Open main menu

The Naturalisation of the Supernatural/Chapter 13


FROM the sporadic instances of automatic communications cited in the last chapter we will pass to consider the detailed records which have been preserved of the utterances of certain persons who have systematically practised automatism. Of these records the most valuable, from the information which it may be expected ultimately to furnish as to the nature and working of the automatic processes, is the account of her own script kept by Mrs. Verrall, Classical Lecturer at Newnham College, known also as the translator of Palisanias. I have used the words "may be expected to furnish" advisedly, for Mrs. Verrall’s experiments are still proceeding, and careful and exhaustive as is the record of the actual script and all the attendant circumstances, the problems presented seem to increase in complexity with the increase of material offered for solution. Mrs. Verrall, who has made successful experiments in thought transference, and also in crystal gazing and other forms of automatism, began in January, 1901, to endeavour to obtain automatic writing. At first she met with little success, but on the 5th of March of the same year, when sitting in the dark, the pencil in her hand wrote rapidly a page or two (about 80 words) of Latin. From this time forward Mrs. Verrall has written frequently. She is conscious of the meaning of the actual word at the moment of writing, but it is forgotten almost as soon as written, and she never realises the drift of the whole passage until it is read through after completion. It is clear, therefore, that the messages so written are not composed by her ordinary consciousness. The script, as said, began with Latin, and Latin for long continued to be the chief language of the communications. Greek also appeared, but not so frequently; most of the communications now are written in English. Mrs. Verrall reads and speaks French fluently; and is also acquainted with Italian and German, but only a few words or phrases in any of these languages have appeared. Mrs. Verrall is constantly employed in reading and teaching Latin or Greek, and is, of course, well acquainted with both languages. But the Latin and Greek employed in the script are by no means the Latin and Greek which she would herself use. The Greek, in particular, not only contains many words unknown to classical Greek, but words not to be found in any dictionary, or words Greek in form but having apparently no meaning. Both in form and content, moreover, some of the Greek resembles the writings of the Neo-Platonists (Plotinus, Macrobius, etc.), with whom, until recently, Mrs. Verrall was entirely unacquainted. Speaking generally the messages are apt to be incoherent, allusive, and enigmatical. Many are extremely difficult to interpret. As regards their source, in no case does the writing purport to proceed from Mrs. Verrall herself; it is apparently addressed to her, but the statements are frequently impersonal in form, and are rarely signed. In some cases the signature or initials of a dead person are appended. There is very little evidence, however, to prove the identity of the persons purporting to communicate. On the other hand, the writing in many cases seems to show knowledge of the thoughts and experiences of others which Mrs. Verrall could not have acquired by normal means.

In the following case it would appear that the intelligence which inspired Mrs. Verrall's script was able to satisfy a test propounded by Dr. Hodgson on the other side of the Atlantic.

No. 67. From Mrs. Verrall

On the 31st January, 1902, Mrs. Verrall, when about to accompany Sir Oliver Lodge and Mr. Piddington to a meeting, was seized with a sudden desire to write, and withdrew for the purpose. The writing produced was as follows:

"Panopticon σφαιρᾶς ἀτιτάλλει συνδέγμα μυστικόν. τί οὐκ ἐδίδως ; volatile ferrum—pro telo impinget."

The writing was shown to Dr. Verrall on the following day, but neither he nor Mrs. Verrall could interpret its significance. The first word, Panopticon, though not an actual Greek word, is derived from the Greek, and presumably means "all seeing."[1] The third word in the sentence is rare, the fourth, though correctly formed is not found in any extant Greek writing. The whole sentence appears to mean, "The all-seeing of the sphere fosters a mystic joint-reception. Why did you not give it? The flying iron ["iron" used for "weapon"] will hit." Volatile ferrum (literally "the flying iron") is used by Virgil for a spear, and Mrs. Verrall recorded in her note-book that the word was probably meant to be translated "spear."

In Boston, U. S. A., on the 28th January, three days before this incident, Dr. Hodgson held a sitting with Mrs. Piper, the well-known trance medium, at which an allusion was made by the "control"[2] to Mrs. Verrall's daughter. Hodgson asked if the "control" could make Miss Helen Verrall see him (i.e., the "control") holding a spear in his hand. The control asked, through the automatic writing, "Why a sphere?" and Hodgson repeated "spear." At the next sitting, on February 4th, the control claimed that he had made himself visible to Miss Verrall with a "sphear" (so spelt in the trance writing).

It is certainly difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mrs. Verrall's script of the 31st January,—a date intermediate between these two Seances,—with its curious enigmatical allusions to "sphere" and "spear," had reference to this transatlantic experiment.[3]

In another case the message given purported definitely to come from the dead. Mrs. Verrall, in December, 1900, had made the acquaintance of Mrs. "Forbes," also an automatic writer; and thenceforward their respective scripts contained many apparent allusions to each other's concerns. One of the "controls" purporting to communicate through Mrs. Forbes was her son Talbot—who had been killed in the Boer War.

No. 68. From Mrs. Verrall

Mrs. Verrall had no communication with Mrs. Forbes between 16th April, and October, 1901. But on the 28th August of that year her hand wrote:

"Signa sigillo. Conifera arbos in horto iam insita omina sibimet ostendit."[4]

"The script," Mrs. Verrall writes, "was signed with a scrawl and three drawings representing a sword, a suspended bugle, and a pair of scissors; thus:

The Naturalisation of the Supernatural - Page 303.png

"A suspended bugle surmounted by a crown is the badge of the regiment to which Talbot Forbes belonged. Mrs. Forbes has in her garden four or five small fir-trees grown from seed sent to her from abroad by her son; these are called by her Talbot's trees. This fact was entirely unknown to me. On August 28th Mrs. Forbes' script contained the statement, purporting to come from her son, that he was looking for a 'sensitive' who wrote automatically, in order that he might obtain corroboration for her own writing, and it concluded with the remark that he must now leave her in order to join E.G. in controlling the sensitive. The hour of her writing on August 28th does not appear, but as she usually writes early in the day, and as mine of the same date was at 10.30 p.m., it is probable that hers preceded mine.

"It thus appears that on a certain day 'Talbot Forbes' in Mrs. Forbes' script declared that he was seeking and implied that he had found another automatic writer through whom to communicate with her.[5] On the same day a statement was made in my script about fir-trees planted in a garden which had a meaning for Mrs. Forbes, and a special connexion with her automatic experiments, and the signature of this script, to which attention had been directed, represented partially the badge of Talbot Forbes' regiment, together with a sword.[6] As bearing on the question whether such a combination is likely to have been accidental, I may say that on no other occasion has a bugle appeared in the script, nor has there been any other reference to a planted fir-tree."[7]

The coincidence of the two writings was only brought to light accidentally, in November, owing to Mrs. Forbes, in talking with Mrs. Verrall about her son, happening to describe the regimental badge. Mrs. Verrall then remembered the drawing above reproduced, which had puzzled her at the time. The nail from which the bugle is hung is clearly indicated in the original. [8]

In two or three instances Mrs. Verrall's script has apparently referred to future events. An example of these prophetic intimations will be given in the next chapter.

Mrs. Verrall, it will have been observed, during the process of automatic writing retains her ordinary consciousness, and whatever view we may hold of the nature of the "communicator," it seems probable that this circumstance tends to embarrass the process of communication. At any rate the most striking messages of this type have been obtained when the automatist is in a condition of trance, and the ordinary personality altogether in abeyance, as in the instance of Dr. Vidigal's servant cited in the last chapter. Other cases of the kind, in which messages purporting to emanate from the dead have been given have been investigated, of recent years by the Society for Psychical Research.[9] But isolated instances possess comparatively little weight, partly because we can rarely be sure of the adequacy of the record, if it stands alone, but chiefly because of the much greater scope offered for chance coincidence, if only the successes are noted. What is desired in such cases is a full record of all the utterances of the entranced person, such as Mrs. Verrall has kept of her own automatic writing. A few such records had been kept before 1882. Two of the most notable are those concerned with the utterances of Stainton Moses. and of Adèle Maginot, the clairvoyant subject of Alphonse Cahagnet, a French magnetist in the middle of the last century. In the case of Stainton Moses, however, it does not appear that any verifiable statements were given in his automatic writings as to facts outside the possible scope of the medium's knowledge. The dates, names, and other particulars could in every case have been procured from published biographies, the obituary notices in the newspapers, or equally accessible sources.[10]

The revelations of Adèle Maginot are much more striking. Adele professed in the trance to see the figures of deceased friends of persons who came to consult her. She would describe with accuracy their personal appearance, character, and the diseases from which they had suffered, and could occasionally indicate something of their history and their opinions. But all the verifiable details given were known to the persons present; and there seems no reason, in the case of Cahagnet's subject, to go beyond the hypothesis of thought transference from the living.

The case of Mrs. Piper, the chief of the trance mediums whose utterances have been investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, presents a much more complicated problem. Mrs. Piper is an American lady who first went into a spontaneous trance some time in 1884, at a consultation for medical purposes with a professional clairvoyant named Cocke. Her first control was an Indian girl named "Chlorine." Mrs. Piper from 1884 onward has habitually fallen into a trance state. From the end of 1885 until the present time she has been almost continuously under the observation of the S. P. R., and for many years all her'séances have been given under the guidance of Dr. Hodgson or other members of the Society, and the results carefully recorded.

Mr. Cocke himself, the clairvoyant referred to, was accustomed to rely in his medical practice upon the "spirit" of a French doctor named Finné. After several other "controls"— Mrs. Siddons, Longfellow, Commodore Vanderbilt, and John Sebastian Bach—had in turn usurped her organism, the chief control of Mrs. Piper's trance finally gave himself out as a French doctor named Phinuit—a name apparently suggested by that of Mr. Cocke's control.

Dr. Phinuit's own account of himself is that he is a French physician, who was born at Marseilles about 1790, and died about 1860. He has given various particulars about his birth, education, and life in Paris, but the enquiries which have been made have failed to reveal any trace of such a person as having lived and died as stated. Moreover, it appears that, though Phinuit is sometimes very felicitous in diagnosing the ailments of those who consult him, his medical knowledge is extremely limited; he does not know the Latin names of the various drugs which he prescribes, and cannot recognise common medicinal herbs when shown to him. In other words, he has given no indications of possessing any scientific knowledge of medicine. Moreover, though professing to be the spirit of a French doctor, his knowledge of French appears to extend only to a few simple phrases, and a slight accent, occasionally serviceable in disguising a bad shot at a proper name. This ignorance of his native language is, he explains, due to his having lived for some yearsin Metz, where there were many English residents I When all these suspicious circumstances, especially the similarity between the names of Finné and Phinuit, were brought by Dr. Hodgson to Phinuit's notice, that personage professed to remember that his real name was not after all Phinuit, but Alaen. Further, he betrayed some uncertainty whether he had been born at Marseilles or Metz, and whether he had passed the latter part of his life at Metz or Paris. It seems, then, that we need not seriously consider whether Phinuit is in very deed the spirit he would be taken for.

Mrs. Piper in ordinary life knows nothing of her sayings and doings in the trance state, and the above account implies, of course, no reflection on her honesty. But in attempting to estimate the significance of the more striking impersonations which have characterised Mrs. Piper's later trances, it is important to remember that the first impersonation of the kind, though showing considerable dramatic coherence and individuality, was almost certainly fictitious. Mrs. Piper's clairvoyance is on the same general lines as that of Cahagnet's subject. Her trance consciousness "sees" or receives impressions from deceased friends of those who come to consult her. The messages which she gives generally purport to pass through the mind of the chief control. Phinuit, then for a time George Pelham, and now "Rector" and Richard Hodgson, have each in turn thus professed to act as interpreter and mouthpiece for the spirits of the dead who throng round the entranced medium. In her earlier trances the utterances were mostly oral. Since 1892 they have been mainly, and of late years almost entirely, written. The strictest precautions have been taken to exclude the possibility of fraud; for years past all sittings have been arranged by some member of the Society for Psychical Research, the visitors have been introduced anonymously or under assumed names; and full notes have been taken of all the remarks made and other attendant circumstances. But the real proof that fraud is not the explanation lies in the nature of the revelations actually made. The things which a private enquiry agency could conceivably ascertain—names, dates, and other externals of personal history—are precisely the things which are generally lacking in Mrs. Piper's communications. What she does give—descriptions of the diseases, personal idiosyncrasies, thoughts, feelings, and characters of the sitter and his friends; their loves, hates, quarrels, sympathies, and mutual relationships; trivial but significant incidents in their past histories, and the like—are precisely the things on which private enquiry would find it most difficult to obtain information, and which would, further, be most difficult, when obtained, to preserve in the memory.

But an illustration will make the case clearer. The Piper records are so voluminous, most of the sittings having been recorded in full, that it is impossible to quote more than the records of a single sitting at length. I select the following case partly because the circumstance that the sitter was only on a visit to America practically rules out the possibility of private enquiry on Mrs. Piper's part into his circumstances, partly because the nature of the information given is in other ways significant. The narrator, Mr. T. Clarke, had left England, in the autumn of 1889, for a hurried business visit to America. There he had an interview with Mrs. Piper. Mr. Clarke had friends in Boston, some of whom had had sittings with Mrs. Piper, but his wife and children had never been in America.

Notes of this séance were taken by Dr. Hodgson, and Mr. Clarke after the séance added his comments. These comments, or the substance of them in an abbreviated form, are placed in the account which follows between brackets.

No. 69. From Mr. J. T. Clarke

Chocrua, New Hampshire, in House of Dr. William James,
September 20, 1889.

Mr. Clarke fixes his mind steadily upon a certain house, and visualises members of family; of this no recognition by medium, who begins :

(1) "Why! I know you! I have seen your influence somewhere before! What are you doing over here?"

[Mr. Clarke explains that some intimate friends had had sittings with Mrs. Piper, in the course of which his name and that of his mother had been mentioned]

(2) "Oh! There is lots of trouble over you, black clouds all over you; but I see light beyond; you will come out all right. It is financial trouble that I mean; you will wade through it all right in the end."

[Correct. My visit to America was determined by a financial failure, the loss from which I was then endeavouring to minimise.]

"How long hence?"

(3) "Four months or four months and a half. There are parties that have not dealt honourably with you."

[Mr. Clarke adds that he had at the time a lurking distrust—afterwards proved to be unfounded—of the "parties" referred to.]

(4) "I see your lady in the spirit, your mother—have seen her before."

[There followed a clear account of my own conception of my mother, recently deceased, whose constant presence in my mind readily accounts for the frequent mentions of her.]

(5) "You 've also got a lady in the body, your wife. You won't find her very well.”

[Prophecy wrong. My wife never better in health.]

(6) "Do you know a. man named Williams—no, wait! Williamson? [Reply, "No."] Tall, rather dark, first name Henery [Sic.]. He will come into your surroundings soon—he will have something to do with your papers and with law. He will look after your interests and get you out all right. You will meet him very soon—within a. few weeks."

[Mr. Clarke had written down in his note-book some days previously the name of the lawyer—Lambertson—entrusted with his defence; but had completely forgotten it.]

(7) "Part of your interest is in the ground; you came near being 'left' in this business, but are not altogether."

[Correct Property consisted of a town lot and buildings, and I certainly felt that I had come near losing it.]

"Tell me about my mother."

(8) "Your mother is with us. She is here and happy in the spirit."

[This, I take it, is the way that mediums, burdened with the conventional views and the phrases customary in spiritualistic circles, find most natural to express the conception which they receive from another mind of a person being a memory, an image of the mind as opposed to a living reality.]

(9) "Who is this M. your cousin? Your mother says she is not very well. She is getting better, but she will continue weak."

[The health of the person referred to, though improved at the time, had caused both myself and my mother much solicitude.]

"Can you see my children?"

(10) "Wait. . . . Who is this about you that is musical, that plays the piano [imitating action of fingers]? Ah, it is your lady in the body. She is not very well just now—she is suffering from rheumatism."

[My wife plays the piano much. She was well and has never suffered from rheumatism]

"Do you see my children?"

(11) "No, not at all yet; I shall directly. Wait. Who is this Fred, that comes together with your mother?"

[A cousin lost at sea ten years ago, under peculiarly shocking circumstances. His death made a great impression upon me.]

"Is he not your cousin?"


(12) "He comes with your mother. She knows him better now than she did before death. . . . Who is this uncle of yours, named John?"

"I have no uncle John."

"Yes, yes, you have—the man that married your aunt."

"No, you are wrong; the man that married my aunt was called Philip."

"Well, I think I know." [Changes subject, grumbling]

[I had entirely forgotten for the moment that an aunt of mine had indeed married a man named John, with whom I had formerly had some correspondence. I did not recollect this until the following day.]

(13) "Why! you are a funny fellow—you are covered with paint from head to foot. Your mother says it is too bad."

[I had been much interested in painting the walls of a room in the house of my friend for some days previously.]

(14) "I'd like to know who this H. is that you are going to see. Take good care of that man. He is a tricky one. Don't let him get you into his power."

[This is an altogether unjust accusation, based upon an unwarrantable distrust entertained by me at the time.]

(15) "Here is your Rebecca!"

[Clarke and Hodgson both ask "Mine?" each having relatives of that name.]

[To Clarke:] "Your Rebecca, your little girl. She runs around and gives her hand to every one about her."

"Is there another little one like her?"

"Yes, there are three of your people together there now."

[My wife and two children.]

(16) "How is Rebecca?"

"Very well."

"Where is she now?"

"She is in the spirit. That is to say, her spirit's here, but her body is at a distance."

[My child was in Germany at the time, and thus lived rather in my memory than in my daily view. Hence, although the medium felt that she was alive ("Her body is at a distance") her personality was yet spoken of as "in the spirit."]

(17) "You will soon have a surprise. It is a photograph of your boy that is being made for you. It is unfinished yet, but will surprise you."

[I was at that time taking photographs which were not to be developed, and consequently could not be seen, until my return to England]

(18) "There are five of you; yourself, your two children, your lady in the body, and your lady in the spirit."

[This is my constant feeling—the "we are seven" of my surroundings]

(19) "What are these tickets that you have in your pocket? There are figures on them stamped in red, and they are signed with names underneath. They will be of value to you, you will get something out of them."

"No, I have nothing of the kind in my pocket."

[Mr. Clarke explains that he afterwards found he actually had in an inside pocket two cheques endorsed on the back as described, and stamped with large and peculiar red numbers]

(20) "Where is my wife?"

"She is across country. She has been away."

[My wife had intended to go to Germany, from England, soon after my sudden departure for the United States; I did not positively know that she was away from home, but I should have assumed it as well-nigh certain.]

(21) "There is a young man and an old lady with her."

[There followed an accurate interpretation of my estimate of the characters of these two persons, who I knew must be together with my wife]. ". . . The young man is coming back again; he is going still more across country."

[Correct. I knew that my brother-in-law had to return from the Tyrol to his home on the Baltic.]

(22) . . . [Further reference to my mother, describing her character, and representing her as she lives in my memory.] ". . . That is an old-fashioned portrait of her, not very good, but better than nothing."—"Where? Which one?"—"It is at home. I mean the one with the collarette."

[A sufficient indication of one of the few portraits of my mother.]

(23) "Who is this funny footed fellow of yours, the one with the club feet and the funny shoes? Your mother says it is an injustice to you, too bad—but it will come out all right."

[Correct. My boy was born with club feet, and wears machine boots]

(24) "Why? You 've changed your house recently."


"Yes, your lady has changed her house."

"Well, you may mean that she is away from her house; that is true. Now describe the house in which we live generally."

"Yes. Wait a minute. I will go into the door at the side. What is that tall, old-fashioned thing in the back room? Ah, it is a big clock."


(25) "Now go into the kitchen."

"Yes. No one is here now [to P.M. in New Hampshire—3 a.m. in England]. A fat person, a cook, has been here. Big man, with a dark moustache, has also been here a good while during the day, and has left his influence here."

"Who is he?"

"He has been put to watch the place."

"Is he trustworthy and faithful?"

"Yes, he is trustworthy."

[Interesting error. It was arranged on my leaving England—in case the servant should object to being left in the house alone during the absence of my wife in Germany—that a policeman should be hired to guard the house and to live in it. As a matter of fact, however, there was no man in the house]

(26) "You have lost your knife! Your mother tells me that."

[This loss had vexed me, as the knife had been made to order. I had lost it shortly before leaving England.]

(27) "Where is it?"

"Oh, it is gone; you will never see it again."

[The prophecy proved to be signally wrong, as the knife was restored to me soon after my return.]

(28) "Describe the other room on the ground floor now."

"Yes. I see a long piano. What is that high thing that comes forward on top of the piano? Ah, I see; it is the lid."

[Clock and piano are respectively chief features of the two rooms].

(29) "What colour is the wall paper of this room?"

"Let me see. It is yellowish with gold pattern and gold spots."


"In short, many things that I knew, even some things that I had forgotten, the clairvoyant could tell me correctly, albeit somewhat confusedly. She made all the mistakes that 'I should have made at the time, and her prophecies were quite as erroneous as any that I might have invented myself.

"One sees the contents of one's mind, as in a warped and flawy mirror; or, to take the case from the other side, the secondary consciousness of the medium seems able to get occasional glimpses of the panorama of one's memory as through the rents in a veil. No doubt Phinuit gives the fullest and best results when left unquestioned to tell what he can. If pressed to fill up the broad expanses of the picture remaining between the patches which he sees, he is obliged, despite his pretensions to supernatural knowledge, to take refuge in awkward evasions and 'shuffling,'—in guesswork, often clearly based upon hints unconsciously afforded by the sitter,—or, when all else fails, in incoherent and unmeaning talk. Yet, while fully recognising these repelling features of the manifestations, I am yet convinced that there is enough that is genuine remaining to prove the existence of a direct communication between mind and mind during the trance state. A single success exceeding the limits of coincidence (and it is undeniable that there are many such) proves the possibility; the multitude of failures merely indicates the difficulty and uncertainty.[11]

J. T. C."

It will be seen that here most of the statements made, except those which concern the future, were correct. No true statement was made, however, on any matter not known to Mr. Clarke. We need not look further than telepathy for an explanation in such a case. Indeed, as Mr. Clarke points out, one or two of the statements made, though they failed to correspond to the facts of the case, suggest rather strongly that Phinuit was reproducing the thoughts—conscious or latent—of the sitter.

It is not so easy, however, to explain by thought transference the following case:

No. 70. From Sir Oliver Lodge, F.R.S.

"It happens that an uncle of mine in London, now quite an old man, and one of a surviving three out of a very large family, had a twin brother who died some twenty or more years ago. I interested him generally in the subject, and wrote to ask if he would lend me some relic of this brother. By morning post on a certain day I received a curious old gold watch, which this brother had worn and been fond of; and that same morning, no one in the house having seen or knowing anything about it, I handed it to Mrs. Piper when in a state of trance.

"I was told almost immediately that it had belonged to one of my uncles—one that had been mentioned before as having died from the effects of a fall—one that had been very fond of Uncle Robert, the name of the survivor—that the watch was now in possession of this same Uncle Robert, with whom he was anxious to communicate. After some difficulty and many wrong attempts Dr. Phinuit caught the name, Jerry, short for Jeremiah, and said emphatically, as if a third person was speaking: 'This is my watch, and Robert is my brother, and I am here. Uncle Jerry, my watch.' All this at the first sitting on the very morning the watch had arrived by post, no one but myself and a shorthand clerk who happened to have been introduced for the first time at this sitting by me, and whose antecedents are well known to me, being present."

[Then, in response to Sir O. Lodge's request for incidents in Uncle Jerry's boyhood, 60 or 70 years before] "Uncle Jerry recalled episodes, such as swimming the creek when they were boys together, and running some risk of getting drowned; killing a cat in Smith's field; the possession of a small rifle, and of a long peculiar skin, like a snake-skin, which he thought was now in the possession of Uncle Robert.

"All these facts have been more or less completely verified. But the interesting thing is that his twin brother, from whom I got the watch, and with whom I was thus in a sort of communication, could not remember them all. He recollected something about swimming the creek, though he himself had merely looked on. He had a distinct recollection of having had the snake-skin, and of a box in which it was kept, though he does not know where it is now. But he altogether denied killing the cat, and could not recall Smith's field.

"His memory, however, is decidedly failing him, and he was good enough to write to another brother, Frank, living in Cornwall, an old sea captain, and asked if he had any better remembrance of the facts—of course not giving any inexplicable reasons for asking. The result of this enquiry was triumphantly to vindicate the existence of Smith's field as a place near their home, where they used to play, in Barking, Essex; and the killing of a cat by another brother was also recollected; while of the swimming of the creek, near a mill-race, full details were given, Frank and Jerry being the heroes of that foolhardy episode."[12]

This account may, indeed, conceivably be explained as the result of a process of telepathic conveyance from Sir Oliver Lodge's mind of things heard in boyhood and long ago forgotten. Sir O. Lodge himself, however, has no recollection of having heard of these incidents, and regards this explanation as extremely improbable. And it is clear that each fresh case to which this hypothesis has to be applied increases the difficulty of the explanation. Sir O. Lodge enumerates in the English observations of 1888–9 no less than forty-one instances in which details were reproduced by Phinuit which were "unknown to, or forgotten by, or unknowable to, persons present."[13] Some of these incidents, no doubt, such as the episode of the red-stamped cheques in Mr. Clarke's case, readily suggest the telepathic transference of ideas latent in the sitter's mind. But in a few instances it is not merely improbable that the facts mentioned by Phinuit should at any time have been within the knowledge of any persons present at the sitting, but, as in the account just quoted, the mode of presentation of the facts and the attendant circumstances certainly lend some additional weight to an alternative hypothesis, that of spirit communication. No doubt in view of Phinuit's past history it is right that the evidence derived from dramatic personation should be subject to a considerable discount. And, indeed, partly on this account, and partly because the cases published up to the end of 1892 which seemed to call for some other explanation than telepathy were few in number, the problem did not for a considerable time present itself in an urgent form. Of late years, however, a considerable addition has been made to the evidence. In February; 1892, there died in New York quite suddenly, at the age of thirty-three, one George Pelham,[14] an author of some promise. He had been known personally to Dr. Hodgson, and had two years before his death promised that if "still existing" after death he would do his utmost to prove the fact to Dr. Hodgson, should the latter survive him.

Pelham was an associate of the American Branch of the Society for Psychical Research, and in 1888 had had one sitting with Mrs. Piper, one of a series of sittings arranged by a committee. But the names of the sitters were carefully guarded by the committee: Pelham never attended another sitting, and never saw Mrs. Piper again. Moreover, despite the promise above referred to he had little interest in the question of a future life, thinking it, as Hodgson tells us, an almost inconceivable possibility. No allusion to Pelham was made at the sittings with Mrs. Piper, until the 22nd of March, 1892, four or five weeks after his death. On that day, an intimate friend of his, John Hart,[15] had arranged through Hodgson for a sitting. Hart's real name was not, of course, mentioned to Mrs. Piper.

No. 71 From Mr. John Hart

[At the commencement of the sitting there were some references, mostly correct, to deceased relatives of the sitter. Hart's own surname was also given in full. Then, shortly after a reference to a deceased Uncle George, whose watch had been brought to the sitting, Phinuit continued, according to Hodgson's report:]

"There is another George who wants to speak to you. How many Georges are there about you any way?"

The rest of the sitting, until almost the close, was occupied by statements from G. P., Phinuit acting as intermediary. George Pelham's real name was given in full, also the names, both Christian and surname, of several of his most intimate friends, including the name of the sitter.

Moreover, incidents were referred to which were unknown to the sitter or myself.[16]

One of the pair of studs which J. H. was wearing was given to Phinuit. . . . "(Who gave them to me?) That 's mine. I gave you that part of it. I sent that to you. (When?)Before I came here. That's mine. Mother gave you that. (No.) Well, father then, father and mother together. You got those after I passed out. Mother took them. Gave them to father, and father gave them to you. I want you to keep them. I will them to you." Mr. Hart notes: "The studs were sent to me by Mr. Pelham as a remembrance of his son. I knew at the time that they had been taken from G.'s body. and afterwards ascertained that his stepmother had taken them from the body and suggested that they would do to send to me, I having previously written to ask that some little memento be sent to me."

James and Mary [Mr. and Mrs.] Howard were mentioned with strongly personal specific references, and in connection with Mrs. Howard came the name Katharine. "Tell her, she 'll know. I will solve the problems, Katharine." Mr. Hart notes: "This had no special significance for me at the time, though I was aware that Katharine, the daughter of Jim Howard, was known to George, who used to live with the Howards. On the day following the sitting, I gave Mr. Howard a detailed account of the sitting. These words, "I will solve the problems, Katharine," impressed him more than anything else, and at the close of my account he related that George, when he had last stayed with them, had talked frequently with Katharine (a girl of fiteen years of age) upon such subjects as Time, Space, God, Eternity, and pointed out to her how unsatisfactory the commonly accepted solutions were. He added that some time he would solve the problems, and let her know, using almost the very words of the communication made at the sitting." Mr. Hart added that he was entirely unaware of the circumstances. I was myself unaware of them, and was not at that time acquainted with the Howards, and in fact nearly every statement made at the sitting, during which I was the note-taker, concerned matters of which I was absolutely ignorant.

Meredith, an intimate friend of Mr. Hart and G. P., was mentioned. "Lent a book to Meredith. Tell him to keep it for me. Go to my room where my desk is." In reply to enquiries (April, 1892) Meredith stated that the last time he saw Pelham was in Pelham's own room several months before the latter's death. They had spent the greater part of the day together, and Pelham had pressed Meredith to take away some of his manuscripts and books. Thus far the reference to Meredith seems to have been correct. But Meredith was unable to remember definitely that he took any manuscript or book away. . . .

[The communication then continues:] "John, if that is you, speak to me. Tell Jim I want to see him. He will hardly believe me, believe that I am here. I want him to know where I am. . . . O good fellow. All got dark, then it grew light. Where is Uncle Will? I met Uncle Willie, William. (I don't know what you mean.) Ask mother. She'll know." [G. P. had no Uncle William deceased. He had a deceased great-uncle William, on his mother's side, who was thus the uncle of his mother deceased and his stepmother living, who are sisters]

"Go up to my room. (Which room P) Up to my room, where I write. I'll come. Speak to me, John. (What room?) Study. (You said something about a desk just now.) I left things all mixed up. I wish you'd go up and straighten them out for me. Lot of names. Lot of letters. I left things mixed up. You answer them for me. Wish I could remember more, but I'm confused. C L U B. Went to the Club. Two things at the Club to make right. (What Club P) His hand-er—(handkerchief.) Handkerchief. (What does he want with his handkerchief?) I left it at the Club. (What Club?) O U R . . . did you find it? (Yes, no, you have n't told me at what Club.) I saw you there. It is n't like you, John. [The last time I saw G. was at the Players' Club in New York.—J.H.]

"Who's Rogets? [Phinuit tries to spell the real name.] (Spell that again.) [At the first attempt afterwards Phinuit leaves out a letter, then spells it correctly.] Rogers. (What do you want Rogers to get?) I want you to tell Rogers to get my handkerchief. I left it. He found it. Rogers has got a book of mine. (What is he going to do with it?)"

[Both Hart and G. P. knew Rogers, who at that time had a certain MS. book of G. P. in his possession. The book was found after G. P.'s death and given to Rogers to be edited. G. P. had promised during his lifetime that a particular disposition should be made of this book after his death. This action which G. P. living had contemplated with regard to the book was here, and in subsequent utterances which from their private nature I cannot quote, enjoined emphatically and repeatedly, and had it been at once carried out, as desired by G. P., much subsequent unhappiness and confusion might have been avoided. Neither Hart nor Rogers knows anything of the handkerchief incident]

Then followed references to one or two other friends and many personal statements of a nature too private to be quoted. Hardly a single statement was made at this sitting which was not accurate and relevant to the supposed personality of G. P. Hart, Hodgson tells us, was strongly impressed by the vraisemblance of the impersonation.[17]

On the 11th April, 1892, the sitters were Mr. and Mrs. Howard, two of G. P.'s most intimate friends. The statements made were of an intimately personal nature, and the whole proceedings were regarded by the Howards as thoroughly characteristic of their deceased friend. All the statements made, and all the references to individuals were correct and relevant. The following are extracts from Mr. Howard's notes taken during the sitting. The sitter's remarks are interpolated in parentheses.

G. P.: Jim, is that you? Speak to me quick. I am not dead. Don't think me dead. I 'm awfully glad to see you. Can't you see me? Don't you hear me? Give my love to my father and tell him I want to see him. I am happy here, and more so since I find I can communicate with you. I pity those people who can't speak. I want you to know I think of you still. I spoke to John about some letters. I left things terribly mixed, my books and my papers; you will forgive me for this, won't you ., .

What is Rogers writing?

(A novel.)

No, not that. Is he not writing something about me?

(Yes, he is preparing a memorial of you.)

That is nice; it is pleasant to be remembered. It is very kind of him. He was always kind to me when I was alive. Martha Rogers [deceased daughter] is here. I have talked with her several times. She reflects too much on her last illness, on being fed with a tube. We tell her she ought to forget it, and she has done so in good measure, but she was ill a long time. She is a dear little creature when you know her, but she is hard to know. She is a beautiful little soul. She sends her love to her father.

Berwick, how is he? Give him my love. He is a good fellow; he is what I always thought him in life, trustworthy and honourable. How is Orenberg? He has some of my letters. Give him my warmest love. He was always very fond of me, though he understood me least of all my friends. We fellows who are eccentric are always misunderstood in life. I used to have fits of depression. I have none now. I am happy now. I want my father to know about this. We used to talk about spiritual things, but he will be hard to convince. My mother will be easier. ..[18]

In brief, between twenty and thirty persons who were friends of G. P. in life had sittings with Mrs. Piper, at which communications were given, purporting to come from the deceased. Most of these communications were accurate, relevant, and characteristic; many of them were of a kind too intimately personal for publication. On more than one occasion incidents which had taken place at a distance, unknown to any one in the room, were described with approximate correctness. References were constantly made to G. P.'s affairs, his manuscripts, and personal effects, which betrayed an intimate acquaintance with his own concerns and those of his friends. Many long conversations, partly by writing, and partly by voice, were held with Dr. Hodgson and other persons known to G. P.; and throughout the trance-intelligence showed an individual personality—a personality, moreover, which was regarded by his friends as resembling that of the deceased G. P. Many of these friends were convinced that they had been conversing with George Pelham himself. One of the most striking proofs of identity is this. As said, between twenty and thirty friends of G. P. visited Mrs. Piper, all under assumed names. In no case did G. P. fail to recognise them, and to recognise them with the appropriate emotional or intellectual relations. In no case did he make a mistake, and claim acquaintance with a stranger.

During the years 1892–97 other communicators took control and furnished proofs of identity, some of them of an impressive kind. Of late years, however, the communications appear to have fallen off considerably in clearness and relevance. In 1898–1899 a series of sittings were held at which Mr. Hyslop, father of Professor H. Hyslop, was the professed communicator. A full record of these, together with an exhaustive commentary, is published as Vol. XVI. of the Proceedings, S. P. R. Taken as a whole they appear to contain, together with much that is irrelevant or inaccurate, so few correct and pertinent statements on matters not conceivably within the knowledge of the medium, that, in my own judgment, it would be difficult to extract from them evidence of value even for telepathy from living minds. The late Dr. Hodgson, however, attached some value to them, and Professor Hyslop himself is satisfied that he has actually been in communication with his father.[19]

The sittings with Mrs. Piper since 1900 have been—with few exceptions—equally unproductive. The control of the entranced organism has been taken over by a band of spirits, Imperator, Rector, Prudens, etc., who proclaim themselves to be the same who directed the mediumship of the late Stainton Moses. Stainton Moses, a clergyman of the Church of England, and English Master at University College School, was perhaps the most remarkable private medium of the last generation. Of his trance utterances I have already spoken. They contain no evidence of supernormal faculty. He was also a physical medium, but he performed only in a small circle of intimate friends, and the evidence for the supernormal powers claimed by him rests entirely on the conviction entertained by these friends of the medium's honesty. No precautions against trickery were taken, and if trickery were practised, it is not likely that it would have been detected.[20] It cannot be said, therefore, that the migration of Imperator and his associates from Stainton Moses to Mrs. Piper is calculated to strengthen the presumption of spirit-communication.

But the whole subject is surrounded with difficulties and perplexities. Even G. P. has on more than one occasion evaded test questions put to him, and has evaded them under circumstances which suggest disingenuousness. Imperator, Rector, Prudens, etc., represent personages of some importance in their day upon earth. Their real names were revealed by Stainton Moses to one or two persons still living. Through Mrs. Piper's organism they have more than once professed as a proof of identity to give their names; but their guesses have been incorrect. Several persons have within the last few years left behind them sealed letters, containing some statement known only to themselves, in order that revelation of the contents through a medium might furnish proof of the writer's survival. In no case has the test been complied with. In at least two instances (the medium in one case being Mrs. Piper, and in the other Mrs. Verrall) statements have been made purporting to indicate the contents of such a letter, which have proved, when the letter was opened, to be entirely wide of the mark.[21] During the past year some sittings have been held with Mrs. Piper in England at which some communications of interest have been received. But the full report of the results is not yet ripe for publication.

The investigation into these trance phenomena will, we hope, be continued whenever opportunity offers itself. From the results so far attained no certain conclusion seems possible. On the one hand, it seems clear that the trance consciousness of Mrs. Piper, as of all other so-called mediums, is apt on very small provocation to personify itself, and that the personification may be shaped by the suggestions of those present. In Mrs. Piper's case we have ground for assuming that such suggestions may often be conveyed telepathically; in short, that the dramatic personalities of the so-called controls may actually be built up out of the material unconsciously supplied by the sitters, and that the intimate personal details revealed in the trance utterances may be telepathically filched from the same source. The limitations of the knowledge displayed, and the occasional disingenuousness, forbid us to accept these communications as authentic and unembarrassed messages from the dead.

On the other hand, the remarkable freedom of the communications at some of the G. P. séances, and the occasional references to matters apparently outside the knowledge of the sitter, suggest that in certain cases, at any rate, we may come somehow into contact with the minds of the dead. Mrs. Sidgwick has suggested[22] that possibly there may be communication with the dead, through the channel of the sitter's mind; that Mrs. Piper may receive telepathically such messages, as she apparently receives the impression of other contents of her visitors' minds, and reflect them back through her automatic speech or writing.

Some such hypothesis would seem to be adequate to cover the known facts. But at the present stage of the investigation it must remain an open question whether an hypothesis which involves in any form telepathy from the dead is really required.

  1. The word Panopticon was used by Bentham to denote a building (school or prison) so constructed that a single person in the centre could supervise a number of radiating galleries or rows of desks. The late Millbank prison was constructed on the Panopticon principle. See Wallas' Life of Francis Place, p. 104.
  2. I. e. the spirit assumed to be controlling, or speaking through Mrs. Piper's organism. The control had already claimed to have some knowledge of Miss Verrall—hence the introduction of her name in the test, instead of Mrs. Verrall's. For an account of Mrs. Piper's trance communications, see the latter part of this chapter.
  3. Proceedings, S.P.R., vol. xx., p. 214.
  4. Trans.: "Sign with the seal. The fir-tree that has already been planted in the garden gives its own portent."
  5. The actual words are, I am looking for a sensitive who writes to an Father to believe I can write through you. . . . I have to sit with our friend Edmund to control the sensitive.—(Signed with Talbot Forbes's initials.)
  6. No explanation of the open scissors has been suggested.
  7. Except once subsequently, on November 27th, 1901, after verification of the incident, when it was quoted as an encouragement.
  8. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. xx., 222.
  9. See, especially, the cure of Wilson Quint, recorded in Proceedings, viii., 206, Mr. Jobson's case (Journal, November, 1898). and the case recorded by Colonel Taylor and Mr. Piddington (Journal, July, 1903).
  10. See my discussion of these communications in Studies in Psycical Research, pp. 125–133.
  11. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. vi., pp. 569–574.
  12. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. vi., pp. 458–60.
  13. Procedings, S. P.R., vol. vi., pp. 649–50.
  14. This name is substituted for the real name.
  15. This name and most of the other names mentioned in connection with the "G. P." case. are assumed, Most of the witnesses were, however, known intimately by Dr. Hodgson and Mr. Myers.
  16. I. e, Hodgson. who reports the incidents of the sitting. In the account which follows the statements made by the "control" are put in inverted commas (" "); and Hart's interjected remarks in parentheses ( ). Hodgson's comments are in brackets [].
  17. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. xiii., p. 297.
  18. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. xiii.. pp. 300, 301.
  19. The reader who has leisure and patience may possibly care to peruse the voluminous record and form his own opinion as to its merits. But he is advised first to read Dr. Hodgson's Report in Proceedings, vol. xiii., which gives the case of Mrs. Piper at its best.
  20. I have discussed at length the case of Mr. Stainton Moses in my Modern Spiritualism, vol. ii., pp. 276–88.
  21. A full account of a case in which a test of this kind is said to have been fulfilled will be found in Procedings S. P. R., viii.. p. 243. But the account was not written until many years after the event.
  22. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. xv.. p. 37.