Paranormal Phenomena

GhostBusters in the Victorian era


It’s been 30 years since Peter Venkman, Raymond Stanz and Egon Spengler took on the ghosts of Manhattan in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters film.

But historical records have revealed a trio of ghoul-hunting scientists were leading the way when it came to investigating the supernatural.

London-based Findmypast.co.uk discovered the first ever attempts to study and so-called ‘apparitional experiences’ began with Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore.


The three men were said to be leading figures in the early years of the Society for Psychical Research, and worked on the committee for Apparitions and Haunted Houses to provide evidence for human survival after death.

Their work was widely publicised by newspaper editor, of the Pall Mall Gazette, and believer and active commenter on spiritualism, William Thomas Stead.

Many of the original ‘ghostbusters’ theories and investigations involved séances, deathbed wraiths, hauntings, apparitions and mediums.

Their work began in 1882, when the Society for Psychical Research was founded.

Mr Gurney, Mr Myers and Mr Podmore teamed up to research the possibility of existence after death.

In 1888 Mr Myers, then secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, called for a census of ghosts.

He asked the public to report if they or their neighbours had ever seen or felt supernatural presences.

People were asked to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to questions such as: ‘Have you ever, when in good health and completely awake, had a distinct impression of seeing or being touched by a human being, or of hearing a voice or sound which suggested a human presence when no one was there?’

Another question was: ‘Can you recall that you have ever, in the course of the last ten years, when in good health, had a dream of the death of some person known to you (about whom you were not anxious at the time), which dream you marked as an exceptionally vivid one, and of which the distressing impression lasted for as long as an hour after you rose in the morning?’

The results were published by Mr Stead in 1894, when he concluded that ‘of the thousand million persons now living on the planet, there would be, if they all lived to maturity, at least ten million who will see and recognise in the course of their lives realistic apparitions of dead persons’.

This census, carried out between 1889 and 1892 also revealed that women were more susceptible to the supernatural, with 12 per cent of the women surveyed reporting seeing a ghost compared to 9 per cent of men.

And later, in 1933, an article appeared in the Litchfield Mercury calling for a new ghost census.

Mr Stead, Mr Gurney and Mr Podmore all met untimely deaths under what some described as mysterious circumstances.

Mr Stead died on board the Titanic, after previously predicting he would die from either lynching or drowning.

Mr Gurney died from the effects of an unexplained overdose of chloroform and a verdict of accidental death was recorded, while Mr Podmore drowned.

Reports state that neither Mr Podmore’s brother, his wife nor any member of the Society for Psychical Research attended his funeral, but there absence was not explained.

Findmypast.co.uk also discovered a collection of other tales of ghosts, death and terror in newspaper archives.

For example, an 1897 article detailed a haunted London taxi.

It explained that on a ‘dreary night’, a taxi driver picked up a man who was on the run from ‘invisible enemies’.

After driving his vehicle away, the driver said the man had committed suicide in the back of his taxi.
Within a few days, the driver was also found dead in his cab, said to have been strangled by the ghost of the man.

Another report, details WW1 explosives made from dead soldiers.

Records details rumours circulated during WW1 stating that the Germans were ‘distilling glycerine from the bodies of their dead’ to make soap and explosives.

And, in a more unusual report, an article explained how a young girl set off to visit her grandparents one night and heard footsteps behind her.

She is said to have ran for her life and fainted with exhaustion and terror at the door of their house, where the child’s grandfather found her.

Reports claim that she may have been killed by a donkey found standing nearby.

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