When it comes to ghosts, belief and outright disbelief are not the only options—or at least they weren’t in nineteenth-century Britain. The Victorians didn’t stick to simple arguments about the existence of ghosts; they also argued about how, when, and why they might exist. Spiritualists attacked spiritualists over whether the supernatural should be classed as natural. Scientists discussed whether psychological or physiological factors were at play. Inventors, politicians, journalists, and madmen joined in, too. Indeed, it was such a popular, multidisciplinary pursuit that its practitioners needed new places to meet, outside of their existing societies, and various organizations were established to debate the boundaries of the immaterial.
One of these exploratory committees was the Ghost Club. It was founded in 1862 and lasted about a decade, although its history stretches back to a group of Cambridge academics in the 1850s, and it stretches forward, through several resurrections, to now. The earliest days of the club are not well recorded, but we do know that it was small, populated by male intellectuals, and it concentrated on investigating supposed supernatural encounters, with the intention of exposing frauds. Charles Dickens is said to have been a founding member; the first in a procession of writers—including William Butler Yeats and Siegfried Sassoon—who joined its ranks.
Dickens embodied some of the contradictory attitudes of his era and, most likely, of the original Ghost Club as well. It is difficult from a modern perspective to reconcile Dickens the exposer of fraud with Dickens the dabbler in mesmerism—which generally involved putting patients into trances so as to influence the magnetic forces that ailed them. Dickens always refused to be entranced in this way, but he wasn’t above trying it out on others. He boasted in letters of his “magnetic powers,” and attempted to use them to cure a friend, Augusta de la Rue, of her “spectres.”
Of course, Dickens was famous for his ghost stories, such as A Christmas Carol and The Signal-Man. If the Ghost Club was formed to investigate dodgy mediums it was in part because Dickens had helped to create a fierce, frothing demand for phantoms among his fellow Victorians.
But Dickens himself was always trying to find ordinary reasons for extraordinary happenings. His mesmeric treatments, as peculiar as they seem today, were intended to heal Madame de la Rue of the “disease of [the] nerves,” which he believed to be the cause of her apparitions. His stories featured even more prosaic explanations. In the sarcastic Well-Authenticated Rappings, Dickens subjects a character to “three spiritual experiences” that are actually the result of, in turn, a boozy Christmas lunch, a rich pork pie, and an energetic boy acting in cahoots with his sister and her lover.
Dickens was clearest in his letters. In an exchange with William Howitt, he wrote:
My own mind is perfectly unprejudiced and impressible on the subject. I do not in the least pretend that such things are not. But … I have not yet met with any Ghost Story that was proved to me, or that had not the noticeable peculiarity in it—that the alteration of some slight circumstance would bring it within the range of common natural probabilities.
The Ghost Club mixed its interest in metaphysics with a healthy appreciation for common natural probabilities. One of its first investigations was of the Davenport Brothers and the popular séance act they brought to London from New York. The two brothers were tied up in a cabinet, then obscured from the audience’s view, whilst various things happened in and around the cabinet that could only have a supernatural cause … unless, of course, the brothers were able to free themselves from their bindings while hidden from view. But, at a time of such uncertainty and speculation, even magic tricks could look like science.
Dickens might not have been comfortable with the next iteration of the Ghost Club, which existed between 1882 and 1936, and it might not have been comfortable with him. Among its records, which are kept in the British Library, is a short history that severs all ties with the earlier club: “A Club of similar name, founded some twenty years earlier, had come to an end, it had no connection with this 1882 Ghost Club … ”
The minutes of the 1882 club suggest, to those who can decipher their maddening cursive, a different sort of organization; one with a set of rules and mannerisms that make it sound more like a gentlemen’s club for ardent spiritualists. This club met at fashionable restaurants, such as Pagani’s on Great Portland Street, with its colorful ceramic facade. The meetings always began with a roll call, which included the names not just of “incarnate” members but also of those who had “passed on.” And, in the fourth meeting, on January 12, 1883, those present decided on a motto, and noted it down in capitals:
NASCI : LABORARE : MORI : NASCI
Or, for the rest of us:
BE BORN : WORK : DIE : BE BORN
This second incarnation of the Ghost Club was founded in the same year as an even more prominent organization, the Society for Psychical Research—but the SPR published both its proceedings and a journal, while the Ghost Club kept its activities secret. This meant that its members could talk freely with each other about their experiences, in full confidence that their conversations would never leave the restaurant with them. According to the minutes for a meeting held in 1930, one member told the others of how, “by psychic means,” he had been given “an entirely new diagnosis of and entirely new prescription for the treatment of cancer.”
It seems self-evident that W. B. Yeats would become involved with this rambunctious group. He was first invited as a guest, and he demonstrated the depth of his arcane knowledge by giving a speech on “Fairy Beliefs,” which he believed were “simply Spiritism happening not round tables but in the fields.” A month later, on July 5, 1911, he was duly elected as a member.
Yeats’s contributions to the Ghost Club are connected, in some intriguing ways, to his poetry. During the years of his membership, and with the help of his wife Georgiana, he redoubled his experiments in automatic writing. She would hold a pencil to a piece of paper and, while in a semiconscious state, scrawl down the words of invisible messengers. At first, she did this as a trick on her husband (as Brenda Maddox observes in Yeats’s Ghosts, “the messengers seemed at times to have been reading Marie Stopes’s Married Love, a highly popular book that stressed the husband’s duty to give his wife sexual satisfaction”). Later, she would claim, she did it sincerely. Yeats ended up telling the Ghost Club of the “lessons in Philosophy he had received from a group of beings on the other side.”
These “lessons” were later developed into Yeats’s great, sprawling Vision. Or perhaps they developed from it. As the Yeats scholar Tara Stubbs discovered when she delved into the Ghost Club archives, there are so many parallels between his contributions to the club and his writing that it “might be almost too convenient.” The meetings could effectively have been part of his drafting process.
Dozens of other writers have joined the Ghost Club and found inspiration there. After it was reconstituted for a third time, one of the finest authors of English ghost stories, Algernon Blackwood, became a member. The elderly Sassoon did likewise during the club’s fourth spell, when his thought and his poetry turned to the heavens. At one point, Aldous Huxley was even considered for its presidency.
There are still writers among the current membership of the Ghost Club; along with, in the words of its media officer, Andreas Charalambous, “lecturers, barristers, librarians, doctors, members of the police force, public figures.” They retain some customs from the days of Yeats—including the roll call of both the living and the dead, which now takes place annually on All Souls’ Day—but they have also reconnected with the days of Dickens. The club now traces its history back to 1862, and makes investigation a large part of its work. It has become the sum of all its pasts.
The Ghost Club has reconnected with Dickens in spookier ways as well. During an investigation of the Clydesdale Inn, seven years ago, one of its members sensed what the official report called “a connection to Charles Dickens”—and, indeed, the author had stayed there once. There are many who will scoff at this incident. Dickens himself may have put it down to a bad slice of pie. But, as Halloween approaches and the trees turn skeletal, perhaps we can afford to set aside our certainties for a moment. “Dickens, is that you?”
Peter Hoskin is an arts journalist who lives in London.