The Original Female Ghostbuster
Long before fictional ghostbusters splashed across screens, Eleanor Sidgwick used science to scope out the paranormal.
The long-awaited "Ghostbusters" remake will hit theaters soon-for better or worse, depending on which pre-release buzz you read. While vampire slaying has often been portrayed as a female-dominated profession (at least on television), ghost hunting seems more male-centered, at least as depicted on reality TV shows such as SyFy's "Ghost Hunters," now in its eleventh season of not finding ghosts.
The new "Ghostbusters" film has an all-female lead cast, but if you're looking for a real-life pioneering female ghostbuster, you couldn't do much better than Eleanor Sidgwick.
Born in 1845 into a prominent British political family (her brother, Arthur, became Prime Minister), Eleanor Mildred Balfour married philosopher Henry Sidgwick in 1876 and on 1880, at 35, she became Vice-Principal of Newnham College in Cambridge.
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According to Eleanor Sidgwick's friend Alice Johnson's account in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, "From an early age she showed a special aptitude for mathematics," and in fact Sidgwick assisted Lord Rayleigh in his "classical measurements on the Silver Voltameter and the Latimer Clark Cell, thus establishing definitively the units of resistance, current, and electromotive force."
Indeed Sidgwick might be considered something of a role model for young girls interested in STEM fields, as she "took a keen interest in science generally [and] she once remarked to me that mathematics especially appealed to her in her early youth because she thought a future life would be much more worth living if it included intellectual pursuits," Johnson wrote.
Eleanor Sidgwick devoted much of her life to science and education but also had a keen interest in what would today be considered the paranormal. She and her husband, both together and separately, spent many years seeking evidence for spirits.
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In her chapter "Ghosts and Poltergeists" in the book "Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century," researcher Michaeleen Maher traces modern ghost investigation techniques back to Sidgwick, who was an investigator for the U.K.-based Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in the mid-1880s.
Sidgwick's article "Phantasms of the Dead" in the SPR's third "Proceedings" (1885) journal examined ghost reports and identified numerous potential sources of error including hoaxing; mistaking a living person for a dead one; unintentional exaggeration by the eyewitness; visual or auditory hallucinations or misperceptions, and so on. She was open to the possibility of ghostly encounters, but believed that if they occurred they were a form of "veridical hallucination." As Maher notes, "Sidgwick brought an exacting and perspicacious intelligence to her analysis."
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Sidgwick had no proton packs or laser blasters-this was the late 1800s, after all-but instead investigated ghost reports, attended séances where psychics claimed to communicate with spirits, and so on. She examined over 300 of what were considered the best eyewitness ghost accounts, and according to Maher "When she summarized the ghostly characteristics that were representative of her sample-and these same characteristics prevail in the credible accounts of ghosts reported today-Sidgwick concluded that (1) there is no foundation for the supposition that ghosts primarily haunt old houses; (2) there is no indication that ghosts are connected with crimes or tragedies; (3) ghosts do not ordinarily appear on anniversaries or special occasions; (4) ghosts rarely appear in the clothes of a bygone age; (5) ghosts may be seen in daylight or in artificial light, at dawn or at dusk, and in various parts of a house or outside in the yard," and so on.
Sidgwick's analysis is interesting partly because it largely debunks many long-held and widely-believed tenets of modern ghostlore (for example that ghosts appear dressed in clothes of the period they're assumed to belong to, or that ghosts are primarily seen in the dark). Nonetheless many modern real-life ghost hunters continue seek their quarry thwarted by misperceptions and unrecognized ghost folklore.
Science, Spirits, and Skepticism
In his book "The History of Ghosts," Peter Aykroyd (father of original "Ghostbusters" actor and co-writer Dan Aykroyd) described a séance attended by both Sidgwicks in which a medium claimed to be in contact with ghosts. The medium, Eusapia Palladino, "managed to produce from nowhere a fresh melon, which was deposited on the table in front of the sitters [audience]. She also moved, by psychokinesis or telekinesis, a small wicker table."
Palladino, however, was often caught faking "ghostly" phenomena in her darkened, fraud-friendly séance rooms; as Aykroyd notes "Everyone at the séance saw her cheat...and the mighty Sidgwicks were not at all impressed." Palladino continued to perform for paying audiences, trying to stay one step ahead of the skeptics and ghostbusters who continually exposed her magician's tricks; she eventually gave up and died in 1918.
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According to Alice Johnson, Eleanor and Henry Sidgwick "condemned the tacit encouragement given by the majority of spiritualists at that time to fraudulent mediums, who knew that no exposure would prevent their continuing to drive a profitable trade." Mrs. Sidgwick also helped expose fraudulent activity of many other self-proclaimed psychics, ghost summoners, and mystics including the famous occultist and medium Helena "Madame" Blavatsky.
Sidgwick was not necessarily always skeptical, however; when investigating a psychic medium named Gladys Leonard on behalf of the SPR, she concluded that "On the whole, I think that the evidence before us does constitute a reasonable prima facie case for belief" in clairvoyance.
Whether the new "Ghostbusters" film is a hit or flop remains to be seen, but there's surely a great story in the real-life exploits of scientist, feminist, and original ghostbuster Eleanor Sidgwick.