Lots of you have likely heard things going bump in the night, something people like to attribute to the activities of ghosts and other supernatural beings. But for the Victorians, the idea of ‘ghosts’ wasn't so much that they just made the odd creak here and there; they actively tried to destroy your house. These were not one or two tortured souls, but an entire spectral army which seemed to be fuelled by the unfair economic conditions of the period. And also alcohol.
Professor Aviva Briefel notes in their article ‘Freaks of Furniture: The Useless Energy of Haunted Things’ that the spirits of Victorian craftsmen were thought to continue residing in the very products they created. They'd then wreak havoc in the middle-class homes they were brought to.
The important thing about this period is that ghosts were changing, as one periodical from 1864 comments that “Spirits of the old style used to delight in the darkness of the night but sometimes they’d show their pale faces by moonlight”. The new breed of ghosts were less retiring; what they liked doing instead was getting shitfaced and wrecking the place.
The main thing to note about these fearsome phantoms is there was an element of truth to them, one which requires no supernatural belief whatsoever. Static electricity could indeed be harnessed, but the problem was the Victorians then went overboard in their concerns.
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As Professor Briefel comments, these “debates on productive labour and the line between efficient and wasted energy” caused a sensation that threatened even ultra-mundane things such as buying interior decoration. There was a possibility they had ominous qualities, especially if the worker creating it was of a wicked inclination.
The other problem was that buyers of such tables often couldn’t resist poking and prodding to get a possible reaction - often leading to bad consequences. Professor Briefel highlights “the séance table became a sort of spiritual laboratory for exploring the big questions”.
The Victorians didn’t always like the answers they received from the underworld either. One “Chelsea Ghost” in the 1850s reportedly resided in a table and went berserk when bothered, to the point where even the police couldn’t stop it.
It wasn’t just tables that were supposedly home to ghostly spirits either, as an 1854 publication claimed they enjoyed destroying all sorts of household objects. This was compounded, Professor Briefel reflects, with a particular national anxiety in Britain at the time. Workers were thought to have the highest work rate, and thus following this logic British ghosts could cause the most damage if they so desired.
These weird incidents inspired all sorts of tales at the time. One delightful story is of a Professor Gaster, with the 1878 Catholic Herald admiringly describing his basic human decency of being willing to “waltz with ugly girls” and “chat with talkative old fogies”.
Gaster, who was obviously under the influence of drink at the time, proceeded to then reprimand a ghost while talking to it about getting sloshed. He then proceeded to whack the furniture “with a heavy ruler” and brag about using random gunfire before drunkenly passing out.
Underneath the silliness though was a very considerable worry within the Victorian period: that the mistreated (albeit deceased) labouring classes might strike vengeance in the houses of their exploiters. Or at least make a tremendous racket for them.
Various theories argued why apparently stationary items, such as armchairs, might move around the house by themselves. The common element to these was as Professor Briefel notes in ‘Freaks of Furniture’ that was “unruly energy”.
The studiously toned and strangely illustrated 1863, A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: With a Rap at the ‘Spirit-Rappers’ proceeds to attempt a comprehensive debunking using energy as the rational explanation. The author argues that tables move because of “electrical currents passing from the human bodies”, that ghostly sounds emitted from furniture might be the result of altering humidity and that “hot air of a hot summer” is the reason for any sudden crashes.
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Other debunking was carried out by a John Netten Radcliffe who mentioned psychological responses for household noises sounding ominous which, given that drunks were shooting labourers dead because they thought they were ghosts, is a pretty reasonable suggestion.
Discussions over spectral sounds would even involve some celebrities of the time. As Professor Briefel highlights, Michael Faraday himself argued for the simple but effective idea that strange movements in household objects were fundamentally the result of those utilising them. That Faraday, who even Albert Einstein deferred to as a genius, was brought into this affray shows how all-consuming it had become.
One of the key turning points Professor Briefel highlights in this ghost saga is “the 1851 Great Exhibition” where people began to worry over whether they had control over their possessions but might in turn be controlled by these objects. Other authors have expanded further on this that far from the Exhibition event disproving ghosts, it seemed to help encourage belief in them.
Whatever might be behind these antique antics however, what remained was how to stop them. The whimsical publication Punch stated that individuals should inquire about the product history of tables and whether they had ever acted up. “Who made this table? Did they leave any of themselves within it?”, which Professor Briefel reflects was key to the furniture frenzy.
A Discovery Concerning Ghosts comments that the ghosts might be somehow be consuming or absorbing alcohol. The pun filled passage itself seems to have been written by an intoxicated person, despite the author’s claim that they abstain from alcohol.
Ultimately, everything came back to the very earthy aspect of money. People began gambling over whether tables could move around, and if so how high would they go? The affluent, as Professor Briefel notes , were always worried about their bottom line - especially since all the ghosts seemed focused on destroy.
Others, however, were more concerned with the opportunity for profit that could be made from ghosts, with some naughty chaps actually trying to save money by spreading the rumour that a house was haunted to get a good tenant deal.
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The lengths these scammers went to add credibility involved covertly beating up the house staff, including besting a valiant ageing manservant and his back up who were wielding an armoury. In an eventual bizarre twist, the victims of the fraudsters laid siege to the “haunted house” and deaths resulted in the Victorian equivalent of a Tarantino-style gun battle.
At the other extreme, there were those who wished to actually buy specifically haunted houses. One of the best examples of this is in Louis Blanc’s 1867 Letters to England which mentions a notice seeking to “obtain a house haunted by ghosts” by a group self-dubbed “the Ghost Club”.
The amount the group would be willing to pay for this haunted real estate is not disclosed, but given this was poverty stricken Victorian London and the society had both their own public relations staff and a well-to-do following, one can assume they had some disposable income to flit away.
What the 1867 source by Louis Blanc picks up on is something key within the history of ghosts: the focus on ghosts as a strange sort of property. Blanc mentions in passing ghosts alongside “a man-servant or a maid-of-all-work”. Professor Briefel notes this strange trend where ghosts became a potential commodity to be used and kept.
This was the hard tack materialist logic of the period, these Victorians were not to worry over the ghost’s mission, as Blanc notes, all that mattered was that it was a ghost and thus something to make the house distinctive and valuable.
To try and maintain production over servants, some eccentric people suggested a supernatural form of class-warfare which involved, as Professor Briefel comments , pitting ghosts against other workers and utilising spectres in the capacity of “effective domestic spies”. Spies tasked with “reporting on illicit behaviours in the home”.
As it stands, the only ‘ghosts’ able to put the fear of death into servants by making bizarre noises, often were other drunk servants as the case of a “haunted-wine-cellar” around the London area was revealed to be.
As Professor Briefel notes in concluding “‘Freaks of Furniture’”, the strange haunted furniture phenomenon was the opportunity for ghostly workers to have some revenge against the system “even from beyond the grave”.