Professor Huxley and the Spiritualists

Pall Mall Gazette Jan. 1889
E. L. Gerbett + Thomas Henry Huxley

To the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.

Sir,–I have not the good fortune to be personally acquainted with Mr. E. L. Garbett; but the letters with which he has favoured me afford such an instructive Illustration of the mental attitude of "Spiritualsts" that (having as you will observe obtained Mr. Garbett’s permission) I ask you to publish them. Mr. Garbett’s suggestion that Mr. Conway has been "duped by two women persuading" the Foxes is almost as delicious as that of the ingenuous journalists who suggest that Sir Robert Morier fabricated Bazaine’s letter.–I am, your obedient servant,


3, Myddelton-square, E.C., Jan. 3, 1889.

Professor Huxley,

Dear Sir,–About the date that you say Mr. Conway relates "the Fox women" to have confessed their forty years’ hoax the Pall Mall Gazette reported the chief of them, Mrs. Jackson, to have been one of a party who has rented Carlyle’s house at Chelsea,, and described a séance at which he was believed to be evolved. How do you know that the pair who confessed were real "Fox women?" May not Mr. Conway have been duped by two women personating them? Supposing they really confessed their rapping, and moreover that this and poor ability to rap proved all the rapping both with them and with all other media to be trickery, I cannot see how that would affect spiritualist belief. Granting that you can rap, can you also sit down and forge the signature of my late aunt *** (whose two names I keep in my head), which signature I had seen oftener than any other for twenty years, so that, if produced in court, I should unhesitatingly swear it was my aunt’s? This is what Mrs. Jencken did, or rather her left hand did it, by writing Hebrew way, from right to left, on transparent tracing paper, which, turned over, presents on the back the forgery. The same evening her same hand was made to write similarly several other names, and short messages, in various hands and two or three languages, all of which the sisters, or some of those present, recognised, and one lady was moved to tears by one. Another sentence, but only one, when we went to turn it over, was legible on the frost, reading from left to right though written from right to left, the pencil having begun at last letter and ended at the first!

Again, if you can rap, can you also cause four kinds of raps, clicks, and thumps to be heard simultaneously from seemingly the plaster walls, doors and furniture, as happened that evening in a small parlour Mrs. Jencken inhabited, of a small house, whose number I could tell you, of a row near Audison-road station? Or again, if doing all I have mentioned, including the forgery, can you also rise and float in the air, as our friend Dr. Crookes saw various persons do, besides Home the quack, whom Lord Crawford and many others did repeatedly?

Can you cause even small objects, as a pair of scissors, or pencil, or only a key, to hover a few seconds, as I have seen myself? Can you cause even the cover of a book to open obstinately by an invisible force against any efforts to shut it, so that I and the invisible had a pushing match? Or can you, in a nearly dark room, cause the table to send up occasionally a luminous ball, projected and falling again almost a foot, as if by an gravitation, but while rising expanding from a mere print, to this size, [drawing of one-inch diameter circle] and while falling, shrinking again to nothing? Like you, I never interviewed but three media, but the last and the only one with whom any intelligent foreign agent appeared was the very Kate Fox (Mr. Jencken), discoverer at nine years old of "spiritualism." She is also the only one to whom I paid a farthing, and the only one with whom I heard raps. There were various kinds of them at once, as I said; but those answering questions were all exactly alike. Every such rap was two distinct clicks, the second rather the stronger, but their interval, I believe, hardly a tenth of a second–certainly not a sixth of a second. I have tried in vain to indicate the double click. No extempore contrivance can I make to do it–the two so close together, yet so distinct, and partaking of a metallic and wooden sound.

The third medium I only saw once. He was a young man named Howell, a "trance medium." In the state of trance or hypnotism, he seemed to be taken possession of by four successive spirits who made his body address us in four characters, using widely different dialects–one the dialect of negroes in Carolina, this one describing herself as a cotton plantation slave. Another, in Lancashire dialect, said he had been killed by a colliery explosion near Wigan, and his name was Mattheson. But what I was never told to expect: while the room was darkened for Howell to go into the trance, the moment he did so there shot up from the top of his head a group of five or six sparks as bright as fire flies, shooting up two or three feet in the manner of rockets. Years afterwards I met with an engraving of Peter of Alcantara, a Spanish thaumaturgic saint of three centuries ago, kneeling before a crucifix, while a multitude of these exact sparks that I had seen are spouting like a fountain from his head towards the crucifix. Perhaps you may not be aware that the "Acta Sanctorum" has engravings (from contemporary paintings) showing St. Teresa and a monk who visited her, both raised up in their chairs, exactly as Mr. Crookes describes media to have been lately, and as happened to numerous medieval saints–Philip of Neri being one of the latest.

What I think you should specially remember is that, whatever you may make people believe as to these things, their naturalness or impossibility, you cannot prevent their happening. They will happen, whatever you teach about them. They have to be reckoned with.–Believe me, Sir, yours very respect,

4 Marlborough-place, N.W., January 9, 1889

Dear Sir,–A comparison of the end of your letter with the end of mine in the Pall Mall Gazette will I think convince you, as it does me, that any discussion of the subject between us is not likely to be profitable.–I am, yours very truly,


P. S.–Unless you object, I shall hold myself free to use your letter as a public communication.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University