You might call it parapsychology's greatest mystery. Did Catherine Crowe – sixtysomething literary stalwart of the mid-nineteenth century, passionate advocate of the German ghost story, and author of that runaway best-seller The Night Side of Nature (London, 2 vols.: Newby, 1848) – really tear through the streets of Edinburgh at the end of February 1854, naked but for a handkerchief clutched in one plump hand and a visiting card in the other? And, if she did, was it because she had experienced a nervous breakdown, or because the spirits had convinced her that, once her clothes were shed, she would become invisible?
Crowe's name may not ring too many bells today, but a century and a half ago she was famous. Born in 1790, she was noted as a novelist (she wrote Susan Hopley, an intricately plotted crime procedural that was some way ahead of its time) and as a friend of the great and good (she knew Thackeray, Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, among many others). Nowadays, however, she is best remembered as a pioneer parapsychologist – "a hugely important figure in the emergence of modern ghost-seeing culture chiefly because of her relentless calls for society to turn its attention to the unexplained phenomena in its midst and investigate them in an objective manner." [McCorristine p.10]
Crowe's Night Side was one of the publishing sensations of 1848. A two volume exploration of "ghosts and ghost seers," intermingled with observations on phrenology, Mesmerism and the poltergeist phenomena, the book happily appeared just before the vast explosion of interest in communication with the dead occasioned by the dubious activities of the Fox sisters on the far side of the Atlantic. In consequence, Night Side ran through 16 editions in only six years, made its author moderately rich, introduced a large number of well-to-do Victorians to the world of the occult – and had an influence out of all proportion with its present reputation. Indeed, the book "marked the turning point," Hilary Evans suggests, "in society's relationship with the paranormal." [Evans p.88]
With the publication of Night Side, Crowe herself became a semi-public figure, thanks in part to her then-unorthodox life-style – she had separated from her husband and gone to live on her own in Edinburgh, a most irregular procedure in those days. [DNB] She was chattered about by the likes of De Quincey and Hans Christian Andersen (who encountered her inhaling ether with another woman writer at an Edinburgh party, and scathingly described "the feeling of being with two mad creatures – they smiled with open dead eyes...") [Andersen, diary entry for 17 Aug 1847] All of this was quite startling behaviour for a woman who was not in the first flush of youth (she was 64 years old in 1854), and doubtless it helps explain why accounts of Crowe's bizarre behaviour spread quite so quickly, and were believed quite so readily, as they were.
Charles Dickens was one of those who heard gossip regarding strange goings-on in Edinburgh, and in a letter to the Revd. James White, dated 7 March 1854, he gave what has become the standard account of the incident:
Mrs 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-handkerchief and a visiting card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went out in that trim she would be invisible. She is now in a mad-house and, I fear, hopelessly insane. One of the curious manifestations of her disorder is that she can bear nothing black. There is a terrific business to be done, even when they are obliged to put coals on her fire.
Dickens returned to the subject a few days later, in a letter to Emile de la Rue dated 9 March:
There is a certain Mrs Crowe, usually resident in Edinburgh, who wrote a book called the Nightside of Nature, and rather a clever story called Susan Hopley. She was a medium, and an Ass, and I don't know what else. The other day she was discovered walking down her own street in Edinburgh, not only stark mad but stark naked too. She said the Spirits had informed her that if she walked out with a card in her right hand and her pocket hand kerchief in her left – and nothing else – she would be invisible. But she was not surprised (she added) to find herself visible, because she remembered that in opening the street door, she had changed the card into the left hand and the pocket hand kerchief into the right! She is now under restraint, of course.
Dickens was far from the only person to hear this outlandish tale – or to pass it along. It seems to have circulated pretty widely at the time (though never apparently with any sort of source, or eyewitness account, attached to it) and one still occasionally reads it today. The Dictionary of National Biography, for instance, reports the incident as fact, and adds that the author subsequently spent "a short stint in Hanwell Asylum." [DNB] (I note that the Asylum's papers, including registers of admissions, still exist, in the London Metropolitan Archives, but I have not yet had the opportunity to check them.) Shane McCorristine, in his new book on ghost-seeing, also mentions the affair, albeit in more neutral tone, and notes that the earliest published reference to it was a "gleeful" account in Zoist (v.12 p.175), a "prominent mesmerist/phrenological periodical."
My hunt for the truth about Crowe's madness, and her nudity, has been a fairly frustrating one. The story does not seem to have featured at all in the Scottish newspapers of the day, nor in any English ones until as late as the end of April, nearly two months after the Dickens letters suggest it was in oral circulation. Crowe herself, moreover, hotly denied that any such incident had ever occurred. Having belatedly stumbled across a newspaper "squib" recounting Zoist's report, she penned a comprehensive counter to the Daily News (29 April 1854):
Sir.– I am very sorry to trouble the public about my private maladies or misfortunes, but since the press has made my late illness the subject of a paragraph, stating that I have gone mad on the subject of spirit rapping, I must beg leave to contradict the assertion.
I have been for some time suffering from chronic gastric inflammation; and, after a journey to Edinburgh and a week of considerable fatigue and anxiety, I was taken ill on the 26th of February, and was certainly for five or six days – not more – in a state of unconsciousness. During this aberration, I talked of spirit rapping, and fancied spirits were directing me, because the phenomena, so called, have been engaging my attention, and I was writing on the subject; but I was not – and am not – mad about spirits or anything else, thank God! though very much out of health and exceedingly debilitated. I have been residing in London for the last five weeks; and I am now at Malvern trying what hydrotherapy will do for me.
I should feel greatly obliged by your insertion of this letter; and also, if those journalists who have aided in spreading the erroneous impression will assist in disseminating this corrected statement, which I should have made earlier, but the paragraph did not meet my eye til to-day.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Great Malvern, April 26.
Hmm. Who to believe?
Well, there's no doubt that Crowe had every reason for denying so spicy and so embarrassing a tale, nor that her own version of events – with its confirmation that she raved of spirit rapping while in a delirium – comes perilously close to admitting that there was something, somewhere, in the story. The date that Crowe puts on events – the last couple of days of February 1854, and the first couple of days of March – also ties in pretty neatly with the dates of the Dickens letters. But I would have been inclined to give Mrs Crowe the benefit of the doubt, along with her feminist biographer [Ayres p.64], had it not been for a fortuitous recent discovery of what looks very much like confirmation of the Dickens version of events in the papers of Robert Chambers, the renowned Edinburgh editor, publisher, evolutionary theorist and polydactyl.
Crowe was a neighbour of Chambers's, and according to a letter Chambers wrote to his associate Alexander Ireland very soon after the supposed date of the incident, talk of her nude engagement with the spirit world was certainly true, even if it remained uncertain whether any bout of insanity was involved. Which is to say that Crowe – at least according to Chambers – had fallen somehow under the influence of spirits, and had had to be rescued by her friends from a "terrible condition of mad exposure." [Chambers to Ireland, 4 Mar 1854, W&R Chambers Papers, Department of Manuscripts, National Library of Scotland, Dep/341/112/115-116] Note here, by the way, what looks suspiciously like confirmation of another of Dickens's details: Crowe was discovered naked "walking down her own street" [Storey p.288]; Crowe and Chambers were "neighbours" [Chambers Papers].
Catherine Crowe: mad and naked? A Scottish jury might return the verdict of Not Proven. But, on the balance of probabilities, this Welsh one finds her guilty as charged.
Andersen, Hans Christian. Dagbøger 1845-1850. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gads Forlag, 1974.
Ayres, Brenda. Silent Voices: Forgotten Novels by Victorian Women Writers. Westport [CT]: Praeger, 2003.
Evans, Hilary. Intrusions: Society and the Paranormal. London: RKP, 1982.
King, W.D. '"Shadow of a Mesmeriser": the female body on the "dark" stage.' Theatre Journal v49 n2 (1997).
McCorristine, Shane. Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Storey, Graham et al (eds). The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1853-1855. Oxford: OUP, 1993.
Wilkes, Joanne. 'Catherine Crowe.' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.