Before the svengalis of the Spiritualist movement started beguiling Victorians with a pantomime of phantasmagorical rituals, transcendental fugues, and jaunty silk turbans from the Orient, there was Catherine Crowe.
Born “Catherine Anne Stevens” in 1803 in Borough Green, England, Crowe is memorialized as an authoress of dramas, novels, and children’s books that fall outside the respected literary canon. The word “authoress” is used here with intention. Portending Europe's nineteenth century women’s empowerment movement, Crowe was outspoken in her criticism of academia’s presumptuous “sausage party”—particularly in the sciences. And, no where did she express that criticism as eloquently and ardently as in her controversial two-volume work, The Night-Side of Nature (Or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers).
Widely credited with having helped to lay the groundwork for the 1882 founding of the Society for Psychical Research, Catherine Crowe’s 1848 scientific treatise, The Night-Side of Nature, was the first published work of its kind to consider the scientific inquiry of paranormal phenomena with seriousness and rigor. In it, Crowe not only adopted the contemporaneous research being done in Germany—her inclusion of “Poltergeist” being the earliest known usage of the word in an English language text—she made bold applications of it, devising a classification system for spirits and phenomena that, even today, remains relevant.
Furthermore, not only did she propose for the first time a methodology of scientific inquiry into the paranormal, she was an unapologetic critic of an academic establishment that cavalierly dismissed the subject altogether: "The pharisaical scepticism which denies without investigation, is quite as perilous, and much more contemptible than the blind credulity which accepts all that it is taught without enquiry; it is, indeed, but another form of ignorance assuming to be knowledge. […] If scientific men could but comprehend how they discredit the science they really profess, by their despotic arrogance and exclusive scepticism, they would surely, for the sake of that very science they love, affect more liberality and candour." In this regard, Catherine Crowe was far ahead of her time, anticipating a modern attitude of skeptical inquiry that relies upon empiricism and scientific method to demystify paranormal claims, rather than to discredit paranormal beliefs. Furthermore, she is a testament to paranormal investigating originating with nineteenth century women who used the “soft sciences” to cut inroads into the patriarchy of academia, despite its merciless backlash and ridicule.
In fact, near the end of her life, Catherine Crowe suffered an infamous nervous breakdown, her scandalous nude romp through the streets of Edinburgh as familiar to us today as that of Kony 2012 filmmaker Jason Russell. Later Spiritualists such as Madame Blavatsky would sanctify Crowe and her research in perhaps a less-than-credible manner, but, as one of the major progenitors of modern paranormal investigating, she undoubtedly deserves far more than the relative obscurity into which she seems to have fallen. Her stoic defiance of the establishment and her insistence upon scientific rigor in paranormal inquiry model the kind of right-minded skepticism that inspires skeptical thinkers today. As grateful to her for her contributions as to her sacrifices, we’re honored to recognize Catherine Crowe with our “Jaded Light” Award.
On-line resources about Catherine Crowe as a paranormal researcher are difficult to locate and often thin in biographical content, but her groundbreaking work, The Night-Side of Nature, speaks for itself and is available through The Gutenberg Project as well as other electronic archives: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/54532.