Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Spirit-rapping made easy. II. - Part 1



In a former paper, published[1] under the above title, I promised to recur to the subject of Mediums, their professed intercourse with the spirit world, and the means they employ for the mystification of the credulous. If I wanted any inducement to return to the charge, it has been furnished by a letter of Mr. William Howitt, addressed to the “Morning Star,” on the 6th of October, and which contains a direct challenge to the present writer to proceed a little further with his pictorial explanations. As far as they have gone, they are not, it appears, especially gratifying to the taste of Mr. Howitt, and he asks for more in the language of bravado and irony.

“Let the writer,” he says, “go on and explain in the same way how Mr. Home floated about the top of the room, as mentioned in the ‘Cornhill Magazine,’ and as numbers of persons in London saw him do on another occasion.”

Now, I am about to answer Mr. Howitt’s challenge, and to explain how Mr. Home may have produced this effect and all the other wonders mentioned in the “Cornhill” narrative. I think the floating, and all the other business, manageable by means of some very simple contrivances, and I hope, with the aid of a few more diagrams, to make these contrivances as intelligible to my readers.

Now that I am challenged to account for particular marvels, I prefer, however, to consider them all and consecutively. It is quite true, as Mr. Howitt avers, that the “Cornhill” article has attracted a considerable degree of attention, and therefore I will give my explanation of its statements, one by one. There is none of them which throws me into that “paroxysm of terror” to which Mr. Howitt says they have roused certain journalists. On the contrary, I find them very easy to construe, and I will take them in succession, explaining each in its turn, that at least I may exhaust this present division of my subject.

It is ordinarily difficult to deal with the narratives of unwary spectators, because they slip over circumstances which I consider most material. Unless I can question the writers on a variety of data, which they ordinarily omit as unimportant in their eyes, I am left to vague surmises on a number of points, on which I could have positive certainty of if I observed for myself. I have less difficulty of this kind on the present occasion, because the writer does describe what he saw and heard, with more particularity as to many of the circumstances, than I could expect from one purely uninitiated. He is evidently a candid, truthful, witness, who would not, consciously, sanction imposture; and his exactitude, as far as it goes, is a proof of his sincerity. Such exactitude is, in fact, the greatest help I could possibly have in detecting the tricks which have been practised on his imagination, and it is all the more valuable because it is so uncommon even in those who really desire that the truth should be known. Of course those who do not are vague invariably and designedly.

At the commencement of his narrative, which any one who has not seen it may identify by its title, “Stranger than Fiction,” the writer contends that it must be taken for granted that he did see certain phenomena. It is conceded already that he did see what he states he saw, and it is quite as much a part of his testimony that he did not detect the means by which these same phenomena were produced. He saw what he terms facts, but they were only half facts—effects, I may term them, only to be ascribed to spiritual causes, because the actual means of producing them were not obvious to the particular witness. Let the feats of Robert-Houdin or Bosco be interpreted on similar principles, and we shall invest the performers with miraculous attributes. On the principle of the right man in the right place, we should make one of them Bishop of London and the other Archbishop of Canterbury.

The first marvellous phenomena observed by the writer were witnessed on an occasion when Mr. Home was not present. The time was morning; the only persons present were two ladies, with respect to both of whom he begs the entire question, when he states “there was nobody in the apartment capable of practising a deception, and no conceivable object to gain by it.” The writer sat at a distance from the tolerably heavy sofa-table at which the ladies were placed,—one at the other end farthest from him, and the other at the side. In fact, the position described is that which we have indicated in the following diagram, with the exception that the writer was at a greater distance from the table.

Sketch showing the position of two mediums relative to a spectator during a séance.
Fig. 1.

“Their hands were,” says the writer, “placed lightly on the table, and for three or four minutes, we all remained perfectly still . . . After we had waited a few minutes, the table,” he says, “began to rock gently to and fro. The undulating motion greatly increased, and was quickly followed by tinkling knocks underneath, resembling the sounds that might be produced by rapid blows from the end of a pencil-case.” The writer observes that the ladies’ hands were displayed on the table, so that no manipulations could take place beneath. I ask by what extraordinary accuracy of hearing (there being no criterion of comparison) could he tell me whether the sounds in question proceeded from the upper or the under surface of the table? I have shown already, in my former paper, how such sounds may be easily produced either way. I will be more explicit as to the means of operating on the under surface of a sofa-table, stated to be the vehicle in this instance; but, first of all, I wish to explain the secret of the undula ting motion, and how that motion might be gradually increased ad libitum.

The absurdity of the device is its extreme simplicity as compared with the effect on the wondering spectator. “If the hands of the ladies had any influence upon the movements of the table, such influence,” says the writer, “must have operated at right angles, or in opposite directions.” Supposing both operated at the same time, this would have been so; but what is the necessity for assuming this simultaneous action? Supposing both pairs of hands, however, were altogether quiescent, there are other extremities to the human frame, and Mediums, as I observed, are not only aware of this anatomical resource, but are in the habit of developing it by assiduous education. In this case, however, we are far from requiring any such special aptitude, original or acquired, to account for the rocking phenomenon. The lady at the side has simply to draw her feet underneath her chair, insert her knees beneath the bar which runs from leg to leg, alternately raise and depress either heel, and a rocking motion is easily established, the deflection being proportioned to the length of the table. I can obtain such a motion of the sofa-table at which I am writing, but I am obliged to command the Spirits to desist, because I desire to finish a readable sentence which shall not be a rocking enigma to the compositor.

If the reader were sitting behind or even opposite me at a sufficient distance, he would see my heels in motion; but it would not be so easy to discern their activity if they were enveloped in crinoline and its gauzy collaterals. As in the case represented by the above diagram, crinoline, like charity, covers a multitude of insidious actions on the part of designing legs and heels which are not permitted to innocent pantaloons. A front view of the performer would only show the result, as in Fig. 2.

Sketch showing two methods, using the feet and knees, for making a table tilt in a séance.
Fig. 2.

But the spectator, in this instance, was, as he tells us, some six or seven feet from the end of the table, in which case he could not see even the bar, and still less the Medium’s means of operation. The spiritual appearance exhibited to his eyes, would be a table deflected downwards, thus:

Sketch showing how a table tilted by a medium conceals her lifting motions when seen end-on.
Fig. 3.

And we do not in the least dispute the fact that he did witness some such marvellous phenomenon:

As to the raps they may have been produced by means such as we have described elsewhere, or by others peculiarly adapted to the sofa-table, when, as is generally the case, such tables have drawers. It is a circumstance known to the spirit world, and even the uninitiated may verify it that such drawers fit their frames more or less loosely. A Medium seated at the end may perform with the foot. A Medium seated at the side may produce such raps with the knee. If either foot or knee are raised in support of the drawer and suddenly removed, the drawer itself will produce the rap by coming suddenly in contact with the frame on which it slides. Absurdly simple as this sounds, this is probably the means of the mystification. When the foot is employed by the Medium at the end, one leg must be crossed over the other, as thus:

Sketch showing two methods for producing raps in a séance using a table with drawers.
Fig. 4.

When the knee is employed by the Medium at the side, it must be turned outward, to some extent, to enable it to reach the under surface of the drawer without coming in contact with its frame-work, as thus:

Sketch showing a medium making a table rap by rattling its drawer with his knee.
Fig. 5.

If the effect is produced by the knee of the Medium at the side, her crinoline, as we have said, will conceal her own activity; if, on the other hand, it is produced by the foot of the Medium at the end, it will help to conceal the activity of her companion from a spectator placed, as was the writer, in fig. 1. Absurd as it seems to explain anything so obvious by diagrams, it is not so absurd as the fact that, they are sufficient to account for all the writer saw, as far as I have yet proceeded with his narrative. With respect to the mode in which questions were answered by the table, I can only refer the reader to the explanation in my former paper.[2]

After the customary rappings, as aforesaid, we are informed that at the request of the writer, the table replied that he might join the séance, and commenced a vigorous motion towards him. “The ladies were obliged to leave their chairs to keep up with it,” as they would be obliged to do if either of them had given it unobserved a push and both or either wished to keep up the impetus. The table would run easily upon a stretched carpet: and the necessity of following it would act somewhat in the way depicted in fig. 6, until the table was continuously pushed forward as far as the waistcoat of the spectator:

Sketch showing two mediums pretending to chase after a moving table while actually pushing it.
Fig. 6.

In due course the sofa-table intimated that its spiritual mission was fulfilled, and that the party must remove to “a small round table, which stood on a slender pillar, terminating in three claws.” The smaller table being more easily acted upon became positively riotous, the slightest inequality of pressure being sufficient to throw it off one of its three legs, and cause it to indulge in a variety of ridiculous antics. “It pitched about with a velocity which flung off our hands from side to side, as fast as we attempted to place them;” whence the reader may fairly infer that these attempts gave additional impulse to the eccentric movements of such a small piece of furniture. Sketch showing how a medium in a séance makes a light table rock with her hands placed flat on top of it.
Fig. 7.
In fact, a single performer might do much by more insidious impulses than those represented as communicated, in fig. 7, to an article so light as the table here described; in addition to which, what proof have we that the feet of the performers did not come into play when their hands ceased to act?

This table naturally ended by turning over on its side, and in this horizontal position glided slowly towards another table close to a large ottoman. A motion imparted to it, as if it slipped from their fingers, would easily give it the appearance of gliding some way of its own accord, over a tightly-stretched carpet. Any one expecting to see it move might exclaim it is moving alone, and it might move alone for some distance, as the writer witnessed, though not of its own impulse, as he seems to infer. But it would not be left long to this earlier impetus, if we take into account the significance of the following statement. “We had much trouble in following it, the apartment being crowded with furniture, and our difficulty was considerably increased by being obliged to keep up with it in a stooping attitude.” Sketch showing stooping participants in a séance chasing awkwardly after a light table which is skittering around the floor, seeming to move of its own accord every time someone gives it an accidental push.
Fig. 8.
We can imagine how such a succession of plunges after the table would naturally assist its efforts at locomotion. The Medium would have exceptional opportunities, and the uninitiated would involuntarily assist. “We were never able,” says the writer, “to reach it at any time together,” so that it probably received an independent push from each person who came up with it in succession; and the witness being conscious only of his own efforts, would be naturally astonished at the result of their joint activity.

The table thus in motion came in contact with the leg of the other table, previously mentioned, near the large ottoman, and, using the leg as a fulcrum, “it directed its claws towards the ottoman, which it attempted to ascend, by inserting one claw in the side, then turning half way round, to make good another step, and so on. It slipped down at the first attempt, but again quietly renewed its task. It was exactly like a child trying to climb up a height. All this time we hardly touched it, being afraid of interfering with its movements, and, above all things, determined not to assist them.” The reader is invited to observe the fallacious effect of the writer’s assumption, that he may speak for the intentions of both his companions. “At last,” he says, by careful and persevering efforts, it accomplished the top of the ottoman, and stood on the summit of the column in the centre, from whence, in a few minutes, it descended to the floor by a similar process; after which we assume that the table was comparatively happy, or that somebody else was well satisfied with its performance. It is perfectly evident that the performers were touching it all along. “We hardly touched it,” says the writer, as if he could tell the manipulative force exerted by either of his companions. In exhibitions of this class, each person present can barely speak for himself. Of the power which may be exerted on a small table by three pairs of hands, it would be difficult to take an exaggerated view, when we know that the effect described may be easily produced by one pair, acting upon the table as in the following designs. Here are the three stages by which the exploit may be effected, in figs. 9, 10, and 11:

1st of a three-part sketch showing how, rocking a small three-legged table with her hands on its top, a medium makes the table seem to climb onto an ottoman of its own accord.
Fig. 9.
2nd of a three-part sketch showing how, rocking a small three-legged table with her hands on its top, a medium makes the table seem to climb onto an ottoman of its own accord.
Fig. 10.

3rd of a three-part sketch showing how, rocking a small three-legged table with her hands on its top, a medium makes the table seem to climb onto an ottoman of its own accord.
Fig. 11.
It will be seen that by imparting a circular movement to the top the claws will act like a pair of compasses, and you may make a table walk to the top of an ottoman or any other piece of furniture, the height of which is within the compass of its legs. The sofa-table is aware of the capacities of the Tripod, and that no spiritual influence could enable itself to mount sofas or ottomans. Accordingly, with a modesty becoming its disabilities, it invites the tripod to a performance, and this is the result.

The vague and desultory manner in which the writer next speaks of tables, chairs, and sofas, moving of themselves precludes observations on my part. I can only follow him when he relates with some circumstantiality the various particulars of the incidents and the scene.

A strange vibration is the next phenomenon on which he dwells with any particularity. “It palpitated through the entire room. We listened and watched attentively. The vibration grew stronger and stronger. It was palpably under our feet, and it was like the throbbing which precedes an earthquake, and it continued for two or three minutes, and it could not have been produced by machinery.” Such is the substance of the phenomena described.

Now, I particularly point to this as one of the results which can be produced by the simplest agencies—so simple, that it would be astonishing that any one should regard it as mysterious, but for the assistance which the imagination of the witnesses themselves affords to the simple device of the performer. This drawing-room earthquake may be easily produced by a single pair of feet in vigorous movement to and fro from toe to heel, and if the feet be worked alternately in a room of some extent, a very powerful vibration may thus be created, and sustained with a very little practice, as any one may ascertain by experimenting. If the performer has thin soles and no heels, he will be able to accomplish this on a soft carpet almost without noise, and he has simply to desist when attention is directed to his feet; or, if a lady is the source of the earthquake, her crinoline will conceal her pedal play. Any of my readers with average muscular power, and a slight amount of exertion, may produce such earthquakes in any drawing-room in London, and no one whose mind is not sedulously prepared beforehand will dream of attributing them to spiritual machinery.

The ascent of the table which is next mentioned has been already accounted for in my former paper. It is not alleged in the “Cornhill” article that there was anything extraordinary in the size or weight of the table which appeared to be suspended, so that I am warranted in referring this phenomenon to the leverage power which the Medium obtains by crossing one leg over the other, and by means of which, with a little practice, considerable weights may be raised in the air. There were eight persons round the table in question, in this case an obvious assistance to concealment, since, as I infer, they must have been closely packed. The table rose “with a slight jerk,” just the effect which would be produced by setting it in motion upwards by means of the performer’s foot as described in the former paper; and it steadily mounted till it attained such a height as rendered it necessary for the company to stand up. In fact, unless they did stand up before the table was raised too high, they would be liable, as I showed on a former occasion, to see some such spectacle as the following:—

Sketch showing a medium making a table float by lifting it with her foot; unfortunately a spectator has ducked under the edge and is able to see this action.
Fig. 12.

It is a most material point to observe that the table as it rises is stated to have been “swung out of its orbit;” in other words, that it ascended not perpendicularly, but obliquely, and that it reverted from this position as it descended—a circumstance pretty conclusive as to the employment of the leg and foot, which would act thus, and would act in no other way. By this means the table is raised until there is “a blank interval from the carpet to its foot of perhaps two feet, perhaps three;” though I hardly assume that it can have been three feet in this instance, since “nobody has thought of providing a means of measuring it, and we must take it by guess.” In this position, a desire having been expressed to the following effect, “the carpet is examined, and the legs and under surface of the table are explored, but without result.” A good deal depends on the question, Who is the examiner? There are none so blind as those who won’t see; but, assuming the inspection to be bonâ fide, still it may be made perfectly clear to any one that “there is no trace of any connection between the floor and the table,” for the means of support is not thence derived. The inspector soon ascertains that “the table has not been raised by mechanical means from below,” and as this is what he looks for (it is to be observed that those who are impressed by the phenomenon invariably harp on this), he is at once satisfied, and he rises to the surface with the blood in his head, and his inquisitiveness completely frustrated. It is not an easy matter for any but very wary persons to detect the real means of support, if the circle is closely packed and there is a sufficiency of the great conniving medium Crinoline. The inspection is confessedly “hurried and brief.” It is comprehensive enough to satisfy the company that the table has not been raised by mechanical means from below, though it is jumping to a rather hasty conclusion, to assume that it is not raised by means such as I am indicating. In fact, if two persons connive, nothing is easier than for one of them to push the table against the chest of the other, as in the following figure:—

Sketch showing two mediums making a table float: one of them lifts it with her foot and then they keep it in the air by pressing against it from opposite sides.
Fig. 13.

—and then, as the company rises, the foot may be removed and the table will present the appearance of being self sustained. Even a suspicious person may then look under it without detecting anything, and may pass his head beneath its claws (Fig. 14), with merely the risk of a contusion in case it should suddenly slip from its precarious holding. Sketch showing two mediums holding a table in the air by pressing against it from opposite sides; a spectator is looking in vain underneath for something raising it.
Fig. 14.
If this latter contingency should not occur, he has reason to congratulate himself, in addition to the satisfaction arising out of his self-deception; and when the company resume their previous attitude, the foot of the Medium again coming into play, the table will descend as easily as it ascended. Its downward motion will be as “slow” as you please, “and, if I may use the expression, graceful, and the table reaches the ground with a dreamy softness that renders its touch almost imperceptible.”

Another movement of a table, which the writer seems to think more strange, must yet be accounted for, before I proceed to the more complex devices of Mr. Home. In this case “the company are seated at a large, heavy, round table, resting on a pillar with three massive claws, and covered with a velvet cloth, over which, books, a vase of flowers, and other objects are scattered.” In the midst of the séance the table abruptly forces its way (or rather, we should say, is forced) all up the room, pushing on before it the persons who are on the side opposite to that from whence the impetus is derived—no remarkable consequence, if the pushing Mediums are sufficiently strong. The persons opposite are thrown into confusion by the unexpectedness and rapidity with which they are driven backwards on their chairs; and this very confusion, as is perfectly obvious, would prevent a steady attention on their <section begin="s1" /part to the means “from whence the impetus is derived.” So far, there is nothing at all remarkable; nor after the table has been stopped by a sofa is it in any way strange that it should be tilted up after some preliminary straining (which accounts for some cracks and knocks) by the leverage power which I know that the limbs of Mediums can exert. The only thing that sounds even a little out of the ordinary course is the fact, that when its surface forms an inclined plane, at an angle of about 45° or more (how much more we are not told, though the measurement of the angle is most essential), the table should stop in this attitude, as in a state of equilibrium. Of course, if any hand or foot was helping to sustain it, the mystery might be explained in this way. But I do not infer that such was the case here, or even that the legs raised from the ground were supported against the contiguous sofa. The explanation of this attitude on the part of the table depends, then, exclusively on the character and construction of the table itself. There are tables which may be made so to stand partly on one of their massive squarish claws, and partly on the castor; and it is too much to attribute this propensity to spiritual influence, unless the writer had ascertained that the table could not be made to balance itself by ordinary manipulation, all Mediums being absent. The circumstance that nothing slid off or toppled over, but “the vase of flowers, the books, the little ornaments, remained as motionless as if they were fixed in their places,” is really according to ordinary experience, instead of contrary to it. Such objects retained by a velvet cloth, which would neutralise all their tendencies to slide, would remain like “Towers of Pisa,” for precisely the same reason for which the Tower of Pisa itself remains, because a line drawn from its centre of gravity would fall within its base. The accompanying design looks highly improbable, but I know—for I have ascertained by experiment—that it is only the normal position of such objects, whenever they are so retained by the pile of a velvet cloth.

Table "floating" at an angle by being perched on the leg-end and castor, while the objects on top of it don't slide off because of their friction with the velvet tablecloth.
Fig. 15.

Instead of violating the laws of equilibrium and attraction, the phenomenon is strictly in accordance with both; nor do we see anything extraordinary in the appearance of even a greater obliquity than this, until actual measurements and actual experiments prove to demonstration that it is not of the ordinary course of nature. And even then, when we should have to look for some mechanical contrivance, we shall find nothing so wonderful as Robert Houdin’s hat, or the Wizard of the North’s inexhaustible bottle.

In short, the great impediment to a complete exposure of such delusions is the readiness with which the human inclination to marvels assists the experimenters on human credulity. We are rather self-deceived than deceived by the ingenuity of the Mediums, whose devices are ordinarily of the simplest kind, while the effects produced are for the most part insignificant. It is difficult to induce any one to observe sufficiently the ordinary capacities of matter and of human muscle, and a belief in the miraculous is thus induced by erroneous assumptions. In the majority of instances I assert that the Mediums fail altogether of producing anything that should move an instant’s wonder. In the performances of Mr. Home, which I am about to examine, there is a little more art and a little more adroitness, and though the results are more striking, the machinery, when I have explained it, will be found to be ridiculously simple in proportion to its effects on the bewildered and mystified spectators.



  1. In Once a Week, No. lxvii, p. 403.
  2. In addition to the means mentioned there, and the method peculiarly applicable to sofa-tables, by which the raps may have been produced, and probably were produced in this instance, I by no means exclude other agencies to which I know that Mediums have recourse. The manufacture of tables, in which by a combination of mechanism and galvanism such raps are produced, is easy: and they are more commonly than is supposed in the hands of private persons. Such tables can be moved freely about a room and shown to be totally disconnected from the floor, yet they can be set in action from an adjoining apartment, by means of an apparatus which I refrain from describing, as I know, from experience, that such knowledge is liable to abuse. I know a case in which such a table has been left behind by an out-going tenant (and hereafter I may, perhaps, indicate the house and the apartment), and I believe that the innocent landlady is quite unaware of the mysterious capacity of the treasure she possesses. I am certain that such a table was employed in a case which has recently been mentioned to me, in which raps were heard by a great number of persons in succession, the persons in question having been present in batches of five, and no person having been present in more than one of these. There was no professional Medium in the party, and the extreme improbability that each successive batch included some person equally adroit and equally disposed to keep up the deception is conclusive as to the alternative that this was a mechanical table. As I remarked, mechanical or electrical apparatus is more frequently resorted to than is commonly imagined, and is the peculiar resource of private exhibitors. It is, however, the object of all Mediums to vary their agencies as much as possible, in order to frustrate the tests which may be employed for their detection.