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Catherine Crowe: The Forgotten Mother of the Paranormal

In MU Podcast 24.21, Catherine Crowe’s 18th and 19th Century evidence for the mysterious, paranormal connections in our world are examined and appreciated. But who is Catherine Crowe and why have you never heard of her before?

The only existing image of Catherine Crowe alongside her most popular book, The Night-Side of Nature.

Catherine Crowe (1790-1872) could be called the mother of the paranormal. There were no doubt others before her who were interested in strange phenomena and even those who put together collections of true ghost stories, but Crowe went way beyond merely collecting tales.

Crowe’s ground-breaking book, The Night-Side of Nature reveals not just ghost stories but other paranormal tales, which clearly don’t fit that mold. Crowe’s 400-page book includes a variety of unexplained phenomena including what we now call OBEs, NDEs, time slips, and ESP.

Crowe compiled and compared cross-cultural data about a wide variety of strange phenomena, amassing evidence from the 18th and 19th Century and back into antiquity. She was one of those rare multilingual researchers who scoured the literature of non-English speaking countries for anomalies. Inspired by German scholars in particular, Crowe brought the ideas of leading physicians, physiologists, and other scientists, including Justinus Kerner and others too numerous to mention, to English-speaking readers. Her interest initially led Crowe to translate German physician Justinus Kerner’s amazing tale, The Seeress of Prevorst, in 1845, before writing The Night-Side of Nature, her own compendium of psychic phenomena.

Crowe brought the term poltergeist into English language usage.

Published just as the Spiritualist movement was getting underway, The Night-Side of Nature, is arguably the most popular paranormal book of all time, resulting in 16 editions in just six years. You’re familiar with the terms poltergeist and doppelgänger because Crowe introduced these words into English usage. The Night-Side of Nature was meant to foster the budding field of psychical research by providing a categorical record of dreams, presentiments, warnings, trances, wraiths, apparitions, spectral lights, haunted houses, poltergeists, demonic possessions, and other revelations, together with an appeal for the serious scientific investigation of all such phenomena.

Writer and paranormal researcher Colin Wilson called The Night-Side of Nature, “the first sustained attempt to treat paranormal phenomena in the scientific spirit that would later characterize the Society of Psychical Research.” Almost 35 years after its publication, the SPR would continue Crowe’s work by adopting many of her methods.

A famous ghost story known as The Radiant Boy recounted by Crowe.

Crowe investigated hauntings in a manner we would still recognize today. In 1854, for example, she organized a party of witnesses to investigate a notoriously haunted house in Edinburgh, Scotland. She enlisted a clairvoyant and several esteemed members of the community to make contact with the spirits of those murdered on the premises and dutifully recorded their experiences. Crowe and the clairvoyant observed “waves of white light” emanating from the floor in intervals. Crowe and another witness glimpsed “a bright diamond of light, white brilliant and quiescent.” This paranormal investigation was likely the first of its kind.

Catherine Crowe applied critical thought and experimental methodology to ghost investigations long before such an approach was institutionalized by the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. Although she made significant contributions to paranormal study, you may not know about Catherine Crowe today because of a scandal that still overshadows her legacy.

Rumors began to circulate in early March of 1854, alleging that Crowe had been found wandering the streets of Edinburgh near her residence. She was out of her mind and, most shocking of all, naked! As the story goes, she was locked away in a mad house for the safety of herself and others. Various versions of the tale have surfaced over the years ascribing dubious details to explain her nudity, such as the idea that spirits had duped her into believing she was invisible.

Crowe’s reputation is still tarnished by this long-lived tale, which is repeated uncritically in almost every discussion of her in paranormal literature. A proper medical assessment of her case doesn’t make for as sensational a story. In reality, Crowe, then 64, was suffering from a fever, due most likely to gastroenteritis. Crowe’s reputation suffered because of a concerted effort to discredit her. Mesmerists, disgruntled over the rising star of Spiritualism, saw an opportunity to paint attempted communication with spirits as dangerous and foolhardy by lambasting Crowe. According to archived letters, Charles Dickens, an ardent supporter of Mesmerism, was the first to spread the rumors.

Although Dickens, and a Mesmerist publication called The Zoist, portrayed Crowe as “stark mad and stark naked” and hopelessly insane, a few days later when her physical health was restored, she resumed her life as a writer of mysteries, weird fiction, and scientific articles. She would live for another 18 years and write two additional books about paranormal phenomena, Spiritualism and the Age We Live In, and Ghosts and Family Legends, both published in 1859.

Much of Crowe’s work is still relevant today. Nearly every aspect of parapsychology is explored in her writing. She laid the groundwork for others, like the researchers of the Society for Psychical Research, who later followed in her footsteps. Crowe sought “to induce a few capable persons, instead of laughing at these things, to look at them” and for that alone she deserves to be remembered respectfully.