From A Christmas Carol to “The Signal-Man” and beyond, several gripping ghost stories came from the pen of Charles Dickens. Though a steadfast skeptic when it came to real hauntings, he maintained an interest in the possibility. At one point, he even attempted to become a bona fide ghost hunter. Sadly, the adventure was disappointing and short lived.
It seems that, as 1859 came to a close, Dickens had sparked a debate about ghosts with William Howitt, a more seasoned ghost hunter. Previously, the two men had had a friendly working relationship. Dickens, editor of Household Words, had accepted stories and other kinds of writing by Howitt, but none of this material was related to the supernatural. However, the editor ran a series of articles arguing that ghosts are more a matter of psychic communiqués sent by the dying than the lingering spirits of people no longer breathing. Howitt strongly disagreed, and as a result, tensions rose between the two men. (More details regarding this gathering of storm clouds can be found on this page.)
Perhaps to ease these tensions — or to throw down the gauntlet — Dickens wrote to Howitt, asking for a list of haunted houses that he and some of his chums might investigate. Howitt made a few suggestions, and Dickens settled on a house in Cheshunt, which was conveniently close to London. Joining the great author on the outing were William Henry Wills, Wilkie Collins, and John Hollingshead. The latter devotes a few pages in his autobiography to the ghost hunt, and it’s there that we read about the group’s struggle to find anyone in Cheshunt who had heard of a haunted house in town. Finally, they met a resident old enough to recall a place once said to be haunted — but it had been torn down and replaced. In the end, there was no ghost and not even a house, reports Hollingshead, so the gents decided to settle down to “a substantial meal, after Dickens’s own heart, and the ale was nectar.”
Dickens didn’t directly participate in the heated exchange about ghosts that followed. Instead, the debate was held between Howitt and an editor of a journal called The Critic, one who remained anonymous but who had clearly heard about Dickens’ failed ghost hunt. I located these articles on microfilm — and you can read copies of them on this page — but you might prefer a thinner slice of the debate that was published in The Spiritualist Magazine in early 1860. As its name suggestions, this journal upholds the believers’ position, first challenging Dickens’ skepticism by referring to some of his fiction, oddly enough, and ending by reprinting one of Howitt’s letters from The Critic.
In that letter reprinted in The Spiritualist, Howitt suggests that Dickens had been too quick to pooh-pooh the haunted house, citing Catherine Crowe’s mention of it in The Night-Side of Nature* as well as his own follow-up investigation. Regarding the lack of a ghost, Howitt says that, “if Mr. Dickens and his friends had ever acquainted themselves with the laws of pneumatology,” they’d have known that “a ghost is not bound to remain in any particular spot for ever.” Ghosts, he contends, have just as much freedom to move around as do “a knot of jolly fellows” who’ve gone ghost hunting.
One might agree with Howitt’s claim that Dickens was too quick to abandon his ghost hunt or hadn’t taken it seriously from the start. But it would also be a mistake to assume that the ghost story writer was dismissive of specters in real life. If he were, he wouldn’t have been one of the most distinguished members of The Ghost Club.
In 1883, Anna Mary Howitt Watts, Howitt’s daughter, described the debate in The Critic as her father’s “dêbut in the newspapers as champion of the Spiritualist cause.” Barely four years after this debut, Howitt’s formidably titled The History of the Supernatural in All Ages and Nations and in All Churches, Christian and Pagan, Demonstrating a Universal Faith was published. Dickens was then editing All the Year Round, where he reviewed Howitt’s book and titled his own piece “Rather a Strong Dose.” Describing his former friend as being “in such a bristling temper on the Supernatural subject,” Dickens refrains from debating him on specifics. Instead, he informs his readers that Howitt hopes they will forget the Reformation — indeed, Protestantism altogether — and
will please to believe . . . all the stories of good and evil demons, ghosts, prophecies, communication with spirits, and practice of magic, that ever obtained, or are said to have ever obtained, in the North, in the South, in the East, in the West, from the earliest and darkest ages, down to the yet unfinished replacement of the red men in North America.
For the remainder of the review, Dickens continues in this sarcastic vein, implying without subtlety that only the most gullible reader should bother with Howitt’s tome.
If nothing else, the fracture between Dickens and Howitt regarding ghosts reminds us that broad generalizations about what was believed by “people back then” rarely hold water. History — and certainly the history of ghosts — is probably best viewed less in terms of what people of a given period agreed upon and more in terms of what they debated. Humanity, after all, is and always has been a cantankerous species.
* Howitt specifies page 332 as the spot to find Crowe’s discussion of the haunted house in Cheshunt, but he must have been looking at a different edition of The Night-Side of Nature than any I’m able to find online. My best guess is he’s referring to the account that starts with “About six years ago” in Crowe’s chapter titled “Haunted Houses.” I base this on the house’s proximity to London, the mention of Mr. C and Mrs. C — whom Howitt reveal to be the Chapmans in his letter and in his book — and the fact that both writers say that subsequent residents of the house experienced strange events. My hunch that Crowe’s story about Mr. and Mrs. C is, in fact, an early version of Howitt’s chronicle of the Chapmans’ experiences in Cheshunt is also supported by what John H. Ingram says in The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britian (1905).
Go to the “Frenemies over Ghosts and the Prelude to Dickens’ Ghost Hunt” page.
Go to the “The Ghostly Debate that Charles Dickens Sparked” page.