◊ The Victorian Ghost Hunter – 31/10/15

Reporter: Anne Grimshaw

October’s meeting was the day before Hallowe’en and so one SudSoc committee members turned up on her broomstick! (Well, not quite – but witches’ hats were in evidence…)

The speaker also took a spooky theme: Andrew Selwyn-Crome, with goatee beard, in natty embroidered waistcoat, wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, epitomised the Victorian ghost hunter. The tools of his trade were displayed: dowsing rods, a Bible, cotton thread, candle, thermometer, clock, compass, rosary beads, holy water, crucifix, mirror, notebook and pencil. And a pickled baby werewolf, from Rumania, I think he said… hmmm…

Andrew began by setting the scene of this period of intense intellectual debate when natural sciences were beginning to explain the world in ways that challenged the traditional, religious views. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) was one of these.

About the same time there was a burgeoning of paranormal claims which included speaking to the dead through a medium who may or may not have been a fraudster. It was surprising just how many mediums’ séance rooms had curtains in them… Strange too that the dear departed should manifest themselves by vomiting ‘ectoplasm’ (aka as cheesecloth).

Then there were ghosts, apparitions, poltergeists and spirits (non-alcoholic) of various kinds that led to the foundation of the Ghost Club in 1862.

Since Borley Rectory burned down, the title of the ‘most haunted house in Britain’ is claimed by Abbey House, Barnwell, near Cambridge. Andrew explained that it had a ghostly nun (I misheard and thought he said ‘gnome’ which, for a moment or two, rather gave the wrong impression) who had committed some misdemeanour with a local monk (we can guess what). She was walled up for her ‘sin’ but to keep things fair, the monk was decapitated.

So was there life after death? Only the dead could tell us.

It was to investigate such claims that the Society for Psychical Research was established in 1882. The Society also looked at mesmerism, telepathy and hypnosis. It was a genuine attempt to prove scientifically, one way or another, apparently paranormal events. And to do this required equipment, methodology and recording – using the things that Andrew had set out before him. The haunted room to be investigated could be sealed using cotton thread which would break if disturbed, chalk to draw around ‘control objects’ to check if they had moved, thermometer to record any change in temperature and so on.

This was not a Society for ‘nutters’ but a genuine attempt to investigate some of the intellectual debates of the period not all of which have been resolved even today.