W. H. Salter

William Henry Salter

1880-1969. Went to Trinity College, Cambridge, with a Classical Scholarship in 1899, took a first class degree in 1901, turned to read Law, and was called to the Barin 1905. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1916, to become a member of its Council three years later. From 1920 to 1931, a very difficult financial period, he served as Honorary Treasurer; and from 1924 to 1948 he was Honorary Secretary. He was President from 1947 to 1948. He made many contributions to the SPR Journal and Proceedings, and published two admirable books, Ghosts and Apparitions (1938) and Zoar (1961).

From Zoar, or The Evidence for Psychical Research Concerning Survival
(1961, Sidgwick and Jackson, London).

Chapter 6: Materialisations

- W. H. Salter -

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          THE REST of this book will deal with mediumship, that is the real or supposed possession and exercise by specially endowed persons of paranormal faculties not shared by mankind at large. The psychology of mediumship is curious and an attempt will be made in the two chapters following this to illustrate it by parallels to be found among persons who could not be classed as mediums. This I have postponed in order to introduce here the discussion of a particular variety of mediumship, that productive of the "physical phenomena" of the sťance-room, and so to round off the consideration of the evidence put forward to support the conception of survival in a quasi-material form.

The variety of "physical" phenomena which have at one time or another been reported is enormous. If the occurrences reported have been accurately described, they all of them imply some deviation from the familiar course of events in the physical world and from the so-called "laws" generally accepted as governing that world. In few other respects do these heterogeneous occurrences appear to be connected with each other. One common characteristic is indeed the difficulty which the investigator encounters in attempting to examine any of them under conditions that will exclude sources of error shown by experience to be prevalent in this branch of psychical research. Another feature common to the "physical" phenomena of mediumship and differentiating them from the "mental" phenomena of psychical research, is that they belong to the sťance-room and not to the world of everyday life. The ordinary citizen has no cause to be surprised if he has a veridical dream, or even if he sees a crisis-apparition of the kind discussed in Chapter III. But that, when he is by himself in his sitting-room, the table should be raised off the floor without his touching it, or that his hairbrush should suddenly and invisibly be transported from his bedroom, is a very remote contingency. These things are reported to happen in poltergeist cases and in the psychological setting typical of them. Apart from such cases, it is in the sťance-room they are to be sought.

The study of them is highly technical, and of experts alive at any one time there has never been more than a handful whose opinion as to the genuineness or otherwise of what happens in a "physical" sťance deserves to carry weight. Without any claim to be an expert myself, I have had the good fortune to know some who were, and to have discussed the position with them, as well, of course as to have read many reports of varying degrees of value.

Many forms of "physical" phenomena are not in themselves suggestive of the activity of an entity that has survived bodily death: raps, the movement of objects without apparent muscular or mechanical force, "apports", and so on. They are sometimes claimed at sťances to be the work of spirits, but it is for the spirit first to prove his existence and, if need be, his identity, and if he can do that by other evidence, such as a convincing communication, "physical" phenomena of these kinds are, as evidence, superfluous.

Other kinds however, if they can he shown to be genuinely paranormal, suggest by their nature the activity of a surviving entity having, or being capable of assuming, a material or quasi-material form. Such are materialised phantoms, whether of the whole figure or of part, capable of being seen and occasionally touched by the sitters; impressions in wax of parts of the body; "spirit" photographs, and the production of a voice claiming to come from the mouth neither of the medium nor of any other living person present. All these phenomena seem intended to suggest that some being other than the persons present in the flesh was present in the sťance-room in a form sufficiently material to be seen, touched or photographed, or to make impressions on wax similar to those a body of flesh and blood would make, or to emit sounds such as come from the mouths of living persons. This prima facie suggestion is often supported by statements made through the medium that a "spirit" has been present and has caused the occurrence of the phenomena, which, it is claimed, may prove not only his presence but his identity.

If both the "physical" phenomena and the statements regarding them made through the medium are accepted as genuine, there is an end of the matter: the survival of spirits in a material or quasi-material form has been proved. There have however been many psychical researchers, including the eminent French physiologist, Charles Richet, who have believed in the genuineness of "Physical" phenomena of this kind while rejecting the view that spirits were concerned in their production. They developed as an alternative explanation the hypothesis of "ideoplasmy", that is to say, the view that materialisations are produced from the medium's energy and a substance ("ectoplasm") supplied by him with the assistance perhaps of the sitters, and that they take form in accordance with the thoughts of those present. The basic question is the genuineness of the physical phenomena; unless this can be answered in the affirmative, it is idle to discuss the rival merits of the spiritistic and ideoplasmic hypotheses.

Of all full-form materialisations, the most famous are those observed by William Crookes in his sittings with Florence Cook, who in 1872 at the age of sixteen began giving sittings at which a "spirit form", known as "Katie King", materialised. At a sitting held in December 1873 at the house of the medium's father the medium sat in a curtained recess, clothed in a black dress and boots and tied to the chair by sealed tape. A figure in white drapery ("Katie King") came out of the recess into the room and moved about under the observation of the sitters. One of these, a Mr. Volkman, after watching the figure for about forty minutes came to the conclusion that it was the medium disguised, sprang up and seized first a muscular wrist and then a substantial waist. Other sitters then rescued the figure out of Volkman's grasp. It retreated into the recess, which was opened after about five minutes to reveal the medium in the black dress and boots and tied to the chair by the sealed tape. No white drapery was found. Volkman published an account of the sitting, and so stimulated Crookes, who had not been present at this sitting, to publish his accounts of sittings with Florence Cook in 1872 and 1874 at which he had been present; they will be found in the issues of The Spiritualist for 6th February, 3rd April and 5th June, 1874. Crookes wished to rebut any suggestion that the medium had masqueraded as the spirit by showing that to his own observation both had been present at the same time.

On one occasion Katie King at a sitting in Crookes's house invited him behind the curtain. He followed within "three seconds", as he says, and saw the medium in her black dress lying an the sofa, but in the meanwhile Katie King had vanished. On other occasions, also in his own house, several of the sitters saw figures they believed to be the medium and Katie King together under strong electric light. Crookes reports:

"We did not on these occasions actually see the face of the medium, because of the shawl, but we saw her hands and feet. we saw her move uneasily under the influence of the intense light, and we heard her moan occasionally."

None of the photographs taken at the sittings at Crookes's house showed the two faces.

But there were two sittings held at the medium's suggestion in her own home, when two figures were certainly seen together, the faces of both being visible. Other members of the medium's family were present, and the medium's bedroom served m a cabinet. On the 29th March 1874 Katie King walked about the room where the sitting was held for nearly two hours, talking to those present, and several times taking Crookes's arm. She then said she thought she could show herself and the medium together, and invited Crookes to come into the cabinet with a phosphorus lamp he had brought. He went in and by the light of his lamp saw the medium crouching on the floor, dressed in black velvet; she did not move when he took her hand and held the light close to her face.

"Raising the lamp I looked around and saw Katie standing close behind Miss Cook... Three separate times did I carefully examine Miss Cook crouching before me to he sure that the hand I held was that of a living woman, and three separate times did I turn the lamp to Katie and examine her with stead. fast scrutiny until I had no doubt whatever of her objective reality."

At a later sitting (21st May, 1874), also at the medium's house, Crookes was present behind the curtain and saw and heard Katie and the medium say goodbye to each other.

The genuineness of the Katie King phenomena has from then till now been a matter of acute controversy. On the affirmative side the main argument is that Crookes was a highly intelligent man, and an eminent scientist - facts of course altogether beyond dispute - and that he has given clear testimony in a case where mistake was incredible. Intelligence is highly relevant; eminence in science or any other walk of life is not, unless accompanied by long experience and objective examination of psychical phenomena. Crookes began his interest in spiritualism in a state of strong emotion, owing to the loss of a brother to whom he was deeply attached. His first sittings, as described in his biography by Fournier d'Albe, show a complete disregard of commonsense precautions against fraud. By 1874 however he had had considerable experience of mediums, including D. D. Home, the most famous of all "physical" mediums. Crookes himself reinforced the case for genuineness by an argument which cannot in the light of later investigations of poltergeist cases be allowed much weight, namely that Florence Cook was too young to carry out a fraud of the complexity that, if fraud there were, must be assumed. A like argument is raised over and over again when poltergeists are discussed but long experience has shown both the inclination and the ability of adolescents to gull their seniors.

On the negative side the main arguments were: first that the control conditions throughout were inadequate; second that at the sittings at Crookes's house he did not see both figures at the same time, being perhaps deceived into thinking that clothes which the medium had removed in order to impersonate the spirit still had the medium's body inside them; thirdly, that it is significant that the only two instances when it is beyond doubt that the medium and Katie King were present at the same time, both having forms sufficiently material to he touched, were sittings held at the medium's house, where a member of her family might possibly have impersonated Katie King. The inadequacy of the Control at these two sittings was pointed out by several spiritualists when Crookes published his account of them. Impersonation of Katie sometimes by the medium and sometimes by another woman would account for difference., in Katie's appearance, height, etc., noticed at various times by Crookes himself.

In later years Florence Cook confessed - boasted might be the better word - that Katie King was a deliberate fraud on her part. These "confessions" were never, I believe, made public during Crookes's life and he had no opportunity of answering them. They are therefore in no way evidence against him, and if there were no other grounds for suspecting the genuineness of Katie King they could he disregarded. In a case however of phenomena for which no close parallel could be cited, and in which strong doubts of genuineness have been raised by the Volkman sitting and the unsatisfactory conditions at Crookes's own sittings, the medium's confessions seem to me rather damaging. It is to be noted that, whether genuine or not, the manifestations were thoroughly material. Crookes noted nothing quasi-material about Katie's arm when she took his, any more than Volkman did when he grasped a muscular wrist and substantial waist.

Since the days of Florence Cook other mediums have been famous for the appearance at sittings with them of fully-formed phantoms. About two of the most famous, Marthe Beraud, later known as Eva C., and Helen Duncan, something will now be said.

At the end of the nineteenth century there were living in Algiers a French General, Noel, and his wife. They were holding regular sťance at their villa, and in 1900 they invited a M. Marsault, a lawyer by profession and a friend of their son Maurice, to attend them. At this stage no materialisations had taken place. Later in 1900 Maurice went to the Congo on business and died there in 1904. He had, before leaving Algiers, become engaged to a young Frenchwoman named Marthe Beraud. On learning of his death Marsault, between whom and Maurice's parents some coldness had developed owing to his sceptical attitude to the sťances, paid them a visit of condolence. Marsault learnt that the manner of the sťances had changed. A spirit named Bien-Boa, who claimed to have been an Arab Chief, had for some time been giving communications without showing himself. He was now appearing in a fully materialised form, and another spirit, calling herself Bergolia and claiming to be his sister, was materialising too. Bergolia had chatted with Mme. Noel, drunk tea and eaten sweets with her. Mine. Noel said that Maurice also had appeared and kissed her. She invited Marsault and a friend to supper and a sťance.

After the supper Marthe, finding herself alone for a few minutes with Marsault and his friend, is reported by Marsault as saying, "Do you want to have some fun? You know Bergolia is all humbug; my sister and I will give you some fun". She had previously told Marsault that all the materialisations were false, but this avowal astounded him. They were then joined by Marthe's two younger sisters. At the sťance which followed Marthe, he says, impersonated Bergolia in a very transparent way.

The next stage was that Charles Richet, the distinguished physiologist, visited Algiers, had sittings at the Noel's house and witnessed the materialised Bien-Boa. His account may be read in his Thirty Years of Psychical Research (translated from the French, 1923) where a photograph of Bien-Boa is reproduced (p. 507). He accepted the materialisation as a genuine case of ideoplasmy. His favourable report was first published in 1905 and was read with amazement by Marsault, who wrote confidentially to Richet saying he feared Richet had been deceived. In January, 1906, Marsault went to see Marthe and her father, meeting also her mother and two sisters. He reports Marthe as saying that she had been led into mediumship by Mme. Noel's importunities, and that, being already established as a materialising medium, she could not avoid giving Richet sittings; the whole thing was a sham, but her part in it had been passive. Marsault published his account of the affair in 1906. Richet stuck to his own opinion, dismissing Marsault in a very cavalier fashion. For this part of Marthe's career see SPR Proceedings Vol. XXVII, 333-369.

In 1908 Marthe came to Paris and in 1909 began to give sittings to a private circle to which Dr. von Schrenck-Notzing, a well-known German doctor and psychical researcher, was introduced. Schrenck-Notzing in his first reports of her called her "Eva W' without any hint that she was the same person as the famous Marthe Beraud. So began a new phase of Marthe's mediumship, in which the control conditions were not so negligible as in the time of Bergolia, and the phenomena were of a rather different order. No full-form phantoms were seen but from various parts of the body there seemed to come masses of cc substance" of various sizes, colours and consistencies, sometimes shapeless, sometimes roughly suggestive of hands etc., and sometimes in the form of flat or flattish objects on which appeared faces either roughly drawn or in a more finished style, like photographs. Of the faces produced at her Paris sittings, some bore a curious resemblance to photographs of notable persons published in the French Press. Thus at two sittings in 1913 she produced faces bearing a likeness, which notwithstanding differences of detail was unmistakable, to photographs of President Wilson and President Poincare which had been published in 1912 in the Miroir. The faces were not just cut out from the Miroir but look like rough copies of the Miroir photographs deliberately altered in detail, e.g. President Wilson is given a moustache.

A few faces of both the rough and the more finished types were produced at the series of forty sittings given to an SPR Committee in 1920. My wife was present at some of these sittings and I was the note-taker at a sitting described in the report (SPR Proc. Vol. XXXII) as "a very remarkable one" (p. 275). Before the sittings Eva C. was stripped and sewn into a stockingette costume, and during the sitting both her hands were controlled by experienced sitters. The investigating Committee considered that the precautions taken were sufficient to prevent the extrusion of pseudo-paranormal objects even if the medium had succeeded in introducing them into the sťance-room, concealed in some way. The only continuous lighting during the medium's trance was a dim red light on the note-taker's desk. When Eva C. announced the production of "substance", it was inspected by an electric torch turned on for that purpose, and on occasion flashlight photographs were taken.

Dr. Dingwall, who was a member of the Committee, contributed to the report a section in which he discussed the possibility of fraud in relation both to Eva C's sittings on the Continent and to the London series. He says (pp. 328, 329):

"Speaking purely for myself I cannot say that I altogether rely upon the observations of her continental investigators, whilst the sittings in England were too few and the phenomena too insignificant to enable any satisfactory conclusion to be arrived at."

The Committee as a whole much regretted that they were unable to come definitely either to positive or negative conclusions.

A glance at the photograph of Bien-Boa in Richet's book, or at the photographs of the faces produced at the sittings with Eva C. is sufficient to explain why many believers in the genuineness of her mediumship rejected a spiritistic view of it. The souls of the departed may conceivably inhabit forms resembling Bien-Boa; if so we must endure the prospect with fortitude, regretting only that we have been misled by the poets and artists to expect something different. But does not Bien-Boa look like a clumsy attempt, whether ideoplasmic or fraudulent, to imitate the established traditional concept of a spirit? To me it most certainly does. Much the same criticism applies to the faces of the Eva C. sittings. Some of them are pleasant enough as two-dimensional drawings: but why two-dimensional if they are spirits? Again, not even the addition of a moustache could convert the President Wilson of 1913 into a plausible visitor from another world.

Mrs. Helen Duncan was the most famous materialising medium of our time in this country. She was twice prosecuted for fraud and convicted, first in 1933 and then in 1944, but until her death in 1956 enjoyed the confidence of many believers. It is not however the question whether any of her phenomena were genuine which I wish to discuss, but that other question whether her materialisations in themselves suggest a spiritual origin. I would refer, for example, to the photograph facing p. 37 of SPR Proc. XLVIII, reproduced from a book of Harry Price. How much spirituality is there in that?

Another type of occurrence sometimes claimed to demonstrate the presence in the sťance-room. of a materialised or partly materialised spirit is the production of wax moulds of parts of the human body, especially hands. At a sitting for this sort of phenomenon the procedure adopted is somewhat as follows: The medium's hands are controlled by sitters; a bowl of wax warm enough to take a mould from is placed near by; out of the bowl is taken a mould, say, of a hand, which when the wax has hardened shows all the characteristic contours and markings of a human hand. It is claimed that the mould could not have been formed round a hand of flesh and blood that was subsequently withdrawn, as the aperture at the wrist was too small to permit withdrawal of anything but an ectoplasmic hand.

Such moulds were obtained with the Polish medium Kluski in 1921 at sittings conducted by Charles Richet and Dr. Geley, head of the Institut Metapsychique at Paris. They were convinced that the moulds were produced paranormally by "Ideoplasmy". In the absence of precautions it would be possible for a trickster to produce bogus moulds in two ways at least: (1) by a hand or hands dipped in the wax and withdrawn when the wax cooled, provided the trickster had, as some people have, an exceptional power of compressing the wrist and the bones at the base of the thumb; (2) by the introduction into the sťance-room of moulds made before the sťance by ordinary technical processes, Richet and Geley claimed that they had taken adequate precautions against both these forms of trickery. The question is whether this claim was justified, particularly as regards the second method. The precaution taken was to mix with the wax used for the sťance a chemical substance easily traceable after the sťance, and this substance was in fact found in the moulds produced. This would seem to be an adequate safeguard, provided it were certain that the medium had no knowledge before the sitting that the chemical was to he used. Mediums do sometimes get to know before a sťance of supposedly secret methods of control. In sittings held under the auspices of the SPR. I should be confident that no such risk would be incurred, but I have less confidence that nothing of the kind could have happened in the Institut of those days.

In 1926 Mrs. Crandon ("Margery"), the wife of a well-known surgeon of Boston, Mass., was already known as a medium whose phenomena, produced in the presence of many experienced investigators, were of astonishing variety and had aroused violent controversy as to their genuineness. In that year there was a new development. Large numbers of prints of thumbs, fingers and palms of the hand were produced, paranormally as it was claimed, the thumb and finger prints being said to correspond to those of her dead brother, Walter. Some thumb prints of the same pattern were also produced at sittings given by her in England.

At one of the English sittings in 1929 a fingerprint of the medium's was found on a piece of wax used at the sitting, and the natural inference was that at a critical moment Margery's hands were not controlled so efficiently as to prevent her being able to manipulate the wax. In 1932 however a more damaging discovery was made. A Mr. Dudley, one of her strongest supporters, who had supervised many of her American sittings and published reports on them, was collecting for the records of the American Society for Psychical Research digital prints of all the sitters who had ever been present at a Margery sitting when thumb or finger prints were produced. Among her earlier sitters was a dentist, called in the reports "Kerwin". On comparison of the sitters' prints with the numerous impressions from Margery sittings which were accessible to him, Dudley found to his surprise that the impression of Kerwin's right thumb corresponded in every instance with impressions of right thumbs produced at the sittings, and that his left thumb prints corresponded to some left thumb impressions from the sittings. It was later found that the correspondence extended to the thumb prints obtained at Margery's sittings in England.

As a result of further enquiries Mr. Dudley ascertained that very shortly before the first sitting at which "Walter" prints had been produced, Margery had paid Kerwin a professional visit when he had explained to her how dental wax was used, and had given her impressions on wax of both his thumbs, together with spare pieces of wax. Mr. Dudley's view as to the correspondence between the "Walter" impressions and the Kerwin prints was confirmed by Professor Cummins, an American authority on "dermatoglyphics", who made reports on the American prints to the American Society, and on the English prints to the SPR. (see SPR Proc. Vol. XLIII pp. 15-23). Before Dudley's discovery many of Margery's supporters had accepted without question a supposed correspondence between her sťance-room. prints and prints made on a razor by her brother shortly before his death. On examination it was found that the prints on the razor were too indistinct to prove anything.

Another type of phenomenon which, it is sometimes contended, proves the survival of spirits in a quasi-material form is "Spirit-photography". Amateur photographers of unquestionable bona fides sometimes get results which puzzle them and lead them to wonder whether they may not, without any intention to do so, have photographed some manifestation of the spirit world. Their prints are often forwarded to the SPR for an opinion. It should be noted here that, while the cause of the unexpected result can often be detected from the positive print, the original negative film or plate is much more informative and, if it is a film, negatives of the complete roll are more informative still. Sometimes the puzzling results are due to an accidental intrusion of light, producing blurs or fogs which a lively imagination can convert into persons or things of another world. Sometimes a freak of light and shade makes a real object present within the photographic field - a tree, perhaps, or a part of a building - look like a figure, although the photographer knows that no such figure was visually present.

The effects of accidental double exposure in producing "ghosts" are now so well known that few amateurs bother the SPR with examples. The appearance of several ghostly figures before the altar of a cathedral in an amateur photograph that attracted much publicity recently was pronounced by experts to be due partly to double exposure and partly to a slight movement of the camera while one of the exposures was being made.

If amateur photographs, mostly snapshots, were all that had to be considered, there would he no need to bring "spirit photography" into a discussion of survival. But there have been mediums who specialised in the production of "spirit photographs", and this form of mediumship has a very long history, stretching back to 1862. In that year Mumler in America began to produce photographs on which the forms of "spirits" appeared. In the following year it was discovered that in two of his photographs the "spirit" was a person still living. Ten years later an English practitioner, Hudson, was active, and aroused a violent controversy in Spiritualist circles. His supporters admitted that some of his photos looked as if there had been double exposure. The "spirits" however assured them that the appearance of double exposure did not indicate fraud, but was due to the refraction of rays of light passing through the mixed auras of the "spirits" and the sitters. In 1875 a Frenchman, Buguet, on being prosecuted by his Government, confessed to the fraudulent production of "spirit" photos by double exposure. For the early history of "spirit" photography see SPR Proc. VII, 268-289.

These inauspicious episodes have not prevented the revival of "spirit photography" from time to time. The technique used has been carefully studied, and some fraudulent methods have been discovered. The two principal are these: (1) For the virgin plate, which the sitter is intended to believe is being exposed, there is substituted a plate on which a "spirit" image has already been impressed. When the plate is developed, there appear both a normal portrait of the sitter, and an "extra", as it is called, that is to say, something which would not have been visible in the ordinary way to a person standing where the camera stood. The developed negative will often show signs of the double exposure. For instance the rebate of the dark slide makes a distinct line down the margin of the plate, and as dark slides do not exactly fit the plates they are to hold, a double exposure usually means a double marginal line; the presence on the plate of a double marginal line is strong evidence of double exposure, which is strong evidence of fraud. In a print the edges can be trimmed so as to conceal this clue.

"Extras" are often well defined photographs of heads. Sometimes the heads are surrounded by "ectoplasmic clouds" similar to what can be produced by placing some fluffy material in contact with the plate. Where substitution is possible, it is no mystery if "extras'' appear, with or without "ectoplasmic clouds", reproducing the features of well-known public men or women. The original magazine or book illustration from which the "extra" has been copied has sometimes been identified, and the grain of the paper on which the original was printed detected. If the identity of the sitter is known to the medium beforehand, he may be able to obtain for copying photographs taken during life of some of his dead friends or relations, though, of course, this is not always possible.

Substitution of plates may be more clearly detected in other ways than by inference from such clues as the double marginal line. It takes a very expert observer under better conditions than usually prevail to see the substitution being made, but where the sitter brings with him marked plates which he gives the medium, and at the end of the sitting is handed a plate complete with "extra" but lacking the mark, it is clear that substitution has in fact taken place.

(2) There is however another technique which can be used by a medium who knows that he has to work with a marked plate, but determines not to be defeated by this precaution. I quote from a report made to the SPR in 1932 by Mr. Fred Barlow, who had Previously been a strong supporter of the genuineness of "spirit Photography". It should be explained that in 1922 Harry Price had a sitting with William Hope, the best known "spirit" photographer of that time. Price took with him plates on which the makers had printed marks that remained invisible till after development. He got back a plate with an "extra" but without any makers' mark. Mr. Barlow writes:

"Since Mr. Price's exposure of Hope, substitution seems to have become too risky, and most of the results now show a small face identical in kind with what can be produced by flash-light apparatus. Such flash-light apparatus can easily be palmed and used in the darkroom or pocket without fear of detection... It consists of a small electric bulb with wires which are connected to a battery hidden about the person. In front of this electric bulb is placed a small positive face, and it is only necessary to switch on the bulb for a second or so to print the positive on to the sensitive plate where, of course, it will develop as a negative image."

Major Rampling Rose, who had a large business as a photographic manufacturer, and collaborated with Mr. Barlow in his research, demonstrated the use of a flashlamp of this kind at a meeting of the SPR. He added that during the thirty years he had been in the trade, his work had been to track down defects and devise methods to overcome them, that he had taken photographs in almost every part of the world, and had had four years aerial photographic experience during the First World War. He continued:

"I do not remember ever seeing a single abnormal photograph of all those which have passed through my hands that could not be explained by purely natural means."

For the Barlow-Rampling Rose paper see SPR Proc. XLI, 121-138.

Whatever the method used by the spirit photographer, a good deal of reliance seems to be placed on the imaginative powers of the sitter, which are at least equal to those shown by any amateur photographer in interpreting blurs and fogs on his snapshots. As the famous Spiritualist, Stainton Moses ("M.A. Oxon."), wrote in 1875:

"Some people would recognise anything. A broom and a sheet are quite enough to make up a grandmother for some wild enthusiasts who go with the figure in their eye and see what they wish to see."

He was referring to the materialised phantoms of the sťance-room, but his words are equally appropriate to spirit photographs. It is not only in the psychic context however that the problem of false recognition arises. There is, for instance, the case of that most substantial revenant, the Tichborne Claimant. Some who had known the real man well accepted the Claimant; others rejected him. Both parties cannot have been right, but as to which was wrong there still lingers a doubt sufficient to provoke animated controversy in books and the Press.

The presence of "ectoplasmic clouds" in such a position on the plate as to obscure the features of the "spirit extra" naturally greatly increases the chances of false recognition.

Finally reference should he made to the claim sometimes advanced by the Controls of mediums, including some whose bona fides is above suspicion, that the voice in which "communications" are given comes not from the medium's own mouth or vocal chords, but from some other part of the room where the sitting is being held, and through some ectoplasmic vocal organism of the Control. Efforts to test this claim with appropriate apparatus for locating sounds have not so far succeeded. Most people's judgment as to the source of sounds is notoriously fallible, especially in the dark or in poor light. For the weight to be attached to the statements of Controls about themselves see Chapter IX.

As regards any type of psychic experience it is impossible to prove that no genuine example has ever occurred. A medium may cheat whenever lax conditions permit trickery and yet, apparently, produce genuine results under strict conditions. Eusapia Palladino is the most striking instance. At Cambridge in 1895 and at other times and places she was caught in the act, but at Naples in 1908 she produced phenomena which the highly competent committee who then investigated her believed to be genuine: see SPR Proc. Vol. XXIII. And, of course, the, exposure of one medium is not evidence against another medium producing similar phenomena, although it is highly suspicious if, in the second case, there occur incidents of a kind which, in the first case, have been found connected with fraudulent methods.

Florence Cook, William Hope, Margery Crandon, whose cases have been discussed in this chapter, were the most famous mediums of their day in their own lines, and were accepted as genuine by many sitters. The reader can form his own opinion as to the probability or otherwise that genuine full-form materialisations, genuine "spirit" photographs or genuinely paranormal thumb-prints were ever produced through the mediumship of any of them, and generally whether or not phenomena of these types lend any support to belief in survival in a quasi-material form.

Mediums used to complain that the conditions of control to which they were asked to submit were unpleasant and irksome search of the body for concealed objects, tying of hands and wrists, and so on, - conditions which were imposed to prevent the simulation of phenomena in sittings held, at the medium's insistence, in poor light or even complete darkness. Whatever substance there may have been in this complaint has long lost all its relevance. For years now the apparatus generally known as the "infra-red telescope", which enables movements to he seen in the dark, has made unnecessary the measures complained of. A reward has been offered for mediums capable of producing physical phenomena with the infra-red telescope as the sole method of control. No medium has so far come forward to claim the reward. This reluctance confirms me in my view that none of the phenomena discussed in this or the preceding chapters support the quasi-material conception of survival.

It is not difficult to trace the stages which have led to these various types of phenomenon being taken, separately or together, as evidence supporting this conception. First of all there are visual and auditory hallucinations at or about the time of the death of the person "seen" or "heard", or later. These are genuine experiences misinterpreted, very naturally in pre-scientific times, as happening not in the percipient's mind, but in some external region, and to that extent as being physically objective, though not as solid as living flesh and blood. The nation of this limited, quasi-physical objectivity is confirmed by some of these experiences conveying or implying knowledge of facts not till then known to the percipient, which does indeed involve objectivity of a different order, and by others of them being collective or recurrent.

The next stage is for popular belief, with the help of the poets and story-tellers, to embellish narratives of subjective occurrences with picturesque details that, if true, would make the whole experience physically objective: hence the traditional ghost story. All this may have been done in good faith, even where, as in the original version of the Don Juan story, the motive of edification is at the back of it. This leads on to poltergeist trickery, which one hesitates to stigmatise as fraud because of the irresponsible nature of the persons most closely concerned. But the belief in quasi-material spirits, originating and confirmed in the way described above, is often shamelessly exploited in the sťance-roorn by deliberate fraud, to the discredit of a profession numbering many honourable members.

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Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16

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Some parts of this page The International Survivalist Society 2004