The Ghost Census of 1894

The Ghost Bureau

As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently researching the life and times of William Thomas Stead. I must say it is proving quite the impossible task, simply because of the scope of this man’s interests and fads, and the marriage of such diverse genres of pursuit. His communications with the ghost of William Gladstone, and other distinguished politicians of the era, via Julia’s Bureau – an agency he established for communicant spirits – at the time attracted much curiosity, ridicule and even indignation. Newspapers of the day were as fascinated as they were scornful of his endeavours but still they faithfully scrutinised and hung upon his every word.

My recent communication with Lenora, the author of the outstanding blog The Haunted Palace (where the macabre and the supernatural are expertly researched and documented), expands on these incongruent and eccentric pursuits:- ‘WT Stead is a great character – my best friend’s father was for years the ‘official biographer’ of WT Stead, endorsed by the Stead family. Unfortunately he died before he could finish is biography. As a journalist in the late 19th/early 20th Century Stead was well placed to be in the centre of everything interesting going on. He was always viewed as a bit of a maverick, and his spiritual beliefs including his Julia’s Bureau work (messages transcribed from the dead Julia) did make some people think of him as a bit of a crackpot. He was fascinating man though.’

Below is an article from 1894 which outlines Stead’s proposal for the establishment of an ‘official’ Ghost Census, backed by evidence from his fellow researchers and supporters at the Psychical Research Society. It is the concept of the ‘Ghost Census Enumerators’, staff hired to collect and collate data on incidents of supernatural encounter that, for me, would make such fascinating and enthralling material for a radio play – perhaps even a television series! (Once again, my usual disclaimer applies: the article has been hand-typed by yours truly, and thus is prone to typo! Unfortunately I did not have a legion of Stead-esque staff to rely upon….:))

London, October 30, 1894.

Mr. Stead is always enthusiastic. In all that he touches the instinct of the born journalist predominates. Whatever fad of practical movement occupies his mind for the moment it is tamed to the utmost account in the production of copy. When Mr. Stead published ‘Ghost Stories’ a year or two ago people shook their heads ominously. But when be claimed to be what is called in the language of spiritualism, an automatic writing medium, and to have telepathic communications over long distances from a lady whose identity was concealed from the public under the mysterious name ‘X,’ there was a general idea that Mr. Stead’s enthusiasm in dealing with subjects of an occult character had thrown his mind off its balance. But he soon showed that whatever fascination these abstract questions possessed for him it in no way diminished his keen business capacity. In the nick of time he preserved the special character of the Review of Reviews by relegating occultism to a separate publication called ”Borderland,’ which has met with phenomenal success, every issue having been rapidly sold out.

In summing up, the results deducible from ‘Ghost Stories’ Mr. Stead suggested a ‘ghost census,’ a project which a few years ago would have been regarded as bordering very closely on the insane, but the suggestion was taken up by scientists and others, and the conclusions so far reached are summarised by Mr. Stead in The Westminster Gazette from the report of Professor Sidgewick’s committee on the census of hallucinations, which has occupied the time and attention of the Psychical Research Society for a period of six years. The main conclusion is that the continuity of the individual after death is ‘likely to be as firmly established and as universally accepted as any other fact in nature.’ In the report, which occupies 500 pages, of the August proceedings of the society, the conclusions are stated with extreme caution, the committee confining themselves to the statement that while the evidence is not conclusive, the cases recorded afford some argument for the continuity of psychical life, and the possibility of communication between the dead and the living, and that there is no absolute discontinuity at the change called ‘death’, or transition to a condition of complete isolation from earth life. In the evidence there are said to be many instances of fulfilment of promises to appear after death, as well as cases of apparitions where the fact of the death of the person was unknown to the witness.

One of the most remarkable of the cases cited is related by Miss Dodson. On midnight of Sunday, June 5, 1887, she was awakened by hearing her named called three times. The third time she recognised the voice of her mother, who had died 16 years previously. The ghost came round a screen near her bedside, placed two children in her arms, and said :—’ Lucy, promise me to take care of them, for their mother is just dead.’ She promised, and the ghost vanished, leaving the two children in her arms. She fell asleep, and when she awoke there was nothing! On the Tuesday morning she received the news of her mother-in-law’s death. The committee, which consisted of Professor Sidgwick, and Messrs. F. W. H. Meyers, Frank Podmole, Mr. Sidgwick, and Miss Johnson, quote many other similar cases, and conclude their elaborate report as follows:- ‘Between deaths and apparitions of the dying persons a connection exists which is not due to chance alone. This we hold as a proved fact. The discussion of its full implication cannot be attempted, in this paper, or perhaps. exhausted in this age.’

The committee seems to have entered upon their ghost census in the same practical matter-of-fact way as though they were ascertaining the temperature, or the rainfall, or the number of births in a given period. In 1885, Mr. Gurney collected the experience of 5,000 living persons on the subject of spooks. The present census related to same 17,000 individuals, to whom the following question was put separately: — ‘Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice, which impression, as far as you could describe, was not due to any external physical cause?’ The enquiry was undertaken by 223 women and 187 men, whom we may call “Ghost Census Enumerators,” nine-tenths of whom were educated persons, and they took the evidence of 17,000 witnesses, the majority of which who also belonged to the educated classes. Of these, 2,272 answered the question in the affirmative, and this were ultimately sifted down to 1,694. The great majority of these profess to have actually seen apparitions, 388 heard voices and 144 were actually touched by ghosts. Of these realistic phantasms, 620 were recognised. There were 16 angels and religious ghosts, 33 grotesque and horrible apparitions, and in 27 cases the spectral form was that of an animal. Of visual apparitions, 460 were seen within the last ten years, 423 were seen while the observer was awake, in bed or immediately after waking, in 430 cases the witness was up and indoors, and 201 were out of doors. Classifying the nationalities it is found that those who profess to have seen ghosts, 3-4 were English, 15-9 Russians, 23-9 Brazilians, and other nations 12-1. The great ghost-seeing age is between 20 and 29. Many person refused to relate their experiences. Among the census enumerators, each of whom was asked to collect 25 answers, 21 per cent had experiences of their own. How far this would disqualify them as impartial collectors can only be judged on a complete examination of the cases they furnish. By some peculiar process of arithmetic the committee have arrived at the conclusion that, allowing for cases in which the supernatural experiences have been forgotten, the number reported most be multiplied by some number between 4 and 6, which would give ten million ghostseers.

It is absolutely appalling to learn that out of 1,000,000,000 people on this planet 10,000,000 at least have seen and recognised apparitions of dead persons. This recalls the lines of Milton: —

‘Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth.

Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.’

Of course, even a ghost census enumerator cannot take account of the ‘unseen’ spirits, but if only 10 per cent, of the living can actually behold spooks, what a vast myriad of unrecognised ghosts must be awaiting discovery. Indeed, in the appendix Mr. Myers ventures to predict that it will soon become a rare exception for a student of evidence to deny the fact of ghostly apparitions.

In his second article Mr. Stead begins by combating the theory that the supposed ghostly apparitions are merely the visualisation of thoughts transmitted by other minds. But, he argues, when the communication contains information or predictions concerning things to come telepathy win not sufficiently explain the mystery. The meaning of the term “telepathy” is clearly defined in the report of Professor Sidgwick’s committee. It expresses the conclusion that ‘thoughts and feelings in one mind are sometimes caused influences of another mind, not conveyed through the recognised channels of senses.’ The report also refers to cases in which the percipient sees an apparition of someone who is trying to transfer an idea of himself, or of some other human being, to the percipient’s mind, without any previous knowledge on the part of the latter that such an attempt was being made. The cases recorded in the report do not, however, exclude the hypothesis of the apparition, being not the mere externalisation of a telepathically received idea. For example, a Mrs. Bavleigh Vicars willed that her friend in an adjoining room should see her, with the result that she did see Mrs. V. standing by her bedside.

‘For the most part, however, telepathic communications seems only possible for short distances,’ say the committee. This is challenged by Mr. Stead’s personal experiences. He declares that he has had no difficulty in obtaining moat accurate and lengthy telepathic communications from friends who were hundreds of miles distant. He claims to receive automatically written messages constantly from persons with whom he has established telepathic communication. Here is one remarkable case— ‘When Miss X, my assistant editor on Borderland, returned from her recent interesting expedition in search of the gifted seers of the Highlands, she wrote telepathically with my hand a long report covering three closely written quarto pages, describing the results of her visits, her plans and intentions in the future, reporting upon the condition of the office and its work, and discussing questions of practical business. All this was written out with my hand at Wimbledon, while Miss X was in town. I had not seen her for nearly six weeks, during which time I had not once written to her. When I met her I read over to her her telepathic message. When I had finished she said, ‘You have made one mistake. You say So-and-so ‘is very painstaking, but very stupid.’ That is not my opinion. So-and-so is very painstaking, but only occasionally stupid.’ And that was the only error in three closely-written quarto pages.

Mr. Stead also claims to have received telepathic messages at Grindelwald from London and in one case that a telegram was anticipated in this way:— He received news at Grindelwald of the illness of a near friend, and decided to return to London. He telegraphed to this effect, and was awaiting a reply giving the doctor’s latest report, when he received a telepathic message to the effect that his friend was recovering and that there was no necessity for his return. A friend who was present signed this message for confirmation. Four hours later he received a telegram to the same effect- Sir. Stead concludes as follows:—’Now, if I am asked to explain how my automatic hand got that message I cannot explain it, excepting on the hypothesis that the mind, whether for the time being in or out of body of flesh and blood, has the capacity of communicating directly with other minds without being in the least degree hampered by the limitations of space or by the accident of its embodiment or its disembodiment. The more I experiment with telepathy the more is the conviction driven in upon me that the mind uses the body as a temporary two-legged telephone for purposes of communication at short range with other minds, but that it no more ceases to exist when the body dies than we cease to exist when we ring off the telephone.’

To which we may add that if Mr. Stead’s conviction proves to be a fact of general application the days of telegraphs and telephones are ended, and that the revenue from telegraphs and post-offices will soon be a thing of the past!

8 thoughts on “The Ghost Census of 1894

  1. I can appreciate your difficulty deciding which area of Stead’s vast interests to focus on! His spiritual beliefs and subsequent spiritual enterprises were an intriguing part of his personality, and spiritualism was a growing area of interest in the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century. Even Conan Doyle, creator of the arch-logician Sherlock Holmes, was very involved in Spiritualism. Perhaps Stead was a little to early, I think, had he lived, his ideas would have been better received after the first world war when interest in Spiritualism exploded due to the huge numbers of bereaved relatives who had lost fathers, husbands and sons in that conflict.

    • Absolutely Lenora. I’ve read a number of late 19th century articles that consider his work ‘old hat’ and running against a tide of negativism towards the concept of a ghost; possibly an understandable result of the surfeit of fancified reporting of haunted houses etc at the time. Shame, because like you I’m sure there would have been a much warmer reception for his research and conclusions had he lived.

  2. PS. Just a quick word to say a huge thank you for your kind words about my blog and for quoting/linking to it in your above article! Lenora :0)))

  3. Interesting story. I am no expert on the history of Spiritism, but here in the US there was an interest following the Civil War where so many were killed, like Lenora said about after WWI there. Too bad the dead can’t appear on the census to be taxed, but oh, that’s right, they don’t have bodies, unless they could work giving ghost tours.

    • Now that would be the final ‘nail in the coffin’ for the dead; having to work in order to pay their post-death tax! But yes, a renewed interest in spiritualism certainly arose in the long shadow of sorrow cast by war. Few families had not lost a relative, friend, workmate or neighbour and yearned to contact lost loved ones.

  4. Pingback: The Ghost Census of 1894 | West Coast Review

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