Conversation with a ghost

Spooky goings-on were reported in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal in an article published in 1826. The author was Dr Caleb Crowther, a physician from Wakefield and superintendent of the city’s celebrated West Riding Pauper-Lunatic Asylum:

case of tetanus

In December 1821, I was sent for to visit Mary Irvin, aged about 24, labouring under a severe attack of hysteria, said to have been occasioned by fright. She complained of headache. Finding the pulse full and strong, the habit plethoric, and the bowels costive, I ordered her to be bled and purged, and the disease disappeared the next day.

The doctor concluded that the young woman was constipated and suffering from the effects of a constitutional surfeit of blood (the ‘plethoric habit’). His treatment (bleeding and laxatives) was at least logically consistent, if not medically sound.

In December 1822, I was sent for to visit the same patient, labouring under idiopathic tetanus, induced by terror. Her pulse was full and strong; the vessels of the tunica albuginea were loaded with blood; she was delirious; her jaws were locked, and she was affected at times with emprosthotonos.

This passage makes me wonder whether Dr Crowther’s anatomical knowledge was a little rusty. The tunica albuginea (literally ‘white membrane’) is the lining of the ovaries. Is Dr Crowther really suggesting that he could tell anything about the state of the patient’s ovaries from an external examination? This seems unlikely. So what structure of the body is he trying to describe? If you know, please do tell me in the comments.

As for ‘emprosthotonos’, this is a type of spasm, often seen in tetanus, in which the patient arches their back, bringing the head and feet towards each other.

She was bled generally and locally, was subjected to tepid effusion, was purged freely, and in 24 hours the tetanic symptoms left her; she got well in a few days.

The description makes it sound very much like a mild case of tetanus. But the local doctors attending the woman suggested that her symptoms had a somewhat unlikely cause:

The disease was first induced by a spectral illusion. She imagined that she had seen the departed spirit of the deceased wife of her present master; and several succeeding attacks were occasioned by the reappearance of the apparition.

The patient explained that she had joined the household shortly after the death of her master’s wife. The couple had a child, which – shock, horror! – had been born out of wedlock.

…and it was reported to Mary Irvin, that the shame and disgrace which she endured from her husband’s breach of promise of marriage, caused her death; and that after such a death, it was impossible for her to rest in her grave, and she must haunt her husband.

Mary Irvin was often alone in the house, and her brain became ‘highly excited from fear of seeing this apparition’.

She was an ignorant credulous young woman, of very strong muscle, and strong masculine form; she was born in the north of England, where she had been accustomed to hard fare, and to labour in agriculture like a man; since she entered into the service of the widower, her work had been trifling compared to the labour to which she had formerly been accustomed, which, with improved diet, accounts for her having become plethoric.

Concluding that the combination of decent food and minimal exercise was the problem, the doctor recommended that she return to a life of hard labour in the north of England. This was, apparently, a great success.

She has not had any violent attack since she went into the North, but has not yet been able to get rid of her fears.

And this is understandable, since the experience was horribly vivid.

After she had seen the apparition a second time, which she told me exactly resembled in person and dress her master’s late wife, she consulted with her neighbours learned in apparition lore, who told her that she must speak to the ghost when it appeared again, for that ghosts could not speak until spoken to. On the next appearance of the spectral illusion, she did muster up courage to address it, and received a message from it, which she was enjoined to deliver to her master, and to no one else. She now entertains as firm a belief in the existence of this conversation, between herself and the apparition, as in her own existence.

The doctor was not so sure, and set out to disprove it.

No attempt has been made, to my knowledge, to prove the impossibility of a departed spirit holding colloquial intercourse with a human being on philosophical principles; yet, I think, that it may easily be done, if it be granted that the soul does not possess the properties of matter.

Dr Crowther does not for a moment doubt the very existence of the soul, of course.

All psychologists agree, that the soul on leaving the body, loses all the properties of matter, and hence becomes denominated the immaterial principle. The common experiment of a bell, in vacuo, being incapable of emitting sound, proves this, that to produce sound some impulse must be given to the atmospheric air, from which the sound issues; but, by the assumption, the departed immaterial spirit could give no impulse to the air, and therefore produce no sound; and so far the effect produced by the immaterial principle upon the air would resemble the bell in vacuo. 

The experiment involving a bell in a vacuum was devised by the great German scientist Otto von Guericke and documented in his 1672 work Experimenta nova. Guericke, the inventor of the vacuum pump, demonstrated that if a bell was rung in a chamber evacuated of air, it became inaudible. This proved that air (or some other medium, such as water) was necessary for the transmission of sound.

To utter language is a much more complex operation than to emit sound. If, therefore, a departed spirit cannot effect atmospheric vibration, it is impossible for it to perform the more difficult operation of talking without lungs, without windpipe, without tongue, and without nerves.

Dr Crowther’s argument may be summarised thus: ghosts have no physical presence, without which it is impossible to make a sound. Hence ghosts cannot speak, and therefore it is not possible to have a conversation with a ghost.

Some might argue that this is a rather convoluted way of ‘proving’ that a patient’s illness was not caused by a supernatural phenomenon. And indeed some of Dr Crowther’s contemporaries found his reasoning absurd. When a summary of the case was published in the Medico-chirurgical Review and Journal of Medical Science, an anonymous editor commented:

Really we wonder, that a man of Dr. Crowther’s sense, should enter into such a ridiculous question, as that of the possibility of departed spirits holding conversation, with living beings—and especially with ignorant servant maids.

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