Donald West

Donald West

Professor West's main career has lain in the medical, legal and psychological study of crime. He is the Director of the Institute of Criminology, and Professor of Clinical Criminology at Cambridge, where he is a Fellow of Darwin College. He has written eleven books on various aspects of this subject and contributed to many specialised periodicals and symposia. He obtained in 1958 the McDougall Award for distinguished work in parapsychology. He was President of the SPR from 1963-5 and Chairman of the Society's Research Grants Fund.

Séance-Room Phenomena

- Donald West -

          MEDIUMS WHO produce such objective effects as raps, movements of objects without contact, and materializations are known as 'physical' mediums. They are few and more notorious than important. Their more lively phenomena provide good fun for the onlookers, but they rarely agree to be seriously investigated, and of those who have done so hardly one has not been detected at least once in fraud. Even those who refuse to come near investigators are not safe from exposure. It only needs an over-bold visitor to switch on a light to reveal the materialized spirit as the medium dressed up in false beard and cheese-cloth drapery. Before the development of infra-red photography, physical mediums could effect the most brazen frauds. Now that the infra-red image converter enables one to see in the dark, the mediums no longer have it all their own way. Despite the offer by some SPR members of a reward of £250 for a physical phenomenon that can be watched through the infrared telescope, no medium has submitted to serious investigation. The common-sense view is that they have all been frightened off by fear of detection.

The average séance for physical phenomena is an uninspired performance. I was taken to one recently by someone who, after his wife's death, had become a fervent Spiritualist. He hoped to convert me and get my support for his favourite medium. I was told to be sure not to say who I was as the medium and his friends were suspicious of investigators. The medium had been in practice many years, and I knew his reputation. The séance was held in pitch darkness in the back parlour of a small private house. The sitters were placed in a circle round the room, the medium among them. Those seated close to the medium were his trusted friends, the 'strong sitters', who were supposed to lend power for the phenomena. No search of the medium or of the room was invited. There was continuous singing during the séance led by a loud-voiced lady who gave us a mixture of popular songs and rousing hymns like Onward, Christian Soldiers. The din was horrible, but she kept us at it without a pause. There was nothing to stop the medium doing anything he wanted under cover of the noise and darkness.

The materializations would have been invisible but for two small plaques, faintly luminous on one side. Most of the time these plaques were face down in the centre of the floor.' When a spirit wanted to show itself, it bent down and picked up the plaques, wafting them up and down so as to cast a dim glimmer on its face and body. All that could be seen was an unrecognizable human shape draped in some white fabric. The shape would go up to one or other of the sitters who would claim to see in it a dead relative. There would be a lull in the singing and the sitter would have a brief conversation with the supposed spirit, usually terminating with a parting kiss. I was not granted such a visitation, but the person with me told me afterwards that the spirit's breath smelt of stale tobacco. One of the spirits was supposed to be a child, and greeted the company in a masculine lisp that was meant for childish prattle but sounded more like something heard on a street corner late at night. The whole performance was so crude that it was amazing that anyone could have been taken in by it. I knew that nothing would be gained by interfering. An exposure makes no impression on confirmed believers, for they always find an explanation for the most incriminating evidence, and the medium carries on the following week with an air of victimization. In the case of this particular medium some Spiritualists had themselves claimed to have exposed him. They had flashed torches in the middle of a séance and had seen him, choking with anger, stuffing a large length of muslin inside his jacket. There was a free-for-all over the possession of the muslin, but on this occasion the strong sitters did not live up to their name, and the trophy was lost to the unbelievers.

Years ago, when I had more zeal than experience, I once tried to expose such a medium. I got into the circle by making friends with some Spiritualists. Among the regular manifestations were spirit hands which travelled round the circle of sitters in the dark, patting knees and shaking hands. I came prepared with some red ink which I smeared over my own hand before the spirit touched me. Sure enough, when the light went on, the medium's hand was smeared. There was an uproar, and I was expelled from the house in disgrace. The sitters' faith in the medium was unshaken, but they suspected that a bad spirit had got into me. They explained that it was the ectoplasm withdrawing into the medium's body that had left behind the stain on her skin.

This dismal picture of blatant fraud and extreme gullibility is not just the invention of unsympathetic outsiders. In December 1961 Light, a largely Spiritualist quarterly periodical, published a last article by its resigning editor, F. Clive Ross, in which he stated categorically that after many years experience of the Spiritualists movement he had never witnessed any physical phenomena that he would not regard as produced by normal means. He thought that Spiritualists let fake mediums get away with any excuse for evading the controls that would put an end to fraud, for keeping the sceptical at arm's length, and for pursuing their lucrative activities on their own terms.

The public would naturally like to know whether, amongst all these frauds, anything genuine occurs. The parapsychologist has an additional interest in séances. They provide an excellent means of investigating the limitations of human observation and memory. Sitters who have all been present at the same séance will give radically different descriptions of what happened. Each person's description is coloured by his own wishes and bias. Experience of this kind shows that there are some circumstances in which testimony that would ordinarily be accepted as conclusive is in fact utterly misleading. In assessing the evidence for any psychic phenomenon, mental or physical, these findings about the limitations of testimony have to be taken into consideration.

The effect of bias in the formation of attitudes and opinions on controversial subjects is well recognized. It is a less well-known fact that bias can also enter into the actual process of perception, especially when observation is hampered, as by poor light and noisy distractions. Perception is not a passive registration of sensations; it is an active interpretative process. Glancing out of the window now I do not 'see' a regular-shaped dark patch moving steadily across a complex background, although that is what passes before my eyes. I see instead a motor-car driving along the road. Recognition and interpretation of the meaning of sensations is an essential part of perception. If I had never before seen a motor car, I would perceive the scene in front of me very differently.

The interpretative element in perception can be grossly deranged by the emotions. On a dark and lonely path a bush can be seen as a menacing figure. The parched man, lost in the desert, can see a patch of sand glistening in the sun as an oasis. At a dark séance a dimly phosphorescent mask can be seen as the face of some dead friend. These are gross examples, but misinterpretations on a smaller scale go on all the time. Events perceived at a séance are further modified when recounted later. Small points of no significance to the observer are suppressed and soon forgotten. These may be the very points that to another person would be clues to the tricks used. Matters of interest to the observer are over-emphasized in his description, often to the extent of falsifying the total picture.

How lapse of memory and mal-observation can produce spurious séance-room marvels was first demonstrated by the experiments of S. J. Davey(1). Using quite simple trickery, which he planned in advance, he reproduced some of the effects popular among the mediums of his day. His audiences were asked to write down accounts of what they had witnessed, and their observations were then compared with what actually happened. At one séance for materialization there were six sitters, three of whom submitted written reports. Mrs Johnson and Miss Wilson called on Mr Davey unexpectedly and were invited to join in a séance that was just starting. In her version Mrs Johnson wrote that on entering the dining-room where the séance was held every article of furniture was searched and Mr Davey turned out his pockets. The door was locked and sealed, the gas turned out, and they all sat round the table holding hands, including Mr Davey. A musical box on the table played and floated about. Knockings were heard and bright lights seen. The head of a woman appeared, came close, and dematerialized. A half-figure of a man was seen a few seconds later. He bowed and then disappeared through the ceiling with a scraping noise. Mrs Johnson found the séance remarkable and startling. She could in no way explain the phenomena.

(1) Hodgson, R. and Davey, S. L, 'The Possibilities of Mal-observation and Lapse of Memory', Proc. SPR, iv, 1887, pp. 381-495; viii, 1892, pp. 253-310.

Miss Wilson was in some ways even more definite in her version. She too described the searching of the room, the scaling of the door, and the disposition of the medium and sitters round the table. She stated that 'a female head appeared in a strong light' and afterwards a bearded man reading a book, who disappeared through the ceiling. All the while Mr Davey's hands were held tightly by the sitters on either side. When the gas was relit, the door was still locked and the seal unbroken.

Mr John Rait's account was the most sensational. He remarked that 'nothing was prepared beforehand, the séance was quite casual'. He described the locking and sealing of the door. When the phenomena started he was touched by a cold, clammy hand and heard various raps. Then he saw a bluish-white light, which hovered over the heads of the sitters, and gradually developed into an apparition that was 'frightful in its ugliness, but so distinct that everyone could see it ... The features were distinct ... a kind of hood covered the head, and the whole resembled the head of a mummy.' After this phantom had gradually vanished an even more wonderful spirit appeared. It began with a streak of light and developed by degrees into a bearded man of Oriental appearance. His eyes were stony and fixed, with a vacant listless expression. At the end of the séance the door was still locked and the seal was intact.

In reality the séance was not a casual affair but had been carefully rehearsed beforehand. At the beginning Mr Davey went through the motion of apparently locking the door, but he turned the key back again so that the door was actually left unlocked. The 'props' for the materializations were stowed away in a cupboard underneath a bookshelf. This was not looked into by the sitters who searched the room because, just as they were about to do so, Mr Davey diverted their attention by emptying his pockets to show he had nothing hidden on his person. The phenomena were produced by a confederate, Mr Munro, who came in by the unlocked door after the lights had been turned out, and while the musical box was playing loudly to drown the noise of his entry. The 'apparition of frightful ugliness' was a mask draped in muslin with a cardboard collar coated with luminous paint. The second spirit was the confederate himself, standing on the back of Mr Davey's chair, his face faintly illuminated by phosphorescent light from the pages of the book he was holding. The noise made when the spirit seemed to disappear through the ceiling was caused accidentally, but the sitters interpreted it according to their conception of what was happening. When the light was turned on, the gummed paper that had been used to seal the door had fallen off. Mr Davey quickly pressed it back into position and then called Mr Rait's attention to the fact that it was 'still intact'. So convincing were Mr Davey's performances that some leading Spiritualists, including the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, FRS, refused to believe him when he said that he had no mediumistic powers and did it an by trickery. In effect the conjurer was challenged to prove that he was not a medium!

A séance for the 'direct voice'. Spirits are supposed to speak through a trumpet which, outlined by bands of luminous paint, appears to float through the air. This photo was taken in the dark by means of infra-red lighting. The medium is caught in the act of holding the trumpet and speaking through it herself. The investigator with arm raised is operating the camera by remote control.
Showing more clearly how the trumpet is held.


Mr Davey's facility as a pseudo-medium rested not so much on the simple mechanical basis of his tricks as upon his manipulation of the minds of his sitters, his persuasiveness in making them think they had seen things which never really happened, and his ability to divert their attention whenever necessary. Most of his sittings were given up to slate-writing tricks. At one time the appearance of 'spirit writing' on the inner surfaces of a pair of slates held together by the sitter himself was a prominent item in the mediumistic repertoire. Most of these tricks were done by adroit substitution of the slates for others with writing already prepared. The skilful part of the trick was in distracting the sitter's attention at the moment of the switch. Mr Davey excelled at this. Usually the slates were held under the corner of the table, the medium's hand under one edge, and the sitter's under the other. The sitter would afterwards report, with complete confidence, that he held the slates uninterruptedly until scratching was heard, when the slates were opened and the spirit writing was found inside. He would forget that the slates had been opened up several times before the writing finally appeared, and that during these openings he let go his end of the slates, thus making the switch possible. In time slate writing went out of fashion and 'spirit photography' took its place. The medium would take a photograph of his sitter which, when developed, would show the face of a 'spirit extra' peering over the sitter's shoulder. The procedure was much the same as in the slate-writing tricks, depending upon the substitution of the blank photographic plate for one on which an 'extra' had already been impressed(2). Slate writing and spirit photography have both been thoroughly discredited and have almost died out. The phenomena of materialization and the direct voice - that is, speaking through a megaphone in the dark - need no particular conjuring ability and have remained in fashion.

(2) Rose, W. Rampling, et al., 'Spirit Photography" Proc. SPR, xli, 1933, pp. 121-38.

Theodore Besterman, one-time Investigation Officer to the Society for Psychical Research, conducted an experiment to test the value of testimony under séance-room conditions(3). He held six identical mock séances, with about seven volunteer sitters present at each one. The sitters were told that the aim was to test their powers of observation, and that the lady sitting in the medium's chair was not a real medium. The acting medium sat behind a small table containing various objects - drumsticks, tambourine, zither - painted in luminous paint. Mr Besterman manipulated the room lighting and played the gramophone. The séance was interrupted by a knock at the door. Mr Besterman opened the door wide, went out, and returned putting a white card in his pocket. Nineteen minutes after the start, following a warning by Mr Besterman, which included an injunction to watch carefully, there was a flashlight exposure. After the séance the sitters were given a list of questions to answer such as, 'Early in the sitting-room there was a disturbance. Describe what happened.'

(3) Besterman, Th., 'The Psychology of Testimony', Proc., SPR, xl, 1932, pp. 365-87.

It was found that in spite of having been put on their guard the sitters were most inaccurate in their observations. Some were much worse than others. A quarter of the forty-two sitters failed to give any account of the interruption to the séance, three-quarters of them failed to report that Mr Besterman went out of the room, and only four noted that he put something in his pocket when he came back. This shows how witnesses tend to ignore or to forget points which seem to them irrelevant. The sitters were asked how long after the start was the flash. The answer was nineteen minutes, but the estimates given varied from five to forty minutes. At the moment of the flash the medium had a white cloth over her head, she held a trumpet in her right hand, and one of the drumsticks was missing from the table but could be seen sticking out from behind some curtains above the medium's head. Only one sitter noted the disappearance of the drumstick, and no one saw where it was, although it formed a bright circle nearly an inch wide. The sitters were almost entirely unable to report correctly the scene revealed by the flash. Thirteen sitters experienced either illusions or hallucinations during the séance, and described things that were not there or had never happened. Impressions of movements were the most frequent. Several sitters said they saw the table move or shake. One sitter had a hallucination of a small light that seemed to hang vertically in the air. Several sitters mistook one or other article on the table for something else. That so much illusion and faulty reporting should be produced by this brief mock séance, which lacked altogether the tense atmosphere of the real thing, shows once more with what great reserve we must treat testimony relating to happenings at séances.

There have never been more than one or two internationally famous physical mediums active at any one time; at present there is none*. The mediums of the past about whom most has been written - D. D. Home, Eusapia Palladino, 'Eva C.', Margery Crandon, and the Schneider brothers - became well known because men of note took an interest in their phenomena and gave them wide publicity. We need not go into all the details of the interminable controversies that raged round each of these mediums. One or two examples are enough.

* ISS note: This article was written in 1954.

'Eva C.' was a medium whose tricks would scarcely have got her far had she not been befriended by investigators who were determined to make the most of her phenomena. She began her mediumistic career under her real name of Marthe Béraud, and gave séances at the Villa Carmen in Algiers, the home of General and Mine Noel. She was a friend of the family, and had been engaged to the son of the house before he was killed. Mme Noel was an extremely enthusiastic Spiritualist, and Marthe's position in the household put her above suspicion. The séances were held in darkness, and a figure draped in white, wearing a helmet and calling itself Bien Boa, frequently materialized, chatted with those present, and even drank lemonade. Marthe herself is reported to have said that the whole thing started as a joke which was played with the aid of accomplices. It might have got no further than that but for the arrival at the Villa Carmen of a distinguished visitor who took a great interest in the materializations. This was Professor Charles Richet, a physiologist of great scientific standing, but credulous as regards physical phenomena(4). His observations, published soon after, served to launch Marthe Béraud on her career as a world-famous medium.

(4) Richet, Charles, "Thirty Years of Psychical Research" (transl.), London, 1923.

Marthe Beraud went to Paris and was there befriended by Mme Bisson, who took the medium into her own home, and became a constant companion and patron. Baron Dr von Schrenck Notzing, a medical man of considerable social standing, and a well-known investigator of physical mediums, then came upon the scene and joined with Mme Bisson in the investigation of her protégée. In due course Schrenck Notzing brought out a weighty tome filled with photographs of materializations(5). It was almost entirely devoted to a medium 'Eva C.', whose real identity was concealed by a pseudonym and a false age. Later, Schrenck Notzing was forced to admit that 'Eva C.' was actually Marthe Béraud(6).

(5) Schrenck Notzing, A. von., "Phenomena of Materialization" (transl.), London, 1920.
(6) Salter, Mrs W. H., 'The History of Marthe Béraud', Proc. SPR, xxvii, 1915, pp. 333-69.

The medium 'Eva C.' and the back view of a 'materialised face' showing the title of the French magazine from which it was taken.


During her séances with Schrenck Notzing and Mine Bisson, Marthe Béraud sat behind curtains in a corner of the room. Outside this 'cabinet' the room was lit by red light. At the later séances they began by searching Marthe's body and then sewing her up in a thin black costume. Once in the 'cabinet' she was allowed to open and close the curtains as she pleased. Under these conditions there was nothing like Bien Boa, but she was still able to produce white stuff, called ectoplasm, which was usually seen hanging from her mouth. She also produced faces, which draped themselves round her head or shoulder. Schrenck Notzing and Mine Bisson claimed that these appearances must be supernormal, since there was no way in which Marthe could smuggle in material with which to simulate faces or ectoplasm. Their own photographs are enough to shake anyone's confidence in this opinion. The so-called faces are clearly cut-out paper photographs on which fold marks can sometimes be seen. On a photograph taken on one famous occasion when the camera was inside the cabinet to show the back of the materialized face, the title of the paper, Le Miroir, from which the face had been cut, is there for all to read! Folded paper faces are very easily hidden, and even supposing that the search of the medium's body prevented her secreting them about her person, there are other places to hide things such as the lining of the chair, or the investigators' own pockets.

The outbreak of war in 1914 interrupted Schrenck Notzing's investigations, but his place was taken by Dr Gustave Geley, a French physician. He too wrote a book about 'Eva C', and he was even more uncritically enthusiastic. Moreover, he lacked Schrenck Notzing's gift for hiding his personal bias under a pretence of scientific precision and impartiality. After Geley's sudden death there was a flutter over the discovery amongst his papers of photographs of Marthe Beraud showing materializations tied and fastened to her hair in a most suspicious way. This was nothing new, for von Schrenck Notzing's own photographs showed the same thing, and he had even recorded finding 'inexplicable' pin holes in the lining of the cabinet. Nevertheless, the Geley photographs, being stereoscopic, were more damning. The authorities at the Institut Metapsychique in Paris, of which Geley had been Director, refused to publish the facts, and but for the temerity of two independent critics, Rudolf Lambert and Theodore Besterman, these incriminating photographs would have remained unknown(7). It is odd that once across the enchanted boundary and into the realm of miraculous phenomena even a seemingly critical investigator loses his dispassionate logic and allows his words and actions to be dictated by emotional bias. Once some prominent person has staked his faith and reputation on the genuineness of a particular medium, there is great resistance to admitting error. Marthe's career could not have continued but for this shortcoming in her investigators.

(7) Besterman, Th., "Some Modern Mediums", London, 1930.

Marthe Beraud was also investigated at the London SPR, but the séances there were inconclusive. She was made to wear a veil covering her mouth. Particles of white stuff were found sticking to the veil after one of the séances which, when analysed, proved to be chewed paper(8). Lastly, Marthe was investigated by a scientific committee from the Sorbonne. They saw ectoplasm coming from her mouth but noted that this only occurred after prolonged efforts to make herself vomit. They reported that they found no evidence for anything paranormal. Marthe's mediumship came to a natural close when she married and became independent of Mme Bisson.

(8) SPR Committee, 'Report on a Series of Sittings with Eva C., Proc. SPR, xxxii, 1922, pp. 269-343.

Perhaps the most remarkable of all physical mediums, and certainly the most intriguing, was Daniel Dunglas Home. He flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and was probably the only well-known medium never to be detected in trickery. Although he came from a quite humble Scottish home, he possessed definite social qualities. Soulful, sensitive, and consumptive, he had just the right air about him to provide a graceful mystery in the fashionable salons. He never accepted a direct fee, but spent a large part of his life staying in other people's houses, the apotheosis of the man who came to dinner. In return for entertaining séances, hospitality and gifts were showered upon him. His hosts became more and more distinguished until, at the height of his fame, he could justly claim to be on intimate terms with several European monarchs. Through the good offices of the Czar himself, Home married a Russian lady of noble birth, and Alexandre Dumas was his best man.

Even more remarkable than his meteoric social progress were the phenomena that Home produced. Whatever their explanation, they were radically different from the usual easily recognizable frauds, and there has been nothing like them before or since. In Home's presence, heavy Victorian furniture rocked and floated in the air, hands materialized and travelled round the circle of sitters, an accordion wafted along playing of its own accord without anyone touching it, and red glowing coals were handled without hurt. These things sometimes happened in a fair light and were witnessed by a roomful of sitters. Take, for example, the testimony of the 25th Earl of Crawford, published in 1953(9). In a long letter to a relative, he describes in detail a séance with Home that took place in Florence during 1856. He gives an account of the personalities who were present, and it is in the last degree improbable that anyone among them was the medium's accomplice. During the séance the room was lit by a bright oil-lamp. The sitters and the medium were ranged round a heavy table, all except the writer, who remained outside the circle so as not to be influenced by suggestion. The table, the chairs, the floor, and even the china at the far end of the room, all vibrated. He looked under the table, but saw nothing suspicious. Immediately after this the table rose into the air to a height of about four feet and remained so whilst he had another look underneath. On another occasion, after a séance in the same house, when the Earl of Crawford's brother-in-law, Robert Lindsay, was present, a levitation occurred under circumstances which make it astounding. The company, including the medium, were sitting round the fire having tea when a table at the far end of the room rose up three feet and plunged about. Despite the violent movement, the loose slab of marble that formed the table top, and a pencil and paper that lay upon it, remained undisturbed. So strong was the levitating force that, when Robert Lindsay approached the table and tried to push it back to the ground, he had to exert his utmost strength before he could succeed.

(9) Dingwall, E. L, 'Psychological Problems arising from a Report of Telekinesis', Brit. Journ. Psychology (General Section), xliv, 1953, pp. 61-6.

One might think the Earl of Crawford was just telling a tall story were it not that scores of other authoritative witnesses have left written testimony to similar phenomena at séances with D. D. Home. Such spontaneous testimony is stronger and more plentiful in Home's case than in any other. There is, for example, the fantastic record of Lord Adare, a young sporting Irishman, who was for two years (1867-9) D. D. Home's constant companion, and witnessed phenomena 'at all times and seasons, under all sorts of conditions - in broad daylight, in artificial light, in semidarkness, at regular séances, unpremeditatedly without any séance at all, indoors, out of doors, in private houses, in hotels...'(10).

(10) Dunraven, The Earl of, 'Experiences in Spiritualism with D. D. Home', Proc. SPR, xxxv, 1926, pp. 1-288.

Unfortunately for us, Home lived in days before psychical phenomena became a subject for laboratory investigation. No one would have been so impolite as to suggest searching or tying up Mr Home, and photographic recording had not been developed. Nevertheless, some attempt at scientific tests was made by the famous chemist William Crookes(11). In one of these experiments, a wooden board, three feet long, was rested at one end on a firm support, while the other end was suspended from a spring balance. Movements of the balance indicator were mechanically recorded on the smoked surface of a revolving cylinder. Crookes reported that inexplicable movements of the balance took place even when Home was three feet away from the apparatus with his hands and feet tightly held. The room was lit by gaslight all the time.

(11) Crookes, W., "Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism", London, 1874.

Crookes failed to convince his scientific colleagues, although none of them was able to say just where his experiments went wrong. The idea of putting the matter to the test for themselves never occurred to them. Their scepticism was of the arm-chair type, based on prejudice, and in its own way every bit as irrational as the enthusiasm of the most credulous followers of bogus mediums. Crookes's remark-able experimental results with D. D. Home would carry greater weight with serious students of the subject but for the fact that Crookes also lent his support to some very questionable mediums. He had sittings with Kate Fox, the notorious Rochester rapper, and he all but flirted with Katie King, a realistic feminine spirit materialized by a medium called Florence Cook, who was repeatedly exposed in fraud. The honesty of Crookes's motivations in this affair have been seriously questioned recently(12), but there is no direct evidence that his experiments with Home were other than carefully conducted, although his published reports do not give as accurate and detailed a picture of the circumstances of each individual test as is now considered necessary in mediumistic investigations.

(12) See Hall, Trevor H., "The Spiritualists", London, 1962.

One of Home's most publicized feats was levitation. On one famous occasion, at a house near Victoria Station, London, Home is supposed to have floated in the air, his body horizontal, right out of the window of an upper room, and in again through the window of an adjoining room. There were three witnesses, Lord Adare, the Master of Lindsay, and Captain Charles Wynne, all of whom testified to the facts. Generations of aspiring illusionists have put forward theories as to how Home could have produced this effect. The incident took place at a dark séance, and all that the witnesses could really see was the shadow of Home's body apparently entering through the window. If only such things would happen in front of a camera!

For eye-witness accounts of levitation of the human body Home is outshone by St Joseph of Copertino, a humble, unschooled Italian friar of the seventeenth century, for whom it was an everyday matter to be 'seen' flying through the air in broad daylight. The weighty testimony in support of this man has been summarized by Dr E. J. Dingwall(13). Some of the wonders attributed to him are incredible. He is said to have walked through a rainstorm and remained dry and to have carried a lighted candle in a high wind without its going out or burning down. Pious credulity would explain the promulgation of this type of fantastic story - which is common enough in Roman Catholic tradition - but some of the stories about St Joseph of Copertino are of a different order. There is, for example, the testimony of the surgeon, Francesco Pierpaoh, who attended him during his last illness. The doctor was cauterizing St Joseph's leg, he being seated, with his leg outstretched across the doctor's knees. While the doctor was doing this, the saint went into a trance and his body was raised almost a palm above the chair. The doctor tried to lower the leg, but could not do so. He and another doctor who was present both knelt down and looked to see that St Joseph's body was indeed floating in the air clear of the ground.

(13) Dingwall, E. L, "Some Human Oddities", London, 1947.

What is one to make of such testimony? Are the witnesses plain liars, or were they hallucinated? It is a fact that under the suggestive influence of some powerful emotion a crowd of witnesses can experience similar hallucinations, as in the visions at Fatima, but it is unlikely that collective hallucinations on the grand scale occur often at séances for physical phenomena. Home's effects were described in substantially similar terms by all who saw them. The effects produced by more modern mediums, like 'Eva C.', came out on photographs and could not have been hallucinations. Nevertheless, in some isolated circles, where wonderful phenomena are repeatedly seen by the same group, collective hallucination is a possible explanation. Dr Dingwall had mentioned the case of a medium in Massachusetts with whom he had a séance(14). As far as he was concerned, nothing happened, but the others heard exquisite spirit music, fondled materialized dogs, and watched a phantom stand between the curtains of the cabinet. Presumably it was all imagined by the sitters. They could, of course, maintain, with logic if not with justification, that since Dr Dingwall was in the minority it was he who was hallucinated, but in a negative sense!

(14) Dingwall, E. L, "Some Human Oddities", London, 1947.

That it has been necessary in this chapter to discuss miracles of a century ago, and to consider the possibility that some of the supposed phenomena are hallucinatory, shows how unsatisfactory investigation into the alleged phenomena of the séance room has been. Repetition under laboratory conditions is what is needed, but there are no mediums able or willing to give us that. Some investigators say that physical phenomena have so often been proved fraudulent that it is a waste of time to bother with them. Nevertheless, doubt must remain. Can there be a kernel of truth? Was D. D. Home genuine? Recent laboratory experiments indicate that sometimes the human will can influence the fall of dice. If this is indeed established it looks as if physical phenomena of a sort do occur. It is this which makes one hesitate to reject outright all séance-room observations.


The above article was taken from Donald West's "Psychical Research Today" (1954, Duckworth).

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