In The Victorian Ghost Hunter’s Casebook, I present travel writer James John Hissey’s charming and sometimes funny chronicle of his investigation of a haunted house in the English village of Halton Holgate. Following leads from newspaper reports, he manages to locate the house. There, he interviews the residents, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. The wife gives him a tour, showing where she saw the phantom of an old man at the top of the stairs and where she uncovered bones under some bricks. Disappointingly, though, the Wilsons turn down Hissey’s request to conduct nocturnal surveillance, and this leaves the writer lamenting his failure to have ever encountered a ghost.
I recently stumbled across another of Hissey’s ghost hunt chronicles, and this time, his wish to spend the night in a haunted spot is granted! This much shorter narrative appears in The Road and the Inn (1917). Hissey is wandering through Bury St. Edmonds, where an innkeeper claims to have the very knife and fork used by Mr. Pickwick during his stay there. Apparently, the gent was not troubled by the fact that Mr. Pickwick is a fictional character created by Charles Dickens. The general topic of the curious “discoveries one makes on the road, some so surprising that the seasoned traveller ceases to be surprised at them,” then narrows to an anecdote about Hissey being invited to hunt a ghost in an ancient, isolated house. Without giving the location of the site, he explains:
It was supposed to be haunted by the ghost of some long-dead ancestor buried in a private chapel in the grounds. I very faintly hoped that there perchance, if anywhere, I might at last run down a ghost after many years of fruitless ghost hunting. The ghost had excellent credentials.
All the conditions are right for a spectral encounter: a stormy, winter night; a creaky, old house; a room with a blazing fire; and, as Hissey discovers, a private stairway in the corner, which he says provides “a convenient approach for ghosts.” Sadly — other than a servant coming to check the fire around 4:30 a.m. — our paranormal investigator receives no visitors. He bemoans:
That was my last experience of sleeping in a haunted room; now I am beginning to despair of ever beholding a ghost. Why will they appear to others and never to me?
Hissey then relates a few accounts given by some of those others who had crossed paths with ghosts (or so they claimed), including the Wilsons at Halton Holgate. The Road and the Inn was the writer’s last-published book. He died a few years afterward, so it’s probably safe to assume that — if his wish to see a ghost ever came true — it was only after he had passed to the Great Beyond.
Not much has been written about Hissey’s life. We only have some bare facts. There’s a brief biography in Esme Anne Coulbert’s doctoral thesis, “Perspectives on the Road: Narratives of Motoring in Britain 1896-1930.” (Nottingham Trent University, 2013, pp. 43-44). We learn that Hissey was born in Longworth, Oxfordshire. He inherited lucrative property in Chicago from his uncle, and amid efforts to secure that claim, he toured the western states. Upon returning to England as a man of leisure, he began to write his travel books, illustrating them with his impressive drawings and, later, his photographs. The same basic history is told at Goodreads, though it’s anonymous and lacks documentation of sources. There, London is identified as the birthplace and details are added about, for instance, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A website dedicated to Britain’s earliest automobiles offers a dash more information along with some great photos of the Hisseys posing in their motor cars. The top photo on this page makes me wonder if Hissey’s formidable moustache (see above) produced any measurable wind resistance during his automobilist adventures.
Allow me a short detour here to say that haunted houses were apparently considered worthwhile destinations for early automobile tourists. This is suggested by an article about such houses published in a 1914 issue of The Autocar. This magazine was billed as “A journal published in the interests of the mechanically propelled road carriage.”
I posted my reading of Hissey’s chronicle about his Halton Holgate investigation, titling it “Another Victorian Ghost Hunt,” on the Tales Told When the Windows Rattle YouTube channel and here on this site. In my opening and closing comments, I admit to having a soft spot for this frustrated ghost hunter. His books reveal that, despite constant disappointment, he doggedly and admirably sought haunted places while out on his journeys. In this respect, I imagine Hissey speaks for a good many Victorian ghost hunters — those investigators who came up empty-handed and, so, never bothered to record their cases.