A Book Report on Douglas Grant’s The Cock Lane Ghost

A Fish Story About a Ghost

In Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters (1908), H. Addington Bruce discusses the famous case of a poltergeist at Epworth Rectory. He explains that evidence for the two-month haunting comes from 1) letters written in 1716, as the phenomena was occurring, 2) more letters written in 1726 along with some additional documents, and 3) an article published in 1784. When one compares these accounts — written across almost 70 years — one finds “remarkable discrepancies between the earlier and later versions.” Looking only at the first batch’s letters written by people who were actually there, “the haunting is reduced to a matter of knocks, groans, tinglings, squeaks, creakings, crashings, and footsteps,” says Bruce. The secondhand and/or long-after-the-fact evidence makes things a lot more interesting: for instance, ghostly turkey-gobbling and spectral silk-rustling are added. However, it’s not nearly as reliable as the firsthand, as-it-happened stuff.

A failure to weigh the reliability of evidence is my single quibble with Douglas Grant’s otherwise impressive and engaging book The Cock Lane Ghost. Published in 1965, it’s become a standard reference for those intrigued by London’s alleged (and probably faked) haunting of 1762. And intriguing it is, what with communication with a ghost being established via a system of one knock for yes and two knocks for no. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the ghost used its knocks to accuse a man of murder! Or so it was said. It’s never really been settled what exactly was going on.

A Key Ghost Hunt

Perhaps more important is the impact the case had on London in the 1760s and internationally for a very long time afterward. It’s an influential case, one almost every ghost hunter today should know something about. In addition, those interested in the Spiritualism movement of the mid-1800s can learn a few things because the Cock Lane story foreshadows the Fox sisters/Rochester story in some startling ways.

Along with newspaper and magazine articles printed in 1762, Grant adds court transcripts and public records to flesh out the history. He makes the complicated narrative fairly easy to follow, revealing how deeply the events divided London into believers and skeptics. Once the haunting was legally ruled to be a fraud, satirical playwrights and poets mocked those gullible enough to have believed it, and Grant devotes a couple of chapters to this backlash. The book’s illustrations are pretty interesting, too.

What the Book Doesn’t Do

However, Grant does not delve into the tradition of “knocking ghosts” preceding the one alleged to have manifested on Cock Lane. Nor does he explore the even longer lineage of ghosts seeking to bring their murderers to justice (think Hamlet’s father). Beyond those poets and playwrights, Grant doesn’t really look at the subsequent impact/influence of Cock Lane, either. This makes it a good introductory book for those who simply want to learn the basics of the case itself.

As I suggest above, Grant also does not address the reliability of evidence, even though many of the ghost’s alleged manifestations happened a couple of years before they were claimed to have happened — claimed by people who would then be convicted for fakery! To begin to sort out some of what I’m talking about here, I created a time line, which I call The Cock Lane Ghost TARDIS. Be my companion as we travel through time and space to survey Trusted Archival Research Documents in Sequence. (Some of you might chuckle ever so slightly at what I just did there.)

— Tim (whose doctorate degree means he can rightly be called The Doctor)

Like books about ghosts? Read more reviews in my
“A Book Report on…” series.

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