An Interview with Judge John W. Edmonds
Posted on 27 June 2016, 8:18
John W. Edmonds, (below) who served as Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, is believed to have been the first true psychical researcher. Following the advent of the spirit communication epidemic that hit the world with the so-called “Rochester Knocking” in 1848, a number of educated and prominent men and women observed various mediumistic phenomena, but Edmonds carried his investigation beyond a few casual observations. Beginning in early 1851, he sat with numerous mediums, closely testing them in every conceivable way in search of the truth.
Early in 1852, Edmonds met George T. Dexter, (below) a New York physician, who, like Edmonds, had begun as a doubter, then had become a believer, and then a medium himself. Edmonds, Dexter, and several others formed a circle that met on a regular basis and received lengthy discourses purportedly coming from the spirits of Emanuel Swedenborg and Francis Bacon through the hand of Dexter.
Before being elevated to the State Supreme Court, Edmonds (1816-74) served in both houses of the New York legislature, including as president of the Senate. This “interview” with Edmonds is drawn from his two books, Spiritualism, Volumes I and II, co-authored with Dexter. Except for words in brackets, inserted to provide a smooth transition, the words are verbatim from the books. The questions have been tailored to fit the answers.
Judge Edmonds, it is my understanding that you began your investigation of mediums in January 1851, soon after the death of your wife. Is that the case?
“[Yes,] I was at the time withdrawn from general society. I was laboring under the great depression of spirits. I was occupying at my leisure in reading on the subject of death and man’s existence afterwards. I was invited by a friend to witness the ‘Rochester Knockings.’ I complied, more to oblige her and to while away a tedious hour.”
I recall reading that you expected to uncover fraud.
“I was all this time an unbeliever, and tried the patience of believers sorely by my skepticism, my captiousness, and my obdurate refusal to yield my belief. I saw around me some who yielded a ready faith on one or two sittings only; others again, under the same circumstances, avowing a determined unbelief; and some who refused to witness it at all, and yet were confirmed unbelievers. I could not imitate any of these parties, and refused to yield unless upon most irrefragable testimony.”
What were your religious beliefs at the time you commenced your investigation?
“I had in the course of my life read and heard from the pulpit so many contradictory and conflicting doctrines on the subject that I hardly knew what to believe. I could not, if I would, believe what I could not understand, and was anxiously seeking to know if after death we should again meet with those whom we loved here, and under what circumstances.”
What happened at your first sitting?
“My first interview (sitting) was with the rappings (one rap for each letter of the alphabet, so three raps for ‘yes,’ and one for ‘no’), and three things struck me as remarkable. One was that under the circumstances it was beyond all cavil that the sounds were not produced by the instrumentality of any person present. Another was that my mental questions were answered, when I knew no person present could know what they were, or even that I was asking any; and a third was, that I was directed to correct a mistake I had made in my written memorandum of what was occurring, when I knew that no one present was aware that I had made a mistake, or what it was.”
Do you recall the mistake?
“A communication was being spelled out by the alphabet, and I was writing it down. I wrote, ‘No one. Not wo.’ My mistake was not seen by any of the party, but it was corrected by [the raps] spelling out ‘Number one. Number two.’”
What did you make of the rappings?
“Of course I was on the look out for deception, and at first relied upon my senses and the conclusions which my reason might draw from their evidence. But I was at a loss to tell how the mediums could cause what I witnessed under these circumstances … I thought a good deal on what I witnessed, and determined to investigate the matter and find out what it was. If it was a deception or a delusion, I thought that I could detect it. For about four months, I devoted at least two evenings in a week, and sometimes more, to witnessing the phenomena in all its phases. I kept careful records of all I witnessed, and from time to time compared them with each other, to detect inconsistencies and contradictions. I read all I could lay my hands on, on the subject, and especially all the professed ‘exposures of the humbug.’ I went from place to place, seeing different mediums, meeting with different parties of persons, often with persons I had never seen before, and sometimes where I was myself entirely unknown. In fine, I availed myself of every opportunity that was afforded, thoroughly to sift the matter to the bottom.”
Were you assisted by anyone in your investigation?
“After depending upon my senses, as to the various phases of the phenomenon, I invoked the aid of science, and with the assistance of an accomplished electrician and his machinery, and of eight or ten intelligent, educated, shrewd persons, examined the matter. We pursued our inquiries many days, and established to our satisfaction two things: first, that the sounds were not produced by the agency of any person present or near us; and, second, that they were not forthcoming at our will and pleasure.”
Would you mind relating a little more about those early investigations?
“At my [second] interview, several things occurred to attract my attention. None of my questions were asked orally, some were written, and some merely framed in my mind, yet all were answered correctly. Once I began writing a question which I had thought, and it was answered when I had written only two words of it. Again was I told to correct a mistake in my minutes – for I was a novice, and did not do the business as well as I might – and we were told of what was occurring in the adjoining parlor with a person who had entered the room since we had left it, and which, on throwing open the folding doors, we found to be correct.”
So, what was your initial reaction to all that?
“I was startled, for here was to me evidence from which I could not escape, that my most secret thoughts were known to the intelligence that was dealing with me. There was no avoiding the conclusion. Reason upon it as I would, imagine what solution I might, there was the fact plainly before me, and I knew it.”
I understand that the communication sometimes came through in other languages.
“I have known Latin, French, and Spanish words spelled out through the rappings, and I have heard mediums who knew no language but their own speak in those languages, and in Italian, German, and Greek, and in other languages unknown to me, but which were represented to be Arabic, Chinese, and Indian, and all done with the ease and rapidity of a native.”
In your book, you wrote that one medium told you about the death of your friend, Isaac T. Hopper.
“[Correct], about 10 o’clock in the evening, while attending the circle, I asked if I might put a mental question. I did so, and I knew that no person present could know what it was, or to what subject even it referred. My question related to Mr. Hopper [who had been ill], and I received for answer through the rappings, as from himself, that he was dead! I hastened immediately to his house, and found it was so. That could not have been [known] by anyone present, for they did not know of his death, they did not know my question, nor did they understand the answer I received. It could not have been the reflex of my own mind, for I had left him alive, and thought he would live several days. And what it was but what it purported to be, I can not imagine.”
How about physical phenomena?
“To detail what I witnessed would far exceed the limits of this communication, for my records of it for those four months alone fill at least one hundred and thirty closely-written pages. I will, however, mention a few things, which will give a general idea of that which characterized interviews, now numbering several hundred … I have known a pine table with four legs lifted bodily up from the floor, in the center of a circle of six or eight persons, turned upside down and laid upon its top at our feet, then lifted up over our heads, and put leaning against the back of the sofa on which we sat. I have known that same table to be tilted up on two legs, its top at an angle with the floor of forty-five degrees, when it neither fell over of itself, nor could any person present put it back on its four legs. I have seen a mahogany table, having only a center leg, and with a lamp burning on it, lifted from the floor at least a foot, in spite of the efforts of those present, and shaken backward and forward as one would shake a goblet in his hand, and the lamp retain its place though its glass pendants rang again. I have seen the same table tipped up with the lamp upon it, so far that the lamp must have fallen off unless retained there by something else than its own gravity, yet if fell not, moved not … I have frequently known persons pulled about with a force which it was impossible for them to resist, and once, when all my strength was added in vain to that of the one thus affected. This is not a tithe – nay! not a hundredth part of what I have witnessed of the same character, but it is enough to show the general nature of what was before me.”
I recall reading somewhere that all this tomfoolery was intended by the spirits to prove their existence. Is that what you understood?
“[It was said at one sitting that] ‘these manifestations are given to mankind to prove their immortality, and teach them to look forward to the change from one sphere to another with pleasure.’… I was satisfied that something more was intended than the gratification of an idle curiosity; something more than pandering to a diseased appetite for the marvelous; something more than the promulgation of oracular platitudes; something more than upsetting material objects to the admiration of the wonder-lover; something more than telling the age of the living or the dead, etc.”
What was that “something more”?
“[It] was the intelligence displayed by this unseen power. That was almost always manifested at every interview, and the question that obviously presented itself on the very outset was, whether that was from the mind of any mortal present, or from some other source. So that, even if it had been established that the sounds and physical manifestations of which I have been speaking were produced by mortal agency, still the question remained, whence came the intelligence that was displayed? For instance: What was the power that read the thoughts which I had buried for a quarter of a century in the depths of my heart? What was the power that knew my interrogatory the instant it was formed in my mind? What was the power that read the questions which I had written in the solitude of my study? What the power that revealed my secret purposes to the bystanders, and the purposes to the bystanders, and the purposes of others to me?
But did you ask the communicating spirits what it was all about?
“[Certainly], one of the first of [my] questions was this: What is this which I am witnessing? Is it a departure from nature’s laws or in conformity with them? Is it a miracle, or is it the operation of some hitherto unknown but pre-existing cause, now for the first manifesting itself? The answer I got was: It is the result of human progress, it is an execution, not a suspension, of nature’s laws, and it is not now for the first time manifesting itself, but in all ages of the world has at times been displayed.”
As you and others have often asked, Cui Bono?
“To that inquiry I have directed my earnest attention, devoting to the task for over two years all the leisure I could command, and increasing that leisure as far as I could by withdrawing myself from all my former recreations … I found there were very many ways in which this unseen intelligence communed with us, besides the rappings and table tippings (automatic writing, direct writing, trance voice), and that through those other modes there came very many communications distinguished for their eloquence, their high order of intellect and their pure and lofty moral tone; at the same time I discovered many inconsistencies and contradictions that were calculated to mislead.”
Calculated to mislead? I don’t understand.
“The difficulty in all this matter lies in our expecting too much perfection in the spirits, in looking upon them in knowing more than they do, and as being able to do more than they can; in other words in the erroneous conception of the true nature and character of the spirit world … [Moreover] I have good reason to believe that there is in the spirit world much opposition to this intercourse with us, and that a combination has been formed to interrupt and, if possible, to overthrow it, and one mode is by visiting circles and individuals, exciting their suspicions of spirits, and bad thoughts as to their good faith and purity of purpose.”
So there may very well be reasons why some passages in Scripture warn against it?
“Oh, how sad is the mistake of him, who from a superficial examination, ventures to pronounce it all evil! He may as well enter the dens of iniquity in this great city, and hearing amid its festering wickedness the mingled shout of blasphemy and ribaldry that will ascend before him, thence infer that such is the character of this whole community.”
There was so much wisdom that came through.
“[The] general character has been such as to warrant me saying that I have been struck with their beauty – their sublimity at times – and the uniformly elevated tone of morals which they teach. They are eminently practical in their character, and not in a sentiment is to be found that would be unacceptable to the most pure and humble Christian. The lessons which they are those of love, kindness, and are addressed to the calm, deliberate reason of man, asking from him no blind faith, but a careful inquiry and a deliberate judgment … [At one sitting] it was said, ‘Imitate Christ in his humility, in his submission to the will of God, and in his love to man, and you will be acceptable to God.’”
I understand that that the discourses from Swedenborg and Bacon were received through Dr. Dexter’s hand. Would you mind explaining a little of that?
“The handwriting of each is unlike the other, and though both are written by Dr. Dexter’s hand, they are both unlike his; so that with ease, when he is under the influence (of spirits), he writes several different kinds of handwriting, and some of them more rapidly than he can write his own. This he cannot do when he is not under the influence; and I have never seen any person that could, in his normal condition, write with such rapidity, at one sitting, four of five different kinds of handwriting, each distinctly marked, and having and always retaining its peculiar characteristic.”
Although Swedenborg (below) and Bacon appear to be in agreement with each other, one of the difficulties in accepting all of this spirit communication is the fact that there are occasionally various contradictions relative to what is supposedly truth. I take it that this is because the spirits are at different levels of advancement.
“[True], there are at times contradictions and inconsistencies in spiritual intercourse, as all must be aware, but there is one remarkable fact, viz., that amid all these incongruities – through all mediums, whether partially or highly developed – from all the spirits who commune, whether progressed or unprogressed, there is a universal accordance on one point, and that is that we pass into the next state of existence just what we are in this; and that we are not suddenly changed into a state of perfection or imperfection, but find ourselves in a state of progression, and that this life on earth is but a preparation for the next, and the next but a continuation of this.”
It’s often said that the messages are distorted by the mind of the medium. Are you in agreement with that?
“I know of no mode of spiritual intercourse that is exempt from a mortal taint – no kind of mediumship where the communication may not be affected by the mind of the instrument. Take my own mediumship as an illustration. The visions which I have are impressed on my mind as vividly and distinctly as any material object possibly can be, yet in giving them to others, I must rely upon and use my own powers of observation, my own memory, my own command of language, and I not infrequently labor under the difficulty of feeling that there is no work known to me that is adequate to conveying the novel ideas communicated. I am often conscious that I fail, from poverty of language, in conveying the sentiment I receive with the same vigor and clearness with which it comes to me. So it is also with what I may call the didactic teachings through me. Sometimes the influence is so strong that I am given, not merely the ideas, but the very words in which they are clothed, and I am unconscious what I am going to say until I actually say it. At other times, the thought is given me sentence by sentence, and I know not what idea or sentence is to follow, but the language used is my own and is selected by myself from my own memory’s storehouse. And at other times the whole current of thought or process of reasoning is given me in advance, and I choose for myself the language and the illustrations used to convey it, and sometimes the order of giving it. But in all these modes there is more or less of myself in them, more or less of my individuality underlying it all. It must indeed be so, or why should I speak or write in my own tongue rather than in a dead or a foreign language unknown to me?”
Before you released your reports to the public, what was the popular view of all this spirit intercourse?
“I was early aware that the world at large looked upon the subject as exceedingly trivial and inconsiderable. I was not surprised at this, because I saw that what reached the general ear through the common newspapers of the day was almost always unimportant, and frequently absurd and ridiculous. There were good reasons for this. The conductors of those journals desired to insert only what would amuse their readers, and were unwilling, and often refused, to open their columns to the graver and more important matters that flowed from the same source. And then they who received those more serious communications did not often feel themselves called upon to court the scoffs and sneers and persecution of the world, merely for the purpose of giving to that world that which aimed only at the general good.”
What made you decide to go public with your findings?
“I went into the investigation originally thinking it a deception, and intending to make public my exposure of it. Having from my researches, come to a different conclusion, I feel that the obligation to make known the results is just as strong. Therefore, it is mainly, that I give the result to the world. I say mainly, because there is another consideration which influences me, and that is the desire to extend to others a knowledge which I am conscious can not but make them happier and better.”
I know you received much criticism from politicians and the press for making public your views. Do you have any regrets?
“I knew full well what I should draw down upon myself by speaking out. I could not mistake all I saw around me: one universal shout of ridicule and condemnation of all who professed to believe, nay! Even of those who went into the investigation at all, unless they came out of it fiery red in their denunciation of it as an ‘atrocious imposture.’ I knew full well that truth was ever born with many a bitter pang, and most to him who gave it birth. And I had no right to expect, nor did I expect, to escape this common and apparently inevitable fate. But I confess that at first I shrank at the prospect before me.”
Why do you think so many people scoff and sneer at what should be welcome news?
“His wisdom is that of the driven sheep, which leaps over an unreal obstacle because another sheep has just done it before him; and of him, at least it can not be truly said, ‘Never does nature open her breast before a worthy mind only that it may behold, and then fall asleep.’”
Thank you, Judge Edmonds. Any parting thoughts?
[“Let me leave you with the message given to me at one of the sittings]: ‘No one can begin to progress until he has correct ideas of the future existence; and it is only when not in error on that subject, only when knowing our spiritual nature and destiny that we begin to progress.’”
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
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