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Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters By H. Addington Bruce Characters: 20024

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


A Medieval Ghost Hunter

The name of Dr. John Dee is scarcely known to-day, yet Dr. Dee has some exceedingly well-defined claims to remembrance. He was one of the foremost scientists of the Tudor period in English history. He was famed as a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher not only in his native land but in every European center of learning. Before he was twenty he penned a remarkable treatise on logic, and he left behind him at his death a total of nearly a hundred works on all manner of recondite subjects. He was the means of introducing into England a number of astronomical instruments hitherto unused, and even unknown, in that country. His lectures on geometry were the delight of all who heard them. In Elizabeth's reign he was frequently consulted by the highest ministers of the crown with regard to affairs of State, and was the confidant of the queen herself, who more than once employed him on secret missions. He was interested in everyday affairs as well as in questions of theoretical importance. The reformation of the calendar long engaged his attention. He charted for Elizabeth her distant colonial dominions. He preached the doctrine of sea-power, and, like Hakluyt, advocated the upbuilding of a strong navy. He was, in some sort, a participant in Sir Humphrey Gilbert's scheme for New World colonization.

In a word, Dr. John Dee was a phenomenally many-sided man in an age that was peculiarly productive of many-sided men. Even yet, the catalogue of his interests and accomplishments is by no means exhausted. Indeed, his chief claim to fame-and, paradoxically enough, the great reason why his reputation practically died with him-lies in the fact that he was one of the earliest of psychical researchers. At a time when all men unhesitatingly entertained a belief in the overshadowing presence of spirits and their constant intervention in human affairs, Dr. Dee resolved to prove, if possible, the actual existence of these mysterious and unseen beings. To encourage him in his ghost-hunting zeal was the hope that the spirits, if actually located by him, might reward his enterprise by unfolding a secret that had long been the despair of all medieval scientists-the secret of the philosopher's stone, of the precious formula whereby the baser metals could be transmuted into shining gold. With the heartiest enthusiasm, therefore, Dr. Dee went to work, and although the spirits with whom he ultimately came into constant communication brought him no gold but many tribulations, he remained an ardent psychical researcher to the day of his death.

Just when he began his explorations of the invisible world it is impossible to say. But it must have been at a very early age, for he was barely twenty-five when a rumor spread that he was dabbling in the black arts. Two years later, in 1554, he was definitely accused of trying to take the life of Queen Mary by enchantments, and on this charge was thrown into prison. For cellmate he had Barthlet Green, who parted from him only to meet an agonizing death in the flames, as an arch-heretic. Dee himself was threatened with the stake, and was actually placed on trial for his life before the dread Court of the Star Chamber. But he seems to have had, throughout his entire career, a singularly plausible manner, and a magnetic, winning personality. He succeeded in convincing his judges both of his innocence of traitorous designs and his religious orthodoxy, and was allowed to go scot free. Elizabeth, on her accession to the throne, naturally looked on him with favor, as one who had been persecuted by her sister; and with the more favor since it was widely reported that he was on the eve of making the grand discovery for which other alchemists had ever labored in vain. A man who might some day make gold at will was certainly not to be despised; rather, he should be cultivated. Nor was her esteem for Dee lessened by the success with which, by astrological calculations, he named a favorable day for her coronation; and, a little later, by solemn disenchantment warded off the ill effects of the Lincoln's Inn Fields incident, when a puppet of wax, representing Elizabeth, was found lying on the ground with a huge pin stuck through its breast.

As a matter of fact, however, Dee was making headway neither in his quest for the philosopher's stone nor in his efforts to prove the existence of a spiritual world. In vain he pored over every work of occultism upon which he could lay his hands, and tried all known means of incantation. Year after year passed without result, until at last he hit on the expedient of crystal-gazing. As every student of things psychical is aware, if one takes a crystal, or glass of water, or other body with a reflecting surface, and gaze at it steadily, he may possibly perceive, after a greater or less length of time, shadowy images of persons or scenes in the substance that fixes his attention. It was so with Dr. Dee, and not having any understanding of the laws of subconscious mental action he soon came to the conclusion that the shadowy figures he saw in the crystal were veritable spirits. From this it was an easy step to imagine that they really talked to him and sought to convey to him a knowledge of the great secrets of this world and the next.

The only difficulty was that he could not understand what they said-or, rather, what he fancied they said. The obvious thing to do was to find a crystal-gazer with the gift of the spirit language, and induce him to interpret for Dr. Dee's benefit the revelations of the images in the glass. Such a crystal-gazer was ready at hand in the person of a young man named Edward Kelley. Among the common people, as Dee well knew, Kelley had the reputation of being a bold and wicked wizard. He had been born in Worcester, and trained in the apothecary's business, but, tempted by the prospect of securing great wealth at a minimum of trouble, he had turned alchemist and magician. It was rumored that on at least one occasion he had disinterred a freshly buried corpse, and by his incantations had compelled the spirit of the dead man to speak to him. There was more truth in the report that the reason he always wore a close-fitting skull-cap was to conceal the loss of his ears, which had been forfeited to the Government of England on his conviction for forgery. Of this last unpleasant incident Dr. Dee seems to have known nothing. At any rate, with child-like confidence, he sent for Kelley, told him of the properties of his magic crystal-which the now thoroughly infatuated doctor represented as having been bestowed on him by the angel Uriel-and asked Kelley if he would interpret for him the wonderful words of the spirits.

Kelley, as shrewd and unscrupulous a man as any in the annals of imposture, readily consented, but on pretty hard terms. He was to be taken in as a member of Dr. Dee's family, retained on a contract, and paid an annual stipend of fifty pounds, quite a large sum in those times. On this understanding he went to work, and day after day, for years, regaled the credulous Dee with monologues purporting to be delivered by the spirits in the crystal. Everything Kelley told him, Dr. Dee faithfully noted down, and many years later, long after both Dee and Kelley had been carried to their graves, these manuscript notes of the séances were published. The volume containing them-a massive, closely printed folio entitled "A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits"-is one of the great curiosities of literature. A copy of the original edition is before me as I write, and I will quote from it just enough to show the character of the "revelations" vouchsafed to Dee through the mediumship of the cunning Kelley.

"Wednesday, 19 Junii, I made a prayer to God and there appeared one, having two garments in his hands, who answered, 'A good praise, with a wavering mind.'

"God made my mind stable, and to be seasoned with the intellectual leaven, free of all sensible mutability.

"E. K. [said] 'One of these two garments is pure white: the other is speckled of divers colors; he layeth them down before him, he layeth also a speckled cap down before him at his feet; he hath no cap on his head: his hair is long and yellow, but his face cannot be seen.... Now he putteth on his pied coat and his pied cap, he casteth one side of his gown over his shoulder and he danceth, and saith, "There is a God, let us be merry!"'

"E. K. 'He danceth still.'

"'There is a heaven, let us be merry.'

"'Doth this doctrine teach you to know God, or to be skilful in the heavens?'

"'Note it.'

"E. K. 'Now he putteth off his clothes again: now he kneeleth down, and washeth his head and his neck and his face, and shaketh his clothes, and plucketh off the uttermost sole of his shoes, and falleth prostrate on the ground, and saith, "Vouchsafe, oh God, to take away the weariness of my body and to cleanse the filthiness of this dust, that I may be apt for this pureness."'

"E. K. 'Now he taketh the white garment, and putteth it on him.... Now he sitteth down on the desk-top and looketh toward me.... He seemeth now to be turned to a woman, and the very same which we call Galvah.'"

Side by side with the esoteric and transcendental utterances which Kelley credited to the spirits, he cleverly introduced sufficient in the way of references to the elixir of life and the transmutation of metals, to keep alive in Dee's breast the hope of ultimately solving the crucial problems of medieval science. All the money Dee could procure was spent on ingredients for magical formulas, and to such lengths did his enthusiasm carry him that before long he was reduced to poverty. He became so poor, in fact, that when, in the summer of 1583, the Earl of Leicester announced his intention of bringing a notable foreign visitor, Count Albert Lasky of Bohemia, to dine with Dee, the unhappy doctor was compelled to send word that h

e could not provide a proper dinner. Leicester, moved to pity, reported his plight to the queen, who at once belied her reputation for niggardliness by bestowing a liberal gift on the Sage of Mortlake, as Dee was now styled at the Court. The dinner accordingly took place, and was a tremendous success in more ways than one.

Lasky turned out to be an exceedingly excitable and impressionable man, and his curiosity was so aroused by the occult discourse of his host that he begged to be admitted to the séances. Always alert to the main chance, Kelley, after a few preliminary sittings of unusual picturesqueness, inspired the spirits to predict that Lasky would one day be elected King of Poland. It needed nothing more to induce the happy and hopeful count to invite both Dee and Kelley to return with him to Bohemia. He would, he promised, protect and provide for them; they should live with him in his many turreted castle, and want for nothing. Here, indeed, was a pleasant way out of their present poverty, and Dee and Kelley readily gave consent. Nor did they leave England a moment too soon. Scarcely had they taken ship before a mob, roused to fury by superstitious fears, broke into the philosopher's house at Mortlake and destroyed almost everything that they did not steal-furniture, books, manuscripts, and costly scientific apparatus.

Of this, though, Dee for the moment happily knew nothing. Nor, for all his long intercourse with the spirits, was he able to foresee that he was now embarking on a career of tragic adventure that falls to the lot of few scientists. At first, however, all went well enough. Lasky entertained his learned guests in lavish fashion, and, assuming their garb of long, flowing gown, joined heartily with them in the ceremonies of the séance room. But as time passed and their incantations redounded in no way to his advantage, he gradually lost patience, and broadly hinted that they might better transfer their services to another patron. Whereupon, closely followed by the irrepressible Kelley, Dee removed to the court of the emperor, Rudolph II, at Prague. He had dedicated one of his scientific treatises to the emperor's father, and in his simplicity firmly believed that this would insure him a warm and lasting welcome. But Rudolph, from the outset, showed himself far from well-disposed to Dee, Kelley, and their attendant retinue of invisible spirits. When Dee grandiloquently introduced himself, in a Latin oration, as a messenger from the unseen world, the emperor curtly checked him with the remark that he did not understand Latin. And the next day a hint was given him that, at the request of the papal nuncio, he and Kelley were to be arrested and sent to Rome for trial as necromancers. Before night-fall they were in full flight, to remain homeless wanderers until another Bohemian count, hearing of their presence in his dominions, took them under his protection on the proviso that they were to replenish his exchequer by converting humble pewter into silver and gold.

In this, of course, they signally failed, and the next few years of their lives were years of the greatest misery. This, at any rate, so far as Dee was concerned. Kelley, with pitiless insistence, drew his pay regularly, and when funds were not forthcoming, refused to act as crystal-gazer and spirit interpreter. On one of these occasions Dee tried to replace him by training his son, Arthur Dee, as a crystal-gazer; but, try as he might, the boy said he could see in the crystal nothing but meaningless clouds and specks. Had Dee not been thoroughly infatuated this might have disillusioned him, and convinced him that Kelley had simply been preying on his credulity. But the old man-he was now well advanced in years-saw in his son's failure only proof of Kelley's superior gifts, and by dint of great sacrifices contrived to find the money necessary to persuade him to return to his post. At last a day came when money could no longer be found, and then Kelley definitely determined to break the partnership. According to one account, he informed Dee that, for the sake of his immortal soul, he could no longer have dealings with the spirits; that they were spirits not of good but of evil, and Mephistopheles was their master; and that, did he continue to traffic with them, Mephistopheles would soon have him, body and soul. Another version-given by the astrologer, William Lilly, who is said to have been consulted by the friends of King Charles I. as to the best time for that unhappy monarch to attempt to escape from prison-says that one fine morning Kelley took French leave of Dee, running away with an alchemically inclined friar who had promised him a good income. Whatever the facts of his final rupture with his long-suffering master, it is certain that, after a romantic career, in which he gained a German baronetcy, Kelley was clapped into prison on a charge of fraud, and broke his neck while trying to escape.

Dr. Dee, in the meantime, a sadder if not a really wiser man, had found his way back to England, where he essayed the difficult task of retrieving his ruined fortunes. Elizabeth smiled on him as graciously as ever, and at Christmas time sent to him a royal gift of two hundred angels in gold. But he needed more than an occasional bounty; he needed the assurance of a steady income, and the chance to pursue again his scientific studies undisturbed by the phantoms of gnawing want. So, in a memorial, "written with tears of blood," as he himself put it, Dee begged the queen to appoint a commission to investigate his case and review the evidence he would produce to prove that his services to the nation warranted a reward. Promptly the commission was appointed, and as promptly began its labors. This led to what Isaac Disraeli, perhaps Dee's best biographer, has described as a "literary scene of singular novelty."

Let me depict it in Disraeli's little known words: "Dee, sitting in his library," says Disraeli, "received the royal commissioners. Two tables were arranged; on one lay all the books he had published, with his unfinished manuscripts; the most extraordinary one was an elaborate narrative of the transactions of his whole life. This manuscript his secretary read, and, as it proceeded, from the other table Dee presented the commissioners with every testimonial. These vouchers consisted of royal letters from the Queen, and from princes, ambassadors, and the most illustrious persons of England and of Europe; passports which traced his routes, and journals which noted his arrivals and departures; grants and appointments and other remarkable evidences; and when these were wanting, he appealed to living witnesses.

"Among the employments which he had filled, he particularly alluded to a 'painful journey in the winter season, of more than fifteen hundred miles, to confer with learned physicians on the Continent, about her majesty's health.' He showed the offers of many princes to the English philosopher, to retire to their courts, and the princely establishment at Moscow proffered by the czar; but he had never faltered in his devotion to his sovereign.... He complained that his house at Mortlake was too public for his studies, and incommodious for receiving the numerous foreign literati who resorted to him. Of all the promised preferments, he would have chosen the mastership of St. Cross for its seclusion. Here is a great man making great demands, but reposing with dignity on his claims; his wants were urgent, but the penury was not in his spirit. The commissioners, as they listened to his autobiography, must often have raised their eyes in wonder, on the venerable and dignified author before them."

Their report was terse, direct, and wholly favorable, inspiring the queen to declare that Dee should have the mastership of St. Cross, and that immediately. But days passed into months, and months into years, and Elizabeth's "immediately" still belonged to the future. For some reason she soon lost all interest in the returned Sage of Mortlake. Again and again he memorialized her, once with a letter vindicating himself from the accusation of practising sorcery. Her sole reply was to grant him finally the uncongenial post of warden of Manchester College, from which he retired after some mortifying experiences with the minor officials. Nor did he fare better at the hands of Elizabeth's successor. Steadily he sank lower in the scale of society, until at last he was forced to sell his books, one by one, to buy bread. And still, for all his poverty, he pressed constantly forward in his adventurings into the invisible world. If his friends deserted him, he would at least have the companionship of "angels." As his hallucinations grew, his youthful buoyancy returned. He would leave England, would fare across to the Continent, and there seek out men of a mind like unto his own. Joyfully, he made ready for the journey; but, even while he packed and planned, the call came for another and a longer voyage. In the eighty-first year of his age, 1608, the aged dreamer became in very fact a dweller in the spirit world.

Of his place in the history of mankind, it is not easy to write with any degree of finality. There can be no doubt that he was utterly swept off his feet by the domination of a fixed idea. And it is not possible to point to any specific contributions which he made to the advancement of learning, worldly or otherwise. Still, it is equally certain that he was anything but a negative quantity in an age resplendent for its positive men. He played his part, however mistakenly, in the intellectual awakening that has shed such luster on the times of Elizabeth; and, if only for his overpowering curiosity, and his intense and unfailing ardor to get at the truth of all things, natural or supernatural, he merits respect as a forerunner of the scientific spirit which in his day was but feebly striving to loose itself from the bondage of bigotry and intolerance.

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