A Popular 19th Century Method for Talking to the Dead
Antiquity furnishes many examples of what may be called "séances"—e.g., Saul's consultation with the Witch of Eador—but the term is generally used only in connection with modern spiritualism. When, in 1848, the Fox family at Hydesville called in their neighbors to listen to the mysterious sounds which have since become famous as the "Rochester Rappings," the gathering was too informal to be called a séance, though all the necessary elements were present; but within the next two or three years the contagion spread throughout a large part of the eastern states, many "circles" (q.v.) were formed, and the phenomena which wasin the first instance apparently spontaneous was now deliberately induced. In the early stages of the movementthese séances were conducted by private mediums, who took no fee for their performances, but later professional mediums arose whose séances were open to the public on the payment of a fee. Both public and private seances continued, and still continue, to be an indispensable feature of spiritualism.
Besides the presence of a medium there are other conditions which must be observed if the séance is to be productive of phenomena. The chief of these is, perhaps, the darkness or semi-darkness of the séance-room, though this is by no means an invariable condition. The reason given by spiritualists is that light interferes with the manifestations of the spirits, though a less charitable construction is sometimes put upon the insistent demand for darkness. Sometimes the actual séance is preceded by playing or singing, a proceeding which one of Home's sittersstates "always gave us a good séance."
That this playing and singing was not without its purpose we may readily infer, for a state of expectancy and increased receptivity might easily be induced thereby, and it may be recalled, en passant, that D'Eslon and other disciples of Mesraer enjoined their patients to sing, or had some instrument played while the patients were seated around the baquet, or magnetic tub. To return to the séance; the sitters take their places around a table and join hands, thus forming a " chain." The Baron de Guldenstubbe, in giving directions for the forming of a circle and the conducting of a séance, says: "In order to form a chain, the twelve persons each place their right hand on the table and their left hand on that of their neighbor, thus making a circle round the table. Observe that the medium or mediums, if there be more than one, are entirely isolated from those who form the chain." Dr. Lappoai, in his Hypnotism and Spiritism, says: "He (the medium) then invites some of his assistants to place their hands on the table in the following manner. The two thumbs of each person are to be touching each other, and each little finger is to be in communication with the little fingers of the persons on either side. He himself completes the chain' with his two hands. The hands of all together rest on the edge of the table." Sometimes, again, as in the séances for table-turning and talking, the chain is formed simply by all the operators placing their finger-tips on the table. When the spirits have announced their presence by raps, tilting of the table, and so on, the chain may or may not be broken, but so long as it remains unbroken the sitters are entirely at the mercy of the spirits.
The phenomena which are thereafter witnessed are so diverse and varied that scarcely any account of a séance precisely matches another in detail, yet undoubtedly they all belong to certain well-defined classes/ In the sphere of " physical " phenomena we have the movements of furniture, beginning with the table roundwhich the members of the circle are seated, and affecting, perhaps, all the furniture in the room. These antics of inanimate objects in the séance-room are often practically identical with the spontaneous outbreaks of the poltergeist. Then there are the levitations (q.v.) both of the human body and of furniture and inanimate things. We are told of heavy wardrobes being raised to the ceiling without visible agency, and of several mediums floating upwards in like manner. Elongation (q.v.) is another phenomenon of the séance-room, an increase or apparent increase, offrom a few inches to a foot taking place in the medium's height. Locked doors and cupboards are opened without keys,and without any trace of violence. Apports (q.v.) of small objects— flowers, fruit, jewels, anything, in fact—are brought from a distance through closed doors and barred windows, or abstracted in mysteriousfashion from sealed boxes. Inanimate things show in their actions an almost human intelligence. Heavy objects become light enough to be raised by the touch of a finger, light articles become so weighty that the combined force of all present will not suffice to lift them. The medium can hold live coals in his hand, or in his handkerchief, without either being burned. Instruments are played upon when no visible hand is near them, or music is produced from the empty air without any instruments at all. Luminous hands and faces float in the air, sometimes recognized by the sitters as belonging to deceased friends and relatives, and touchings and caresses are felt.
A breeze suddenly springs up in the séance-room— though the doors and windows are still closed—and curtains and the clothes of the sitters are inflated. If the séance is an especially successful one, complete spirit forms may be materialized. If the latter manifestation is to be asked for, a small cabinet is usually provided, into which the medium retires. Soon afterwardsthe filmy spirit form or forms are seen to issue from the cabinet, and in themthe sitters frequently behold lost friends or relatives. The spirit forms will move about the room, allow themselves to be touched, and will, on occasion, even converse with their friends in the flesh, and give away locks of their hair and fragments of their clothing. Again, the materialization may take place in the open, a small luminous cloud being first perceived, which gradually develops into a complete human figure ;or, as has been known to happen, the spirit may seem to issue from the medium's side, and remain united to him by a gossamer filament. In most cases the head and chin are shrouded in white draperies, only a portion of the face beingvisible. (See Materialization.)
The automatic or "psychical" phenomena are of a different nature. Certain manifestations, such as table-tiltings (q.v.), rapping (q.v.), and slate-writing (q.v.), where the communication does not apparently come through the medium's organism, partake of the character of both " physical" and "psychical" phenomena.
Purely "psychical" manifestations are the automatic writing and speaking of the medium. Sometimes the latter falisspontaneously into a trance, and delivers spirit messages while in that state, or the medium may remain to all appearances in a normal condition. Not only writings and utterances, but drawings and musical compositions may be produced automatically, and though automatism of this sort is by no means confined to the séance-room it still plays a large part therein, and is especially in favor with the more serious-minded spiritualists, to whom communications from the spirit-world are of greater importance than tuatricks of household furniture. A representative account of one of the séances of D. D. Home (q.v.), is given by H. D. Jencken in Human Nature, February,1867, as follows:
"Mr. Home had passed into the trance still so often witnessed, rising from his seat, he laid hold of an armchair, which he held at arms' length, and was then lifted about three feet clear of the ground; traveling thus suspended in space, he placed the chair next Lord Adare, and made a circuit round those in the room, being lowered and raised as he passed each of us.. One of those present measured the elevation,and passed his leg and arm under Mr. Home's feet. The elevation lasted from four to five minutes. On resuming his seat, Mr. Home addressed Captain Wynne, communicating news to him of which the departed alone could have been cognizant.
"The spirit form that had been seen reclining on the -sofa, now stepped up to Mr. Home and mesmerized him; a hand was then seen luminously visible over his head, about 18 inches in a vertical line from his head. The trance state of Mr. Home now assumed a different character; gently rising he spoke a few words to those present, and then opening the door proceeded into the corridor; a voice then said:—' He will go out of this window and come in at that window.' The only one who heard the voice was the Master of Lindsay, and a cold shudder seized upon him as he contemplated the possibility of this occurring, a feat which the great height of the third floorwindows in Ashley Place rendered more than ordinarily perilous. The others present, however, having closely questioned him as to what he had heard, he at first replied, ' I dare not tell you,' when, to the amazement of all, a voice said,' You must tell; tell directly.' The Master then said, 'Yes; yes, terrible to say, he will go out at that window and come in at this; do not be frightened, be quiet.' Mr. Home now re-entered the room, and opening the drawing-room window, was pushed out demi-horizontally into space,- and carried from one window of the drawing-room to the farthermost window of the adjoining room. This feat beingperformed at a height of about sixty feet from the ground,naturally caused a shudder in all present. The body of Mr. Home, when it appeared at the window of the adjoining room, was shunted into the room feet foremost— the window beingonly 18 inches open. As soon as he had recovered his footing he laughed and said,'Iwonder what a policeman would have said had he seen me go round and -round like a teetotum!' The scene was, however, too terrible—too strange, to elicit a smile; cold beads of perspiration stood on every brow, while a feeling pervaded all as if some great danger had passed; the nerves of those present had been kept in a state of tension that refused to respond to a joke. A change now passed over Mr. Home, -one often observable during the trance states, indicative, no -doubt, of some other power operating on his system. Lord Adare had in the meantime stepped up to the open window in the adjoining room to close it—the cold air, as it came pouring in, chilling the room; when, to his surprise, he only found the window 18 to 24 inches open !This puzzled him, for how could Mr. Home have passed outside through a window only 18 to 24 inches open. Mr. Home, however -soon set his doubts at rest; stepping up to Lord Adare he said, 'No, no; I did not close the window; I passed thus into the air outside.' An invisible power then supported Mr. Home all but horizontally in space,and thrust his body into space through the open window, head-foremost, bringing him back again feet foremost into the room, shunted not unlike a shutter into a basement below.
The circle round ihetable having re-formed, a cold current of air passed over those present, like the rushing of winds. This repeated itself -several times. The cold blast of air, or electric fluid, or call it what you may, was accompanied by a loud whistle hkea gust of wind on the mountain top, or through the .leaves of the forest in late autumn; the sound was deep, sonorous, and powerful in the extreme, and a shudder kept passing over those present, who all heard and felt it. This rushing sound lasted quite ten minutes, in broken intervals -of one or two minutes. All present were much surprised; andthe interest became intensified by the unknown tongues in which Mr. Home now conversed. Passing from one language to another in rapid succession, he spoke for ten minutes in unknown languages.
"A spirit form now became distinctly visible; it stood next to the Master of Lindsay, clad, as seen on former occasions, in a long robe with- a girdle, the feet scarcely touching the ground, the outline of the face only clear, and the tones of the voice, though sufficiently distinct to be understood, whispered rather than spoken. Other voices were now heard, and large globes of phosphorescent lights passed slowly through the room."
The following extract is taken from an account of a séance held by Professor Lombroso with the famous Italian medium, Eusapia Paladino. "After a rather long wait the table began to move, slowly at first,—a matter explained by the skepticism, not to say the positively hostile spirit, of those who were this night in a séance circle for the first time. Then little by little, the movements increased in intensity. M. Lombroso proved the levitation of the table,and estimated at twelve or fifteen pounds the resistance to the pressure which he had to make with his hands in order to overcome that levitation.
"This phenomenon of a heavy body sustained in the air, off its centreof gravity and resisting a pressureof twelve or fifteen pounds, very much surprised and astonished the learned gentleman, who attributed it to the action of an unknown magnetic force. "At my request, taps and scratching^ were heard in the table. This was a new cause for astonishment,and led the gentlemen to themselves call for the putting out of the candles in order to ascertain whether the intensity of the noises would be increased, as had been stated. All remained seated and in contact.
" In a dim light which did not hinder the most careful surveillance, violent blows were first heard at the middle point of the table. Then a bell placed upon a round table, at a distance of a yard to the left of the medium (in such a way that she was placed behind and to the right of M. Lombroso), rose into the air, and went tinkling over the heads of the company, describing a circle around our table where it finally came to rest."
At this séance membersof the company also felt themselvepinched and their clothes plucked,and experienced the touchings of invisible hands on their faces and fingers. The accuracy of the account—written by M. Ciolfi—was testified to by Professor Lombroso himself.
Another View On Seances
A séance is a sitting for the purpose of obtaining supernormal manifestations or establishing communication with the dead. For successthe presence of a medium is required. The sitters need not have psychic powers. The phenomena are stronger if they have. Their number should be limited and well chosen. It should not exceed six or eight. D. D. Home, even at the risk of incurring the displeasure of the Empress of France, refused to sit with more than eight. The two sexes should be aboutequally represented. The majority of the sitters should not be too old. Young sitters provide more favorable conditions. Those in ill health, preoccupied or worried should withdraw. Excitement, fatigue before the sitting should be avoided. The medium should not take any stimulants. He should be comfortable and kept in a genial frame of mind. Persons of doubtful morality should not be admitted into the circle. Skepticism does not prevent success but the effect of a hostile or suspicious mind is deleterious. The establishment of a favorable environment is the essentialcondition of experimentation. Both the medium and the experimenters have an equal share in success or failure. As Geley aptly remarks "Mediumistic investigations belong to the class of collective experiments, for the phenomena are the result of subconscious psycho -physiological collaboration between the medium and the experimenters."
"There is much reason to think," wrote Prof. De Morgan to Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace at an early period, "that the state of mind of the inquirer has something-be it external or internal-to do with the power of the phenomena to manifest themselves. This I take to be one of the phenomena-to be associated with the rest in inquiryinto cause. It may be a consequence of actionof incredulous feeling on the nervous system of the recipient; or it may be that the volition ---saythespirit if you like-finds difficulty in communicating with a repellent organization; or, may be, is offended. Be it which it may, there is the fact."
Strangers should not be frequently introduced into the circle. A series of at least six sittings should be held without modifying the group. New sitters should be admitted one by one at intervals of three or four sittings. No more than two or three sittings should be held a week. The abuse of experimentation may bring about a nervous breakdown.
The order of the sittingappears to be a matter of consequence. The controls often make changes to produce a better combination of psychic currents. After a chain has been formed by holding hands or placing them on the table with fingertips touching, the sitters are requested to engage in general conversation or to sing. It is said that speech or singing creates vibrations which arehelpful to the production of the phenomena. For the same purposea gramophone is nearly always introduced.
Stainton Moses believed that the chief merit of music in the séance room is its soothing effect. It harmonizes conditions. In his own circle music was very seldom asked for by the communicators. The harmonizing was effected by means of perfumes and waves of cool scented air. Nor was singing introduced. Indeed, any noise, even loud conversation, was checked at once and they were told to keep still.
The utility of a general conversation, free and easy chatter, is that it prevents too much concentration on the part of the sitters. Tension, solemnity, eagerness, depression, are obstructive. Even with Home it often happened that strong attention prevented phenomena. When everybody stopped talking and looked at him he woke from the trance.
Natural, easy, relaxed attitude is best conducive to phenomena. Fear, terror, has an effect ofbreaking the manifestation. A table, partly levitated, may drop, a phantom may disappear at a scream. During his levitations Home always asked the sitters not to get excited and talk of something else as, until he had risen above the heads of the circle, any movement or excitement on the part of the persons present appeared to have the effect of checking the force at work.
Once in Nice in 1874 he was nearly overtaken by disaster. In trancehe buried his face and hands in the flames of the open fireplace. On seeing his head encircled by flames Count de Komar started from his chair crying "Daniel! Daniel!" Home recoiled brusquely and after some moments he said: "You might have caused great harm to Daniel by your want of faith; andnow we can do nothing more."
The medium should be carefully guarded fromsudden emotions. Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis, Professor of the New York Medical College, described his experience with a musical medium in The Spiritual Magazine, 1867: "Scarcely had the medium struck the first note upon the piano when the tambourine and the bells seemed to leap from the floor and join in unison. Carefully and noiselessly I stole into the room, and for several seconds it was my privilege to witness a rare and wonderful sight. I saw the bells and tambourine in motion. I saw the bells lifted as by invisible hands and chimed, each in its turn, accurately and beautifully with the piano. I saw the tambourine dexterously and scientifically manipulated with no mortal hand near it. But suddenly ... the medium became aware of my presence ... instantly everything ceased ... A wave of mental emotion passed over her mind, which was in itself sufficient to stop the phenomena at once."
In exemplification of the detrimental effect of any strong emotion on phenomena, Mrs. Emma Hardinge, in testifying before the London Dialectical Committee, narrated the case of the medium Conklin, who was invited to hold a number of séances in Washington with five or six gentlemen who were desirous not to be known. "The manifestations were very marked and decisive until Mr. Conklin discovered that one of the gentlemen present was no other than President Lincoln,when his anxiety and surprise became so great as entirely to stop the manifestations which were not again renewed till a mutual explanation had restored him to his normal state of mind."
The medium should not be made eager to produce the phenomena. He should not be impressed that it is of decisive importance to have results. Speaking of D. D. Home, Crookes wrote: "I used to say, let us sit roundthe fire and have a quiet chat and see if our friends are here and will do anything for us; we won't have any tests or precautions. On these occasions, when only my own family were present, some of the most convincing phenomena took place."
Atmospheric conditions have an important bearing. Dry climates are more favorable than wet ones. A thunderstorm is inimical. Maxwell observed that dry cold is helpful and rain and wind are often followed by failure. He found better phenomena when outside conditions favored the production of numerous sparks under the wheels of electric trams.
From 1880 William Eglinton kept a careful record of the atmospheric conditions during his seances. He found that of the 170 total failures in 1884-85 the weather was either very wet, damp, or depressing in the majority of instances.
The locality, the furniture of the séance room is also of consequence. A place saturated with historicatmosphere facilitates manifestations. With the Marquis Centurione Scottomuch better results were obtained in the mediaevalMillesimo Castle than in Genoa. Harry Price had striking clairvoyant descriptions of the life of St. Agnes in a seance held in the Roman catacombs (Psychic Research, 1928, p. 665). The séance room should be plainly furnished. The table should be, if possible, entirely of wood, the chairs plain and wooden. Carpets, cushions, heavy hangings should be dispensed with. They appear to absorb the psychic force, whereas a wooden table storesit up. If possible the same room should be used on subsequent occasions and in the interval it should not be disturbed.
The advent of manifestations is usually heralded by a current of cold air passing through the hands of the sitters or by a chilling of the atmosphere. The psychic force whichthe phenomena necessitate is furnished by both the medium and the sitters. The sitters feel the drain in great fatigue and weakness afterwards. It is also demonstrable in loss of weight. The occurrence of phenomena in itself is no proof of spirit agency. The important thing is that their supernormal character should be established, that fraud, chance, unconscious muscular action, the play of imagination should be ruled out and, in the case of mental phenomena, the possibilities of subconscious acting should be duly examined. It is advisable to introduce instruments to register the objectivity of the manifestations. A camera cannot hallucinate. The influence of suggestion should be tested. If things do not happen in accordance with the desire of the medium and of the sitters and the phenomena are intelligent, the presence of an extraneous will gains added probability. In séances with Eusapia Paladino promises which she made were frustrated. The invisible operators broke photographic plates or blocks of paraffin with complete imprints. It is true that secondary personalities often disclose an antagonistic character. In practicethe possibility is not so difficult to deal with. Ernesto Bozzano, in a séance with Eusapia, has seen himself confronted with the image of his wife with whom he had been in constant litigation all his life and, whose appearance he did not desire in the least. It takes an effort to suppose that such impersonation had been enacted by *a secondary personality. Hypnotic or secondary personalities cannot speak in strange languages which they have never acquired, cannot play instruments which require an unknown technique, nor can they produce the usual phenomena of the séance room. Subconscious impersonation could not reveal the future, things happening at a distance and would concentrate on the appearance of those desired or thought of.
The other extreme of the problem is spirit impersonation claimed by spiritualists to explain the frequent assumption of great characters on the part of the manifesting entities or to elucidate lying messages. This is a delicate and difficult complex in which it is the bestto consult an experienced psychologist with experience in such manifestations.
Some séances of Home, according to the late Earl of Dunraven, were very touching and beautiful. A pure, lofty and religious tone more or less pervaded them. The solemnity which was always manifested at the name of God was remarkable.
The degree of perception among the sitters varies. It often happens at a séance, writes Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace "that some will see distinct light of which they will describe the form, appearance andposition, while others see nothing at all. If only one or two persons see the lights, the rest will naturally impute it to their imagination; but there are cases in which only one or two of those present are unable to see them. There also are cases in which all see them, but in very different degrees of distinctness; yet that they see the same object is proved by their all agreeing as to the position and movement of the lights. Again, what some see as merely luminous clouds, others will see as distinct human forms, either partial or entire."
It is said that the phenomena often require careful preparation from the other side. When Eglinton produced materialized forms in the open air in Dr. Nichol's garden, "Dr. Richardson," the guide, declared "It was an experiment for our own satisfaction; we have been preparing this séance for two days past." He also said that the manifestations require thought, experiment and perseverance on the part of the spirits,and that not merely a few, but myriads were associated to produce them.
As a ruleséances are held with a single medium. Another powerful medium introduces another control and the ensuing conflict between the controls often ruins the séance. But there are exceptions, too, especially as regards physical phenomena (See Medium). The best average number of sitters is 8-9, but many mediums sit in larger circles. The sitters of IndrideIndridason sometimes approached seventy. Mrs. Ignath demonstrated direct writing before a hundred people. In isolated instances mediums have been known to demonstrate on the stage. The Davenport Brothers gave séances before as many as a thousand people. Others who held séances in public halls were: The Bangs Sisters, for spirit paintings; Mrs. Suydam, for fire-resistance; Mrs. A. E. Fay, Lulu Hurst, Mrs. Annie Abbot, and Miss Richardson for feats of strength; Mrs. Etta Roberts and Mrs. Bliss for materializations; Mrs. M. M. Hardy for paraffin moulds, William Eglinton for slate-writing and Mrs. Murphy Lydy for direct voice. The first references to séance communications are found in the writings of Porphiry(born 223 A.D.).
The earliest record of séances was printed in 1659 in the Rev. Meric Casaubon's book A True and Faithful Relation of what passed between Dr. Dee and Some Spirits.
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