A Book Report on Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin Press, 2006), by Pulizer-Prize winning author Deborah Blum, might disappoint readers looking for true stories of actual ghost hunts in haunted houses and the like. Instead, the book focuses on scientists from the late 1800s and early 1900s who investigated spiritualist mediums, clairvoyants, and the like. William James, brother of the fiction (and ghost story) writer Henry James, was among those scientists, and he serves as the hub of Blum’s book.

However, this isn’t exactly a biography of James, either. Rather the book spans the interest in psychical research of many scientists and scholars — William Crookes, Edmund Gurney, Oliver Lodge, Nora and Henry Sidgwick, et al. — so many, in fact, keeping some of the names straight can become a challenge. Nonetheless, readers get a good sense of the opposition facing these intellectuals from both Europe and the U.S. Blum also explores the internal tensions felt between these figures, who became the key players in forming the Society for Psychical Research and its American branch.

Deboarah - Blum Ghost Hunters

Less challenging to sort out and more interesting to me personally are the specific mediums Blum covers, including Madame Blavasky, D.D. Home, Leonora Piper, and Eusapia Palladino. Those who’ve read my Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries know that Van Slyke met her “Dr. Watson” by exposing the young woman as a fake medium. Learning how those other mediums were similarly debunked — or tenaciously defied being debunked — is a story rich in the long-lived struggle between belief and skepticism. The spotlight on Leonora Piper, whom James saw as the best evidence that seances are not always fraudulent, makes for gripping history.

Blum’s work is thoroughly researched, relying quite a bit on the letters of James and others. Her language is accessible, I think, to most adult readers. It’s certainly an engaging book for those with an interest in the spiritualist movement and how the psychical research that depended so much upon it emerged and ruffled academic feathers.

As I say, though, don’t let the title mislead you. There are few accounts of ghosts or ghost hunters as those terms are used on this website and elsewhere.

— Tim

More of my “book reports” on works exploring the history of ghosts can be found here:

3 thoughts on “A Book Report on Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters

  1. A great inclusion in your book reviews. I’ve been well acquainted with this book since its publication. I’m sure you’ve already read it, but, “Studies in Spiritism,” by Amy Tanner is a signature peripheral read to Blum’s book.

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    1. Funny. Tanner is mentioned in Troy Taylor’s American Hauntings: The Rise of the Spirit World and the Birth of the Modern Ghost Hunter, which I’m currently reading. I’ll certainly give it a look, but I lean toward traditional ghosts rather than Spiritualism. I’m pretty sceptical of the latter. As Vera Van Slyke says: “Ghosts are like cats. They rarely come when called.”

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      1. Awesome reply. Glad you ran across Ms. Tanner’s name in your current readings. Troy is thorough in his books. He led a ghost excursion down my way at a purportedly haunted bed and breakfast that was owned by the wonderful lady who became an honorary grandmother to me. I apologize. I had a certain line of thinking going, which is pretty much how my thinking is always geared. 🙂 My leanings are more towards investigative methodologies concerning ghosts, so there are additional gleanings Ms. Tanner records that gives additional insight on some of the ways Leonora Piper was evaluated. I look forward to getting caught up with reading your books. What reading time I have available, I try and save for serious research. But, I also enjoy quality fiction and savor it when I do get a chance to read it. Your Van Slyke character certainly sounds intriguing. I know I would thoroughly enjoy reading about her adventures. Her quote highly mirrors my own experience when it comes to ghosts. 🙂

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