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Hooey, Humbug, Hocus Pocus: Not God’s Way?

Posted on 14 October 2019, 8:42

Some of the physical mediumship observed and reported by credible investigators of psychic phenomena during the latter half of the nineteenth century, even the early twentieth century, was so bizarre, so weird, so mind-boggling that even people who today accept the reality of clairvoyance and other psychic phenomena refuse to believe that it was genuine.  They agree with the so-called skeptics that it was just so much hooey, nothing more than what the skeptics called humbug, twaddle, bosh, or just plain rubbish.  I met a clairvoyant at a conference some years ago and she was of that mindset, reasoning that if she, a “medium,” couldn’t produce that kind of phenomena, then it couldn’t be real. 

I’m referring to the kind of mediumship discussed in my last blog here, that of the “Brothers Davenport,” who gave exhibitions throughout the United States and around the world in which they were securely tied and handcuffed and then freed themselves within a few seconds, and in which musical instruments floated around the room giving off popular tunes of the day.  There were also reports of levitations of tables and of the brothers themselves being raised high off the floor while upside down.


It all sounds so vaudevillian, just some very clever illusionists or magicians as we see on television today with David Copperfield or Michael Carbonaro. Still, so much of it was witnessed by renowned men and women of science, Nobel Prize winners included, under strictly controlled conditions, some of them calling for the medium to be stripped and her or his private parts to be thoroughly examined for hidden objects, and for the phenomena to be produced in a room foreign to the medium and for the medium’s hands to be held throughout the séance, the doors locked behind them.  Conditions could not have been more “scientifically” controlled.  As Professor Charles Richet, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in medicine, wrote, “Yes, it is absurd, but no matter – it is true.”

Another popular indictment of the phenomena was that if it were the work of God, or of high spirits, “He” or they most certainly would offer something more sacred, sensible and respectable than floating people, tables, and musical instruments.  Surely, they would provide something more pious or virtuous.  But would they?  Could they? Or can they? 

In San Francisco, during 1869, a reporter asked the spirit controlling the Davenport Brothers why spirits involved themselves with such trivial pursuits, such as musical instruments flying about and escaping from chains and ropes.  The reply came:  “Is it trifling to convince the world of the existence of the invisible universe, in which and by which alone all things subsist? To the Spirit world Truth is an actual entity, and it is the only important thing, and the search after it is the principal and most fascinating occupation of Spirits.  Truth is not measured, as to its value, by the same criteria as men measure it; that is, not by money utility, but by its ability to make Spirits and men more happy by adding to their means of enjoyment.  If the moving of guitars through the air without hands or human direct agency is a fact, it is just as useful a truth towards establishing the fact of communication between the spiritual and physical world as though a million of dollars were created from the ultimate gaseous substance from which gold was originally condensed in nature.”

Much the same question was put to the Imperator group communicating through the mediumship of William Stainton Moses, an Anglican priest.  “Such phenomenal manifestations are necessary to reach men who can assimilate no other evidence,” Imperator responded through Moses.  “They are not any sort of proof of our claims, no evidence of the moral beauty of our teachings; but they are the means best adapted to reach the materialist.”

Imperator cautioned against applying terrestrial methods and standards to celestial matters, communicating, “You must remember that those of us who operate on the plane of spirit rather than of matter, do so on your earth under conditions that are very delicate and precarious. Matter has faded from our gaze, and when we return to the material plane, we see nothing of it.  All we see is the spirit.”

Imperator added that they could not present themselves for a photograph, but that they might commission other spirits to present an image of them.  Imperator further explained that physical manifestations were produced by the lowest and most earthly spirits.  “It would be absurd and foolish to you if the progressed spirits of humanity were to be put forward as the agents in what you contemptuously describe as a moving of furniture,” Imperator continued.  “The mighty ones, who even in the flesh were spirits sent from God to enlighten your world, are not the agents who can be used in bringing home evidence of the kind needed by your materialist.  They no longer have any power over gross matter, and would be unable to act.”

As discussed in the last post here, research suggests that the more advanced spirits are at too high a vibrational frequency to communicate directly with humans, and if and when they do communicate with humans they must have lower-level spirits relay the messages on to humans. These “lower-level” spirits are not necessarily morally corrupt spirits; they are simply not spiritually advanced and are closer to the earth frequency and therefore better able to reach us.  However, there apparently are devious low-level spirits who are more “earthbound” and capable of deception and tomfoolery. 

“These phenomena, though executed by inferior spirits, are often prompted by spirits of a more elevated order, for the purpose of convincing people of the existence of incorporeal beings, of a power superior to man,” explained pioneering French psychical researcher Allan Kardec, who communicated with many spirits. It was explained to Kardec by the spirits that the coarseness of the spirit body of the inferior spirits gives them more affinity with matter, making them more fitted for physical manifestations.  “It is for the same reason that a man of the world accustomed to the labor of intellect, whose body is frail and delicate, cannot carry a heavy burden like a porter,” he was told.
Johannes Greber, who left the Catholic priesthood to become a psychical researcher, also asked a communicating spirit about it.  “You ask to what purpose the low spirits hold such ‘a carnival at modern spiritistic seances,’ or why indeed they are allowed to do so,” the spirit responded to Greber.  “To this I can only reply that low spirits have the same latitude of conduct as low and wicked people.”  The communicating spirit went on to say that this “high carnival” often has a good effect in that it compels those who do not believe in God or a spirit world “to think of these matters, to relinquish their skeptical attitudes and to make a beginning of trying to discover the truth.”

The communicating spirit told Greber that materializations were also in this category.  “Even if the only interest in these things springs from a craving for new sensations, it often happens that many people do retain the impression that ultra-mundane forces must exist, and if this result is not all that could be desired,  it is at least better than if those individuals had not had their attention called at all to the Beyond.”

Dr. William Crawford, who taught mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, wrote that he witnessed hundreds of levitations and many other strange physical phenomena in his research of mediums. He referred to the spirits as “operators” and noted they seemed to be experimenting on their side as much as he was on the material side. “I admit that it is very difficult for the ordinary person to bring home to his consciousness the fact that these unseen beings can possibly be like himself in their make-up,” he explained. “There is an ingrained feeling in humanity that the beings inhabiting the after-death world must be far removed from us in mental qualities and characteristics – we feel that there should be a great advance in intellectual equipment over what they possessed here; that they should be, if not quite angels, at any rate not far removed from them.  Of course this instinctive feeling we all possess is due to centuries of religious instruction behind us; we feel that the next state must of necessity be either heaven or hell.  Hence it is rather a shock to us when we find the inhabitants of that other state not to be angels by any manner of means, not to exceed us appreciably in intelligence, but to be, in fact, only good-natured beings of much the same capacity as our familiar selves.” 

Crawford specifically asked the operators why they were involved in such séances and was told that such work helps them in their own development and that there were great crowds of spirit people looking on during the experiments.  “They told me this was the case at all our séances,” he added. “They gave me the impression that the séance room and the sitters were surrounded by a huge invisible audience arranged in an orderly and disciplinary manner, perhaps tier upon tier as in a lecture theater.  The séance to many of them would appear to be as novel as it is to us.”

The earlier research by renowned British chemist Sir William Crookes with Daniel D. Home, who also produced floating musical instruments, levitations, and other strange phenomena suggested the same thing.  At a sitting on June 28, 1871, Home went into a trance state and a voice began speaking through him, informing Crookes and the others present that the conditions were not very good that night. When asked what the conditions should be, the reply was, “That is a matter in which we cannot help you much. There are comparatively few spirits who are able to communicate at all with you.  They are constantly working and experimenting to try and render the communication easier….Sometimes they think they have found out some of the conditions which will lead to success, and the next time something occurs which shows them that they know scarcely anything about it.” 

Still, the skeptic asks why we don’t see such phenomena today. According to Imperator, it was the discarnate Benjamin Franklin, assisted by the discarnate Emanuel Swedenborg, who discovered the means of communicating with the material world by raps, i.e., so many raps for each letter of the alphabet or a set number of raps for “yes” or “no.”  “At the time of the discovery it was believed that all denizens of both worlds would be brought into ready communion,” Imperator explained. However, they assumed wrong, not taking into account the obstinate ignorance of man and the extent to which the lowest-level spirits would interfere with their efforts.  This ignorance and interference resulted in the disparagement of mediums and discredit to the cause.  Therefore, they then backed off.  The focus turned more to evidential trance mental mediumship and later to clairvoyance.

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.

Next blog post:  Oct. 28

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