Henry Slade

Henry Slade

          American medium of a stormy career, the best-known slate writer over whose phenomena sceptics and believers were bitterly divided both in America and Britain. He had been for nearly fifteen years before the American public when the choice fell on him to demonstrate supernormal phenomena in Petersburg before the investigators of the University. Mme. Blavatsky and Col. Olcott, who were asked to find a suitable medium, sat with him for weeks and testified to

"messages inside double slates, sometimes tied and sealed together, while they either lay upon the table in full view of all, or were laid upon the heads of members of the committee, or held flat against the under surface of the table-top, or held in a committee man's hand without the medium touching it."

En route to Russia, Slade arrived in Britain on July 13, 1876. He gave many sittings in London and was examined by both spiritualists and non-spiritualists.

Besides slate-writing he produced partial materialisations and strong telekinetic phenomena. The table moved, matter was penetrated by matter, he was levitated and musical instruments were played by invisible hands. For six weeks all went well, his fame spread and J. Enmore Jones, the editor of The Spiritual Magazine, declared that he was taking the place vacated by D. D. Home.

The World wrote in a long article on August 30, 1876:

"Then came more and violent knockings at the table, a chair at the farthest corner from Dr. Slade was lifted rapidly in the air and hurled to the ground without visible agency. My coat and trousers were plucked violently, and I was pinched and patted, all with great rapidity, and in quarters which it seemed absolutely impossible Dr. Slade could reach. A hand appeared and disappeared fitfully, but with unmistakable reality, close to me; and when the slate was produced with a similar crumb of pencil, once on it when it was held under the table, and once under it when it was placed on the table, messages of various kinds were inscribed rapidly and in different handwritings. One, the longest, was of a religious character, and inculcated the usual religious lessons. Others were in reply to questions in which I pressed hard for a communication on some subjects which could only be known to myself."

The article on the séance at which the reporter was alone with Slade and, presumably from the context, in light, concludes:

"I had not, and have not, a glimmering of an idea how the effects described had been produced, and I came away inexpressibly puzzled and perplexed."

He was visited by men of science who were unable to explain what they saw. Lord Rayleigh took a professional conjurer with him who admitted that he was completely puzzled. He convinced Alfred Russel Wallace of his genuine powers and "finally" solved Frank Podmore's doubts as to the truth of spiritualism. The author of Modern Spiritualism preserved silence in his later writings over this stage of his beliefs, but he frankly admits that he was profoundly impressed by Slade's performance.

Early in September, 1876, at the peak of his fame, Slade got into a terrible entanglement. Professor Lankester, who was outvoted as a member of the Selecting Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science when Prof. Barrett's paper on Spiritualism was admitted, intended to strike a deadly blow at the new superstition and when Serjeant Cox told him of the puzzling slate writing demonstrations of Slade he went with Dr. Donkin to pay him a visit determined to unmask him at whatever cost. He paid the usual fee of a pound and in the second sitting he suddenly seized the slate before the writing was supposed to have taken place. He found the message ready, published his exposure on September 16 in The Times and brought an action against the medium for obtaining money under false pretences.

Over the exposure a fierce controversy ensued. Besides Prof. Lankester the sceptics were represented by Prof. Henry Sidgwick, R. H. Hatton, Edmund Gurney and W. B. Carpenter. According to Podmore:

"the Spiritualists were perhaps justified in not accepting the incident as conclusive. Slade defended himself by asserting that, immediately before the slate was snatched from his hand, he heard the spirit writing, and had said so, but that his words were lost in the confusion which followed. If we grant that Slade's testimony was as good as Prof. Lankester's or Dr. Donkin's it was difficult summarily to dismiss this plea."

The case came up for trial at the Bow Street Police Court on October 1, 1876. Evidence in favour of the genuineness of Slade's mediumship was given by Alfred Russel Wallace, Serjeant Cox, Dr. George WyId and another. Only four witnesses were allowed. The magistrate overruled their evidence saying that he must base his decision on "inferences to be drawn from the known course of nature" and on the ground of the deposition of Prof. Lankester and Dr. Donkin he sentenced Slade, under the Vagrancy Act, to three months' imprisonment with hard labour.

In the course of the appeal the conviction was squashed on technical grounds and Slade, before Prof. Lankester obtained a fresh summons, quickly left for the Continent, offering, however, later from Prague exhaustive private tests to Prof. Lankester if he would let him come. To this he received no answer, nor did he come to London again, until 1878, and later in 1887 under the assumed name of Dr. Wilson.

Armed with many testimonies of spiritualists and other people of distinction against the blot of the conviction, Slade spent interesting months on the Continent in the Hague, in Berlin, and in Denmark. In Berlin, Bellachini, the famous conjurer, testified on oath to his powers. In St. Petersburg the séances were satisfactory, but owing to the disturbed state of Russia the investigation did not assume the character originally intended. A successful sitting was given to the Grand Duke Constantine in the presence of Aksakof and Prof. Boutlerof. According to an account there had been accidentally two bits of pencil on the slate. When he held it under the table the writing of two pencils was heard at the same time and when he drew out the slate it was found that one pencil had written from left to right, the other from right to left. Still, it appears that things were not generally successful there. In a letter to Camille Flammarion Schiaparelli writes:

"Aksakof, whose authority is very great in similar matters, told me himself that he had detected him in trickery."

In December, 1877, the experiments of Prof. Johann Zöllner which are so well known in psychical literature, commenced in Leipsic. Professors Fechner, Scheibner and Weber participated in the investigation. Writing on sealed slates was produced under the strictest test conditions, knots were tied on an endless string, there were remarkable displays of force and the penetration of matter through matter was several times demonstrated.

After this brilliant success Slade went to Paris and placed himself at Flammarion's disposal "but I obtained nothing certain," writes Flammarion.

"In the cases that did succeed, there was possible substitution of slates. Tired of so much loss of time, I agreed with Admiral Mouchez, director of the observatory of Paris, to confide to Slade a double slate prepared by ourselves, with the precautions which were necessary in order that we should not be entrapped. The two slates were sealed in such a way with paper of the observatory that if he took them apart he could not conceal the fraud. He accepted the conditions of the experiment. I carried the slates to his apartment. They remained under the influence of the medium, in this apartment, not a quarter of an hour, not a half hour or an hour, but ten consecutive days, and when he sent them back to us there was not the least trace of writing inside."

Prof. Richet writes of the same period:

"I saw Slade once with Gibier. Slade handed me a slate and put a small fragment of a slate-pencil on it. I held one end and Slade the other, and we put the slate under the table. In a few moments we heard a noise as of writing. There was some writing and the bit of slate-pencil was worn. But I give this experiment (my only one of the kind) under all reserves: (1) It was long ago; (2) I cannot find the notes I took; (3) Slade's honesty is open to question, and (4) Experiments with slates lend themselves to trickery."

The next stage of Slade's career was his visit to Australia. His activities there were recorded in James Curtis' book Rustlings in the Golden City. In 1885 he appeared before the Seybert Commission in Philadelphia. He was caught in glaring fraud. On one occasion the sitters distinctly saw his foot, before it had time to get back into the slippers, as the instrument of telekinetic phenomena. Once a slate, resting against the leg of the table, was upset by a sitter. It was seen that it had a message on it prepared in advance.

The writing obtained was generally of two kinds. The general messages were very legible and clearly punctuated, but when the communication came in answer to questions it was clumsy, scarcely legible, abrupt and vague. It bore traces of hasty work under difficult conditions as these impromptu messages could not be prepared in advance.

According to the Seybert Committee's report Slade declared that Prof. Zöllner watched him closely only during the first three or four sittings, but afterwards let him do as he pleased. This was the starting point of Prof. Fullerton's trip to Germany to interview Prof. Zöllner's surviving colleagues in an attempt to discredit his favourable findings.

The exposure by the Seybert Commission was preceded by J. W. Truesdell's revelations. In Bottom Facts of Spiritualism, New York, 1883, he claims to have caught Slade in cheating and narrates an amusing incident. He had discovered a slate with a prepared message in the séance room. He stealthily added another message of his own:

"Henry, look out for this fellow; he is up to snuff - Alcinda."

He says that he enjoyed Slade's discomfiture when, at the appropriate moment the unrehearsed message came to light.

Another highly damaging incident was recorded on February 2, 1886, in the Boston Herald: an account of his denunciation as an impostor in Weston, W. Va. Both Slade and his business manager were arrested but they were afterwards released without prosecution. The manager frankly stated that he himself had seen phantom hands which he could have sworn to be that of Slade had it been possible for him to hold his hand in that position.

It is possible that Slade had little genuine power at this period. He fell victim to the drink habit, his moral standing was far from high and he sank lower and lower. He died penniless and in mental decrepitude in a Michigan Sanatorium in 1905.

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



Some parts of this page © The International Survivalist Society 2004