John W. Edmonds

John W. Edmonds


          JOHN W. Edmonds may have been the first serious psychical researcher following the mediumship epidemic started by the Fox sisters on March 31, 1848. No doubt there were some casual or informal investigations with the Fox sisters and other mediums before Edmonds began his research in January 1851, but Edmonds seems to have approached his research as a project rather than as one of curious observation and simple validation.

Following the death of his wife in 1850, Edmonds, Chief Justice of New York State Supreme Court, was persuaded to attend a séance with friends. In a letter to the New York Herald on August 6, 1853, he wrote that he attended thinking it fraud and intending to expose it as such. “Having from my researches come to a different conclusion, I feel that the obligation to make known the result is just as strong,” he explained the purpose of his letter. “Therefore it is, mainly, because there is another consideration which influences me, and that is the desire to extend to others a knowledge which I am conscious cannot make them happier and better.”

Edmonds had served in both branches of the New York legislature, for some time as president of the Senate, before he was elevated to the Supreme Court. He had a reputation as a tough, scholarly, reform-minded lawyer. After witnessing phenomena that puzzled him in that first séance, Edmonds decided to further investigate. He later wrote that over a period of 23 months he witnessed several hundred manifestations in various forms, keeping very detailed records of them, collecting some 1,600 pages of manuscript. “I resorted to every expedient I could devise to detect imposture and to guard against delusion,” Edmonds wrote in a letter to the New York Tribune sometime in 1853. “I felt in myself, and saw in others, how exciting was the idea that we were actually communing with the dead, and I laboured to prevent any undue bias of my judgment. I was at times critical and captious to an unreasonable extreme.”

Edmonds said that the manifestations were of almost every known form, both physical and mental. He observed a mahogany table with a lamp burning on it levitated at least a foot off the floor. He also observed a mahogany chair thrown on its side and moved swiftly back and forth on the floor with no one touching it. It repeatedly stopped abruptly within a few inches of him. As for spirit communication, there were many, the chief communicators being Swedenborg and Bacon. Sometime in 1853, Edmonds discovered that he had mediumistic abilities and began receiving messages by means of automatic writing. He recalled receiving a spirit message early one morning that his grandson, some 400 miles away, was seriously sick. He immediately traveled there and found his grandson recovering, but his daughter informed him that at the time the message received he was very sick.

But it was Edmond’s daughter, Laura, who really had the gift. She developed into a trance medium. It is said that although she knew only English and a smattering of French in her awakened state, she spoke Spanish, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, Hungarian, and Indian dialects fluently when entranced (or rather the spirits spoke the languages using her voice mechanism). Edmonds wrote that a Mr. E. D. Green, an artist of his city, came for a sitting with his daughter accompanied by an acquaintance from Greece. While the man from Greece spoke entirely in Greek for more than an hour, the replies coming through his daughter were sometimes in Greek and sometimes in English.

After writing a book on his experiences with mediums, Edmonds came under attack by politicians and the press, and was forced to resign his position on the Supreme Court, returning to the practice of law. “The publication of a book on spiritualism by a person so distinguished as Judge Edmonds, of our Supreme Court, is an event in literature demanding more than a passing notice,” an objective editorial in the December 1853 edition of Putnam’s Monthly read. “The subject and the author alike arrest the public attention. An attempt to prove the reality on an intercourse between departed spirits and men on this side of the grave, by an eminent judicial functionary, is a fact that has much significance.”

The editorial went on to say that a large number of people of different ages and conditions in the United States, England, France, Austria, Central America, and India had reported curious phenomena, such as rappings, table-turningss, bell-ringings, poundings, and writings in recent years and that there was much similarity in the reports. “The reputation of such an endorser as Judge Edmonds – a lawyer of great sagacity, accustomed to weighing evidence, and a man of the most exemplary integrity, whose words on a matter of fact cannot be doubted – ought to commend the subject to an impartial investigation, or at least shield it from flippant commentaries on the lower order of journalism.”

If Edmonds was not the first psychical researcher, he was likely, as one reference put it, the “first martyr” in the cause of Spiritualism.

By Michael E. Tymn


Berger, Arthur S. and Joyce, The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research, Paragon House, New York, 1991

Wallace, Alfred Russel, Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, Arno Press, New York, 1975 (reprint of 1896 publication)



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