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Book of the Month

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December 2007

W. T. Stead

Real Ghost Stories

London: 1891 
Sp Coll Ao-y.27

This month we feature an 1891 edition of the Review of Reviews. This special Christmas number is entitled Real Ghost Stories: A Record of Authentic Apparitions. It contains allegedly true tales of supernatural or ghostly events as related by members of the public to its editor W.T. Stead.


Real Ghost Stories begins, in a typically moralising Victorian tone, with a cautionary note that it should not be read by "any one of tender years, of morbid excitability, or of excessively nervous temperament". The preface by W.T Stead explains why he has devoted this Christmas number of the magazine to the subject matter of ghosts and outlines his belief in the need for a scientific approach to be used in researching supernatural phenomena. Part One of the volume, entitled 'The Ghost that Dwells in Each of Us,' discusses dual or multiple personalities or 'submerged souls' and details some cases of this type investigated by the Society for Psychical Research. Part Two deals with 'The Census of Hallucinations'

 cautionary note

detail from cautionary note

In October 1891, Stead wrote to Frederick W. H. Myers, the Hon. Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, "The publication of Real Ghost Stories will, I hope finally dispel the absurd and unscientific prejudice which has hitherto rendered it almost impossible to persuade ordinary people to admit that they have seen or heard anything of the kind which it is popularly described as 'supernatural'". He asks for the support of the Society for Psychical Research in his intention to insert one of their Census Papers in every copy of this Christmas number, so that further information can be gathered on 'The Science of Apparitions'. The form consisted of twenty five spaces for the entry of any paranormal experiences of the reader and of their friends and acquantances. Once completed, the Census Form was to be forwarded to Professor Henry Sidgwick, President of the SPR, Trinity College, Cambridge, who was conducting the International Census of Hallucinations. Stead states he will need 100,000 forms for his English edition of the Christmas Number and may need an equal amount for his American Edition. A look at the contents page of this edition confirms that there was indeed included 'A Census Paper for Taking Returns of Hallucination.' This was not stitched into the volume and is missing from our copy; whether it has been lost, or was perhaps completed and returned to Professor Sidgwick, we shall never know.

Myers (detail from page 22)


Mr David Dick
(detail from page 87)

view of renfield st 
(detail from page 88)

crayon drawing of spirit face
(detail from page 79)


The stories (or cases) in this volume cover such subjects as clairvoyance, premonitions, ghosts, poltergeists, second sight, and spiritualist sťances. They comprise Stead's attempt to take his own Census of Hallucinations, not on a scientific basis, but by just recording tales related to him, in person and by his readers. In Chapter IX, there is a typical story of a man Stead met at a dinner held by the City Liberal Club in Glasgow. David Dick, a 35 year old auctioneer, told Stead that he did not believe in ghosts but that, nevertheless, he had seen one. He related that he had left his office in Sauchiehall Street one afternoon at half past three in the afternoon and had entered Renfield Street where the ghost of his father, who had been dead for six years, joined him. They walked along Renfield Street talking as if the ghost were an ordinary person. At the corner of St. Vincent Street the ghost vanished. Mr Dick was not at all alarmed by his encounter with the apparition and thought it seemed perfectly natural at the time. Stead makes much of the fact that Mr. Dick had not experienced anything of a similar nature and records him as saying "As I said, I do not believe in ghosts; all I know is that I did walk down Renfield Street with my father six years after his death". Most of the cases are similar tales of ordinary people with extraodinary experiences to relate. The image of the 'crayon drawing of a spirit face' was drawn by a Mr Charles Lillie on the morning after he had attended a private sťance at a house in Bayswater. He, and four others, all claimed to have seen this apparition during the sťance.

Mr Dickinson
(detail from page 54)

the shop the double entered
 (detail from page 54)

the portrait wanted by the double
 (detail from page 55)

Another story concerns Mr. Dickinson, a photographer who had a studio in Grainger Street, Newcastle. One Saturday morning, January 3rd, 1890, he had been at his studio when he was called on by a young gentleman who said his name was Thompson. Mr. Thompson did not have his receipt but was looking for the portrait photographs that he had sat for on 6th December. On being told that his photographs were not ready yet, and being asked if he could call back later, he replied rather wearily and impatiently that he had been travelling all night and could not call again; he then walked out of the studio. Mr. Dickinson noted that the man looked very ill. He determined to make sure that this order was completed as soon as possible and then put the matter out of his mind until January 9th when Mr. Thompson's father called at the studio to pick up his son's portrait. It soon transpired that his son had died on the very day that he had been seen in the photographic studio; he had, in fact, been unconscious for all of that day up until his death at 2.30pm, and so would have been quite unable to have gone to pick up his photographs. Apparently he had been delirious the night before and had called out many times for his photographs. Stead concludes that the only satisfactory explanation of this story is that of a 'Thought Body' sent by the young man when he was unconscious to accomplish the task he was most anxious to do.

from "celtic fairy tales"
(detail from reviewed books)

The volume concludes with an appendix of some historical ghosts and a section of reviews of the season's gift books for Christmas. This covers books for all ages, but avoiding those works with "that sickly sentiment which spoils so many books of this class".  Celtic fairy tales (edited by Joseph Jacobs) is recommended as "the best gift-book of the season for children" - perhaps because many of its stories are also supernatural?

W.T Stead followed up Real Ghost Stories in 1892 with More Ghost Stories: A Sequel to Real Ghost Stories. Being a New Year's extra number of the Review of Reviews.


from "celtic fairy tales"
(detail from reviewed books)

Since the 1850s there had been a huge upsurge in paranormal claims throughout the Western world, related to the spread of the new religion of Spiritualism. The great advances in science were providing new means of probing into the unknown and conventional religious beliefs were being eroded. Considerable publicity was given to the Spiritualist movement by the press during the 1860s and, although much of the comment was negative, it did draw attention to the more sensational aspects of psychic phenomena. Sťances were held in the salons of fashionable society hostesses and in theatres, catering for the hordes of enthusiastic fans who were eager to hear the spirits answer their questions by means of coded raps or tilts and turns of the table; even Queen Victoria and her court experimented with table rapping and it is alleged that the medium Robert James Lees, a close friend of W.T.Stead, performed sťances for the Queen. The popularity of such activities as parlour games in middle or upper class homes of the period is illustrated in a passage in the classic 1892 satire The Diary of A Nobody where Mr. Pooter disapproves of his wife and friends indulging in 'table-turning' so much that he jokingly gives the floor over the parlour (where the sťance was taking place) two loud raps with his hammer.

Some of the more sensational mediums such as D.D. Home (1833-1886) and the Davenport brothers became celebrity figures and had the patronage of European royalty. D.D Home was notable because he was never detected in any fraud and, after his retirement, nobody else could quite take his place. His accomplishments included levitating tables and, even himself, when he floated out of a third floor window and in at another before an amazed audience. The Davenport brothers, Ira and William, hailed from New York State. They were consummate showmen and put on public sťances in the Queen's Concert Rooms, Hanover Square, then toured Britain, Paris and Russia. In 1867, they gave a sťance for the Tsar in St Petersburg. They could have taken over the place in the public affection vacated by D.D. Home but, instead, returned to America. The so called 'Golden Age' of Spiritualism of the 1860s and 1870s was a period when many gifted, charismatic mediums were working. The movement declined in the next two decades but had a revival from 1915 to 1939 as many bereaved families from the Great War were attracted by the promise of contacting their dead. Unfortunately, this revival of Spiritualism also brought with it a sharp rise in the number of fraudulent mediums.

contents page

Professor Henry Sidgwick (page 10)

The Society for Psychical Research was the first learned society of its kind. It was founded in London in 1882 to investigate paranormal activity in an objective and scientific way. The leaders of the SPR created a methodology and administrative framework for investigation which included the foundation of a scholarly journal for the reporting and discussion of psychical research worldwide. The first president of the SPR was Henry Sidgwick, who was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge University. His chief associates in the early stages were Frederick Myers, a classical scholar, and Edmund Gurney, who was the main author of Phantasms of the Living, considered a classic of psychical research. Many of the members of the SPR were prominent figures in society such as physicists, philosophers and classical scholars, who diligently investigated, corroborated and catalogued reports of paranormal claims and learnt to recognise fake mediums, in pursuit of a scientific explanation.Today the SPR continues to promote and support the main areas of psychical research: spontaneous phenomena, mediumship, amd experimental work. The society's own publications, its journal and occasional proceedings, have been produced since the 1880s.

Edmund Gurney (frontispiece)

notice to clairvoyants (detail from page 41)

The editor of this volume, William Thomas Stead (1849-1912), was one of the most controversial men of his age. He was a journalist, editor, author, Spiritualist and pacifist. He began his journalistic career as a reporter on the Northern Echo in Darlington, becoming its editor in 1871. Stead was determined to turn the paper into 'an engine of social reform'. He believed newspapers should inform and entertain but he also wanted to promote the causes of Liberalism, social justice, equality, and morality. He tackled this with great energy and, some would say, an evangelising zeal. Eventually Stead moved on to a wider stage, taking a job as assistant editor in 1880 with the Pall Mall Gazette, rising to its editorship in 1883.

cabinet ministers who have seen ghosts from appendix of historical ghosts
(detail from page 102)

Stead was known as a radical and campaigning journalist and his style was very much in the vein of tabloid journalism today. He also had a gift for self promotion and his earlier religious fervour gave way to outright sensationalism. One of his most notorious campaigns was conducted on behalf of child prostitutes in 1885, when he published a series of articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, exposing the trade. The resulting public outcry was overwhelming and forced the government to enact the Criminal Law Ammendment Bill which raised the female age of consent from 13 to 16. Unfortunately for Stead, the way in which he proved the trade's existence - ie. by 'purchasing' 13 year old Eliza Armstrong to prove how easy it was to obtain young children for prostitution - led to his being jailed for three months for abduction and indecent assault.

Stead's journalistic reputation never fully recovered from this episode, particularly as prostitution was still a taboo subject that was considered an unfit subject for discussion, let alone to be splashed across the daily newspapers. He became more immersed in Spiritualism, although he continued to be outspoken on many issues, particularly about war.

detail from page 11

Stead had dabbled in Spiritualism and attended his first sťance in 1881 but it was not until 1890 - when he became editor of the Review of Reviews - that he was able to pursue this interest further. The Review of Reviews was written almost exclusively by Stead and contained magazine and book reviews along with a running commentary of world events and a character sketch of a current celebrity. The Review was an instant success and led to the founding of the equally successful American and Australian editions. In 1893, he founded the spiritualism quarterly Borderland. Stead continued to write on supernatural matters until his death. He also campaigned, particularly against the Boer War, and was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. He died on 15 April, 1912, in the Titanic disaster. His body was never recovered. The Review of Reviews carried on after his death and was eventually merged with World magazine; it was renamed the World Review in 1940.


Although an entire Christmas issue of a periodical devoted to ghost stories may seem unusual, it was in fact a common feature in the Victorian period for there to be at least one ghost story included in the Christmas edition of many popular periodicals. From the 1840s, publishers were able to produce cheaper special Christmas reading for the aspiring middle classes such as Christmas supplements and special editions of serials and magazines. Charles Dickens' twopenny weekly Household Words, launched in 1856, always had a short story in its Christmas issue; this was, more often than not, a ghost story. He also wrote Christmas ghost stories for its successor All the Year Round.

Ghost stories were an integral part of the Victorian Christmas. Read around the fire, they were a popular home amusement in those households that could not afford the expense of the theatre or concert going. Many stories were specifically written for such evening entertainment. The ghostly tales of M.R. James (1862-1936), for instance, were originally composed for reading on Christmas Eve at King's College, Cambridge; they were first published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) wrote "whenever five or six English-speaking people meet around a fire on Christmas Eve they start telling each other ghost stories"

The tradition of the Christmas ghost story (albeit probably not now told round a roaring fire) is still with us, as epitomized by the enduring popularity of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, (1843) with its many adaptations on film, television and stage. Dickens himself perhaps best encapsulates our enjoyment of the classic Yuletide ghost story in his preface to A Christmas Carol:

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.


We wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.



W.T. Stead:
More Ghost Stories: a sequel to Real Ghost Stories [London]: 1892 Sp Coll Ferguson Ao-y.28
My First Imprisonment London: 1886 Library Research Annexe Bf76-g.19
Real Ghost Stories (New Edition) London: 1905 Sp Coll Ferguson Al-d.43
Estelle Wilson Stead My Father: Personal and spiritual reminiscences London: 19[--?] Library Research Annexe U2 (superscript 2)-f.16

The Review of Reviews (16 v. Library's set lacks vols 11-14) Gen Ref Bibliog D4 1890

M.R. James:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary London: 1904 Sp Coll Ferguson Al-d.54
More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary London: 1911 Sp Coll Ferguson Al-c.56

Charles Dickens:
A Christmas Carol London: 1843 Sp Coll 918 (See Book of the Month for December 1999)
All The Year Round Sp Coll Mu56-a.16 and Sp Coll Z10-o.1-35
Household Words: A Weekly Journal London: 1850-1859 Sp Coll Z10-n.1-19

Edmund Gurney:
Phantasms of the Living London: 1886 Library Research Annexe E8/9 (superscript 2)-e.3
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 1884-1972 Library Research Annexe Psychology Periodicals

Simon Callow Dickens' Christmas: A Victorian Celebration Abrams: 2003

Geoffrey K. Nelson Spiritualism and Society Routledge: 1969 Level 5 Psychology X91 NEL

Gilda O'Neill The Good Old Days: Poverty, Crime and Terror in Victorian London (particularly chapter on 'Conmen, Tricksters, Clairvoyants and Frauds') Penguin: 2007

Ronald Pearsall The Table-Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult Sutton Publishing, 2004

The Society for Psychical Research website [page accessed 20 November 2007]

The W.T. Stead Resource Site website [page accessed 20 November 2007]




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Niki Pollock December 2007