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A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters Hardcover – Sep 29 2009

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Strong Is the New Pretty

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Rodale Books; First Edition edition (Sept. 29 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1605298751
  • ISBN-13: 978-1605298757
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.5 x 21.4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 408 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #87,090 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description

About the Author

PETER AYKROYD is a retired Government of Canada Senior Executive. He is the author of two previous books, The Anniversary Compulsion and A Sense of Place. He lives on a plot of land 20 miles north of Kingston, Ontario, that has been in the family for 180 years.
ANGELA NARTH is a full-time writer of both fiction and nonfiction with seven books currently in print. She lives on the banks of the mighty Red River a few minutes south of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

Ghosts at Home: The Home Circle

The sights and sounds of that childhood scene came tumbling back to me one mild winter afternoon more than 50 years later. My sister Judy and I had taken on the task of clearing out the family home in Toronto, the place where my grandfather, Samuel Augustus Aykroyd, DDS, had spent the last days of his life. The house at 9 Garfield Avenue had been sold, and Judy and I had taken a weekend out of our own busy schedules to decide who would get what, what would go to auction, and what would be donated to the Salvation Army. The rest would go to the dump.

We had kept the dark basement for last. Several items that were seen as childhood treasures had been located upstairs: memorabilia and photos, ancient jewelry, original artworks, and a few rare books. We were not terribly excited about what could possibly be lurking in the dark wasteland below stairs.

With the last drops of a Manhattan made from bonded stock rye warming our insides, we had already made several trips up and down the stairs. Next to the furnace, in a corner of what was once the coal storage bin, we came upon our last load. Most of what we found was destined for the landfill: old suitcases with jagged zippers and broken handles that proved they had been to more places than most people, empty cardboard boxes, a stained mattress from a twin bed. And in the back, against a wall, an old, blue metal trunk. With the dedication of two people who felt duty-bound to thoroughly examine everything in their care, Judy and I pried open the rusted metal clasp with a screwdriver. We had expected to find either junk or emptiness. Instead, we found history.

Inside were a photo album of black-and-white prints attached with triangular corner mounts and yellowed newspapers from decades back, saved for articles germane to the family. There was a scrapbook of recipes, and our father's sheepskin from Queen's University, Applied Science 1913, and a bundle of notebooks of the type that children used in school. They were bound together with kitchen twine.

We untied the bundle and began to read page after page of penciled handwriting. Not good handwriting. Very hard to read. With no anticipation of doing so, we had come across Grandpa's journals (83 of them, to be precise), written in his own hand from 1905 through 1931 and containing thoughts, observations, and conjectures that he clearly had hoped might someday be shared with others.

Within the now fragile pages were handwritten copies of letters to his family and friends and to the editors of local newspapers. The majority of the words he recorded are actual accounts of seances, most of which took place in the small farmhouse on the north shore of Loughborough Lake, near the village of Sydenham, Ontario. Other passages are his musings over what it's all about. The notes and letters aid my remembrances of the taciturn elderly gentleman who lived in that farmhouse, where I spent many gloriously happy days and nights.

In my mind's eye I can still see him in faded blue shirt and baggy tweed pants, sitting on the bank of Lake Loughborough with his feet over the edge of the dock, jotting his thoughts into a child's notebook with a Dixon HB pencil. My grandfather created in me a lifelong interest in the paranormal, an interest that has proved to be enormously engaging and fun. I have passed it on to my sons, Dan and Peter, and it also resulted in a television series and movies, which have been the most fun of all. In 1984, the year of Ghostbusters' release, it became the most successful comedy in film history (to date it has been seen by a billion people), and it was absolutely and directly derived from the blue trunk. I only hope Grandpa knows what fun he started!


The Young Dr. Aykroyd

Dr. Samuel Augustus Aykroyd was born March 22, 1855, in Storrington Township, a rural area of eastern Ontario 20 miles north of Kingston. His parents, Daniel and Martha, must have had a sense of history, because Augustus is not now, nor was it at the time of his birth, a common name.

Samuel grew up the eldest of 14 children in a small farmhouse on a piece of prime Ontario land designated as Lot 8, a portion of approximately 150 acres of property abutting Lake Loughborough in Frontenac County, Ontario, which his great-grandfather had purchased from the Crown in 1826. Samuel attended public school at Kepler and, following graduation from Sydenham High School, moved to the town of Kingston, where he obtained his teaching certificate. He obtained a teaching position in the town of Emerald on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario. While he was there, he met Ellen Jane Wemp, the lovely young woman who was to become his wife in 1884 and the mother of their two children, Lillian in 1885 and Maurice James in 1891.

Teaching public school to children ages 5 to 12 in a drafty one-room schoolhouse on Amherst Island wasn't particularly rewarding. Samuel soon received an appointment at a bigger school in Kingston Township, and he was content for a while. But the salary of schoolteachers in those days was abysmally low, and the prospect of future increases was uncertain. Samuel hadn't fled the farm with its limited opportunities to look forward to a life of penury as a public school teacher. His ambitions reached beyond that.

The school curriculum of the day had evolved beyond the three Rs to include some history, geography, and science. It was the latter subject that interested him the most, and his curiosity coupled with his ambition led him to consider dentistry as a profession. There was certainly opportunity to develop a substantial practice in Kingston and its surrounding towns and villages. The area, which at the time had a combined population of some 22,000, had only two dentists, both of whom had been practicing for nearly 2 decades.

So Samuel, at the age of 34, with his young wife and their small daughter in tow, enrolled as a student at the University of Toronto's School of Dentistry of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons. He graduated with the degree of doctor of dental surgery in 1891, and in 1892, after the required period of internship, he opened his own practice in rooms over Hobart's Medical Hall at 92 Princess Street in Kingston.

By today's standards, dentistry in 1892 was still in a primitive state. There was no electricity to drive the flexible cable that powered the drill; it was operated instead by a foot pedal similar in function to the old Singer sewing machine treadle. The x-ray was not discovered by the German scientist Wilhelm Rontgen until 1895, and it would be many more years before x-ray machines were affordable enough for the average practitioner, so finding the exact location and extent of decay was difficult. A variety of alloys for fillings went through a trial-and-error process. Similarly, analgesic drugs would come and go, their use in practice not resulting from any scientific basis, but from their efficacy in clinical settings. One treatment for pain control that came into vogue during the 1890s was hypnosis, or mesmerism, as it was then known.

It is unlikely that Dr. Aykroyd ever used hypnotism on his own patients. Suffice it to say that this intelligent and exceedingly well-trained professional, whose formal training included hundreds of lectures on everything from Visceral Anatomy to Elements of Bacteriology, would have been, at the very least, intrigued enough to look into this alternative method. The mere presence of his journals suggests that he was a thinking man, a man who approached all subjects in his sphere of interest with the sobriety and seriousness that one would expect from a professional. And whether or not its availability led to its use in his practice, hypnotism was probably one of the things that sparked Dr. A.'s interest in a relatively new phenomenon called spiritualism.

The second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th ushered in an escalation in the popularity of what was generally known as spiritualism, and it would serve us well to begin our discussion with a few definitions.

My preferred definition of "spiritualism" is the belief that departed spirits communicate with and show themselves to the living, especially when they do so through mediums; it also includes the system of doctrines and practices founded on this belief.

A more formal definition is found in The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits:

A nineteenth century social and religious movement that derived its appeal from spirit communications and evidence in support of survival after death (Guiley 2000, 362).

Dr. A. was a follower of the movement known as spiritualism. He believed that the human personality survives after bodily death and accepted the idea that those with biological life have the ability to communicate with those who appear to be minds without bodies. The uncertainty about what happens to us when we die and, even more importantly, whether we here on earth can communicate with those who have passed on drew people together to pursue the mysteries of the supernatural spirit.

As time went on, the connotation of spiritualism expanded to include psychic phenomena in general, things that were considered paranormal, and, eventually, channeling.

Although there is ample evidence of prehistoric humans attempting to communicate with spirits, and later evidence cited from such reliable sources as the Bible, the spiritualist movement as we now know it is fairly recent, having its origins in the United States within the last 200 years. Its followers are many and include thousands of people whom we consider rational--people like Dr. A.

A learned man with an open mind, Dr. A. considered himself "a humble student seeking knowledge." His interests were many, his pursuits varied. He was a pure scientist, trained in medical science. He was also an applied scientist, putting his knowledge to practical use as he treated his patients in his dental parlor. He knew about the human body; he knew chemistry. He was also an intellectual in the dictionary sense, an enlightened person who was attracted to subjects requiring the exercise of intellect. Not a religious man per se, he was the product of an old orthodoxy passed down from his Methodist great-grandfather Aykroyd (also named Samuel), who was among the charter subscribing members of the Kingston Wesleyan Chapel, the first Methodist church in the Kingston area. Although Dr. A.'s interest in the paranormal undoubtedly began in the early 1900s, at least one author on the topic who made a profound impact on him predated the good dentist's birth by 2 centuries.

Early Influences

Emmanuel Swedenborg

Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and scholar who showed keen interest and talent in mathematics and the sciences, particularly astronomy and physics. Although he made substantial contributions to the sciences (among other things, he suggested the nebular hypothesis for the formation of planets and provided a detailed description of the nature of cerebrospinal fluid), his name is best known for his ideas in the fields of theology and spiritualism.

Despite showing some psychic ability as a child, he came to spiritualism rather late when, at age 56, he was beset by dreams and mystical visions. Swedenborg proceeded to write about his views of death and the afterlife, and about his unorthodox views of the spiritual world. Between 1744 and 1745, Swedenborg experienced a number of profoundly moving dreams and visions. One particular vision in April 1745, during which Swedenborg was asked to bring a new revelation to the world, became the catalyst for the mission he pursued for the remainder of his life.

Swedenborg was a "traveling clairvoyant," one whose soul leaves the body in order to travel to distant places to bring back information. One event, among the most frequently cited of Swedenborg's "performances," was his announcement to 16 fellow guests at a dinner party that a major fire was at that moment burning in Stockholm, 300 miles away. The event was investigated by philosopher Immanuel Kant, a contemporary of Swedenborg's, who declared it absolutely authentic. Some considered him to be a mystic and a medium, but he might be more accurately described as a scientific and philosophical investigator whose theological and exegetical works stemmed from divine revelation. His views included the idea that all creation has its origin in divine wisdom and love, and that, as a result, all things created in the material realm have a corresponding counterpart on the spiritual plane.

Believing in neither reincarnation nor redemption, Swedenborg maintained that upon biological death of the body, the spirit goes to an intermediate plane where it makes choices about its next transition. Depending on the spirit's wishes, it then proceeds, for the remainder of eternity, to either one of the heavens or one of the hells. In heaven it will carry on a life much like the earthly one, but it will share the collective objective of peace and harmony. If it chooses a hell, it is free to do anything it desires, but it must be willing to suffer severe punishment by other residents who maintain order.

In his later years, Swedenborg was considered quite insane by many of his contemporaries. They no doubt had difficulty relating to a man who claimed he was able to travel to distant planets and to converse with the spirits of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. Swedenborg continued to write, but lack of public interest in his ideas and criticism from religious leaders forced Swedenborg to personally finance publication of his theories about the afterlife. Although largely ignored during his lifetime, they still gained a dedicated following after his death in 1772.

The Swedenborgian view of the afterlife, focused as it was on communal responsibility, must surely have appealed to the social democratic leanings in the character of Dr. A., for he was a socialist as well as a spiritualist. In a 1915 letter to the editor of the Kingston Whig-Standard, he expressed strong views regarding the war--World War I--and the lessons to be learned from it.

The war is proving two things that have been contended for by the advanced guard of the human family during recent years, namely Socialism and Spiritualism. If Socialism could be defined as political and economical co- operation, which in essence it is, then any household man who reads nothing but newspapers must see that the war is teaching the absolute necessity of Socialism. To bring the war to a successful conclusion and to save the Empire, all must co-operate to the utmost of their ability. What magic is in that word "co-operation," for it is not a creed, nor a dogma, but it is a living, growing principle with unlimited possibilities. Indeed, we are just beginning to see what co-operating can do.

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