The Monk’s Story
Catherine Crowe, 1850
[First appeared in Light and Darkness: or The Mysteries of Life, in Three Volumes, (1850)]
Edited by Sanguine Woods
One evening on which a merry Christmas party was assembled in an hospitable country mansion in the north of England, one of the company, a young man named Charles Lisle, called the host aside, as they were standing in the drawing-room before dinner, and whispered, “I say, Graham, I wish you’d put me into a room that has either a bolt or a key.”
“They have all keys, or should have,” returned Mr. Graham.
“The key of my room is lost,” returned the other. “I asked the housemaid. It is always the first thing I look to when I enter a strange bed-chamber. I can’t sleep unless the door is locked.”
“How very odd! I never locked my door in my life,” said Mr. Graham. “I say, Letitia,” continued he, addressing his wife, “here’s Charlie Lisle can’t sleep unless his door’s locked, and the room you’ve put him into has no key.”
At this announcement all the ladies looked with surprise at Charlie Lisle, and all the gentlemen laughed; and “how odd!” and “what a strange fancy!” was echoed among them.
“I daresay you think it very odd, and indeed it must appear rather a lady-like particularity,” responded Lisle, who was a fine active young man, and did not look as if he were much troubled with superfluous fears; “but a circumstance that occurred to me when I was on the continent last summer has given me a nervous horror of sleeping in a room with an unlocked door, and I have never been able to overcome it. This is perhaps owing to my having been ill at the time, and I can scarcely say I have recovered from the effects of that illness yet.”
Naturally, everybody wanted to hear what this adventure was—the programme being certainly exciting—and so one of the visitors offered to exchange rooms with Charlie Lisle, provided he would tell them his story; which accordingly, when assembled round the fire in the evening, he began in the following words:—
“You must know, then, that last year, when I was wandering over the continent partly in search of the picturesque, and partly to remedy the effects of too much study, or rather too hasty study—for I believe a man may study as much as he pleases, if he will only take it easy, as the Irish say—I was surprised one evening by a violent storm of hail, and it became so suddenly dark, that I could scarcely see my horse’s head. I had twelve miles to go to the town at which I intended to pass the night, and I knew that there was no desirable shelter nearer, unless I chose to throw myself on the hospitality of the monastery of Pierre Châtel, which lay embosomed amongst the hills a little to the east of the road I was travelling. There is something romantic and interesting in a residence at a convent, but of that I need not now say anything. After a short mental debate, I resolved to present myself at the convent gate, and ask them to give me a night’s shelter. So I turned off the road, and rang the heavy bell, which was answered by a burly, rosy-cheeked lay brother, and he forthwith conducted me to the Prior, who was called the Père Jolivet. He received me very kindly, and we chatted away for some time on politics and the affairs of the world; and when the brothers were summoned to the refectory, I begged leave to join them, and share their simple repast, instead of eating the solitary supper prepared for me.
“There were two tables in the hall, and I was seated next the Prior, in a situation that gave me a pretty good view of the whole company; and as I cast my eyes round to take a survey of the various countenances, they were suddenly arrested by one that struck me as about the most remarkable I had ever beheld. From the height of its owner as he sat, I judged he must be a very tall man, and the high round shoulders gave an idea of great physical strength; though at the same time the whole mass seemed composed of bone, for there was very little muscle to cover it. The colour of his great coarse face was of an unnatural whiteness, and the rigid immobility of his features favoured the idea that the man was more dead than alive. There was altogether something so remarkable in his looks, that I could with difficulty turn my eyes from him. My fixed gaze, I imagine, roused some emotions within him, for he returned my scrutiny with a determined and terrific glare. If I forced myself to turn away my head for a moment, round it would come again, and there were his two great mysterious eyes upon me; and that stiff jaw, slowly and mechanically moving from side to side, as he ate his supper, like something acted on by a pendulum. It was really dreadful: we seemed both bewitched to stare at each other; and I longed for the signal to rise, that I might be released from the strange fascination. This came at length; and though I had promised myself to make some inquiries of the Prior concerning the owner of the eyes, yet not finding myself alone with him during the evening, I forbore, and in due time retired to my chamber, intending to proceed on my journey the following day. But when the morning came, I found myself very unwell, and the hospitable Prior recommended me not to leave my bed; and finally, I was obliged to remain there not only that day, but many days; in short, it was nearly a month before I was well enough to quit the convent.
“In the meantime, however, I had learnt the story of Brother Lazarus, for so I found the object of my curiosity was called; and had thereby acquired some idea of the kind of influence he had exercised over me. The window of the little room I occupied looked into the burying-place of the monastery; and on the day I first left my bed, I perceived a monk below digging a grave. He was stooping forward, with bis spade in his hand, and with his back towards me; and as my room was a good way from the ground, and the brothers were all habited alike, I could not distinguish which of them it was.
“‘You have a death amongst you?’ said I to the Prior when he visited me.
“‘No,’ returned he; ‘we have even no serious sickness at present.’
“‘I see one of the brothers below, digging a grave,’ I replied.
“‘Oh!’ said he, looking out, ‘that is Brother Lazarus—he is digging his own grave.’
“‘What an extraordinary fancy!’ said I. ‘But perhaps it’s a penance?’
“‘Not a penance imposed by me,’ replied the Prior, ‘but by himself. Brother Lazarus is a very strange person. Perhaps you may have observed him at the refectory—he sat nearly opposite you at the other table?’
“‘Bless me! is that he? Oh, yes, I observed him indeed. Who could help observing him? He has the most extraordinary countenance I ever beheld.’
“‘Brother Lazarus is a somnambulist,’ returned the Prior; ‘a natural somnambulist; and is altogether, as I said before, a very extraordinary character.’
“‘What!’ said I, my curiosity being a good deal awakened, ‘does he walk in his sleep? I never saw a somnambulist before, and should like to hear some particulars about him, if you have no objection to tell them me.’
“‘They are not desirable inmates, I assure you,’ answered the Prior. ‘I could tell you some very odd adventures connected with this disease of Brother Lazarus.’
“‘I should be very much obliged to you, if you would,’ said I, with no little eagerness.
“‘Somnambulists are sometimes subject to strange hallucinations,’ he replied; ‘their dream is to them as real as our actual daily life is to us, and they not unfrequently act out the scenes of the drama with a terrible determination. I will just give you one instance of the danger that may accrue from a delusion of this nature. At the last monastery I inhabited, before I became Prior of Pierre Châtel, we had a monk who was known to be a somnambulist. He was a man of a sombre character and gloomy temperament; but it was rather supposed that his melancholy proceeded from physical causes, than from any particular source of mental uneasiness. His nightly wanderings were very irregular: sometimes they were frequent, sometimes there were long intermissions. Occasionally he would leave his cell, and after being absent from it several hours, would return of his own accord, still fast asleep, and lay himself in his bed: at other times he would wander so far away, that we had to send in search of him; and sometimes he would be met by the messengers on his way back, either awake or asleep, as it might happen.’
“‘This strange malady had caused us some anxiety, and we had not neglected to seek the best advice we could obtain with respect to its treatment; and at length the remedies applied seemed to have taken effect; the paroxysms became more rare, and the disease so far subsided, that it ceased to be a subject of observation amongst us. Several months had elapsed since I had heard anything of the nocturnal excursions of Brother Dominique, when one night that I had some business of importance in hand, instead of going to bed when the rest of the brotherhood retired to their cells, I seated myself at my desk, for the purpose of reading and answering certain letters concerning the affair in question. I had been some time thus occupied, and had just finished my work, and had already locked my desk preparatory to going to bed, when I heard the closing of a distant door, and immediately afterwards a foot in the long gallery that separated my room from the cells of the brotherhood. What could be the matter? Somebody must be ill, and was coming to seek assistance; and I was confirmed in this persuasion when I perceived that the foot was approaching my door, the key of which I had not turned. In a moment more it opened, and Fra Dominique entered, asleep. His eyes were wide open, but there was evidently no speculation in them ; they were fixed and glassy, like the eyes of a corpse. He had nothing on but the tunic which he was in the habit of wearing at night, and in his hand he held a large knife. At this strange apparition I stood transfixed. From the cautious manner in which he had opened the door, and the stealthy pace with which he advanced into the room, I could not doubt that he was bent upon mischief; but aware of the dangerous effects that frequently result from the too sudden awakening of a sleep-walker, I thought it better to watch in silence the acting out of this fearful drama, than venture to disturb him. With all the precautions he would have used not to arouse me had he been awake, he moved towards the bed, and . in so doing he had occasion to pass quite close to where I stood, and as the light of the lamps fell upon his face, I saw that his brows were knit, and his features contracted into an expression of resolute malignity. When he reached the bed, he bent over it, felt with his hand in the place where I should have been, and then, apparently satisfied, he lifted up his arm, and struck successively three heavy blows—so heavy, that, having pierced the bed-clothes, the blade of the knife entered far into the mattress, or rather into the mat that served me for one. Suddenly, however, whilst his arm was raised for another blow, he started, and turning round, hastened towards the window, which he opened, and had it been large enough, I think would have thrown himself out. But finding the aperture too small, he changed his direction. Again he passed close to me, and I felt myself shrink back as he almost touched me with his tunic. The two lamps that stood on my table made no impression on his eyes; he opened and closed the door as before; and I heard him proceed rapidly along the gallery, and retire to his own cell. It would be vain to attempt to describe the amazement with which I had witnessed this terrible scene. I had been, as it were, the spectator of my own murder, and I was overcome by the horrors of this visionary assassination. Grateful to Providence for the danger I had escaped, I yet could not brace my nerves to look at it with calmness, and I passed the remainder of the night in a state of painful agitation. On the following morning, as soon as breakfast was over, I summoned Fra Dominique to my room. As he entered, I saw his eye glance at the bed, which was now, however, covered by other linen, so that there were no traces visible of his nocturnal visit. His countenance was sad, but expressed no confusion, till I inquired what had been the subject of his dreams the preceding night. Then he started, and changed colour.
“”Reverend father,” said he, ”why do you ask me this?”
“”Never mind,” said I; ”I have my reasons.”
“”I do not like to repeat my dream,” returned he; ”it was too frightful; and I fear that it must have been Satan himself that inspired it.”
“”Nevertheless, let me hear it.”
“”Well reverend father, if you will have it so, what I dreamt was this—but that you may the better comprehend my dream, I must give you a shirt sketch of the circumstances in which it originated.”
“”Do so,” said I; ”and that we may not be interrupted, I’ll lock the door.” So having turned the key, and bade him seat himself on a stool opposite me, I prepared to listen to the story of his life.
“”I was a child,” said he, ”of eight years old when the event occurred in which my unhappy malady originated. My father had died, leaving my mother in tolerable circumstances and with two children, myself and a sister of marriageable years. This sister, as I have since understood, had become attached to an Italian stranger of very questionable character who had appeared in the town we inhabited, under the character of an itinerant artist. My father had discovered the connexion, and bad forbidden the Italian the house; but soon thereafter my father died, and the stranger’s influence prevailed over my mother’s authority–and then one morning Adèle went missing. As the Italian disappeared at the same time, no doubt it was entertained that they had gone off together, and a few weeks confirmed these apprehensions. They came back, declaring themselves married, and petitioning my mother’s forgiveness and assistance. She granted them both; but finding her so easy to deal with, Ripa, the Italian, began to make such frequent demands upon my mother’s purse, and indulged in such violence when his drafts were not responded to, that she found it necessary to forbid him the house. I believe Ripa had some talent, but he was idle and dissipated, and the habit of living upon us had so far augmented these vices, that he could no longer bring himself to work. The consequence was, that he soon fell into distress, and, finding my mother, whose resolution was sustained by her brother, inexorable, he had recourse to more desperate means of supplying his necessities. Many evil reports were circulated about him, and, at length, so much suspicion was excited, that, to my mother’s great relief, they quitted the place, and several months elapsed without any tidings of their proceedings reaching her.
“”For my part, with the usual volatility of childhood, I had totally ceased to think either of Ripa or of my sister, of whom I had formerly been exceedingly fond, and I was wholly occupied with the prospect of going to school, a prospect which, as I had no companions of my own age at home, delighted me. My mother, on the contrary, suffered considerably from the idea of the impending separation; and the last night I was to sleep under her roof, she took me to lie in her bed.
“”I cannot part with you tonight my child!’ said she, as she kissed me, and led me to her chamber. ‘You don’t know what parting is yet, Dominique. You think only of the playfellows you are going to; you know not what you are about to lose!’
“”Little I dreamt of all I was going to lose—nor she either.
“”I suppose I fell asleep directly for I have no recollection of my mother’s coming to bed, nor of anything else, till I was awakened by the pressure of a heavy hand on my breast, and, by the faint light of a lantern which stood on a table, I discovered my brother-in-law, Ripa, the Italian, hanging over me. But it was not at me he was looking, but at my mother, who, fast asleep, was lying on the other side of the bed. An instinctive terror kept me silent and motionless; and presently, having ascertained the position in which his victim was lying, he raised a large knife he held in his hand, and struck it repeatedly into her breast. At the third blow, my horror and anguish overcame my fears, and I uttered a cry which seems first to have revealed to him my presence; or perhaps he did not know it was me, but was oddly startled by the sudden noise, for, as his purpose was undoubtedly robbery, I do not see why he should not have despatched so insignificant an obstacle, and fulfilled his intentions. However this may be, he took fright and fled, first to the window—for he seemed to have lost all presence of mind—but finding no egress there, he turned and retreated by the door.
“”I was afraid he would return, and, almost dead with terror and grief, I lay still the rest of the night, without courage to rise, or to call the servant who slept in the kitchen. When she entered the room in the morning, she found my mother dead, and myself bathed in her blood. Ripa was pursued and taken, my testimony was fatal to him, and my poor sister died of a broken heart a few months after he had expiated his crime on the scaffold.
“”A long and fearful malady was the consequence to me of this dreadful event, and I have ever since been subject to these dreams!’
“”What dreams?’ I asked.
“”Such as I had last night,’ he answered; ‘wherein I feel myself constrained to act over again the frightful scene I witnessed.’
“‘And pray,’ I inquired, ‘do you select any particular person as your victim in those dreams?’
“‘And what does this selection depend upon? Is it enmity?’
“”No,’ returned Dominique; ‘it is a peculiar influence that I cannot explain. Perhaps,’ added he, after some hesitation, ‘you may have observed my eyes frequently fixed on you of late?’ I remembered that I had observed this; and he then told me that whoever he looked at in that manner seemed to be the victim that appeared in his dreams.””
“Such,” continued Charlie Lisle, after a moment’s pause, “was the Prior’s account of this strange personage. I confess, when I had heard his explanation, I began to feel particularly queer, for I was already satisfied that Fra Dominique and Brother Lazarus were one and the same person–and I perceived that, after the long gaze I caught Brother Lazarus giving me recently, I was in considerable danger of being the victim of his next dream; and I told Père Jolivet as such.
“‘Never fear,’ said he; ‘we lock Brother Lazarus up every night, and have done so ever since the adventure I spoke of. Added to which, he is now very unwell; he was taken with a fit yesterday, and we have been obliged to bleed him.’
“‘But he is digging there below,’ said I.
“‘Yes,’ replied the Prior; ‘he has a notion he is going to die, and entreated permission to prepare his grave. It is, however, a mere fancy I daresay. He had the same notion during the indisposition that succeeded the dream I have just related. I forgot to tell you, however, though you may have penetrated the secret, that Fra Dominique, of whom I spoke, changed his name to Lazarus upon accompanying me here, which he was allowed to do at his own urgent entreaty. Why, I cannot tell, but ever after that conversation, he seemed to have imbibed a strong attachment to me; perhaps because I exhibited none of the distrust or aversion towards him which some persons might have been apt to entertain under the same circumstances.’
“A week after this,” continued Lisle, “I was informed that Brother Lazarus was dead; and I confess I did not much regret his decease. I thought a man subject to such dangerous dreams was better out of the world than in it; more especially as by all account he had no enjoyment in life. On the day I quitted the monastery, I saw from my window one of the brothers completing the already partly-made grave, and learnt that Lazarus was to be buried that evening. As I descended the stairs, I passed some monks who were carrying his coffin to his cell. ‘Rest his soul!’ said I, as I buckled on my spurs; and, having heartily thanked the good prior for his hospitality, I mounted my horse and rode away.”
Here Charlie Lisle rang the bell and asked for a glass of water.
“Is that all?” inquired Lady Araminta.
“Not quite,” said Charlie; “the sequel is to come. My visit to the monastery of Pierre Châtel had occurred in the month of June. During the ensuing months I travelled over a considerable part of the south of France; and at length I crossed the Pyrenees, intending to proceed as far as Madrid, and winter there. Amongst the lions I had been recommended to visit was a monastery of Franciscans in the neighbourhood of Burgos, and I turned somewhat out of my road for the purpose of inspecting some curious manuscripts which the monks were reputed to possess. It was in the month of October, and a bright moonlight night, when I rang the bell, and requested to see the Padre Pachorra, to whom I had letters of introduction. I found him a dark, grave, sombre-looking man, not very unlike my old friend Brother Lazarus; and although he received me civilly enough, there was something in his demeanour that affected my spirits. The whole air of the convent, too, was melancholy; convents, like other establishments, taking their tone very much from the character of their superiors.
“As the monks had already supped when I arrived, I was served with some refreshment in the parlour; and the whole internal arrangements here being exceedingly strict, I immediately afterwards retired to my chamber, firmly resolved to take my departure the next day. I am not in the habit of going to bed early, and when I do, I never can sleep. By the time my usual sleeping hour is arrived, I have generally got so restless and nervous from lying awake, that slumber is banished altogether. Consequently, whenever I am under circumstances that oblige me to retire early to my room, I make a practice of reading till I find my eyelids heavy. But the dormitory assigned me in this Franciscan convent was so chilly, and the lamp gave so little light, that either remaining out of bed or reading in it was out of the question; so I yielded to necessity, and stretched myself on Padre Pachorra’s hard couch; and a very hard one it was, I assure you. I was very cold too. There were not coverings enough on the bed to keep in my animal heat; and although I spread my own clothes over me also, still I lay shivering in a very uncomfortable manner, and, I am afraid, uttering sundry harsh remarks on the Padre’s niggardly hospitality.
In this agreeable occupation, as you may suppose, the flight of time was somewhat of the slowest. I do not know how many hours I had been there, but I had begun to think it never would be morning, When I heard something stirring in the gallery outside my door. The silence of a convent at night is the silence of the grave. Too far removed from the busy world without for external sounds to penetrate the thick walls, whilst within no slamming door, nor wandering foot, nor sacrilegious voice breaks in upon the stillness, the slightest noise strikes upon the ear with a fearful distinctness. I had no shutters to my window, so that I was aware it was still pitch-dark without, though, within, the feeble light of my lamp enabled me to see a little about me. I knew that the inmates of monasteries not only rise before daylight, but also that they perform midnight masses, and so forth; but then I had always observed that on these occasions they were summoned by a bell. Now, there was no bell; on the contrary, all was still as death, except the cautious foot which seemed to be approaching my room. ‘What on earth can it be?’ thought I, sitting up in bed with an indescribable feeling of apprehension. At that moment a hand was laid upon the latch of my door. I cannot tell why, but instinctively I jumped out of bed—the door opened, and in walked what appeared to me to be Brother Lazarus, exactly as the Prior of Pierre Châtel had described him to me on the occasion of his nocturnal visit to his chamber. His eyes were open, but glazed as of one dead; his face was of a ghastly paleness; he had nothing on but the grey tunic in which he slept; and in his hand he held a knife, such an one as was used by the monks to cut their large loaves with.
“You may conceive my amazement,” continued Charlie Lisle, whilst amongst his auditors every eye was firmly riveted. “I rubbed my eyes, and asked myself if I were dreaming. Too surely I was awake—I had never even slumbered for an instant. Was I mad? I did not think I was; but certainly that was no proof to the contrary; and I almost began to doubt that Brother Lazarus was dead and buried on the other side of the Pyrenees. The Prior of Pierre Châtel had told me he was dead, and I had heard several others of the brotherhood alluding to his decease. I had seen his grave made ready, and I had passed his coffin as I descended to the hall; yet here he was in Spain, again rehearsing the frightful scene that Jolivet had described to me! Whilst all this was fleeting through my mind, I was standing en chemise betwixt the bed and the wall, on which side I had happened to leap out. In the meantime the apparition advanced with bare feet, and with the greatest caution, towards the other side of the bed; and as there were of course no curtains, I had a full view of his diabolical features, which appeared contracted with rage and malignity. As Jolivet had described to me, he first felt the bed, as if to ascertain if the ‘victim’ were there; and I confess I was frightened out of my senses lest he should discover that I was not, and possibly detect me where I was on the couch. What could I have done, unarmed, and in my shirt, against this preternatural-looking monster? And to wake him—provided always it was really Brother Lazarus, and not his double, a point about which I felt exceedingly uncertain—I had learnt from Jolivet was extremely perilous. However, he did not discover that the bed was empty—his dream no doubt supplying a visionary victim for the occasion—and raising his arm, he plunged the knife into the mattress with a fierce determination that convinced me I should have had very little chance of surviving the blow had I been where he imagined me. Again and again he struck, I looking on with a horror that words could but feebly paint; and then he suddenly started—the uplifted arm was arrested—the pursuer was at hand: he first rushed to the window, and opened it, but being only a small lattice, there was no egress there, so he turned to the door, making his escape that way; and I could hear his foot distinctly flying along the gallery till he reached his own cell. By this time I was speculating whether this was a spirit I had seen; for how the veritable Brother Lazarus, or Fra Dominique, or whatever his name was (he very well might have half a dozen aliases for aught I knew), had contrived to rise again to life, and by what means, or for what purpose, he could have persuaded the monks of Pierre Châtel of his “decease”, had the fact not been so, I could not conceive. There was no fastening to my door, and the first question that occurred to me was, whether this diabolical dream of his was ever repeated twice in one night. I had often heard that the magic number of three is apt to prevail on these occasions; and if so, he might come back again. I confess I was horridly afraid that he would. In the meantime I found myself shivering with cold, and was, perforce, obliged to creep into the bed, where indeed I was not much warmer. Sleep was of course out of the question. I lay listening anxiously, expecting either the stealthy foot of Brother Lazarus, or the glad sound of the matin bell, that would summon the monks from their cells, and wondering which I should hear first. Fortunately for my nerves it was the latter; and with alacrity I jumped out of bed, dressed myself, and descended to the chapel.
“When I reached it, the monks were on their knees, and their cowls being over their heads, I could not, as I ran my eye over them, distinguish the somnambulist; but when they rose to their feet, his tall gaunt figure and high shoulders became easily discernible, and I identified him before I saw his face. As they passed out of the chapel, I drew near and saluted him, observing that I believed I had had the pleasure of seeing him before at Pierre Châtel; but he only shook his head, as if in token of denial; and as I could obtain no other answer to my further attempts at conversation, I left him, and proceeded to pay my respects to the prior. Of course I felt it my duty to mention my adventure of the previous night, for Brother Lazarus might on some occasion chance to act out his dream mora effectually than he had had the opportunity of doing with me and Père Jolivet.
“‘I am extremely sorry indeed,’ said Padre Pachorra, when he had heard my story; ‘the brothers must have failed to lock Lazarus in his cell last night. I must speak to them about it, for the consequences might have been very serious.’
“‘Very serious to me certainly,’ said I. ‘But how is it I see this man here alive? When I quitted Pierre Châtel I was told he was dead, and I saw the preparations for his burial.’
“‘They believed him dead,’ returned the prior; ‘but he was only in a trance; after his coffin lid had been screwed down, and just as they were about to lower it into the grave, they felt something moving within. They opened the coffin to find Brother Lazarus alive. It appeared, from his own account, that he had been suffering extremely from a dreadful dream, on occasion of the visit of some young stranger—an Englishman, I believe.’
“‘Myself, I have no doubt,’ said I.
“‘This was either the cause, or the consequence, of his illness; it is difficult to decide which.’
“‘But how came he here?’ I inquired.
“‘It was in this monastery that Lazarus commenced his vocation,’ answered the padre. ‘He was only at Pierre Châtel by indulgence, and after this ‘incident’ they did not wish to retain him.’
“‘I do not wonder at that, I am sure,’ said I. ‘But why did he deny having been there? When I spoke of it to him just now, he only shook his head.’
“‘You have misunderstood, I daresay,’ said the prior; ‘he never speaks. Brother Lazarus has taken a vow of eternal silence.'”
Here Charles Lisle brought his story to a conclusion.
“How extremely shocking!” exclaimed Lady Araminta.
The whole company agreed he had made out an excellent excuse for wishing to sleep with his door locked, and that he had satisfactorily entitled himself to the promised exchange.
–Image “Dark Monk” by DjLewis (deviantart.com)
About the Author
Catherine Crowe (1790-1872)
In addition to a sparse entry at Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_Crowe), I was able to locate the following information on the author/spiritualist:
Catherine Ann Stevens was born in 1790 to a middle-class family who had made their fortune in the hospitality business. She was educated at home in Kent, but very little is known about her early life. In 1822 she married Major John Crowe and had a son the following year. The marriage was an unhappy one for Catherine, and she asked friends to help her escape in 1833. She moved to Edinburgh and began to make her living through writing, going on to enjoy significant success.
Crowe wrote five novels, many short stories, two volumes of supernatural tales, two plays and some short fiction for children. The three-volume editions of her novels sold very well and two of her novels were adapted into stage plays: Susan Hopley: The Adventures of a Maidservant by George Dibden Pitt (of Sweeney Todd fame), and The Story of Lilly Dawson by Edward Stirling, noted for his many adaptations of Dickens’s work (some pirated and some, like his adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’, official).
Throughout her life, Crowe held strong Spiritualist beliefs, describing herself as a disciple of phrenologist George Combe. In 1848 she published her groundbreaking book The Night Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers. Dickens, in a review in the The Examiner, called it ‘one of the most extraordinary collections’ of ghost stories ever published, declaring that Crowe ‘can never be read without pleasure and profit, and can never write otherwise than sensibly and well’. The Night Side of Nature brought Crowe fame and a degree of fortune. It sold at least 65,000 copies in Britain and was described by publisher George Routledge as ‘a most profitable book’.
In 1854, in a story that is possibly apocryphal (or at least exaggerated), Crowe was supposedly found wandering the streets of Edinburgh naked, carrying a handkerchief and a card case, believing herself invisible. The story was widely reported and discussed, with Dickens describing her as ‘stark mad’ and ‘clothed only in her chastity’. Crowe strongly repudiated the claim, but it does seem likely that she suffered some form of breakdown, believing she had been haunted by spirits.
Crowe recovered and continued writing books and short stories. Towards the end of her life, she became interested in nature, publishing three treatises on seaweed. She died in Folkestone in 1872.
Before the svengalis of the Spiritualist movement started beguiling Victorians with a pantomime of phantasmagorical rituals, transcendental fugues, and jaunty silk turbans from the Orient, there was Catherine Crowe.
Born “Catherine Anne Stevens” in 1803 in Borough Green, England, Crowe is memorialized as an authoress of dramas, novels, and children’s books that fall outside the respected literary canon. The word “authoress” is used here with intention. Portending Europe’s nineteenth century women’s empowerment movement, Crowe was outspoken in her criticism of academia’s presumptuous “sausage party”—particularly in the sciences. And, no where did she express that criticism as eloquently and ardently as in her controversial two-volume work, The Night-Side of Nature (Or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers).
Widely credited with having helped to lay the groundwork for the 1882 founding of the Society for Psychical Research, Catherine Crowe’s 1848 scientific treatise, The Night-Side of Nature, was the first published work of its kind to consider the scientific inquiry of paranormal phenomena with seriousness and rigor. In it, Crowe not only adopted the contemporaneous research being done in Germany—her inclusion of “Poltergeist” being the earliest known usage of the word in an English language text—she made bold applications of it, devising a classification system for spirits and phenomena that, even today, remains relevant.
Furthermore, not only did she propose for the first time a methodology of scientific inquiry into the paranormal, she was an unapologetic critic of an academic establishment that cavalierly dismissed the subject altogether: “The pharisaical scepticism which denies without investigation, is quite as perilous, and much more contemptible than the blind credulity which accepts all that it is taught without enquiry; it is, indeed, but another form of ignorance assuming to be knowledge. […] If scientific men could but comprehend how they discredit the science they really profess, by their despotic arrogance and exclusive scepticism, they would surely, for the sake of that very science they love, affect more liberality and candour.” In this regard, Catherine Crowe was far ahead of her time, anticipating a modern attitude of skeptical inquiry that relies upon empiricism and scientific method to demystify paranormal claims, rather than to discredit paranormal beliefs. Furthermore, she is a testament to paranormal investigating originating with nineteenth century women who used the “soft sciences” to cut inroads into the patriarchy of academia, despite its merciless backlash and ridicule.
In fact, near the end of her life, Catherine Crowe suffered an infamous nervous breakdown, her scandalous nude romp through the streets of Edinburgh as familiar to us today as that of Kony 2012 filmmaker Jason Russell. Later Spiritualists such as Madame Blavatsky would sanctify Crowe and her research in perhaps a less-than-credible manner, but, as one of the major progenitors of modern paranormal investigating, she undoubtedly deserves far more than the relative obscurity into which she seems to have fallen. Her stoic defiance of the establishment and her insistence upon scientific rigor in paranormal inquiry model the kind of right-minded skepticism that inspires skeptical thinkers today. As grateful to her for her contributions as to her sacrifices, we’re honored to recognize Catherine Crowe with our “Jaded Light” Award.
On-line resources about Catherine Crowe as a paranormal researcher are difficult to locate and often thin in biographical content, but her groundbreaking work, The Night-Side of Nature, speaks for itself and is available through The Gutenberg Project as well as other electronic archives: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/54532.
Books by the Author
- Works by Catherine Crowe at Project Gutenberg
- Works by Catherine Crowe at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Works by Catherine Ann Crowe at Faded Page (Canada)
- Works by or about Catherine Crowe at Internet Archive
Read about the infamous investigation into Crowe’s 1854 breakdown and naked run through the streets of Edinburgh: