(Investigator 195, 2020 November)

Were investigators of the paranormal one or two centuries ago as sceptical as skeptics today and as rational in refuting dubious beliefs and claims? Were the common people back then as superstitious and naïve as 21st-century people in topics in religion, the supernatural and the paranormal?

Investigator Magazine will help us find out in coming editions by reprinting a few investigative-type articles originally published one or two centuries ago.

Several of the writers introduced below were known as "antiquarians". Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary defines antiquarian as "Pertaining to antiques or antiquities." Several centuries ago the phrase "popular antiquities" or just "antiquities" meant what "folklore" means now and was replaced with "folklore" during the 19th century. In practice antiquarians studied the folklore, customs, oral traditions and superstitions of their era and adopted a sceptical attitude to many of them.

The book that most nearly covers the topics that modern skeptics investigate seems to be The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs (Knowlson 1910) from which Investigator years ago reprinted a few extracts.

The origin of Knowlson's book can be traced back to Antiquities of the Common People (1725) by Henry Bourne which subsequent writers revised, commented on and enlarged for the next two centuries. These writers were not like skeptics today whose foundation for deciding between fact and false belief is the discoveries of science, but could be regarded as forerunners.

HENRY BOURNE (1694 – 1733)

Henry Bourne (1694–1733) was a tailor's son who became an English historian. His scholastic ability got him directed into Royal Free Grammar School (instead of into an apprenticeship) where he won a scholarship to Cambridge.

Bourne's most acclaimed work was Antiquitates Vulgares; Or, The ANTIQUITIES Of The Common People (1725) in which he describes customs, traditions, omens and superstitions widely accepted by England's "Common People".

"The Preface" of the book says in part:

I would not be thought a reviver of old Rites and Ceremonies to the Burdening of the People, nor an Abolisher of innocent customs, which are their Pleasures and Recreations : I aim at nothing, but a Regulation of those which are in Being amongst them, which they themselves are far from thinking burdensome, and abolishing such only as are sinful and wicked…

Others they hold, are really sinful, notwithstanding in outward Appearance they seem very harmless, being a Scandal to Religion, and an encouraging of Wickedness. And therefore to aim at abolishing these, will I hope be no crime, tho' they be the Diversions of the People.

As to the opinions they hold, they are almost all Superstitious, being generally either the produce of Heathenism; or the Inventions of indolent Monks, who having nothing else to do, were the Forgers of many silly and wicked Opinions, to keep the World in Awe and Ignorance…

JOHN BRAND (1744 – 1806)

John Brand (1744–1806) was an English antiquarian, Church of England clergyman, and Secretary to the Society of Antiquaries of London from 1784 until his death.

Brand expanded Bourne's Antiquities of the Common People by supplementing every chapter with his own observations and assessments.

Brand's book is titled OBSERVATIONS On Popular Antiquities: Including the whole of Mr. BOURNE's Antiquitates Vulgares, With ADDENDA to every Chapter of that Work... (1777). This is generally abbreviated when people talk about the book to Popular Antiquities. Brand's work has been called the "foundation of folklore studies of England."

Further revision was undertaken by Sir Henry Ellis:

SIR HENRY ELLIS (1777-1869)

1836 lithograph of Sir Henry Ellis

Sir Henry Ellis (1777–1869) of London was an antiquarian, an assistant in the Bodleian Library, a librarian at the British Museum, a Fellow of the Royal Society, knighted in 1833, and director of the Society of Antiquaries 1853 to 1857.

Besides writing academically on historical topics, Ellis edited John Brand's version of Popular Antiquities and expanded it to two volumes of 1270 pages published in 1813 titled Observations On The Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain.

Revised editions of Ellis' work followed in the 1840s and 1870s — the 1877 edition was in three volumes with about 1600 pages.

Ellis' three volumes were revised further and converted to an alphabetical dictionary by English lawyer, author and editor William Carew Hazlitt in Faiths and Folklore; A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs (1905).

T.S. KNOWLSON ( 1867-1947)

Thomas Sharper Knowlson (1867-1947) authored The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs (1910).

Knowlson was a prolific author concerned with training people to think rationally and to base their conclusions on facts, as is seen by titles such as:

•    The Art of Thinking (1900)
•    The Art of Success (1902)
•    Originality; A Popular Study of the Creative Mind (1902)
•    Logic for the Million (1905?)
•    The Education of the Will, A Popular Study (1909)
•    Business Psychology : A System of Mental Training For Commercial Life (1912)
•    Think for Yourself : Letters on the Formation of a Personal Creed (1934)

The PREFACE of Knowlson's book on Popular Superstitions and Customs acknowledges the influence of John Brand:

The following pages are based on Brand’s Popular Antiquities the edition published in 1841, supplemented by the results of later investigation. My aim has been to deal only with those superstitions and customs which are operative at the present time; and, so far as is possible, to trace these to their original sources. In some cases the task is fairly easy, in others very difficult; whilst in a few instances the “prime origin,” to use the words of Brand, is absolutely unattainable. Still, in these days of pageantry, when the British people show some signs of periodically reviewing the picturesque life of by-gone times, it will be a source of satisfaction if in this book I succeed in tracing, though it be for a century or two, the thoughts and habits which were born in a remote past.


Of course many other books on paranormal topics were published in Knowlson's time and prior to it, although nowhere near as many as now.

Most of the writers were selectively sceptical. They were skeptical regarding some (or most) paranormal and supernatural claims but naive regarding others. Their main basis for defending or criticizing was sometimes not science but what best supported their religion.

For example Herbert Mayo (1796-1852), senior surgeon of Middlesex Hospital and Professor Of Anatomy And Physiology in King’s College, wrote Popular Superstitions and The Truths Contained Therein (1852).

In 260 pages with fourteen "Letters" or chapters Mayo examines divining rods, vampirism, ghosts, trances, delusions, demonic possession, witchcraft, mesmerism, hypnotism, etc. He interprets some paranormal claims in terms of operations of the mind and nervous system, but accepted other dubious notions as fact such as the, "established … fact that one mind can enter into direct though one-sided communion with another."

At great length Mayo defends divining rods; and regarding vampires he writes:

This is no romancer's dream… Do I believe it? To be sure I do. The facts are matters of history : the people died like rotted sheep. 

To a skeptic he says:

Your skepticism will abate pretty considerably when you see him stealthily entering your room, yet are powerless under the fascination of his fixed and leaden eye—when you are conscious, as you lie motionless with terror, of his nearer and nearer approach—when you feel his face, fresh with the smell of the grave, bent over your throat, while his keen teeth make a fine incision in your jugular, preparatory to his commencing his plain but nutritive repast.

However, regarding Joan-of-Arc's visions of saints in heaven who conversed with her, Mayo is sceptical, and writes:

Her visions—they were palpably the productions of her own fancy, the figures of saints and angels, which she had seen in missals, projected before her mental sight; and their cause the instinctive workings, unknown to herself, of her young high-couraged and enthusiastic heart, shaping its suggestions into holy prophesyings—the leading facts of which her resolute will realized, while their actual discrepancies with subsequent events she pardonably forgot.

Mayo's entire book is available for free via the Internet.

American writer James Thacher (1754-1864) authored An Essay On Demonology, Ghosts, Apparitions And Popular Superstitions (1831).

Thacher was scientifically trained, being a physician, surgeon and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His book gives rational explanations of unusual phenomena.

Albany Poyntz authored A World of Wonders With Anecdotes And Opinions Concerning Popular Superstitions (1845).

"Albany Poyntz" is believed to be a pseudonym used by English novelist Catherine Gore (1798-1861). However, although Wikipedia lists 68 books authored by Gore the list omits A World of Wonders…

Irrespective of the author's real name the book's 52 chapters consistently demonstrate an investigative and sceptical attitude while covering a wide range of claims in the paranormal and supernatural including Alchemy; Apparitions; Astrology; Comets; Divining Rods; Dreams; Fables; Fortune Tellers; Ghosts; Giants and Dwarfs; Longevity of Animals; Lunar Influence; Minor Superstitions; Monstrous Births; Nostradamus; Popular Errors; Quack cures; Sorcerers and Magicians; Talismans; Vampires; Werewolves; and much more.

The author also covers mysterious natural occurrences concluding of, for example, meteorites: "The fact of showers of stones being established, all that remains to be proved is their origin." (p. 71) Other sorts of "showers" get dismissed:

"Pliny, Livy, Solinus, and Julius Obsequius have recorded showers of blood, milk, wool, money and pieces of flesh! Those authors make frequent mention of such occurrences; dupes, no doubt, to the traditions of the ancients." (p. 72)

A. Osborne Eaves of Harrogate, England, is an example of a non-skeptical writer. He authored Modern Vampirism: Its Dangers and How to Avoid Them (1904).

From the title we can infer that Eaves was a believer. In fact he seems to believe in almost everything paranormal — Clairvoyance, Telepathy, the indestructibility of mind, astral plane, voodoo, auras, etc. His evidence for vampires is mainly anecdotes and hearsay; it's a weird book!


That concludes our brief survey tracing skeptics back to antiquarians.

Many of today's debates were already going strong centuries ago but at lower intellectual, scientific and factual levels. The evidence and reasoning of believers has failed more often than that of doubters and scientists, and many beliefs and superstitions once strongly held and popular are now forgotten or in retreat.


Brand, J.

Eaves, A.O.

Ellis, H.

Knowlson, T.S.

Mayo, H.

Poyntz, A.

Thacher, J.