Not too long ago, I bought Peter Underwood’s tragically short book The Ghost Club: A History. (It’s about 50 pages long, twelve of them used for pictures of members.) This organization — despite being disbanded and revived a few times over its many decades — still exists, and I was particularly interested in learning about its very first “incarnation,” as Underwood calls it. Tragically, there’s little information about that first group, which was comprised of students attending the University of Cambridge around 1850.
Oh, I can’t complain too much. There’s very little historical data with which to tell the story. We have the text of the groups’ circular, created to gather information about ghostly encounters and the like. We have the text of a letter written by one of the members about its progress. Other than that, it’s mostly short recollections recorded in biographies of the group participants who went on to merit biographies. There’s a spattering of histories about the Cambridge project, too, but these are also short and sketchy. As I suggest, it’s hard to sculpt a statue with half a handful of clay.
And this is too bad because the students took a fresh, even revolutionary approach to ghosts. Instead of zeroing in on one specific case, their idea was to gather as many accounts about ghostly encounters as they could and draw conclusions from this diverse body of evidence. It’s a methodology the Society for Psychical Research would use about thirty years later.
For their unique efforts, I decided to 1) induct the group into the Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame and 2) put together a page that organizes what I’ve been able to eek out about it. The first thing that struck me was that the organization was known by several names: the Ghostly Guild, the Association for Spiritual Inquiry, the Ghost Society, and the Ghost Club. In addition, some of the members did okay for themselves afterward, including Edward White Benson, a bloke who became the Archbishop of Canterbury.