Note from Amelia: Welcome Allison Jornlin, fellow writer and storyteller, tour guide, presenter, investigator, and friend. She shares this fascinating account of the life and work of Catherine Crowe, also known as the first ghost hunter! Learn more about the adventures of Catherine Crowe and other trailblazing women of the paranormal on Allison’s YouTube channel, Paranormal Women: A Hidden History:
|The only known image of Catherine Crowe, ca. 1840s.
The original paranormal investigator was, in fact, a woman, although you’ve probably never heard her name. Catherine Crowe (1790-1872) could be called the mother of the paranormal. There were no doubt others before her who were interested in strange phenomena and even those who put together collections of true ghost stories, but Crowe went way beyond merely collecting tales.
Even a casual reading of her 1848 opus The Night-Side of Nature reveals not just ghost stories but other paranormal tales, which clearly don’t fit that mold. Crowe’s 400-page book includes a variety of unexplained phenomena including what we now call OBEs, NDEs, time slips, and ESP. Catherine Crowe’s work has influenced every single one of us in today’s paranormal arena. You just don’t know it yet.
Crowe compiled and compared cross-cultural data about a wide variety of strange phenomena. She was one of those rare multilingual researchers who scoured the literature of non-English speaking countries for anomalies. Inspired by German scholars in particular, Crowe brought the ideas of leading physicians, physiologists, and other scientists, including Justinus Kerner and others too numerous to mention, to English-speaking readers.
You’re familiar with the words “poltergeist” and “doppelgänger” because she introduced the terms and concepts to English usage. Crowe also investigated hauntings in a manner we would still recognize today. In 1854, for example, she organized a party of witnesses to investigate a notoriously haunted house in Edinburgh, Scotland. She enlisted a clairvoyant and several esteemed members of the community to make contact with the spirits of those murdered on the premises and dutifully recorded their experiences. Crowe and the clairvoyant observed “waves of white light” emanating from the floor in intervals. Crowe and another witness glimpsed “a bright diamond of light, white brilliant and quiescent.” This paranormal investigation was likely the first of its kind.
Catherine Crowe penned The Night-Side of Nature. Or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers in 1848, a time when women didn’t have the right to vote or own property or do much of anything on their own. Nevertheless, Crowe persisted. She became an independent woman, living in Edinburgh, who left London and her husband to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Challenging convention she interviewed witnesses, pioneered paranormal investigation techniques, and investigated séance circles decades before Harry Houdini was even born. The Night-Side of Nature, published just as the Spiritualist movement was getting underway, rocketed Crowe to fame. Night-Side blazed a trail with 16 editions in just six years.
|A Train of Ghosts, by Hablot Knight Browne, UK. Ca. 1865.
Writer and paranormal researcher Colin Wilson called The Night-Side of Nature “the first sustained attempt to treat paranormal phenomena in the scientific spirit that would later characterize the Society of Psychical Research.” Almost 35 years after its publication, the SPR would continue Crowe’s work by adopting many of her methods.
“We have an indefeasible right to investigate every question that presents itself to our intellects; and it is not only a right, but an urgent duty, to investigate one that so nearly concerns our well-being here and hereafter,” Crowe writes. She condemned both “pharisaical skepticism which denies without investigation” and “blind credulity which accepts all…without inquiry.”
She sought an objective approach to paranormal investigation and was able to identify and distinguish between many types of unexplained phenomena. Many findings commonly misattributed to contemporary researchers can be found in Crowe’s writing.
For example, Crowe has a surprisingly modern-sounding take on poltergeist phenomena. If Crowe is known at all, she is most often just credited with introducing the term poltergeist into English, but she hypothesized about them a great deal, looking for possible causes. Poltergeists (“ racketing specter” in German), she says, can scarcely be reconciled to our typical notions of “what we understand by the term ‘ghost’” due to the “odd, sportive, mischievous nature of the disturbances.” Crowe maintains that these nonsensical incursions into normal reality have been reported in all countries and all ages. Although, throughout the centuries, poltergeist activity has been ascribed to many different causes including ghosts, witchcraft, demons, and fairies, Crowe ascribes them most often to a human agent. In the 20th Century, parapsychologists Nandor Fodor and William G. Roll suggested that poltergeist activity might be caused by psychokinesis. However, Crowe proposed something similar in 1848.
In The Night Side of Nature, she relates several cases of teen girls who have been beset with wild talents that include the ability to deliver electric shocks, in one recorded instance, even remotely and purposefully. One such human agent of this strange phenomenon was a young lady living in Strasberg, Germany, identified only by the surname Emmerich. Crowe relates that “her body became so surcharged with electricity, that it was necessary to her relief to discharge it.” Unfortunately, this strange malady soon claimed her life. Crowe speculates that these strange circumstances may be connected to some form of electricity or displaced energy. “We begin to see that it is just possible the other strange phenomena [related to poltergeist activity] may be provided by a similar agency.”
Much of Crowe’s work still resonates today. Orbs, shadow people, time slips, twin telepathy, and every variety of precognition all feature prominently in her writing. The anecdotal evidence, which Crowe collected for nearly every type of strange phenomena, laid important groundwork. Fortunately, others, like the researchers of the Society for Psychical Research, followed in her footsteps and began accumulating the necessary data to build a stronger foundation for future discoveries. Crowe’s primary objective was “to induce a few capable persons, instead of laughing at these things, to look at them.”
To learn more about the adventures of Catherine Crowe as well as other forgotten female trailblazers of the paranormal, subscribe to the new YouTube channel Paranormal Women: A Hidden History.
Allison Jornlin has been investigating strange phenomena for more than 20 years. She developed Milwaukee’s first haunted history tour in 2008. Since then Allison has led numerous tours and presented talks on a variety of Fortean topics—poltergeists, fairies, UFOs, cryptids, demonic possession, etc. Allison currently works as a professional weirdo, writing articles for a variety of publications, developing haunted history tours for AmericanGhostWalks.com, and awaiting the birth of her first book.
“The First Ghost Hunter,” copyright 2020 Allison Jornlin