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Was Adin Ballou the First Psychical Researcher?

Posted on 19 May 2014, 12:34

Although the formation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London during 1882 is considered by many to be the beginning of scientific research into psychic phenomena, it is clear to anyone delving into the subject that there was considerable research going on well before then, beginning shortly after the “Rochester Knockings,” which triggered the mediumship epidemic in 1848.  My book, The Afterlife Explorers: Volume 1 discusses the research that took place between 1848 and 1882, suggesting that Judge John Edmonds was the first dedicated psychical researcher. 

Edmonds, who served in both branches of the New York legislature, for some time as president of the Senate, before being elevated to the New York State Supreme Court, of which he would become Chief Justice, began his 23-month investigation of mediums in January 1851. “I was at the time a disbeliever,” he wrote. “I had all my wits about me, and was on the sharp look out for deception.”  After witnessing several hundred manifestations in various forms and keeping detailed records of them, he co-authored, along with Dr. George T. Dexter, a book entitled Spiritualism, published in 1853. The book attested to the genuineness of much of the phenomena he had witnessed. 

But it appears I may have been mistaken in naming Edmonds as the first dedicated psychical researcher.  That distinction may very well belong to Adin Ballou, (below) remembered primarily as an influential pacifist, abolitionist, and Unitarian minister.  I recently discovered his 1852 book with the lengthy title, An Exposition of Views Respecting the Principal Facts, Causes and Peculiarities Involved in Spirit Manifestations Together with Interesting Phenomenal Statements and Communications. It is not clear from the contents of the book when Ballou began his investigation of mediums, but the publication of his book definitely preceded Edmonds’s book.


Ballou was clearly an objective and discerning investigator.  He discussed nearly all of the concerns that SPR researchers had relative to mediums many years later, including the coloring of messages by the medium’s subconscious.  He expressed his skepticism toward some phenomena. “I believe that spirits in the flesh, i.e., the mind of the medium, or the minds of persons surrounding the medium sometimes thwart, warp, peculiarize, or modify the manifestations and communications made,” he wrote in the first chapter.  “I also believe that low and very imperfect departed spirits sometimes manifest themselves.  This is the ground I take.  It enables me to account for the multifarious reliable and unreliable developments of this mysterious agency more satisfactorily than any other.”
After summarizing phenomena reported by credible witnesses, Ballou tells of his own observations beginning with a wide range of communicating “raps” and “taps”—from some like the ticking of a watch to that like someone pounding on the door, while also including a sound like scratching of a hard finger nail on a board.  “I have heard the time and metre of tunes beaten out with utmost accuracy, and by several rappers in unison – not only while the tune was being played or sung, but afterwards, without accompaniment,” he recorded.  “And I am as certain that these sounds were not made by any conscious mortal agency, as I am of the best authenticated facts in the common transactions of life.

“I have seen tables and nightstands of various sizes moved about in the most astonishing manner, by what purported to be some invisible agency, with only the gentle and passive resting of the hands or fingerends of the medium on one of their edges.  Also, many distinct movings of such objects, by request, without the touch of the medium at all.  I have sat and conversed by the hour together with the authors of these sounds and motions, by means of signals first agreed on; asking questions and obtaining answers – receiving communications spelled out by the alphabet – discussing propositions sometimes made by them to me, and vice versa – all by a slow process, indeed, but with every possible demonstration of intelligence, though not without incidental misapprehensions and mistakes.  I have witnessed the asking of mental questions by inquirers, who received prompt and correct answers as when the questions were asked audibly to the cognition of the medium.

“I have know these invisibles by request, to write their names with a common plumbago pencil on a clean sheet of paper – half a dozen of them, each in a different hand.  To make sure of this, as an absolute fact, the medium was required to lay her left hand, back downwards, in the hollow of a veracious person’s hand, both open; when a piece of pasteboard paper was laid on her hand, a well examined bland sheet of writing paper placed thereon, and a lead pencil on top of that; in which position (the medium’s right hand being held up to view) both the hands, with these fixtures resting on them, were placed under the leaf of the table, as insisted on by the writers.  After a minute or two, at a given signal by the spirits that they had done, the paper was exhibited with various names written thereon, as above affirmed.  This was repeatedly tested with the same results, under circumstances putting all suspicion of fraud and jugglery entirely at rest.

“I have requested what purported to be the spirit of a friend many years deceased, to go to a particular place, several miles distant from that of the sitting, and to bring me back intelligence respecting the then health and doings of a certain relative well-known to the parties.  In three minutes of time the intelligence was obtained, numerous particulars given, some of them rather improbable, but every one exactly confirmed the next day, by personal inquiries made for that purpose.”

In one sitting, a spirit communicator asked if Ballou had selected his subjects of discourse for the next Sunday service.  He replied that he had selected only one subject and asked the spirit if he would like to suggest another topic.  The spirit replied that he would and spelled out the word “The,” after which the message ceased. Another spirit then communicated and informed Ballou that the spirit giving the message had been called away for a few moments but would continue upon his return.  Within 15 minutes, the spirit returned and completed the suggested topic, being “The second chapter of first Corinthians; the twelfth and thirteenth verses.”  Neither Ballou nor anyone else in the room could recall what that Bible passage covered, but upon checking a Bible, Ballou saw that it had to do with spirit communication, stating in part, “Which things we also speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth….”
Ballou went on to say that he had seen a medium “gently magnetized and thrown into a trance in one minute, by the imperceptible influence of the spirits.”  The spirits then used her organs of speech and answered numerous questions, instead of responding with the usual raps.  “That these trances were not superinduced by mortal agency, and were not feigned but real, I am as certain as I can be of anything not absolutely beyond the possibility of mistake,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, there were discrepancies and contradictions in the information coming from the spirits.  “Sometimes it has been found that if the medium was strongly prejudiced, or was overawed by associates of that character, the teachings of the first few weeks were biased considerably by those influences,” he explained,  “whereas afterwards, when the communications seemed to be made more freely and independently of the medium’s mind, these peculiarities ceased, and the doctrines attested became accordant with the general current.”
Among the consistent “teachings” of the spirits recorded by Ballou were:

* There are seven spirit spheres, or circles, inferior to the heavenly or celestial spheres, and each sphere or circle has several degrees. Man progresses through these spheres, drawing nearer and nearer to God, or nearer to the divine standard of perfection.

    * Death does not change man’s real character, nor his proper spirit sphere, nor his capability to make progress, nor the laws of progress. 

* Many spirits remain very long in the lower spheres, but while they are “spirits in prison” there is no such place or state as a hell, of unmitigated, hopeless mercy. 

* God, angels, and all the higher spirits are forever seeking the elevation of the inferior spirits, by all just, wise, and appropriate means. 

* Spirits in the higher spheres are employed in three general exercises: 1) in striving after a more perfect knowledge of and communication with God, whom they cannot see there any more than here, as a personal being, but only in spirit by faith and intuition; 2) in study, self-examination, contemplations of truth, and acquainting themselves with all useful knowledge attainable to them; 3) in ministering to struggling spirits on earth and in the lower spheres – endeavoring to elevate and bless them. 

* Spirits in any circle can descend into all the circles below their own, but cannot, except by special permission, ascend into a higher sphere, until qualified by spiritual progress. 

More about Adin Ballou in my next blog on June 2

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.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I will be published by White Crow Books in July, 2014






That was a really interesting and informative article, Mike. Thanks. And the archived book is useful, too. But your question was - was he the first psychical researcher? 

Go to Jeffrey MIshlove’s book, The Roots of Consciousness, page 40. This tells of Herodotus reporting on the King of Lydia, Croesus, sending a psychical test to seven different Oracles in different parts of Greece. On the hundredth day after his messengers were sent to them, each Oracle was asked to describe what Croesus was doing on that day. Only the Oracle at Delphi got it completely right! Croesus had cut up a lamb and a tortoise and cooked them together in a brass pan covered with a brass lid. Was Croesus the first psychical researcher? !!

Keith P in UK, Wed 28 May, 09:52

Free and archived book as mentioned in the article


A leader in the American Christian Nonresistance Movement.

Waller Joel, Tue 27 May, 21:13

The seven spirit spheres mentioned by Mr. Ballou have a very strong resemblance to the seven steps of progress required for souls to accomplish in order to return to God, that were mentioned in Dr. Marti Barham’s book: 47 Billion Years of Evolution - A Case Report.

Paul J. Hauser, Tue 20 May, 17:26

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