Early Evidence of a Spectral Study Group
Around 1850, a number of young men attending the University of Cambridge gathered to study ghosts and related supernatural phenomena. Though committees had been formed earlier to investigate specific alleged hauntings, such as the Cock Lane Ghost, the Cambridge group was different in that it was probably the first to collate multiple cases in the hope of drawing general truths from them. The group preceded the Ghost Club by about one decade and the Society for Psychical Research by three. That much is certain. Exactly what they called their group, on the other hand, is tougher to pin down.
The earliest mention of this organization I’ve found appears nameless in Herbert Mayo’s Letters on the Truths Contained in Popular Superstitions, which was published in 1849. In “Letter IV: Real Ghosts,” we read about a distinguished gentleman who, when a Cambridge undergraduate, served as
secretary to a ghost-society formed in sportive earnest by some of the cleverest men of one of the best modern periods of the university. The result of their labours was the collection of about a dozen stories [about the recently dead appearing to the living as an apparition or in a dream] resting upon good evidence.
Mayo’s series of letters was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1847, but apparently he did some heavy editing and updating for the book. I found no mention of the Cambridge society or its secretary in the magazine version.
In a letter dated 2 September 1859, William Howitt asked Charles Dickens if he knew about the Cambridge organization:
Are you aware that there has existed for years a society jocularly called the Ghost Club, consisting of a number of Cambridge men, . . . whose object has been to thoroughly sift this question of APPARITIONS, and to test the cases produced by every test of logical and metaphysical enquiries, by the principles of the severest legal and historical evidence; and that, after examining a vast number of such statements, the conclusion they have come to is, that 'the Ghosts have it'?
The letter was reprinted in The British Spiritual Telegraph. (Howitt and Dickens are both inductees in the Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame, and their debates over ghosts are examined here.)
Another reference to the group came in 1860. In Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, Robert Dale Owen mentions that, a few years before publication of his book, “at one of the chief English universities, a society was formed … for the purpose of instituting, as their printed circular expresses it, ‘a serious and earnest inquiry into the nature of the phenomena which are vaguely called supernatural.'” In a footnote, Owen specifies the year as 1851, the university as Cambridge, and the society as being “popularly known as the ‘Ghost Club.'” He also includes the society’s circular as an appendix, but unfortunately, no name at all is offered in this document. Regardless, this circular stands as one of the best — and one of the very few — records remaining.
Nine years later, Epes Sargent clarified that the Ghost Club might have been a nickname for the society. The more official name was the Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry. This is found in a quick mention in Sargent’s book Planchette; or The Despair of Science (1869).
Biographies of the Participants
Jump several years later, and the exact name of the organization shifts again when we turn to biographies of three of its participants. First, in A Memoir of Henry Bradshaw, Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and University Librarian (1888), G. W. Prothero says that Bradshaw became a member of a society called the Ghostly Guild at Cambridge, and he mentions the 1851 circular. The project
does not seem to have obtained very satisfactory results; at all events, its originators did not go beyond the preliminary inquiry. Sir Arthur Gordon [whose membership is confirmed in the Westcott biography mentioned below] informs me that they came to a conclusion very similar to that which the modern Psychical Society has arrived at -- namely, that, while for the ordinary run of ghost-stories there is nothing in the nature of trustworthy evidence, an exception must be made in favor of phantasms of the living, or appearances of persons at the point of death.
Second, Life and Letters of Fenton John Anthony Hort (1896) also uses the name Ghostly Guild, and this is repeated in one of Hort’s letters, though qualified as a “temporary name” there. Along with the circular, this letter might be considered one of the few historical documents left. Dated 29/30 December 1851, Hort explains that, on the topic of ghosts and similar phenomena, the guild’s members were “all disposed to believe that such things really exist.” Third, Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott (1903) once again uses the same name, spelling it Ghostlie Guild. This book was the work of Westcott’s son, who ends this short section by saying he never learned exactly what became of his father’s guild. He does suggests that, after some initial progress at gathering evidence, the elder Westcott had a change of heart about the good derived from investigating the supernatural.
There are a few histories, too. In “The Ghost Society And What Came of It,” H. Addington Bruce discusses the group’s impact on later psychical research organizations with his emphasis much more on “what came of it” than on the society itself. The article was published in a 1910 issue of The Outlook. In “An Early Psychical Research Society,” W.F. Barrett reprints the circular yet again after a brief introduction that notes references to the society in two more biographies of participants: Henry Sidgwick and Edward White Benson. Barrett’s piece appeared in a 1923 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. There are also mentions in W.H. Salter’s The Society for Psychical Research: An Outline of Its History (Society for Psychical Research, 1948), Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research (Schocken, 1968), and Peter Underwood’s The Ghost Club: A History (Limbury, 2010). These last three historians have very little to say about the Cambridge project. To be sure, there are very few records remaining to discuss.
Some Especially Notable Members
Perhaps the man most responsible for founding the Cambridge project was Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901). His membership in the group is noted in Hort’s, Benson’s, and his own respective biographies; in Barrett’s history; and it’s Westcott’s name that appears at the end of that important circular. A theologian, he went on to become the Bishop of Durham.
That Edward White Benson (1829-1896) was a member is documented in all of the above-mentioned biographies except Bradshaw’s and spoken of in Bruce’s, Barrett’s, Salter’s, and Underwood’s respective histories. Benson later became the Bishop of Truro and then, from 1883 to 1896, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
If Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) actually were a member of the group, he would have come in during its final years. His name isn’t included among the participants found in Hort’s and Westcott’s respective biographies. Yet Sidgwick’s own biography says that, as Benson was leaving Cambridge, he passed one of the accounts gained through the circular to young Henry, who had expressed an interest in the subject. (Bruce repeats this in his history, but the same biography might have been his source.) Indeed, Sidgwick was interested in such things — he went on to become the first president of the Society for Psychical Research.