The 18th century Victorian Era saw a surge in the otherworldly concept of Spiritualism, the belief in ghosts and the spirit world beyond what we know. It was a time of psychics and mediums, of séances, spirit photography, and all manner of odd pursuits which sat firmly against established scientific paradigms. People wanted to believe, and Spiritualism became so rampant and en vogue that various organizations built upon its principles were established, as well as numerous hucksters and charlatans looking to make a buck off the burgeoning trend in all things weird. It was at this time of rampant Spiritualism that one such organization in particular rose to prominence, and would grow to include within its ranks some of the most influential people of the time. Welcome to the world of the world’s oldest organization of paranormal investigators.
The rather simply titled “Ghost Club” would have its roots in the various paranormal phenomena that were being increasingly discussed in a serious manner among scholars at Trinity College, in Cambridge, England. They would sit around and ruminate on such things, throwing about ideas and entertaining things that had no place in the scientific world. This would grow until in 1862 The Ghost Club was officially formed, with the original purpose of actually trying to expose frauds and hoaxes and to even debunk some of the very phenomena they spent so much time discussing, with a stated goal of applying strict scientific rigor to investigating paranormal claims. Indeed, one of the club’s very first investigations was the claims of the Davenport brothers, who claimed that they could contact spirits through a “spirit cabinet” from within which the ghosts would communicate with knocks and thuds. The Ghost Club exposed them as frauds.
The Ghost Club wished for the paranormal to be accepted right beside the other groundbreaking scientific discoveries being made during the era, and to this end took a very intellectual, academic approach to it all. They applied this philosophy to all of their investigations, which in those early days were almost solely concerned with ghosts, hauntings, and mediumship, and they were the most active paranormal society around, not only launching major investigations, but also adding to the academic discussion and debate on what the nature of ghosts actually was. This was no small time operation of amateurs either, as it would eventually attract such eminent members as Charles Dickens, W.B. Yeats, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and quite a few other luminaries and prominent academics, clerics, politicians, and scientists, among which were several Nobel Prize winners. Indeed, Dickens in particular was a major force within it, and when he died in 1870 the club disbanded, but it was not yet dead.
In 1882, the Ghost Club rose from the dead itself, when spiritual mediums Stainton Moses and Alaric Alfred Watts resurrected it, at around the same time another prominent organization, the Society for Psychical Research, was being established. In this incarnation of the Ghost Club it was run more like a high class secret society, with fancy secret words, more rituals, rules, and mannerisms, and regular meetings at expensive restaurants behind closed doors. Unlike the Society for Psychical Research, which published regular journals of their findings, the Ghost Club kept everything secret and within its ranks, their conversations and discoveries recorded solely within their own archives and records and hidden away from the world at large.
Although they expanded their interests into other phenomena outside of ghosts, such as dousing and others, this was also an era when the Ghost Club can be seen to have slightly strayed from its own original manifest of strict scientific protocol regarding analysis of the supernatural. They believed that actual dead members joined their meetings in spirit, endorsed phenomena that were questionable at the time, and the poet Yeats, who was a prominent member at the time, would claim to have visions of knowledge from “beings on the other side.” They were getting laxer in their original skeptical attitude, seen as turning into a club of “believers,” and consequently this was also the era of some rather embarrassing incidents of the Ghost Club being duped. A famous example of this was when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle swallowed hook, line, and sinker the case of what is known as the Cottington Fairies, wherein some young girls photographed some paper cut-outs of fairies and passed them off as real. The great poet Yeats was also pranked by his very own wife, building theories on the phenomenon of “automatic writing” based on her participation and demonstration of it, which she later claimed she faked. This was in stark contrast to original members such as Dickens, who were actually very skeptical, with the writer once saying:
That there are on record many circumstantial and minute accounts of haunted houses is well known to most people. But, all such narratives must be received with the greatest circumspection, and sifted with the utmost care; nothing in them must be taken for granted, and every detail proved by direct and clear evidence, before it can be received.
The Ghost Club would shut down again in 1936, only to spring back to life in 1962 due to a Theodore Cary and Patrick Hewit, while expanding further out into UFOs and cryptozoology, and despite the previous missteps, in more modern times even more famous writers and people have joined the club, and it has attracted many who are determined to prove that the paranormal is real and measurable, taking on its former skeptical leanings in the process. Such important members as C. E. M. Joad, Sir Julian Huxley, Algernon Blackwood, Sir Osbert Sitwell and Lord Amwell were included within its ranks in the 20th century, and it seemed all was well once again. Yet they have faced an uphill battle against those who would try to regulate anything of the sort into nonsense and fantasy. Still they still try to make the paranormal more accepted by society at large, and one prominent member named Guy Lyon Playfair told Alex W. Palmer in an article for The Pacific Standard of the phenomena they are pursuing:
People clump all things like this into fairy stories. But several hundred years ago they didn’t believe in electricity, even though we could see it in the sky and feel it in our jumpers. We know there are things up there—radio waves, neutrinos, Wi-Fi—even if we can’t see them. It’s the spiritual part of the paranormal that gets dismissed. But science today was magic in the past. These so-called skeptics never question or examine anything. They’ve got all the answers. The world operates according to Darwin and Richard Dawkins, and anyone like me who brings other evidence simply has to be eliminated.
The Ghost Club still keeps up its investigations and gatherings right up to the present day, meeting every month at the Victory Services Club near Marble Arch, in London, and as they have been here for over a hundred years they just may be for hundreds more. They still keep an open mind, and challenge scientific dogma that threatens to bury their pursuits, and one member has said of this:
I do get angry sometimes when people are very quick to dismiss [the paranormal]. I’ve had arguments with people in the past who, when you talk about it, immediately dismiss it without letting you get a chance to explain. I end up just saying to the people, if you want to dismiss it, that’s fine. But I always finish by saying to them, if you ever experience anything in the future that you can’t explain, come back and talk to me.
Whether the Ghost Club can ever achieve their lofty aims remains to be seen, but they have been going at it longer than anyone else, and it at least seems as if their heart is in the right place. Are paranormal phenomena something that can eventually be explained in terms that science can understand as the Ghost Club believes, or are they to forever remain an elusive specter that skirts the fringes of the unknown? There is no way to know at this point, but if anyone is going to come to the answers we seek, then the Ghost Club seems to be a top candidate, and at the very least they have a history and legacy that has kept ghost hunting alive for hundreds of years.