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W. Stainton Moses:  Awesome Medium or Impostor?

Posted on 10 February 2014, 12:50

According to those who knew him, William Stainton Moses (below) was as morally righteous and honest a person as can be found. He was a priest of the Church of England and English Master at University College, London.  “With the even tenor of this straightforward and reputable life was interwoven a chain of mysteries which, in whatever way they may be explained, make that life one of the most extraordinary which our century has seen,” wrote Frederic W. H. Myers, a Cambridge scholar and one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), of Moses.


And yet, if you put Moses’s name into a Google search, one of the first entries to come up will be a brief encyclopedic biography from which one might conclude that Moses was a dupe and a “deliberate impostor.” 

The search for Truth in a doubting world where pseudo-skeptics do their best to disparage mediums, psychics, and researchers finding in favor of psychical phenomena is indeed a challenging one. . It has been my observations that nearly all of the popular Internet biographies of these mediums, psychics, and researchers are based on “might-have,” or “could have” speculations, rumors, hearsay, twisted historical facts, and distorted stories without any attempt to present the true facts – those coming from credible witnesses.

Like most clergyman of his day – as well as today – Moses initially frowned upon mediums, probably seeing them as “demonic.”  When he heard of Lord Adare’s 1870 book about the amazing phenomena produced by the spirits through Daniel Dunglas Home, he called it the “dreariest twaddle.”  Little did he realize at the time that within two years, he would develop into a medium with abilities similar to those of Mr. Home.  In fact, Home and Moses have gone down in history as the most influential mediums of the first 80 years of the nineteenth century. Both are discussed in my book, The Afterlife Explorers, which includes biographies of 10 other pioneers of survival research – Emanuel Swedenborg, Andrew Jackson Davis, Judge John Edmonds, Dr. George Dexter, Governor Nathaniel Tallmadge, Victor Hugo, Allan Kardec, Professor Robert Hare, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Sir William Crookes. 

After receiving his master’s degree from Oxford in 1863, Moses served as a curate on the Isle of Man for some five years, before returning to London because of health issues.  While convalescing, Moses tutored Charlton Templeman Speer, the son of Dr. and Mrs. Stanhope Speer. Upon recovering, Moses assumed the teaching position at University College, a position he held until 1889.

In Moses’s biography, written by Charlton Speer,  Charlton stated that his mother had taken an interest in Spiritualism after reading Dale Owen’s book, The Debatable Land, and persuaded her husband and Moses to attend a séance with Miss Lottie Fowler.  During that sitting, on April 2, 1872, Moses received some very evidential information about a friend who had died.  His curiosity aroused, Moses attended other séances, including one or more with D. D. Home.  Dr. Speer, a prominent physician who had previously considered Spiritualism as all “stuff and nonsense,” joined Moses in his investigation and also changed his views. 

During his investigation of mediums, Moses discovered that he was a medium himself. A small circle of friends gathered regularly to observe and record the phenomena coming through Moses.  The circle included Dr. and Mrs. Speer, Charlton Speer, a Dr. Thompson, Serjeant Cox, and several others.  Occasionally, William Crookes (later Sir William), a world-renowned chemist, would attend the circle. Most of the gatherings were at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Speer.

Phenomena reported by Charlton, a professional musician, included a great variety of communicating raps, numerous lights, luminous spirit hands, music, direct writing (no hand holding the pencil), automatic writing, apports, the passage of matter through matter, the direct voice, and trance voice, the latter including inspirational messages given by various spirits through Moses while in trance.  Of the latter, Charlton wrote:  “Touching the manner of these addresses, I can only say that they were delivered in a dignified, temperate, clear, and convincing tone, and that though the voice proceeded from the medium, it was always immediately apparent that the personality addressing us was not that of the medium.  The voice was different, and the ideas were often not in accordance with those held at the time by the medium.  An important fact, too, was that although many spirits exercised this power of control, the voice which spoke was always different; and in the case of those spirits which controlled regularly we came to know perfectly well which intelligence was communicating, by the tone of the voice and method of enunciation.” 

At a sitting on January 15, 1873, Dr. Speer reported: “Great movement of the table. It was repeatedly lifted up to the level of our faces, even without touching it. Subdued light, quite sufficient to see the table and our hands.  The table was moved and floated several times; we could watch in light its very movement.”

Of the same sitting, Mrs. Speer recorded:  “We commenced this evening sitting in subdued light. quite sufficient to see the table and our hands.  After sitting a few minutes, the table was moved and floated several times; we could watch in the light its every movement.  After seeing it tilted from side to side, and lifted two feet from the ground…”

Cox, a London lawyer, reported that on June 2, 1873, Moses was visiting him at his house at six o’clock in broad daylight.  As he (Cox) was opening some letters, Moses was reading the Times, when suddenly loud rappings came from the table, it began to quiver, then sway to and fro so violently that Cox thought the big pillar-like legs, of which there were eight, might dislocate. Then the table, which was nine feet long and six feet wide, moved forward about three inches. “I then suggested that it would be an invaluable opportunity, with so great a power in action, to make trial of motion without contact, the presence of two persons only, the daylight, the place, the size and weight of the table making the experiment a crucial one,”  Cox recorded.  “Accordingly, we stood upright, he on one side of the table and I on the other side of it.  We stood two feet from it and held our hands eight inches above it. In one minute it rocked violently.  Then it moved over the carpet, a distance of seven inches, Then it rose three inches from the floor on the side on which my friend (Moses) was standing.  Then it rose equally on my side. 

Finally, my friend held his hands four inches from the end of the table, and asked that it would rise and touch his hands three times.  It did so; and then in accordance with the like request, it rose to my hand held at the other end to the same height above it and in the same manner.” 

Cox also reported that on another occasion the spirits levitated Moses at least three times,  raising him on the table and then lifting him from the table to an adjacent sofa, i.e., he “floated” on to the table and then to the sofa.

While different spirits came through, the chief communicator called himself Imperator.  Mrs. Speer did the recording of the trance messages, but she said it was impossible for her to capture the beauty and refinement of the manifestations or the power and dignity of Imperator’s influence.  “I, myself, Imperator Servus Dei, am the chief of a band of forty-nine spirits, the presiding and controlling spirit, under whose guidance and direction the others work,” Mrs. Speer recorded the words coming through Moses’ voice at one of the early sittings.  “I come from the seventh sphere to work out the will of the Almighty; and, when my work is complete, I shall return to those spheres of bliss from which none returns again to earth. 

“But this will not be till the medium’s work on earth is finished, and his mission on earth exchanged for a wider one in the spheres.”
Imperator said he had come to explain the spirit world, how it is controlled, and the way in which information is conveyed to humans.  “Man must judge according to the light of reason that is in him.” Imperator voiced through Moses. “That is the ultimate standard, and the progressive soul will receive what the ignorant or prejudiced will reject.  God’s truth is forced on none.”

On March 30, 1873, the spirit messages started coming through Moses’ hand by means of automatic writing rather than by trance-speaking. This method was adopted, Moses was informed, for convenience purposes and so that he could preserve a connected body of teaching.  Those teachings were compiled in two books, Spirit Teachings, published by Moses in 1883, and More Spirit Teachings, collected and published after his death in 1892 by Mrs. Speer.   

Moses explained that the written messages varied quite a bit.  “As a rule, it was necessary that I should be isolated, and the more passive my mind the more easy was the communication. 

But I have received these messages under all sorts of conditions.  At first they came with difficulty, but soon the mechanical method appeared to be masters, and page after page was covered with matter of which the specimens contained in this book will enable the public to judge.”  He further noted that some members of Imperator’s band of 49 could not use his hand and had to call upon Rector, Imperator’s chief assistant, to act as scribe for them.

Many of the messages conflicted with Moses’s beliefs.  “It is certain that the mass of ideas conveyed to me were alien to my own opinions, were in the main opposed to my settled convictions, and, moreover, that in several cases information, of which I was assuredly ignorant, clear, precise, and definite in form, susceptible of verification and always exact, was thus conveyed to me,” he explained.

On one occasion, Imperator communicated: “We have a higher form of what is known to you as electricity, and it is by that means we are enabled to manifest, and that Mentor (one of the band of 49)  shows his globe of light. He brings with him the nucleus, as we told you.”

On August 10, 1873, Dr. Speer recorded that Mentor said he would show his hand. “A large, very bright light then came up as before, casting a great reflection on the oilcloth, came up as before in front of me; inside of it appeared the hand of Mentor, as distinct as it can well be conceived. ‘You see! You see!’ said he, ‘That is my hand; now I move my fingers,’ and he continued to move his fingers about freely, just in front of my face. I thanked him for his consideration.”
At a sitting on September 11, 1873, Mrs. Speer recorded: “....the next evening we sat again in perfect darkness, which Mentor took advantage of, as he showed lights almost as soon as we were seated. He then controlled the medium (Moses), talking to us about the lights as he showed them. At first they were very small. This, he said, was the nucleus of light he had brought with him, a small amount of what we should call electricity. This nucleus lasted all the time, and from the circle he gathered more light around it, and kept it alive by contact with the medium. At one time, the light was as bright as a torch. Mentor moved it about all over the table and above our heads with the greatest rapidity.”

Frederic Myers wrote that he and fellow Cambridge scholar Edmund Gurney were introduced to Moses on May 9, 1874 by Lady Mount-Temple, who had become aware of their interest in psychical matters.  She told them that she knew a man of honor who had been experiencing some phenomena.  “That evening was epoch-making in Gurney’s life and mine,” Myers wrote. 

“Standing as we were in the attitude natural at the commencement of such inquiries, under such conditions as were then attainable, an attitude of curiosity tempered by a vivid perception of difficulty and drawback, we now met a man of university education of manifest sanity and probity, who vouched to us for a series of phenomena – occurring to himself, and with no doubtful or venal aid – which seemed at least to prove, in confusedly intermingled form, three main theses known to science.  These were (1) the existence in the human spirit of hidden powers of insight and of communication; (2) the personal survival and near presence of the departed; (3) interference, due to unknown agencies, with the ponderable world.”

In 1875, Moses, Cox, and Myers formed a “Psychological Society” to seriously discuss the various phenomena, but upon the death of Cox in 1879, the society was dissolved.  “When, however, in 1882, Professor [William] Barrett consulted [Moses] as to the possibility of founding a new society, under better auspices, he warmly welcomed the plan,” Myers explained in his 1903 seminal book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death.  With Professor Henry Sidgwick of Cambridge as its first president and Moses as vie-president, the SPR was born. 

However, in 1886, Moses resigned because he concluded that the SPR investigators were too harsh in declaring medium William Elginton a fraud.  Moses knew that some things which appeared to the naked eye to be fraudulent were not really fraudulent and objected to the SPR’s hasty judgment.

While recognizing that even intelligent people can be duped by a skilled magician, I find it much easier to believe that such was not the case with the Rev. Moses and his well-educated friends.  In addition to being a shrewd magician, Moses would have needed access to their homes in advance to install pulleys, props, etc. and then be able to remove them all before departing their homes.  He also would have required the ability to speak in many different voices and perhaps also be a ventriloquist.  Or perhaps he hypnotized everybody in the room to think they were seeing what they reported.  It is too much of a stretch for me to believe that Moses had a motive for such a “game” with his friends, a game that he played for some 20 years, right up to his death in 1892, a game that involved teachings that were in total opposition to fraudulent activity. It simply doesn’t make sense to me, although the debunkers who write those Internet encyclopedia entries, while totally ignoring the direct testimony of credible observers, seem to buy into it as a big laughable “game.”  What to believe?

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores. 

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Next blog post: Feb. 24.



Thanks for your comments. Yes, we can find faults with all of the researchers and all of the mediums, or at least alleged faults.  Its hard to know what to believe.  It so often seems that rumors and hearsay are turned into facts after a number of years.  That may have been the case with Eglinton.  How do we know that the “respected” researchers who found his false beard, etc. didn’t plant them or make up the story? Again, I am not defending Eglinton, as I don’t know enough about him.  I just feel that if Stainton Moses felt strongly enough about him to resign from an organization he had helped found, that there must be more to the story than we now have.  So many things are distorted over time and the best we can do is look at the cumulative evidence.

Michael Tymn, Mon 24 Feb, 10:25

Sorry!  It’s Eleanor Sidgwick, not Sedgwick.  I knew that! - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 22 Feb, 05:25


I too admire Richard Hodgson and believe him to be one of the most trustworthy of the investigators of ‘paranormal’ phenomena along with Walter Franklin Prince, Eleanor Sedgwick and perhaps, more recently, Ian Stevenson and Gary Schwartz.  Hodgson freely admits that in his younger days he was a highly skeptical investigator of mediums and was intent on discovering fraud.  As pointed out in your book about Leonora Piper he eventually came to understand in Leonora Piper, that what legitimate mediums do is much more complicated and tenuous than he perhaps initially understood it to be and as a result, he become a believer. He is sometimes criticized for of all things, not letting anyone into his room and other habits, but upon reflection one will understand that Hodgson was a middle-aged bachelor who may not have been the most meticulous housekeeper and as many confirmed bachelors will understand, he may have wanted to keep his private space—-private. This is such a silly criticism of him.

I have come to understand a different view of James Hyslop however after reading Dr. Daniel Shea’s book, “The Patience of Pearl’  Although I would not necessarily recommend this book it does provide some gossipy information about Hyslop as evidenced in his long-distance communications with Emily Hutchings, who wrote to him frequently complaining about Pearl Curran.  Apparently Emily indirectly offered Hyslop (or the ASPR) , 25% of the profits from her book Jap Herron, which according to Emily, she channeled from Mark Twain.  As Emily discussed her dissatisfaction with Pearl Curran and Patience Worth with Hyslop, he commiserated with her and told her that he had also contacted Patience Worth which Emily (as do I) thought was doubtful.  When Casper Yost published his book about Patience Worth, Hyslop , who had not met Pearl Curran or Patience Worth, blasted Yost’s book as lacking in scientific controls while on the other hand he praised Emily Hutchings’ book. even though, it too lacked scientific controls and was rewritten in part several times by Hutchings.

It may be that Hyslop was a mere human and considered the offer of 25% of the profits from Emily’s book before taking sides. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Fri 21 Feb, 21:28


Thank you for your comments.  I confess that I know next to nothing about Eglinton.  I read something many years ago about him, both positive and negative, but I don’t recall any of it, and am not defending him. However, if Stainton Moses observed him and thought he was a genuine medium, I am skeptical about his debunking.  Perhaps he was a mixed medium, like Eusapia Paladino. 

I am sure that there was much fraud going on back in those days, but I tend to think that much of what was written off as fraud was the inability of the researchers to understand what was going on. Eusapia s the best example.  Much of what was called fraud with her was not really fraud at all, just the inability of researchers to apply terrestrial standards to celestial matters.  She may very well have been guilty of some conscious fraud now and then when her powers failed her, but that does not mean it should all be written off as fraud. At the same time, I realize how difficult it iis for objective researchers to accept any of it as genuine. 

As much as I admire Richard Hodgson, I question his debunking of Madame Blavatsky for the same reasons. Same with Hereward Carrington and his debunkding of Joseph Jonson. His bias is so obvious in his report of Jonson.  It was during his early years of psychical research when he was much more skeptical. I think even James Hyslop wrote people off as frauds who were legitimate mediums, Pearl Curran being the best example.

Clearly, Podmore was biased and it shows in his writings. 

Again, thanks for the comment.

Michael Tymn, Fri 21 Feb, 02:23

It is amazing what people get away with. It appears that one can say anything about anyone. Yes, there were frauds but hopefully we have all gone past that to the wonderful evidence that we now all have.

Tricia, Thu 20 Feb, 14:01

Besides the unique and fantastic physical phenomena the spirits were able to conduct using his mediumship,those who would take the time to study the books he received via the spirit communications would find a serious and profound body of spiritual and moral work.

Yvonne Limoges, Mon 17 Feb, 00:38

The accusations of fraud about Moses were first mentioned by Frank Podmore. Podmore was a highly respected SPR member. He was skeptical of spiritualism but a believer in telepathy. Podmore writes about 30 pages on Moses in his book Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism in the chapter The Mediumship of Stainton Moses. You can find it online.

As for William Eglinton - If you check the old SPR journals, Richard Hodgson, Eleanor Sidgwick and the conjuror (ex medium) S. J. Davey exposed the slate writing tricks of Eglinton, none of these researchers were pseudoskeptics, they were highly respected SPR members. The psychical researcher Walter Franklin Prince has also discussed the fraud of Eglinton. There’s no doubt that he cheated on occasion. Eglinton was exposed when a séance sitter Thomas Colley pulled the beard and cloth off a spirit in one of his séances and later his suitcase was checked in which researchers found cloth and another fake beard. How do you respond to all this? These things happened, it’s well documented. It’s not a case of “maybe”. It’s my opinion that many of these early mediums were fraudulent, now I am not going to go the full way and say it is all fraud like these dogmatic skeptics, but it has to be admitted as Michael Prescott wrote on his blog “physical mediumship was rife with fraud” or similar words to that effect.

Rupert, Sun 16 Feb, 16:03

Well done Michael, another invaluable post about one of the most amazing men who ever lived. So sad that so few people have read the wonderful messages that came through him.

wendy zammit, Tue 11 Feb, 03:12

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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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