By Michael Kleen
A book of this magnitude was long overdue. Filling in a wide historiographical gap, Deborah Blum has masterfully retold the story of the birth of spiritualism and the scientific pursuit of “psychical research.” Along with Raymond Moody’s The Last Laugh, this book is required reading for any aspiring investigator of the paranormal.
The cast of characters in Ghost Hunters reads like a who’s who of late nineteenth and early twentieth century luminaries. Blum, however, leaves no one out of her narrative. Scientists, theologians, performers, mediums, lovers, poets, working class families, and con men all share the same stage. Biographic surprises lurk behind every page. Even those familiar with the renowned father of pragmatism, William James, are usually ignorant of his role in the investigation of paranormal phenomenon at the turn of the previous century.
Other names crop up to startle the reader. Alfred Russel Wallace, the forgotten coauthor of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles L. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland), and even Samuel Clemens were all members of the British Society for Psychical Research.
Blum was very adept at laying bare long forgotten antidotes of history. In Ghost Hunters, she approached her brilliant and influential subjects as they were; as human beings who experimented with narcotics, believed they had attained enlightenment under the influence of nitrous oxide, fell in love with their test subjects, and traveled to other continents to interview and test mediums and self-professed psychics of all shapes and colors.
She also weaved a detailed picture of a field of research constantly under siege by fellow scientists, journalists, and subjected to unending embarrassment caused by fraud and suspect conclusions at a time when England was ground zero in the battle between science and faith.
In the United States, William James led the charge at the helm of the American Society for Psychical Research, but his investigations seemed no more fruitful than those of his British counterparts. By 1886, Blum wrote, “their annual report… had degenerated into a list of exposures of professional practitioners.” (pg.117) Their experiments dismantled spiritualist claims one after another, and many members began to conclude that mental illness lay at the heart of ghost sightings.
Finally, one medium, who claimed to have received messages from deceased British Society for Psychical Research member Richard Hodgson, ultimately boosted their morale. In one message, the spirit of Hodgson revealed the name of a woman who he had proposed to years earlier, but who had spurned his advances. William James contacted the woman, who, to his surprise, confirmed the story. This new phenomenon, known as cross-correspondence, continued to yield remarkable results, results that were not easy to dismiss as mere coincidence. James hesitantly concluded that, as evidence of an afterlife, that was as close as they were likely to get.
As a journalist, Deborah Blum failed to document her sources as thoroughly as a historian would demand. Never-the-less, her years of experience writing about science has given her the ability to weave a wonderful narrative without getting bogged down in technicalities and jargon. When it comes down to it, Ghost Hunters is both entertaining and informative, which is a rare combination these days!