“No Ghosts Need Apply”

“This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain.

The world is big enough for us.

No ghosts need apply.”

(“The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”)

So Sherlock Holmes famously declares to Watson when the pair go to solve the case of what, at first, appears to be a case of vampirism. Of course, Holmes never imagined for a second that an actual member of the undead was draining members of the Ferguson household of blood; nor did he believe that a spectral hound was haunting the Baskerville family. Sherlock Holmes was a man of science and, when it came to the supernatural, the ultimate sceptic. Still, he lived in an age when many Britons, regardless of background, were ready and willing to believe in the ghostly–witness the Spiritualist beliefs of Watson’s literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–so he could hardly escape hearing about the hauntings, groanings, rappings, and mediumistic hijinks occurring (supposedly) all around him. This month, we’ll look at a few supernatural sources Sherlock Holmes may have encountered during his childhood, youth, and public career…

First up, an article which actually debunks several ghost tales, taken from the Leeds Intelligencer from 7 May, 1864.  If, as Baring-Gould tells us, Sherlock Holmes spent his boyhood in Yorkshire, he may well have read this piece at the impressionable age of ten, and taken from it that every supernatural event has a natural explanation:

(From The Guardian website)
               (From The Guardian website)


You may not admire my taste, good reader, but I am very fond of ghost stories. Bear with me–I’m a lonely bachelor, and my friends–some of whom are slightly idiotic if not downright lunatics–say somewhat eccentric. Well, not to talk more of my poor self, the ghost, I may say, has been the great bugbear of our lives from infancy to manhood, and many a time on long winter nights, when the tempestuous north winds are discoursing doleful and weird-like music, and when the ‘wrathful skies gallow the very wanderers of the dark,’ I think of  ‘dear friends departed,’  who are said not to rest easily at the bourne from whence, as the immortal bard of Avon says, ‘no traveller returns.’ I live on a great moor–dreary enough on dreary winter nights–and as I am of a somewhat dreamy and superstitious nature, the reader may easily fancy about the ‘noon of night’ the directions that my reveries sometimes take. The house in which I have lived since childhood has a ghostly reputation, but the ghost in question, although it has had many opportunities of giving me a flying call, she–although I fully believe our ghost is of the epicene gender, viz., a Fan Tom–hsa not had the good manners to do so as yet. However, to be serious–frightened into a belief in ghosts and hobgoblins by our nurses in childhood, the belief has clung to us with terrible pertinacity, all through after life, often exerting a very injurious influence, not only upon our imaginations and nervous system, but also our general health of body. Many good and eminent men of various nations and in all ages have, indeed, been believers in ghosts; it is not difficult, however, to trace this belief to the influence of early education; and upon a subject of this kind great names must not be considered as authoritative against common sense and the universal experience of mankind, which is–that no one has ever seen a ghost himself, but always knows someone else who has! But, thanks to Professor Pepper, the ghost has now become a popular and pleasant companion and we have been let into some of the secrets, in reference to the manufacture of ghosts ‘wholesale and retail.’

Professor Pepper's
Professor Pepper’s “Ghost” was a popular phantasmagoric entertainment at the time. Beginning in 1862, John Henry Pepper of the Royal Polytechnique, using a mirror technique developed by Henry Dircks, thrilled audiences throughout Britain who came to see his “specter” onstage. Had the young Sherlock Holmes been among them, he had yet another reason to assume that ghosts only existed through trickery.

I shall not now, however, on the present occasion, undertake to deny the possibility of spectral appearances–all that I shall attempt to do is simply to show the utter groundlessness of the belief in supernatural appearances, as evinced in the generally received ghost stories, and to show the impossibility of such appearances subserving any useful purpose in the economy of nature, without which object in view they would not be employed as agent in accomplishing God’s purposes. There are many who, although they do not really believe in spectral appearances, are, nevertpe less the subjects of continual fear, arising, it may be, from nervous temperaments causing an involuntary and indescribable feeling of dread whenever passing, for example, thorough a churchyard, or other lonely spot,

‘At the witching hour, when churchyards yawn,

And graves give up the dead.’

Now, it is my wish, if possible, to remove this fear, and, therefore, without denying spiritual existence, or even the possibility of spiritual appearances, I shall endeavour to show in what way many of these supposed appearances may be accounted for. And sometimes, no doubt, they may arise from natural delusion produced by fantastic objects indistinctly seen under the influence of an excited imagination. Who, for instance, has not conjured up in his mind, while sitting in a gloomy mood over a winter’s fire, all kinds of fantastic and frightful objects, which have appeared to flit before his eyes like so many imps out for a holiday. I have many a time and oft. So, in many cases, the imagination has conjured up a ghost or hobgoblin, as may be seen from the following instance, related by Sir Walter Scott, in his first letter on Demonology and Witchcraft.

Scott Letters on Demonology and Wtichcraft

A friend of his own, he says, was ‘engaged during the darkening twilight of an autumn evening in perusing one of the publications which professed to detail the habits and opinions of an illustrious poet. It was when laying down his book, and passing from his sitting-room into an entrance hall fantastically fitted up, through which the moon was beginning to shine, that the individual spoke of, saw right before him, and in a standing posture, the exact representation of his departed friend, the poet, whose recollection had been so strongly brought to his imagination. He stopped for a single moment, so as to notice the wonderful accuracy with which fancy had impressed upon the bodily eye the peculiarities of dress and posture of the deceased poet. Sensible, however, of the delusion, he felt no sentiment, save that of wonder, at the extraordinary accuracy of the resemblance, and stepped onwards towards the figure, which resolved itself, as he approached, into the various materials of which it was composed, which were merely a screen, occupied by great coats, shawls, plaids, and such other articles as usually are found in a country entrance-hall. Now, it is evident, in this case, that if this gentleman had been an ignorant and superstitious man, this supposed appearance of the deceased poet would have been passed off as a real ghost. Another very striking case is also mentioned by the same author. A society of gentlemen were accustomed to meet on a certain evening in each week in the summer-hour of a garden in Plymouth, ‘On once occasion they came together as usual, when the president of the evening was known to be alarmingly ill. From a sentiment of respect the chair was left vacant, and the general conversation turned upon the absent president, when suddenly the door opened, and the appearance of the president entered the room. He wore a white wrapper, a night cap round his brow, and the appearance of his face was that of death itself. He stalked into the room with unusual gravity, took the vacant chair, lifted the empty glad which stood before him, bowed around, and put it to his lips; then replaced it on the table, and stalked out of the room as silent as he had entered it. The company were of course appalled. At length, after many observations on what they had seen, they resolved to send two of their number as visitors, to see how it fared with the president, whose appearance they had just seen. They went and returned with the frightful intelligence that he had just died.’ Here, then, was, without a doubt, a veritable ghost; and so, probably, thought many of the members, for the affair remained a mystery for many years until the nurse, who had attended the president at his death, on being taken ill herself, sent for one of the members, to ‘whom she acknowledged with many expressions of regret that she felt great distress of conscience on account of the manner in which he died. She said that, as his malady was attended by light-headedness, she had been directed to keep a close watch upon him during his illness. Unhappily, she slept, and during her sleep her patient had awaked and left the apartment. When, on her own awaking, she found the bed empty and the patient gone, she hurried out of the house to seek him, and met him in the act of returning. She got him replaced in bed, but it was only to die there. She added, to convincer her hearer of the truth of what she said, that immediately after the poor gentleman had expired, a deputation of two members from the club came to inquire after the president’s health, and received for answer that he was already dead.’

scary-ghost-story mental floss

‘There are,’ says Calmet, several kinds of specters or ghosts which haunt certain houses, make noises, appear there, and disturb those who live in them; some are sprites, or elves, which divert themselves by troubling those who dwell there; others are specters or ghosts of the dead who molest the living until they have received sepulture; others show themselves or make themselves heard, because they have been put to death in that place, and ask that their death may be avenged, or that their bodies may be buried. So many stories are related concerning these things, that now they are not cared for, and nobody will believe any of them. In fact, when these pretended apparitions are thoroughly examined into, it is easy to discover their falsehood and illusion.’ A case of this kind occurred in Picardy, where at a certain chateau flames and smoke were seen, and cries and frightful howling heard. The owner of the chateau was a brave man, and he resolved to find out the spirit and see what it was made of. Accordingly, when one night there was a great noise over the room in which he slept, himself and two friends rushed up into the room, each holding a pistol in one hand and a candle in the other, when a sort of black phantom, with horns and a tail, presented itself and began to gambol about before them. One of the gentlemen immediately fired off his pistol, but the specter, instead of falling, turned round and skipped out before him; the gentleman then tried to seize it, but it escaped by the back staircase; the gentleman followed it, but all at once, it entirely disappeared from his sight. But just when the spirit disappeared it was observed that there was a trap=door which was bolted underneath; they forced open the trap and there they found the pretend spirit, which was none other than the gentleman’s own farm bailiff. He owned all his artifices, and that what had rendered him proof against the pistol shot was having a buffalo’s hide which tightly fitted to his body.

Illustration for Sheridan Le Fanu's
Illustration for Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery.”

But the two most singular instances of haunted houses, perhaps, were Mr. Mompesson’s, at Bedworth, and the Rev. Wesley’s, at Epworth. In the one case, according to Glanvil, it appears that in March, 1661, Mr. Mompesson, who was a magistrate, had committed to prison, as a vagran,t a drummer who had been for some time levying alms from the people. The drum was, of course, taken from him, and detained by the proper officer. This was a proceeding by no means approved of, it appears, by either drum or drummer; for about the middle of next month (April), Mr. Mompesson being about to make a journey to London, himself took charge of the drum, and from that moment his troubles began; for, says Mr. Glanvil, ‘After this the noise of thumping and drumming was very frequent, usually five nights together, and then it would intermit three. It was on the outside of the house, which was most of it board. It constantly came as they were going to sleep, whether early or late. After a month’s disturbance without, it came into the room where the drum lay, four or five nights in seven, within half an hour after they were in bed, continuing almost two. The sign of it, just before it came, was a hurling over the house; and at its going off, the beating of a drum, like that at the breaking up of a guard.’ This continued, it seems, for about two months, only intermitting during Mr. Mompesson’s confinement, and then commencing with greater violence than before. For an hour together it would beat, as well as any drummer, ‘Roundheads and Cuckolds,’ the ‘Tattoo,’ and several other military pieces; it would then life the children from their beds, follow them about, and play all manner of pranks in the family. This continued altogether about two years, Mr. Mompesson himself ascribing it to ‘the malice of the drummer, in league with the evil one.’ In the present day we should not find it difficult to assign a more reasonable cause.

An illustration from Glanvil's account of the Tedworth Drummer, which by the mid-19th century had been determined to have been a hoax.
An illustration from Glanvil’s account of the Tedworth Drummer in “Saducismus Triumphatus” which by the mid-19th century had been determined to have been a hoax.

In Mr. Wesley’s case it would seem that at his parsonage-house at Epworth, there occurred, throughout the months of December, 1716, and January, 1717, sundry, unaccountable disturbances, of which he kept a detailed journal, and an account of which was afterwards published by John Wesley, in the Arminian Magazine. These disturbances consisted in doors opening and shutting without apparent cause, knockings in the wall and on the floor, throwing about the furniture, walking up and down-stairs, &c. There can be no doubt but that, in both these instances, we may account for the noises in the same way as the Cock-lane Ghost, the Stockwell Ghost, and others, namely from some trickery or imposture–although the Wesleys were disposed to account for the visitation in their case, from the fact of  Mrs. Wesley declining to say ‘Amen,’ when the king was prayed for. Some ghosts and specters no doubt owe their existence to a timorous or distempered imagination, while others take their rise from the reciprocal pleasure of deluding and being deluded. In fact, to this we attribute a great majority of cases of this kind. We all know that turnip, hollowed our by mischievous boys, with holes in the face of it, to represent eyes, nose, and mouth, and with a light placed inside, and stuck upon a pole with a sheet hung round, makes a capital ghost, and has frightened many an old woman of either sex. A winding sheet, also, wrapped round the body of a living man, makes a tolerable walking spectre on a dark night, especially in the neighbourhood of some haunted spot, or scene of recorded murder. Many such tricks are mentioned in the ‘Ghost Seer’ by Schiller, who describes in forcible language how apparitions may be created by means of the magic lantern; and how a man may be so charged with electricity as to be rendered invulnerable to the sword. And some instances of a similar kind may be found in Catherine Crowe’s “The Night Side of Nature.”

Epworth Rectory, site of the Wesley family's ghostly experiences in the early 18th century.
Epworth Rectory, site of the Wesley family’s ghostly experiences in the early 18th century.

Practical jokes are often play which have a very disastrous effect upon the individual upon whom they are practised. A gentleman of intelligence had been a frequent visitor in a family of distinction. The subject of ghosts was often discussed; the heads of the family contending for their occasional appearance, the visitor opposing that opinion. Upon one occasion the family determined to test the firmness of their friend’s views, and, accordingly, a sort of domestic drama was got up with this object in view. It was given out that the butler, a highly valued servant, had expired, and the whole family was put into mourning. When therefore the visitor next went to the house, he saw a new servant in the butler’s place, and at the dinner-table, he was informed of all the circumstances attending the supposed illness and death of the butler. In the midst of this conversation the gentleman, happening to turn his head, was greatly amazed to find the figure of the butler standing by the side-board; the conversation went on, no one but himself appearing to see the figure, which remained motionless until the company retired. At bed-time, he saw the same figure standing in a corner on the landing-place, as he ascended to his bed-room. By a little artifice, the gentleman’s attention was now directed by his host to some paintings, during which the butler vanished and when the visitor entered his bed-chamber the figure of the butler was there. He had not had candour enough during the evening to express his alarm, fearing that he should be laughed at; but now no sooner had the chamber-door closed upon him, with what he believed to be a ghost in the room, than the fear, which had tormented him all the evening, attained his climax, and he swooned away. The butler, finding things had gone too far, became alarmed and called for assistance; but the visitor was dead. Then, again, who had not heard of the case of the German student, who, for a wager with a fellow student, was watching in the same room with a coffined carcass. At  midnight, the body in the coffin rose slowly up like a white phantom, swaddled as it was in the sad habiliments of the grave. The student presented a pistol, but the body advanced–he fired–the spectre flung back in his face the innocuous bullet! What was the consequence? The apparition was a living, but the student was a dead man, for he survived not the shock. And yet nothing was more simple than the deception. His companion had extracted the bullet from his loaded pistol–removed the dead body–borrowed its habiliments–and taken its place in the coffin.  Again, a young Frenchman lost his betrothed on the eve of marriage; and believed that he saw her spirit every night in her bridal dress. His friends, to prove to him the folly of this belief, dressed a twin sister of the deceased in a dress precisely similar, and placed her at the foot of his bed, exactly at the hour the spirit was won’t to appear to him. He looked up, and crying out ‘Ah! ceil! en voila deux!’ fell back dead upon his pillow. Some few years ago, a friend of my own, at that time residing in Norfolk, had occasion to be from home very late one night. On his return home he had to pass through the churchyard, through which was a public pathway, crossed by a stile. The moon was shining in all its resplendent beauty, and every object around was distinctly visible. He had reached the middle of the churchyard, when he saw, what at first he supposed to be the shadow of a tree on the top of a flat gravestone. He advanced; but, as he did so, the apparent shadow, black from top to toe, gradually raised itself to a sitting posture. Terror took instant possession of the mind of our friend, and he was deprived of all power to move or speak, when slowly the spectre thus spoke–‘Please, zur, a’ yow zeen my dickey?’ Now, had this good friend suddenly fled, instead of being riveted to the spot by fear, this would always have been related as a ghostly appearance; but the fact of the case was, that a poor chimney-sweeper had been making his rounds during the day, and finding himself at night, overcome by fatigue, had sent his donkey (vulgo, in Norfolk, dickey) to graze, while he rested himself on a gravestone–he fell asleep, and did not wake until the footsteps aroused him; and his first thought about the welfare of his ‘dickey’ led to the inquiry which undeceived his terrified beholder as to his true character.

Old St Pancras

Dr. Fowler, Bishop of Gloucester, was not only a believer in ghosts, but wrote several works in defense of their existence on earth. Judge Powell was a great antagonist of the bishop, and attempted by the following device to convince of his error. The judge called one morning early at the bishop’s palace, when the following conversation ensured:–

Judge: Since I saw you I have had ocular demonstration of the existence of nocturnal apparitions. 

Bishop: I am glad you have become a convert to truth; but do you say actual ocular demonstration? Let me know all the particulars.

Judge: My lord, I will. It was–let me see–last Thursday night, between the hours of eleven and twelve o’clock, as I lay sleeping in my bed, I was suddenly awakened by an uncommon noise and heard something coming up-stairs and stalking directly towards my room; the door flying open I drew back my bed curtain and saw a faint glimmering light enter my bed-chamber. 

Bishop: Of a faint colour, no doubt. 

Judge: The light was a pale blue, my lord bishop, and followed by a tall figure, with hoary locks, and clothed in a long loose gown, a leathern girdle about his loins, a large fur cap on his head, and a long staff in his hand. I remained for some time motionless and silent–the figure advanced staring me full in the face; I then addressed it and said–Whence and what art thou? 

Bishop: What was the answer? Tell me; what was the answer? 

Judge: The following was the answer I received: I am watchman of the night, an’t please your honour, and make bold to come up-stairs to say that your street-door is left open, and if not soon shut you may be robbed before morning.

Well, if he looked like this....
       Well, if he looked like this….

As a general rule, it may be affirmed that ghosts never prey on healthy subjects surrounded by cheerful accessories. ‘Your lordship,’ said Sir Thomas Wolde to Lord Lyndhurst, on one occasion, ‘your lordship is not the kind of man to see apparitions; besides, you do not eat suppers.’ ‘Any one who thinks he has seen a ghost, says one, ‘may take the vision as a symptom that his bodily health is deranged. Let him therefore seek medical advice; and ten to one, the spectre will no more haunt him. To see a ghost is ipso facto to be a subject for a physician.’ The following case will exemplify this remark–it is said that of a gentleman of rank, resident in Edinburgh, who imagined that regularly and daily, precisely at the hour of six o’clock, when he had just finished dinner, his dining-room door flew open, an old withered hag rushed in with a furious countenance, and, muttering wrath and execration, knocked him to the ground with her staff. He consulted the celebrated Dr. Gregory, who requested permission to dine with him, and having witnessed, not the old hag herself, but the effects of her stroke, found the illusion to proceed from periodic shocks of the nature of apoplexy, happening regularly at that hour. The doctor succeeded, by blood-letting and other remedies,in disenchanting his patient. The hag was a mere spectre of his imagination, precisely similar to the sensations produced by nightmare, and was the effect of a morbid and diseased mind. ‘Conscience,’ says DeFoe, ‘raises many a devil that all the magic in the world cannot lay; it shows us many apparitions that no other eyes can see, and sets spectres before us with which the devil has no acquaintance; conscience makes ghosts walk, and departed souls appear when the souls themselves know nothing of it.’

Ebenezer Scrooge might have something to say about this.
Ebenezer Scrooge might have something to say   about this.

Two ladies once loved each other greatly. One of them was taken ill with small-pox and died; the other, fearing infection, did not go to see her friend. But after she was dead the deceased paid a visit of reproach to her living friend. she appears at her friend’s house in the dress of a widow, and politely asks to be allowed to see her. Her friend was then engaged at cards, and did not care to be troubled with any ghostly visitor, and, therefore, did not go down until the game was ended. When she went down to the apparition, to know her business, ‘Madam,’ said the ghost, ‘you know very well that you and I loved each other well, and your not coming to see me I took ill at your hands. I am now come to tell you that you have not long to live, and when you are at a feast and the thirteenth is number, then remember my words.’


There is also a peculiar state of the brain in which such appearances are not unusual. A remarkable case is quoted by Newnham in his Essay in Superstition, in which this extraordinary state of brainular disease is traced to the influence of tobacco fumes; and another, in which a German student subjected himself to the influence of hemlock, &c., for the purpose of exciting his imaginative powers. The brain is easily influenced, and hence the prevalence of morbid hallucination. It is related in the Memoirs of Pastor Oberlin, that there appeared nightly to the family of of one his parishioners, the ghost of an ancient knight, who gave information of treasure hidden in some cellar. Of course the good pastor who was called in, could see nothing; but he very wisely addressed the supposed apparition in a commanding tone, desiring it to delude his people no longer; and it never came again. To this cause, also, we attribute the supposed  remarkable appearance of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford, and many others of the same kind. A ghost, then, is, after all, a mere illusion, and has no substantially. If the ghost be substantial, it is evident that its habiliments must be substantial also; for a ghost never appears naked, but always clad in the dress of the time in which it lived. Even Shakespeare represents the ghost in Hamlet as clothed in armour from head to foot. Whence, we ask, comes this dress and this armour, and the habiliments are generally clothed? It must be evident that they come not from the grave, nor direct from the unseen world. They are the mere creatures of a disordered brain which, in conjuring up the ghost, naturally conjures up [] the dress usually worn. In the story of Mr. Thompson, as related by Mr. Dale Owen, it appears that, while he was lying ill in bed in his own house, his apparition (or double) appeared to two ladies, dressed in a blue frock coat [] satin waistcoat, black pantaloons, and hat, while he [] was observed to be particularly fine and []. In reading this story we are disposed to inquire whether the sick man or his friends missed any articles of apparel from his wardrobe. But George Cruikshank has made this the subject of special investigation; and although, [] certainly, his “Discovery” is not new, yet he has placed the matter before the public in such a manner as [] seriously to damage the belief in all ghosts, [] or dressed. Upon the whole, therefore, we may [] that none will ever see them, or be troubled with them, but those whose credulity, disordered frames, and superstitious fears, or hopes and wishes, give them an imaginary existence. There is no tangibility about them, and, like many other things of which we are acquainted, they will end in smoke; thus Homer:–

‘He said, and with his longing []

In vain to grasp the visionary state;

Like a thin smoke he sees the []

And hears a feeble, lamentable cry.”


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