A Brief Guide to Keeping a Commonplace Book

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I had the opportunity to write for Dirge Magazine while it was still online (Rest in Peace). I learned so much as a writer from the editors, so I wanted to make sure I was able to save my favorite and proudest piece. I grabbed the following article from the depths of Wayback Machine. The article was published in Dirge Magazine with the original title “Before Bullet Journals, There Were Commonplace Books” on January 8, 2017. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it!


The latest trend in self improvement is the bullet journal or the “analog system for the digital age.” The system, invented by digital product designer Ryder Carroll, allows users to turn a blank notebook into a to-do list, diary, notebook, and sketchbook. The bullet journal is especially helpful for those with tasks coming from multiple directions, and who need an organized plan of action that favors rapid-fire note-taking and prioritization. With the increasing number of technological ways to store information, it is nice to see the traditional blank notebook receiving fresh attention.

While the blank notebook basks in the limelight, I thought it might be fitting to discuss the commonplace book, the long tradition of using a blank notebook for storing and organizing information for later use. The commonplace book differs from bullet journals in that it is devoted to knowledge-making, and not necessarily planning out one’s life. A commonplace book is not a journal at all, as John Locke writes: “Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”

The commonplace book is an excellent tool for readers, helping memorialize words, phrases, quotes, passages, and images. Further, it creates an accessible reference book you can use forever and pass along to others. After providing an introduction to the commonplace book tradition, I will introduce my own experiences to help you start your own commonplace book. Like the bullet journal, you only need a blank notebook and a pen.

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James Blake’s commonplace book on constructing sundials (1745). Image credit: archive.org

What is a Commonplace Book?

A commonplace book “contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler” (Harvard University Libraries). These books are traditionally handwritten and may include drawings and clippings from outside sources. Organization is as unique as the writer, but information is arranged so as to ensure accessibility. As writer and poet Jonathon Swift explains in “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet,” the commonplace book keeps the remarkable in our memory:

A COMMON-PLACE BOOK IS WHAT A PROVIDENT POET CANNOT SUBSIST WITHOUT, FOR THIS PROVERBIAL REASON, THAT “GREAT WITS HAVE SHORT MEMORIES;” AND WHEREAS, ON THE OTHER HAND, POETS BEING LIARS BY PROFESSION, OUGHT TO HAVE GOOD MEMORIES. TO RECONCILE THESE, A BOOK OF THIS SORT IS IN THE NATURE OF A SUPPLEMENTAL MEMORY; OR A RECORD OF WHAT OCCURS REMARKABLE IN EVERY DAY’S READING OR CONVERSATION.

Commonplace books are a tradition spanning from the Middle Ages to today. The concept originated from commonplaces in ancient Greece and Rome, categories under which orators could place ideas, arguments, and rhetorical turn of phrases for later use.  As most concepts in antiquity have, commonplaces would be re-purposed. In the middle ages and early modern period the florilegium (gathering of flowers) collected passages from religious and theological works (Harvard Libraries). The zibaldone appeared in fourteenth century Italy and was used by merchants to keep records of daily life and activities.

Its height of popularity was during the Renaissance and early modern period, where “students and scholars were encouraged to keep commonplace books for study, and printed commonplace books offered models for organizing and arranging excerpts” (Harvard Libraries). Although focused on the individual, commonplace books have been both published and passed down to later generations, a sort of autobiography of the mind.

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A page from a commonplace book to which Patrick Branwell (brother of Emily and Charlotte Bronte) contributed to. Image Credit: University of Texas at Austin.

Many famous thinkers and leaders kept commonplace books, including the following:

  • Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft kept a commonplace book filled with “ideas, images, & quotations hastily jotted down for possible future use in weird fiction.”
  • Thomas Jefferson kept two commonplace books for literary matters and another for legal matters.
  • Writer and activist Nancy Cunard kept a commonplace book full of quotes and poems by her friends.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau shared a commonplace book about poetry.
  • American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton kept a commonplace book with “private notes, correspondence (to and from Elizabeth Cady Stanton), diaristic writings, literary transcriptions, and pasted-in engravings of various European tourist sites.”
  • Scientist Carl Linnaeus kept commonplace books to help systematize his findings.
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Elizabeth Cady Stranton’s Commonplace Book (1831). Image Credit: Archive.org.

How to Create A Commonplace Book: One Example

To keep a commonplace book you only need a blank notebook and a writing utensil; the content and arrangement is up to you as the compiler. I found my method has been developed through time and influenced by other commonplace books. Thus, I thought my own experience with this genre might provide you some ideas for starting your own.

As a child, I spent a lot of my time researching paranormal history and reading ghost stories and folklore. I was overwhelmed by the terminology and theories, and began keeping a notebook filled with handwritten notes, drawings, and articles I printed from the internet. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized I was participating in the tradition of commonplace books. I still, to this day, keep a commonplace book on the occult.

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My Commonplace Book. I was researching Ouija boards and then haunted bridges.

When I approach a blank commonplace book, I designate two sections in the front (table of contents) and back (glossary). Then, I number the pages accordingly. Whenever I am ready to start a new subject of inquiry, I write a title in bold at the top of the new page and make sure I repeat that title in my table of contents. Other practices I have developed over time include:

  • Instead of a glossary (in some cases), I made text boxes with key terms throughout the book, and then made an index in the back with the words and page numbers.
  • For information that doesn’t fit into a current section and does not warrant a new section (I call this “purgatory information”), I write it on a post-it and place it on the inside back cover. When its time has come, I simply move the the post-it to its new section.
  • To highlight key materials, I use highlighting and color-coding.
  • To enhance my understanding of complicated material, I occasionally create visual maps, tables, infographics, etc. For example, when reading about types of ghosts, I created a table that outlined their characteristics into columns.
  • When a desired passage from a source is too long, I am not afraid to print or make copies of the material. I tape or glue it into my commonplace book, and then write notes in the margins or highlight.
  • Materials I include in my “commonplace book pouch”: colored pencils, a nice pen (I like Sharpie black pens), tape, scissors, stickers, and highlighters.
  • I have used different notebooks for different commonplace books. My notebooks are usually lined, because I prefer writing. Though, I have used sketchbooks when my commonplace books incorporate more visuals than text.
  • I always recommend using a sturdy notebook so your commonplace book will last (and may appear in an archive someday).
  • I have been inspired by textbooks, so I often incorporate text boxes, sidebars, headings/subheadings, bulleted lists, etc.
  • I have, inspired by Virginia Woolf, kept a list of books I have read and a list of books to read in some of my commonplace books (as a sort of appendix).

This is one compiler’s approach to keeping a commonplace book. I suggest looking through examples online for ideas (I have linked some examples earlier and there’s archive.org). I also suggest letting your first commonplace be a trial run. You will develop your own unique system over time, and you may create different systems for different types of commonplace books you keep. There are some rather dated guides for writing commonplace books too, if you are so inclined (You could start with Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books or Eramus’ De Copia).

In The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, Robert Darnton speaks to me in regards to why we keep commonplace books:

READING AND WRITING WERE THEREFORE INSEPARABLE ACTIVITIES. THEY BELONGED TO A CONTINUOUS EFFORT TO MAKE SENSE OF THINGS, FOR THE WORLD WAS FULL OF SIGNS: YOU COULD READ YOUR WAY THROUGH IT; AND BY KEEPING AN ACCOUNT OF YOUR READINGS, YOU MADE A BOOK OF YOUR OWN, ONE STAMPED WITH YOUR PERSONALITY.

There is no system for keeping a commonplace book, like the bullet journal. The reasons to keep one are so varied and the subject areas so diverse. And, I fear promoting one might interfere with your own personal “stamp.” Although you’ll be inspired by a mix of compilers, this book in the end will represent you.

Sources

Blair, Ann. “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 52, no. 4, 1992, pp. 541-551.

Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Places. New York University Press, 2009.

“Commonplace Books.” Harvard University Library Open Collections Program

Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. Public Affairs, 2009.

Locke, John. A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, 1706.

McKinney, Kelsey. “Social Media: Nothing New? Commonplace Books As Predecessor to Pinterest.” Harry Ransom Center: University of Texas at Austin, 2015.

Swift, Jonathon. “A Letter of Advice to Young Poets.” English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard Classics, 1909–14.

My Spooky Christmas Reading List

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This December, I am embracing the holiday spirits. I have decided to (1) read a ghost story every day until Christmas and (2) learn more about the pagan origins of the holiday. Any excuse to buy more books right? The following are books I plan on reading this month. I have also included some online articles for those interested in additional and shorter readings on the season.

My Christmas Bookshelf

Below are books I am hoping to consume or have already this holiday season (except for The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Classic Ghost Stories: Spooky Tales to Read at Christmas which I’m still waiting to have delivered).

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I ordered two books from my favorite online used book seller La Creeperie: Christmas Ghosts and Mistletoe Mayhem. Both books are anthologies filled with short ghost stories. I mostly purchased these books because of the covers. I mean…

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I highly recommend La Creeperie for rare anthologies and some fun covers (along with any horror and occult books you desire). The store gets most of my paycheck. 🙂

My favorite anthologies from the batch are The Valancourt Books of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories. The stories chosen did not overlap with my many other ghost story anthologies, so I was extremely happy. Each story comes with a brief introduction about the author and where it was first published. Each volume also comes with an interesting historical overview of the Victorian tradition of ghost stories at Christmas.

I am also reading some Charles Dickens’ ghost stories for obvious reasons.

In an effort to learn more about the pagan origins of the season, I purchased two Llewellyn books. While I have not had the chance to to read The Old Magic of ChristmasI flew through Yule: Rituals, Recipes & Lore, which is part of their Sabbat Essentials series. Even if you are not a practicing pagan, the book reveals the reasons behind some common traditions and gives you ideas for some new ones.

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I unknowingly read a Christmas ghost story at the very end of November. Richard Matheson’s Hell House is a Christmas ghost story like Die Hard is a Christmas movie. The book follows two mediums, a parapsychologist and his wife on a investigation of the “Mount Everest of Haunted Houses” during the days leading up to Christmas. This novel is a mix between The Haunting of Hill House and Eyes Wide Shut.

My Christmas Internet Favorites

Christmas ghost stories: Dark Christmas by Jeanette Winterson, The Guardian

Ghost stories: why the Victorians were so spookily good at them, The Guardian

Folklore of Food: Traditional Christmas Food, Folklore Thursday 

The Monsters of Christmas, Atlas Obscura 

Happy Holidays! 

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I am sharing the stories I read each day leading up to Christmas on my Instagram stories if you are interested!

31 Days of Spooky Short Stories

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This October I had many hours of reading time available as I was recovering from surgery (I’m feeling great, by the way). I thought I would give myself a challenge: read a spooky short story each day this October.

I had no method when choosing a story each day. Sometimes, I would reread an old favorite. Sometimes, I would randomly choose a title from the table of contents. Sometimes, I thought a title was seductive. Thus, this is not a formulated reading list or one I would put forth as canonical. It was just random fun!

I shared my choice each day on my Instagram stories, but the entire list is also below. I highlighted a few in orange that were standout favorites (even though I enjoyed most of the stories!).

  1. Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman, “The Shadows on the Wall”
  2. M.R. James, “Casting the Runes”
  3. Lady Wilde, “The Horned Women”
  4. Amelia B. Edwards, “The Phantom Coach”
  5. T.E.D. Klein, “The Events at Poroth Farm”
  6. Louisa May Alcott, “Lost in the Pyramid, Or the Mummy’s Curse”
  7. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Oval Portrait”
  8. Wilkie Collins, “The Dream Woman”
  9. Richard Matheson & Richard Christian Matheson, “Where There’s A Will”
  10. Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Body-Snatcher”
  11. Ray Bradbury, “Heavy Set”
  12. Mark Twain, “A Ghost Story”
  13. J.S. LeFanu, “An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House”
  14. Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
  15. Tennessee Williams, “The Vengeance of Nitocris”
  16. H.P. Lovecraft, “The Evil Clergyman”
  17. Charles Dickens, “The Lawyer and the Ghost”
  18. Lisa Tuttle, “The Third Person”
  19. Bram Stoker, “The Judge’s House”
  20. Washington Irving, “The Adventure of the German Student”
  21. Tanith Lee ,”Perfidious Amber”
  22. Richard Matheson, “Long Distance Call”
  23. Jerome K. Jerome, “The Haunted Mill or the Ruined Home”
  24. M.R. James, “Lost Hearts”
  25. Fritz Leiber, “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes”
  26. Kelley Armstrong, “Dead Flowers by the Roadside”
  27. Sharon Webb, “Threshold”
  28. J.S. LeFanu, “The White Cat of Drumgunniol”
  29. Manly Wade Wellman, “School for the Unspeakable”
  30. E. G. Swain, “Bone to His Bone” 
  31. Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (read multiple short stories in this one)

Hope y’all had a great Halloween!

The Yellow Ribbon

b339ede4580ca4f2b727cf285a0b018bI was obsessed with Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories when I was a child. I checked it out from the school library as often as I could, and I always turned to the short story, “The Green Ribbon.” The stories in this book are inspired by folklore, and with folklore comes different versions of a story. I have heard versions with a yellow ribbon. I had mentioned this story on Facebook yesterday and Kira Butler said she heard versions with a black or blue ribbon. Whatever color ribbon you prefer, the frightening twist at the end always stays the same.

Today, I’m sharing a version with a yellow ribbon as retold by S.E. Schlosser, author of Spooky Wisconsin. Enjoy!


Jane wore a yellow ribbon around her neck everyday. And I mean everyday, rain or shine, whether it matched her outfit or not. It annoyed her best friend Johnny after awhile. He was her next door neighbor and had known Jane since she was three. When he was young, he had barely noticed the yellow ribbon, but now they were in high school together, it bothered him.

“Why do you wear that yellow ribbon around your neck, Jane?” he’d ask her every day. But she wouldn’t tell him.

Still, in spite of this aggravation, Johnny thought she was cute. He asked her to the soda shoppe for an ice cream sundae. Then he asked her to watch him play in the football game. Then he started seeing her home. And come the spring, he asked her to the dance. Jane always said yes when he asked her out. And she always wore a yellow dress to match the ribbon around her neck.

It finally occurred to Johnny that he and Jane were going steady, and he still didn’t know why she wore the yellow ribbon around her neck. So he asked her about it yet again, and yet again she did not tell him. “Maybe someday I’ll tell you about it,” she’d reply. Someday! That answer annoyed Johnny, but he shrugged it off, because Jane was so cute and fun to be with.

Well, time flew past, as it has a habit of doing, and one day Johnny proposed to Jane and was accepted. They planned a big wedding, and Jane hinted that she might tell him about the yellow ribbon around her neck on their wedding day. But somehow, what with the preparations and his beautiful bride, and the lovely reception, Johnny never got around to asking Jane about it. And when he did remember, she got a bit teary-eyed, and said: “We are so happy together, what difference does it make?” And Johnny decided she was right.

Johnny and Jane raised a family of four, with the usual ups and downs, laughter and tears. When their golden anniversary rolled around, Johnny once again asked Jane about the yellow ribbon around her neck. It was the first time he’d brought it up since the week after their wedding. Whenever their children asked him about it, he’d always hushed them, and somehow none of the kids had dared ask their mother. Jane gave Johnny as sad look and said: “Johnny, you’ve waited this long. You can wait awhile longer.”

And Johnny agreed. It was not until Jane was on her death bed a year later that Johnny, seeing his last chance slip away, asked Jane one final time about the yellow ribbon she wore around her neck. She shook her head a bit at his persistence, and then said with a sad smile: “Okay Johnny, you can go ahead and untie it.”

With shaking hands, Johnny fumbled for the knot and untied the yellow ribbon around his wife’s neck.

And Jane’s head fell off.

Book Notes: Animal Superstitions


Today, I am continuing with my notes on David Pickering’s Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions. Last time, I shared notes on general supernatural superstitions. This time, I’m focusing on animals. As Pickering writes, “Innumerable species  of animal are credited with supernatural powers, including the ability to seethe future and kingship with the spirit world.” “Belief in the magical nature of the animal world,” Pickering writes, “was once much stronger than it is now, and in many cultures animals were considered almost the equal of humans” (p.7). Below are some of the more interesting notes I found while reading this book.

Bat (p. 22-3):

  • “The appearance of a bat in a church during a wedding ceremony is considered a bad omen, and if a bat flies three times round a house or hits a windowpane this is a sure prophecy of the impending death of someone within.”
  • “A near miss when a bat flies close by is a warning that the person concerned is threatened  by betrayal or witchcraft at the hands of another.”
  • “Other traditions suggest that witches sometimes turn themselves into bats in order to enter people’s houses and that the sight of bats flying vertically upwards and then dropping back to Earth is a sign that the witching hour has come. Witches, it is said, often include a few drops of bat’s blood in the flying ointment they are said to smear on their bodies before taking off on their broomsticks: the idea is that they will then be safe from collding with anything […].”

Bear (p. 25): “According to popular superstition, bears obtained their sustenance by sucking on their own paws, and literally licked their newborn cubs into a bear shape when first delivered.”

Birds (p. 33): 

  • “Dark-coloured birds that fly around trees without ever seeming to settle are said to be souls of reincarnated evil-doers, though another popular superstition (from France) maintains that when unbaptized children die they become birds for a time until accepted into heaven.”
  • “The death of a caged bird on the morning of a wedding indicates that the marriage will not prosper, and pet birds must be kept informed of important family events or they will languish and die.”

Cow (p.73): A cow trespassing in a garden means imminent death, and 3 cows means 3 imminent deaths.

Dolphin (p. 85): Dolphins change color when death is near.

Donkey (p. 86): “[…] it is claimed that plucking three hairs from a donkey’s shoulders and placing the in black silk or muslin bag worn around the neck of a person suffering from measles or whooping cough – which sounds not unlike the braying of an ass – is certain to cure the disease, as long as the animal is the opposite sex to the patient.”

Duck (p.89): Ducks that flap their wings while swimming are warning us of approaching rain.

Eel (p. 93): “It was once said that witches and sorcerers clad themselves in jackets made of eelskin in the belief that these were impervious to gunfire.”

Fox (p. 110): In Scotland farmers nailed the head of foxes to the barn door to scare off witches.

Muskrat (p. 183): “The [American] Indians believe that the construction of the muskrat’s home can reveal much about the coming season’s weather. If the muskrat builds its home well clear of the water, heavy rains are due, but it constructs a house with thin walls the winters will be mild.”

Pig (p. 204): “According to the Irish, children suffering from mumps and other ailments should rub their heads on a pig’s back so that the disease will be transferred to the animal.”

Sheep (p. 225): “Consuming a little sheep dung in water will relieve both jaundice and whooping cough.”


Want more? 

Black Dogs and Death 

Cats and Death: A Very Brief History 

Book Notes: Supernatural Superstitions

Each week, I walk many blocks to the used bookstore to explore its supernatural and horror section. It’s one of those book stores where shelves are filled and the floor is covered with stacks of books. You can usually find me sitting on the floor, turning the pages of some new find.

Now that I have my own room for my reading and writing, I have the space to build a substantial supernatural library. And, nothing could make me happier. I have always taken notes when reading, because I don’t want to forget what I’ve read. I also like something to reference when I return to a topic. This is why I’ve always kept a commonplace book. In fact, the first post of this blog was book notes from Herbert Thurston’s Ghost and Poltergeists.  

Today’s notes are from a recent find, David Pickering’s Dictionary of Superstitions. This book contains superstitions about food, body parts, weather…really, a variety of subject areas. Below are notes I took the interesting supernatural entries. Enjoy!

Fariy (p. 100): “Great care should be taken to avoid dark green ‘fairy rings’ in the grass, which mark the place where the fairies have held a circular dance at midnight (the rings are actually made by a fungus). It is said that these may even indicate the whereabouts of a fairy village. It is throught very dangerous to sleep in one of these rings or even to stop into one after nightfall – especially on the even of May Day or Halloween – and livestock are also reputed to keep their distance from these phenomena.”

Ghost (p. 116): “Measures that may be taken against encountering ghosts include, according to Scottish tradition, wearing a cross of rowan wood fastened with red thread and concealed in the lining of one’s coat.”

Gremlin (p. 122): “The only way to foil the activities of gremlins, apparently, is to lay an empty bottle nearby – the mischievous creatures will crawl inside and stay there.”

Hallowee’en (p. 125-6):

  • “Hallowe’en is generally considered a time where extra care should be given not to linger in churchyards or do anything that might offend the fairies or other malicious spirits.”
  • “It is also risky to look at one’s own shadow in the moonlight and the most inadvisable to go on a hunting expedition on Hallowe’en, as one may accidently wound a wandering spirit.”
  • “Children born on Hallowe’en will, however, enjoy lifelong protection against evil spirits and will also be endowed with the gift of second sight.”
  • “In rural areas farmers may circle their fields with lighted torches in the belief that doing so will safeguard the following year’s harvest, or else drive their livestock between branches of rowan to keep them safe from evil influences.”
  • “According to Welsh tradition, anyone going to a crossroads on Hallowe’en and listening carefully to the wind may learn what the next year has in store and, when the church clock strikes midnight, will hear a list of the names of those who are to die in the locality over the next twelve months.”
  • “Several of the most widely known Hallowe’en divination rituals relate to apples. Superstition suggests that, if a girl stands before a mirror while eating an apple and combing her hair at midnight on Hallowe’en, her future husband’s image will be reflected  in the glass over her left shoulder. A variant dictates that she must cut the apple into nine pieces, each of which must be struck on the point of the knife and held over the left shoulder. Moreover, if she peels an apple in one long piece, and then tosses the peel over the left shoulder or into a bowl of water, she will be able to read the first initial of her futures partner’s name in the shape assumed by the discarded peel. Alternatively the peel is hung on a nail by the front door and the initials of the first man to enter will be the same as those of the unknown lover.”

Nightmare (p. 189):

  • “Superstition maintains that nightmares are sent by the devil and his minions to trouble the dreams of sleepers. Such demons steal into bedrooms in the dead of night, often taking the form of spectral horses (hence ‘nightmare’).”
  • Remedies for nightmares
    • “These include pinning one’s socks in the shape of a cross to the end of the bed or else placing a knife or some other metal object nearby, on the grounds that the latent magic of the iron or steel will see off malevolent spirits.”
    • “Carefully placing one’s shoes under the bed so that the toes point outwards is also said to be effective.”
    • “Other precautions include sleeping with the hands crossed on the breast and fixing little straw crosses to the four corners of the bed.”
    • “Any lingering ill effects resulting from nightmares may be dismissed by spitting three times on waking up.

More notes form this book to come!

The Jesuit and the Poltergeist

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Recently, my grandmother passed. She was a devout Catholic and left behind piles of rosaries, saint amulets, and containers of holy water. When looking through her books, I found Herbert Thurston’s Ghosts and Poltergeists.  I wasn’t surprised to find the text, because she passed on to me her interest in ghosts. We would sit for hours recounting ghost stories we had heard during our lengthy times apart. I distinctly remember the lecture she gave me on the risks of using the Ouija board.

She had once told me that she wanted to see a ghost before she died. This never happened, but my aunts have reported visits following her death. Reading this text reminded me of our old talks, and was a visit from her of some sort.

And on to Ghosts and Poltergeists


Herbert Thurston, S.J. (15 November 1856 – 3 November 1939) was a English priest of the Roman Catholic Church, and also a member of the Jesuit order. Thurston was highly prolific, writing nearly 800 articles (over a span of 61 years). He also produced 150 entries for the Catholic Encyclopedia on more sensitive topics including “Witchcraft,” “Mary Tudor,” and “Shakespeare.” Thurston’s bold approach to controversial topics in the church earned him quite the reputation.

Thurston’s writings were marked by painstaking research and a refusal to allow pious sentiment, tact, or his own pride in the English Catholic tradition to cloud his scholarly judgements. His reputation for exposing popular legends of the saints and pious myths led to the apocryphal story that he had been begged by a dying Jesuit to ‘spare the blessed Trinity’ (Crehan, 66). His equally impartial scrutiny of the claims of spiritualists and psychics led some orthodox Catholics to fear that his treatment of the paranormal was too sympathetic to be compatible with his priesthood. But this same quality made him, as was tacitly recognized by many of his Catholic contemporaries, a strong apologist for Catholicism, and has given his work enduring value. (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Ghosts and Poltergeists (1953) is a collection of documented poltergeist activity, which he discusses with some skeptical distance. The following notes are copied from my notebook (with some edits). I generally wrote down stories and quotes that stood out to me. I have bolded text for you skimmers.

Chapter 1: A General View of Poltergeist Phenomena

He tells the story of Rev. Dr. Phelps and his family’s experiences with a peculiar poltergeist in Stratford, Connecticut in 1850.

Written communication appeared in unexpected places (sometimes letters signed with the names of local clergy, huh). Once in his study, Dr. Phelps found (in fresh ink) a message on a sheet of paper: “Very nice paper and very nice ink for the devil” (12).

Once after breakfast, multiple “images” (maybe 11 or 12 total) appeared in the middle room: “They were formed of articles of clothing, found around the house, stuffed to resemble the human figure […] These all but one represented females in the attitude of devotion, some having Bibles or prayer books placed to complete the figure” (13).

Chapter 2: Ghosts That Tease

Thurston repeats often that there has never been a case of a poltergeist killing anyone. He writes, “‘Death by Poltergeist’ is not a formula sanctioned by coroners, but it would make a good newspaper head-line, and if any suspicion of this sort were aroused the world could hardly fail to hear of it” (27).

Chapter 15: A Rare Type of Poltergeist

In this chapter, Thurston talks about the Dagg family’s poltergeist troubles during December 1889 in the Province of Quebec . What I found most interesting was the disembodied voice heard by the family members, specifically the eldest daughter, Dinah. This story was shared widely by a Mr. Woodcock, an international artist.

On the Saturday morning of Mr. Woodcock’s visit, he tried to have a private talk with Dinah. She declared see had see something and said into the emptiness: “Are you there mister?” In a deep gruff voice, sounding four or five feet away from Mr. Woodcock, was a reply in “a language that cannot be repeated here” (164). Mr. Woodcock said to the voice, “Who are you?” In response the poltergeist said, “I am the devil. I’ll have you in my clutches. Get out of this or I’ll break your neck” (164).

This went back and forth for a few hours, then Mr. Woodcock demanded proof of the written communication the family had claimed:

Putting a sheet of paper and a pencil on a bench in the shed he saw the pencil stand up and move along the surface. As soon as the pencil dropped, he stepped over and examining the paper said: “I asked you to write something decent.” To this the voice replied in an angry tone: “I’ll steal your pencil,” and immediately the pencil rose from the bench and was thrown violently across the shed. (164)

News of this poltergeist reached the public and the family began to receive curious visitors. On one occasion a visitor asked the spirit why it stopped using filthy language (a key characteristic of earlier communications). The voice responded: “I am not the person who used the filthy language. I am an angel from Heaven sent by God to drive away that fellow” (165).

Mr. Woodcock believed this was a lie, of course.

Appendix: The Exorcism of Haunted Houses

Thurston laments on the fact that many guidebooks used for exorcisms acknowledge people possessed by evil spirits and not places possessed by evil spirits. While exorcisms already presented in guidebooks are similar in nature, Thurston assures of some differences:

But in all these exorcisms it is the activities of Satan and his myrmidons which are the direct object of attack. There seems to be no recognition of ghosts or of spirits of the dead as such, and there is no suggestion that the souls of men are likely to return to haunt the scenes amidst they formerly dwelt the earth. (205)

Luckily, in the appendix of Rituale Romanum (published with full authorization of the Council of Inquisition 1631), there appears a document titled Exorcismus domus a demonio vexatae (The exorcisms of a house troubled with an evil spirit). 

Overall, the book is an interesting text produced by a member of the Roman Catholic church. While it (unfortunately) doesn’t give first hand accounts of exorcisms themselves, it’s an excellent collection for those interested in stories of poltergeists. I can see my grandmother now, clutching her rosary, and enjoying these tales of the supernatural.


 

I look forward to posting more on this blog, both about what I research and the spooky places I visit. For more information on my blog, please read the About page. I plan on posting Sunday mornings, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. You can also follow this blog on various social medias. Thanks for stopping by!