Frank Podmore

Well-known psychical investigator and distinguished author. Elected to the Council of the SPR in 1882 and served for an unbroken period of 27 years. For eight or nine years he held, jointly with Frederic Myers, the office of the honorary secretary. He was a collaborator with Myers and Edmund Gurney in "Phantasms of the Living".

Science and Superstition

 - Frank Podmore -

          IN 1872, in describing some recent visits paid to spirit mediums, the special correspondent of the Times commented on the extraordinary vitality, notwithstanding frequent exposures, of the Spiritualist belief, and the hold that it had obtained on many educated minds(1):

(1) Times, 26th Dec., 1872.

"It is evident," the reviewer continues, "either that the subject is surrounded by unusual difficulties, or that in this matter scientific men have signally failed to do their duty by the public, which looks to them for its facts. We believe the latter to be the case. It may be said, and is said by some, that Spiritualism was long ago investigated, and proved to be a mass of imposture and delusion; but, as a matter of fact, this is not so, for there has never been undertaken an inquiry of that impartial, authoritative, and thorough nature which alone can decide a prejudiced controversy... However absurd the phenomena and paraphernalia of Spiritualism may be, the sifting and settling of the whole matter, once and for all, would be a practical benefit, for which the age would thank our savants at least as much as it thanks them for recondite theories and abstract speculations, half of which are only laid up in print for the next generation to ridicule."

And again, speaking of the Dialectical Committee's Report:

"if it proves nothing else, it proves that it is high time competent hands undertake the unravelling of the Gordian knot. It must be fairly and patiently unravelled, and not cut through. The slash of an Alexandrian blade has been tried often enough, and has never sufficed."

It is singular that the writer in the Times completely ignores a systematic investigation by a competent man of science - Mr. (now Sir William) Crookes - then proceeding, some results of which had already been placed before the public. But in his main argument he has the support not only of Mr. Crookes himself, but of the late Professor Balfour Stewart, who had some eighteen months previously written: 

"We are inclined to endorse the remark of Mr. Crookes, that men of science have shown too great a disinclination to investigate the evidence and nature of these alleged facts, even when their occurrence has been asserted by competent and credible witnesses"(2).

(2) Nature, 27th July, 1871.

Whether men of science were justified in their indifference - an indifference no doubt largely fostered by the belief that the craze would shortly die out of its own accord - is fair matter for debate. Certainly the results achieved by the first French Commission on Animal Magnetism offered little encouragement for interference. And, after all, most scientific workers could fairly plead that they had other tasks for which they were better adapted. But the euthanasia of superstition, which has been looked for in each succeeding decade, still delays its coming; and to this delay the ill-informed and injudicious opposition of some has contributed probably as much as the equally injudicious, if not equally ill-informed, advocacy of others. The dealings of science with Spiritualism form an instructive chapter in the history of human thought. Not the least instructive feature of the chronicle is the sharp contrast between the tone and temper of those men of science who, after examination, accepted, and of those who, with or without examination, rejected the evidence for the alleged physical phenomena. Those who held themselves justified in believing in a new physical force - for de Morgan, Crookes, and other scientific converts did not at the outset, nor in some cases at all, adopt the Spiritualist belief proper showed in their writings a modesty, candour, and freedom from prepossession, which shine the more conspicuously by comparison with the blustering arrogance of some of the self-constituted champions of scientific orthodoxy. The ordinary reader, whose acquaintance with the subject was confined, for instance, on the one side, to the scholarly dissertation by de Morgan, which prefaces his wife's book, From Matter to Spirit - a preface which is perhaps the wisest, as it is unquestionably the wittiest utterance on the subject - and, on the other, to the unmannerly letters contributed by Tyndall to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1868, could hardly fail to be prepossessed in favour of the new views. Again, the obvious candour of Mr. Crookes' articles in the Quarterly Journal of Science, and their judicial tone, present a striking contrast to the inaccuracy, spiteful depreciation, under the shield of anonymity, of other men's work and grotesque self-assertion which disfigured Dr. Carpenter's criticisms(3). The mere prospect of contact with Spiritualism seems to have exercised a deteriorating effect, alike on the mind and the manners. Even Faraday, in his letter of June, 1861, forgot his wonted modesty and courtesy; and Huxley's reply to the Dialectical Society's invitation to co-operate with them is a clumsy thrust altogether unworthy of so distinguished a gladiator.

(3) See his article in the Quarterly Review, Oct., 1871

The present chapter furnishes an outline sketch of the dealings of scientific men in this country with the alleged phenomena of Spiritualism down to 1882. Faraday's demonstration of the part played by unconscious muscular action in table-turning, referred to in chapter 1 of the present book, formed the first contribution to the subject. Later, apparently in June, 1855(4), Sir David Brewster and Lord Brougham attended two sittings with D. D. Home. This is Brewster's contemporary account of the first sitting, dated June, 1855, extracted from his private diary.

(4) I cannot find that the actual date of the sťance is given either by Brewster himself, or by any of the other persons who have published accounts of the incident.

"Last of all I went with Lord Brougham to a sťance of the new spirit-rapper, Mr. Home, a lad of twenty, the son of a brother of the late Earl Home ... He lives in Cox's Hotel, Jermyn Street; and Mr. Cox, who knows Lord Brougham, wished him to have a sťance, and his lordship invited me to accompany him in order to assist in finding out the trick. We four sat down at a moderately sized table, the structure of which we were invited to examine. In a short time the table shuddered, and a tremulous motion ran up all our arms; at our bidding these motions ceased and returned. The most unaccountable rappings were produced in various parts of the table; and the table actually rose from the ground when no hand was upon it. A larger table was produced, and exhibited similar movements... A small hand-bell was then laid down with its mouth on the carpet; and, after lying for some time, it actually rang when nothing could have touched it. The bell was then placed on the other side, still upon the carpet, and it came over to me and placed itself in my hand. It did the same to Lord Brougham. These were the principal experiments. We could give no explanation of them, and could not conjecture how they could be produced by any kind of mechanism"(5).

(5) "The Home Life of Sir D. Brewsler", by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon, PP. 257-8. Edinburgh, 1869.

In September of the same year, in consequence of an erroneous version of the incident having appeared in some American paper, Brewster wrote a letter to the Morning Advertiser, in which he states that though he "could not account for all" that he witnessed at the two sťances, yet "I saw enough to satisfy myself that they could all be produced by human hands and feet"(6). William Cox, at whose hotel the first sitting had taken place, and Benjamin Coleman at once wrote to the Advertiser, pointing out that Brewster's present version of the matter differed materially from that given by him in their presence within a few days of the first sitting. Brewster, accordingly, in a later letter gave a full description of the sitting:

(6) "Morning Advertiser", Oct. 3rd, 1855.

"At Mr. Cox's house, Mr. Home, Mr. Cox, Lord Brougham, and myself sat down to a small table, Mr. Home having previously requested us to examine if there was any machinery about his person, an examination, however, which we declined to make. When all our hands were upon the table noises were heard - rappings in abundance; and, finally, when we rose up the table actually rose, as appeared to me, from the ground. This result I do not pretend to explain; but rather than believe that spirits made the noise, I will conjecture that the raps were produced by Mr. Home's toes, which, as will be seen, were active on another occasion; ... and rather than believe that spirits raised the table, I will conjecture that it was done by the agency of Mr. Home's feet, which were always below it.

"Some time after this experiment Mr. Home left the room and returned, probably to equip himself for the feats which were to be performed by the spirits beneath a large round table covered with copious drapery, beneath which nobody was allowed to look(7).

(7) Home, commenting on this passage, explains that he was seized with a violent fit of coughing and left the room to get a handkerchief (Incidents, First Series, P. 238).

"The spirits are powerless aboveboard ... a small hand-bell, to be rung by the spirits, was placed on the ground near my feet. I placed my feet round it in the form of an angle, to catch any intrusive apparatus. The bell did not ring; but when taken to a place near Mr. Home's feet, it speedily came across and placed itself in my hand. This was amusing.

"It did the same thing, bunglingly, to Lord Brougham, by knocking itself against his lordship's knuckles, and, after a jingle, it fell. How these things were produced neither Lord Brougham nor I could say, but I conjecture that they may be produced by machinery attached to the lower extremities of Mr. Home"(8).

(8) "Advertiser", Oct. 12th, 1855.

It will be seen that in the interval between June and October Brewster's mental attitude had undergone a decided change, and that he now finds himself able to "conjecture" - at a distance of some months from the actual facts - how the things were done. It may be urged, indeed, that this change of attitude is due to the discovery of suspicious circumstances at the second sťance, described in the same letter to the Advertiser. But no later discoveries of the kind can explain or excuse positive discrepancies between the earlier and the later account of the first sitting. In the earlier account it is expressly stated that the bell rang on the floor, when nothing could have touched it; in the later account it is stated that the bell did not ring; and various incidents, tending to throw suspicion or ridicule on the performance, are introduced for the first time in the later account. Suppose the positions had been reversed, and that two discrepant accounts of the same sťance, the later account embellished with marvellous details which found no place in the contemporary version, had been published by some preposterous Spiritualist. Brewster would, no doubt, for our warning and edification, have pointed the obvious moral; and perhaps, if the names are changed, the moral will still serve. But the Spiritualists were denied their revenge, for Brewster's diary was only published after his death.

In 1863, as already stated, appeared Mrs. de Morgan's book, From Matter to Spirit, with a preface by her husband. De Morgan's confession of faith is worth quoting:

"I am perfectly convinced that I have both seen and heard, in a manner which should make unbelief impossible, things called spiritual which cannot be taken by a rational being to be capable of explanation by imposture, coincidence, or mistake. So far I feel the ground firm under me. But when it comes to what is the cause of these phenomena, I find I cannot adopt any explanation which has yet been suggested. If I were bound to choose among things which I can conceive, I should say that there is some sort of action of some combination of will, intellect, and physical power, which is not that of any of the human beings present. But, thinking it very likely that the universe may contain a few agencies - say half a million - about which no man knows anything, I cannot but suspect that a small proportion of these agencies - say five thousand - may be severally competent to the production of all the phenomena, or may be quite up to the task among them. The physical explanations which I have seen are easy, but miserably insufficient: the spiritual hypothesis is sufficient, but ponderously difficult. Time and thought will decide, the second asking the first for more results of trial"(9).

(9) Pages v., vi.

This extract gives a fair indication of de Morgan's position. Briefly, he contends that the Spiritualists - whatever we may think of their conclusions - are in the right both in their spirit and their method; and that the champions of physical science, who refuse to investigate for themselves, and sneer at those who do, on the ground that the things alleged are impossible, are as unquestionably in the wrong. For himself he pins his faith on a maxim laid down by Aristotle:

"Now things which have happened are manifestly possible: for if they had been impossible, they would not have happened."

For us, it is true, the effect of the homily is liable to be impaired because, in the single illustration of the practical working of his principle which he allows himself to give, it is unfortunately obvious that the homilist has been gulled by a clever adventuress(10).

(10) See the description of his sťance with Mrs. Hayden, quoted above, pp. 6, 7.

At the trial of Lyon v. Home, in 1868, extracts from this preface were read in court; and testimony was also furnished by Cromwell Varley, Robert Chambers, Dr. Gully, and other persons of scientific repute. This provoked a retort from Professor Tyndall, who, whilst the trial was still proceeding, wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette(11) a letter giving an account of an episode in which Faraday had been concerned some years previously. According to Tyndall, after Faraday had accepted an invitation to examine the manifestations occurring in Home's presence, the investigation fell through because the conditions required by Faraday were not accepted. Tyndall's account of the incident was certainly inadequate, if not actually misleading, as appeared when, in response to a challenge from Home, the original correspondence between Faraday and Sir Emerson Tennant was published. Faraday, it would seem, assented with reluctance to entering upon the proposed investigation, on the condition that he received satisfactory answers to a string of questions, of which an extract will suffice to show the purport:

(11) May 5th, 1868.

"If the effects are miracles, or the work of spirits, does he (Home) admit the utterly contemptible character, both of them and their results, up to the present time, in respect either of yielding information or instruction, or supplying any force or action of the least value to mankind?"

From the whole tone of the letter it is clear that Faraday had made up his mind that the phenomena were delusive or fraudulent, and Home an impostor, and that he had no desire to conceal his opinion. Whether Faraday's conclusions were justified or not, no philosopher was justified in undertaking an inquiry of which he had so ostentatiously prejudged the issue; nor could the subject of the proposed inquiry have been fairly blamed for declining a trial in which the judge had already pronounced sentence. As a matter of fact, it appears that the proposal was declined by Robert Bell, the intermediary in the matter, without even consulting Home.

The letter was of course altogether unworthy of Faraday's high character and scientific eminence, and was no doubt the outcome of a moment of transient irritation(12). The position taken was quite indefensible. It would have been reasonable for Faraday to plead that his time was too much occupied with his proper work to undertake a task of this kind; or that he was not qualified for an investigation which confessedly led or might lead beyond the limits of the physical sciences. But to enter upon a judicial inquiry by treating the subject-matter as a chose jugee was surely a parody of scientific methods. Faraday either had grounds sufficient for condemning Home, or he had not. In the former case an inquiry was superfluous, and could only be mischievous; in the latter Home and his manifestations were alike entitled to strictly neutral treatment.

(12) This was the view taken at the time by Mr. F. T. Palgrave ("Pall Mall Gazette", May 16th) and the editor ("Pall Mall Gazette", May 22nd, 1868).

But if illogical, Faraday's attitude was readily intelligible. As a man of common sense, he was no doubt repelled by the follies of which he heard; as a man of fastidious honour, he was sickened by the chicanery undoubtedly practised in many cases; as a man of deeply religious feeling, he was shocked by the facile irreverence which heard celestial revelations in an entranced medium's babble. But if Faraday's error was a venial one, Tyndall, in endorsing his master's conduct and following his example after its errors had been pointed out to him, has little excuse. "Faraday," writes his disciple, "regarded the necessity even of discussing such phenomena as are ascribed to Mr. Home as a discredit, to use no stronger term, to the education of this age. Still ... having in this spirit satisfied his own mind that these reputed spiritualistic phenomena were only worthy of the scorn or pity of all intelligent persons," he was willing to investigate them! Naturally, Tyndall's own offer to investigate "in the same spirit" was not accepted(13).

(13) "Pall Mall Gazette", May 18th, 1868.

In his Fragments of Science for Unscientific People(14) Tyndall furnishes a sample of his mode of investigation. The date of the solitary sťance which he describes is not given, but from another source we learn that it took place in the early sixties, at the house of Mr. Newton Crosland(15). The sťance was a failure; nothing occurred which could not have been effected by fraud or accident. Tyndall claims, however, to have checked one or two intended movements of the table; he further asserts that the medium, after boasting that she was so sensitive as to be rendered seriously ill by the mere presence of a magnet in the room, failed to detect a magnet in Tyndall's pocket, within a few inches of her person; and that some of the company attributed to spirit influence movements and sounds which were actually caused by Tyndall himself. Tyndall's account of the sitting is quite possibly correct, but we have only his own word for it, and the fact that at the time he kept his experiments and observation to himself, so as to shut out all possibility of corroborative evidence, gives an appearance of unfairness to his article which is much to be regretted. As we have already seen, even a distinguished physicist is liable, like ordinary mortals, to make serious mistakes in his report of a sťance, and, as a matter of fact, Tyndall's version of the evening's performance was challenged, on publication, by his host(16).

(14) London, 1871. 
(15) See his "Apparitions", p. 24. London, 1873.
(16) See Crosland's "Apparitions".

But even if the accuracy of the narrative is admitted, the propriety of publishing it is dubious. The sťance was admittedly unsuccessful; no fraud was actually detected; and it hardly seems worth while to have written an article to prove that some Spiritualists were credulous and some mediums imaginative. But when dogs are to be beaten any stick will serve(17).

(17) In his "Spiritualism; a narrative with a discussion" (Edinburgh, 1871), P. P. Alexander devotes an appendix of several pages to demonstrating the futility of Tyndall's arguments. But the demonstration is hardly needed.

In 1869, however, an inquiry on an extended scale was undertaken. In January of that year the London Dialectical Society appointed a committee to investigate the alleged phenomena. The committee, as ultimately constituted, consisted of some thirty-odd persons, of whom the most notable were A. R. Wallace, Serjeant Cox, Charles Bradlaugh, H. G. Atkinson, Dr. James Edmunds, and several other physicians and surgeons. The committee invited the co-operation of Professor Huxley and G. H. Lewes, but both declined, the former on the ground that "supposing the phenomena to be genuine, they do not interest me. If anybody would endow me with the faculty of listening to the chatter of old women and curates in the nearest cathedral town, I should decline the privilege, having better things to do"(18).

(18) "Report of the Dialectical Society", p. 229.

The committee's labours extended over eighteen months. Evidence, oral or written, was received from a large number of persons who believed the phenomena to be genuine, but the committee explain that they had "almost wholly failed to obtain evidence from those who attributed them to fraud or delusion"(19). The committee further investigated the matter experimentally by means of six sub-committees, who were at liberty to invite mediums and other persons to assist in their researches.

(19) "Report", p.1

In the event the committee reported that the great majority of their number had themselves witnessed several phases of the phenomena without the presence of any professional medium, and that the evidence thus obtained appeared to establish, amongst other things, the occurrence of sounds and movements of heavy bodies without the use of mechanical contrivance, or the exertion of adequate muscular force. In conclusion, the committee, 

"taking into consideration the high character and great intelligence of many of the witnesses to the more extraordinary facts, the extent to which their testimony is supported by the reports of the subcommittees, and the absence of any proof of imposture or delusion as regards a large portion of the phenomena; and further, having regard to the exceptional character of the phenomena, the large number of persons in every grade of society and over the whole civilised world who are more or less influenced by a belief in their supernatural origin, and to the fact that no philosophical explanation of them has yet been arrived at, deem it incumbent upon them to state their conviction that the subject is worthy of more serious and careful investigation than it has hitherto received"(20).

(20) Ibid., pp. 5, 6.

Unfortunately the names of the signatories to this report are not given. It would seem, however, that at least two members of the original committee, Charles Bradlaugh and Dr. Edmunds, were unable to accept the finding of their colleagues(21). As will be seen from the names quoted, several prominent members were already committed, not indeed to the spirit hypothesis, but to a belief in the genuineness of the physical phenomena; nor does it appear that any of the committee had special qualifications for the delicate investigation which they had undertaken. Again, though reports are printed of various sub-committees, together with detailed minutes of the sittings, the names of the experimenters, and even of the members of the sub-committees, are furnished in one case only: Sub-Committee No. 5, which, included Dr. Edmunds and Charles Bradlaugh, had four sittings with Home, but the phenomena witnessed were feeble and inconclusive. Moreover, there are many indications that the work of the other sub-committees was not carried on under sufficiently rigorous conditions, or with due regard to accuracy.

(21) Ibid., pp. 50 and 279.

The following description of a sitting is extracted from the Report of Sub-Committee No. 1. the most persevering and most successful of all the sub-committees:

"On an occasion when eleven members of your sub-committee had been sitting round one of the dining-tables above described for forty minutes, and various motions and sounds had occurred, they, by way of test, turned the backs of their chairs to the table, at about nine inches from it. They all then knelt upon their chairs, placing their arms upon the backs thereof. In this position their feet were, of course, turned away from the table, and by no possibility could be placed under it or touch the floor. The hands of each person were extended over the table at about four inches from the surface. Contact, therefore, with any part of the table could not take place without detection.

"In less than a minute the table, untouched, moved four times; at first about five inches to one side, then about twelve inches to the opposite side, and then, in like manner, four inches and six inches respectively.

"The hands of all present were next placed on the backs of their chairs, and about a foot from the table, which again moved, as before, five times, over spaces varying from four to six inches. Then all the chairs were removed twelve inches from the table, and each person knelt on his chair as before, this time, however, folding his hands behind his back, his body being thus about eighteen inches from the table, and having the back of the chair between himself and the table. The table again moved four times in various directions. In the course of this conclusive experiment, and in less than half an hour, the table thus moved, without contact or possibility of contact with any person present, thirteen times, the movements being in different directions, and some of them according to the request of various members of your sub-committee.

"The table was then carefully examined, turned upside down and taken to pieces, but nothing was discovered to account for the phenomena. The experiment was conducted throughout in the full light of gas above the table"(22).

(22) "Report", pp. 10, 11.

The date of this experiment is not given in the Report, and in the detailed minutes of the sittings there is no experiment which precisely corresponds with that above quoted. But sitting No. 38, of December 28th, 1869, may be presumed to be the occasion referred to. If, however, we compare the account given in the minutes, and presumably written at the time, with that quoted from the Report, we find several discrepancies, of which the more important are 1) that only eight members are mentioned as being present; 2) that the second series is stated to have consisted of four movements, not five, as in the Report; 3) that the number of separate movements at the third trial is not stated; 4) that the gas is recorded to have been "turned up higher, so as to give abundance of light," after the first eight experiments, from which it may be inferred that the statement in the Report, "The experiment was conducted throughout in the full light of gas," requires some modification(23).

(23) "Report", pp. 390, 391.

These discrepancies are not, perhaps, in themselves serious their real importance lies in their revealing such slovenliness in the recording as justifies us in attaching little value to the record. There is another fact which throws light on the character of the investigation and the qualifications of those who took part in it. After this, the most successful sitting of the series, only two more meetings, each unsuccessful and each attended by a smaller number of members, are recorded to have been held. What manner of investigators were these who, having just obtained a striking demonstration of the action of a new force, were content to break off their experiments without making repeated attempts to obtain at least a renewal of the demonstration, if not fresh light on the nature of the new force and the conditions of its operation!

It should be added that Serjeant Cox, in his evidence before the committee(24), describes at length an experiment at which some remarkable movements of the table were observed. He refers to this experiment as "the most conclusive evidence myself and the scientific investigators [and apparently, the sub-committee] have yet had of motion without contact." Yet this remarkable sťance, which is said to have taken place on the 3rd March, 1871, is not referred to in the Reports, or recorded in the minutes, of any of the sub-committees; another instance of the slovenliness which appears to have characterised throughout the proceedings of the committee.

(24) Ibid., pp. 102, 103.

The work done by the Dialectical Society was, no doubt, of value, since it has brought together and preserved for us a large number of records of personal experiences by representative Spiritualists. For those who wish to ascertain what Spiritualists believed at this time, and what phenomena were alleged to occur, the book may be of service. But, except in the Minority Report by Dr. Edmunds, there is no trace of any critical handling of the materials, and the conclusions of the committee can carry little weight.

And yet, with the single exception of the work done by Mr. Crookes, described below, the Report of the Dialectical Society represents up till 1882 the only attempt in this country at a systematic investigation, by any man or body of men having serious pretensions to scientific qualifications, of the phenomena of Spiritualism. This statement is not intended to disparage the value of the testimony of men like Cromwell Varley, Dr. A. R. Wallace, and Lord Lindsay (the present Earl of Crawford). But none of these gentlemen have published any record of systematic investigations on scientific lines. Dr. Wallace, in his Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural(25), already cited, refrains from recounting his own experiences, as not demonstrative, and contents himself with quoting the testimony of others. Mr. Varley's evidence before the Dialectical Committee has been already referred to, and an isolated experiment of his own with Miss Cook is described below. Lord Lindsay's evidence will most conveniently be considered in connection with Home's mediumship, to which it almost exclusively relates(26).

(25) London, 1866. 
(26) See below, Book IV. chaps. iii. and iv.

One other name deserves mention. Dr. Carpenter claims for more than a dozen years to have taken every opportunity which offered for investigating "the higher phenomena of Spiritualism"(27). But his investigations can hardly have been exhaustive, since he expressly states that he always refused to attend a dark sťance, or to investigate phenomena which took place under a table. No doubt Carpenter, following the example of Braid and Faraday, did good service in demonstrating the large part played in many "magnetic," "odylic," and minor spiritualistic phenomena by unconscious expectation and involuntary muscular action. To him we owe also not only the phrase "unconscious cerebration," but a lucid analysis of the physiological mechanism of planchette writing and other automatic manifestations. But of the physical phenomena of Spiritualism in their later developments - and especially of the marvels occurring in the presence of Home he can give no adequate account. He was content to write them down as fraudulent, without in most cases attempting, or as in the case of Crookes' experiments with Home, after attempting with conspicuous ill-success, to demonstrate how the fraud was accomplished. As already indicated, the effect of his really relevant criticism was impaired by the extraordinary egotism and malevolence which he displayed(28).

(27) Quarterly Review, Oct., 1871.

(28) See his articles in the "Quarterly Review" for September, 1853, and October, 1871; his lectures on Mesmerism Spiritualism, etc., published in 1877; and the chapter on "Unconscious Cerebration," in his Physiology. In the later article in the Quarterly he writes of Cromwell Varley as a man "possessing considerable technical knowledge ... but his scientific attainments are so cheaply estimated ... that he has never been admitted to the Royal Society." Mr. Varley had been elected to the Fellowship some months before this statement appeared. Of Mr. (now Sir William) Huggins he writes as "a brewer, a scientific amateur," lacking "a broad basis of general culture," and "owing his success to his association with a justly distinguished professor." Mr. Huggins was not a brewer; and the present generation can judge how far Carpenter's spiteful depreciation was justified. Mr. Crookes he describes as a "specialist of the specialists," an investigator whose ability was "purely technical," and added, "We speak advisedly when we say that (the Fellowship of the Royal Society) was conferred on him with considerable hesitation." When this latter statement was brought to the notice of the Council of the Royal Society, that body passed a special resolution regretting its publication, on the double ground that it was incorrect in point of fact, and that its publication was a breach of the usages of the Society. 

In an article published in the Quarterly Journal of Science for July, 1870, Mr. Crookes announced that he had entered upon a systematic investigation of the physical phenomena of Spiritualism. In the course of the next two or three years he published in the same periodical articles setting forth some of the results of his investigations. As the experiments described in these articles related for the most part to manifestations observed in the presence of Home, they can most conveniently be discussed in a later chapter, in connection with Home's mediumship in general(29). In the early part of 1874, however, Mr. Crookes was led into a further pronouncement on the subject of Spiritualism. At a sťance with Miss Cook as medium, held in the previous December, Mr. VoIckman, who had borne a prominent part on the committee of the Dialectical Society, had, as already described(30), seized the supposed spirit form of "Katie" as she walked about the room. Mr. Volckman found himself grasping a solid and strongly reluctant wrist, and held on to it until the attacks of the spirit form, aided by the efforts of two of the sitters, compelled him to desist. Mr. Volckman then expressed the opinion that the form which he had seized was that of the medium herself masquerading as a spirit. In the newspaper discussion which followed, Mr. Crookes, as one who had the genuineness tested and satisfied himself of the materialisations exhibited in Miss Cook's presence, felt bound to intervene. In his first letter the only proof offered, beyond the assertion of his own conviction, of the independent existence of the spirit form was that, on one occasion, in the house of Mr. Luxmoore, when "Katie" was standing before him in the room, Mr. Crookes had distinctly heard from behind the curtain the sobbing and moaning habitually made by Miss Cook during such sťances(31).

(29) Book IV. chap. iii. 
(30) Above, page 103.
(31) Letter to the "Spiritualist", 6th Feb., 1874.

The evidence, no doubt, left something to be desired, and in two later letters Mr. Crookes essayed to supply the deficiency(32). At a sťance at his own house on March 12th, 1874, "Katie," robed in white, came to the opening of the curtain and summoned him to the assistance of her medium. Mr. Crookes followed "immediately," and found Miss Cook, clad in her ordinary black velvet dress, lying across the sofa. But "Katie" had vanished, and he did not actually see the two forms together. Nor did he apparently ever succeed in seeing the faces of "Katie" and Miss Cook simultaneously in his own house. Later, however, he claims to have seen their forms together, in a good light. Miss Cook gave a series of sittings in May of this year (1874) at Mr. Crookes' house for the purpose of allowing "Katie" to be photographed. The sittings took place by electric light, and five cameras were at work simultaneously. Miss Cook would lie down on the floor behind a curtain with her face muffled in a shawl, and "Katie," when ready, would appear in the full light, in front of the curtain. Mr. Crookes adds:

(32) Ibid., April 3rd and June 5th, 1874. All three letters are included in the reprint of Mr. Crookes' articles from the "Quarterly Journal of Science", published by James Burns, under the title, "Researches in Spiritualism". London (no date).

"I frequently drew the curtain on one side when Katie was standing near, and it was a common thing for the seven or eight of us in the laboratory to see Miss Cook and Katie at the same time, under the full blaze of the electric light. We did not on these occasions actually see the face of the medium, because of the shawl, but we saw her hands and feet; we saw her move uneasily under the influence of the intense light, and we heard her moan occasionally. I have one photograph of the two together, but Katie is seated in front of Miss Cook's head."

Even here, it will be seen, full proof is wanting. Apparently all that Mr. Crookes and his fellow-observers actually saw, besides the figure of "Katie," was a bundle of clothes on the floor, with a shawl at one end, a pair of boots at the other, and something like hands attached to it. As "Katie" generally, if not invariably, appeared barefooted, the boots presented no special difficulty.

Nor do the photographs themselves - some of which, by the courtesy of Sir W. Crookes, I have lately been permitted to examine - afford more conclusive evidence. It was admitted even at the time, and by believers, that "Katie's" appearance differed widely on different occasions, and that at many sťances she strongly resembled the medium. This was unquestionably the case during these photographic experiments. Side by side with the photographs of the supposed "Katie," Sir W. Crookes has placed some photographs taken about the same time, and under as nearly as may be the same conditions, of Miss Cook herself. The likeness between the two sets is unmistakable. Nor is it possible to substantiate any real difference in the features. The apparently greater breadth of the "spirit" face may well be due to the fact that, whereas Miss Cook wore hanging ringlets, "Katie's" hair is effectually concealed by the drapery, which in most cases comes down over the forehead, and falls in two thick folds on either side of the head, something like the headgear of a sphinx. Again, as Miss Cook, when photographed, wore her ordinary dress, which concealed her feet, the apparent difference in height on some occasions between herself and the spirit figure cannot be relied upon. One piece of evidence would, indeed, have been conclusive - that the ears of the spirit form should have appeared intact, for Miss Cook's ears were pierced for earrings. But the encircling drapery effectually concealed both the ears and the hair of the spirit "Katie."

But conclusive evidence of the simultaneous appearance of two figures was at length obtained. At a sťance held on March 29th Mr. Crookes reports:

"Katie ... for nearly two hours walked about the room conversing familiarly with those present, on several occasions she took my arm when walking ... Katie now said she thought she should be able this time to show herself and Miss Cook together. I was to turn the gas out, and then come with my phosphorus lamp into the room now used as a cabinet. This I did, having previously asked a friend who was skillful at shorthand to take down any statement I might make when in the cabinet, knowing the importance attaching to first impressions, and not wishing to leave more to memory than necessary. His notes are now before me.

"I went cautiously into the room, it being dark, and felt about for Miss Cook. I found her crouching on the floor. Kneeling down, I let air enter the lamp, and by its light I saw the young lady dressed in black velvet, as she had been in the early part of the evening, and to all appearance perfectly senseless; she did not move when I took her hand and held the light quite close to her face, but continued quietly breathing. Raising the lamp, I looked around and saw Katie standing close behind Miss Cook. She was robed in flowing white drapery as we had seen her previously during the sťance. Holding one of Miss Cook's hands in mine, and still kneeling, I passed the lamp up and down so as to illuminate Katie's whole figure, and satisfy myself thoroughly that I was really looking at the veritable Katie whom I had clasped in my arms a few minutes before, and not at the phantasm of a disordered brain. She did not speak, but moved her head and smiled in recognition. Three separate times did I carefully examine Miss Cook crouching before me to be sure that the hand I held was that of a living woman, and three separate times did I turn the lamp to Katie and examine her with steadfast scrutiny until I had no doubt whatever of her objective reality."

Mr. Crookes further ascertained on this occasion that a blister on Miss Cook's neck was wanting on "Katie's," and that "Katie's" ears were not pierced for earrings.

At a later sťance held on the 21st of May, Mr. Crookes was privileged to be present, behind the curtain, at the farewell meeting between Miss Cook and "Katie," and saw and heard the two figures conversing together for several minutes.

There can be no reasonable doubt that on these two occasions, at any rate, the figure of "Katie," seen, heard, and touched by Mr. Crookes and most of those present, was not that of Miss Cook masquerading as a spirit, but was a separate entity of some kind. Both sťances were in fact held, by Miss Cook's special invitation, in her own home and in presence of several members of her family, and the room used as a dark cabinet was the medium's bedroom(33).

(33) See various letters in the "Spiritualist" and the "Medium" in the early part of 1874 referring to these sťances. The evidence was not apparently good enough even for convinced Spiritualists. The editor of the "Spiritualist" expressly states that the sťance of the 21st May was not held under test conditions ("Spiritualist", 10th July, 1874). Mr. J. Enmore Jones, whose acquaintance we have already made in previous chapters, and who cannot certainly be regarded as unduly exacting of evidence, thought the conditions at this final series of sťances by no means satisfactory, and found fault with Mr. Crookes' conduct of the one sťance at which he was present ("Medium", May 22nd, 1874). And, finally, Serjeant Cox, who accepted most of the phenomena, drew the line at materialisation, and asked for more precise evidence of the separate appearance of medium and spirit. What he thought of Mr. Crookes' later observations may perhaps be inferred from the fact that when challenged in the columns of the Medium (June 5th, 1874) to point out in what respect they fell short of his demand for proof on this point, he left the letter unanswered.

It is fair to point out, on the other hand, that, as already indicated, Mr. Crookes' letters on the "Katie" appearances, written to a Spiritualist journal, were primarily intended as a vindication of the character of a young woman whom he held to have been unjustly attacked. If intended as a serious contribution to science, no doubt the conditions themselves would have been stricter, and, for the satisfaction of scientific readers, the whole circumstances of the experiments would have been fully described.

One other experiment of this period calls for mention. In March, 1874, Mr. Cromwell Varley, F.R.S., the well-known electrician, applied an ingenious electrical test to Miss Cook during one of her materialisation sťances. The medium, seated in an inner room darkened for the purpose, was placed in a circuit connected with a resistance coil and a galvanometer, the two instruments being in the outer room in full view of the sitters. The movements of the galvanometer were shown by means of a light reflected from a mirror on to a large graduated scale. The free ends of the wire were soldered to sovereigns, which were fastened, one to each of the medium's arms, by means of elastic bands, some blotting-paper moistened with nitrate of ammonia being interposed between the metal and the skin in order to improve the contact. At the outset, when the blotting-paper was still quite moist, the needle showed a deviation of about two hundred and twenty divisions on the scale. But as the moisture gradually evaporated, and the resistance therefore increased, this deviation as gradually diminished, until at the end of thirty-eight minutes, when the wires were finally removed from the medium's arms, the scale showed a deviation of one hundred and forty-six divisions only. As the movement of the needle on the scale was fairly regular, broken by no such sudden and extreme fluctuations as must have ensued if the medium had removed the wires, it seems clear that the wires remained attached to her person throughout. Yet during this period the figure "Katie" came out before the expectant circle, waved her arms, shook hands with some of her friends, and wrote in their presence.

From this experiment it may legitimately be inferred that, if "Katie" was a spirit, whose apparently solid form was constructed, in accordance with the Spiritualist hypothesis, out of materials drawn from the body of the medium, the abstraction of the required materials in no way affected the electrical resistance of the organism drawn upon. So much may legitimately be inferred. But Mr. Harrison, the editor of the Spiritualist, in printing Mr. Varley's report, adds some comments of his own - comments which, he states, met with the approval of Mr. Varley and Mr. Crookes (who had also been present). Mr. Harrison maintains that the experiment proves that the figure seen outside the curtain could not have been that of the medium. That is not a legitimate inference from the facts stated in Mr. Varley's report. To make it so, it should have been shown, either that the wires attached to the medium were so arranged that it would have been impossible for her to leave her place without breaking the circuit, or that movements such as those made by the figure "Katie" would have involved, if "Katie" were actually Miss Cook, with the wires still attached, more violent oscillations of the needle than were actually observed. As to the first point, there is no indication in the report that the wires in any way restricted the medium's liberty of movement, at any rate, in the direction of the outer room. As to the second point, the needle oscillated, when "Katie" waved her arms, over twenty-one divisions of the scale; but the assumption made by Mr. Varley that the act of writing (during which, of course, the arms would experience no sudden or violent motion) would necessarily have involved oscillation, appears to have been purely gratuitous. There is really nothing in the record to forbid the supposition that Miss Cook left her seat and promenaded as "Katie" with the wires still attached to her arms(34). Reading between the lines, we are forced to recognise that the confidence expressed by scientific witnesses in the genuineness of these "materialisations" is inextricably bound up with their confidence in the personal integrity of the medium, and Miss Cook's later career, at any rate, scarcely allows us to suppose that such confidence was ever well founded(35).

(34) "The Spiritualist", 20th March, 1874.
(35) Mrs. Corner (Miss Cook) was seized in January, 1880, when personating a spirit (see "Spiritual Notes", Feb., 1880; "Spiritualist" for January and February or same year; and my "Studies in Psychical Research", p. 23).

A modification of the experiment was tried a year later by Mr. Crookes on another medium, Mrs. Fay. The investigators sat in Mr. Crookes' laboratory, in front of a curtain. In the library, immediately on the other side of the curtain (the exact distance is not given), the medium was seated in a chair, and two brass handles, wrapped in wet cloths, were given her to hold, the circuit being thus completed. The index of the galvanometer remained practically constant for some eight minutes, and during those eight minutes various articles, placed in the library at a considerable distance from the medium, are reported to have been moved, a hand was seen thrust through the curtain, a locked desk was opened, and so on. At the end of the eight minutes the index went to zero, and the medium was discovered in a fainting condition. In this form of the experiment the manifestations, if performed by the medium, would seem to have involved a movement to a considerable distance away from the battery, and if it may be assumed (for it is not expressly stated) that the length of the wires or their mode of attachment would not have permitted that, it seems clear either that the movements testified to were effected by some extra-corporeal agency, or that the medium did not really link herself with the circuit at all, but placed between the handles some connecting substance of a resistance approximately equal to that of her own body.

As Mrs. Fay, no doubt, knew of the earlier experiments with a similar apparatus, the supposition that she brought with her a small resistance coil and attached it to the handles presents no great difficulty(36). As the circuit was actually broken before the conclusion of the experiment, everything depends upon the precautions taken at the outset to ensure that the medium's body was actually in the circuit. This is how the reporter, Mr. James Burns, the editor of the "Medium", whose report is endorsed by Mr. Crookes himself, describes the precautions observed:

(36) In his "Mechanism of Man" (Vol. ii. p. 446) Serjeant Cox gives an account of a similar sťance with the same medium, at which Messrs. Huggins, Galton, and Crookes were present. Cox does not give the date of the sťance; but he distinctly states that the apparatus was quite new to the medium. If Cox's statement may be relied upon, the meeting described by him must have taken place before that described in the text, and Mrs. Fay must have come to the latter forewarned of the precise nature of the test to be imposed upon her.

"The library was left in darkness, except a little light from the fire. The spectators stood in a circle, round the apparatus, in the laboratory. Before the curtain in the doorway was drawn, Mrs. Fay was asked by Mr. Crookes to grasp the handles. She did so at fifteen minutes past ten o'clock. The streaks of light on the scale at once ran up from zero to two hundred and twenty one divisions, and Mr. Crookes, assisted by Mr. Bergheim, read the amount of resistance at 5,600 B.A. units. Mr. Crookes returned for a moment to the library to see if Mrs. Fay was indeed in her proper place, and the report was satisfactory"(37).

(37) "Medium and Daybreak", March 12th, 1875.

From this account it would not appear that any precautions were taken to ensure that Mrs. Fay's hands were actually in the circuit; if a resistance coil were attached to the handles, it would only have been necessary for the medium in the dim light to approach her hands close to them during Mr. Crookes' momentary inspection. To detect trickery of the kind probably practised, nothing less than a careful inspection in full light would have sufficed.

At the meeting of the British Association held at Glasgow in 1876, in the Anthropological Department, presided over by Dr. A. R. Wallace, a paper was read by Professor W. F. Barrett, F.R.S., entitled "On some Phenomena Associated with Abnormal Conditions of Mind." In this paper Professor Barrett described various experiments of his own and others tending to prove what the Mesmerists of the previous generation called "community of sensation" and "clairvoyance"(38). Professor Barrett expressed the opinion that the results arrived at were not to be entirely explained by hyperaesthesia or normal suggestion. In his own words:

(38) See Book 1. chaps. ix., x.

"When the subject was in the state of trance or profound hypnotism, I noticed that not only sensations, but also ideas or emotions occurring in the operator appeared to be reproduced in the subject without the intervention of any sign, or visible or audible communication ... In many other ways I convinced myself that the existence of a distinct idea in my own mind gave rise to some image of the idea in the subject's mind: not always a clear image, but one that could not fail to be recognised as a more or less distorted reflection of my own thought. The important point is that every care was taken to prevent any unconscious muscular action of the face, or otherwise giving any indication to the subject."

This presumed mode of communication between one individual and another, without the intervention of any known sense, Professor Barrett, arguing on electrical analogies, was inclined to suggest might be due to some form of nervous induction.

Passing on from these experiments, the reader of the paper referred briefly to the physical phenomena of Spiritualism. The more marvellous phenomena, such as levitation and the handling of red-hot coals - which, as he took occasion to point out, occurred generally in darkness or a subdued light - he was inclined to attribute to hallucination. But his own observation, he proceeded to state, tended to show that not all the minor physical phenomena, such as raps and movements of furniture, could be attributed to fraud. He had himself witnessed the raps in broad daylight, out of doors, under conditions which seemed to him to make trickery impossible. Professor Barrett, in conclusion, urged the appointment of a committee of scientific men for the systematic investigation of the phenomena of Mesmerism and Spiritualism. In the discussion which followed not only Mr. Crookes and Dr. Wallace, but Lord Rayleigh and Colonel Lane Fox expressed themselves in favour of some further investigation, being convinced from their own observations that there was something to investigate.

No action was taken at that time on Professor Barrett's suggestion, a result for which the exposure a few days later by Professor Lankester of "Dr." Slade - a medium whose performances had been favourably referred to by more than one speaker in the discussion which followed the reading of the paper - was perhaps mainly responsible.

Professor Barrett, however, continued, as opportunity permitted, his investigations of the subject; and some years later, in January, 1882, a conference, as described in the next chapter, was held at his invitation in London. In the following month, as a result of this conference, the Society for Psychical Research was founded.

Source: Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism by Frank Podmore (2 vols) (London: Methuen, 1902.)


Other articles by Frank Podmore...

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