Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/April 1889/The Psychology of Spiritualism
By JOSEPH JASTROW.
IN 1848, from the town of Hydeville, New York, came the somewhat startling discovery that certain knockings, the source of which had mystified the household of one of its residents, seemed to be intelligently guided and ready to appear at call. Communication was established by agreeing that one rap should mean "no," and three raps "yes"; to which was afterward added the device of calling off the alphabet and noting at which letters the raps occurred; in this way the rapper revealed himself as the spirit of a murdered peddler. Within five years the news of this simple and childish invention had called into existence thousands of spirit-circles, had developed wonderful "mediums," through whose special gifts the manifestations were ascribed, had amassed a vast store of strange testimony, and the movement had become an epidemic; and this, too, in spite of the fact that, in 1851, the peculiar double raps occurring in the presence of these Fox sisters were satisfactorily explained as due to the rapid partial dislocation and resetting of the knee-joint, and perhaps other joints, the raps failing to occur when the Fox sisters were placed in a position in which the leverage necessary for this action was denied them and being perfectly repeated, at will, by a lady gifted with the same peculiarity. To-day spiritualists count their adherents by millions. In 1867 there were estimated to be three millions in America. They publish about one hundred journals, hailing from all parts of the world (twenty-six of them appear in America), and the manifestations have increased in number and variety. Spirit-forms are seen and hold converse; they write on slates in mysterious ways, they move tables, play musical instruments, send flowers and messages, tie knots in an endless cord, and so on; all, however, only in the presence of "mediums."
It would seem self-evident that so momentous a conclusion should not be accepted without the most rigid scrutiny; that only after every attempt to explain the phenomena by laws already understood had failed, would recourse be had to a supernatural origin, and only when the truth of such a theory had been repeatedly verified by a variety of evidence would it be definitely accepted. The history of psychic epidemics shows too clearly that any such logical procedure is made impossible by the white heat of the emotional interest with which such movements always spread. There is always a large class of people yearning for a possession that shall be mysterious and unshared by the common herd, anxious to embrace any such strange and novel doctrines as spiritualism advanced, simply because of their strangeness and novelty. Such persons find no satisfaction in investigating, but only in believing. With such the movement began; but, as it spread, it found its way into higher circles, securing the adherence of many men and women of decided culture and intellectual acumen, and even enrolling in its cause a few eminent representatives of the world of learning. The spiritualists grew bold and defied investigation; investigations were frequently made, and resulted, according to the ability, impartiality, and technical fitness of the investigators, about as frequently in exposure as in conversion. The conversions were always trumpeted far and wide, while the mediums convicted of fraudulent procedure quietly and successfully continued their career. A prominent spiritualist openly announces that Slade (perhaps the most famous living medium) "now often cheats with an almost infantile audacity and naïveté, while at the same or the next séance with the same investigators," genuine spiritualistic phenomena occur. If this is the moral atmosphere of spiritualism, one can readily understand the opinion of another disciple, that the true spirit in which to approach its study is "an entire willingness to be deceived."
With the revival of interest fostered by the Society for Psychic Research, the investigation of spiritualistic manifestations has been undertaken with more of a scientific appreciation of the problems therein involved; and within the last few years have appeared the results of several inquiries that deserve to register a turning-point in the career of this mischievous superstition and to hasten the day of its abandonment by all sensible men.
Mr. Henry Seybert, an enthusiastic spiritualist, bequeathed to the University of Pennsylvania a sum of money, on the condition that this university should appoint a commission to investigate modern spiritualism. This commission has published a preliminary report. They began with an entire willingness to accept any conclusion warranted by facts; and their chairman. Dr. H. H. Furness, confessed "to a leaning in favor of the substantial truth of spiritualism." They have examined many of the most famous mediums, and the manifestations that have contributed most to their fame. Their verdict, individually and collectively, is the same regarding every medium with whom they saw anything noteworthy: gross, intentional fraud throughout. The mediums were treated with the utmost fairness and courtesy; their conditions were agreed to and upheld; every one, in each kind of manifestation, was either caught in the act of trickery, or the trick was repeated and explained by one of the commission. This testimony goes far to justify the substitution of "trick" for "manifestation," of "senseless cant" for "spiritualistic explanation," of "adroit conjurer" for "medium." The accumulative force of this conclusion can only be appreciated by a reading of the report itself. A few examples of the kind of trickery exposed must here suffice.
Dr. Slade, whose mediumship has convinced many of the most eminent believers in spiritualism, including the famous Zöllner coterie, produces communications on a slate held beneath a table, in answer to questions asked in writing or verbally, sometimes openly and sometimes in folded slips of paper. It was soon discovered that the character of this writing was of two kinds. The long messages were neatly written, with the i's dotted and the t's crossed, and often produced unasked, or not in direct answer to a question; while the short ones, in answer to questions asked only shortly beforehand, were scrawly, hardly legible, and evidently written without the aid of the eye. The many methods of producing the short writings were repeated by a professional presti-digitateur much more skillfully than by Slade. The commission distinctly saw every step in Slade's method, on one occasion or another, but were utterly baffled by the conjurer (Mr. Harry Kellar), who subsequently revealed his methods to Dr. Furness. The long messages are written beforehand, on slates to be substituted for the ones given him at a favorable opportunity. At the last séance with Dr. Slade, two prepared slates were resting against a table behind him, and Dr. Furness kept a sharp watch upon these slates. "Unfortunately, it was too sharp; for one second the medium saw me looking at them. It was enough. That detected look prevented the revelation of those elaborate spirit messages. But when the séance was over, and he was signing the receipt for his money, I passed round behind his chair and pushed these slates with my foot, so as to make them fall over, whereupon the writing on one of them was distinctly revealed." The medium at once pushed back his chair, snatched the slates, hurriedly washed them, and could with difficulty regain sufficient composure to sign the receipt for the exorbitant payment of his services. This is not the first time that Slade has been exposed, and it is hoped that this verdict of the Seybert commission, "fraudulent throughout," will be sufficient to make further exposure unnecessary.
Another medium, Mrs. Patterson, gives a closely similar performance. Dr. Knerr had a sitting with her, and adjusted a mirror
about his person so as to reflect whatever was going on beneath the table. "In the mirror I beheld a hand ... stealthily insert its fingers between the leaves of the slate, take out the little slip (containing the question), unfold and again fold it, grasp the little pencil ... and with rapid but noiseless motion ... write across the slate from left to right a few lines; then the leaves of the slate were closed, the little pencil laid on the top," and the spirits invoked to please send a message.
Is it necessary to continue the catalogue of vulgar deceit: to tell how Dr. Furness sends out sealed letters the contents of which the spirits are to read and answer without opening, and finds the seals tampered with and mucilage and skill used to conceal the crime; how he asks the same question of various mediums and receives hopelessly contradictory answers; how he detects the form of the medium in her assumed materializations and finds the spirit ready to answer to any and every name in fiction or reality, from "Olivia" of "The Talking Oak" to Shakespeare; how a medium who materializes a right hand while apparently holding his neighbor's hand with both his own, is shown to imitate this double grip with one hand and do the hocus-pocus with the other—in short, how universal, how coarse, how degrading this fraud is; how readily it leaves its hiding-place to snatch at a cunningly offered bait, until it becomes ridiculous?
Let us rather turn to another independent investigation published by the English Society for Psychical Research (October, 1886, to May, 1887). The great English medium, whose performances as described are really miraculous, is Englinton, and his specialty is slate-writing. The late Prof. H. Carvill Lewis (of Philadelphia) had sittings with Englinton, and reported as follows: He sat intently watching Englinton for an hour, and nothing happened; fearing a blank seance, he purposely diverted his attention. The moment he looked away, the manifestations began, and he could see "the medium look down intently toward his knees and
in the direction of the slate. I now quickly turned back my head, when the slate was brought up against the table with a sharp rap." He repeated the manœuvre, with the same result, and while the writing was going on he distinctly saw "the movement of the central tendon in his wrist corresponding to that made by his middle finger in the act of writing. Each movement of the tendon was simultaneously accompanied by the sound of a scratch on the slate." Again, for the answer to another question, Englinton requires the use of a dictionary, and leaves the room for a minute; the answer is then written just as it is given in Webster's dictionary; but, unfortunately, albumina was read for alumina. When the slate, which closes with a spring, is to be closed, Englinton suddenly sneezes; when the writing is small and faint, he struggles until he gets within a few inches of it; a postage-stamp secretly glued across the two leaves of the double slate prevents all manifestations; a double fee immediately causes further manifestations, while a minute before such were declared impossible, owing to the exhaustion of power; and the writing on the slates is identified by an expert as that of Englinton.
Mrs. Henry Sidgwick records her experience with many mediums, and supports the same verdict. She was often unable to detect the exact modus operandi of the medium, but has never seen anything which was not well within the range and strongly suggestive of conjuring, and mostly of no high order of conjuring.
But all this accounts for only part of the problem. To convict every medium of fraud is not a complete explanation of the appearance which this belief now presents. It remains to account for the great success of the movement; for the fact that so many have been deceived and so few have really understood; to show why we are to believe the Seybert commission, and not credit the countless miracle-mongers. This is psychologically the most interesting portion of the problem, and has recently been very successfully treated by Mrs. Sidgwick, Mr. Hodgson, and Mr. Davey, of the English Society for Psychic Research.
There is a very broad-spread notion that anybody can go to a spiritualistic séance and give a reliable opinion as to whether what he or she has seen is explicable as conjuring or not. Especially in this country, where the right to one's opinion is regarded as a corollary to the right of liberty, does this notion prevail. The fact probably is, that most such claimants are about as competent to form a trustworthy opinion on such a subject as they are to pronounce upon the genuineness of a Syriac manuscript. The matter is as much a technical acquisition as is the diagnosticating of a disease. It is not at all to the discredit of the observing powers or the intellectual acumen of any one, to be deceived by the performances of a conjurer, and the same holds true of the professional part of mediumistic phenomena. Until this homely but salutary truth is impressed with all its importance upon all intending investigators, there is little hope of checking the growth of this vast superstition. You believe that there will be an eclipse of the moon when the astronomer predicts one, not because you can calculate the time yourself, or even understand how the astronomer does it, but because that is a technical acquisition which he has learned and you have not; and so with a thousand other and more humble facts of daily life. Spiritualism (to a large extent) comes under the same category; and the Seybert commission, and these other observers who have acquainted themselves with the possibilities of conjuring and the natural history of deception, who by their training and natural gifts have fitted themselves as competent judges of such alleged ultra-physical facts—these persons have the same right to our confidence and respect as a body of chemists or physicians on a question within their province. It is not fair to set up what you think you have seen as overthrowing their authority; even if you are an unprejudiced and accurate observer who has weighed the probability of your observations being vitiated by one or other of the many sources of error in such observation, it is only a small fact, though of course even that should be registered.
Whatever of seeming dogmatism there is in this view is removed by the experimental demonstration furnished by Messrs. Hodgson and Davey, that the kind and amount of mal-observation and faulty description which an average observer will introduce into the account of a performance such as the medium gives, is amply sufficient to account for the divergence between his report of the performance and what really occurred. The success of a large class of tricks depends upon diverting the observer's attention from the points of real importance, and in leading him to draw inferences perfectly valid under ordinary circumstances but entirely wrong in the particular case. It must be constantly remembered that the judging powers are at a great disadvantage in observing such performances, and that it is a kind of judgment in which they have no practice. In the intercourse of daily life a certain amount of good faith and confidence in the straightforwardness of the doings of others prevents us from exercising that close scrutiny and suspicion here necessary. We know that most of our neighbors have not the sharpness to deceive us, and do not live on the principle of the detective, who regards every one as dishonest until he has proved himself honest.
Mr. Davey (who, by the way, was at one time deceived almost into conversion by spiritualistic phenomena) is an expert amateur conjurer, and repeats the slate-writing performances of such as Englinton with at least equal skill. He arranged with Mr. Hodgson to give sittings to several ladies and gentlemen, on the condition that the latter send him detailed written accounts of what they had seen. He did not pose as a medium or accept a fee, but simply said that he had something to show which his sitters were to explain as best they could, and with due consideration of trickery as a possible mode of explanation. The "medium" has here a decided advantage over Mr. Davey, because he induces a mental attitude in his sitters that entertains (however remotely) the possibility of witnessing something supernatural, and this is sufficient to create an adjustment of the powers of observation less fitted to detect trickery than if the performer did not announce himself as the go-between of the supernatural. This is well illustrated in the reports of Mr. Davey's sitters, for a few friends who were told beforehand that they were to witness a sleight-of-hand performance, or were strongly led to believe it such, made much less of a marvel of the performance than those who had not been thus enlightened. It remains to add that not one of the sitters (and they were persons of decidedly more than average intelligence and ability) detected his modus operandi, and a large number concluded that trickery was utterly insufficient to account for the manifestations.
Mr. Davey's performances, as described by many of his sitters, like the descriptions of the performances of many a medium, are marvelous enough to demand the hypothesis of occult agency: "Writing upon slates locked and carefully guarded by witnesses—writing upon slates held by the witnesses firmly against the under surface of the table—writing upon slates held by the witnesses above the table—answers to questions written secretly in locked slates—correct quotations appearing on guarded slates from books chosen by the witnesses at random, and sometimes mentally, the books not touched by the 'medium', . . . messages in languages unknown to the 'medium,' including a message in German, for which only a mental request had been made, and a letter in Japanese in a double slate locked and sealed by the witness, etc. And yet, though 'autographic' fragments of pencil were 'heard' weaving mysterious messages between and under and over slates, and fragments of chalk were seen moving about under a tumbler placed above the table in full view, none of the sitters witnessed that best phenomenon, Mr. Davey writing."
It must not be supposed that the errors of mal-description and lapse of memory thus committed are at all serious in themselves; on the contrary, they are mostly such as would be entirely pardonable in ordinary matters. Mr. Hodgson places them in four classes. In the first, the observer interpolates a fact which really did not happen, but which he was led to believe had occurred. He records that he examined the slate, when he really did not. Or, for similar causes, he substitutes one statement for another closely like it; he says he examined the slate minutely, when he really only did so hastily. Thirdly, he may transpose the order in which the events happened, making the examination of the slate occur at a later period than when it really took place. Lastly, he may omit certain details which he was carefully led to consider trivial, but which really were most important. Such slight lapses as these are sufficient to make a marvel of a clever piece of conjuring; add to this the increased temptations for mal-observation afforded by the dim light and mysterious surroundings of the medium, as well as by the sympathetic attitude of the sitters, and the wide divergence between the miraculous narratives of spiritualists and the homely deceptions which they are intended to describe is no longer a mystery.
The conclusion thus experimentally arrived at by Messrs. Hodgson and Davey is corroborated by other investigators. After witnessing a séance that was simply a series of the simplest and most glaringly evident tricks, Mrs. Sidgwick was expected to have had all her doubts entirely removed, and was assured that what she had seen was better than the materializations at Paris. "Experiences like this make one feel how misleading the accounts of some completely honest witnesses may be; for the materializations in Paris were those which the Comte de Bullet had with Firman, where near relatives of the count were believed constantly to appear, and which are among the most wonderful recorded in spiritualistic literature. And, after all, it appears that these marvelous séances were no better than this miserable personation by Haxby."
The Seybert commission finds that "with every possible desire on the part of spiritualists to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, concerning marvelous phenomena, it is extremely difficult to do so. Be it distinctly understood that we do not for an instant impute willful perversion of the truth. All that we mean is that, for two reasons, it is likely that the marvels of spiritualism will be, by believers in them, incorrectly and insufficiently reported. The first reason is to be found in the mental condition of the observer; if he be excited or deeply moved, his account can not but be affected, and essential details will surely be distorted. For a second reason, note how hard it is to give a truthful account of any common, every-day occurrence. The difficulty is increased a hundred-fold when what we would tell partakes of the wonderful. Who can truthfully describe a juggler's trick? Who would hesitate to affirm that a watch, which never left the eye-sight for an instant, was broken by the juggler on an anvil; or that a handkerchief was burned before our eyes? We all know the juggler does not break the watch, and does not burn the handkerchief. We watched most closely the juggler's right hand, while the trick was done with his left. The one minute circumstance has been omitted that would have converted the trick into no-trick. It is likely to be the same in the accounts of the most wonderful phenomena of spiritualism."
If we desire a concrete instance of this omission of an important detail, Dr. Furness will supply one. Certain highly intelligent observers describe to him the doings of a Boston medium: "There are two tables in the room of séance, at one of which sits the medium, at the other the visitor. The visitor at his table writes his question in pencil at the top of a long slip of paper, and, after folding over several times the portion of the slip on which his question is written, gums it down with mucilage and hands it to the medium, who thereupon places on the folded and gummed portion his left hand, and in a few minutes with his right hand writes down answers to the concealed questions; these answers are marvels of pertinency, and prove beyond a cavil the clairvoyant or spiritual powers of the medium." Dr. Furness went to the medium, prepared his slip of paper about as described, and thus continues: "As soon as he took his seat, and laid the strip on his table before him, I rose and approached the table so as to keep my paper still in sight; the row of books entirely intercepted my view of it. The medium instantly motioned to me to return to my seat, and, I think, told me to do so. I obeyed, and as I did so could not repress a profound sigh. Why had no one ever told me of that row of books?"
Before passing sentence one must hear what the defendant has to say. The usual defense consists in claiming that the conviction of fraud in some mediums does not prove the absence of genuine phenomena in others. Some even claim, as we saw, that fraud and spirit manifestations can go hand in hand. Furthermore, they hold that the conditions for success demanded by the mediums, though they make the phenomena resemble a juggler's performance, are perfectly explicable on spiritualistic grounds. Writing is best produced in the dark because dark is "negative," light "positive," and negative conditions are most favorable to communication; if the spirit that appears resembles the medium, that is an effect of the materializing process; if writing does not occur when the slate is looked at, it is because the magnetism of the eye is unfavorable; and has not Dr. Slade received an express command from the spirits forbidding him, on penalty of cutting off all communication, to attempt to write on sealed slates?
In the first place, while it is not thus proved that every action of every medium is fraudulent, it makes it more and more probable, especially as the very conditions necessary for a serious investigation are denied on fanciful grounds. The fact that scientific examination everywhere reveals deception makes it extremely probable that, when exposure has not taken place, it is because there was no scientific examination. At any rate, the burden of proof is with the claimants for supernatural manifestations, and their case has now been so much weakened that it can no longer enter as a serious possibility into the minds of such as guide their beliefs by reason. Again, their "spiritualistic" explanations are simply violent assumptions, varying with the caprice and ingenuity of every medium, and evidently manufactured for the purpose. Even if such explanations were consistent, they would be possible only in that extreme sense in which any bizarre notion or fantastic hypothesis is possible. Practically, they are impossible, because contradictory to the fundamental tenets of science and experience; because they are opposed to that marvelous network of mutually corroborating laws and observations upon which the logic of civilization is founded. Those whose feelings are not appealed to by the doctrines of spiritualism will never be attracted to it by its logic.
A system that aims to instruct men with regard to beliefs appealing most earnestly and deeply to the human heart, appears in the light of scientific investigation as an empty, tottering framework, held together by the grossest frauds, covered over with the most vulgar sham, and embellished with the meanest kind of deception. Let each one leave as small or as large a margin for the possibility of a genuine spiritualism as to him seems fit, but let him realize in all its immensity the gross scandal to which this system has given and is giving rise. Let him understand that under the shelter of spiritualism men and women in all our large cities are daily and hourly preying upon the credulity of simple-minded folk, and obtaining money by means for which the law provides the jail. Let him know that there is now abundant evidence to make the term "medium" synonymous with "impostor." When these facts are clearly and universally recognized, we may hope to ascertain whether there is a true but small foundation-stone hidden beneath this rubbish-heap, or whether, like its equally pretentious predecessors, it leaves the mystery as unsolved as it found it.
According to Prof. Judd, an important change has taken place in scientific opinion concerning the climatical relations of fauna and flora, and the distribution of biological regions. It has been tacitly assumed that all marine organisms coming from regions bordering the equator must have lived under tropical conditions; but deep-sea research has shown that all conditions of temperature and of light prevail at their several depths in tropical as well as other seas; and that many forms which, because they came from equatorial regions, we have hitherto regarded as tropical, we now know to live in icy-cold water as well as in almost utter darkness. The large size and abundant development of cephalopods, crustaceans, and fish, we now know to be no evidence of the presence of warmth or life, and Sir Joseph Hooker has shown the fallacy of similar reasoning when applied to plant-life.