I really don’t know why I hadn’t checked the British Newspaper Archive earlier in my effort to trace the term “ghost hunter” back to its earliest appearances in print. I’m Scrooge-ishly frugal — and the BNA costs some money — so that might be why. The Library of Congress here in the U.S. offers their Chronicling America for free, and The National Library of Wales does the same with Welsh newspapers.
Ahem! I’m looking at you right now, British Library. And, yes, my arms are crossed. My eyebrows are raised. My foot?
To their credit (I guess), the British Library does offer three free pages. I used one of them to discover something I already kind of knew. The term “ghost hunter” goes back at least as far as reports on the Hammersmith ghost incident. These articles appeared in early 1804. I had already found two such sources using “ghost hunters,” and I linked them on my page about Francis Smith in the Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame. Smith, it turns out, started the 1800s by giving ghost hunting a reputation for zealousness. He shot a man, thinking he either was a ghost or, more likely, was pretending to be a ghost. Turns out, the victim was simply dressed for work.
In a report on the case, The Lincoln, Rutland, and Stamford Mercury provides one of the best and freshest looks at those events. Fittingly, this article was published on Friday the 13th of January, 1804! It says:
A person named Smith, a Custom-house officer, with a few others, lured by the hope of the reward, determined to watch the phantom, and for that purpose, provided themselves with arms, and took post in Black Lion-lane….The ill-fated man [being a brick-layer] was dressed as usual in his white flannel jacket; and having parted with his sister, proceeded along Black Lion-lane, where the ghost-hunters were lying in wait.
As I say, tragedy ensued. There are more details on my now-updated page about Smith.
I guess it’s cool that I have another piece of evidence showing that ghost hunting — even the word “ghost hunter” — has a checkered history, one longer than some suggest. I’ve read some researchers who say the tradition started in the mid- to late-1800s, when the Fox Sisters sparked a significant wave of Spiritualism and when the Society for Psychical Research was organized.
Certainly, ghost hunting became “a thing” in the Victorian era (1837-1901). But historians should always ask themselves if they’ve dug deeply enough.