William Eglinton

William Eglinton

          FAMOUS BRITISH medium, was born at Islington, July 10th, 1857; showed no psychic power in his boyhood; first heard of Spiritualism in February, 1874, at a debate in the Hall of Science, London, between Dr. Sexton and Mr. Foote. Moved by curiosity his father formed a home circle. For seven or eight evenings there were no manifestations and William expressed his feelings by fixing upon the door of the sťance room large cards with the inscription: "There are lunatics confined here; they will be shortly let loose highly dangerous," etc. His father was offended and told him either to join the circle or leave the house during the investigation. He elected the former and sat down at the table "determined that if anything happened I would put a stop to it. Something did happen, but I was powerless to prevent it." The table became animated, answered intelligently to questions. The next evening William passed into trance and in a few months' time very strong phenomena developed under the guidance of a spirit calling himself "Joey Sandy." Eighteen months later another guide, "Ernest," appeared and very good materialisations were obtained in moonlight. The news of his powers soon spread, he was besieged with so many requests for sťances that he gave up his job in a printing firm and became a professional medium. The earliest record of his sťances was published in The Medium for September, 1875. At the end of the year several sťances were given to the Dalston Association of Spiritualists which society elected him later an honorary member. Many eminent men of the day attended his later sittings at the Brixton Psychological Society and at the British National Association of Spiritualists at 38, Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury. These were the so-called Blackburn sťances, three series of twelve sittings each, Eglinton being one of the first mediums engaged. They were made possible by the generosity of Charles Blackburn, of Manchester, and represented the beginnings of organised psychical research. The sittings were mostly held in light which fact in itself was a strong demonstration of Eglinton's powers. Another feature emphatically in favour of Eglinton was that from the time he turned professional until 1883 he never gave a sťance in his own rooms and complied with all conditions of control, his hands being mostly sewn to his knees or behind his back to his coat. His first levitation was described by Archdeacon Colley in The Spiritualist, June 2, 1876:

"The medium was next entranced and carried by invisible power over the table several times, the heels of his boots being made to touch the head of our medical friend (Dr. Malcolm). Then he was taken to the further end of the dining room, and finally, after being tilted about as a thing of no weight whatever, was deposited quietly in his chair."

The general impression created by his power was well rendered in the Western Morning News of July 28, 1876:

"If Mr. Eglinton is a conjurer he is undoubtedly one of the cleverest who ever lived. Maskelyne and Cook are not a patch upon Mr. Eglinton. The Egyptian Hall exposure of Spiritualism is mere child's play compared with what we witnessed."

The Daily Telegraph reported on October 10, 1876, that the Scientific Research Committee of the B.S.A. had obtained direct spirit writing under absolute test conditions through the mediumship of Mr. W. Eglinton.

Marvels of Materialisation

Among the many remarkable sťances for materialisations he gave at this time, the most surprising results were obtained during his stay at Malvern as the guest of Dr. and Mrs. Nichols.

"All our sťances are held under test conditions," wrote Dr. Nichols. "They are held in a small upper room in my own house, with its one door locked, and its one window, thirty feet from the ground, fastened. The number of persons present never exceeds six, all of whom I know intimately. I know pretty accurately what can be done by sleight-of-hand, ventriloquism, palmistry or otherwise."

He sums up his experiences:

"Four times I have seen a white-robed form standing by Willie Eglinton. I have seen 'Joey' make yards of muslin. I have seen him standing beside his medium, and I have heard him speak in a brilliantly-lighted room, when Mr. Eglinton was with us and no more entranced than the rest of us. I have seen hands and arms and the face only, and I have seen full forms appear and disappear. I have seen a tall man appear and after many minutes with us, and in good light, I have seen him gradually sink down and become invisible, all but a few inches of form, and then that seemed to snap out. I have seen a full form dissolve and leave the drapery suspended as if held up by a hand; and I have seen the form shrink away to nothing visible and leave the garments lying about the floor. These not long after disappeared."

Dr. Nichols' descriptions of Eglinton's open air materialisations in his garden belong to the strangest accounts of the history of Spiritualism. Epes Sargent writes in The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism in a summary:

"Mr. Eglinton lay on a garden bench in plain sight. We saw the bodies of four visitors form themselves from a cloud of white vapour and then walk about, robed all in purest white, upon the lawn where no deception was possible. One of them walked quite around us, as we sat in our chairs on the grass, talking as familiarly as any friend ... took my hat from my head, put it on his own, and walked off with it where the medium was lying; then he came and put it on my head again; then walked across the lawn and up a gravel walk to the foot of the balcony and talked with Mrs. Nichols. After a brief conversation he returned to the medium and gradually faded from sight."

It should be added that, according to the narrative, the medium was constantly in sight, no confederate could have come over the wall without being seen or heard and that the maximum distance of the materialised spirit from the medium was 66 feet in the direct line while altogether about 400 feet were covered by the spirit from the time he first left the medium to his final return.

The accounts published from time to time in the Spiritualistic papers were little less marvellous than the experiences of Dr. Nichols. Eglinton's one-armed control, Abd-u-lah, when materialised was adorned with amazingly rich jewels which he allowed to be examined. He was bedecked with precious stones, rings, crosses and clusters of rubies that were worth a fortune. A description of a materialisation sťance by John S. Farmer, Eglinton's biographer, so much agrees with the modern observations of ectoplasmic flow that it creates a strong presumption for Eglinton's genuine psychic powers:

"All this time his breathing became increasingly laboured and deep. Then, standing in full view, by a quick movement of his fingers, he gently drew forth, apparently from under his morning coat, a dingy white-looking substance. He drew it from him at right angles and allowed it to fall down his left side. As it reached the ground it increased in volume and covered his left leg from the knee downwards. The mass of white material on the ground increased in bulk and commenced to pulsate, move up and down and sway from side to side. Its height increased and shortly afterwards it quickly grew into a form of full stature, completely enveloped in the white material. The upper part of this the medium then drew back and displayed the bearded face of a full-length materialised spirit, considerably taller than himself. All this time a link of white material was maintained between it and the medium, but this was now severed or became invisible and the spirit walked round the circle and shook hands with the various sitters. The enveloping white material was now seen to be a flowing robe, fastened round the waist with a girdle. After a few minutes the medium, still in trance, drew forth more of the white material and stretched it out to the spirit which eagerly grasped it. Finally the medium became weak, staggered and was supported by the nearest sitter (Dawson Rogers), whereupon the spirit approached and dragged him into the cabinet."

There is a strange contrast between these testimonies and the exposure by Archdeacon Colley. During a sťance in Mr. Owen Harris' house he cut a piece of the robe and a piece of the beard of the materialised figure. The pieces fitted to perfection the muslin and beard which he found in the medium's portmanteau. The story of the exposure was published in the journal of the SPR. Eglinton was in South Africa when the revelation was made public and denied the charge on his return. The Council of the British National Association of Spiritualists ordered an investigation which, at the end, dismissed the charge on the basis that no direct evidence could be obtained from the accusers.

The most extraordinary phenomenon Eglinton produced was his own transportation, on March 16, 1878, at Mrs. Makdougall Gregory's house, through the ceiling into the room above. The account of the occurrence was published in The Spiritualist of March 22, 1878.

On July 5, 1878, on the invitation of Dr. Hutchinson, Eglinton left for Capetown. He spent nine months with his host, giving many sťances of which copious notes were made, studied dentistry in his leisure time and was, as a result, enrolled in 1879 in Britain as a duly qualified practitioner. On Dr. Hutchinson's recommendation he was also initiated in the Good Hope Lodge of Masons. In May, 1879, he returned to Britain and had some extraordinary experiences as the guest of Colonel and Mrs. Lean (Florence Marryat) at Bruges in a haunted house, the ghost of which he finally laid. Shortly after this he received an invitation to visit Sweden. He gave nineteen sťances in Stockholm, which were attended by many scientific and literary men. Professors Tornebom and Edland, both of them sceptical previously, published a favourable report on his mediumship in the Aftonblad of October 30, 1879. He also gave sittings at the Upsala University and then left for Denmark, Germany and Bohemia. In Munich he was the guest of Gabriel Max, the eminent painter, and furnished the inspiration for his impressive painting Geistesgruss. After his return he gave striking sťances at Cambridge University under the auspices of the Psychological Society, during which he was handcuffed to one person and held by another. It was in this month that Mrs. Corner was exposed by Sir George Sitwell and Mr. Carl von Buch. The atmosphere was decidedly hostile and in March, 1880, Eglinton again left for the Continent. He was engaged in Leipzig by Baron von Hoffman to give sťances to Professor Johann ZŲllner and others connected with the University. Professor ZŲllner was very satisfied with the result of his twenty-five sittings and intended to publish another book on his experiences, but death intervened. In Vienna he gave over thirty sťances to Baron von Hellenbach, which was a remarkable achievement in itself, as Henry Slade paid a visit shortly before him and the police objected to his presence. The result of the sťances is mostly discussed in Baron Hellenbach's Prejudices of Mankind.

To carry out an engagement for twelve sťances Eglinton left for Munich for the second time. Here a disastrous experience was in store for him. After the end of the eleventh sitting a mechanical frog was discovered in the room and lampblack, with which the musical instruments had been daubed, was found on his face and hands. Three months later Herr Levey, director of the Royal Opera House, confessed that the mechanical frog was brought by him into the room to see if anything would be done with it. As regards the lamp-black, Dr. W. J. Crawford's experiments have proved that particles of paint may attach themselves to the flowing mass of ectoplasm and settle on the medium's body. The excuse, however, cannot be considered perfect as when, for the purpose of a test, Dr. Nichols asked the materialised figure of "Joey" to dip his fingers in purple ink the medium's fingers were found clean. It is true, nevertheless, that very little research has been done to elucidate the complexities of this problem.

On his return to Britain Eglinton gave no more professional sťances that year. The spiritualistic press, however, was kept posted by Dr. Nichols of the many experiments in direct writing and drawing that were conducted in his home. The conditions of these experiments appear to defy normal explanation. In February, 1881, Eglinton sailed for New York and remained in America until the middle of May.

Miracles in India - and a disaster

In October, 1881, following an invitation from Mr. J. G. Meugens, a wealthy Indian merchant, Eglinton left for Calcutta. He was apparently very successful in his Indian sťances, some of which were held at the residence of the Maharajah Sir Jotendro Johun Tagore and reported in the daily Indian Mirror, but it is worth while to note that with the distance from London there is a proportionate increase in the marvels. The spirit postmastership which he "established" between London and Calcutta is almost unprecedented in the annals of Spiritualism. According to the narrative of Mr. Meugens, privately marked sheets of paper were whisked by the spirits to London and returned shortly after to Calcutta with the handwriting of a close friend, describing how his room had been suddenly filled with light and how "Ernest" stood by and waited for the letter to carry it back. This happened on several occasions. Indeed, once Mr. Meugens asked that the ring of Mrs. Fletcher, who was then in Tothill Fields Prison, in Mr. Meugens' belief unjustly convicted, be brought to him. The spirits complied. The ring could not be identified but the spirits brought a few days later a letter in Mrs. Fletcher's own handwriting telling him that she sent the ring on and answered, to his inquiry, that she thought he had received it months before. The accounts of Eglinton's phenomena were so eagerly received that for the period of his stay a fortnightly journal, similar to Light, was started to meet the demand. The venture is said to have met with considerable success. At the time of Eglinton's visit to Calcutta Harry Kellar, the famous conjurer, was there giving stage exposures of Spiritualism. He issued a challenge to Eglinton in the Indian Daily News for January 13, 1882, and promised an unbiased opinion as to the natural explanations of the phenomena. An invitation was duly extended. Harry Kellar was courageous enough to publicly confess:

"I went as a sceptic, but I must own that I came away utterly unable to explain, by any natural means, the phenomena that I witnessed on Tuesday evening."

He held the medium's left hand and was half levitated with Eglinton. He had no doubt that this phenomenon was genuine and reiterated this conviction in print many years later. But he wavered on independent slate writing in which he also obtained a convincing demonstration.

After Meugens left India Eglinton went to Howran as the guest of Colonel and Mrs. Gordon and remained with them for the rest of his stay. He converted Lord William Beresford to Spiritualism, and left for Britain in April, 1882.

During his return journey the demonstration of another miracle ended, in view of later revelations, with disaster. The SPR Proceedings (Vol. Ill, p. 254) accuse him of co-operation with Mme. Blavatsky in manufacturing a theosophic marvel. Eglinton later denied that he met Mme. Blavatsky in India at all, but it appears to be a fact that he took many letters of introduction to her and to Col. Olcott, and that he met Mme. Blavatsky in Calcutta. Eglinton was at first openly sceptical as to the existence of the Mahatmas. Before his departure, however, his spirit controls declared their conversion and said that "they had been appointed to work in concert with the Brothers thenceforth." Eglinton sailed on the S.S. Vega. He claimed that during the voyage he was visited by Mahatma K.H. He described this in a letter which was mysteriously transported from the open seas to Bombay and fell in the centre of a room where Mme. Blavatsky held company. The letter was addressed to Mrs. Gordon in Calcutta. Mme. Blavatsky wrote some notes on visiting cards, wrapped them up with the letter which was then transported by the same mysterious agency, to Calcutta and dropped from the ceiling in the company of Col. Olcott, Colonel and Mrs. Gordon. As it was later established that the Mahatma letters were written by Mme. Blavatsky, it appears that Eglinton was in concert with her and left a letter, identical to the one written on the ship, with Mme. Blavatsky who made careful arrangements for its mysterious appearance at the appropriate moment. There is an indirect proof of this supposition in the fact that Mr. J. E. O'Conor, a theosophist on board ship, unexpectedly asked Eglinton to enclose, as an additional test, a letter from himself to Mme. Blavatsky. Eglinton undertook the task. Mme. Blavatsky, however, at the time of the alleged delivery of Eglinton's letter made no communication of O'Conor's note. In excuse she said that O'Conor's letter was private and she did not know whether he wished that his name should be brought before the public. In further explanation she added that anyhow, for some unaccountable reason, O'Conor's letter arrived an hour after the one from Eglinton was received. Considering that the evidence as to the manufacture of the K.H. letters by Mme. Blavatsky appears to be irrefutable and that the message from K.H. was superimposed in blue ink on Eglinton's epistle the grossness of the perpetrated fraud is obvious.

It should also be added that this highly damaging incident is hardly touched upon in John Farmer's biography. He contents himself:

"with putting on record the maturer conclusions of Mr. Eglinton with regard to the 'appearance' on board the Vega. He now believes the apparition to have been a spontaneous materialisation, of a somewhat unusual order, of someone who called himself 'Koot Hoomi.'"

After his return from India Eglinton attempted to retire from professional mediumship by entering into partnership with a gentleman in a publishing firm, trading under the name of the Ross Publishing Company. In August, 1883, however, he severed his connection and fell back again on mediumship as a means of living.

The great slate-writing problem

From 1884 onwards he concentrated on slate writing which he believed to be a far easier means of bringing conviction than materialisations. According to John S. Farmer he sat almost daily for this phenomenon for upward of three years before he obtained any results at all. His slate writing sťances were most striking as he subjected himself to every test condition and, in contrast to Slade, remained passive and quiet throughout the performance. As a result of some very successful sittings Mr. W. P. Adshead, of Belper, offered a challenge of £500 to anyone, not a medium, who would produce the same results under the same conditions. On October 29, 1884, W. E. Gladstone had a sťance with Eglinton. He obtained answers to his questions which were privately written on the hostess's own slates, both when held under the table and when laid upon the table in full view of all present and also within locked slates. Some of the questions were put in Spanish, French and Greek and answered in the same language. Gladstone was so much impressed that soon after he joined the SPR. On two occasions in 1884 Eglinton gave public performances from the stage at a meeting of the London Spiritualist Alliance and at a lecture of his own in St. James's Hall. Both sťances were eminently successful.

In 1885 Eglinton left again for the Continent. In Paris he made the acquaintance of J. Tissot, the celebrated French genre painter and in a materialisation sťance on May 20, completely convinced him of spirit return. Tissot's mezzotint Apparition Medianimique is an idealised conception of his experience. During his stay in Paris Professor Charles Richet had some sittings with him. He obtained further verification of Eglinton's powers on a subsequent visit to London in company with Dr. Myers, brother of F. W. H. Myers. He nevertheless did not attribute much importance to his slate writing experiences and wrote in his Thirty Years of Psychical Research:

"I drew a design on the slate so that Eglinton could not see the drawing. The slate was reversed and a small piece of chalk placed on it. I took the slate in my hand and without letting it go, held it under the table, Eglinton holding the other end of the slate. After two or three minutes a curious facsimile of my sketch was reproduced, but I think that a skilful illusionist could have done as much."

Yet Prof. Richet admits, in the same book, that:

"Eglinton was a very powerful medium and though he has been suspected of fraud, he was able, finally, to prove that the allegations of his enemies were calumnies."

Alfred Russel Wallace was convinced of the genuineness of his materialisations. He has seen his phantom Abdullah in a private house while Eglinton was also visible, sitting in evening dress in an armchair. A careful search was made but no paraphernalia were discovered.

From Paris Eglinton left for Vienna where he met Baron du Prel, who published some of his experiences under the title A Problem for Conjurers. He concluded:

"Through Eglinton I have received the proof that ZŲllner, who was the first in Germany to have courage to speak of these slate writings, discovered a grand truth and that all his opponents who have neither read nor seen anything in this domain are in the wrong."

In 1886 a bitter fight was waged over slate writing between the SPR and Spiritualists in general. Owing to the S. J. Davey sensation Mrs. Eleanor Sidgwick, in the Journal of the SPR, had "no hesitation in attributing the performances of Eglinton to clever conjuring." Davey was an associate of the SPR. He was most impressed by Eglinton's performances, but soon became suspicious, studied the subject from the point of view of conjuring and placing himself in the hands of the SPR came out, with Dr. Richard Hodgson as manager, under an assumed name, as a medium. In his account which was published in the Proceedings, Vol. IV, p. 460, he tells the story of about twenty sittings in which he rivalled the feats of professional slate writers. He produced messages on the sitters' own slates, in screwed, sealed and locked double slates, wrote them in colours, answered questions in various languages, performed successful reading tests, produced written numbers on mental request, made a tumbler walk across the table in strong gas light, floated musical boxes and produced materialised figures in the dark sťance room. His explanation of his slate writing feats was that he either substituted prepared slates with a message already written, or wrote the message himself noiselessly under the table by means of a fragment of pencil fixed in a thimble which he slipped on his finger. For many of his phenomena, however, he failed to furnish satisfactory explanation. Spiritualists took this as a confirmation of their belief that Davey was a renegade medium. Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace himself wrote in the Journal of the SPR, 1891:

"Unless all can be so explained, many of us will be confirmed in our belief that Mr. Davey was really a medium as well as a conjurer, and that in imputing all his performances to trick he was deceiving the society and the public."

In the same volume of the Proceedings in which the Davey report was published Prof. Carvill Lewis, F.G.S., reported that by purposely turning his head away and pretending to divert his attention he heard Eglinton write on the slate and occasionally saw the movements of the tendons of the wrist in the act of writing. Again, "Prof. Hoffmann" (Angelo J. Lewis) whom the SPR requested to report in his professional capacity on Eglinton's performances reported, after twelve sittings and studying the reports furnished by others, that many circumstances suggest occasional trickery,

"on the other hand, I do not believe the cleverest conjurer could, under the same conditions, use trickery in the wholesale way necessary to produce all these phenomena without exposing himself to constant risk of detection. If conjuring were the only explanation of the slate-writing phenomena, I should certainly have expected that their secret would long since have become public property." (Journal SPR, August, 1886).

As a result of the bitter controversy which arose over the accusations of the SPR many Spiritualists resigned their membership. Eglinton invited testimonies from his sitters. They came forth in abundance. If one considers that, according to the table published in Farmer's biography Eglinton gave nearly 3,500 sittings up to this period and definite proofs of fraud were only claimed twice against him, one cannot fail to be impressed that the conclusions of Mrs. Sidgwick were too hastily drawn. This appears to have been the view of the then Assistant Secretary to the SPR, Mr. Edward T. Bennett, who, in his Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism says:

"What I may call the Eglinton problem was, at least so it seems to me, left not only in an incomplete, but in an unsatisfactory state after the death of Mr. S. J. Davey."

In 1887 Eglinton visited Russia. He gave a sťance to the Emperor Alexander III. Aksakof had opportunities for repeated experiments, and he also maintained that Eglinton possessed great and genuine psychic powers.

The story of Eglinton's life up to the period of the visit to Russia, is told in John S. Farmer's book Twixt Two Worlds, London, 1886.

Source (with minor modifications): An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor (1934).



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