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."

Mediumship and the Mental Sensations of the Medium

- Hester Travers Smith -

          IN THE four preceding chapters I have tried to record and classify some of the most interesting experiences which have come to me personally through automatism, the only method by which I have endeavoured to hold communication with the Unknown. These are records of some six or seven years' work, which was never strenuous and always intermittent, and that for many reasons, one being that, although psychical research has offered me many fascinating problems and has given me many delightful friends, it is not my chief interest in life. Indeed, I will go further, and say I am glad it has never absorbed me.

This may seem discouraging to the enthusiast but I make the statement advisedly, partly because I believe that, for the average sensitive, good results can only be obtained by great moderation in the expenditure of psychic power. Evil results follow almost invariably on too constant sittings. I am entirely convinced that, in practising any artificial branch of psychic study or in the cultivation of mediumistic power, great and incalculable dangers are run: an exhausted sensitive is practically useless for experimental work, and may lose his or her power completely, in addition to seriously impairing his or her health.

When I speak of "artificial" branches of psychic work, I mean that work which is produced by a deliberate attempt to obtain results - séances or sittings of any kind, table-turning, etc. A "natural" sensitive comes under a different heading. When this gift appears early in life its exercise cannot be avoided. Results come to the medium; the medium does not seek them, and probably in these cases they are not injurious, and certainly they are inevitable.

The "cultivated" medium who has limited gifts and who wishes to strengthen these gifts should be content with the limitations set on the work he can do, and should not attempt to force them in any way. He should never "sit" when he is ill or tired, and in his best condition he should deliberately make up his mind that this subject is not going to absorb him.

In this way more satisfactory work can be done. When I reflect how irregular our own sittings have been, and that we have never ventured on more than two in a week, I am fairly well satisfied with the modest results we have achieved, and I am quite convinced that these results would not have been achieved had we worked our small fund of psychic power more strenuously than we did. If all circles would be content to work patiently and slowly, not to become possessed by this one topic, and not to expect anything sensational, I believe the mass of evidence thus accumulated would throw more light on the study of the Unseen than they realise. In the formation of small circles many matters have to be considered, the chief one being a combination of really suitable sitters. At the ouija-board, where two persons work together, it is all-important to discover mediums whose respective qualities balance and assist each other. The control will generally say he requires "a negative and a positive." What this means exactly it is hard to understand, but from watching many combinations at the ouija-board I have gathered that a "positive" medium receives the message through his or her brain and transmits it to the board, while a negative possesses the driving force - I mean that, apparently, one sitter supplies mental, and the other muscular power. Force is necessary, and the sitter whose brain and eyes are used does not seem to supply as much force as the negative, whose senses are less suited to serve the control. In arranging a circle for automatism, two sitters should be chosen who possess respectively the qualities I mention as far as can be discovered. A quick, intelligent recorder should be the third element. Great care, accuracy, and rapidity are necessary to read the ouija-board, and this office should be taken entirely off the sitters' shoulders. They should be in a quiet and relaxed state of mind - in fact, the less they realise what is taking place the better.

The gift of "seeing without eyes" is certainly comparatively rare. I have sought diligently for mediums who possess the power of working blindfold, and find they are few in number. In fact, I have only met four out of the many I have tried who have this gift. I generally distinguish a blindfold worker by the fact that before he has had any suggestion that we should close our eyes he will close his of his own accord, and prefer to sit without looking at the letters. Blindfold sitting is very exhausting as a rule; I find it so especially when the control or communicator works chiefly through me, as it invariably does when my fellow-sitter is a beginner. Here I should like to refer to the mental state of the sitter for automatic experiments, for it is difficult for persons who have not been sitters themselves to judge how far the psychic is in a normal condition when practising automatism.

The crux in deciding whether or not an external influence is at work consists in determining how far the subliminal self plays a part in these experiments. No one present is in a more difficult position to judge of this than the automatist himself. When at the board I am not conscious that my condition is other than normal, but if I were asked whether or not I used my hand to push the traveller to certain letters I should be quite unable to reply. If I do this, it is an entirely subconscious action on my part. What I can state confidently is, that after a short time messages come through my brain before they are written down, and I am again unable to say whether they are suggestions from an external entity or not. I am inclined to believe they are. For sometimes sentences come through which are quite contrary to what I should expect, and again, when I am most desirous that the traveller should move for me, it stands stock-still.

I am absolutely certain that the sitters' condition is abnormal once the control or communicator takes possession of the arm. In the case of Mr. X., he closes his eyes and turns involuntarily away from the board, and often, after a few minutes, gets into a state of half trance. He appears to become seized by the emotions of the control in communication; grief, anger, etc., overcome him, and if the emotion is intense he becomes hypnotised and is unable to continue the sitting. A point which is very marked in ouija-board work is the obedience and caution of the influences that speak. It is quite easy, as a rule, to get rid of an unpleasant entity; it is easy also to call up any special person, though I have a great objection to doing this, as it seems to leave the field open for fraud and impersonation. If a dangerous or unpleasant subject is spoken of, it is quite amusing to observe the prudence and tact displayed by the control. It rather points to the subconscious theory. Only once in all my experience have I known a control make a really untactful remark.

An interesting point I have noticed in automatism, as practised by two mediums working jointly at the ouija-board, is the transference of force from one to the other according to the nature of the control or communicator. For instance, in the case of Peter and Even the force seems to come chiefly from me. With Astor (who professes to be her spirit guide) Miss C's hand is powerfully controlled, and I appear to add practically nothing to the force which moves the traveller from letter to letter. In the case of Sir Hugh Lane, Mr. Lennox Robinson's hand and arm are literally seized and pushed about so forcibly that it is most difficult to read the communications which come through. The traveller has more than once been flung off the board in a violent way with this communicator.

Those who are inclined to dismiss what we psychical students have to tell as foolish and unconvincing should always bear in mind the difficulties we labour under. The evidence of survival laid before the public is at best only a small fraction of what we possess. From the very private and intimate nature of most of the messages we receive it is impossible that the really convincing part of our work can be exposed to the public gaze. Personal feeling constantly stands in our way. We may be quite positive ourselves that we have spoken to those we loved who have passed out of our lives, and yet a seal may be set on our mouths and we dare not say the word which would silence the sceptic.

I have already said that the messages received from the Unknown, so far as I have had any knowledge of them, are essentially personal messages. The control, and still more the communicator, appear to be out of touch with the earth, except so far as they enter into the "aura" of some living human being. The only instance I can recall of a message concerning a public event coming directly to my circle was a very vivid and perfectly correct prophecy concerning the Balkan War which was sent to us by Peter through a communicator who called himself "David Isaac Solomons," during our first blindfold sittings on October 19th, 1912. It ran as follows:

"Blood, blood, everywhere in the Near East. A great nation will fall and a small nation will rise. Blood everywhere. A great religion will stand in danger. News that will astonish the civilised world will come to hand within the next week."

A week after this message came the first Bulgarian victory - Kirk Kilisse - was announced, and later Turkey fell and Bulgaria rose.

I do not consider the news of the sinking of the Titanic an instance of information of a public event through a communicator, as I believe that case to have been telepathic, and in the Lusitania case a personal interest was involved.

Before closing this chapter I have only a few remarks to make. One of these is on the value of practical experiment.

I urge anyone interested in this subject to try his own powers as a medium. Until practical experiments are attempted, no fair estimate of the subject can be arrived at. Many admirable books have been written concerning every branch of psychical study, but the reader of these who has never been at a séance or used an autoscope has, with all respect to him, no notion of what he is talking of. As I have said, much that cannot be explained to the public is what is most convincing to the student, and I say further, there is much of what is convincing to the medium that cannot be explained to the student. If possible, sit yourself, with the precaution necessary; analyse your feelings, and try to do so with a clear and open mind, not starting with any prejudice, religious or otherwise.

The personal element is really the chief element in psychic matters. Messages received through the autoscope are usually personal. Hence the great difficulty in handing them over in their entirety for public dissection. Personality counts in sittings more than anything else. One uncongenial person can upset a whole evening. A cold or unsympathetic individual, an ultra-sceptical or contemptuous person, is detected at once from the other side, and can reduce the results of a sitting to mere nonsense.

Again, a sitter who is even slightly ailing retards results. The controls talk of nothing else when this happens; physical conditions seem to count even more than mental ones. What is strange and entertaining to the observer is that the personal element tells as much on this side as on the other. I have often watched, with infinite amusement, how someone contemptuous or indifferent to a distressing degree becomes keen and vivid when some element concerning his own personality enters into the message! Something said by a friend of his own, or relative, or, better still, a visit from his own "spirit guide," who, no matter what nonsense he talks, can rouse and excite him. In fact, one of the interests one finds in psychical work is that it not only reveals the personalities of controls and communicators, but also human personalities. For nothing calls human emotions into play more vividly than this converse with the Unknown! Pleasure, anger, grief, joy, vanity, common sense, curiosity, and wonder, all appear at the ouija-board, both in sitters and spectators.

I trust that what I have said in this chapter may serve the purpose which I have intended it should - that is, that it may help the really earnest student to approach these investigations in a sane and enquiring spirit, without prejudice, and realising that great patience and perseverance are required if even a few grains of gold are to be found among the mountains of dross.


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

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