Charles Dickens: Ghost Hunter


Victorians were big on clubs.  Gentlemen’s Clubs.  No, the Brontes were not wearing pasties and stripping to “Oh, Mother Take the Wheel Away!” These were exclusive gatherings of writers and artists who came together to chill, drink, and probably scratch-and-spit.  No “damned scribbling women allowed.”  (Such a fun guy, that Hawthorne…)

ANYWAY, Charles Dickens was one of those writers who was a high-profile member of a hoity-toity club called “The Garrick Club” until he got into a fight with William Makepeace Thackery.  Apparently a journalist was talking smack about Thackery, and what he knew could have only been found out through club connections.  (First Rule of Garrick Club:  Don’t Talk About Garrick Club.)

SO, Dickens says, basically, “Screw you, Thackery. I’m the biggest star you’ve got and I’m taking my fame elsewhere.” Plus, the journalist, Edward Yates, was a very close friend and the godfather of Dickens’ children.

Dickens would eventually join the still-in-existence “Arts Club” (actress Gwyneth Paltrow is now its Creative Director). But before that, in 1862, Dickens became one of the founding members of “The Ghost Club. ”  Until he joined and brought some legitimacy to the off-beat club, the press was not very complimentary, but his presence gave the organization a modicum of credibility.

It’s not much of a stretch to say Victorians were obsessed with ghosts.  In 1848, the Spiritualist movement was founded.  Believers “postulat[ed] the belief that spirits of the dead residing in the spirit world have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living.”  After two sisters, “Margaret and Kate Fox of Hydesville, New York, reported receiving messages from a spirit haunting their cottage, this movement gained may adherents throughout the English-speaking world. The séance became a familiar family ritual in the last half of the 19th century. Notable figures such as the British writer Arthur Conan Doyle and the American psychologist William James became involved in psychical research, trying to judge the truthfulness of spiritualists’ beliefs.”

Dickens was intrigued and his club sought to try to get to the bottom of these stories.  For the next eight years, the Ghost Club investigated paranormal phenomena.  One of its earliest cases was of a pair of brothers who claimed to have a haunted cabinet and an ability to contact the dead.  The Ghost Club proved the “haunting” to be a hoax. 

After Dickens’s death in 1870, the club activity sputtered, but by 1882, enjoyed a … reincarnation, steadily gaining new members.  In 1911, W.B. Yeats became a member, and the club continues to exist today.  Every November 2, the names of deceased former members are read aloud.  And it is said that “deceased members were believed to have made their presence felt.”

WHO YA GONNA CALL?  I wish I could photoshop a picture of Dickens and Yeats in Ghostbuster garb…