In her groundbreaking book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deborah Blum has masterfully retold the story of the birth of spiritualism and the scientific pursuit of “psychical research.” In the late nineteenth century, William James, renowned philosopher and psychologist, and a small group of eminent scientists staked their reputations, their careers, even their sanity on one of the most extraordinary quests ever undertaken: to empirically prove the existence of ghosts, spirits, and psychic phenomena. Deborah Blum artfully retells this story. Along with Raymond Moody’s The Last Laugh, this book should be 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 father of pragmatism and psychology, William James, are usually ignorant of his role in the investigation of paranormal phenomenon at the turn of the previous century. Other names appear. 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 approaches her brilliant and influential subjects as they were–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. She weaves a detailed picture of a research field under siege by fellow scientists, journalists, and subjected to unending embarrassment caused by fraud and dubious 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.” 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 allegedly revealed the name of a woman to whom he had proposed 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.
If there is any flaw in this well researched book, it is that Deborah Blum did not document her sources as thoroughly as she should have. Because this story is so remarkable, she should have made it easier for other researchers to confirm the information she presented. 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!