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.
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.
More of my “book reports” on works exploring the history of ghosts can be found here:
- D. Felton’s Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity,
- R.C. Finucane’s Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation,
- Mark Rees’s Ghosts of Wales: Accounts from the Victorian Archives.