The Haunting on East 27th
Paperback – September 1, 2014
The Carrollton Press, paperback, $9.95
If you love a good mystery, history, or ghost story, Michael C. Dooling delivers all three in this slim volume.
Dooling, a history writer and antiquarian bookman, came upon a handwritten journal from 1862 and added it to his eclectic collection. He discovered that it was a New York lawyer’s account of his investigation into psychic phenomena that surrounded an apparent haunting.
Three friends of William Russel’s family — a grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter — had moved into a house and told his wife of the strange events that followed. He was intrigued by their tales of mysterious footsteps, unseen presences on the stairway, and doors that opened and closed unassisted. He set out to investigate, and recorded daily entries of his findings.
Dooling provides a faithfully transcribed and annotated account of Russel’s sleuthing, which takes him from his own unsuccessful stakeout to seances with a variety of amateur and professional psychics in the then-burgeoning world of spiritualism.
The science and seance of spiritualism
The spiritualism movement started in 1848 when three bored girls in Hydesville, N.Y., started showing an unusual ability to communicate with spirits through knocks they heard on the walls and furniture. It soon grew into one of the greatest religious movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Believers were eager to speak with their lost loved ones, particularly during the Civil War, when Russel was doing his investigations. A similar resurgence occurred during World War I. Psychics provided the medium for the message through seances, spirit writing, knocks, levitation, and other means.
Like any faith, spiritualism had believers and debunkers — often with strong opinions. Russel’s contemporaries Horace Greeley and (sometimes) Mark Twain were believers. Later, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and master magician Harry Houdini broke their longstanding friendship when Doyle’s unquestioning faith came up against Houdini’s unrelenting ghost-busting.
Russel’s accounts and Dooling’s commentary carefully walk the line and make no conclusions either way, but after reading this book I continue to side with Houdini. Especially with Dooling’s footnotes to give insight, a careful reading of the text will give insight into how the mediums worked their magic.
Full disclosure: I know Michael Dooling and worked with him during his years as a news librarian, where his historical writing won awards and readers. This, his most recent effort, does not disappoint.