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 Dr Thornton, etc

 - J. Arthur Hill -

         THE FOLLOWING matter consists of selections from the automatic script produced by my friend Dr. Thornton and his daughter - or sometimes with Mrs. Thornton. The psychic power was always on the distaff side, so to speak, for Dr. Thornton himself has no automatic tendencies. But apparently he can serve as carbon to the zinc of his wife or daughter, when working Planchette or ouija. I vouch for his seriousness and accuracy so far as ordinary human accuracy can go; and in support I may add that he has taught science in one of our best schools, is a D. D. of Cambridge, and has written several standard works in theology.

I quote from his own written account, as usual. (In letters mostly, hence the colloquial and sometimes jocular tone.)

As to evidentiality, most of our communications have been of a nature difficult or impossible to verify. Some were predictions, which mostly turned out wrong. A good deal of the matter struck me as most probably subconscious creations of the ego. But at the same time some of the communications I find great difficulty in assigning to this cause. Several matters I am perfectly convinced neither I nor May [daughter] knew anything about at any time. This of course would not necessarily imply "spirits" at work, but might be explained by telepathy from somewhere. Two or three things I probably can verify. As regards the verses, they were very queer. I am perfectly certain that they are not my work, and I don't think they are hers. Their quality I should call rather poor. They were dictated out (on planchette) line by line, and where we misread a word it was immediately after corrected in the next writing. "No, no ... so and so," &c. The poet "spirit" gave his name as John.

"John who?" I inquired.

"Only John."

Apparently the entity had had a godfather and godmother, but no parents! Later on, however, he remembered that his surname was Santley.


The traveller saw as he rose to look
The sparkling drops of the rippling brook;
"Why must I work and toil?" said he,
"When the sun shines bright and the birds are free?"
An angel was listening and heard his plaint,
He went to his Master and made him acquaint.
"What, O Lord, shall I tell him, pray?
Tell me, O Master, what shall I say?"

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Bells are ringing, children singing
     Loud and clear,
Angels hear them, bending near them,
     Devils fear,
Sin surrounding, grief abounding,
     Can't come near.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Sorrow the lonely sat on her throne,
Her court was lighted with jewels rare.
Her musick consisted of many a groan,
Then woe to the fair! woe to the fair!

As she watched the crowd on the left and right,
She sighed to think that the burden care
Must follow mankind in its earthly flight,
Then what is the good of being fair?

As long as the world shall last, I say,
Sorrow must sit on her throne and sigh,
As long as the earth shall keep her sway,
The souls of men shall live and die.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

We sought the key of heaven, the golden key of life,
For with it one may open the palace of delight;
Then you and I may enter and leave this world of strife;
We sought among the wealthy, but oh, we could not find
The treasure we were seeking, because our eyes are blind.

There seems a dreamy groping after good sense and good expression, amid the bathos and irrelevancy. The following, however, are somewhat farcical:

I saw her in the morning, 
I spoke to her at noon, 
I kissed her in the evening 
Under the harvest moon: 
We met again one evening, 
The stars were shining bright. 
I told her that I loved her,
Said she, "I do not quite."
But woe to me and sorrow!
I wished we'd never met:
She left me on the morrow,
Her face I can't forget.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

In the shade of the trees I shall meet her,
When the sun has gone down in the west,
Ah! shall I be able to keep her, 
Or will she be taken to rest?

On inquiry as to the remainder of the "poem," "John" replied "Wait, have patience." After a pause, he added, "Can't remember more." My wife declares she believes that it is all some philandering reminiscence of mine - which suggestion I repudiate.

The other day, however, we got a rather evidential sort of thing. You know by name A. B    [a well-known novelist] who is the son of a neighbour and friend of ours. A. B    married the daughter of Captain C. Well, the A. B   s are interested in this sort of thing, and when they were here last Wednesday we had a try. Mrs. B., it turned out, could work ouija most rampagiously. Her father, I may add, is - or was - quite sceptical; one of the "all humbug" sort. However, we surprised him a little. Mrs. B. and I were writing, and "Frederick Cartwright" turned up. Captain Cartwright said he was not sure what his grandfather's Christian name was (had forgotten), but it might be Frederick. We tried the following tests of identity, which Capt. C. said no one in the room but himself (not even the daughter) knew, respecting his deceased grandfather.

(1) Year of death.
(2) Age at death.
(3) Town he died in.

The board swiftly and unhesitatingly gave all three correctly - so he said, and was greatly astonished. I must own I was rather surprised myself.

Another time - with Miss F. and myself - the board was very lively, and a Mr. de S., (uncle of a neighbour of ours, lived near, died last May) professed to turn up. He was in Purgatory, and not comfortable. Said he wanted assistance and could be helped by prayer. (He was very anti-Roman-Catholic in life, I understand.) He also went into some family details about his will. [I omit these: private and not very evidential - J. A. H). Later, my wife and Miss F. tried together, and it would do nothing but record "devil, devil, devil," much to their disgust. By the way, Miss F. is an ordinary sort of girl, twenty-five years old, Church of England in religion, and I don't think she has any ideas of intermediate states and prayers for the dead. I should not imagine that the matter about Mr. de S. came out of her "subconscious": more likely mine, if that be the explanation. My mind though, has never run much that way. I have always been accustomed to neither affirm nor deny the efficacy of prayer for those in an intermediate state. The writing is not what I should expect to come out of me, so to speak.

[Dr. Thornton is Church of England: is, in fact, in Orders. - J. A. H.]

The same evening there turned up a Dr. Merrimin, who said he was of Trinity College, Oxford, took a degree in 1784, D.D. about 1820. Died about 1834. Now for a curious little bit. It said he "went to Paradise" in 1850.

"Where were you from 1834 to 1850" I asked.
"In Hades!"

We have never had this word used before. I presume there had been some sort of promotion! Dr. Merrimin said he did not want any special help, and seemed to have nothing particular to say. I have never had any connection with Trinity, Oxford, nor known (I believe) more than one man from there. I will consult a list and see if the facts are correct. [I think they turned out quite untrue. - J. A. H.]

On another occasion my wife and I tried Ouija, both blindfolded. My daughter took down the letters as the board pointed to them. This was the result.

"Emily Tomkinson for Tom remember me don't you remember me servant Birkenhead A. 26."
"Where did you live?"
"Can't say, servant in your house help housekeeper."
"Who was the housekeeper?"
"Pete devil Pete devil wicked old woman. Pete box my ears devil."
"Where is she now?"
"Don't know."
"How long since you passed over?"
"Fifteen years."
"Where did you come from?"
"Where is my father?"
"With us."
"How have you come here?"
"Power given me."
"What time of year were you at my father's house?"
"Summer time?"
"Did Pete behave badly to you?"
"Yes devil fiend take this away."
"Where are you now?"
"Do you like it?"
"Can I do anything for you?"
"What do you want me to pray for?"
"Go higher."
"Are you 'earthbound'?"
"Have you any message for me?
"Will you come again?"
"Why not?"
"Others to see on earth."
"Well, try to come again."
"May come." (Cessation.)

You will note that this young lady is rather free with my (abbreviated) Christian name! It was not so in those days, but perhaps they are more democratic over "yonder!" I have no recollection of any servant named Emily Tomkinson (though I may have forgotten, being mostly away at school), but my father had several housekeepers after my mother died, and one of them was a Mrs. Peet or Peate. She was always very civil to me, but I always thought her a curious-tempered old woman. I know nothing against her, nor did I ever suspect anything. She has been dead many years. My wife of course never saw her, so if it is a case of subconscious mind, it comes from me.

Note that we were blindfolded, M. reading off the messages, and neither of us had the least idea of what was coming till it was all finished and M. showed it me. I have made an exact copy for you.

I must add here the account of a curious thing that happened last Christmas. It rather frightened May. We were writing in the drawing-room, M. sitting near a tall standard brass lamp. We had a "control" who wished to communicate, and I asked his or her name.

"No name," was the answer.

I repeated the question; same answer.

"Nonsense, you must have a name," said I, then, remembering that a previous control had warned me of "evil spirits" and told me that they could be distinguished by their refusal to make a cross if asked (I thought at the time that this was a trifle silly as a test) I said:

"If you won't or can't give a name, make a cross."

Then the curious thing happened. The planchette seemed as if seized with a sudden frenzy; it swept across the board we were writing on, and M. knocked her elbow violently against the lamp-stem. I presumed it was attempting to write "No," from the long, straight mark on the paper. I quietly put it back and said, "Make a cross." It wrote in large (six or eight-inch) letters:

"NO, NO, NO."

"Make a cross or go!" I said.

Thereupon there was written in a firm running hand in large letters:

"Curse you."

No further results followed this. I mention this incident, not as in any sense evidential or (so far as I can see) pointing strongly to any particular thing, but as curious, and I believe quite contrary to anything either of us expected - at the beginning at least. M. was genuinely frightened (she is a sound, wholesome girl, who I believe would face a burglar!) and said she would not sit if there were such things as evil spirits about. I pooh-poohed the idea, but she did not like the phenomenon at all. The feel of the planchette was very strange, when it went off the board on to the floor. It really seemed as if some powerful but unseen grasp had torn it away. I was surprised, but it only stimulated my curiosity.

Another thing. A spiritualist here said to me one day,

"Don't you find you get a lot of suicides turn up to communicate?" It then occurred to me that most of those we got were "spirits" who asserted that they had committed suicide or met with violent deaths of some sort.

I have never tried automatic writing with a free pencil. M. has, once, or perhaps more. On the particular occasion I remember, her hand wrote "Henricus Rex." She gave up the conundrum; but an idea suddenly occurred to me, and I said, "Ask if it is Henry VIII." The answer was "Yes" and some other matter followed, which I believe I did not keep a record of, it being nothing of any moment. I do not see why M.'s mind should revert to that subject. She is not fond of history, and never reads it except as a school-task. Further, I don't think she ever saw or heard of that gentleman under the title of "Henricus Rex." It was a curiously written signature, quite unlike her usual hand. So I took the trouble to get at a copy of King Henry's autograph, but it did not resemble the script. I believe "he" told us he was in Purgatory!

A good many people I knew in the flesh have professed to visit us, and from one or two we have got curious information regarding "the other side." But to many of my questions I got the answer: "We cannot explain; too long and too difficult: you will know some day " - which may be true, but is not altogether satisfying. One curious thing is that I never get my mother, and rarely my father. But several controls, when asked to tell us how many people they saw in the room, gave one more than there were. This puzzled me at first, and I asked: "Do you mean including yourself?" The answer would be "No" - adding on two to include the control.

"Who then is the other?" I asked.
"A lady in black."
"Where is she?"
"Near (piano or other furniture.)"
"Who is she?"
"Why does she never come to communicate?"
"Why not?"
"Not allowed."

The following is one of our most evidential experiences, though perhaps it cannot be made very impressive to outsider - To me it was very striking because I am so sure that the answers given (to my wife's questions) involved knowledge which I did not possess and never had possessed. I was operating planchette with May - who was equally unaware of the facts concerning the "communicator" - and my wife, though present, was not in contact with either the planchette or us. I am strongly inclined to believe in at least telepathy from her mind, or perhaps - tentatively and provisionally - in a more or less "face-value" interpretation. The following is an exact copy:

"Anyone present?" [Our usual start.]
"Henry Baines."
"Who are you?"
"God's messenger." [He was a missionary.]
(Mrs. T. querying) "Where did you go after I saw you at St. Leonard's?"
(Mrs. T. querying) "Did you lose your life there?
"Spear, poisoned."
Have you any message?"
"Watch and pray."

A few other more or less commonplace remarks followed. The curious thing is that neither I nor May had ever seen or heard of the person, who however was an actual man, whom my wife knew before we were married. The statements made are substantially correct, but Mrs. T. does not know what has become of the man. She has not heard of him, or thought of him for twenty-five years.

The following was also curious:

"Any one present?"
"Bertha Maxwell."
[Name unknown to May and self, who were working planchette.]
"Do you know anyone here?"
"Yea, Emily would remember me." [i.e., Mrs. T.]
"Were you a friend of hers?"
"No, servant."
"Are you in the room?" 
"By May."
"Which side?"
"Did you ever see me before?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Do you know my name?"

[Apparent omission here, of the "spirit's" claim to have been servant of Mrs. Haley, Mrs. T.'s mother.]

"Where did Mrs. H. live when you knew her?"
"Kilburn" (hesitatingly).
"What was name of street?" [A test; unknown to me and to May.]
"Will you wait ... know it now."
"Netherwood Street." [Correct.]
"Do you remember how old Emily was when she was there?"
"Four or five years, I think." [About right.]

Communicator went on to say that she died of brain-fever in 1876 at Guy's Hospital, and went to Paradise. These are unverifiable, the girl being lost sight of after leaving Mrs. Haley. Replying to further requests for information, communicator said that Emily was ill once, as a consequence of being put in a too hot bath, that she (communicator) nursed her, that the doctor's name was John Angus, &c. &c. I may have heard some of these details, but am sure that I had never known them all. Still less had May. Therefore something at least of the nature of telepathy seems probable. The events happened over forty years ago, long before I knew Mrs. Haley or her daughter.

[Note by J. A. H. - Perhaps Dr. Thornton does not sufficiently consider the possibilities of subliminal memory. During the twenty-odd years of his married life he has no doubt been told, and has forgotten, many little, incidents of his wife's early life. There is reason to believe that our minds contain a great many memories which we can no longer recall to consciousness, though it is probably too much to say that the subliminal never forgets. However, I do not dogmatise. Certainly Dr. Thornton is more likely to know than I am, as to how much he has known. And he has a thoroughly sound judgment, and wide knowledge of the literature of psychical research, so I hesitate even to demur to any opinion he may express. I now resume his narrative.]

All this would shock my scientific friends here. They would detect incipient softening of the brain, or, approaching (and too early) senile dementia! But I think you will understand and will exonerate me from these serious charges.

I have two sets of friends. One lot say that the whole thing is fraud and delusion, and, I fear (in their hearts) they put me down as a hopeless crank and faddist. The other lot, who are fully persuaded of the facts, in their own minds, regard me as pronounced sceptic, a man who won't be convinced. But this is unfair treatment on both sides. I am neither. I believe there is sufficient phenomena to justify investigation and to encourage hopes of success in some way. And I claim a right to do so - irrisione stuttorum immotus, as Porson would have said! I am neither materialist nor spiritist. The former, however, I think has got the cart in front of the horse; the latter has yet to establish his case. In short, I am a sympathetic inquirer, with no cut-and-dried prejudices in the way of theories or expectations.

This I conceive to be the ideal attitude for those engaged in Psychical investigation. The words put by Emerson into the mouth of the Sceptic, might fitly serve as our motto. "If there are conflicting evidences, why not state them? If there is not ground for a candid thinker to make up his mind, yea or nay - why not suspend the judgment? I weary of these dogmatisers, I tire of these hacks of routine, who deny the dogmas. I neither affirm nor deny. I stand here to try the case. I am here to consider, to consider how it is." It is not a popular attitude, for the populace like something startling and sensational. The man in the street has no patience with the cautious balancer of evidence. He wants to be getting "forrarder." A business man who knew of my interest in psychical research, recently wanted to know just where we have got" - wanted it all boiled down into a sentence. It reminded me somewhat of the question addressed by a lady to an analyst friend of mine: "Oh, Mr. R., how do you analyse things?" Mr. R. grimly replied: "I've put 'em under the microscope and read off the percentages." I did not venture on satire with my psychically inquiring friend - he would have misunderstood. I merely intimated that it was too early to hold opinions, except very provisionally. At which, of course, he sniffed with a kind of contemptuous disappointment.

Well, it is one of our crosses. Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward(1).

(1) Dr. Thornton once had a curious and rather evidential piece of script in which a Flodden Field pikeman turned up and gave information which neither automatist knew, about the battle. I have described the incident in my New Evidence in Psychical Research, p. 146.


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


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