Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton: If you have ever sent your ex an embarrassing number of text messages, you will find the sad story of the Victorian novelist Edith Wharton reassuring. Wharton met Morton Fullerton in 1907, when she was 45. She had long been in a marriage that was either entirely or nearly celibate, and Fullerton was a famously sexy rake. It is thought he gave her her first orgasm. And then, after what was likely a relationship of a few months, he disappeared. Wharton wrote him countless letters begging him, “dear, won’t you tell me the meaning of this silence … what has brought on such a change? Oh, no matter what it is — only tell me!” After a long period of this, Wharton finally wrote him that she was “worth something more than [this], or worth, perhaps I had better say, something quite different.” Just like every other woman who has broken free of the spell of an ex-lover.
Timothy and Elizabeth Dexter: America’s first millionaire took ghosting to a very different level in the late 1700s. Dexter was deeply eccentric and obsessed with death, hosting a fake funeral for himself and sleeping in a coffin. He also told everyone he was haunted by the ghost of his wife, writing “pittey me that I have bin in hell 35 years, in this world, with the ghost — a woman I married.” He apparently was beset by flying objects and wrote of trying to make a contract to get the ghost to leave his estate. Which is pretty standard ghost stuff. Except his wife, Elizabeth, was very much alive. She just hated him and threw stuff at him, which is a reasonable response to your spouse telling everyone you are a ghoul. She outlived him by three years, and there is no word on whether he chose to haunt her.
George Eliot and John Cross: For years the novelist George Elliot had chosen not to marry, so her decision, at age 60, to marry her 40-year-old friend John Cross shocked most of her social circle. It may not have been her wisest move. On their honeymoon in Venice, Cross leaped out the window of their hotel into the Grand Canal. He flew over three or four gondolas in what some speculated was a frantic attempt to escape his new bride. (He was pulled from the canal and later wrote a biography of Eliot.) What precisely happened to provoke his leap remains a haunting mystery. She died later that year, and it is believed their marriage was never consummated. She was buried next to her former lover, George Henry Lewes.
J.D. Salinger and Oona O’Neill: Up-and-coming writer J.D. Salinger and Oona O’Neill (daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill) would seem to be a match made in mid-20th-century literary heaven. They met at the prestigious Stork Club! She loved the way he danced! He professed his love to her! However, when Salinger went off to war, he was furious to read in the papers that Oona had married the famed film star Charlie Chaplin the day she turned 18. Chaplin was 54. Salinger wrote her a furious letter containing a vulgar cartoon implying Charlie was impotent. Chaplin and Oona had eight children, so Salinger seems to have been wrong about that, though he was definitely right about how some people can be real phonies.
John Stonehouse and Barbara Smith: British politician John Stonehouse took ghosting to a new level by faking his own death in 1974. Beset by a number of political, financial and personal concerns, he disappeared after leaving his clothing on a beach in Miami. While most assumed he had committed suicide, the lack of a body led some people to conclude he might have been the victim of a Mafia hit or eaten by a shark. So, they were very surprised when he turned up in Australia. When his wife of 24 years excitedly flew to Melbourne to see him, she found him living with the secretary he had been having an affair with. She divorced him while he in was in prison, where his chains presumably rattled like a true ghost’s.