Rare Books on Ghosts and Witches

Today is Halloween, which means it is the perfect time to look at some of Washington University Libraries’ rare books on witches and ghosts!

An illustration of a ghost from George Cruikshank’s A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, 1864.

A Pre-Salem Book on Witches

One of the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections’ oldest books written entirely on the subject of witches is Saducismus Triumphatus; or, Full and Plaine Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions by philosopher Joseph Glanvill. Glanvill’s book was originally published in 1681, a little more than a decade before the infamous Salem witch trials, and reflects religious debates on the existence of supernaturally empowered witches in the late seventeenth century.

Title page of the second edition of Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus. 1688

Special Collections’ copy of this volume is a second edition from 1688 with a lengthy appendix that contains “More remarkable and true stories of apparitions and witchcraft” and a separate account of witchcraft in Sweden. The book argues that good Christians should believe in the presence and abilities of witches, and gives detailed philosophical arguments and Biblical examples to support its claim.

A page from Saducismus Triumphatus that attempts to illustrate the nature of the spirit. 1688.

A Real Court Case Against an Accused Witch

One of the most interesting pieces on witches in our collections is The Case of Mademoiselle Cadiere Against Father John-Baptist Girard, Jesuitean, an actual court-case against a religious leader who was accused of performing enchantments on a young woman named Mademoiselle Cadiere to get her to perform “lewd acts.”  The case was tried in Aix, France and the copy in Special Collections is translated from the original French. The case documents abuses perpetrated by a religious leader between 1729 and 1730, and fed on existing religious divides as it portrayed Jesuits as corrupt. The jury for the trial consisted of twenty-four men, half of whom voted to burn Girard alive, and half of whom voted to acquit. The tie went to the accused, and Girard was set free.

The Case of Mademoiselle Cadiere, 1731.

Witchcraft as Superstition

After the mass accusations of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of the late seventeenth century, people became  more wary and skeptical of claims of witchcraft. The Rare Books Collections at Washington University have two books from the 1830s that criticize the belief in witches as an outdated superstition.

An Essay on Demonology, Ghosts, and Apparitions, showing the beginning of the lengthy section on the Salem Trials. 1831.

An Essay on Demonology, Ghosts and Apparitions, and Popular Superstitions (shown above) contains “An account of the witchcraft delusion at Salem” in which the author James Thacher provides a detailed narrative of the tortured confessions and nineteen hangings in Salem as an example of how superstition and fear can destroy a community. Thacher’s book also attacks the Catholics for their superstitious beliefs, illustrating, as the Cadiere case did, how accusations of witchcraft and superstition could be used to feed religious divides. The account of Salem contains abridged narratives from the writings of Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister who was involved in the witch trials, with footnotes by Thacher that critique his logic, most notably questioning why the witches didn’t just use their supposed powers to free themselves (169).

An illustration of witches by George Cruickshank from Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, 1830.

Special Collections also owns an 1830 edition of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish writer most famous for his novel Ivanhoe. In Letters, Scott provides amusing folklore about witches and demons, and argues that only “half crazy individuals” believe in such superstitions anymore. This edition contains some wonderful illustrative sketches by George Cruikshank, shown above and below.

Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott, with illustration by George Cruickshank, 1830.

A Humorous Look at Ghosts

George Cruikshank, who illustrated the Walter Scott book above, was primarily a caricaturist and an illustrator (he is perhaps best known for his illustrations of Charles Dickens’ works), but he also authored a quite wonderful little book called A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: With a Rap at the “Spirit Rappers.”

Illustration of a headless ghost from Cruikshank’s A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, 1864.

In this book, Cruikshank mocks the belief in ghosts, presenting popular ghost stories like one about a headless ghost of a beheaded man and then posing questions like, “what has become of, or where is the spirit of this unfortunate gentleman’s head? Can the believers in ghosts tell us that?”

An illustration of the spirit of a wig and pigtail bowing at the end of Cruikshank’s A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, 1864.

Cruikshank also argues that since ghosts always appear fully clothed, and it is unlikely that what we wear on Earth becomes “a part and parcel of our souls,” that clothing must also have spirits/ghosts, which he illustrates with charming pictures of ghostly stockings and wigs, such as the one above.

Washington University’s edition of this humorous volume contains an inscription signed by Cruikshank himself.

Title page of A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, signed by the author/illustrator George Cruikshank and dated 1868.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.