This is the time of year when most of us begin to think about ghost stories as we witness the annual build-up to Halloween. So, in the spirit of the season, please allow me to introduce you to one of the best-selling ghost story collections of all time and to the foremost writers on psychic phenomenon of the nineteenth century: Mrs Catherine Crowe. Crowe’s story is one both of fame and triumph over adversity, but also a tragic history of the stigma around mental health problems.
Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature: or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers is one of the largest collections of ghost-sighting and psychic phenomenon to be published in English. It was a ground-breaking, systematic attempt to investigate the full range of haunting phenomenon, from death-bed visitations, death portents to ghostly lights. According to writer Roger Clarke, The Night-Side even helped two of Hollywood supernatural favourites gain further notoriety; the poltergeist and the doppelganger. Both had their origins in German folklore.
The Night-Side was not Crowe’s first attempt to document supernatural phenomenon. In 1845, she translated and edited the short German biography, The Seeress of Prevorst, being Revelations Concerning the Inner-Life of Man, and the Inter-Diffusion of a World of Spirits in the One we Inhabit. Originally written by Justinus Kerner, the seeress ‘Mrs H.’ was reputed to be both a powerful clairvoyant and spiritual healer, who mapped the separate ‘spheres’ of the spirit worlds.
Reviewers were scathing of The Seeress. Tait’s Edinburgh Review sneered in September 1845, ‘save as an experiment on English credulity, one can hardly imagine a motive for translating this work’, which they apparently dismissed as ‘foreign’ nonsense. They claimed The Seeress was an ‘entertaining nonsense-reading’ or a guide to abnormal psychology at best.They took particular aim at Crowe’s spiritualist faith, her views dismissed simply because she was a known ‘believer’ in spiritualism and clairvoyance. But Crowe did not back down. She eloquently defended her beliefs (and the applicability of them to English audiences) by writing The Night-Side, which contained an extensive collective of cases from across the UK. The reading public also did not agree with the critics. The Night-Side alone went through sixteen print editions in six years.
But I have to admit that I find Crowe herself far more interesting than her spectral subjects. A successful novelist and short-story writer, Crowe was an active member of the Edinburgh and London literati, corresponding with well-known society figures like Charles Dickens and the pioneering female journalist Harriet Martineau.
According to historian Lucy Sussex, Crowe’s legacy on horror and crime writing can still be felt now. This is because Crowe produced one of the first female-led amateur detective stories, where a murder is solved by an elderly female housekeeper-turned-sleuth. Move over, Miss Marple. If that was not enough, Crowe may have simultaneously brought the legal phrase ‘circumstantial evidence’ into prominence in the same book.
Crowe’s achievements were recognised in her own time, but why haven’t more people heard of her now? Why did her reputation fade so quickly?
Two factors worked together to ensure that Crowe was marginalised in her late life, and then largely forgotten after her death; her legacy only known to a few academics and specialist interest groups. These factors were her chosen topics and her health.
Crowe’s work was very eclectic, but it tended to focus on women’s lives and domestic situations. She was not afraid of discussing the harsh realities of domestic life, and of crime. Several of her stories hinge on the treatment of women trapped in abusive relationships or situations. She even reworked Harriet Beecher Stowe’s iconic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin into children’s books, publicising the injustice of plantation slavery and racism to young readers.
Her preference for this important subject matter inadvertently helped to undermine her post-humous literary reputation. Serious literature was not supposed to be about women or written for children. Serious writers were certainly not supposed to write uncritically or sympathetically about ghosts and ghost-seers. Thus, Crowe was easily (mis-)labelled as a writer of minor fiction.
But something else happened to her which really affected her reputation: she also suffered the stigma of severe mental illness. In 1854, six years after the first publication of The Night-Side, Crowe experienced a period of serious ill health. Accounts of exactly what happened differ, but she appears to have suffered a period of delusional behaviour. According to Charles Dickens:
‘[Crowe] has gone stark mad – and stark naked – on the spirit-rapping imposition. She was found t’other day in the street clothed only in her chastity, a pocket-hankerchief and a visiting card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went in that trim she would be invisible. She is now in a madhouse, and I fear, hopelessly insane.’
Her illness was short, but the effect of extensive public gossiping appears to have been long-lasting. Crowe tried to defend herself publicly against the accusation of delusional behaviour – which she blamed on a long-standing digestive problem – but gradually she seems to have faded from public life.We do not know if she stopped writing completely or simply gave up on publishing her work. She died in 1872 aged 82.
I can’t help thinking that Crowe’s marginalisation is the real tragedy here, more tragic than any of the spectres were wrote about in The Night-Side. I hope that in writing this, I help to end some of her previous marginalisation.
A version of this article appears at the History at Northampton blog.
The University of Kent Special Collections houses the Catherine Crowe archive, a large research collection compiled by Geoffrey Larken in preparation for his unpublished biography. Very few accounts of Crowe’s work are currently available. Try:
- Joanne Wilkes, ‘Catherine Ann Crowe [nee Stevens] (1790-1872), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online (2008).
- Lucy Sussex, Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), ch. 3
- Roger Clarke, A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (London: Particular Book, 2012).
- Shane McCorristine, Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Caroline Nielsen is Senior Lecturer in History and Heritage at the University of Northampton, and specialises in the history of physical disability and health, and on the social history of death and bereavement.