The Death Hunters: A Fragment

Paul DelvauxHere’s something else for Halloween, from the as yet unpublished second volume of the memoirs of the Victorian penny-a-liner Jack Vincent, which I am presently editing for the Green Door Press. This volume is largely concerned with the author’s search for his lost sister, a quest that brings him into contact with the original Spiritualist movement in England in the early-1850s. The following extract is of particular historical interest, being a detailed account of one of the first true Spiritualist séances in London…

The current fashion for talking to the dead started about four years ago. While Europe was in revolt and the Chartists were falling apart, across the Atlantic the veil was lifting. It began in a desolate farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, where the Fox Sisters, Kate and Maggie, struck up a dialogue with an entity that had been nightly tormenting the family by banging on walls, doors and windows. They asked the presence questions which it affirmed or denied by rapping, clearly indicating some sort of intelligence. The girls called it ‘Mr. Splitfoot.’ They said it was the ghost of a murdered peddler.

That was the story, anyway.

They’ll believe anything along the Erie Canal, and news of the miraculous communication soon spread, its notoriety enhanced by the prophecies of Andrew Jackson Davis, the Poughkeepsie Seer, who had recently written that ‘the truth that spirits commune will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration.’ The girls’ brother devised an alphabetical method similar to a Chinese spirit board to move the conversation along, while older sister Leah saw the chance to get away from her husband and began to market the family’s medial powers. The girls soon took their show on the road and their ‘Spiritualism’ quickly became a national sensation. By 1850, they had been signed by P.T. Barnum and it was estimated that there were over a hundred practicing mediums in New York alone. Augustus De Morgan, the mathematician whose atheism had kept him out of both Oxford and Cambridge, later told me that this progression put him in mind of the spread of smallpox.

And now the disease had arrived in London. There was nothing new about mystics, clairvoyants and soothsayers, of course, all of whom, like thieves, whores and priests, had plied their trades since the dawn of human time. I had seen many in action myself, these magicians among the spirits, most recently during my last and fruitless foray into their twilight world in search of my sister five years before, although I’d been reporting ghost sightings in the penny press since the days of the Prince Regent. I’d also brushed up against the Rosicrucians on occasion, so was no stranger to the blackest of arts. I loved a good ghost story, too, and had written dozens myself. The only difference between me and the working mediums, whether of the old school or the new American Spiritualists, was that I did not pretend it was all real.

In my profession, hauntings were covered like any other news item. After years of investigation, however—eerie, enchanting and downright disturbing though the experiences frequently were—I had never personally witnessed anything that led me to conclude, beyond every reasonable doubt, that any of the admittedly strange phenomena that was told to me, or which I observed myself, was genuinely preternatural, as opposed to a morbid or superstitious fancy, a catchpenny scheme, or a deception of the nerves within the eye. If apparitions be permitted at all, I felt, at least outside the pages of a good story, then they were no more miraculous or extramundane than globular lightning, snow devils, honest politicians, and other incidents of rare occurrence: difficult to explain, but nonetheless perfectly natural. That said, I tended to be a lot less sceptical when the sun went down. When at work at night upon a fantastic tale, the loosing of the old and imperfect latch that caused the door of my study to swing slowly open of itself was still a reason to recharge my glass and light another candle.

‘The ghost, like the marks and sounds of language, is arbitrary,’ I once confidently asserted, in a piece for Fraser’s called ‘A Pleasing Fear,’ written on a very bright morning about twenty years ago, ‘its meaning established through collective cultural associations. We see them because we expect to see to see them, and because we all know the stories.’ In the great tradition of British Empiricism, crossed with a tendency I still have to see the world in terms of units of narrative, I thus concluded that ‘the revenant of legend that appears to haunt all societies of men is, therefore, no more or less than an ancient myth and a gothic archetype.’

‘Even Jack Vincent is turned renegade,’ James Hogg complained in Blackwood’s, ‘and a great number of eminent men nowadays are beginning broadly to insinuate that there are no such things as ghosts.’

But that was a more rational time, when we all read Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft and David Brewster’s enthusiastic reply, and nodded in sage agreement that spirit manifestations could be explained away in physiological terms, principally as optical illusions according to Bishop Berkeley’s new theory of vision. Any belief in the supernatural and the sublime seemed barely excusable in a thinking age. This was apart, of course, from The Nicene Creed, which remained, apparently, beyond question, even to men of science. Now, however, tables were tapping and tilting throughout the fashionable withdrawing rooms of Europe. The houses of the rich began to resound with those curious percussive cracks by which the spirits of the dead cheerfully communicated with all who pleased to consult them, while the transatlantic press peddled freshly written gospels and the new doctrine of universal resurrection.

As a purveyor of stories of horror and the supernatural—a ‘Gothicist’ as my old friend Ainsworth would have it—I was at once fascinated and appalled by the sudden and credulous assimilation of such tales as fact by the middle and upper classes, who invited the mad and the macabre into their homes as willingly as they might entertain a vicar. What use my craft, I wondered, if the dead rose to order after dinner, like nuts and cigars? If my family’s livelihood did not still depend quite as much on scary stories, the irony would have been quite delicious. (Had Mr. Poe not been lately murdered, I’m sure he would have loved it.) Although the new Spiritualists spoke notionally in the language of the gospels, the reality was as I had argued in Fraser’s all those years ago. There was a general receptivity for life after death in the air not because of the reading public’s familiarity with the bible, but with the literature of terror.

The American epidemic began in earnest at the end of the summer that had begun with my popular turn at the Birkenhead Court Martial. The first carriers to cross the sea were Mr. and Mrs. Hayden of Hartford, Connecticut, an unprepossessing couple who nonetheless created enough of a stir about town to kill off the last of my press. But I did not begrudge them, for the public tire quickly and lust only for whatever is new, and the Eastern Question buried the African soon enough in any event, although that is another story. Mrs. Hayden was the medium, while her husband supported, and they came as missionaries, intent upon spreading the Spiritualist word to our heathen shores. Their reputation preceded them, for they had conducted séances in Connecticut with Daniel Dunglas Home, still a young man but already, like the Fox Sisters, something of a psychical celebrity. In his presence, it was said, massive pieces of furniture, which it would take three or four good men to lift, would rock violently, while armchairs flew from one end of the room to another as if driven by a hurricane. From what I had heard, the Hayden’s talents were somewhat more modest and less physical, but as Dickens already hated them I decided they must be worth a visit.

Being known as one of the so-called ‘Heroes of the Birkenhead’ had not made me any richer, but it had afforded some new social connections the like of which I had not experienced since the height of my prelapsarian fame. I thus managed to talk my way into one of Mrs. Susannah Milner Gibson’s Cavendish Square soirées, at which Mrs. Hayden was expected to perform.

This was achieved through the acquaintance of the Edinburgh publisher Robert Chambers, who admired my coverage of the gallantry of the predominantly Scots officers on the ship and was very tight with the Gibsons, and my professional association with the Irishman Thomas Colley Gratton, a fellow contributor to the New Monthly and the Edinburgh Review. Gratton’s politics were in sympathy with Mr. Gibson, then the Liberal Member for Manchester, as broadly were my own, while I always got on better with Northerners, Catholics and Jacobites than the Southern English literary establishment; mavericks, outcasts, and subversives tending to group together. Gratton and I were the only journalists allowed through the door, our entry predicated upon a promise to our illustrious hostess to keep our minds open, to report nothing of what we witnessed to the outside world, and to donate a guinea each to ‘the cause,’ the fund being administered by Mr. Hayden.

Dickens was also a regular visitor, but I did not seek his patronage on this occasion and he did not attend this particular gathering. ‘I have not the least belief in the awful unseen being available for evening parties at a guinea a head,’ he had recently told me, in that way of his that made you feel like an idiot for even raising the subject. ‘And although I shall be ready to receive enlightenment from any source,’ he had continued, ‘I have very little hope of it from the spirits who express themselves through mediums, as I have never yet observed them talk anything but nonsense.’

I was no less cynical than was he, of course, and he wrote almost as many ghost stories as I did (although his were instructional whereas mine were just nasty), but whatever he personally thought of what he called my ‘continued dabbling in the occult,’ I had other motives in joining the cognoscenti. I was banking on the renewed interest in messages from the undiscovered country flushing out my sister and her keeper, for there was clearly money to be made and this would attract Freddie Biles like a rat to a freshly dug grave.

The evening began with a substantial supper, which partially redeemed the price of admission, which I could ill-afford and had neglected to mention to my wife. The group was a select one, and of a propitious number, Mr. Hayden assured us, comprising Mrs. Milner Gibson, Chambers, Gratton, and myself, also Professor De Morgan, then at London University, his wife, and, accompanying Chambers, Mrs. Catherine Crowe, an early-adapter and the author of the bestselling compendium to the supernatural, The Night Side of Nature. We had met before. Mr. Milner Gibson, however, had apparently been called away on an urgent constituency matter. I was seated between Tom Gratton and De Morgan at a vast oval table in a reception room done out in red chintz, more usually employed, said Mrs. Gibson, for ‘political business.’ No one, as far as I could ascertain, was recently bereaved, and all were thus there assembled for a bit of a lark, with the possible exception of Mrs. Crowe who was likely conducting research.

‘Seven sitters could not be more favourable,’ explained Mr. Hayden in a gentle New England drawl. He was clearly the managing partner. Self-assured and well-spoken, he had apparently been a doctor before he received a higher calling. ‘Seven is the number of the seeker after truth,’ he continued, ‘and of divine perfection, for did not the Lord bless and sanctify the seventh day after He created the heavens and the earth.’

‘Amen,’ said Mrs. Hayden fervently. She was a fresh if plain young woman, possessed of considerably fewer years than her husband.

I noted he did not include his wife or himself in the calculation, and wondered if he always found a way to round up or down to a good number when decoding the patterns of the universe. (That’s what I would have done.)

Gratton at that point leaned in and whispered, ‘Seven days of the week, seven seas, seven sacraments, seven deadly sins, seven hills of Rome, seven ages of man, seven against Thebes, seven kings of Tara, seven swans a swimming—’

I choked on my port and received a very stern look from the hostess. All I’d been able to think of was the seventh voyage of Sinbad, but I thought it prudent not to mention that just then.

‘Sorry,’ I said.

She nodded and returned her attention to her guests of honour. Mrs. Hayden was not seated with us, but in an armchair by the window at the far side of the room about which her husband fluttered attentively, although he had a place at the great table. We all sat in a crescent formation opposite the medium, with Mrs. Gibson at three o’clock and Mr. Hayden at nine. The lights were dimmed, as it is in the theatre before the commencement of a performance, leaving only a single, three arm candelabra burning upon the table.

‘When spirits make physical demonstrations,’ Mr. Hayden had explained, ‘they are compelled to assume shapes that human eyes must not look upon.’

The servants were dismissed, and De Morgan refilled my glass with a wink.

We were not required to link hands, and were instead furnished with square pencils and clean stationary, ‘For the purpose,’ said Mr. Hayden, ‘of communicating privately with the spirits.’ Apparently we could write questions upon the paper, if we preferred to keep the dialogue between ourselves and the visitants, rather than sharing it with the group. He next produced a large pack of plasterboard cards, each, he showed us, bearing an ornate letter of the alphabet or a number between ‘0’ and ‘9.’ These he carefully placed upon the table, as if we were all playing Whist. ‘May we begin?’ he asked Mrs. Gibson.

‘Oh, please do,’ she said.

Hayden stood before his wife, placing a hand upon her shoulder. ‘Are you prepared, my love?’ he asked her.

‘I am,’ she replied.

He then addressed himself to us. ‘Is everyone ready?’

All nodded in silent assent.

‘May I ask you all, then, to concentrate on the survival of the human essence after death,’ he continued, ‘and to leave your minds open to vibrations, impressions, and messages.’

Everyone stared very seriously at the candles.

‘Please bear in mind that the spirits are not always dependable,’ he added parenthetically, before his voice once more became confident and commanding, with that absolute certainty common to his race that his was the one true faith. ‘Banish all worldly distraction,’ he said, ‘and listen with your heart.’ The authority of the surgeon’s table and the lecture theatre was unmistakable in his delivery, and perhaps, I surmised, of the pulpit as well. ‘Dread not the crossing,’ he intoned. ‘We are but wanderers on the boarders of the Great Beyond, yet we fear not, for we know, under the laws of God Almighty, that death is not the end. There is but a thin veil of darkness between the world of men and the further spheres. Let the rising sun of spiritual knowledge pierce this veil. Let the spirits speak.’

At his side, Mrs. Hayden leaned back and closed her eyes. Even in the insipid glow of the candles I swear she grew visibly paler until she was as white as a man about to be hanged.

‘She enters her trance,’ said Hayden. ‘Let us pray.’ He bowed his head. ‘There are also celestial bodies,’ he began, ‘and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. Amen.’

‘Amen,’ replied the company, myself included. Only Mrs. Hayden kept silent.

With that, Hayden took his seat while his wife began to breathe deeply and regularly, as if asleep. Her repose appeared peaceful, but for her wraithlike hands, which grasped and clawed about the arms of her chair. The eyes of everyone in the room were intently fixed upon her, and we sat thus without words for a good quarter of an hour.

I was no doubt not alone in beginning to apprehend a failure when a slight throbbing or patting sound was heard, as if of a cat running across a hardwood floor, apparently coming from the centre of the table.

Mrs. Hayden’s eyes snapped open and she stared straight at me in a most disconcerting fashion. ‘They are coming,’ she said.

This was accompanied by a tremendous hammering upon the woodwork, and I’d be playing you false if I did not concede that I started like a neurasthenic soldier under fire. I was aware that Gratton had similarly flinched, although I cannot attest to the disposition of the rest of the party, other than to say that the men all looked shaken, the women excited.

‘You jumped,’ said Gratton, under his breath.

‘Did not,’ I hissed.

Although a fire burned in the grate, offering additional and much needed illumination, the atmosphere became cold and dismal. Mrs. Hayden continued to stare, while her husband permitted himself a smile.

The knocking came again, demanding, insistent, terrifying. ‘How is she doing that?’ muttered De Morgan.

‘There is a spirit who wishes to speak with someone here,’ said Mrs. Hayden, sounding suddenly like a child. I recalled her ‘Control,’ or guiding spirit, was reputed to be a little girl, which made a change. Most of them were Navajo chiefs and Apache warriors. ‘I must point to each in turn, and when I come to the right one, beg that the spirit will rap.’

No sounds were heard until her spidery figure sought me out, at which point the rapping recommenced with great enthusiasm. I resisted, with difficulty, the urge to blaspheme, for I did not wish this dubious honour, and was here only to observe. My female companions clearly did, however, and I inwardly cursed the silly bitch for choosing to sport with me instead of one of them. And not only was my selection an annoyance and an embarrassment. While my intellect knew this was no more than a parlour trick, my fancy conjured up all manner of uncomfortable speculations.

Mr. Hayden rose and began arranging the cards upon the table in front of me in a series of arching rows, A—M, N—Z, 0—9. I made use of this distraction to help myself to another drink. Hayden then regained his seat and directed me to point to the letters of the alphabet in order, taking care not rest on any one.

‘In for a penny,’ said I, feigning indifference. I started pointing to the cards as if counting them off, feeling not a little foolish. Periodically, a single sharp knock would indicate a chosen letter. Hayden made a note in a small reader, and I repeated the process until the raps had clearly ceased. I had another drink. Hayden read out the word, but I already knew what it was. They had plainly done their homework.

‘Do you know a Sarah?’ said Hayden, and all in the room looked on expectantly.

‘No,’ I said.

The table positively thundered in response.

‘Are you sure?’ said Hayden.

My blood was by now heating, and not just from an excess of port wine. Inwardly I counted to five-and-twenty, and managed to master my emotions without, I hope, betraying them. I could ill afford an explosion in this sort of company. If my change in disposition was marked, it was taken as a sign of mild shock and wordlessly excused by the sympathetic believers. I was thus gently persuaded by the company to repeat the experiment. Again, the name shared by my late mother and my long-lost sister was spelt out.

Mrs. Gibson tried to help. ‘Is Sarah the name of the spirit,’ she asked Hayden, ‘or a reference of some kind?’

Hayden looked to his wife, who tilted her head and seemed to giggle, delicate raps showering about her, as if a large handful of knitting needles had just been carelessly dropped upon the floor. ‘Who is it that speaks?’ he said.

‘Sarah,’ she whispered, her voice trailing off like a mortician requesting ten bob down.

Again all eyes rested upon me. ‘Not ringing a bell,’ I said.

(Bastards, I thought.)

Mrs. Hayden slumped in her chair and Hayden asked Mrs. Gibson if she might call for water. Refreshment was duly sent for, affording an intermission during which the strange phenomena were keenly debated.

Mrs. Crowe was a firm believer in what she called the tripartite kingdom of the dead. ‘Between the Elysian fields and the Tartarean abyss,’ she said, ‘there is also a mid-region, peopled with innumerable hosts of wandering and mournful spirits, who, although undergoing no torments, are pining for the life they once enjoyed in the body.’ She was a gaunt, dark woman known for a miserable and morbid disposition, and well suited her nickname in the trade, which was Carrion Crow. ‘They cannot snap the links that bind them to this earth,’ she continued, ‘and it is my belief that it is with these unfortunate souls that we converse.’

Chambers, who had Swedenborgian leanings, was backing his woman without really saying anything, and De Morgan was doing much the same out of courtesy to his wife and our hostess, both of whom seemed very taken with it all. I privately doubted one of the nation’s foremost logicians was falling for it, especially given his well-known and sceptical views on religion. ‘I concede that there may be incorporeal intelligences in the universe,’ he said diplomatically.

‘Like angels, spirits and fairies,’ said his wife, the credulous voice of wonder unmistakable in her words, which were spoken without a trace of irony.

‘Some may choose to designate them such,’ said De Morgan, removing his spectacles and absentmindedly buffing them up with a handkerchief, ‘but whatever these intelligences might be, it is possible that they might sometimes communicate with men.’

‘And women, dear,’ added Mrs. De Morgan, plainly energised by the fact that her gender seemed far more attuned to the spirit world, given the predominance of female mediums already active in America.

I could tell by the gleam in his eye that Gratton knew as well as I that this was all bollocks, but he was evidently enjoying the evening’s entertainment, and that would no doubt include my own discomfiture at being singled out for a reading. ‘To the memory of the dead!’ said he, raising his glass with ill-concealed delight.

‘Aye,’ I said, draining my own drink in a single draught.

‘Are ye no troubled that the spirits sought you out, Jack?’ he said, ‘especially given your line o’ work.’

To my surprise, Mrs. Crowe took it upon herself to interject on my behalf before I could lift my glass and suggest that there was really only one sort of spirit that interested me. ‘I fancy Mr. Vincent has seen something much worse than ghosts,’ she said, eyeing me up cryptically.

You don’t know the bloody half of it, I thought.

Shortly thereafter, I took the opportunity to politely take my leave. I had seen more than enough, and could do without the mindreading act that would no doubt follow after the interval.

Mrs. Crowe was very keen to see me off, and loitered about the hall like wraith in a church ruin while I waited for my hat and coat. ‘They should not have done that,’ she said, in that fractured tone of hers that spoke of both educated Edinburgh and the madhouse cells, and which always reminded me of the cadaverous Tory publisher William Blackwood. She was not a Scot by birth, but had lived there long enough for traces of the accent to seep in, like mould into a coffin.

‘Done what?’ I said, eager to be on my way.

‘The cards,’ she said, her tenor hushed and nervous. ‘They’re not safe.’

‘They’re slow,’ said I. ‘Could the woman not just speak?’ I had witnessed enough charlatans and gypsies to have the more traditional clairvoyant act off by heart.

‘They are amateurs,’ she said, ‘dilettantes. They know not what they do.’ She sighed, apparently searching for the appropriate image. ‘You would not open the door to your house,’ she finally said, ‘and invite any passing stranger in off the street, would you?’

‘Of course not.’

‘I fear, Mr. Vincent,’ said she, ‘that you may have just done exactly that.’

I chose not to pursue this. My cab had arrived by this point in any event, so I bade her good night with the insincere promise that we really must do this again sometime.

‘Take care, Jack,’ she said quickly, as the door was closing.

It was a cold bladed night. Autumn was coming on now, and I pulled up the collar of my long leather greatcoat and shivered, before climbing into the coach and calling out for Ladbroke Grove and home. The midnight air did nothing to clear my head, and the crack of the horse’s hooves upon the cobbles in the otherwise silent square soon became mesmeric echoes of the dray that had born my mother to her last rest thirty-odd years before. I loosed the window strap and breathed deeply to dispel the unwanted vision. Instead, the animal’s steps next replicated the insistent hammering upon the séance table, like the knocking at the gate in MacBeth. I threw a curse at the night, and the horse became once more a horse.

Sober now, I arranged the events of the evening in my head, and pondered the significance of Mrs. Crowe’s queer farewell. Well, that was short, sharp and shite, I concluded, as I looked back towards the Gibson house fading into the darkness. There was nothing to it but pantomime, of that I was sure, and a poorly performed one at that. I was reminded of the fleeting fashion for pirates and highwaymen a few years back, and how quickly that had burnt itself out. No doubt this would be much the same.

I could not have been more wrong. I did not realise then that what I had in fact witnessed that night was the beginning of a new religion.

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