J. Arthur Hill

Friend of Sir Oliver Lodge. Popular writer on spiritualism, religion and psychical research. His books included "Religion and Modern Psychology", "Spiritualism, Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine", "Emerson and his Philosophy", "Man is a Spirit", "New Evidences in Psychical Research" and "Psychical Investigations".

Automatic Writing: The Case of Mrs Curtis

 - J. Arthur Hill -

         IT MUST not be supposed, from what has been said, that all automatic script is evidential. The thing is much more complex than that. A large proportion of the automatic script or speech that is produced does not concern itself with proving survival or the identity of the communicator. In spiritualistic meetings a medium will give a fluent and eloquent trance address on religion or philosophy, and the intelligence usually claims to be a spirit. But there is no proof. Similar eloquence has been produced by hypnotising a good subject and telling him he was W. E. Gladstone. So with automatic writing; a great deal of it is eloquent but non-evidential, being in the nature of religious exhortation or of description of the conditions on "the other side." Stainton Moses' Spirit Teachings and W. T. Stead's After Death are two of the best examples. More recently the books of Mr. L. V. IL Witley (Love from Beyond the Veil, &c.) are fairly typical. They serve to console and help a certain kind of mind in bereavement or other trouble, but they do not supply any sort of proof that the messages really come from beyond the veil.

I would not willingly remove any prop which supports a human soul in trouble. Indeed I would recommend the books just mentioned to anyone whom I thought they would cheer. When there is no certainty either way, it is wise to do what promises beet in its effects. And I think it may be good for many people to believe in the spirit-origin of these books, though I myself do not. By this I only mean that I suspend judgment. I do not deny anything.

On the other hand, there are automatic writings which are definitely misleading, either by prophecies that do not come off, or by gulling the automatist into the belief that he or she is specially chosen as the prophet of a great and new revelation to mankind. I know several unpublished dramatic cases in which the writing claims to come from various apostles, and even from Jesus himself. The automatists are non-spiritualists, well-educated, and rather orthodox in religion. Knowing nothing of the vagaries of the subliminal self, they accept the writing at its own valuation, and regard themselves as the favourites of Heaven. Such acceptance is evil in its results. The judgment becomes paralysed, the will is given up, and insanity or something very like it may supervene. I have known many cases of this kind, and have several under observation at present. I have toiled through great masses of manuscript written by these "high spirits," and it is mostly a weak sermonising which would not do credit to an average Wesleyan local preacher or Salvation Army lassie; but the automatist is often so dazzled by its alleged authorship that it is regarded with an awe and reverence which would be comic if it were not pathetic and indeed tragic. These cases occur, of course, in spiritualistic circles also, rather freely. Sometimes the spirits have no particular revelation to make, but just drop in, so to speak, for a chat, in a companionable sort of way. Mr. John Lobb receives and records messages from Shakespeare, Carlyle, and Dickens, whose vapid twaddle suggests sad deterioration since their death(1); while Mr. James Robertson - a leader of Glasgow spiritualism - converses with Joseph Priestley, J. S. Mill, and Harriet Martineau(2), accepting the controls at their face value with an innocence and unquestioning receptivity which would rejoice the heart of a proselytising priest, but which - one might think - would be doubtfully pleasing to the logical spirit of the returning John Stuart Mill. Swedenborg is another regular correspondent, turning up in scripts and trance-utterances on the smallest provocation; and, among unpublished examples, I have seen poetry from Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, and Mrs. Hemans (Qu'allait-elle faire dans cette galčre?), with remarks from Kepler about Halley's comet, and spirit drawings from Turner, assisted by John Ruskin!

(1) Talks with the Dead, pp. 41, 42, 44, 52.
(2) Spiritualism: The Open Door to the Unseen Universe, pp. 30, 50.

The automatist who believes in his own "spirits" is often contemptuous or hostile to other automatists' productions. I once happened to refer - while speaking to an automatist whose script I had been examining - to some "messages" received by another automatic writer purporting to come from the Angel Gabriel. This was immediately stigmatised as "nauseating." I mentioned Stead's After Death (Letters from Julia), and was told that the book was "simply foolish." Yet the matter received by the person to whom I was speaking was of entirely non-evidential kind, purporting certainly to be from non-human and apparently angelic sources, but containing nothing particularly grand - nothing, I am sure, beyond the powers of the automatist's own mind. I think that if Mr. Stead had been of a different complexion politically, his psychical product might have found more favour in the eyes of this particular person; but, even apart from political and personal animosities, there is a strong tendency among automatists to decry the productions of others. Either the spirits are a very intolerant lot, or - ruling out spirits and adopting the other theory - the subliminal is, like the Devil, an egotist.

As illustrations of misleading messages, I append two narratives. Miss Curtis is a friend of mine, and a woman of great intelligence and capacity; a Churchwoman, not interested in fancy religions or crank systems. At the time of the experience, she was head of a large school. She was introduced to the subject by a friend, as the opening paragraph indicates. I quote her own words. In all the following cases the names given are pseudonyms.

Copy of Message received by an Automatist Friend of mine,
June 1909. Myself present

"We are very pleased to greet your friend, and to see the keen interest she has developed in this branch of human relationship - for all are branches of one great tree that has its roots far back in the dim age of history. We would like to say a great deal to her, but must limit our words, and be content with little just now. First of all we can promise her, that if she will follow along the lines she has laid down for herself, i.e., keeping an open mind on all questions, and one receptive to truth wherever it may come from, her progress will be rapid, and she will be amply repaid... She is surrounded by a band of bright helpers, who are her constant companions - who gain help from the conditions she gives them for their work for others, as well as give help to her. She has strong guides, who have been with her from infancy and will never leave her until she steps upon this shore - and she has before her a path of increasing brightness that will open out in new and wonderful ways, that will bring satisfaction to her soul. Let us have the opportunity of giving her yet other words, for she gives us power, and we can give her help and encouragement. Much light there is round her.

"We hope your friend will enter into communication herself."

This message was obtained by my friend from one who has often communicated with her, and who calls herself a guide. It was my first experience of automatic writing, though of course I had read on the subject. During the whole of the message my hand was on my friend's wrist, and she said that I gave her great power. At the end of the meeting I took the pencil, but found I was unable to write, though I can hardly be surprised, as I only attempted it for a few moments, and was scarcely in good condition, I imagine. I made no other effort until the following year, when a friend having related her experiences, I decided I would see if I had any power. The first time was not a suitable one as regards conditions, but the instant I tried seriously I found my pencil began to move and form words. The following is the first message I received. Brackets enclose my mentally-put questions.

My name is Verttyg.

(Are you one of my guides?) Yes.

(Are you English?) No.

(What nationality are you?) Norwegian.

(When did you pass over?) Ninety-nine years ago.

(Are you a man or a woman?) Man.

(What was your vocation?) Musician.

(How many guides have I?) Numbers.

(Are they all men?) Yes.

(Shall I be able to communicate with other guides?) Yes.

I now began to write more easily, and received several messages, all with one exception purporting to come from this Norwegian Verttyg. They were mostly of no particular interest, but one of them touched on a very private matter, giving some extremely sound advice, and this I imagine made me place more reliance on what followed.

May 8, 1910.

My name is Verttyg. What do you wish to hear to-day?

(Of the spirit-world, please. Can you tell me about the life after death?)

Yes, we can tell you about this life, now that you think there is a spirit-world to know about, and try to realise that you are one day to think this thought thoroughly true. This is a world that you will enter this year.

(This was such a shock to me that I asked, Is it Verttyg who is writing? The answer came immediately.)

Yes. This is a world that you will enter when you are not very far through your earthly life, for you are no ...

(Here I broke off in an agony of fear, and said I had always understood that spirits had no right to give information on such subjects.)

Yes, we have a right to tell you this, for you try to take the thought bravely, and you can bear it, if it is right for you to know, because God has given you strength to bear it.

(You wrote "this year." Is this really true?)

Yes, this year will not end without your being taken away from your friends to this land of peace, and then you will understand that there is the thought of much that is helpful in writing to you thus.

You will try to think of all we have told you, and will help your family to try and think about it too, for God wishes them to know the truth of all we have told you this time.

(Must I tell them that I am going to die this year?)

Yes, for God wishes it. You must not take it so to heart, for God wants you here to work for him, and will help you to think differently to what you do now.

(Here I asked about some people who were looking to me for help.)

They will miss you terribly, and they will never forget the help you have given them, for they are thinking of you this time, though they do not know the trouble you are in, for they love you so much that they know when things go badly with you.

(You would not use the expression "go badly," would you?)

No, we do not, for we know the truth, and know that you are really entering the life eternal, and though you are not ready to write thus [here the writing became very rapid] we have tried to make it easy for you, so that you may have peace and comfort to-day, and we will help you to take this trouble well and bravely, and help you to write well too, for we know how difficult it is to believe that everything is for the best in this world ... You have tried so hard to think bravely of this, and God is pleased with you, and will help you more than we can, for he is the power of all. You must not write any more now, for you are much too tired, and we may not stay to tell you more. You may be quite sure that we shall be with you, and that God will help you to bear this news with hope and power...

Verttyg not Monterrison.

[Verttyg always ended like this, and maintained that Monterrison, who tried to communicate once, was an evil spirit.]

Several other messages of similar tenor were received during following days. They repeated and emphasized the prediction of my imminent death, and cheered me up with religious exhortations of very impressive character. On May 11 my spiritualistic friend came over, and was horror-struck to find that I firmly believed in the messages, for she was absolutely convinced they were false. She went home and received the following from her friends on the other side:

"We are convinced your friend is being misled. She is not in communication with her own guides. Let her cease writing. We advise her strongly to turn her mind away from the whole subject for awhile. She will have light shed on her path before long, which will make the reason of this matter clear. You need have no fear for her, she has strong guides of her own, who will take good care of her. And the time will come when they will make themselves known to her, but this is a necessary preparation. You must remember it is by bitter sorrow oft-times that lessons are learnt, and we can only say that all inquirers after spiritual truth have at some time to face these dangers - and we would add, they will never be left without warning or advice... 

"There is a strange admixture of truth and falsehood in the communications first received, when the operator's or rather the medium's hand is not under proper control, and the impressions received and transmitted come from diverse sources. Let your friend divest herself of any idea of truth in the message which has been given her. We are convinced it is false."

Extract from a Message received through the Same Friend, later on:

"We see your friend herself very clearly - more clearly than some of her surroundings on this side, but we do see a very steady and strong aura, which gives no sign of any passing out of earthly conditions, and we can enter into her surrounding to some extent, enough to be able to gauge the amount of psychic development she has reached. She has great power in that direction, which it would be of great help and benefit to herself and others to develop to a much larger extent than at present ... In this matter it is better to go slowly and surely, and where there is not a superabundance of physical health it is better to use psychic faculty very sparingly... We know that there must be some preliminary communication between you on earth and those in this sphere, before any individual soul can come into direct communication with those who are its true guides, and spiritual directors. Happy are those who are not dismayed by those whom one may call interlopers on the spirit side, but press on to what lies beyond ... "

(Can you assign any reason for the message being given?)

"We cannot assign the motive in this particular case. Sometimes it is evil, sometimes it is a mistaken idea on the part of the communicating spirit, and very often it is from pure love of fooling people. Your friend's powers will not cease through remaining in abeyance for a time . . . and more light will shine on what now seems such a strange and inexplicable tangle ... Above all let her put the thought of dying out of her head."

Notes made by N. C., January 1911

Now that the message has proved false, I should like to add a few notes to the preceding communications before time dims my impressions. For three day and nights, in my ignorance and inexperience, I was certain - without the shadow of a doubt - that I had received my death-sentence. The shock just at first was appalling, and the horror of the first night, when I imagined the fulfilment of the message might take place at any moment, I cannot describe; but though I had my bad times afterwards, a most wonderful strength came to me, and I was enabled, by some means quite outside myself, to carry on my work just as usual, and to laugh and joke with the children even during the first few days. Not a soul in the house guessed there was anything wrong, and throughout the time (eight months) I was kept calm and collected, and found I could enter into everything that was going on, and after the first shock it was quite easy to keep up and "play the game." The last few days of the year, which I had rather dreaded, were full of peace, and I felt that I was being watched and guarded in a most wonderful way. I slept alone throughout the time, and as a rule was not troubled by sleeplessness.

A curious incident was that towards the latter part of the year an old servant of ours had a very unhappy dream about my being ill and apparently dying. I only heard this through a third person, who of course knew nothing of the message. Perhaps this was telepathic from my mind.

I am glad to be able to say that the heroine of the foregoing experience is still alive and well. She has occasionally tried automatic writing since, and some deceased relatives purported to communicate; but they produced no evidential matter, and on one occasion when they tried, they went quite astray. Miss Curtis therefore wisely ceased experimenting.

As to "explanations," there are two principal ones, and the reader may take his choice. (1) The spirits were genuine, but they were either mistaken or deliberately deceitful. (2) The whole affair was the concoction of a subliminal stratum of the automatist's own mind, and was analogous to the baseless fabrics which all of us - more or less - build up in our dreams. For my part, this second theory is the one I adopt, at least provisionally.

These warnings of coming disaster are fairly common. I know a case - too long to give here in full, though I have the narrative in manuscript - in which the automatist was told by the "spirits" to throw up his employment and leave his home in Mexico City, because this latter was going to be destroyed by an earthquake in consequence of its extreme wickedness. He was ordered to go to New York, where he would obtain employment in the newspaper business. Having received more or less evidential messages at times, such as correct diagnosis and prognosis of a relative's illness, the automatist had become convinced of the genuineness of the spirits, and he therefore sold up his effects and cleared out of Mexico with wife and family. A few days after his arrival in New York the "spirits" informed him that they had purposely fooled him, in order to teach him that spirits had no concern with material things! He was naturally somewhat disgusted; but, on the other hand, he had derived so much benefit from the advice of his "spirits" in other things (he had given up tobacco and alcohol and had resumed the dropped practice of going to church, all at their suggestion) that he did not feel disposed to condemn them utterly. He has now harnessed them to the task of short story writing, and they seem to supply him with plots as R. L. Stevenson's brownies did in his dreams. The prophesied destruction of Mexico was to take place about April 1910.

This reminds me of another catastrophe-prophecy. Quite recently I received a long series of communications from an American automatist (not the hero of the Mexico episode), whose controls included Professor William James, Dr. Richard Hodgson, Professor Lombroso, W. T. Stead, and the late King Edward! These famous entities had a somewhat alarming tale to tell. They inform us that there is going to be some sort of geological upheaval and subsidence on a gigantic scale in Western Europe, and that the British Isles will sink bodily below the level of the sea. The date of this event is fixed at July 1914, or thereabouts; and we are warned to flee while there is yet time. Probably my readers, being - like myself - of an incredulous and stiff-necked generation, will neglect the kindly warning, and will continue to take thought for the morrow, even for morrows extending beyond July 1914. Perhaps the messages were the result of telepathy from the mind of some Canadian or other emigration agent!


The article above was taken from "Spiritualism and Psychical Research" (London: T. C. & E. C. Jack) by J. Arthur Hill.


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