Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace


          THE FAMOUS naturalist, co-discoverer with Darwin of the principles of evolution, was a confirmed philosophical sceptic, a materialist so thorough that before he got acquainted with the facts of spiritualism there was no place in his mind for the conception of spiritual existence, or for any agencies in the universe other than matter and force. The facts beat him. To quote his own words from his preface to On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism:

"They compelled me to accept them, as facts, long before I could accept the spiritual explanation of them: there was at that time 'no place in my fabric of thought into which it could be fitted.' (Argument of Dr. Carpenter). By slow degrees a place was made."

He was led to believe (1) in the existence of a number of preterhuman intelligences of various grades; (2) that some of these intelligences, although usually invisible and intangible to us, can and do act on matter, and do influence our minds. It was by the latter doctrine that he accounted for some of the residual phenomena in his Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection.

His earliest experiences on matters pertaining to spiritualism date from 1844 when he was teaching in a school in one of the Midland Counties. Influenced by a lecture of Spencer Hall on mesmerism he tried similar experiments and attained surprising success. During twelve years of tropical wanderings occupied in the study of natural history, he heard occasionally of "table-turning" and "spirit-rapping." He resolved to investigate them on his return. His first chance came on July 22, 1865, in the house of a friend, a sceptic. After more than a dozen sittings he became satisfied that "there is an unknown power developed from the bodies of a number of persons placed in connection by sitting round a table with all their hands upon it." The next stage of his inquiry began in September, 1865, and was devoted to the physical and mental phenomena of Mrs. Mary Marshall. In broad daylight he observed levitation, movement of objects without contact and the alteration of weight. Though being unknown to Mrs. Marshall, Para, the place where his brother died, his name and that of the last friend who saw him was spelt out. Messages came spelt backwards, independent writing on a privately marked paper was produced. Impressed by the occurrences he investigated, by the help of a lady with mediumistic talents in his own home.

Remarkable phenomena were obtained and from November, 1866, onwards Alfred Russel Wallace had the rare opportunity of watching the development of the powerful mediumship of Miss Nichols the later Mrs. Guppy. A heavy and stout woman, she was lifted noiselessly on the top of the table while sitting in her chair, with five or six persons close around her. Delicate musical sounds were heard without the presence of instruments. A German lady guest, a perfect stranger, sang several songs and the strains of music, as if coming from a fairy music-box, accompanied her throughout. Her most remarkable feat was the apport of flowers and fruit. In mid-winter, after Miss Nichols sat for four hours in a small, warm, gas-lighted room in the Wallace home, a quantity of flowers appeared upon a bare table: anemones, tulips, chrysanthemums, Chinese primroses and several ferns. "All were absolutely fresh as if just gathered from a conservatory. They were covered with a fine cold dew. Not a petal was crumpled or broken, not the most delicate point or pinnule of the ferns was out of place." The phenomenon was repeated afterwards hundreds of times. The flowers sometimes arrived in vast quantities. They were often brought on request, fruits as well. A friend of Wallace asked for a sun-flower, and one six feet high fell on the table, having a large mass of earth about its roots.

The distinguished naturalist formed one of the Committee of the Dialectical Society in 1869 and witnessed, under test conditions, a great variety of telekinetic phenomena. When the possibility of spirit photography was for the first time demonstrated in Britain in Hudson's studio by the contribution of Mrs. Guppy's powers he was anxious to test the new line of experience. Sitting with Mrs. Guppy he obtained a communication by raps that his mother would try to appear on the plate of Hudson. He sat three times, choosing his own position and found a male figure with a short sword on the first, and a female figure on the two other plates. Both of the latter represented an unmistakable likeness of his mother, that of the second plate differed in period and was unlike any photograph taken of her. Under magnifying glass this second picture disclosed a remarkable special feature of his mother's face.

In view of these experiences and the large amount of testimony in the literature of spiritualism to similar occurrences Wallace declared that the phenomena of spiritualism in their entirety do not require further confirmation.

"They are proved, quite as well as any facts are proved in other sciences."

His later attitude was in accordance with this conviction. He never missed an opportunity to test genuine psychic phenomena. He made several attempts to convince the pillars of scientific scepticism and invited first Dr. W. B. Carpenter to attend some sittings in his own home. He came one evening. Raps were heard, and these were repeated, sometimes in different tones, and sounding, at request, in any part of the table. Dr. Carpenter sat quite still, and made hardly any remark. He knew from the statements of his host that this was a mere nothing to what often occurred and never came again. With Prof. Tyndall exactly the same thing happened. Huxley, to whom, in 1866, he sent his paper "The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural", which was later included in Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, answered:

"I am neither shocked nor disposed to issue a commission of lunacy against you. It may be all true, for anything that I know to the contrary, but really I cannot get up interest in the subject."

G. H. Lewes accepted an invitation to the Wallace home but never went.

Between 1870-80 Wallace had many opportunities of witnessing interesting phenomena in the houses of various friends. Through a member of his own family automatic writing, was received in his own home, purporting to come from his deceased brother, William, and containing many predictions which were later fulfilled. In 1874 he was asked by the Fortnightly Review to write an article on spiritualism. It appeared under the title 'A Defence of Modern Spiritualism' and formed part, with another paper which he read before the Dialectical Society of On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, of a book which was so much in demand that a third edition was issued in 1895, enlarged with two new chapters on the nature and purport of apparitions. The book was first published in 1874 and the earlier editions did not include the author's further personal experiences in his sťances with Miss Katie Cook, with Haxby, Francis Ward Monck, William Eglinton and others. He stood up for Henry Slade and gave evidence of the genuineness of his phenomena at the trial in Bow Street Police Court in 1876. In the same year, by his casting vote as president of the anthropological sub-committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he made the reading of William Barrett's paper on spiritualism before this body possible. When J. N. Maskelyne sued Archdeacon Colley for a thousand pounds challenge it was largely on Wallace's testimony on behalf of the powers of Monck that the magician lost his suit.

In the years 1886-87, during a lecture tour of America, he stayed for some time in three centres of spiritualism: Boston, Washington and San Francisco. He attended materialisation sťances with Mrs. Ross and when it was bruited about that she was caught in fraud he testified on her behalf in a letter to the Banner of Light. In Washington, in the company of Prof. Elliot Coues, General Lippitt and Mr. D. Lyman he had remarkable experiences with P. L. O. A. Keeler, and it was his fortune to sit in San Francisco at an outstanding slate writing sťance with Fred Evans in which writing was produced in five different colours and, on his impromptu suggestion, six crayon drawings were precipitated on six pieces of paper placed between a pair of slates, some of the drawings having personal relevance.

In later years Wallace did not encounter much of spiritualistic phenomena but to his convictions he remained, true up to the end of his busy life.

Source (with minor modifications): An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor (1934).

Articles by Alfred Russel Wallace on this website:

An Answer to the Arguments of Hume and others against Miracles

Are the Phenomena of Spiritualism in Harmony with Science?

Wallace writes to the Scientific Press

Notes of Personal Evidence

On the Attitude of Men of Science towards Spiritualism

Spiritualism and Science

What are Phantasms? And Why do they Appear?

The Opposition to Hypnotism and Psychical Research



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