Sunday, 7 January 2018

When ghosts made tables dance by Dawn Finch

One of the joys of my work is that I get to visit libraries all over the country. I have spoken at, and written in, some of the most amazing libraries and I always take the opportunity to have a good mooch around their shelves. In November 2017 I was invited to speak at Gladstone’s Library in Flintshire in North Wales. This library houses the collection of Victorian statesman and Prime Minister, William Gladstone. The collection is housed in a stunning listed building, and still works as a library, providing access to researchers and writers, and you can even get a bed for the night, which is exactly what I did.
One of the Reading Rooms at Gladstone's Library
The library houses a collection of over 150,000 printed items of a historical and theological nature, and it was these that I wanted to use for a book I’m currently working on. However, as is always the way in libraries, a rare book caught my eye and I was off down the rabbit hole.

For years I have been researching Spiritualism and the history of debunkers and stage magic, and Gladstone's collection had many books that I had been unable to find elsewhere. There were rare books about things like “Demonic possession and allied themes”, and one absolute gem entitled “Rifts in the Veil”. It was in the this that I found a long and detailed study of a case that I had only ever found briefly mentioned before; the curious tale of Mr T P James.

In the early 1870s Thomas Power James worked for the Vermont Record and Farmer’s print shop and was the co-editor and publisher of the Windham County Reformer in Brattleboro, Vermont. He seemed like a solid and reliable chap, and was a respected member of his community, and a regular at the local Episcopal church. In 1872, Power published a story in the paper that carried the most extraordinary claim – that a local man (referred to as Mr A) was in touch with the late Charles Dickens.

Spiritualism was very much in vogue at the time and Mr A’s landlady apparently hosted regular séances, and convinced her lodger to attend one. Mr A was, according to James, a simple man and “poorly educated mechanic” and was reluctant to attend, but that night changed his life. After a watching a table “waltz exuberantly around the room” he attended again. This time he fell into a deep trance, and picked up a pen and began to write. When the trance slipped away, he found that he had written a letter to himself, but signed by Charles Dickens. It seemed that Mr Dickens wanted a private interview with Mr A. Of course, how could one refuse a request from the great writer? Mr A went back into his trance and, in October 1872, Mr Dickens requested that Mr A complete his unfinished manuscript, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The national press soon picked up on James’ story and snapped up any excerpts the publisher was prepared to release. Mr A said that Dickens had given him permission to profit from his work, and even told him from beyond the grave that he had new works that should be transcribed and published. James published excerpts and reviews in the Springfield Union paper, and the book – Part Second of the Mystery of Edwin Drood - was published in 1873.

The book received what can be politely described these days as "mixed reviews". The Springfield Union only reprinted the most favourable reviews as it plugged the books, but others like the New York Times tore the book to pieces pointing out that “it is rendered quite clear that men’s talents are not always improved when men die.” The book became a momentary sensation, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote an essay in The Bookman comparing this new writing to Dickens’ original tone. He felt that it was “reasonable” to assume that a great writer might use a medium to finish works, and stated that the Americanisms in the new text might be “excused”. He was reluctant to say it was actually Dickens, largely because he felt it was like “Dickens gone flat.”

The strange story of James (aka “Mr A) took a turn as other journalists began to take a closer look at the man behind the ghostly pen. His own life was taken apart bit by bit as people as he was revealed to have been accused of plagiarism before, and that his “wife” was not actually married to him. He was also exposed as the writer of a fake letter from a long-dead child, and of taking money under false pretences. However, the fervour surrounding Spiritualism as the time meant that the book was not dismissed out of hand and gave James a measure of success. It was certainly enough for him to quit the printing business and take up the spirit-pen as a new career.

This was, however, short-lived. He completed another couple of manuscripts, but his final work never made it to print and little is known of after his time in Brattleboro. In 1882 it was reported that he was working on the Boston Figaro paper, but after this he seems to disappear, but he has not been forgotten. Every year the town of Brattleboro host a writing competition in his honour, and the town is home to a hugely popular literary festival. The town has a thriving arts community, and was home to both Rudyard Kipling and Saul Bellow, so the literary links lives on long past the memory of Thomas Power James. The local newspaper, The Brattleboro Reformer, still celebrates James’ legacy and it is clear that there is a great sense of good-spirited (!) affection for the story of Vermont’s famous ghost writer!

Maybe there is hope for us all, for if we pass and leave a drawer-full of unfinished work, we too can reach out from beyond the grave and still make tables waltz exuberantly!

Dawn Finch is an author, children’s librarian and researcher with a lifelong fascination for ghosts and the supernatural. 
Her book - Brotherhood of Shades - is a product of this research.

You can find out more about Brattleboro’s ghost writer, and the annual competition here…..

This desk could be yours....
Gladstone’s Library is a residential research library with lovely comfortable rooms at a very reasonable rate. Residents can access the stunning (and blissfully silent) reading rooms until 10pm each night. Follow the link (here) to find out more and book rooms.

Part Second of the Mystery of Edwin Drood (as dictated via a medium) is available in the public domain so you can compare it for yourself here!


Pippa Goodhart said...

Fascinating! I love stories about stories.

Sue Purkiss said...

What a hoot!

Helen Larder said...

Really interesting! Thanks, Dawn xxxx