountered him downstairs as well. She had dashed past the ghostly ‘gentleman’ and had not hesitated to report the matter to the mistress.

And now the doors

The third incident was by far the most frightening. One night the good couple were in their separate dressing rooms when the clergyman was startled by a loud thud. It was a truly appalling sound, as if a heavy body had been thrown or had violently fallen against his door. Although he and his wife tried to find out what might have caused it, they found nothing.

They climbed nervously into bed. Then came another violent blow, and then another, this time against the door of the other dressing room. Although both husband and wife peered down the stairs and along the passages with all lights blazing, they saw nothing.

And from then on the same happened every night — two or three blows, sometimes loud, sometimes faint — until the clergyman realised that his poor wife could take no more. He summoned her doctor, who gave orders that she be taken at once to a hotel and return home only during the day. She was in a state of acute anxiety, and there was nothing for it but to give up the house along with its furniture and decorations and by doing so to incur considerable financial loss.

Image based on the ‘spiritual photographs’ of William H. Mumler. Harper’s Weekly 8 May 1869.

The mysterious Examiner

After five days of exile in the hotel, the clergyman’s wife wrote a letter to ‘Examiner’, giving a detailed account of her upsetting experiences. She was at pains to avoid the impression that she had made it all up, asserting that she and her husband were

neither superstitious, spiritualists, nor easily alarmed.

‘Examiner’ is something of a mystery. We have no name, and the only clue to an occupation, or perhaps a reputation, is that he or she ‘investigated’ the story of the haunted London house, and came to the following unequivocal conclusion:

The writer of the above letter is an educated, well-to-do, and highly estimable lady; it is perfectly certain that she believes every word she has written, and I, after examining the facts, am equally certain that there is no ghost, no element of the supernatural in the case, and that her fears are utterly groundless.

A sympathetic imagination

Several arguments were put forward. One was that the clergyman’s wife was ‘extremely susceptible’ to suggestions of supernatural activity, a recourse to stereotyping that we would now dismiss as not a little patronising. So it should not surprise us that ‘Examiner’ found the wretched woman’s husband to be as sanguine as she was twitchy: the only alarm he experienced was for his wife’s health.

And the servants who had reported ghostly phenomena were given even shorter shrift than their mistress on grounds that ‘Examiner’ clearly deemed it unnecessary to state. In fact ‘Examiner’ openly accused the servants of lying. No motive was given beyond the rather vague suggestion that they had been put up to it by persons

who for purposes of their own worked on the sympathetic imagination of this unfortunate lady, only too successfully.

All explained

Another argument was aimed at the sighting of the young person’s face at the window. In order to explain this away, ‘Examiner’ referred to a story the lady of the house must have heard about a tragic occurrence that predated her arrival. Apparently a previous resident of the house had cut his own throat. The implication was that the story had somehow pushed an already delicate mind over the edge, sowing the seed, as it were, of any number of ghoulish fantasies.

As for the noises — the crashes against the dressing-room doors — they too were explained away by the sceptical investigator. All that was needed was a witness, and ‘Examiner’ found one in a person who lived in the house after the departure of the clergyman and his tormented wife, and who remained, rather conveniently, unidentified. This person had discovered that the walls of the bedroom were so thin that even noises from the house next door — the sound of an object falling, a laugh, a loud conversation — could be heard no less clearly than if they came from the next room. And to clinch the argument it was pointed out that

in the same way, if anybody walks through the square in front of the house at night you can follow every footfall.

Harry Price, a psychic researcher, with a ghostly companion. William Hope 1922. Senate House Library.

Investigating the nuisance

It is an intriguing letter, not only for its insights into Victorian attitudes to the supernatural, but also for its remarkable reluctance to name names. Not one person is given their true identity. Of course, there were principles of confidentiality and discretion at play, and rightly so. But the pains ‘Examiner’ took to expunge personal details give the letter an oddly secretive tone.

In a way, though, the most tantalising secret is still the occupation of ‘Examiner’. A reasonable guess is that the writer of this peculiar letter to the editor of The Daily Telegraph was a detective. As we have seen, the clergyman’s wife wanted her story to be investigated but had no patience with spiritualists, so she would hardly call in a ghost hunter. And for ‘Examiner’ to have access to a later resident of the house suggests the sort of authority only a member of the police force would ordinarily have.

And finally

But rather than take London Overlooked’s word for it, listen to ‘A Sceptic’, who told the story of a haunted house in the West Country. In yet another letter to the Telegraph the increasingly desperate efforts of the owner of the house to clear up the mystery were related:

Traps have been set to catch the supposed trickster; children and servants have been closely scrutinised; hard-headed guests have watched with him; I believe that an accomplished London detective has been secretly engaged to investigate the nuisance. Yet it continues …

Versatile chaps, those Victorian detectives.

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