This month’s Crocodile Mystery was a bit of a trick, rather than a treat (although hopefully this post will fulfill the treat aspect)—as far as I know, it really is just a fancy, decorated letter A. This is one of those situations where context is everything!
It appears at the top of the hand-written cover of the 1864 second edition of A discovery concerning ghosts: with a rap at the “spirit-rappers” by George Cruikshank.
The cover itself is simply heavy paper, almost like oak-tag, glued to the spine of the original publisher’s wrapper.
And although it’s hard to see in pictures, the ink on the cover actually has a slight sparkly-gold cast to it, when you catch it at the right angle.
The first thing that you may notice about the item is the author’s name: George Cruikshank is probably known to many of you, whether you realize it or not.
Cruikshank’s skills as an artist and observer of sociopolitical issues were obvious from a young age, and even as a teenager, his political caricatures were the talk of London. From the 1810s to the early 1820s, Cruikshank was the go-to political cartoonist.
However, he is better known by many people today for what was essentially his second career: that of book illustrator. Cruikshank illustrated the early English translation of the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm. The work he is probably best known for now are his illustrations of Oliver Twist, which was the last of three projects he worked on for Charles Dickens.
A discovery concerning ghosts first appeared in 1863, towards the end of Cruikshank’s life, when he was spending most of his energy on creating pamphlets on a wide variety of subjects, in order to make ends meet.
“Spirit rapping” was a practice that came to prominence with the rise of Spiritualism, starting in the 1840s in western New York State. The beliefs of Spiritualism had their roots in Emmanuel Swedenborg’s writings on the spirit world (he was firm in his belief that the living could speak with spirits), and in the writings of Franz Mesmer (who laid the foundation for hypnotism, hence the term “mesmerize”).
The central tenet of Spiritualism was that the spirits of the dead were capable of, and eager to, communicate with the living. This was often accomplished through séances, and this is where the “spirit rapping” comes in. One person (often a woman) would act as a “medium” for the spirits, who would convey their messages through a series of knocks and taps, which someone (either the medium or someone working with her) would then interpret.
These séances, which many feel had more in common with the performance and spectacle of stage magic than they did with religious practice, started in 1848 with the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York. The phenomenon and practice spread, and by the time it was introduced to Britain in 1852, Spiritualism had already taken root in Victorian London.
In 1862 or 1863 (accounts differ on the exact date), James Burns established the Progressive Library and Spiritualist Institution in London, and this, perhaps, is what spurred Cruikshank’s scathing pamphlet. Burns and Cruikshank likely would have known each other, as they were both involved with the temperance movement in London from the 1850s onwards.
The pamphlet is merciless in its debunking of supposed interactions with ghosts and spirits, ranging from the plausible explanations (it was not a ghost in the wine cellar making all the scraping and rattling noises, but rather the undergardener, who had dug a tunnel in for unauthorized midnight excursions) to logical inconsistencies regarding those who describe the spirits they supposedly encountered (why should a spirit—particularly a headless one—be carrying a cane and top hat?).
While neither the prose nor the illustrations of the pamphlet could really be considered first-rate, you can definitely see traces of the sharp wit that had so propelled Cruikshank’s caricatures in his early career. This is particularly apparent on the title page, where he specifically calls out two groups, the Davenport Brothers and the Ghost Club.
The Davenport Brothers were an American pair of stage magicians who gave credit to “the spirits” for many of their illusions. The Ghost Club, founded officially in 1862, was (and is) a London-based society for the research of, and investigation into, paranormal and psychical activities (cue the X-Files theme…). One of their first investigations was the eventual debunking of the Davenport Brothers. As Charles Dickens was one of the founding members of the Club, and given the tumultuous and sometimes acrimonious relationship that Cruikshank and Dickens had, the juxtaposition of the two groups on the title page of this work was certainly intentional and pointed.
Now, the next logical question is, of course, why on earth is this pamphlet in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library?
Part of the answer for that can be found on the very first page:
Cruikshank leads off with a quote from Hamlet and other Shakespeare quotations scattered throughout.
However, that isn’t specifically why a bookseller at the Goodspeed’s Book Shop in Boston sent this item to Henry Folger. Instead, it is a reference on page 41 of the pamphlet, and a followup note on the final page that piqued the seller’s (and presumably Mr. Folger’s) interest.
So Cruikshank, tongue firmly planted in cheek, asks the “spirits” for help in locating any and all Shakespeare-related artwork for the tercentenary celebrations. But then he covers his rear a bit at the end of the pamphlet, praising those (corporeal) people who are actually doing the work to make the tercentenary celebration happen.
These two bits seemed to be enough for the Folgers to purchase this offbeat piece of Victoriana.
This certainly wasn’t the first or only work by George Cruikshank that the Folgers purchased, and the library now has a large collections of prints and drawings (particularly related to his illustrations of Falstaff).
Which brings us back, finally, to the decorative A on the cover. I admit that it took me an embarrassingly long time (and someone else pointing it out) to see that it was, in fact, the initial article of the title, and not some weird cryptographic glyph. I suppose I was in such a mindset of looking for something spooky or mysterious that I saw what I wanted to see, rather than what was actually in front of me—a good lesson for us all!