By Mark Bushnell/VTDigger
Charles Dickens had writer’s block in the worst way. It had been years since he’d laid down his pen while only halfway through writing “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
In desperation, some say, he turned to an unlikely assistant. The public was stunned to read that the great British writer had picked an obscure printshop foreman from Brattleboro, Vermont, to help complete his work.
They asked why Dickens would choose an assistant whose formal education had ended at age 13, someone who was not known as much of a reader, much less a writer.
More to the point, they wondered, hadn’t Dickens been dead for two years?
But this was the 1870s and the Western world was in the thrall of spiritualism, the belief that the dead can, and often did, communicate with the living. The public was more than willing to take seriously a claim that the spirit of Dickens wanted to finish the work he had died in the midst of writing.
So Thomas P. James’s timing couldn’t have been better. James, who was 30-something at the time, had only recently moved to Brattleboro to take a printing job. He is said to have first experienced spiritualism soon after reaching town.
In October 1872, James and some acquaintances supposedly attended a séance in the parlor of the Oak Street boardinghouse in which he lived. During the session, witnesses said, spirits demonstrated a strong affinity for James. At one point, they claimed they saw the table “waltz exuberantly about the room” before tipping over into his lap, which in spiritualist circles was a sign of James’s supernatural powers.
At a séance the next night, James appeared to enter a trance and then, grabbing a pencil, dashed off a note to another participant signed by that man’s dead daughter. James proceeded to write more notes signed by Brattleboro residents who had died before he arrived in town.
Then his hand scrawled out another note. This one was addressed to himself and requested a private meeting. It was signed “Charles Dickens.”
James later explained that, while he was in a trance, the spirit of Dickens had popped the question: Would James serve as his medium so that he could finish Edwin Drood? James accepted and, at Dickens’ suggestion, he began work on the author’s favorite night, Christmas Eve. If that night could give Scrooge a new lease on life in “A Christmas Carol,” why couldn’t it work its magic and allow Dickens to continue his writing career, albeit posthumously?
Over the course of several weeks, James would shut himself alone in a room for hours. Seated at a table with pencils and papers arrayed before him, James would wait for the spirit to move him. Sometimes it would take only one minute to enter a trance; other times it took 30. Stormy weather, he said, made the process longer.
During the sessions, James was sometimes aware of Dickens sitting beside him, with his hand resting thoughtfully against his head as he dictated. The meetings would end with Dickens touching James with a hand “as cold and heavy as the hand of Death.”
James would emerge from his trance to find papers strewn around the floor. He’d have to read the unnumbered pages to determine their order. Once, among the papers, he said he found a note addressed to him. “We are doing finely,” it read. “I am more than satisfied with the result of this undertaking. You have no idea how much interest this matter is exciting here among the hosts by which I am surrounded.”
Those spirits, too, Dickens hoped, “will find so faithful a worker and one so much after their own hearts.” Apparently, many did: The Library of Congress has a category devoted entirely to so-called “spirit writings.”
In the summer of 1873, word of James’s endeavor reached a world still disappointed that Dickens had never finished Drood. Upon hearing of Dickens’ death three years earlier, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — who, like many others, had read Edwin Drood in magazine installments — had said, “I hope his book is finished. It is certainly one of the most beautiful works, if not the most beautiful of all. It would be too sad to think the pen had fallen from his hand and left it incomplete.” Presumably, Longfellow didn’t mean that other writers should finish it for him.
Dicken’s publishers preferred that the work remain unfinished, but by 1873 two other writers were also working to complete unauthorized versions of Drood. Unlike James, however, neither claimed to have help from Dickens himself. In addition, English theater companies were performing Drood plays with their own endings.
On July 26, 1873, the Springfield Daily Union of Massachusetts printed long excerpts from the novel that James had completed and said readers would be unable to tell where the living Dickens had left off. The English spelling, the unique diction and smaller details all marked the work as decidedly Dickensian, the paper declared.
The Union also added a few stunning details. It hinted that the character Edwin Drood, who had been missing and presumed dead when Dickens himself died, had not been murdered. Also, the Union reported, Dickens was not through with his medium, whom the paper declined to name. The two would collaborate on a second book, with the bizarre but Dickensian name “The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickleheap.”
The article in the Springfield Daily Union must have thrilled James. In fact, at least one literary historian believes James might have written the article himself. But the press soon turned against James. Just four days later, the Boston Traveller printed an article naming James as Dickens’ purported medium and attacking his character. James, the paper reported, had led a nomadic life, bouncing between Nashua, New Hampshire; Lowell, Massachusetts; Fall River, Rhode Island; and parts of New York state.
Along the way, he had married a much older woman, only to desert her for a younger one. The older woman was said to be suing for divorce, a highly scandalous event in those days. The Traveller described James as a “smart, enterprising adventurer, with no nice scruples of honor to embarrass his energies.”
The paper also reported that, as a young man, James had told friends he was writing a play. But those who read it said he had merely plagiarized an older play. Then the Nashua Telegraph chimed in. James had worked at the paper three years earlier, the Telegraph reported. He’d been a skillful printer, but had “a social stain upon his character.”
James was not educated enough to have perpetrated the Drood fraud alone, the paper said; he must have had an accomplice. “Still,” the Telegraph wrote, “we must give him credit for considerable ingenuity, as the imposition he has attempted is one of the cleverest in conception and execution of modern times. And we shall not be surprised if he attempts with his infinite assurance to bluff it through.” The people at the Telegraph apparently understood James well.
In October, the book appeared with the title “The Mystery of Edwin Drood — Complete” to distinguish it from Dickens’ original novel, which was printed in 1870. The new work was instead credited to “the Spirit Pen of Charles Dickens, through a Medium.” The book also included “that part of the Work which was published prior to the termination of the Author’s Earth-Life.”
In his “Medium’s Preface,” James showed that the critics had wounded him. “For some wise purpose, no doubt,” he wrote, “the Creator saw fit to place upon the earth a class of people who regard every thing they do or say as perfectly right and proper, and every thing other folks do or say as all wrong.” Most people, he wrote, understood that an “untoward event in my early life” had no bearing on the validity of the book.
Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, the book sold well. James pocketed his profits, left Brattleboro and faded back into obscurity.
Whatever else James did in his later years, he apparently broke off any collaboration with Dickens.
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