Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Recent spirit rappings

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Are we, or are we not, on the eve of a new Revelation? Are the secrets of the invisible world, concealed for so many thousands of years from mortal ken, now for the first time to be made plain to us through the agency of our household furniture? Are mahogany tables the apostles of the new faith, and brass bells and accordions its missionaries? Will an outlay of ten shillings and sixpence, and the engagement of a celebrated medium, procure for us an interview with the soul of a departed father, mother, husband, wife, in the midst of a London drawing-room, with the Hansom cabs rattling outside, and the servants standing in waiting with the tray of sandwiches and sherry? Can the hand of my dead child be made to grasp me—palpably, as though flesh still covered those decaying bones, and the life-blood were yet coursing through the shrivelled veins? and can it make itself, at other times, visibly patent, floating through the air in a halo of light and glory? Is our friend Newton, after all, but a shabby impostor, and his great discovery of gravitation no discovery at all? Or, in other words, is it possible for a gentleman to ride up to the ceiling on a rosewood chair, just for all the world as in olden times, not so very far bygone, certain old ladies were believed to perform their journeys with the aid of a broom-handle?

Absurd as these and a score of similar questions may appear to the majority of the readers of Once a Week, it must be recollected that thousands of respectable persons in England and America would not hesitate for an instant to answer them in the affirmative. As holding a prominent place amongst the faithful, I must be permitted to instance the writer of a recent very able article in the “Cornhill Magazine.” That gentleman witnessed, or was made to believe that he witnessed, phenomena quite as remarkable as any of those just alluded to. Nor am I in the slightest degree disposed to question his veracity, or to pronounce an opinion on spiritual manifestations generally. But, agreeing with him, that the subject cannot be too much ventilated in this which may be described as the earlier stage of its revival, I shall proceed to give the reader a brief account of a séance recently held at my chambers, and at which the presiding medium was the celebrated Mrs. Marshall, of Red Lion Street, Bloomsbury.

I must premise this account by stating that the reports which had been brought to me of Mrs. Marshall’s performances fell very little short of what, in the article in question, has been described by an eye-witness as having been accomplished by Mr. Home. Friends, in whose truthfulness and good sense I placed the highest confidence, had furnished me with their personal experiences on the subject. Not only had they seen tables rise half way to the ceiling, sofas walk mysteriously about the room; and heard guitars and accordions, untouched by human hands, emit the most ravishing and ethereal sounds; but they had also been favoured with special messages from the invisible world, which, relating to bygone events known only to themselves, had of necessity carried conviction to their minds. One of my informants on the subject of Mrs. Marshall—one of the firmest believers in that lady, and to whom indeed I am indebted for her acquaintance—is also a personal friend of Mr. Home’s, and was actually present at the séances described in the “Cornhill Magazine.” I mention these facts merely by way of assuring the reader that Mrs. Marshall is a person of high standing in her profession, with a considerable body of followers—not a mere unrecognised poacher on the domain of magic: a person, in short, through whose agency manifestations of a remarkable kind (whether produced by supernatural means or by clever legerdemain was of course another question); but, at any rate, certain phenomena of an unusual and inexplicable nature might fairly be expected, and, indeed, were expected, by all those who had assembled to meet her on the evening which I shall attempt to describe.

At the appointed time she made her appearance, accompanied by a young lady whom she introduced as her “niece.” The presence of this assistant, or confederate, struck several among us as being, to say the least, suspicious (for why should a spirit require two mediums?); but on this, and every other point, we agreed for the present to suspend our judgment. After a little preliminary conversation, some eight or ten of us seated ourselves round a circular drawing-room table, Mrs. Marshall being some places to my left, with her niece next but one to her, and exactly opposite to me. The “spirits” having been invited to manifest themselves, three distinct raps were heard under the table. These raps resembled those made by a thin stick or cane, and might easily have been produced by a stick concealed under the ample crinoline still in fashion, and attached to the foot and ankle, so that by an upward motion of the leg it would be brought to bear on the under-surface of the table. Of course, I am not entitled to affirm that they were so produced; but simply that being capable of being wrought by a very ordinary piece of mechanism, they were hardly to be accepted, off-hand, as evidences of a supernatural visitation. The same may be said of a violent motion, or tilting-up of the table, which occurred frequently afterwards, and especially at times when the “spirits” were becoming somewhat hazy and confused in their replies. The table was invariably lifted up, from the side at which the younger medium was sitting, until (curious to know whether this “manifestation” might not be accomplished by natural means), I produced a precisely similar result, from my own side, to the great confusion of all sceptics, the immeasurable comfort and consolation of the believers present, and, as it struck me, the astonishment of the mediums. In my own case I am free to confess that a movement of the knee supplied the place of spiritual assistance.

A spirit being, however, announced by Mrs. Marshall, as positively situate and lying under the table, and ready for cross-examination, Mrs. C——n, a friend seated on my left, was invited to question it as to its identity. This she proceeded to do, in the usual manner, by the help of a printed alphabet. The spirit declared itself to be that of one of her relations (I am unable to recollect the precise degree of relationship) and the following dialogue ensued:

Q. What is your name?

A. George.

Q. Your surname?

A. Collins.

Q. How did you die?

A. Murdered.

Q. Where?

A. In Spain.

During the progress of this interrogatory, Mrs. C——n had evinced a continually increasing agitation. At its close she fairly broke out:

“Yes, I did have a relative of that name, and the family have always suspected that he was murdered in Spain.”

A dead silence fell upon the company; and, as a matter of course, every lady present was transformed into an ardent believer.

This, however, was not precisely the case with the gentlemen, some of whom, like myself, had been intently watching the process, and to whom this experiment would have been (but for an unfortunate circumstance to which I shall presently refer) a really interesting one—interesting as throwing a strong light upon some of the spiritual revelations of which we have all heard so much. For we noticed that Mrs. C——n, in her trepidation, made a distinct pause at each particular letter which she expected to hear rapped out. As thus: “a, b, c, d . . . . g (a pause). Spirit raps. So with e, with o, r, g, e, and every letter comprising the various answers. And taking note of this from the beginning, I was able to compose those answers in my mind, and would have undertaken to rap them out with my knuckles, in my present earthly and corporeal state, to the full as accurately as I (and the reader, for the matter of that) may be expected to sound our replies, when summoned into some Chicago or Melbourne drawing-room by a Mrs. Marshall of the twentieth century.

This statement, it may be objected by the believer, is a mere fancy engendered by incredulity, and cannot be accepted as true. A circumstance, however, which I have already hinted at, as, in any case, marring to some slight degree, the value of the experiment, may here be mentioned. While the stupor caused by the late revelation still lingered on the faces of some of the party, one of our friends who had been standing round the table, ventured a remark. “Mrs. C——n,” said he, “while you were sitting on the sofa with Mrs. Marshall some short time ago, I heard you tell her that you were extremely anxious to question the spirits about your relative, George Collins, whom you supposed to have been murdered in Spain.” This being admitted, after a while, by Mrs. C——n (if this paper should chance to meet her eye, she will, I suppose, never forgive me for remarking that she is somewhat advanced in age and apt to be forgetful), it was agreed that some further questions should be put to our mysterious visitor, previous to his dismissal. He was accordingly asked for the name of his murderer, which nobody knew. He refused so far to further the ends of justice, and indeed to all further queries opposed a dead silence. In a short time he was replaced by a spirit which proclaimed itself that of the writer’s father. I shall not weary the reader by stating the exact questions which I put to the new-comer, but shall content myself with assuring him that to every one of them a wrong answer was given. Or, to speak more correctly, I caused Mrs. Marshall’s niece to rap out any reply that I chose, by the simple process above referred to, of pausing at a particular letter. In only one case did this mode of proceeding fail, and it happened to be the one single case in which I desired to put a correct reply into the spirit’s mouth. It occurred on my asking him to spell one of my names, a family one, “Delaware,” which being somewhat uncommon, proved too much even for the spirit of my own parent, so that, despite all the guidance afforded him, he fairly broke down in the middle of the word, and retired in dudgeon. He was followed, in succession, by other spirits, not one of whom, to the best of my recollection, gave a correct answer to a single question. Indeed, when not absolutely guided, they generally adopted the safer course of not answering at all. Only in one instance did they venture on what may be termed an independent shot, which was in the case of a gentleman asking for his Christian name (some one present said, loud enough to be heard by the medium, that it began with E), upon which they rapped out “Edward,” and then “Edmond,” neither of which happened to be anywhere near the mark.

The majority of the company, at this period, presenting anything but an awe-struck appearance, and, on the contrary, strongly inclining to mirth, the spirits rapped out “Small table,” (this time without any guidance on our part, or hesitation on theirs), and a fresh set of experiments commenced. This consisted in four persons—the two mediums and myself included—placing their hands on a small table which stands, or alas! rather stood, in my front drawing-room. The table being unmistakeably pushed by Mrs. Marshall and her niece, naturally began to move across the carpet, and two or three times jumped up with a jerking motion from the floor. I am relieved from all conjecture as to the probable cause of this latter movement by having myself distinctly seen Mrs. Marshall’s niece place her foot under one of the legs and tilt it upwards. On the third occasion of this very clumsy operation being performed, the table was discovered to be broken, and the experiment, of course, came to an end.

We now returned to the larger table, for the purpose of being touched by “spirit hands.” The first person selected by Mrs. Marshall as the subject of this manifestation was a lady seated close to herself. A long pause ensuing, and nothing appearing to take place, Mrs. Marshall suddenly exclaimed: “You’ll feel them immediately, ma’am; they’re a-pulling at my legs.” Directly after which the lady in question certainly did feel something pulling at her legs. A sceptic might be inclined to surmise that the younger medium having, in the first instance made a mistake, her aunt took this means of setting her right and directing the instrument with which she was operating under the table a little further to the left. However this might be, I now requested the niece to favour me by leaving her seat for a short time, in order that we might feel the “spirit hands” without any suspicion of collusion on her part. This, I added, would no doubt be more satisfactory to her as well as to ourselves. She declined to do this. After which, the reader will not be surprised to learn that several persons felt something tugging at their legs and feet, every one of these being in the immediate vicinity of the younger medium, and no effect of the kind being once produced upon those seated at a little distance.

I can only afford to glance at several other “manifestations” which took place during the séance, and which it would be an abuse of the reader’s patience to dwell upon at length. Thus, a tray was produced which, under the manipulation of the two mediums, shuffled up and down on the surface of the mahogany, and on one occasion tilted up on one end, a performance which I again most distinctly saw to be due to a sharp movement of the fingers on the part of the niece. The spirit of some one’s father danced to the air of “God Save the Queen.” Spirits were ordered to rap on the walls, and inside the piano, which they entirely failed to do, rapping all the time unmistakeably under the table, with slight variations of sound. And every time that one of these raps was produced, it was impossible for the younger medium to repress a slight, almost imperceptible, movement of the body, showing plainly that they were caused by her: even if this could for a moment be doubted, after a second request from us that she would leave the table, and suffer us to hear so much as a single rap when she was not there, which she again refused to do. In short, I feel some difficulty in conveying an accurate notion of the extremely clumsy nature of the whole exhibition—far, very far, below the performances of a strolling conjuror at a country fair. Those who may consider this statement an exaggeration can easily satisfy themselves (provided they go without any parti pris, either on one side or the other, and are only anxious, like myself, to discover the truth), on applying at 21 or 22, Red Lion Street, Bloomsbury, for an interview with the celebrated medium, Mrs. Marshall—and her niece.

I write this woman’s name in full (perfectly regardless of the “spirits” which she may summon up for my destruction), and I append my own name and address, from the same sense of duty which has induced me to trouble the Editor of Once a Week with this short article. When we reflect on the number of weak minds which are being still further weakened by attendance on the séances of Mrs. Marshall, and others of her class; on the well-authenticated instances of ladies of rank regulating their course of life, and physicking their children, according to the directions of spirits of Red Lion Street manufacture; on the abominable profanity and wickedness of a piece of jugglery by which feeble imaginations are brought to conceive that a dead father, husband, or child, is dancing on the table to an air from the Traviata; it becomes obviously the duty of the sane part of society to stand forth and expose the delusion. Of Mr. Home, the highest living professor of his art, I have said nothing, simply because I know nothing. It would afford me, however, great pleasure to be favoured by a séance with him; and if convinced by his experiments, I would (with the permission of my friend, the Editor) record my conversion, and the grounds on which it was based, in this journal. Should Mr. Home be—as I have no reason for denying—in contact with the spiritual world, he will thank me for exposing one at least of the pretenders, who, independently of the harm which they do to mankind at large, are throwing very serious discredit, and a degree of suspicion which he himself will admit to be unavoidable, on the art or mystery of which he is so distinguished a professor.

John Delaware Lewis. 16, King Street, St. James’s.