March 5, 2014 7:37:46 AM
Ghosts have haunted us, it seems, for as long as we have been able to worry about the afterlife. The ghost of Achilles wails to Ulysses, "I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground, than king of kings among the dead." Nowadays even our computers' spellcheckers may be haunted, at least according to a footnote within A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (Particular Books) by columnist Roger Clarke, who grew up in a haunted house and was the youngest person ever to be invited to join the British Society for Psychical Research. In 1998, the SPR investigated the case of a report being typed about a particular ghost named Prudentia, and the spellchecker highlighted the name and suggested that "dead," "buried," and "cellar" be considered for alternatives. Ghosts, you see, go through their fashions as much as do we living. This ought to tell us more about people than about ghosts, and Clarke's book is a wonderful entertainment, with plenty of spooky stories, frauds, pranks, impossibilities, and seemingly inexplicable events. Clarke is obviously fascinated with his subject, and is able to convey the fascination. He has a good reporter's distance on the stories he covers here, with an appropriate skepticism that makes the tales more, not less, fun.
Before investigating what ghosts do, it might be best to consider the big question: Do ghosts exist? You won't get an answer here because Clarke is dismissive of the question, one that he says belongs in a London of the nineteenth century. "In a basic sense," he writes, "ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them." We use ghosts for sensation, or ancestor worship, or even to make moral tales. The most famous ghost story of all is Dickens's A Christmas Carol, but Clarke points attention to a letter from Pliny featuring an Athenian ghost in chains and shackles like Marley. This ghost did not appear to make any observer less misanthropic, though, but came with the classic ghost duty to inform the living that his body was buried in the cellar, and needed a proper burial, after which the ghost came no more.
The most famous of the ghost stories told here is that of the Cock Lane Ghost, referenced plenty of times by Dickens and even by Melville in Moby Dick; Hogarth included a reference in his picture "Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism: a Medley." Part of the reason for its fame is that Samuel Johnson himself was on a committee to investigate the ghost, and though the committee spotted the hoax, Clarke says that Johnson's reputation suffered, as he was criticized for taking the open-minded position beforehand that the ghost might exist. The story is fascinating in many ways. It has a strong religious connection, with the greatest booster of the ghost-as-fact being the Reverend John Moore, a Methodist at a time when the church (based on the proclivities of its founder, John Wesley, who grew up in a haunted house) accepted such supernatural occurrences as fully factual. The ghost, manifested by knocks and noises, and able to answer questions by giving appropriate taps, was able to tap out an accusation of murder against her husband. But the ghost was no such thing; like many such sensational disturbances even to our own time, the noises and other manifestations were the stunts of an adolescent daughter. Her father took part in the prank as a practical joke, but then Rev. Moore latched on, and thinking that any minister who proved beyond doubt that the dead were fooling around with the living would be one of the All-Stars of Methodism, offered the father a stipend and other support. Moore arranged press releases (in what Clarke says was the first media circus ever) and people paid to come in and hear the ghost tapping away. When the dismissive report of Dr. Johnson's committee came out, the father accused the committee of getting its result by stealing the body of the "murdered" wife, whereupon there was an exhumation. The hoax came crashing down, and the husband sued for damages, which Rev. Moore and others had to pay. A hundred years later, though, street vendors were still selling pamphlets about the haunting, and locals continued to believe it had been genuine; ghosts do not die of disproof.
The other famous haunting covered here is more recent, one that continued into the twentieth century: Borley Rectory, often called "the most haunted house in England." One of the reasons it was called that is that Harry Price, an investigator within Clarke's Society for Psychical Research, made it so. Price was sometimes a diligent and serious investigator, and sometimes a promoter of belief in the supernatural beyond what the evidence showed. He was not above faking evidence, and once said, "People don't want the debunk, they want the bunk." The rectory at Borley had cold spots, mysterious appearances of handwriting, thrown stones, footsteps, a ghost of a nun, and much more. Price himself listed two thousand paranormal events. The hauntings, however, are made less believable by the huge number of unreliable witnesses, many of whom changed stories or recanted. Even though Price himself took a lease out on the crumbling rectory, it was an environment that could not be made secure from passers-by, and his troop of observers proved unreliable. A SPR report on Price's report found that supposedly ghostly events were due to fraud and natural causes.
With ghosts taking on the fashions of their times, it is appropriate to consider their clothes. Ghosts were sometimes presumed to show up in the sorts of clothes they might have worn before they became ghosts. At other times ghosts were beheld in that which they wore to the grave, which for most people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a mere winding sheet (most people at the time didn't get coffins). Ghosts' garments were a serious topic of consideration dating back even to Thomas Hobbes, who raised the question in The Leviathan in 1651. A rationalist attack on supernatural beliefs in 1762 stated that ghosts surely would be naked, for they needed no clothes to keep warm. A commentator in 1862 mused that clothes themselves had ghosts, and that this was the explanation for "all the socks that never came home in the wash." Clarke mentions but does not quote Ambrose Bierce, who insisted that one could not believe in a ghost who was not naked. I can't help it; I will include Bierce's delicious words here, from The Devil's Dictionary: "A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding-sheet or 'in his habit as he lived.' To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics. Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it?"
One of the ways people used to celebrate ghosts was by what we would call now "flash mobs." In 1868, for instance, a body was fished out of the Thames, and before an inquest could be held, rumors spread that the body was walking all around the churchyard at night. "In consequence, an estimated two thousand people congregated nightly outside. Efforts by the vicar and parish officials to disperse the crowd were entirely in vain; as the police arrived, one James Jones, aged nineteen, climbed up onto the railings and shouted at the murmuring, agitated crowd, 'Don't go - there it is again - there's the ghost!' He was promptly arrested." The police hated dealing with the mobs, which could indeed get dangerous. In 1803, groups of young men gathered in a part of London to show how they had no fear of the ghosts reported to walk therein. Thomas Milward was a bricklayer, who wore his trade's traditional white trousers, apron, and waistcoat, and was accosted with a shout of "There goes the ghost!" one night. He refused to take precautions to keep from being mistaken for a spectre, and was eventually shot dead by someone who made the mistake.
Clarke examines the haunting of Hinton Ampner, which may have inspired Henry James's story The Turn of the Screw, the Victorian craze for seances, the Angel of Mons that was (never) seen by soldiers in World War I, and the class-consciousness of ghosts (with headless Anne Boleyn haunting stately homes and highwayman Dick Turpin sticking to pubs). He has comments on the gadgetry now trained on catching ghosts, and on the television shows that promote such technology. Suffice it to say that the new ways of hunting for ghosts have failed to clear up conclusively even their existence. They have infested us living people for millennia, and my guess is that we have cleared up their mysteries just as much as we ever have or ever will.