Crane, McLean, and Le Conte: The 1874 Oakland Ghost-Hunting Committee

Odd Occurances at Mr. Clarke’s House

On April 23, 24, and 25, 1874, strange phenomena manifested at the house of Thomas Brownell Clarke. Things started simply: the doorbell rang — or some bell rang — but no one was at the door. Next, loud thumping and crashing were heard. Perhaps that could be explained in some natural way, such as a clumsy burglar, but again no explanation was found by the family or their boarders. Then furniture began to move without anyone or anything pushing it: a chair, a basket of silverware and a box of coal, more chairs, a sofa, a trunk, and even a bureau. Witnesses also reported hearing a scream, one sounding as if it had come from a woman. This was on the third and final night, so perhaps the spirit was saying farewell. One official record says the scream was “short, not very loud,” but others describe it as “a long, loud wail of anguish.” An online article from 1997 quotes unnamed sources as describing a woman ghost bathed in light, who ‘threw her head back to the heavens’ and ripped loose with ‘a long wild, shrill scream . . . half of fear and half of rage.'” Even though Clarke disparages an early article in the San Francisco Chronicle as reflecting the reporter’s “vivid imagination,” his own description of the scream comes close to the more dramatic version.

Thomas Brownell Clarke (1823-1884)

Friends of the family confirmed the phenomena. The newspaper reports spurred gawkers to surround the house for a glimpse of what we would now call poltergeist activity. Enough attention and concern were stirred that an impromptu investigative committee was formed. This first group arrived in time to witness that third night of activity. And they left undecided: “What I have seen and heard to-night is the work either of devilish spirits, or of equally devilish man.”

A Formal Committee Investigates

In the wake of the haunting, another committee was formed to spend a full week investigating the house and the testimonies of witnesses. This more-thorough delegation was comprised of a lawyer named William W. Crane, Jr. (1831-1883), a Congregationalist pastor named John Knox McLean (1834-1914), and a UC-Berkeley professor of geology and natural history named Joseph Le Conte (1823-1901). On the surface, neither Crane, McLean, nor Le Conte seems especially knowledgeable about ghosts or well-suited to investigate a haunting. Of course, this might have been their strength: they weren’t seeking validation of any assumptions about the paranormal.

That said, Le Conte was probably a staunch skeptic, as suggested by his 1885 review of a book titled Mind Reading and Beyond. An evolutionist, Le Conte suggests there that the greatest hurdle facing those investigating is the supernatural is a deeply entrenched “love of the marvelous.” He writes: “In Man, the instinct which ascribes a supernatural or spiritual origin to the occurrences of life and to many observed phenomena in nature, has probably been inherited from primeval man. . . . Under the influence of the all-pervading hereditary supernatural instinct, even the most intelligent men are, more or less, governed by the inspirations originating from this source.” Scientists aren’t immune, he adds. In this respect, the clergyman McLean might have brought a healthy balance to the committee (though plenty of religious leaders have denied the reality of ghosts).

Le Conte
Joseph Le Conte (1823-1901) continues to be newsworthy — but for very different reasons

The Committee’s Findings Are “Leaked” to the Press

Whatever their group dynamics, Crane, McLean, and Le Conte had made a curious compromise with Clarke, the owner of the haunted house. They had agreed that, upon completing their investigation, Clarke himself would have full discretion over publishing their conclusions. As it turned out, a small part of the report compiled by Crane, McLean, and Le Conte was published, and it included their final assessment:

From the front page of the July 23, 1874, issue of the Fayette County Herald. This newspaper was published in Ohio, so presumably the Oakland Ghost had gained widespread interest.

It appears that Clarke himself had been responsible for releasing this to the press, and he did so with an adamant refutation of it. I haven’t found an actual article to confirm this, but on July 4, 1874, the Daily Alta published a letter from the Committee to Clarke and a reply from Clarke to the Committee. In the former, Crane, McLean, and Le Conte suggest Clarke released that conclusion and argue that, without the full report as context, it becomes misleading. Clarke fires back, saying that the Committee knew he objected to their conclusion. And he had adhered to their agreement! And he never even wanted an investigation in the first place!

Clarke Defends the Haunting

Clarke appears to have felt personally attacked by the Committee’s decision that there wasn’t enough proof to deem the disturbances to be supernatural. In an 1877 pamphlet defending the truth of the ghostly visitation, he says he hopes to deflect the “stigma of fraud heaped on me and mine by the committee” (p. 3). He adds that Crane, McLean, and Le Conte “proved themselves wholly unworthy” of the investigation and even states that, in rejecting evidence of a spiritual reality, “they have encouraged the same old spirit that crucified Him”– Him being Jesus (p. 25). Clearly, Clarke saw his spectral furniture movers as proof of survival beyond physical death, and he saw himself as chosen to spread that news. This mission becomes evident in the three pamphlets he published later. He claims they were “channeled” by the spirits of no less than George Washington — yep, that George Washington — along with Washington’s wife, Martha, and his mother, Mary. (These pamphlets are linked on this well-written and well-researched page.) Perhaps there’s a glimmer of self-styled martyrdom or a persecution complex in Clarke’s construing that single sentence about a lack of evidence to be an allegation of fraud.

The Case in Hindsight

Many years later, James H. Hyslop tried to make sense of the case in a 232-page article for the American Society for Psychical Research. After hearing from Clarke’s daughter, he finally published the Committee’s report (pages 233-251) along with Clarke’s pamphlet and other related documents. Hyslop explains that the Committee’s controversial conclusion “does not deny the existence of evidence in the matter, but the sufficiency of evidence. That is a verdict with which every scientific man would have to agree.” Nonetheless, he also contends that the Committee was biased against a supernatural explanation and that their “denial of the ‘supernatural’ and the ‘occult’ involved a duty to explain [what happened] by some ‘natural’ hypothesis” (pp. 229-30). In other words, Hylsop nods when Crane, McLean, and Le Conte say there’s not enough there to prove supernatural stuff happened, but he crosses his arms and scowls at them for not offering any kind of explanation at all and for sidestepping the question of sufficient evidence of a natural explanation.

Regardless of how well they completed their task, Crane, McLean, and Le Conte were one in a long line of investigative committees appointed to handle alleged hauntings. It’s a tradition going back at least as far as 1534, when Francis I, King of France, appointed such a committee to investigate claims that an Orleans churchyard was haunted. (See R.C. Finucane’s Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation [Prometheus, 1996] pp. 109-111.) In 1762, another committee investigated the famous Cock Lane Ghost case, and in the 1880s, the Seybert Commission investigated Spiritualism. These and similar paranormal investigation “teams” helped shape better-remembered and longer-lasting organizations with similar goals, namely, London’s Ghost Club and the Society for Psychical Research.

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