“Why is water considered ghost-proof?” (1884)

Did the title of this post catch your attention?  It caught mine immediately when I came across the identically titled “letter to the editor” in an 1884 issue of Science.

As regular readers know, I occasionally like to browse the issues of old science journals looking for unusual content worth blogging about.  My search is almost never in vain — there’s tons of intriguing stuff out there that’s been mostly forgotten about.

Science was founded in 1880, and like many journals starting out struggled to find readership, funding, and cutting edge content (like Physical Review, that I’ve talked about previously).  Though a disadvantage for the magazine at the time, it is now a benefit for historical-minded bloggers like me, because many quirky results found their way into its pages.

Such is the case with, “Why is water considered ghost-proof?”, a short letter by Lester F. Ward that appeared in the January 2nd, 1885 issue of Science.  It is a letter that is both more and less than it appears (more science, less supernatural), but also serves to highlight some other interests of the scientific community in the era.

Illustration for the ghost story, “Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall“, by John Kendrick Bangs.  Illustration from Alfred Hitchcock’s compliation Haunted Houseful (source).

The letter in its entirety is posted below:

As a possible partial explanation of the fact referred to by Dr. Edward B. Tylor, in his address before the Anthropological society of Washington (see Science, iv. 548, col. 2), of the wide-spread belief among savages ‘that water is impassable to spirits,’ the obstacle which it presents to dogs in pursuing their prey by scent may be suggested. This latter fact must be well known to most uncivilized races; and the mystery of tracking by scent must furnish a fertile theme for the exercise of the savage imagination, while the scent itself of a human being would be readily attributed to his spirit. Can anthropologists show any ‘historical connection’ between the fact and the belief?

Ward’s letter is in response to an anthropological observation made by Dr. Tylor in a lecture to the Anthropological Society of Washington, “How the problems of American anthropology present themselves to an English mind.”  This lecture was reprinted in volume 4 of Science in 1884.  One such problem described by Dr. Tylor is the amazing similarity between the beliefs of seemingly unconnected cultures.  He introduces it as follows:

To turn to our actual experiences. The things that one sees among the Indian tribes who have not become so ‘white’ as the Algonkins and the Iroquois, but who present a more genuine picture of old American life, do often, and in the most vivid way, present traces of the same phenomena with which one is so familiar in old-world life. Imagine us sitting in a house just inside California, engaged in what appeared to be a fruitless endeavor on the part of Professor Moseley to obtain a lock of hair of a Mojave to add to his collection. The man objected utterly.  He shook his head. When pressed, he gesticulated and talked. No: if he gave up that bit of hair, he would become deaf, dumb, grow mad; and, when the medicine-man came to drive away the malady, it would be of no use, he would have to die.Now, all this represents a perfectly old-world group of ideas. If you tried to get a lock of hair in Italy or Spain, you might be met with precisely the same resistance; and you would find that the reason would be absolutely the same as that which the Mojave expressed,–that by means of that lock of hair one can be bewitched, the consequence being disease.

Another similarity arises in the belief amongst many cultures that water is a preventative against ghosts:

We find it much easier to deal with practices similar enough to show corresponcding workingsof the human mind, but also different enough to show separate formation. Only this morning I met with an excellent instance of this. Dr. Yarrow, your authority on the subject of funeral rites, described to me a custom of the Utes of disposing of the bodies of men they feared and hated by putting them under water in streams. After much inquiry, he found that the intention of this proceeding was to prevent their coming back to molest the survivors. Now, there is a passage in an old writer on West Africa where it is related, that, when a man died, his widow would have herself ducked in the river in order to get rid of his ghost, which would be hanging about her, especially if she were one of his most loved wives. Having thus drowned him off, she was free to marry again. here, then, is the idea that water is impassable to spirits, worked out in different ways in Africa and America, but showing in both the same principle; which, indeed, is manifested by so many peoples in the idea of bridges for the dead to pass real or imaginary streams, from the threads stretched across brooks in Burmah for the souls of friends to cross by, to Catlin’s slippery pine-log for the Choctaw dead to pass the dreadful river. In such correspondences of principle we trace, more clearly than in mere repetitions of a custom or belief, the community of human intellect.

It is this curious synchronicity of beliefs that Lester Ward’s short letter addresses.  Ward suggests that the anti-ghost properties of water involve its ability to confound dogs tracking by scent.  I can’t say whether Ward’s speculation was accepted or not; I’m tempted to pass the papers in question along to Krystal at Anthropology in Practice for her opinion!

So the paper “Why is water considered ghost-proof?” isn’t an actual speculation about the science of ghosts, which is somewhat disappointing!  It was not an unreasonable guess, however, considering the late 1800s was a period of intense interest in spiritualism and psychic powers amongst the general public and even some scientists.

This point is made quite well by another note in an 1883 issue of Science, called, “Psychical research in America”:

A MEETING was held in Boston, on Sept. 23, to consider the advisability of forming an American society for psychical research. Prof. W. F. Barrett, vice-president of the English society, was present, and gave an account of the work they are doing in England in the investigation of ‘mind-reading’ and the so-called spiritualistic phenomena, which last they always find to fail when the medium is securely bound. As one good result of the English society’s work, it was stated that there had been a decrease in the activity of the society of spiritualists in London. It was the sense of the meeting, that if any thing could be done in this country to check the growth of the belief in the supernatural powers of ‘ mediums,’ and to show what is the true explanation of such phenomena as ‘mind-reading’ and mesmerism, it would be a work which should enlist the assistance of American scientific men. Professor Barrett showed, that, in the case of ‘ mind-reading,’ most of the results pointed to an unconscious guidance on the part of the person whose mind was being read, but there were residual cases he would not so explain. It was the opinion of those present, that the collecting of the stories of fulfilled dreams and anxieties would be fruitless, but that there were many questions of a physiological nature which should be investigated, and no longer be allowed to go unanswered or ignored. A committee was appointed to consider the whole matter of the formation of a society, or in what way it may seem best to undertake the work; and, at a meeting held last week, steps were taken for the formation of a society in America, of which we hope soon to report the complete organization.

Spiritualism seems to have really taken off in 1848 with the claims of the Fox sisters of New York that they were in contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler.  The young girls’ activities apparently started as pranks to trick their mother around the house, but grew more elaborate as more and more people were drawn to witness them.  They rapidly became famous mediums, and others capitalized on the sensation and introduced their own supernatural acts.  By the late 1800s, the scientific community began to actively investigate (though I have noted in a previous post that some investigations of wonder-workers began much earlier); the note reproduced above shows that scientists formed psychic research societies to investigate and, in virtually all cases, expose the fraudulent supernatural forces.  There were, however, some serious researchers who were also strong believers, such as physicist William Crookes (1832-1919).

The Fox sisters Margaret, Kate and Leah.  Margaret and Kate were the “mediums” of the family, who in 1888 briefly confessed to their hoax before recanting (source).

Another figure active in investigating psychic forces was astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909).  A paper by Newcomb, “The Georgia Wonder-Girl and Her Lessons”, published in 1885 in — where else? Science — illustrates nicely the attitudes of researchers at the time and the clever people they had to outwit to get at the truth.

THE people of the interior states are now being amused by an exhibition the success of which offers a striking example of the unreliability of human testimony respecting the phenomena of force and motion. Some months since, the writer received a polite invitation to witness the wonderful performances of Miss Lulu Hurst, the Georgia ‘magnetic girl,’ in causing objects to move as if acted on by powerful forces, without any muscular action on her part. Another engagement prevented his acceptance; but, on the morning following, he received such a description of the phenomenonas to make him regret that he had not sacrificed every thing to the opportunity of seeing it. It was substantially this: –

A light rod was firmly held in the hands of the heaviest and most muscular of the select circle of spectators. Miss Lulu had only to touch the rod with her fingers, when it immediately began to go through the most extraordinary manoeuvres. It jerked the holder around the room with a power which he was unable to resist, and finally threw him down into one corner completely discomfited. Another spectator was then asked to take hold of the rod; and Miss Lulu, extending her arms, touched each end with the tip of a finger. Immediately the rod began to whirl around on its own central line as an axis, with such rapidity and force that the skin was nearly taken off the holder’s hands in his efforts to stop it. A heavy man being seated in a chair, man and chair were both lifted up by the fair performer pressing the palms of her hands against the sides of the back. To substantiate the claim that she herself exerted no force, the chair and man were lifted without her touching the chair at all. The sitter was asked to put his hands under the chair: the performer then put her two hands around and upon his in such a way that it was impossible for her to exert any force on the chair except through his hands; yet the chair lifted him up without her exerting any pressure heavier than a mere touch upon his hands. Several men were then invited to hold the chair still. The performer began to deftly touch it here and there with her fingers, when the chair again began to jump about in the most extraordinary manner, in spite of all the efforts of three or four strong men to keep it still or to hold it down. A hat being inverted upon a table, she held her extended hands over it. It was lifted up by what seemed an attractive force similar to that of a magnet upon an armature, and was in danger of being torn to pieces in the effort to keep it down, though she could not possibly have had any hold upon the object.

Sounds very impressive, and clearly made an impression on the observers at that first meeting:

This was the account of the performance given, not by a gaping crowd nor by uncritical spectators, but by a select circle of educated men. To the reminder that no force could be exerted upon a body except by a reaction in the opposite direction upon some other body, and to the question upon what other body the reaction was exerted, the narrators expressed themselves unable to return an answer. All they could do was to describe things as they had seen them. Of only one thing could they be confident: the reaction was not exerted through or against the body of the performer. Among the spectators were physicians and physiologists who grasped Miss Lulu’s arms while the extraordinary motions went on without finding any symptoms of strong muscular action, and who, feeling her pulse after the most violent motions, found that it remained in its normal state. Apparently the objects which she touched were endowed with a power of exerting force which was wholly new to science. Altogether, the weight of evidence seemed as strong as in the best authenticated and most inexplicable cases of  ‘spirit’ manifestation, while none of the obstacles to investigation connected with the latter were encountered.

It is significant to note that Newcomb had to remind the observers at the first “performance” about Newton’s third law: that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  This is a nice illustration of how important scientific knowledge is in the uncovering of frauds and hoaxers.

Such was the case as it appeared on a first trial; but the spectators were not men to be satisfied without further investigation. Accordingly, they had made arrangements with the managers to have another private exhibition at the Volta laboratory two days later. They proposed also to have decisive tests to determine whether or not she exerted any force upon the objects which she moved. The party duly appeared at the appointed time. At this point I think it only just to mention the perfect frankness with which the most thorough investigation of the case was permitted by those having the exhibition in charge. There was no darkening of rooms, no concealing hands under tables, no fear thatspirits would refuse to come at the bidding ofa sceptic, no trickery of any sort. The opportunities for observation were entirely unrestricted.

Newcomb is being very charitable here; how nice it was for the hoaxers to not use every trick possible to deceive the investigators!

The next passage really made me laugh; a clue to the nature of the phenomena was presented right at the introduction:

Miss Lulu was a rosy country girl, somewhat above the average height, but did not give the impression of muscular training; still, when she was presented to those present, the first thing which struck the writer was the weight of her arm. Shaking hands with her felt like moving the arm of a giant, and led to the impression that she had a much better muscular development than would have been supposed.

Emphasis mine!   Miss Lulu was clearly using the prejudices of her male audience against them — who would expect a “rosy country girl” to be extraordinarily strong?

Before proceeding to the tests which had been pre-arranged, it was thought best to try what she could do under ordinary circumstances.  Among the first performances to be tried was that of the hat. A spectator held a light straw hat in his hands, the opening upwards. Miss Hurst extended her hands over it so that the balls of her thumbs just touched the inner face of the rim. At first there was no result, but after a few trials the hat was gently attracted upwards as if by electricity. Had those in charge been professionals, I cannot doubt that they would have stopped right there, and declined to repeat the performance. Not being such, they yielded to the invitation to go on, so that the holder could see how it was done. This was soon effected without difficulty. Whenever the apparent attraction was exerted, it was through the inner edge of the brim being caught in the fold of the ball of the extended hand. After a few moments the observer was enabled to say, ” She cannot lift it now, because her hand is not rightly arranged,”and he learned to adjust her hand so that the lifting could be executed. Of course,the force was not very strong. The idea that the hat would have been in any danger had a weight been in it was simply a mistake.

Emphasis again mine!  Newcomb and friends were dealing with a relatively inexperienced group of psychic hoaxers who, by permitting repetition, allowed the observers to deduce the nature of the trick.

Next the jumping-staff was tried. The writer took the latter in his hands, and Miss Lulu placed the palm of her hand and her extended thumb against the staff near its two ends, while the holder firmly grasped it near the middle. He was then warned to resist with all his force, with the added assurance that the resistance would be vain. Sure enough, the staff began to be affected with a jerking motion, producing the disastrous effects which had been described upon the holder’s equilibrium. An unwise repetition of the performance, however, did away with all its mystery; for, although the performer began with a delicate touch of the staff, the holder soon perceived that she changed the position of her hands every moment, sometimes seizing the staff with a firm grip, and that it never moved in any direction unless her hands were in such a position that she could move it in that direction by ordinary pressure. An estimate of the force which she exerted on the staff could be roughly made. It might have been as high as forty pounds. A very little calculation will show that this would be sufficient to upset the equilibrium of a very heavy man. It is impossible for the latter so to place his feet that he will be supported on a rectangle of more than one foot in breadth. He may indeed change at pleasure the direction of the longer side of this rectangle by extending his feet indifferent directions; but, arrange them as he will, his base will under any circumstances be a rectangle whose length is equal to the distance between his feet, and whose breadth is at the very maximum equal to the length of his feet. A pressure of one-fifth his weight would, under the most favorable circumstances, throw him off his balance, and make a new adjustment necessary. The motion given by the performer to the rod was not a regular one, which could be anticipated and guarded against, but a series of jerks, first in one direction, and then in another; so that it was impossible for the holder to brace himself against them: consequently, by a force which might not have exceeded forty pounds, he was put through a series of most undignified contortions, and finally compelled to retire in total defeat.

Again, careful observation and a knowledge of the laws of physics were enough to uncover the trick behind the powers of the “magnetic girl”.  Newcomb’s account continues, and he was able to demonstrate through careful testing that all of the girl’s abilities could be explained by careful applications of very ordinary physical force.  In a parallel with modern charlatans, however, exposure apparently did not affect her fortunes:

From various allusions in the public press, it would seem that the wonderful ‘magnetic girl’ has not yet ceased to draw full houses. The editor of the Chicago Inter-ocean made a careful investigation of the case, and showed that it could not possibly be electricity which caused the motion; but he does not essay an explanation of what the force was.

Newcomb’s interpretation of the success of Miss Lulu’s tricks, however, rests more on psychology than physics:

Although it would be unjust and pretentious to say that no one sees the absurdly simple character of tile performance, it would appear that there are many who are mystified by it, and that, should we accept the existing testimony on the subject as complete, we should be compelled to admit that some new form of force had been discovered. It is indeed possible that the absurd simplicity of the affair may help to give it vitality; for, as already indicated, not only is there no mystery or concealment, but there is not even a resort to the tricks of legerdemain, which consist very largely in distracting the observers’ attention at the critical moment. The assumption, that, because Miss Lulu begins by touching the articles deftly with her fingers, she never takes them with a firm grip, is one which the spectator takes upon himself without any effort on the performer’s part to cause that illusion.

The real trick is the ability of the believer to fool himself or herself!  Newcomb treats the entire episode as a lesson for other would-be psychic researchers:

This account is presented to the readers of Science, because, taken in connection with descriptions of the performance given by thousands of spectators, many of them critical observers, it affords the basis of a reply to those who have seen chairs, tables, and pianos dance without human agency.

Newcomb was actually very involved in the study of spiritualism and psychic phenomena; I’ll return to his investigations in a future post.  Suffice to say for now that, in one way or another, many scientists of the late 1800s were very interested in ghosts!


L.F. Ward, “Why Is Water Considered Ghost-Proof?” Science, Vol. 5, No. 100 (Jan. 2, 1885), p. 2.

E.B. Tylor, “How the Problems of American Anthropology Present Themselves to the English Mind,” Science, Vol. 4, No. 98 (Dec. 19, 1884), pp. 545-551.

“Psychical Research in America,” Science, Vol. 4, No. 88 (Oct. 10, 1884), p. 359.

S. Newcomb, “The Georgia Wonder-Girl and Her Lessons,” Science, Vol. 5, No. 105 (Feb. 6, 1885), pp. 106-108.

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12 Responses to “Why is water considered ghost-proof?” (1884)

  1. Lowell says:

    Water is ghost-proof? Tell that to the possessed bottle of Evian up in my kitchen cabinet!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention “Why is water considered ghost-proof?” (1884) | Skulls in the Stars -- Topsy.com

  3. Pingback: And I’m haunted… « FCIWYPSC

  4. Jeb says:

    For us Savage Scots the water had to be running.

    In Robert Burns poem Tam o’ Shanter, Tam is saved from a horde of Warlocks and witches by crossing a bridge, “A running stream they dare not cross!”

    We have lots of lady of the linn (a pool of water) ghost tales.

  5. Pingback: The rise and fall of astrology | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  6. violetcrow says:

    If Ig Nobel was at that time, the title could be a strong candidate!!!

    By the way, some suggestions for the website, you could add Atom feed to the website for the readers to follow it, though automatically it would be done by some readers. Also it would be a good idea to put a Google Buzz to button to the website. Here are some instructions:


  7. Andre Mayer says:

    Tylor, Ward and Newcomb were of course major scientific figures. Lester Frank Ward was at that time a government geologist and botanist, I believe, although he went on to become the first president of the American Sociological Association.

  8. bv says:

    Off topic, but please forgive me.
    Apropos Languagelog discussion on ‘white’ [http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3179], was the word white in Dr Taylor’s quote, quoted in the original?

  9. Doc Quatermass says:

    David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World is an interesting read including Scientific American’s support of testing spiritualists…


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