Go to the Victorian Ghost Hunter’s Library page.
(c. 74 BC-7 AD)
According to the letters of Pliny the Younger (61 AD-113 AD), Athenodorus learned of a haunted house in Athens and bravely rented it. A specter bound in chains appeared to him there. He followed the ghost, marking the spot where it vanished. The next day, Athenodorus led an effort to dig at that spot, and a chained skeleton was discovered below. Reburying the bones in more proper fashion elsewhere ended the haunting. This letter opens with Pliny asking Sura, his correspondent, if he thinks ghosts are real, and Pliny comments that he believes the account told of Athenodorus’s ghost hunt is trustworthy.
Though it’s technically a witch hunt more than a ghost hunt, Glanvill’s investigation of the famous Drummer of Tedworth case has important similarities with ghost hunts in centuries to follow. Indeed, the haunting of John Mompesson’s house in Tedworth, England, has been since attributed to a poltergeist rather than the witchcraft of the drumming begger William Drury. Read more about Glanvill in “Joseph Glanvill and the Drummer of Tedworth: Setting a Foundation for Ghost Hunters.”
Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières
The story goes that Deshoulières debunked a haunting by keeping watch in a room alleged to be visited nightly by a phantom. However, I’ve only found this story in journals from the 1800s, about two centuries after Deshoulières lived. As such, her investigation might be more a parable than verifiable history. Nonetheless, this real-life contemporary of Glanvill stands as an important — if legendary — skeptic on the topic of ghosts. Read more about Deshoulières in “A Ghost Hunter Exemplar: Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières.”
Early chronicles of Reverend John Rudall’s adventure in laying the ghost of Dorothy Dingly portray the minister as a quiet ghost hunter, one reluctantly acquiescing to his clerical duties. However, R.S. Hawker’s famous spin on the tale, titled “The Botathen Ghost,” depicts Rudall as a far more determined and invested occult detective, wearing a powerful ring and drawing a protective circle and pentagram while confronting the Otherworld. Like Deshoulières above and Dodge below, Rudall’s reputation as a ghost hunter relies more on legend than on any reliable documentation, as discussed in Parson Rudall of Launceston: Ghost-Quieter.
In a sense, the Reverend Richard Dodge was more a fervent ghost buster than a patient ghost hunter. Like Deshoulières and Rudall (see above), he has passed into legend, specifically, the legends of Cornwall. It’s there that he served as vicar at Talland Church, near Polperro, from 1713 to his death. It’s there that he was seen calling forth sinister ghosts and driving the worst of them into the sea with his whip. Some contend this was to distract from his smuggling operations. Read more about Dodge in “The Reverend Richard Dodge: Spectral Exorcist of Fearful Repute.”
A respected man of letters, Dr. Johnson joined an investigation of the famous Cock Lane Ghost. Even though he debunked the case, he kept an open mind about ghosts and wrote about how the long history of believing in them was a curious thing. It seems this was enough to peg him as an intellectual gullible enough to believe in ghosts. Read more about this chapter of Johnson’s life in “Samuel Johnson Misconstrued.”
Following reports of a ghost disturbing the residents of the Hammersmith district of London, Smith assumed the culprit was someone disguised as a specter and took justice — along with a gun — into his hands. He wound up killing an innocent man because that man was wearing the white garb of his trade. At least two articles written about his case use the term “ghost hunter,” the earliest use of it I’ve found (so far). Read about how the press covered this case in “Francis Smith and the Tragedy of the Black Lion Lane ‘Ghost Hunters.’” For more about early uses of the phrase, visit “On the History of the Term ‘Ghost Hunter’.”
One of England’s most famous haunted houses stood beside a mill in Willington. Skeptical about the manifestations said to occur there, a local doctor named Drury made plans to spend the night. The dramatic adventure he experienced changed his views regarding the supernatural. Read more about this ghost hunt, the follow-up work done by both William Howitt and Catherine Crowe (see below), and the very different account of that night told by Drury’s companion in “Dr. Edward Drury: Humble(d) Ghost Hunter.”
Author of The History of the Supernatural in All Ages and Nations and in All Churches, Christian and Pagan, Demonstrating a Universal Faith (1863), Howitt became one of his era’s leading advocates of having faith in Spiritualism and other supernatural phenomena. Howitt did follow-up work on a ghost hunt in Willington, England, and initiated a haunted house investigation in Clamps-in-the-Woods, also in England, about fifteen years later. Read more about Howitt’s ghost hunt in “William Howitt and the Intriguing Haunting of Clamps-in-the-Wood.”
Famous for writing The Night-Side of Nature; or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers (1848), an influential compendium of purportedly true ghost encounters, Crowe personally participated in at least one ghost hunt. She recounts the investigation in the “Eighth Evening” chapter of Ghosts and Family Legends (1859).
Following a suggestion from William Howitt (see above), the author of some of the best ghost stories written attempted to track down a haunted house in Cheshunt, England. The results were disappointing, but it sparked a public debate about the reality of ghostly visitations. Read more about this debate in “Charles Dickens, Ghost Hunter? Well…” (which links to a page explaining the events that led to the tensions between Dickens and Howitt along with a page that displays the difficult-to-locate articles in that debate).
William Watrus Crane, Jr.
John Knox McLean
Joseph Quarterman Le Conte
In 1874, poltergeist-like disturbances erupted at the home of Thomas Clarke in Oakland, California, and news of it quickly sparked concern. A committee was appointed to investigate, one comprised of William Crane, John McLean and Joseph Le Conte. The homeowner, however, strongly disagreed with that committee’s final decision: there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that the disturbances were supernatural. Clarke retaliated, and what actually happened remains a mystery, one discussed in “Crane, McLean, and Le Conte: The 1874 Oakland Ghost-Hunting Committee.”
William F. Barrett
A respected physicist and a key figure in the founding of the Society for Psychical Research both in the U.K. and the U.S., Barrett wrote books on topics such as Spiritualism and dowsing. His main contribution to ghost hunting is an 1877 article titled “The Demons of Derrygonelly,” which appeared in The Dublin University Magazine. Despite its title, Barrett’s chronicle describes his investigation of poltergeist activity in a rural cottage in Ireland. Read more about Barrett and the Derrygonelly ghost hunt in “William F. Barrett: A Solid Ghost Hunter.”
James John Hissey
Not all ghost hunters get to encounter a ghost — or even ghostly activity. A writer of travel books, Hissey kept a sharp eye out for haunted sites. But his personal attempts at investigating them proved fruitless. Read more about Hissey’s attempts at ghost hunting in “A Dispiriting Sport: James John Hissey, Frustrated Ghost Hunter.”
Known to readers as “X” or “Miss X,” Ada Goodrich-Freer investigated such well-known haunted locales as Hampton Court Palace, Clandon Park, and Ballechin House. It was at the last residence where her ghost hunting went awry. A London Times article suggesting that the “haunting” could be explained by noisy water pipes tarnished the reputation of the Society for Psychical Research, and Goodrich-Freer’s membership was revoked. How this, in turn, tarnished her own reputation as a psychical investigator is explored in “Ada Goodrich-Freer: Ghosts Gone Awry.”
Arthur Conan Doyle
According to his autobiographical writings, the creator of Sherlock Holmes participated in a few ghost hunts. However, his narrative of the first investigation, which involved a house in Charmouth, England, is contradicted by other writers — and even by a letter he himself wrote shortly after his visit to the house. Read more about this confusing case in “A Study in Head Scratching: Arthur Conan Doyle’s First Ghost Hunt.”
This fiction writer was well-connected in the psychical research and Spiritualism scene of the late 1800s and early 1900s. As a girl, she had gone on ghost hunts with her father, but her investigation of Castel a Mare, a villa in Torquey, England, is probably her most extensive case. She chronicles it along with her life of paranormal experience in Ghosts I Have Seen (1919). Read more about Tweedale and her autobiography in “A Phantasmagoria of Wonder: Violet Tweedale’s Ghost Hunting Life.”
Walter F. Prince
In 1922, Prince traveled from New York to Caledonia Mills, Nova Scotia, to investigate an alleged fire-starting poltergeist. After spending six days at a remote farmhouse, he concluded that the fires were ignited by Mary Ellen MacDonald, a young woman who lived at the site. Still, Prince explained that Mary Ellen was not to blame — she was either suffering from hysteria or, possibly, being controlled by a pyromaniac spirit. The curious case is recounted in “Walter Prince: On the Peninsula of Poltergeists.”
George Albert Smith
Smith conducted at least two ghost hunts in England, one in Norwich and another in Brighton. The latter, which occurred in 1888-89, was unique and very likely unprecedented in that it lasted over thirteen months. The haunting was interesting, too, because it involved two sets of residents, both groups experiencing strange noises and apparitions. The details are put forth in “George Albert Smith: A Short-Term Ghost Hunter Who Conducted a Long-Term Ghost Hunt.”
Though not exactly a ghost hunter, ornithologist Coues advocated that ghosts be studied with the methods of empirical science. He even went so far as to claim that ghosts could be smelled and weighed! Coues stepped back from such claims as he grew older, and his work in the natural sciences merited having a sub-species of deer named for him. Still, he retained an interest in ghosts, albeit more cautious. Read more in “Dr. Elliott Coues: Ghost-Smeller.”
In 1901, newspapers in Chicago told of a “Mrs. E.A. Stuart,” who wanted to live in a house alleged to be ghost-ridden. Her goal was to disprove the haunting. I have no evidence that she ever got her wish, but it seems Stuart inspired other ghost hunters to attempt the same experiment (so long as they got to live rent-free). Read more about Stuart along with Chicago’s friendly ghost in “E.A. Stuart: ‘SHE WANTS A HAUNTED HOUSE.'”
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