Spiritualism Unmasked

Pall Mall Gazette (January 1889)

The Pall Mall Gazette of the 20th December contains a quotation form a Chicago newspaper, in which not only is it stated that I have taken part in "a series of experiments, chiefly with the medium Home," but it is pretty plainly suggested that I am disposed to judge what is called "Spiritualism" more or less favourably.

The statement and the suggestion are alike erroneous. I never met with the medium Home, and my knowledge of him, derived from the reports of the proceedings courts of justice, is not such as to lead me to regret that circumstance. But I have had to do with certain other "mediums" of hardly inferior notoriety, an my deliberate judgement is that they were, each and all, utter impostors; and, with one exception, not even clever at their shameful trade.

I have always refused to have anything to do with spiritualistic experiments, unless they were to be carried out in a house belonging to someone whom I could trust; and unless I knew enough of the persons who were to be present to be sure that they would not play the part of confederates of the medium, at any rate consciously. If I ever undertook such an inquiry again, I should, further, insist on the presence of a shorthand writer with a watch, whose business it should be to note down everything that was said and done, verbatim and in exact order. Any one who has had experience of spiritualistic proceedings and of the extraordinary discrepancies of testimony between the cool heads and the hot heads, as to the simplest matter of fact, will, I think, see the importance of this stipulation. I once sat at a table which was to be moved by the "spirits." There was a tall lamp in the middle of the table; and while the "spirits" were being invoked, I noted that the globe of the lamp covered a particular pattern of the wall paper, so long as I kept my head in a certain position. Suddenly the medium said, "There! I did you see the table move?" There was a general cry of wondering assent. But it was the old story of the Northumberland House lion in a new shape. As a matter of fact, the globe of the lamp had remained exactly on (as a sailor would say) with the pattern all the time. I pointed out this little difficulty, and by dint of persistence got an admission that there was some doubt about the case even from the medium. If the paper had been plain I should have been beaten by an overwhelming balance of testimony.

The oldest in date of my spriritualistic experiences goes back about five-and-thirty years. It took place at the house of a relative of mine, and the "medium" was a pleasant, intelligent, and well-mannered woman, a native of the United States, whom I will call Mrs. X. The chief performance was the usual pencil and alphabet business, and operations commenced with me as scientific witness and doubter general. The ease and rapidity with which that quiet transatlantic lady fooled me was, as she herself might have said, a caution. The name of the dead friend of whom I was thinking, was spelt out in no time, and I was left morally agape, while Mrs. X. followed up her victory, and made one after another of the company a still easier prey. However, as soon as I could pull myself together, I watched the proceedings somewhat narrowly. I noted that the medium's success was by no means uniform; and in the case of one of my friends, who enjoyed a well deserved reputation for outward impassibility, she failed altogether. So when Mrs. X had made the round of the table I asked for another trial, and this time the failure was total and complete. The only difference in the conditions, however, was that, on the second occasion, I had my nerves and muscles under strict control, and took care that my pencil should pass along the letters of the alphabet as impartially as the hands of a watch over the figures on the dial. I have no doubt that, on the first trial, I had, quite unwittingly, rested longer on the letters that interested me, from forming part of the name which I had in my mind. Whatever the nature of the distinction, and however slight it may have been, it was quite enough for the keen eyes of Mrs. X, sharpened as they were by incessant training.

But the interpretation of the signs unconsciously given by the investigator is only one-half of the medium's work. The other is to notify that interpretation by the "raps." Mrs. X's "spirits" did their work admirably. The raps were loud and abundant, and the company declared that they came from all parts of the room; indeed, there were some who maintained their persistence in the house for days afterwards. At any rate, the suggestion that the particularly quiet woman, who sat easily talking at the head of the table, could be all the while making these wonderful noises seemed at first sight outrageous. Drive it away as I would, however, the suspicion, the offspring, no doubt, of a basely materialistic philosophy, kept coming back–took shape as a theory, and finally, by dint of patience and perseverance, embodied itself in practice. From that time forth I became the master of two spirits quite as efficient as those of Mrs. X, and I verily believe of the same nature. My 'delicate Ariels' reside in the second toe of each foot. The method of evocation is simplicity itself. I have merely to bend the toe and then suddenly straighten it; the result is a sharp rap on the sole of my shoe, which by practice may be repeated very rapidly, and rendered forte or piano at pleasure. To produce the best effect, it is advisable to have thin socks and a roomy, hard-soled boot; moreover, it is well to pick out a thin place in the carpet, so as to profit by the resonance of the floor. The upper leather of the boot should be kid rather than patent, as a bright surface may betray a slight movement. By skilful modification of the force of the blows and conversational misdirection of people's attention (by the methods familiar to conjurors and ventriloquists) the ordinary intelligent and well-educated member of society–who is about as competent to deal with these matters as a London street boy with a dairy farm–may be made to believe anything as to the direction of the sounds. So long as no one is allowed to touch the foot of the operator detection is impossible. When I was in good practice I could stand talking on a well-lighted floor, while the bystanders, who knew that I caused the raps, could not define how they were produced. And, at one time, I got so much into the habit of rapping that I used to catch myself doing it involuntarily, as a man in a brown study may rap with his fingers.

But my particular black art is by no means the only effectual method of raising spirits. Some years after Mrs. X's performance I happened to dine at the Castle in Dublin. After dinner, Lord Carlisle, who held the Viceregal office at that time, turned the conversation on Spiritualism; and I showed off the prowess of my familiars. But a young aide-de-camp who was present completely outshone me. His "raps" as he stood on the hearthrug, were like the cracks of a small whip. He told me they were produced by "slipping a tendon" behind the outer ankle; but as I could not examine the operation closely, I confess I was not much wiser for the explanation. The important point is that his method would have been still more difficult of detection–especially in a feminine medium–than mine.

I learned something else which interested me that evening. One of the guests confided to me that, some time before, he had met Mrs. X at a country house. In the course of a seance, my informant was told that the spirit of his deceased sister Mary desired to communicate with him, and, with gravity befitting the circumstances, he took his share in the interesting, and indeed touching, conversation which followed. At the end of the seance the company broke up into groups. Mrs. X and my friend happened to stroll away from the rest towards a bay window, whereupon this brief but pregnant dialogue took place:- She: Did you ever have a sister Mary? He: No. She: I thought not.

Any one could discern, on very short acquaintance, that my friend was a kindhearted, chivalrous gentleman; but it is not everybody who would have perceived so shrewdly that Irish wit had, for once, been too much for Yankee cuteness; and that the only chance for the culprit was to throw herself on the mercy of the court. Fraud is often genius out of place, and I confess that I have never been able to get over a certain sneaking admiration for Mrs. X. But as to the other two media whom I have tried and found wanting, they were merely male and female specimens of the Sludge family–wholly contemptible, clumsy creatures, with no faculty save boundless impudence.

I cannot but think that the place of your intelligence from Chicago would have been much better occupied by an account of my friend Mr. Moncure Conway's article "The Spiritualist's Confession," in the Open Court for November 8, 1888. On the 21st of last October (according to Mr. Conway) the two women Fox, the coryphées of modern spiritualism, made public confession of the fact that they are a pair of impostors; who, from the time they commenced their operations, forty years ago, have been humbugging the enormous flock of geese which has followed and fed them. One of these appropriately-named damsels is stated to have had the cool audacity to ask pardon not of but "for those who have opened their hearts to the silly imposture;" to plead in extenuation that she had done her best to limit the number of the fooled by charging high prices; and to declare that she took this course by the advice of her confessor.

Mr. Conway observes that modern "spiritualism," though not half a century old, has gained more converts in that time than Christianity did in the first three centuries of its existence. It may, I believe, be as safely said that the older form of the same fundamental delusion–the belief in possession and in witchcraft– gave rise in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries to persecutions by Christians of innocent men, women, and children, more extensive, more cruel, and more murderous than any to which the Christians of the first three centuries were subjected by the authorities of pagan Rome.

Yet these centuries cover the period of the Renascence and the Reformation. And when I am told that certain of my contemporaries, justly esteemed in science or in literature, believe in spiritualism, I can but reflect that certain other persons of that day, most unquestionably not in any respect less worthy of consideration, believed in witchcraft and demoniacal possession. Kepler had faith in astrology, Descartes made a pilgrimage to Loretto; all the learning and acuteness of Henry More did not prevent him form enthusiastically backing another very acute and accomplished person, Glanvil, in his battle for the truth of the silly story about the "Daemon of Tedworth"–as silly a story as any to be found in the records of "spiritualism." If I decline not only to believe in astrology on the authority of Kepler; in the genuineness of the Palestinian house which flew to Loretto, on that of Descartes; in the Daemon of Tedworth, on that of Glanvil and More; but even to allow that the favourable opinion of these eminent men makes out a prima facie case for these beliefs–it does not seem to me that I am wanting in due respect to Messrs. A, B. and C, who are surely not the superiors of Kepler, Descartes, and More, if, for the same reasons, I attach no greater weight to their authority, in pari materia.

No one deserves much blame for being deceived in these matters. We are all intellectually handicapped in youth by incessant repetition of the stories about possession and witchcraft in both the Old and the New Testaments. The majority of us are taught nothing which will help us to observe accurately and to interpret observations with due caution. Very few of us have the least conception how much more difficult it is to make such observations and interpretations in a room fall of people, stirred by the expectation of the marvellous, than in the calm seclusion of a laboratory or the solitude of a tropical forest. And one who has not tried to cannot imagine the strain of the mind involved in sitting for an hour or two in a dark room, on the watch for the dodges of a wary "medium." A man may be an excellent naturalist or chemist; and yet make a very poor detective. But, in these investigations, those who know are aware that the qualities of the detective are far more useful than those of the philosopher.

I had no intention when I sat down to write so long a letter. But I have for many years watched, not without anxiety, the recrudescence in our times, and under respectable sanction, of that belief in man's power of evoking spirits form which the basest and cruellest superstitions of bygone ages logically enough took their origin; and perhaps the expression of my views may be of use, at least, to those who have not yet toppled over the edge of common-sense into the spiritualistic puddle. Those who have seem to be past praying for.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University