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The Naturalisation of the Supernatural/Chapter 8


ONE of the chief objects which the Society for Psychical Research set before itself was the investigation of the physical phenomena of Spiritualism. The question seemed one of considerable importance, because from the belief in these phenomena as due to spiritual agency there had Sprung up a quasi-religious movement of an international character which claimed at one period to number its adherents by millions. Moreover, apart from the credulous and unthinking majority, there was a small body of men whose Opinions and testimony in any matter could not be lightly disregarded, who believed in and testified of their own experience to things which seemed, and perhaps still seem, inexplicable by any known cause. It was not easy to dismiss the whole subject as unworthy of investigation. The explanation of the facts recorded by Sir William Crookes and others does not lie on the surface. It may be that these facts will ultimately find their explanation in causes neither remote nor unfamiliar. But certainly no one at that time, and perhaps no one now, is in a position to affirm, with such certainty as we bring to the other affairs of life, what the explanation may be. And whatever may be thought of the phenomena, it remained a palpable fact that there were tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands in this and other civilised countries,[1] who had adopted a particular interpretation of these phenomena; that their conduct was influenced, their lives shaped, their aspirations determined, by that interpretation. The extraordinary growth of the movement, the number of its adherents, and their fidelity through evil and good report, made Spiritualism an important historical fact. If the beliefs and ideas of this large body of men and women were indeed based on fraud and delusion, it became a matter of some social importance to expose the deception. And it was clear that nothing short of a systematic and organised effort was likely to accomplish what was required.

Occasional revelations of fraud on the part of mediums had done little to damp the ardour of the believers. So long as it was possible to appeal to unexplained marvels in the past, so long was it easy for most minds to regard each successive exposure of trickery as an isolated incident. It was manifest indeed that the mediums had not suffered irretrievably, either in purse or reputation, from repeated exposures. Their business had no doubt met with a slight check in the four or five years immediately preceding the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research. But this was partly due to the rival attractions of Theosophy and the thaumaturgic feats of Madame Blavatsky. Further, some of the most noted mediums of the earlier generation had withdrawn from the active pursuit of their profession. D. D. Home had retired into private life some years before. Mr. Moses' physical phenomena had ceased in 1880 or thereabouts. Slade was, indeed, willing, it was understood, to give sittings, but was prevented from coming to England by reason of the legal proceedings which Professor Lankester had instituted against him in 1876, and which were still pending. But the phenomena still continued, though the performers came somewhat less prominently before the public eye. Eglinton continued to give slate-writing performances for some years; and both he and other physical mediums exhibited materialisations—sometimes in surprising variety—at dark séances. Indeed, dark séances for materialisation, though now much more difficult of access to those who have given no pledges of fidelity, have continued down to the present time.

In 1882, therefore, though the physical phenomena of Spiritualism were certainly less startling and less abundant than they had been for some years previously, there seemed still no reason to doubt that there would be ample material for investigation. Indeed, Professor H. Sidgwick, in the course of his first Presidential address to the nascent Society, delivered at Willis's Rooms in July, 1882, after explaining that the Society would by preference turn its attention to physical phenomena occurring in private circles, thought himself justified in assuming the existence of a mass of evidence of this kind. Mr. Sidgwick went on to express the hope that the occurrence of such phenomena would be more rapidly and extensively communicated to the representatives of the Society for impartial investigation. That hope was not destined to be realised. In the twenty-five years which have elapsed, whilst few opportunities have been afforded to the Society's representatives for continuous investigation of any sort, no positive results have been obtained worthy of record.

In short, just when an organised and systematic investigation on a scale not inadequate to the importance of the subject was for the first time about to be made, the phenomena to be investigated diminished rapidly in frequency and importance, and the opportunities for investigation were further curtailed by the indifference or reluctance of the mediums to submit their claims to examination. The researches of the Society have not, however, been entirely fruitless. On the one hand, some of us have had the opportunity of witnessing in private circles physical movements and other phenomena, claimed as due to occult forces, which on further examination have proved to be produced fraudulently. In two of these cases at least the "medium" was a well-educated man, with no apparent motive for deception, and the deception itself was of a systematic kind, involving careful preparation. The proof that disinterested fraud of this kind may be practised by persons on whom the ordinary motives of pecuniary gain or notoriety can hardly be supposed to operate has been found of considerable value in interpreting some of the most puzzling problems of Spiritualism.

On the other hand, a series of careful investigations by some members of the Society has thrown valuable light on the nature of the psychological processes which facilitate deception at a spiritualistic séance. Accurate observation of the phenomena occurring at the ordinary séance is, indeed, rarely possible, because the sitting generally takes place in a subdued light; and, further, because many of the more striking phenomena occur impromptu, when the experimenter, not knowing what to expect, is not fully prepared for observation. But there was one particular manifestation which seemed to offer every facility for investigation,—the performance of writing on slates, as exhibited in England by the American medium, Slade, in 1876, and later by William Eglinton. The performance took place in daylight; it was fairly constant in its appearance, instances of completely unsuccessful séances being relatively rare; and from the nature of the exhibition the conditions presented, or seemed to present, the fullest opportunity for examination. A prominent Spiritualist wrote in 1886 of an exhibition by Eglinton: "The facts are of so simple a nature that they could as well be observed by any ordinary intelligence as by the most scientific member of the Society for Psychical Research."[2] And it is difficult on reading the reports furnished by intelligent witnesses to avoid endorsing this statement. Briefly, the manifestation in its typical form is—or was a few years ago—as follows: Medium and sitter take their seats cornerwise at an ordinary wooden table without a cloth. A common school slate, with a fragment of slate-pencil on it, is held by one hand of each person, with the upper surface pressed close against the under surface of the table. The sitter, by direction of the medium, asks a question of the spirits. The sound of writing is heard. The slate is lifted up, and an answer to the question is found scrawled on its surface.

The witnesses of 1886 testified to writing on slates marked by the sitters; answers to questions written down and not shown to the medium; answers to mental questions; the receipt of long communications relevant to the conversation of the moment, and, occasionally, the reproduction of words from the given page of a book chosen by the sitter. The sittings took place in broad daylight; and many of the witnesses reported that they were permitted to bring their own slates, to mark the slates used, to tie or even lock the double slates, to hold them above the table, and to take other necessary precautions against fraud.

The present writer attended a séance with Slade in 1876, and was for years after convinced that what he had seen could not be accounted for by any forces known to science. I am glad to say that my conviction has been shared by many conjurers, professional and amateur.[3] No Spiritualist marvel, indeed, has seemed more inexplicable, and none, happily for our purpose, has been so freely and fully attested. Thus in the Spiritualist journal, Light, for October, 1886, the testimony of about a hundred observers, amongst them many persons of intellectual distinction, is quoted as endorsing the genuineness of the manifestation.

In view of these considerations the Society selected the manifestation of slate-writing, as presented by the medium Eglinton, for the purpose of a crucial investigation. At the instance of the Society, several witnesses went in couples to the performance and wrote independent accounts of what they saw. And, from a minute examination, the late Dr. Richard Hodgson was able to demonstrate frequent and, as he showed, significant discrepancies in these separate accounts. In a word, the witnesses did as we all do—they selected for record what appeared to them the most important incidents and omitted what seemed to them irrelevant. But occasionally a witness more scrupulous than most would record some of these irrelevant incidents; and it is precisely in these that the key to the whole performance is to be found. Eglinton, it would thus appear, was habitually affected at these séances with a distressing cough; he would constantly—through fatigue, as he alleged—change the position of his limbs or even shift momentarily the hand which held the slate; sometimes the slate itself would be dropped on the floor; he would now and again go to the door to answer a summons from the servant. Ordinary good manners would prevent the visitor from taking notice of such incidents at the time, and generally they would leave no trace in the memory. But the cough would have served to hide the sound of an unlocked slate or an unfolded paper; the shifting of the hand admitted of the shifting of the slate also; the movement to the door gave opportunity for an actual substitution. In fact, the performance, as was soon to be proved, was commonly effected in one of two ways. The shorter messages were actually written by Eglinton on the under surface whilst the slate was being held under the table, and opportunity was subsequently found, without exciting the sitter's suspicions, to reverse the slate; the longer messages were written beforehand on another slate, and opportunity found for substitution. When the secret was guessed expert observers could watch all the processes of legerdemain throughout the performance.

The following extracts from independent accounts written by two Associates of the Society. Mr. G. A. Smith and the late Mr. Murray Templeton, will serve to illustrate the nature of the discrepancies and omissions actually observed, or inferred, in the accounts. The incident described by Mr. Smith stands, it must be admitted, altogether beyond the scope of legerdemain; if we accept the description as accurate—and Mr. Smith as a witness stands probably well above the average—it would go far to justify the Spiritualist belief in the operation of a novel power wielded by an extraneous intelligence.

From Mr. G. A. Smith[4]

12th June, 1885

[The account was written on the day following the séance.]

. . . We now expressed our desire to get something written which could be regarded as outside the knowledge of any of us—such as a certain word on a given line of a chosen page of a book.

I then went to the bookshelf, took a book at haphazard, without of course looking at the title, returned to my seat, placed the book upon the chair, and sat upon it whilst we were arranging the page, line, and word to be asked for. This point Mr. Templeton and I decided by each taking a few crayons and pencils from the table by chance, and counting them; Mr. Templeton had possessed himself of 18 pieces of crayon, and I had seized 9 pieces of pencil, we found on counting them; we therefore decided that the "controls" should be asked to write the last word of line 18 on page 9 of the book. This article I now produced, and laid it upon one of my slates, and Mr. Eglinton held the two close beneath the underneath of the table—the book of course being held firmly closed between the table and the slate. We then commenced conversing; in the midst of Mr. Eglinton's own remarks the writing was heard to commence. For about 25 seconds he was talking and the writing was going on simultaneously; he then ceased, and the writing continued a few more seconds before the three taps came indicating its conclusion. The message we found was as follows: "This is a Hungarian book of poems. The last word of page 18 (page 9, line 18) is bunhoseded."

After we had observed that a mistake in the figures had been corrected in parenthesis, I opened the book at page 9, and we found that the last word on line 18 of that page was "bunhodesed." Remarking upon the fact that the last two syllables of the word had been transposed, we asked the "controls" if it was a mistake, and how it had arisen; we received the written reply: "Yes. We have not power to properly read the last word."

As a test experiment I think this may be regarded as a very successful and crucial one; for it is difficult to believe that Mr. Eglinton can have committed to memory the exact position of every word in every book on his bookshelves—containing some 200 books, or more. And it is easy for us to Say with confidence that all his movements were so carefully watched that the slightest attempt on his part to open the book, or even to touch it, would have been detected almost before the attempt was made; and it is a fact that the book was never once touched by him, and could not possibly have had one of its leaves exposed to his view for an instant, let alone page 9 long enough to enable him to count down to the 18th line. Of course the test would have greater value as such had we been able to use a book which we could be certain he had never read; but if this point tells against the result, the fact that by a happy chance my selection caused a Hungarian book of poems to be used should surely counterbalance this evidential flaw to a great extent, and reduce the chances of his having memorised the position of every word in it to a minimum. That I was not forced to take this special book from its being in a particularly handy and prominent position, and that page 9 and line 18 were not "led up to" by Mr. Eglinton is obvious—from the fact that I made my selection without looking at the books; and that the page and line were determined by chance, then and there, as I have described.

But Mr. Templeton's version of the same incident, if briefer, is more to the point.

From Mr. Templeton

14th June, 1885

Next the final and most crucial test was proposed by Mr. Eglinton. It had been suggested to his own mind by a former test of my own, in which I had wished to preclude all possibility of any explanation such as thought transference. We arranged that Mr. Smith should turn to the bookshelves behind him, choose a book at random, in which we could fix upon a certain word in a certain line of a given page—which word was to be written for us. On taking a book Mr. Smith asked Mr. Eglinton if he knew what it was. Mr. Eglinton answered "Yes," and that as it was a rather trashy novel it might be better to choose another. Mr. Smith then took a small red-covered book from the opposite shelf, and this Mr. Eglinton said he did not recognise. As the theory of the medium's mesmeric influence over the sitters had been more than once put before me as a not impossible explanation I suggested we should fix the line by the number of crayons in a box before us, which gave us the 18th line; and in a similar way, from a separate heap of slate pencils, we obtained the number 9 for page. The last word in the line was chosen.

Now from this later version we learn (1) that the test was proposed by Eglinton himself; (2) that the book was not chosen entirely "at haphazard"; it was a second choice, and—a significant point—it had a conspicuous cover; (3) that the line and page were determined, not by taking a handful of pencils and crayons from larger heaps, as might have been inferred from Mr. Smith's account, but by taking the actual number of those articles present on the table. From the first account it might be inferred that Eglinton's only chance of meeting the test would have been by opening the book then and there and writing the word. We know from other accounts that the trick was occasionally performed in this way. But with two not uncritical observers this method may have seemed too hazardous. It seems probable that the word had been written beforehand, and that the choice of book, page, and line were successively "forced" on the experimenters.

But all that Hodgson's analysis could in most cases demonstrate was that the accounts of the performance given even by intelligent witnesses were frequently inaccurate; and that from these inaccuracies it might legitimately be inferred that if Eglinton had practised trickery, that trickery would not have been detected. To many intelligent persons this method of argument seemed unsatisfactory. They felt that they, in witnessing the phenomena, had not been guilty of similar errors of observation, nor, in recording them, of similar lapses of memory. It was urged that Eglinton had abundantly demonstrated his possession of occult powers; and that trickery, even if the proof were admitted as sufficient, was only resorted to on occasions when his genuine powers failed him. A more conspicuous demonstration of the fraudulent nature of the whole performance was needed, and was forthcoming. One of the Society's members, the late Mr. S. Davey, himself in the first instance a victim of Eglinton's wiles, ultimately detected the cheat and set himself to imitate the performance. Mr. Davey placed his services at the disposal of the Society and allowed us to introduce to him a number of sitters, on condition that they would write a full account of what they believed themselves to have witnessed. Mr. Davey revealed his methods to Dr. Hodgson, who arranged most of the sittings, and was present to watch the proceedings. In 1892, after Mr. Davey's death, he published[5] a full explanation of the methods by which Mr. Davey succeeded in performing his marvels.

Here is an account, written on the following day, of one of Davey's performances, as seen through the eyes of an intelligent observer. The writer of the account, Mr. H. W. S., was a comparative stranger to Mr. Davey. He had been told before the sitting that the marvels which he was to witness were not attributable to "spirits" or occult forces; and, as will be seen in the sequel, he attempts to explain them by physical means. He was by no means therefore in the mood of unquestioning acceptance common to those who visit spirit mediums. He knew that what he was to see was of the nature of a conjuring trick.

Report of MR. H. W. S.[6]

February 11th, 1887.

After the very interesting scientific phenomena to which I was an eye-witness last night, it gives me much pleasure to detail the various astonishing feats displayed by Mr. Davey.

The apartment in which I was received was a well-stocked library, and the furniture, including the table at which we sat, was of the ordinary make and style, with none of the intricacies so necessary to the every-day conjurer; and I am convinced that the furniture of the room and its general surroundings played no part whatever in the accomplishment of the facts which I am going to narrate.

Having produced a small book-slate, Mr. Davey asked me to examine it, and to satisfy myself as to its simplicity of construction, etc. I did so; the slate was composed of two ordinary pieces of slate, about six by four inches, mounted in ebony covers hinged on one side with two strong plated hinges, and closed in front, beyond the question of a doubt, with a Chatwood's patent lock.

With the exception of a small escutcheon, bearing the initials of the donor, the slate was plain and substantial, and bore the strictest inspection, so as to entirely preclude the idea of chemicals or any other similar agent being used to it.

(a) After I had finished examining the slate, Mr. Davey asked me to write in the slate any question I liked while he was absent from the room. Picking up a piece of grey crayon, I wrote the following question: "What is the specific gravity of platinum?" and then having locked the slate and retained the key, I placed the former on the table and the latter in my pocket.

After the lapse of a few minutes I heard a distinct sound as of writing, and on being requested to unlock the slate I there discovered to my great surprise the answer of my question: "We don't know the specific gravity, Joey." The pencil with which it was written was a little piece which we had enclosed, and which would just rattle between the sides of the folded slate.

Having had my hands on the slate above the table, I can certify that the slate was not touched or tampered with during the time the writing was going on.

(b) Next; having taken an ordinary scholar's slate and placed a fragment of red crayon upon it, Mr. Davey placed it under the flap of the table. I held one side with my hand as before. I then heard the same sound as previously, and when the slate was placed on the table I found the following short address distinctly written: "Dear Mr. S——,—The substitution dodge is good; the chemical is better, but you see by the writing the spirits know a trick worth two of that. This medium is honest, and I am the only true Joey." The writing was in red crayon, and was in regular parallel straight lines.

[Another experiment with the locked slate followed and then the writer continues:]

(d) Lastly, as requested by Mr. Davey, I took a coin from my pocket without looking at it, placed it in an envelope, and sealed it up. I am certain that neither Mr. Davey nor myself knew anything about the coin. I then placed it in the book-slate together with a piece of pencil, closed it as previously, and deposited it on the table; and having placed my hands with those of Mr. Davey on the upper surface of the slate, waited a short time. I then unlocked the slate as requested, and to my intense amazement I found the date of the coin written, by the side of the envelope containing it.

The seal and envelope (which I have now) remained intact.

This last feat astonished me more than the others, so utterly impossible and abnormal did it appear to me. I may also mention that everything which was used, including the cloth and sponge with which the slates were cleansed, were eagerly and thoroughly scrutinised by me, and I failed to detect anything in the shape of mechanism of any kind. Were I sceptically inclined towards Spiritualism, I should have attributed the feats I witnessed to it, but I am convinced from the bona fide manner in which Mr. Davey proceeded to perform his mysterious writing, Spiritualism plays no part in it whatever. Were I asked to account for the method by which the writing was done, or rather to advance any theory based upon which it would be possible to produce such phenomena, I should suggest a powerful magnetic force used in a double manner, i.e., 1st, the force of attraction, and and, that of repulsion.

But Mr. Davey has by great perseverance and study cultivated his scientific secret to such an extent that were it magnetism, electricity, pneumatics, or anything else, it would baffle the most accomplished in any of those branches of science to form even an approximate idea of his modus operandi.

Mr. H. W. S. was probably at least as good an observer as the great majority of those who have testified to marvels performed by spirit mediums. And he had, as we have seen, a great advantage over the ordinary Spiritualist, inasmuch as he knew that there was nothing occult or inexplicable in the business. But yet the performance, as described by him, might well seem to require the aid of magic; and indeed the distinguished naturalist, Dr. A. R. Wallace, has selected the events of this'séance, with others, as being inexplicable by conjuring. So they are, if the account quoted accurately described what took place. But they seem inexplicable only because the account is highly condensed, and in the process of condensation the recorder has omitted—as Davey intended that he should omit—much that would have given a clue to the deception practised. Thus in his account of experiment (a) Mr. H. W. S. admits "the lapse of a few minutes" between his placing the key of the locked slate in his pocket and the sound of writing. He is even so a better recorder than many, who would have failed to record the interval at all. But he omits all that happened in that interval as irrelevant. He does so, no doubt, because of two assumptions, neither of which was justified: (1) that he had the slate under observation the whole time; (2) that the message was actually written at the moment when the sound as of writing was heard. What actually happened, in accordance with the methods revealed by Dr. Hodgson, was somewhat as follows: Mr. Davey possessed two precisely similar locked slates, with common keys. Davey was out of the room whilst the sitter was writing his question in slate A. On his return he diverted the sitter's attention—probably by asking him to examine the under side of the table—and took advantage of the opportunity to substitute the locked slate B for A. He then gave the sitter some ordinary slates to clean and examine, and whilst he was thus occupied, Davey left the room with A, opened it, and wrote the answer to the question. On his return he found some other method of diverting the sitter's attention, and resubstituted A for B. The sound of writing was produced by Davey's finger-nail scratching the under surface of the slate, or by some similar device; and the miracle was accomplished.

It may seem incredible that Davey, who performed this particular trick at practically every séance, and sometimes, as in the present case, twice at the same sitting, should never have incurred detection, or even suspicion, in the double process of substitution described. But in the first place, he made a practice of carrying on the second experiment (b) whilst (a) was still in progress, so that the sitter had two slates instead of one to watch; and, further, he had several devices for distracting the sitter's attention, of which not the least effective was his conjurer's patter. Davey allowed me to be present at one of the experiments, the victim being my own brother, Mr. A. Podmore. Davey took away the locked double slate A, under cover of a cluster, whilst my brother was watching the slates already prepared for the next experiment. When be effected the resubstitution of the locked slates, he succeeded in completely diverting Mr. A. Podmore's attention by means of some weird narrative of marvellous events at a previous sitting. I saw that my brother's eyes were fixed on the narrator's face for the space of a minute or so. But at the end of the sitting my brother was convinced that he had not intermitted for an instant his watching of the locked slate.

The account above given, however, of the sitting with Mr. H. W. S. is unduly simplified. Miracle (b), as already said, was actually in progress before (a), was fulfilled. The sitter had been asked to clean some slates. Before the sound of writing was heard in the locked slates, Davey had taken two of these slates, together with a third slate, not cleaned by the sitter, on the under surface of which the long message in red chalk had been written before the sitting. On the clean upper surface of this prepared slate he placed a fragment of red chalk and covered it with one of the slates cleaned by the sitter, and left both in full view on the table. The second of the two slates cleaned by the sitter was then placed, as described in the account, under the flap of the table. Probably after a short interval the word "yes" was found written on the slate in answer to some question of sitter or medium. This "yes" would be written at the time by means of a thimble pencil. The experiment would then be temporarily intermitted, first to allow of the unlocking of slate A, secondly to allow of the cleaning of that locked slate, and the preparation of another trial with the same (the record of this—experiment c—is omitted, as containing no new feature). What ultimately happened was that the two slates on one of which the red chalk message was already written were placed under the table, and then by means of substitutions, and reversals of position, the opportunity for which was afforded by the breaks in the experiment, the under of these two slates was eventually found to contain on the upper surface the message quoted in the text.

The explanation of experiment (d), which so profoundly puzzled the sitter, was even simpler. Mr. Hodgson's comment on the experiment is as follows:

I do not recall with certainty what the coin was. Let us suppose it was a shilling. Mr. Davey beforehand wrote the date of a shilling of his own in locked-slate A, placed this shilling in an envelope and sealed it up, and placed this envelope also in locked-slate A, which at the beginning of the experiment he had concealed about his person. He then requested the sitter to take a shilling from his pocket without looking at it, to place it in an envelope and seal it up, place it in the locked-slate B, etc. The sitting was at Mr. Davey's house, and Mr. Davey provided the envelope, from the same packet, of course, as the one already containing Mr. Davey's shilling in locked-slate A. The sitter was requested not to look at his coin, ostensibly, I believe, on the ground of precluding thought-transference, but really so that the sitter might not know the difference between his own coin and Mr. Davey's. It is now plain that all the dexterity required in this experiment was a simple substitution.

But the greatest marvel of all remains to be recounted—the writing of a given line on a given page of a book selected from the bookcase by the sitter himself—an imitation of the trick already described as performed by Eglinton. Here is an account of one such experiment. The meeting was held in the library at Mr. Davey's own house, containing upwards of a thousand volumes. There were three sitters. One of these, Mr. Manville, describes this particular experiment as follows:

From Mr. E. Manville[7]

2d December, 1886.

[The séance had taken place on the previous evening.]

(e) Mr. Davey now said he would endeavour to get a given line on a given page of a book written for us. Mr. Venner therefore looked over the titles of the books ranged on the shelves and selected one mentally, without touching it with his hands; at this moment I suggested it would be better if I were to select the book, as I did not know Mr. Davey at all, whilst Mr. Venner did. Mr. Davey acquiesced. I selected a title. In order to decide what line and page we should select, I took a pinch of crayons from a box, Mr. Pinnock doing the same. On counting, mine came to 6, Mr. Pinnock's to 11. Mr. Venner's came to 3. Mr. P. and I divided Mr. V.'s, making mine 8, and Mr. P.'s 12, so we decided that it should be p. 12, line 8.

[The first trial was a failure: the word "muddle" was written on the slate held under the table] and we apprehended it was on account of Mr. Venner and myself both having chosen a book; we therefore thought it would be best for Mr. Pinnock, who knew Mr. Davey no better than I, to select another book.

(f) This he did. We washed the two slates, laid them face to face on the table, when the following words were written: "The difference in this respect." Mr. Pinnock now took down the book he had selected from the shelf, and handed it to me; I opened it at the 12th page and looked at the eighth line. I found the first two words completed a sentence; then came the five words above, and then two more to finish the line. I said the written words were right, but not complete. The slate was covered again, and three more words were written: "Shakespeare and Beaumont." On looking at the book I found "Shakespeare" was the last word in the line, the other two being in the next line. I said a word was still missed out. The slates were put together again, and two more words written. On looking at the book these turned out to be the two words terminating the last sentence. I said there was still the word missing, and this time the word "between" was written, making the sentence complete: "The difference in this respect between Shakespeare and Beaumont." I then asked for the last word in the line by itself, and this was written "Shakes," which was correct, as Shakespeare was half on one line and half on the other. The name of the book was Lectures on Shakespeare, etc.

Mr. Pinnock himself and Mr. Venner, the other witness, explain that the title was chosen mentally, the book not being removed from the shelves.

Mr. Davey tried several experiments of the kind. The method of procedure was to write down the passage beforehand on a slate which could be subsequently introduced by substitution. The real difficulty, of course, was to induce the sitters to select the book which Mr. Davey had predestined for the purpose of the experiment, and when the book had been selected in accordance with his wishes to determine also their choice of page and line. The book was "forced" upon the sitters' choice. Mr. Davey generally fixed upon a bright coloured volume, or one likely to be otherwise attractive, and placed it on the shelf most likely to meet the eye, ranging on either side of it some dull and inconspicuous volumes. I have watched him arrange books in my own bookshelves for the purpose. As in the present case, the experiment frequently failed on the first attempt. Sometimes Mr. Davey would himself reject the sitters' first choice, on the ground that the print was too small, or the subject-matter unsuitable. But it is surprising how often he succeeded in forcing the right book, at least on the second or third attempt. To secure a reasonable chance of coincidence in line and page he generally requested the sitters to choose numbers under 10, and his experience in number habits led him in many cases correctly to anticipate their choice. In the instance quoted, however, he resorts to another device. From Mr. Manville's account it would appear as if the division of the crayons had been a spontaneous move on the part of the sitters. But Mr. Venner in his report of the sitting tells us:

The medium requested each of us to take a small handful of chalk: out of the box on the table. Mr. P. took 11, Mr. M. six, and I three. The medium divided the three chalks I had selected between the other two. We had previously agreed that Mr. P.'s number should represent a page, and Mr. M.'s number a line, of some book to be chosen mentally by one of the party, the medium promising to endeavour to reproduce on the slate the line so determined. In the present case it was of course the eighth line of the 12th page.

The sitting, it will be remembered, took place in Davey’s own house. He had no doubt left exactly 20 pieces of crayon in the box, and by the method adopted of dividing the third lot of crayons there was little difficulty in arriving at the numbers already selected ——8 and 12.

Dr. Hodgson’s careful analysis of the accounts of Eglinton’s miracles, and the skilful counterfeits—more skilful frequently than their originals—presented by Mr. Davey, must convince the dispassionate enquirer of the radical untrustworthiness alike of the senses and of the memory in matters of this kind. And this may almost be called a new discovery. The biologist, the astronomer, the physicist have, of course, learnt, each in his own department, the limitations of the senses, their narrow range, their fallibility, their habitual inaccuracy. But these defects are fairly constant, and when once ascertained can be guarded against or supplemented by the use of appropriate instruments and by allowance for the personal equation of the observer. But no training in the laboratory will do much to make a man a better observer at a Spiritualist séance. What is required in such circumstances is a power of observation which is able to resist the artifices employed to distract it, and which, if not actually unremitting—since it would seem that nature itself forbids that,—is at least alive to its own lapses. And a power of observation of this kind is not demanded and is not exercised in the laboratory, and cannot be acquired except by training of a very special kind.

But in dealing with the phenomena presented by Spiritualist mediums, even errors of perception are often of less importance than errors of memory. The record of any event, or series of events, preserved in our memory is in no case comparable to a photograph. It is more like a picture or even a map. It is a selection, a work of art; and unfortunately in the present case the principle of selection, the aesthetic guidance, are supplied by the medium. In Dr. Hodgson's words:

The source of error which I desire in particular to press upon the reader's notice is the perishability, the exceeding transience, the fading feebleness, the evanescence beyond recall, of certain impressions which nevertheless did enter the domain of consciousness, and did in their place form part of the stream of impetuous waking thought.

It is, moreover, not simply and merely that many events, which did obtain at the sitting some share of perception, thus lapse completely from the realm of ordinary recollection. The consequence may indeed be that we meet with a. blank or a chaos in traversing the particular field of remembrance from which the events have lapsed; but this will often be filled with some conjectured events which rapidly become attached to the adjacent parts, and form, in conjunction with them, a consolidated but fallacious fragment in memory. On the other hand, the consequence may be that the edges of the lacuna close up—events originally separated by a considerable interval are now remembered vividly in immediate juxtaposition, and there is no trace of the piecing.[8]

As a result mainly of the researches carried on by Mrs. Sidgwick, Dr. Richard Hodgson, and S. Davey, the investigators of the Society have come to adopt as a working formula that no evidence for the physical phenomena of Spiritualism can be regarded as of permanent value which depends for its validity upon the exercise of continuous observation.

Applying this test to the evidences for the physical phenomena of Spiritualism, we shall find them all wanting. Again and again the proof has seemed all but complete; and always, as the conditions have been perfected so as to close up the last loophole for fraud—always the "spirits" have refused to do their part. In all these years there is no record of which we can say, "Either the thing happened so, or the investigators have lied."

A field for the application of this formula can be found in the investigations which are still proceeding on the Continent into the physical phenomena occurring in the presence of the Italian medium, Eusapia Paladino. Eusapia has practised as a medium for many years; but the phenomena produced through her agency first attracted general attention in 1893. In the previous year a committee, including many persons of distinction, Professor Brofferio, M. Schiaparelli, Director of the Astronomical Observatory in Milan, Professor Lombroso, Professor C. Richet, etc., had held some sittings with her at Milan. In their reports, printed early in 1893, they expressed their conviction that some of the things witnessed could not be attributed to normal agency. Professor Richet, however, though attaching great weight to the phenomena which he had observed, was of opinion that complete proof of abnormal agency was wanting. In particular, M. Richet considered that the manner in which Eusapia's hands were held during the dark'séances was suspicious; He writes:

During the experiments, Eusapia generally has the right and left hand held differently; on one side her whole hand is firmly held; on the other side, instead of having her hand held by the person next her, she merely places her hand on his, but touches his hand with all five fingers, so that he can feel quite distinctly whether it is the right or the left hand with which he is in contact.

This is what follows: at the moment when the manifestations are about to begin, the hand which is not being held, but which is lightly placed on the hand of the person on that side (for the sake of simplicity we will suppose that it is Eusapia's right hand, though it is in fact sometimes the right, sometimes the left),—the right hand, then, becomes very unsteady, and begins to move about so rapidly that it is impossible to follow its movements: it shifts about every moment, and for the mere fraction of a second it is not felt at all; then it is felt again, and one could swear that it is the right hand.[9]

In the summer of 1894, Professor Richet invited Sir Oliver Lodge, Mr. F. W. H. Myers, Dr. Ochorowicz, and one or two others, to join him in investigating the powers claimed by Eusapia Paladino. The phenomena observed, when Eusapia's hands and feet were believed to be secured, and other precautions had been taken to prevent physical intervention on her part, consisted mainly of the movements of articles of furniture at a certain distance from the circle; the lifting of a heavy table from the ground; the movement of smaller objects from one part of the room to another; the sounding of notes on musical instruments; and grasps and touches felt by the experimenters on various parts of their persons. The'séances for the most part took place in a very subdued light, so that the proof of Eusapia's non-intervention rested mainly, though not entirely, on the secure holding of her hands. Nevertheless, the phenomena were so impressive that Sir Oliver Lodge and others expressed the conviction that some of the things observed could not be accounted for by any known agency.

When, however, accounts of these experiments and of the conclusions arrived at were printed in the Journal of the Society, Dr. Hodgson immediately challenged the accuracy of the observations, mainly on the ground that it did not appear that Eusapia's hands and feet had been held in such a way as to make fraud impossible. Finally, in the summer of 1895, another series of sittings was held with Eusapia in this country. Very early in the series suspicious movements on the medium's part were observed. Later, Dr. Hodgson himself joined the circle; and it was conclusively shown that Eusapia was availing herself of the peculiar method of "holding" previously described by Professor Richet to get one hand free, and then execute the movements observed. Briefly, her method is to begin by allowing one hand to be firmly held by the sitter on one side (say the left), and to let the fingers of the other, the right hand, rest on the hand of the sitter on the other side. Then, in the course of the rapid spasmodic movements referred to by Professor Richet, she approximates the hands of the sitters on either side of her, until they are so near together that one of Eusapia's hands (the left) will do duty for two—being grasped by one of the sitters' hands and resting its fingers on the hand of the other sitter. The desired "phenomenon" is then brought about, and the right hand restored to its former position. Other devices of a similar kind were observed or inferred; and probably there are yet others which have escaped detection.

Dr. Hodgson's conclusion that all the physical phenomena produced in Eusapia's presence from first to last were due to fraud, was at the time shared by most of the leading investigators of the Society for Psychical Research. In 1898, however, there were held in Paris some strikingly successful'séances, at which Professor Richet and the late F. W. H. Myers were present, and subsequently these two gentlemen and Sir Oliver Lodge took occasion to reaffirm their belief in the genuineness of some at least of the physical manifestations occurring in the presence of Eusapia Paladino.[10] Within the last few years several well-known Italian men of science, including some who, like Professor Morselli, had for long proclaimed their disbelief in the subject, have investigated and declared their conviction of the genuineness of some of the phenomena occurring in the presence of Eusapia. It is generally admitted, however, that Eusapia will use physical means when the conditions permit of her doing so; and that the phenomena recognised as genuine give little support to the hypothesis of spirit intervention. If not wholly due to fraud and illusion, they can best be attributed to the operation of some force emanating from the medium's organism. The description of the feats witnessed, in fact, strongly suggests that the medium has the power of extruding false limbs—"pseudopodia"— from her person, or is possessed of some force (ectenic force) capable of acting on material objects at a short distance beyond the limits of her material organism.

The difficulty in accepting the accounts given lies precisely in the fact that the distance is so short. The objects moved are all situated within the near neighbourhood of Eusapia; the proof that she did not move them by normal means depends, as before, chiefly on the secure holding—or, more rarely, binding—of the medium's limbs and on the accuracy of the experimenters' observation. The medium exhibits a persistent aversion to the use of recording apparatus: she dislikes smoked paper (for taking impressions of finger prints, etc.); at one'séance it is recorded that she fought hard—and even bit—to prevent the use of a photographic plate.[11] Even more significant is her treatment of two tests recently devised by a circle of Italian medical men. At the first sitting a clockwork cylinder, covered with blackened paper, was placed inside a bell-glass, secured from interference by sealed tapes. The object of the test was to obtain a vertical mark on the cylinder; and the key of the electric circuit through which this end could be accomplished was enclosed in a securely fastened and sealed cardboard box. In the event the sealed tapes were torn off from the bell-glass; the lid of the cardboard box was forcibly removed, and the key then depressed. The test was thus rendered useless. Eusapia explained, however, that if woven material instead of cardboard had been used to protect the key, it could have been moved without interference with the apparatus. Acting on the hint the experimenters prepared for the next'séance a new apparatus. Inside the cabinet was placed a manometer—an open tube of mercury with a floating pointer which would automatically register any movements of the mercury on a scale. The tube was in connection with a vessel full of water, and closed with a rubber capsule. Pressure on the capsule would, of course, force up the mercury in the tube. The vessel of water was enclosed in a wooden box, the side of which rose high above the capsule. The top of the capsule was blackened. In place of a lid the box was covered with cloth, so as to prevent pressure on the capsule by normal means. At the close of the séance the mercury was found to have risen; but the cloth covering was torn. The experimenters still attach weight to the result of the experiment, on the ground that the wooden box was outside the cabinet, so that no one could have approached it without being seen. They add: "We do not know why the stuff which had covered the wooden box was torn. Certainly Eusapia did not understand the importance which would have attached to the experiment, if it had remained intact."[12]

It cannot be said that these recent researches have done much to strengthen the case for Eusapia's genuineness. The phenomena are still of the same indeterminate kind; they take place still under the same dubious conditions; and for their substantiation we still have to trust entirely to the accurate observation of the witnesses, working under conditions not of their own choosing. Sometimes, as above indicated, the circumstances attaching to the feats are in themselves extremely suspicious. But if we can attach little weight to the records, it is impossible not to be impressed by the scientific standing and the obvious sincerity of the witnesses. Professor Richet, Dr. Maxwell, Professor Morselli, Professor Foa, and other Italian savants have no manner of doubt that they have witnessed in Eusapia's presence phenomena inexplicable by any known force. If they do not enable us to share their conviction, they at any rate compel us to hold our judgment in suspense. There is at any rate a problem here, for the solution of which we must wait. If the things are genuine, we want to know how they are done; if fraudulent, how it is that so many competent observers have come to believe in their genuineness.

  1. Sir W. Crookes wrote, in 1871, that Spiritualism "numbers its adherents by millions" (Researches in Spiritualism, p. 33).
  2. Mr. Hensleigh Wedgwood, in the Journal, S. P. R.. November, 1886, p. 457.
  3. See the instances quoted in my Modern Spiritualism, vol. ii., pp. 204–7.
  4. Journal, S. P. R.. June, 1886.
  5. Proceedings, vol. viii., page 253, etc.
  6. Procedings, S. P. R., vol. iv., pp. 468–470.
  7. Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. iv., pp. 455–6.
  8. Proceedings, S. P. R.. vol. iv., pp. 386, 387.
  9. Annales des Science: Psychiques, January—February, 1893. See also a criticism of the articles in the Annales, by the present writer, in Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. ix., pp. 218–225.
  10. Journal, S. P. R., March, 1899, pp. 34, 35.
  11. She has allowed some photographs to be taken, but none that I have seen add materially to the strength of the evidence.
  12. Annals of Prysical Science, May, 1907, p. 385.