Hester Travers Smith

(1868-1949) Automatic-writing medium, author and eldest daughter of Prof. Edward Dowden. Wrote Oscar Wilde From Purgatory: Psychic Messages in 1924, which analysed scripts purporting to come from Oscar Wilde. In the preface Sir William Barrett wrote, "it seems that ... they do afford strong prima facie evidence of survival after the dissolution of body and brain." Smith also wrote Voices From the Void (London: E. P. Dutton, 1919) which recorded six years' experience in automatic writing communications. Fellow medium and friend Geraldine Cummins described her as "a cultured woman, a brilliant musician and a remarkable medium."

The Communicator - Evidence for Survival

- Hester Travers Smith -

          I HAVE now arrived at the most vitally interesting question for us all in connection with psychical research. Have we any evidence of the survival and identity of those who have left the visible world? Is any light thrown on this great problem by messages received through the medium? And from my small personal experience I can reply with sincerity I have had some evidence which, if not entirely convincing, points so strongly to the fact that we survive what is called death that it requires more credulity to doubt the fact than to, believe it. But any evidence I have had of the survival of those who have died is slight, and part of what has been convincing to me is not so from a scientific point of view. In this chapter I shall review briefly my experience with what seem genuine communicators. I shall give an account first of those I think evidential from the "test" point of view and secondly some cases which, though not conclusive, were most convincing from the nature of the messages. I leave my readers to draw their own conclusions. If I may venture to advise persons who long to speak once more with those they have loved, who have vanished into darkness, I should say it is wise and sane not to make the attempt. The chances against genuine communication are ten to one; the disappointments and doubts connected with the experiment are great.

Personally, I would not make any effort to speak to the beloved dead through automatic writing or the ouija-board. The evidence they offer of their identity is too ephemeral and unsatisfactory; and as I would not undertake these experiments for myself, I would not willingly help others to risk them, unless in very exceptional cases, when I had fully explained my own doubts on the subject and had undertaken no responsibility that the messages would be genuine. On the other hand, if, in the course of sittings at the ouija-table, dear and familiar names have appeared, I have patiently tried to discover whether they were genuine or the reverse, and in some cases, I am bound to admit, I was inclined to think that they were not impersonations.

I fear the observations I have just made may be very distasteful to many who approach this subject from the spiritualist point of view. I cannot offer these people any apology for my attitude. It may be that they receive genuine help and comfort from their faith in these manifestations from the Unseen; if so, I only trust that they may continue to find this comfort and help. But I do not attempt to address them. What I have to say will interest the student of psychic matters only.

In almost all cases where a discarnate spirit professes to speak I ask for an account of its passing over. These accounts vary very little; they all retain the same features, though some are more detailed than others. In all cases a period of darkness is described as occurring almost immediately after death. This darkness appears to be a penance or purgatory for the soul left thus in lonely and silent meditation, and it is evidently a period of considerable suffering. Yet during this time of darkness the spirit seems to be permitted to speak to those on earth if such opportunity be offered to it. This state does not seem to last long, not more than a week or ten days, so far as I can judge from communicators who come repeatedly and speak of their present condition. They frequently say that when light came, someone was near them, who led them away to the place where, their "work" was. What the nature of this "work" is, they seem unable to explain. Many communicators, when describing their "passing," appear to have had a vision of the body before the darkness enveloped them. Frequently when soldiers killed in battle have spoken they describe how they rose into the air, and thus became aware that they had died. They tell how the battlefield lay below them, with all the horror of its details, and how they saw their own bodies lying on the field. Sometimes the vision extends, and they see the body being carried away and buried. In the same way, some of those who die in their beds describe the body lying there as when the spirit rose from it. They can see the nurses preparing it for burial, the coffin, etc.

Beyond the period of darkness, I have had no clear or definite account of the region in which the spirit dwells or the nature of its occupations. Some sitters known to me, who approach the subject in a more religious and less experimental spirit than myself, have had perfectly lucid accounts of the future state - even the flowers and animals in the sphere to which the spirit is led after the first darkness is past were described in detail. And in the communications received by this circle the meeting of those who had been dear to each other on earth seemed assured. All was peace, love, and tranquillity. The only promise of reunion I have obtained from any communicator is that those whose spirits are merged in each other in the fullest sense of the word - souls created at the same moment (though perhaps sent on their earthly pilgrimage at different times) - will be merged in each other in the future state.

From reviewing hundreds of messages from those who have passed away, I gather that the spirit retains its earth-memory for a time. The time seems to vary with the nature of the individual. The more rarefied and exalted the soul during its earth-life, the shorter its span of earth memory seems to be after it has passed through the barrier. These more highly developed souls seem gradually to rise into a region from which it is perilous to touch the earth atmosphere, except for a few minutes at a time. After this they disappear altogether. Quite lately I had an instance of this. The communicator was a connection of my own, a very refined, gentle, intellectual personality in his earth-life. He came to the ouija-board repeatedly for some time while I happened to be in touch with his family, and spoke in a way which was very evidential to them; he appeared to find it impossible to communicate for more than a few minutes at a time. Then there would be a long pause, and he would come again. He told us that after a short time he would be unable to speak. He had died very suddenly, and seemed to have passed quickly to a state of great peace and happiness, though he gave us no account of his surroundings or occupations; he said it was forbidden, and would, in any case, be incomprehensible to those still alive.

I shall now give details of two cases of communications received by me in conjunction with another sitter (different in each case) through the ouija-board, which consisted of facts absolutely unknown to the mediums, and which were subsequently verified in every detail. The first of these two cases came through in the winter of 1918. Our circle - which I have already referred to in Chapter II - consisted at that time of three sitters - Mr. L., the Rev. S. H., and myself, and a friend who acted as amanuensis and shorthand-writer. During the sittings of this circle, which continued twice weekly for a year or more, we had most remarkable results - the more so because we sat blindfolded. I shall give a fuller account of these sittings in my chapter on Thought Transference. It seemed that the really marvellous power of "seeing without eyes" rested in this instance largely, or perhaps completely, with Mr. L. After he had left Dublin and the circle was broken, the Rev. S. H. and I repeatedly tried to get messages blindfolded, but without success. I have succeeded in getting blindfold work through with other mediums, but none of them have the rapidity and certainty possessed by Mr. L.

The message in question came very slowly - quite unlike others we had had, which were spelt out so rapidly that our shorthand-writer could scarcely put them down quickly enough. It seemed that this communicator was very weak. She gave her name (I shall call her "Alice Franks"). Her address was a house in Upper Norwood, and she told us the name and date of the newspaper in which her death was announced. The message was not a long one; she described her last illness, and said death had just occurred, and had been a happy release from pain. The communication was not in itself especially interesting - many such come to a circle of practised sitters - the evidence of identity was what was remarkable. The lady was absolutely unknown to anyone present, but on investigation every statement made by her at the ouija-board proved correct.

Sir William Barrett was in a position to make a careful investigation of this case, which he kindly did, and learnt from the lady's relatives that the information we had received was undoubtedly genuine, and must have been conveyed to us in some supernormal manner.

I give here a portion of the scrip of this message:

Mrs. Travers Smith, the Rev. S. H., W. L. (All blindfolded.)

(For whom is this message?) Everybody. (Spell your name.) Alice Franks. (Can't you work quicker?) No. (Go on, please.) Your overbearing attitude will not make me go any faster. I lived and died at ... Upper Norwood. (Did you die recently?) Yes. (What date?)... I was unconscious for many days; I believe that I passed over between Friday and yesterday morning. (Have you anything special to say?) My pain was intense, and I am still in pain. Good-bye.

A more striking instance of evidence of identity is one which is quoted by Sir William Barrett in his recent book, On the Threshold of the Unseen, the "pearl tie-pin case." This came through one evening when my friend Miss C. and I were sitting together. As in the case of Alice Franks, this message was very brief, and Miss C. and I attached no importance to it at the time. The name of a young cousin of Miss C.'s was spelt out on the board. He had recently been killed at the front, and he stated that he had been engaged to a girl whose name and address he gave in full, and asked that his mother should be told that he wished her to give his fiancée his pearl tie-pin in memory of him. The boy was only nineteen when he was killed, and this seemed a most unlikely story. Miss C. laughed at it, and would not have investigated it but that I asked her to write to the address given and discover if the person mentioned lived there. This letter was returned to Miss C. as incorrectly addressed, and we dismissed the case as hopeless. Some time afterwards the young officer's relatives heard that he had willed all his possessions to a girl whose name was the same as the one spelt out to us on the ouija-board - though the address was different - and to whom he had been privately engaged. This fact was absolutely unknown to his relatives.

Now, these two cases, to my thinking, can only be explained in one way - an ardent desire on the part of some external influence to communicate with this world. Surely it seems irrational to think that these messages came from any source other than the discarnate spirits of these two persons. Something more improbable and incredible may be suggested by way of explanation. I am inclined to believe what is obvious.

I give these instances as being two of the most evidential we have had of survival. Others have come to us of a like nature, but they are few and far between compared to those to which I now pass: cases which do not furnish definite proof of identity but which were most convincing in their substance and in the manner they were expressed.

The first I mention came from a brother of Miss C.'s, who was killed in Gallipoli. Miss C. did not sit until some time after his death, but almost immediately after she began, he came with urgent messages for his mother. Mrs. C. had been overwhelmed with grief at the loss of her son, and even after more than a year and a half she was quite inconsolable. Lieutenant C. had been a most pure and innocent-minded young man - a very spiritual person, in fact, and these messages were all of the same nature, begging Miss C. to tell his mother that her grief was keeping back his progress in the new sphere, and that he was unable to rise until she ceased to mourn for him. He described himself as "caught in the miasma of desire that shrouds the earth." Miss C. told her mother, who made every effort to be more cheerful and forget her sorrow, and the last time Miss C's brother spoke to her he seemed to be getting free from the fetters which bound him to earth. He said he did not expect to be able to speak again. These messages were very convincing to Miss C. Those urging her to speak to her mother came through very rapidly, and gave her the sensation of intense anxiety and excitement.

I had a strange experience myself with a communicator - a man who had been a, friend of mine for many years, and from whom I had been estranged for a long time before his death. This man died very suddenly of acute appendicitis, and on the evening of his death I happened to be sitting. A mutual friend of his and mine, who had passed over, communicated by the board, and asked me whether I knew that Mr. V. was dead. I said I did not, and she suggested that I should ring up the private hospital where he was. I did so, and found that he had died about half an hour before. I returned to the board, and the same communicator told me that he would speak to me at the next sitting. He came the following week and for six weeks after, and we could get no other communications through. He seemed intensely anxious to explain the very complicated circumstances which had induced me to drop his acquaintance. This he did in a way which, I am bound to confess, I should never have thought of. At last his persistency wearied us, and I told him I could not speak to him any more. He replied that he would not try to come again, and bid me farewell with the remark, "Love and hate make life a ride in the dark."

The wording of these communications and the anxiety this man showed to explain very strange circumstances connected with his life left no doubt in my mind that I was speaking directly to his discarnate spirit; but this is one of the cases that, from its private nature and also because there was no direct proof of identity further than what I have mentioned, could only appeal, to those who knew him intimately.

Although Sir William Barrett has described the "Hugh Lane case" in his latest book, I feel my readers may be interested to hear what I have to say of it first hand. The circumstances were these: I knew Sir Hugh Lane personally, and had heard he had gone to America about a fortnight before the sinking of the Lusitania. I had no idea why he had gone or how long he intended to stay. About five o'clock on the day we heard of the loss of the Lusitania, I saw posters on my way home saying "Lusitania reported sinking." I did not buy a paper, and had no personal interest in the sinking ship, as I knew of no one on board. Sir Hugh Lane's name did not occur to me, probably because he had been in America such a very short time. A sitting was arranged for 8.30 o'clock that evening, and before we began I felt a strange sensation of depression, so much so that I went up to my bedroom and sat alone for a short time. I could not have said why this feeling got hold of me; there was no special reason for it that I knew of. At 8.30 o'clock I came down, and we began our sitting. The Rev. Savell Hicks recorded in silence, while Mr. Lennox Robinson and I sat blindfolded and talked to each other while the message was being spelled out by our hands. After a couple of minutes Mr. Hicks said, "Would you like to know who is speaking? It is Sir Hugh Lane, and he says he has been drowned, and was on board the Lusitania." We were terribly shocked - we both knew Sir Hugh - and asked Mr. Hicks to read the message to us. It ran as follows: First the name of our usual control, Peter; then, "Pray for Hugh Lane." Then, on being asked who was speaking, "I am Hugh Lane; all is dark," came through. At this moment a stop-press edition of the evening paper was called in the street, and Mr. Robinson ran down and bought one. When he came up to me he pointed to the name of Sir Hugh Lane among the passengers. We were both much distressed, but continued our sitting. Sir Hugh Lane described the scene on board the Lusitania. Panic, then boats lowered - "Women went first," he said. He stated that he was last in an overcrowded boat, fell over, and lost all memory until he "saw a light" at our sitting. He sent me a message about our last meeting which was quite evidential so far as I could tell, and gave me greetings and advice for very intimate friends of his and mine in Dublin. The number of his cabin and the name of a fellow-passenger given by him were incorrect, so far as I can discover.

This communication was very striking, but what followed was more evidential in my opinion. Sir Hugh Lane continued to come, and at each sitting at which he appeared he begged us to restrain any efforts of those who might wish to erect a memorial gallery to him in Dublin. This he seemed to have a horror of. At the same time he was most anxious that we should make every effort to have the conditions of the codicil to his will carried out. He wishes his pictures to come back to this city, and is much disturbed because the trustees of the National Gallery are very justly reluctant to restore them to Dublin.

We had a very strange sitting - Mr. Lennox Robinson and I - last September, at which Sir William Barrett was present. Before the sitting I had said to Sir William Barrett that I thought the remarks of various people were justified who considered the "Hugh Lane case" evidential to the sitters - who knew him personally - but not to the outside public. After a communication had come through from a man who said he died in Sheffield, and which in some particulars proved to be correct - it was not possible to investigate them all - Sir Hugh Lane came to the board, seized Mr. Robinson's arm, as he always does, and after much difficulty in reading the message we discovered that he was much annoyed with me because of the way I had spoken to Sir William Barrett about his first communication on the night after the Lusitania sank. He was most violent on this occasion, seizing Mr. Robinson's arm and driving it about so forcibly that the traveller fell off the table more than once. Since then whenever we - Mr. Robinson and I - have sat together, the same thing has happened. Sir Hugh has come repeatedly, and always with the same message. He begs that we shall believe that it was really he who spoke to us that night when the Lusitania sank. He says any future words he speaks to us or anyone else will be discredited if we put no faith in the first he spoke after he died.

The latest message we have had from Sir Hugh referred to the Lane Picture meeting which was to be held at the Mansion House, Dublin, on January 29th, 1918. It came to Mr. Robinson and me on January 22nd, 1918. It ran as follows:

"Hugh Lane." (We said we wanted Peter instead, as we wished to do telepathic experiments.) "I will not go. I want to speak, and this is my chance. I want you to go to that meeting and tell them I can still let the world know my wishes. Those pictures must be secured for Dublin; tell them I cannot rise or get rest: it tortures me. Do you believe me? I am Hugh Lane!"

The last sentence was spelt out very passionately. Mr. Robinson's arm was seized furiously.

These communications from Sir Hugh Lane are very evidential and convincing to us who knew him; to the scientific observer I do not think there is anything which could be called a genuine proof of identity, although certainly one fact was mentioned entirely outside our subconsciousness - i.e., that Sir Hugh was on board the lost ship. It must he remembered that this was spelt out before we bought the stop-press with a list of the passengers. I am bound to confess that the, fact that the communicator was so excitable on and after the sitting in September did more to persuade Mr. Robinson and me that it was really Sir Hugh than the whole Lusitania message. I have little or no doubt that the influence which came was actually Sir Hugh Lane, but I do not ask my sceptical readers who have not felt the tremendous energy of this communicator to share my belief.

It seems to me that it is very difficult for persons who are not practical workers to criticise these very intricate psychical phenomena. The outside public is first thrilled by the supernatural nature of a communication such as Sir Hugh Lane's on the night after the shipwreck; then comes the very natural reaction towards doubt, unless the absolute identity of the spirit is proved. I find, when I begin to criticise the experiences of other people, that this doubt increases until it seems almost impossible that there is a fragment of proof of survival in most of the messages which appear very convincing to sitters. From long experience, however, I know that it is best to suspend judgment in matters of this kind until one has had ample time to consider the circumstances.

Let us, for a moment, consider this case of Sir Hugh Lane from the point of view of the convinced spiritualist; let us allow that the spirit of the drowned man made a supreme effort, and succeeded in speaking to us; let us endeavour to analyse his position.

The communication came through only a few hours after the sinking of the Lusitania. There had without doubt been a period of intense excitement and anxiety for Sir Hugh while he was still alive; then a period of unconsciousness, let us hope, and then the slow awakening to find "all was dark," and that he was no longer in this world. Did he speak to us as if in a dream? Was he fully conscious? Did he communicate directly or through a control? Who can tell? Living persons who have passed through intense nervous excitement are generally dazed; their memories are confused and their statements are frequently far from accurate. If we questioned them at such a moment about the past, we should probably have very hazy and distracted replies to our questions. Take the case, so fresh in the minds of many at the present time, of persons who have just escaped the perils of a severe air-raid and have been close to the danger zone. How many of such persons could give small details a few hours afterwards of the circumstances in which they were placed - the number of the house they rushed into, etc.? When we analyse the messages of those who have gone suddenly through the gates of death, are we not somewhat unreasonable if we expect them to stand a cross examination as though they stood in a law court? If their answers to our questions are vague and unsatisfying, let us remember that we are speaking normally of earthly affairs with our earth-memories strong and fresh, and that our communicators' difficulties are unknown and probably incomprehensible to us. I feel that if we interest ourselves at all in such messages from the dead, we should extend our sympathy to the spirit; we should invariably assume at sittings that communicators are genuine. How can we hope to arrive at any fair conclusion if we judge supernormal circumstances by those that are familiar to us, without making any allowance for the fact that our difficulties are probably as nothing compared to those at the other side? Many persons appear to think that when we die we become possessed at the moment of supernatural powers. In fact, they believe that "we shall be changed" means far more than that we lose the body. I do not think there is any indication from any source that when we wake again we shall have suddenly acquired powers other than those we possessed in the earth life.

The spirit of Sir Hugh Lane, after regaining consciousness and memory, found in some mysterious way that it was possible to send a message back to the earth through us. We had been friends of his, though not very intimate with him. In the dazed and confused state in which he was, he grasped at anything which would identify him in our memories. "Pray for Hugh Lane" came, he said, from the control who permitted him to speak. We, very naturally, asked him questions which would admit of concrete proof - the number of his cabin, etc. - and his replies were, I believe, incorrect; they came slowly, I remember, as if it was an effort to try to recall these details. What he seemed ardently to desire was that we should give messages to very close friends of his in Dublin, to let them know he had not suffered. He hardly mentioned his pictures, which were the great interest of his life; his state of mind can hardly have been clear and calm. Allowance should be made for all this by those who criticise the message in cold blood. I hold no brief for the identity of Sir Hugh Lane on this occasion; I merely take the case as an example. I am almost convinced it was he who spoke to us at this and at many other sittings, but I do not ask my readers to believe me on the slender evidence I give them. I ask them, before making up their minds that such communications are true or false, to analyse them and weigh and balance the situation.

Before I finish this chapter I wish to draw attention to a point which is a very interesting one in my opinion. Why should any influence - control or communicator - be attracted to the séance-room? What draws his attention to the fact that a sitting is taking place? This is a question I almost invariably put to controls and communicators, and their replies to the question are almost always the same. They state that a bright light attracted them - and the stronger the medium, the brighter the light. When I am sitting myself, and ask, "What attracted you to this room?" the answer generally is, "I saw a woman wrapped in flame." Sometimes they describe a brilliant light on the head of the medium, but as psychic strength increases the light seems to envelop the whole body of the sensitive. This light or flame appears to be pale - a clear white fire," which seems to grow more vivid as the medium becomes more in touch with the "spirit world." I often ask the communicator when several persons are present, "How many people can you see in this room?" Generally the reply is, "I can only see you." But if any particularly sensitive person is there, the traveller moves towards him, and, having apparently had a good look at him, says he can see him dimly, as if in a mist. Voices other than the medium's seem difficult to hear. A question is seldom replied to unless asked by one of the sitters.

I have observed that controls, when in doubt about some fact concerning one of the sitters or anyone else present involved in the message which is being spelt out, dart across towards the person in question, and make obvious efforts to get into personal contact with him or her. The traveller waits opposite the individual whose ideas it desires to analyse, and presses against his arm, or is obviously glad if his hand is laid for a moment on the indicator.

Another interesting point is the association of the controls with certain communicators. Each control seems to have his or her private circle of acquaintances to draw from, and if you can "tell a man by his friends," you can do so in the case of controls. Sir Hugh Lane never comes through any control but Peter Rooney, who professes to "keep the unseen barrier that is supposed to separate this world from the other sphere," and who admitted Sir Hugh in the first instance. Eyen's communicators are most untrustworthy, and generally parade fantastically in fancy costumes of an improbable kind, whereas Shamar's circle is an interesting one. She is careful to send people who are worth talking to, and takes some time to find them.

A curious fact, perhaps worth mentioning, is that I find when a pause comes while the control is seeking a communicator, or when the traveller is at rest for any reason, quite foolish and irrelevant little messages are liable to be spelt out. These are the silliest things, and suggest that spirits of the "poltergeist" type are playing with the traveller. I have also sometimes observed a struggle at the board. This is conveyed to the mediums by a very broken communication and very spasmodic and violent movements on the part of the traveller. We are generally told when this happens that one entity has had a struggle with another to gain access to the sitting.


The above article was taken from "Voices from The Void" by Hester Travers Smith (London: E. P. Dutton, 1919).

Other articles by Hester Travers Smith

Mediumship and the Mental Sensations of the Medium

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