Spiritualism — communicating with the dead — had its heyday during the latter half of the 19th century. In western New York in 1848, the Fox sisters became the first celebrities of the sham quasi-religious movement. In Vermont in the 1870s, the Eddy brothers of Chittenden were the focus of newspaper reporters and paranormal investigators. Despite the ravenous national appetite for all things spiritual, it came as a surprise a “tramp printer” from Brattleboro was the “spirit pen” for the recently departed novelist Charles Dickens. In early June 1870, perhaps the greatest author of his time suffered a stroke, leaving his last novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” unfinished. Apparently, this so vexed the spirit of the great writer that he manifested his literary brilliance in the person of an itinerant printer who was living, for a time, in Brattleboro, in the company of a woman (who was referred to by a sneering press) as “his alleged wife.” Like many of Dickens’ works, “Edwin Drood” appeared as installments in a popular periodical. Just as he completed the ninth chapter, Dickens succumbed to apoplexy and died, leaving a host of unfulfilled readers yearning for a conclusion. As necessity is the mother of invention, the unlikely Thomas Power James satisfied the need for the climax and denouement that Dickens’ readers so urgently required. T.P. James was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1837, and came early to the trade of printing, forsaking school for the print shop. He learned his letters from a printer’s job case and made his way around New England working for newspapers and printeries as his employers’ needs and his attentions waxed and waned. He arrived in Brattleboro, according to the local newspaper, The Phoenix, in 1869, having been previously employed as a typesetter in Portland, Maine. “He was about 30 years of age, rather slight, but well-informed, and a remarkably self-possessed man. He had formerly been in business in Lowell, where he failed, and subsequently found his way to Philadelphia. He had, in fact seen a good deal of the world, and in his wanderings he had fallen in with Mrs. Scott, a former resident of Nashua, whom he married, though she was many years his senior.” After he arrived in Brattleboro with Martha Hill, “his alleged wife”, they rented rooms at 54 Elliott St., and he married her in 1873. His second wife was many years his junior, and they both took an immediate liking to Brattleboro. When Thomas concluded his duties at The Phoenix, he joined O.A. Libby in establishing The Union Print Shop at 1,2 and 3 Market Square. James and Martha resided with a landlady who was a practicing medium. She conducted séances at her boarding house, and soon her new tenant was also taken with the world of necromancy. It was not long after that the “self-possessed” young man became “possessed” by the recently deceased Charles Dickens. After attending a few séances in Brattleboro, James realized that he was a potent intermediary for messages from the dead, especially through the practice of automatic writing. Early in his exposure to séances, according to an interview he gave to a Springfield, Massachusetts, newspaper, he manufactured a missive from a long-dead child that established his reputation as “writing medium.” As his reputation grew, he apparently attracted the attention of the spirit of Charles Dickens, who asked the self-employed printer to help him complete “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the novel that lay unfinished at the author’s death. James claimed that Dickens, perhaps borrowing a device from Ebenezer Scrooge, began dictating the remainder of his novel on Christmas Eve 1872, and continued at thrice-weekly sessions where up to 20 pages at a sitting were completed. Dickens and James worked in this manner until the novel was finished. James quit the printing business to concentrate his energies on completing and publishing the great author’s last novel. As news of his endeavor was announced, newspapers speculated on the possibilities inherent in this enterprise, but only the Springfield Daily Union was granted an extensive interview with the medium. The anonymous Union reporter arrived in Brattleboro as a cynical skeptic, but left his meeting with James a grudging believer. He noted that the author was uneducated and seemed incapable, in almost every respect, of perpetuating a fraud such as this. He inspected the manuscript and reported “the handwriting is not his own, and shows some of the peculiarities of Dickens’s hand.” The Union article caused a sensation. Extracts were reprinted in many newspapers and an expectant public awaited the literary product of Dickens’ spirit pen. James published “The Mystery of Edwin Drood Complete” in 1873, and it was surprisingly successful. The text of the novel was preceded by two prefaces: one by the author (Dickens) and one by the medium (James). In “The Medium’s Preface,” James decried the doubters who asserted that he was nothing more than a cog in the machine of a publicity scam. He also acknowledged a second camp of skeptics who believed “that the Evil One was at the bottom of the whole business; and it was said that, at a certain hour every night, his Satanic Majesty could be seen emerging from the chimney of my house.” After its much-anticipated appearance, a critic for the Salem Observer reviewed it in November 1874. “Here we have a true sensational book, an eminent curiosity of literature, it being no less than the last unpublished story of Charles Dickens, completed by the author himself from the spiritual world through the mediumistic ‘spirit pen’ of one Thomas P. James. This James who is an unlettered printer of Brattleboro, Vt. has been at work these months past, every day, in a dark room, writing or ‘completing’ the great novel at the dictation of the late, lamented Charles Dickens. And the result of his sittings in the dark, whether by agency of Dickens or of the devil, or only his own unaided powers, is a comely volume of 487 pages, which we can see by a glance, in anticipation of the careful reading we hope to give it, has the true Dickens flavor.” That the collaboration was not dismissed out-of-hand is, perhaps, a testament to the acceptance of spiritualism throughout the country, but the spurious interview with James in the Springfield Union may also have had something to do with its immediate popularity. The excerpts that were published in many newspapers created an interest and enthusiasm for this edition of Dicken’s final book and ensured its success. The interview also provoked a response from the Brattleboro Phoenix, where James first worked when he came to town, a response that challenged the favorable impression wrought by the Springfield newspaper. “He was a free and easy fellow — good-tempered, dressed well, kept his boots well blacked, and smoked his cigar with the ease of a lord. “For a year James proved to be an industrious workman, when circumstances arose that aroused our suspicion that his veracity was wholly unworthy of dependence. After remaining with us till he thought he could succeed in business on his own account, he graduated. James got along as proprietor as well as anyone could who knew so little about business. He finally failed; how many he owed at the time we do not know. “While with us, Mr. James behaved well enough. He never seemed to possess the enterprise or ability of a successful adventurer. He certainly never exhibited any taste for literature, nor do we remember of his ever writing a sentence of any kind while in our employ. We have no more idea that he could successfully imitate the style of Dickens, than he could translate from the original Illiad. He has neither the brains nor the ability for such an undertaking. “We are willing to believe that he is in the employ of someone who is his superior; or that he is really and truly what he claims to be — a medium.” Years later Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the uber-rational Sherlock Holmes, weighed in on the notion that a great writer might employ a medium to publish manuscripts from the other side. He recounted the origins of the Dickens manuscript and, in his essay in the December 1927 issue of The Bookman, reproduced four extracts from “Edwin Drood,” two from the unfinished Dickens text, and two from the spirit pen wielded by T.P. James. He cleverly demonstrates that the reader’s first and obvious choices in identifying the known Dickens paragraphs are wrong. Conan Doyle parsed the text for Americanisms and British idioms and remained somewhat satisfied that the collaborative effort could, in fact, be authentic. Although Conan Doyle found the style and vocabulary to be persuasive, the plot, he thought was not up to the great author’s usual standard. It read, he said, like “Dickens gone flat.” Sir Arthur’s essay also considers the contributions of other famous writers who published from the grave, i.e. Oscar Wilde and Jack London, leaving the modern reader with the impression that spiritualism had created a ready market for literature by the recently departed. While the literary inventor of Sherlock Holmes was the architect of a world-famous cynical detective, he was quite gullible in other respects, once even acknowledging the existence of fairies, after having been bamboozled by a school girl’s trick photograph. As for Mr. James, he tried to continue in his role as the Charles Dickens amanuensis, but there was little interest in his subsequent efforts. He wrote and printed a single issue of what he intended to be a Dickens- and spiritualism-oriented literary periodical, The Summerland Messenger, and he began another novel that he maintained issued from the Dickens spirit pen. It was titled “The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickleheep,” but this Dickensian title never made it to print. James remained, for a while, in Brattleboro, where he started and ended a series of short-lived newspapers. In 1877, The Springfield Republican observed: “T.P. James has issued another newspaper at Brattleboro, the fourth. The mission of the new paper, so far as it has one, seems to be to print a good deal of cheap wit at the expense of Lawyer Davenport and Deacon Jacob Estey. Happily, there is not much living power in this sort of journalism.” In 1882, The Phoenix reported that James “of doubtful local recollection is employed on the Boston Figaro.” After James left Brattleboro for Boston, he seemed to have vanished into the milieu of the bustling metropolis. Gone but not forgotten, Thomas P. James’ literary landmark perseveres on the bookshelves of Dickens devotees to this day; and generations of scholars have attempted to explain or deny (mostly deny) the authenticity of the T.P. James addendum. In Brattleboro, the resident expert on the James/”Drood” controversy is Rolf Parker-Houghton, one of the recipients of an NEH grant to study the history of printing in that city, and he has been researching this matter for several years. He is shortly expected to publish new information he has discovered regarding the tramp printer. In a recent interview, he hinted at his findings. “There is a danger in taking the story of how James came to write the end of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ without a large spoonful of salt. The story of the landlady, the seance, the barely literate printer, all of it comes from reports in the Springfield Union. The articles were written by an anonymous ‘special correspondent.’ Some researchers (including Andrew Kull in Vermont Life)) have pointed out that there is good reason to suspect that T. P. James wrote the article himself. They note that the novel was printed by Clark W. Bryan & Company.” However, Clark W. Bryan was the publisher of the Springfield Republican, and began working at the Springfield Union in 1872. Clark W. Bryan & Company also printed James’s book. In other words, whoever published the article by the special correspondent had business dealings with James. It doesn’t look good. As far as James being a barely literate printer in 1873, a few years later he is working as the co-editor of the Windham County Reformer. I guess you could speculate that taking dictation from Dickens’ ghost caused him to become a functioning newspaper editor, but it seems a lot more likely he faked his own level of literacy, either by lying to the “special correspondent” or more likely describing himself falsely to his readers. At the very least, the tramp printer was the author of a remarkable literary hoax. Paul Heller is a writer and historian. He lives in Barre.

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