The Victorian Ghost Hunter’s Casebook, by Tim Prasil

Reviewed by Ciaran Farrell

Dr. Tim Prasil is an academic with a doctorate in English who has taught the subject at university level. He specialises in American literature of the 1800s to 1900s, as well as in more popular forms of literature including science fiction and in particular ghost stories. Tim has written a number of books on the paranormal involving ghosts.

The Victorian Ghost Hunter’s Casebook is a compendium of twelve well-chosen and researched ghost investigation cases that span the end of the regency Period, before the beginning of the Victorian era (1837 -1901), through to the early years of the twentieth century. Two further cases of ghost hunting investigations which took place within the Victorian period in America are included as appendices. Therefore, there are fourteen cases in all.

Tim has dedicated his book “to the kind spirits in the Big Séance parlour. As Catherine Crowe says in Case 2: ‘I should not object to seeing a ghost in such agreeable Society.’”

Tim has set out the background to this period of history in his clearly written and open academic style of writing well. He charts the changing views and attitudes of society towards ghosts, and the activity of ghost hunting. He also sets out how the rise of spiritualism as an alternative to either a combination of atheism and scepticism about the paranormal took place, and how people during this period were influenced in their beliefs and attitudes by the role of the church. He then goes on to describe the foundation of the two main organisations in the UK which sought to understand and explain ghostly phenomena from a more modern, secular and scientific perspective centred on the phenomena themselves as opposed to fitting them into existing theoretical, moral and spiritual frameworks. These organisations are the Ghost Club founded 1862, in the middle of the Victorian period and the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) founded in 1882.

Tim sets out a very useful introduction to each of the fourteen cases he faithfully reproduces in his book from good historical sources, and his use of interesting and informative footnotes guide the reader through each case where the original author makes reference to matters or events that would be confusing or obscure to a modern reader.

The cases themselves vary in length and sophistication, and each case forms a chapter, so readers can dip in and out of Tim’s book with ease as each case constitutes a free standing chapter, although the overall historical impact of the book is not felt unless one reads all the cases in succession.

Tim has done his best to collect and publish all the relevant documents about each and every case with the effect that some cases are told through the eyes of different original authors who have different takes on the events which occurred during any of the ghost hunts described in any given chapter. Therefore, the reader is presented where possible, with alternative perceptions and points of view from those who were either involved in the ghost hunting investigation, or were involved in it in some way, for example through the statements of witnesses who had experiences.

The chief tool for investigating haunted houses and all sorts of haunting phenomena such as apparitions, ghost sightings, the movement of objects, or the locking and unlocking of doors, as well as rapping and banging sounds and general poltergeist activity  etc. during this period were witness statements from reliable witnesses. This does to a certain extent remain the case to the present day, although technology has played a greater and greater part in establishing physical and other scientific data, or evidence through the measuring and recording of environmental conditions such as temperature and electromagnetic fields for example, in and around a site thought to be haunted.

In the modern era one does not need to rely so much on the memory and credibility of witnesses, or the accuracy with which a witness statement can be given and taken down in writing, as we have digital voice recorders, video interviews and surveillance techniques to rely on.  This formidable array of technical devices and others besides are used to answer some very simple and basic questions which can be ascertained with nothing more than a notebook and a pencil. These questions put simply are, ‘what happened, to whom, when, and where and how did it occur?’

The fourteen cases span both time and different types of investigator from people who simply had the time, interest and resources to explore their interest in the paranormal by going on a ghost hunt with the intention of investigating the matter of hauntings for themselves. They did so to see what could be found and made of a haunting and to experience ghosts themselves, or maybe to come up with alternative explanations for the phenomena.

Then there were those who brought a certain professional angle and a greater degree of professionalism to bear on how to investigate a haunting. They ranged from well-known writers of the day such as Catherine Crowe, whose The Night-Side of Nature was a very well-known and well-read compendium of true ghost stories published in 1848. Other investigators with a professional interest in the field were Ada Goodrich Freer who was a well-known member of the SPR as well as major figures in Victorian ghost hunting such as William Howitt and Sir William Fletcher Barrett. Sir William was an outstanding physicist and a leading and prominent member of the SPR. There is even a case investigated by journalists who do their best to track down an elusive haunting.

Tim has included for comparison a case investigated by the SPR which was reported in the SPR’s Proceedings. This is the case of ‘B- Lodge, W’ – in 1884 which was investigated by Frank Podmore with assistance from Charles Downing, Eleanor Sidgwick, Alexander Macalister and others who were the top investigators of their day. The way they set about the investigation and relate to the residents of the suspected haunted house and obtain their all-important witness statements from them set new standards for the investigation of haunted houses, as did their general approach and methodology. It is interesting to note that Eleanor Sidgwick was Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and President of the SPR, and one of the first women to be appointed to a Royal Commission.

Readers may be surprised to learn that one of the cases included in Tim’s book features a case investigated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was a very keen spiritualist, even though his most famous literary creation Sherlock Holmes, is known for his meticulous attention to detail in the material world in order to solve crimes. One might think the methods used by Sherlock Holmes and therefore the thinking of the author who created him, and the holding of spiritualistic beliefs which might be thought to be as odds with each other. Sir Arthur was a very well-known and respected as a member of the SPR with an active interest in spiritualism for many years. His spiritualist beliefs and his differences with the SPR because of them led to his resignation from the SPR in 1930.

The case reported in Tim’s book of the investigation of a haunted house in 1894 shows that Sir Arthur took the part of a ‘believer’, whereas his coinvestigator, Frank Podmore took the part of the rather severe ‘sceptic’. This case is particularly interesting as it shows how more or less the same set of facts can be interpreted in two very different ways.

Finally, in addition to all that, there is yet another very interesting case to be found in Tim’s book is one in which Charles Dickens was involved in. Dickens did have a keen interest in the paranormal which sometimes showed in his writings. The case which is reported in Tim’s book from 1859 is in one way a disappointing one as the investigators fail to arrive at the haunted house in question. The case and the phenomena which occurred within the house were widely discussed through private correspondence as well as in public debate through articles and through the letters columns of certain newspapers. Therefore, what the case lack in terms of ‘on the spot’ authenticity is more than made up by the extremely interesting exchange of views on the subject.

I would recommend Tim’s book as a good read. It is also important from both a historical and ghost hunting perspective, as much can be learned from the way psychical research has developed and evolved alongside the methodology of ghost hunting, and the investigation of haunted houses.