In late 1859 and early 1860, The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts published a “lively exchange of letters” regarding a haunted house in Cheshunt, England. Well, that’s how William Howitt’s daughter phrases it in a book about her father. These letters appeared in the wake of a ghost hunt Charles Dickens had tried to conduct of that house after Howitt had provided him with a short list of potential haunted locales.
To make these hard-to-find documents more readily available to those interested in Victorian ghost hunts or Dickens or Howitt, I’m posting them here. They all come from the “Sayings and Doings” section of The Critic, which is comprised mostly of reviews of and advertisements for recently-released books. The commentary that originally sparked the exchange appeared on page 599 of the December 17, 1859, issue:
E.R.’s rebuttal appeared on pages 623-624 of the December 24, 1859, issue:
The original report on Dickens’ ghost hunt and the snarky introduction to E.R.’s rebuttal were enough to rouse Howitt’s ire. His response was published on pages 647-648 of the December 31, 1859, issue (and it was reprinted here):
The editor of The Critic didn’t let things end there. When an American advocate of Spiritualism surprised his audience in a lecture hall by turning around and condemning such beliefs, the editor called on Howitt to reply. This is from pages 71-72 of the January 21, 1860, issue:
And, sure enough, Howitt replied. That response was printed on pages 103-104 of the January 28, 1860, issue:
As my research into ghosts and ghost hunters repeatedly confirms, it’s usually wise to see history less in terms of what people believed back then and more in regard to what people debated back then. These exchanges sparked by Dickens’ investigation of the house in Cheshunt drive home that lesson.