When Charles Dickens wanted to locate a haunted house not too far from London, he contacted William Howitt. Apparently, Howitt was something of an expert on haunted places. I’ve run into his name a couple of times in my historical research. He’s the author of “The Haunted House in Charnwood Forest” (1850), which is listed on my bibliography The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction. He also describes an authentic ghost hunt he conducted in an 1862 article titled “Berg-Geister — Clamps-in-the-Wood.” The first part of this curious title means “mountain spirits” in German. The second part is the name of a farmhouse, one that that used to belong to a man named Clamps and that was in the woodlands near Thorpe in the East Midlands of England.
Howitt had been born and raised in this region, and on a visit there, he overheard an elderly woman talking to a clergyman. She was asking for his help in exorcising some spirits haunting that farmhouse, which she now inhabited after Mr. Clamps had gone. The cleric, an Oxford-educated man, dismissed the woman’s notion of ghosts
But Howitt didn’t share this skeptical view, and so he asked others about the haunted cottage in the woods. He learned that several people confirmed the woman’s story. In years past, Mr. Clamps himself had claimed to have seen strange lights hovering and moving inside his house. They proved to be harmless, and the former resident had even grown fond of them, calling them his “glorious lights.” His neighbors had seen them, too, while visiting.
Howitt couldn’t resist. He embarked on a search for the elderly woman whose request for help had been waved off. He found Clamps-in-the-Wood, which the woman shared with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. Worrying about how these grandkids might react to the spectral lights had spurred their grandmother to seek the clergyman’s help. Like Mr. Clamps before them, however, the three adults living there had never felt much threat from the manifestations.
At the farmhouse, Howitt learned that most witnesses only perceived the ghostly lights, which would emerge from solid walls and sink down into the stone floor. The grandmother, though, was able to discern more.
[T]he old woman saw clearly dark figures at the centres of the lights. They were generally three, like short men, as black and as polished, she said, as a boot. Whilst they staid, she said, their hands were always in motion. . . . [They] seemed to take a pleasure in coming towards the warm fire, and looking at what was going on.
When Howitt asked if he might be allowed to stay and see the lights, he was disappointed to learn that they could only be seen during the dark months of winter. He was unable to come back then.
And yet the ghost hunter held to his conviction that the intriguing spirits were real. In fact, as the introduction of his article makes clear, he had a theory about the identity of these seemingly non-human entities. Now, the region of England that surrounds Clamps-in-the-Wood was known for lead mining, and mining is a key clue. Howitt explains, “We know that the miners of Germany and the North have always asserted and still do assert the existence of Kobolds and other Berg-Geister, or spirits of the mountains or the mines. . . .” Though he doesn’t discuss the spectral light, he reports that these spirits are drawn to the fires and the company of living humans. They’re innocuous, very black, and about four-foot-high. (Though much darker than the Disney depiction, these mining spirits remind me of Snow White’s seven dwarfs!) He makes quick mention of a miner in Wales who claims to have discovered copper with the help of such spirits.
The article ends with Howitt recounting the adventure of a friend of his, a “Captain D–,” who had plans to visit York for Christmas and offered to stop by Clamps-in-the-Wood on the chance of verifying the ghost lights. The good captain managed to find the remote cottage and was given permission to remain awake there through the night. After a few hours, he heard knockings, but he didn’t think much about them. His cloak then slipped off a table for no clear reason, and the old woman explained that the spirits were having a bit of fun. Finally, after his hostess went to bed, Captain D– did indeed see what he’d come for: “He saw a globular light about the size of an ordinary opaque lamp-globe issue from the wall, about five or six feet from the floor, and advance about half a yard into the room.” It only stayed a few minutes, then it receded the same way it had come. The captain quickly examined the wall, the windows, the chinks in the door — nothing was there to explain the light. And that was all he witnessed for the rest of the night.
I’ve found two subsequent articles related to the Clamps-in-the-Wood visitations. The first was published in an 1865 issue of Chambers’s Journal, and the anonymous narrative reads almost like it’s Captain D–‘s own version of his investigation. Pursuing the claims of “a friend who informed us of strange sights and sounds, nightly visitations, and other wonders,” this writer visits Clamps-in-the-Wood in January. The grandmother is asked about the manifestations. The coat slips inexplicably from a table. Some noises “like a drum gently beaten” are heard. A light is seen, but it disappears quickly. Subsequent examination fails to provide a physical explanation. There are one or two new wrinkles — a table leaf levitates, for instance — but this article doesn’t really add much information to Howitt’s from three years earlier.
Ten years later, though, the second article appeared on the front page of the October 29, 1875, issue of the Banner of Light, a Spiritualist newspaper published in Boston, Massachusetts. There, Emma Hardinge Britten relates her own investigation, which she says was aided by her powers as a medium. Unlike the anonymous writer, Britten acknowledges Howitt’s earlier report, but her investigation occurred after Clamps-in-the-Wood had been abandoned. The medium was taken to another spot ripe for a ghostly encounter. There, Britten heard knocking along with experiencing what seems like poltergeist activity — kitchen items fell from shelves and a “rude door shook violently. . . .” Afterward, she saw “a row of four lights as large as the veritable ostrich’s egg which adorned the mantle shelf of the humble shanty.” Sure enough, the medium is able to discern a “faint outline of a miniature human form” within each light before they vanished into the wall behind.
Britten was next granted a second look at the glowing figures. “They were grotesque in shape,” she says, “with round shining heads, destitute of hair, perfectly black, and more human about the head than the body.” With playful expressions, they seemed to somersault for Britten before signalling the end of the show with a “strange duck with each little head” and then disappearing for good.
Folklore has a number of mine-associated spirits, be they the knocker of Wales, Cornwall, and the West Country of England; the bluecap from further north in the UK; the kobold of Germany; or the shubin of the Ukraine. Clearly, there are similarities between these tales and these three reports on supernatural manifestations in Clamps-in-the-Wood and the cottage visited by Britten. This wouldn’t be the only time that such elfish creatures would sneak over from folklore into journalism. Remember that, a few decades later, another ghost hunter named Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would write articles for The Strand regarding the validity of fairy photographs taken in Cottingley. As both Howitt and Britten explain at the start of their articles, the spirit world is populated by more than just the phantoms of human beings who have died. At least, this seems to have been the case from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.