From the hallowed halls of Trinity College was born The Ghost Club. After decades of lectures, research, and debunkings, where did their interest in the unexplained take them? Apparently, exploding knives, fake mediums, and a Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder (SPIDER).
(Sidenote: I know that I pronounce Cambridge weird. I tried to watch out for that but sometimes my Idaho accent gets the better of me.)
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Hello my friends, and welcome back to the odd, the fascinating, and the weirdly true, or as I like to call it, just another episode of Strange Origins. I didn’t even realize when I was first researching this episode, but this marks my 20th episode of the podcast. I know it might not seem like a lot to you, since it only takes fifteen to twenty minutes a week to listen, but for me, it’s hours and hours of research, recording, and editing to make Strange Origins a reality. So whether you’ve been listening from day one, or you just found me, I want to say thank you!
As many of you can probably relate to, I first became interested in the paranormal while watching Ghost Hunters late at night when I was a kid. At first, the show scared me, but then I grew to enjoy it without the need to be scared. I loved the people, the process they went through in an attempt to catch even a whisper of a presence, and the findings that they would reveal at the end. It creeped me out and was at the same time amazing to hear or watch what they had recorded that they believed to be supernatural. This led to a fascination with movies about haunted houses, researching the paranormal, and eventually, to me learning how to create a podcast.
Today groups of Paranormal Investigators can be found pretty much everywhere worldwide. In the United States, it feels like there is at least one in every state. Members of these groups don’t often make money from their endeavors in ghost hunting, but rather pursue it as a passion. Even the men from the show Ghost Hunters were known for being plumbers during the day. Even just in the United States, About 45% of the population believe that that thing that goes bump in the night is probably Caspar, so opportunities for ghost hunting haven’t seemed to slow down for these groups. Something I never wondered when watching Ghost Hunters in the mid-2000s was what their origins were. When did these groups begin, and what was it that caused them to begin investigating in the first place?
Academic Ghost Hunting
Well, like a lot of great things, like Shakespeare and Fish and Chips, Paranormal Investigation groups began in England. Specifically, discussions of paranormal activity began and were recorded at the University of Cambridge in 1855. It was there in the halls of Trinity College, a place that honestly looks a bit like Hogwarts, group of students began discussing the concept of ghosts and other unexplained phenomena.
One of the first investigations formally made by the group was of a spirit cabinet created by a company of Magicians called the Davenport Brothers. Sons of policemen in Buffalo, New York, the Davenport Brothers famously created a box that, after they were tied up inside, would make noises when its doors were closed. After touring the United States with the cabinet, they took a boat to England where Spiritualism was just taking off. While the act was later found to be a hoax, as a majority of spiritualist exhibits were at the time, the Ghost Club never publicly came out with an opinion on the subject.
The Ghost Club was later formally molded seven years later in London, despite ridicule by newspapers of the time. They operated as more of a group of MythBusters, rather than spiritualists, and investigated everything from reports of poltergeists to claims of psychic activity. Seeing as religion was very much a touchy subject at the time, even more so than it is today, stating disbelief in the idea of spirits was deemed heretical in a sense, or in other words, it was considered anti-church. So the men of the club quote “kept scant records of their meetings, so members were able to speak freely about their beliefs without fear of ridicule.”
Included in this group was even the famed writer Charles Dickens, who is known for writing about ghosts in many of his stories, not just A Christmas Carol. Because of the fame of its members, The Ghost Club, though they tried to be secretive, was sent about two thousand case reports from people asking for their helping in proving or debunking something mysterious. Despite years as a member of the club, and likely after hearing his fair share of accounts, Dickens was, in the greatest sense, a rationalist.
Of this he stated, quote “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.
Essentially, he took the stance of the rest of the Ghost Club in that he wanted to investigate cases in a scientific manner. He looked at every detail of a case for a rational explanation before assuming it was in any way paranormal.
Membership in The Ghost Club was small in the beginning. Through the years, though, the Ghost Club garnered a number of other members that left their mark in history, other than Dickens. Among them was William Gladstone, who was the Prime Minister of the U.K, serving four terms with Queen Victoria. Also in the group was Alfred Lord Tennyson, who was Poet Laureate for much of the Victorian age, and whose work was greatly admired by the American Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most famous gothic writers of all time.
Other members included William Crookes who is a famed British Chemist and physicist who is known for his work in Spectroscopy, and for inventing the modern sunglass lenses that we use today that block ultraviolet light. Another member was Sir Oliver Lodge, who attempted to contact his son, Raymond, who had passed away in WWI, who is famous for his involvement with the invention of the radio. Among Arthur Conan Doyle, W. B. Yeats, and Nandor Fodor, the Ghost Club only admitted 82 members over 54 years.
As seances fell out of vogue in the 20th century, the club transformed into a social dining event, where psychic researchers delivered after-dinner talks. In this new group of members was included Algernon Blackwood who still remains one of the most prolific writers of ghost stories. At this time women were also admitted to the group, which was strange for any academic organization at the time. In the 1960s a chapter was also created in Harrison Township, Michigan.
Society of Psychical Research
At around the same time, the Society of Psychical Research was created. A group with a more scientific approach to the paranormal, the SPR claims to be the quote “first society to conduct organized scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.” In other words, they wanted to classify that which had previously been unclassifiable.”
They also stated that they wished to quote "approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated." This statement makes a lot more sense when realizing that the time period that these clubs were formed was one of great scientific discoveries. Germ theory had just been accepted and electricity, which would be able to power future inventions, (such as ghost hunting equipment,) was beginning to be a part of daily life.
It too had a number of notable members, some of which also participated in the Ghost Club. They included Prime Minister William Gladstone and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate. Its most active and influential member was the academic Henry Sidgwick, who is also credited as the founder and first president. He also served as the senior professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. He was awarded the prestigious title of Knightship Professor of Philosophy, of which there have only been 22. One of the requirements of this title is that they perform five lectures a term in Latin.
He was also outspoken in his belief that women should be able to gain an education. Along with his wife, Eleanor, the group demystified claims of the supernatural, mostly that of fake mediums. They published the Book Phantasms of the Living, took a poll to quantify the percentage of people who had experienced hallucinations, and went on to investigate Borley Rectory, which is noted as being the most haunted house in England, along with the Enfield Hauntings, which have been immortalized in the second Conjuring film.
The Metaphysical Society
Along with his other memberships, Henry Sidgwick was also a part of The Metaphysical Society, which was founded in 1869, and was known for being a debate club concerning various topics, most of them having something to do with religion, the soul, or the afterlife. It was a monthly gathering of politicians, clergymen, and philosophers, who had all excelled in their fields and who were invited to join.
In an article, one member wrote that quote “Nothing could be calmer, fairer, or even, on the whole, more reverent than the discussion. In my opinion, we, the Christians, had much the best of it. Dalgairns, the priest, was very masterly; Manning, clever and precise and weighty; Froude, very acute, and so was Greg. We only wanted a Jew and a Muslim to make our Religious Museum complete.”
It was dissolved in 1880, sadly. Alfred Lord Tennyson, who was also a member, stated that it closed down because quote "after ten years of strenuous effort no one had succeeded in even defining metaphysics."
The Shattered Knife
Eventually, the field was made into a profession, referred to as parapsychology. In the 1930s, Duke University began investigating precognition, clairvoyance, telepathy, and extrasensory perception. One of the cases investigated by the group at Duke University was suggested to them by the philosopher Carl Jung, who, if you’ve ever taken a philosophy or psychology class, is responsible for a great deal of modern psychiatry and psychoanalytical techniques.
In his letter, he stated that he believed a knife, which was locked in a bread box, had been broken by a poltergeist. He recalled hearing a loud noise in a particular room in his house, which sounded like a gunshot. Opening the breadbox he found that a knife had been broken into four pieces, though the bread and basket beside it was unharmed. After taking it to a master cutler, he found that there was no other flaw in the metal, and had to have been broken by a person. A few days later, a similar occurrence happened to a solid wood roundtable, also located in his house. Jung decided, after ruminating on the incidences, that the damages were caused due to the fact that he had suspended seance sessions with a medium, who also happened to his cousin, and with whom he had performed experiments alongside since he was a teenager.
Another, more modern proponent of parapsychology was Tony Cornell, who unsurprisingly, also attended Cambridge. He, along with a group of researchers, who were also a part of the Society for Psychical Research, pioneered modern ghost hunting, before modern technology really even existed. He believed that most sightings were a result of the human mind and that in the eight hundred cases that he had investigated, only about one hundred and sixty were quote “difficult to explain ”and only a handful were actually paranormal.”
In the 1980’s Cornell, co-invented the Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder, also referred to as (SPIDER) for short. Think of it as an all-in-one recorder that can monitor changes in an environment and record it, seeing if there are any signs of paranormal activity. It was quote “Controlled originally by a 16K ZX Spectrum computer with DCP Interspec, relay box and Sinclair printer, it could record motion, temperature changes, sound and electromagnetic activity, and included floodlights, an audio recorder, a cine camera (later a camcorder), infrafred video and still 35mm cameras.” Essentially, it was the only, all-in-one ghost hunting tech one would need in the 80’s.
SPIDER was used in the 1980s and 90s and recorded about 1200 hours of data. These investigations occurred in several haunted castles and large homes in the U.K. and then made its television debut when NBC asked Cornell to investigate the Queen Mary in California for ten days. Though the equipment was famous, it was noted by Cornell that it didn’t record anything groundbreaking. Instead, it blazed the trail for modern ghost hunting technology and created in many a fascination with the art.
Today there is a slew of ways that ghost hunters search for answers, and it doesn’t really include debate or too much discussion. Instead, unlike the original Ghost Club, members of groups use technology to their advantage when traveling to reportedly haunted locations. Video and Sound recorders are used to find visual or auditory signs of a presence, a thermometer to measure the temperature of a room, Electro Magnetic Field recorders, which reads how much electric energy is in a room. The last is doubly important, as it can measure if there is energy being sucked out of an environment, which is a leading theory in how ghosts are able to manifest themselves, and also because too much electricity has been known to cause mental hallucinations.
One of the more interesting inventions I came across recently is called BooBuddy. Housed in a teddy bear, this piece of equipment acts as a recorder for EMF, temperature, and even vibrations. It also asks questions and records any audio reply that might come through. It’s like Cornell’s SPIDER, just a little more advanced, and a little more cuddly.
In a nutshell, teams these days are trying their best to explain everything going on around them when investigating, which means debunking a majority of cases. It’s difficult to quantify paranormal phenomena, especially when a lot of claims are simply based on emotion or unrecorded experiences which can easily be faked.
Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to fine-tune what investigative techniques we have. and possibly pioneer some new ones. In an age where the word haunted can garner hotels and tourist traps more traffic and revenue, it’s safe to assume that if none, only a minuscule portion of places are actually haunted.
The Modern Ghost Club
Today The Ghost Club runs as a non-profit and is led by a council of elected volunteers. Their mission is to quote “offer open-minded, curious individuals the opportunity to debate, explore and investigate unexplained phenomena with like-minded people and record the results for posterity.”
In the 19th and 20th centuries, The Ghost Club was too skeptical for the religious crowd and too superstitious for the scientific crowd. From both sides, they were ridiculed, but together they realized that a balance had to be found. While sensationalism may sell, it’s also true that there have been and always will be those stories that we just can’t quite explain. Not even through the use of science or religion.
Something interesting that I wanted to note as I close this episode is that the members of the Ghost Club are always members, both in life and death. It was revealed in club archives that the names of members who had passed on were recited on November 2nd, which as you may remember from my episode about the origins of Halloween, is All Souls Day. While viewed as ghosts, the members of the Ghost Club were still seen as valued members of their chapters. It’s said that on more than one occasion, the presence of deceased members has been felt.
Thank you for joining me for this episode, and as always everyone, stay safe out there and remember to always keep it strange.