There are two very useful timelines at the Cold Spot Paranormal Research website. The first timeline looks at ghost hunting in the 1800s, and the second continues this into the 1900s. Michelle McKay, who compiled these histories, was very smart to include some useful context. For instance, she marks key historical periods, such as the Victorian era, and notes important dates in related movements, such as Spiritualism.
Along the way, McKay raises the question of when the term “ghost-hunter” appeared. This is something I’ve wondered about, too. The Oxford English Dictionary — at least, the free version online — traces the phrase to 1894, when Andrew Lang used it in Cock Lane and Common Sense. To be sure, Lang even has an entire chapter there titled “Presbyterian Ghost Hunters,” suggesting the term was pretty well established by then.
But the term can be traced back even farther, at least to the 1830s. It seems that in 1833 Michael Banim made quite a splash with a novel titled The Ghost-Hunter and His Family. While word-searching through Google Books for ghost stories, I’ve come across many reviews of this novel. It was apparently very popular in its day, so it certainly had a hand in making the term “ghost-hunter” popular, too.
A better remembered ghost story from the same decade is Richard Harris Barham’s “The Spectre of Tappington,” which debuted in an 1837 issue of Bentley’s Miscellany. This comical story about a ghost that steals its victim’s pants uses “ghost-hunter” twice in reference to Tom Ingoldsby, who probes the alleged haunting. His initial late-night vigil is a bust, and it’s there that Barham first uses “ghost-hunter.” Tom’s next investigation goes better. Barham writes:
The watch of the previous night had been unsuccessful, probably because it was undisguised. To-night he would ‘ensconce himself’ . . . in a small closet which opened from one corner of the room, and, by leaving the door ajar, would give to its occupant a view of all that might pass in the apartment. Here did the young ghost-hunter take up a position. . . .
When published in Bentley’s, the tale was the first installment of a series. The series was enjoyed enough to be reprinted in book form as The Ingoldsby Legends in 1840. And again in 1861. And in 1867. And in 1870 and in 1889 and in 1894 — and I think you see my point. It had a long life among readers. No doubt it played an important role in popularizing “ghost hunter” as a label for people who pursue spectral matters.
I’m glad I devoted some time to this word search. As a result, I’ve added Tom Ingoldsby and “The Spectre of Tappington” to my Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction bibliography. (And isn’t it interesting that the term “ghost hunter” appears to have been introduced in fiction?) Furthermore, these discoveries provide proof that ghost hunting has roots going back far beyond the introduction of EVP recorders, EMF meters, and night-vision cameras.