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 11: Communications Through Mediums
II: As affected by Paranormal Faculties of the Living

- W. H. Salter -

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          THE QUESTION now to be discussed is whether all communications that cannot be assigned to normal factors can be adequately accounted for by the paranormal faculties of living people, or Whether, in some cases at least, it is necessary to look further afield. For reasons given in Chapter II the supernatural' cannot be brought within the scope of this discussion, which must therefore be limited as regards the choice of possible causes to the faculties of persons living in the body on the one hand, and discarnate activity on the other. (In a discussion whether after a man's bodily death, anything persists more or less comparable to his personality when in the flesh, "discarnate" is well established as an appropriate term for such a condition.)

Communications through mediums purport, so far as they are evidential, to show knowledge not possessed by the medium and to be characteristic of, and emanate from, some person or persons no longer in this body of flesh and blood. It is necessary to add these last words, because of the view that the dead inhabit a tenuous, quasi-material body, which is capable of manifesting itself in sťance-room materialisations, "spirit" photographs, etc. The evidence from phenomena supposed to support this view was rejected in earlier chapters.

Sometimes too little is known about the alleged Communicator to show whether the messages attributed to him are in fact characteristic: they must be accepted as such on trust, if at all. The best a little known Communicator can do is to produce something not too obviously untypical of the country, period and position in life which he claims as his own, and to supplement this by other matter which the sitter will accept as being beyond the normal powers of the medium. Spoken or written communications are sometimes made in languages which are said to be unknown to the medium. But it is not too easy to be certain how much knowledge a person possesses of a language of which he quite honestly believes himself innocent. Most of us have at some time acquired, in travel or by casual reading, the small change of conversation in quite a number of languages besides those of which we admit knowledge, and this may pour out in trance, just as the most respectable persons may release a flood of blasphemy and obscenity under an anaesthetic. There is the further difficulty that trance-speech is often indistinct: an eager sitter may imagine he hears more than he does, and may report having had a long conversation with the Control in some foreign tongue which he himself speaks fluently, when he has done nine-tenths of the talk and the Control has merely produced some almost inaudible mutters, interspersed with a few phrases, "How do you do?", "Goodnight", etc., in the language used by the sitter.

The difficulty of assessing as. evidence for survival communications claiming to come from an obscure individual of an earlier age is well illustrated by the case of Patience Worth, which has aroused enormous interest in America and a good deal in the United Kingdom. There is fortunately a full report published by the Boston SPR (1927), by a very careful investigator, the Walter Prince mentioned in an earlier chapter. The communications came through the automatic writing of a Mrs. Curran, who was thirty years old when they began in 1913. Prince's report begins with an autobiographical sketch by Mrs. Curran herself. She was also asked by Prince a number of questions as to her education and interests, and the report prints her replies. Several of her acquaintances confirmed her statements and testified to her integrity. The student is thus fortunate in being well placed to judge whether her voluminous automatic output can reasonably be attributed to Mrs. Curran's own mind, conscious or subconscious. It is sufficient here to say that her education was moderate and she never had any strong bookish or historical interests.

Patience Worth was the name claimed by the Communicator. Voluble in other respects, she is vague or reticent as to the facts of her earthly existence. It may however be gathered that she was born somewhere in England, possibly in Dorset, was a farm worker who emigrated to one of the American Colonies, and was killed in a raid by Red Indians. There is no precise statement as to the dates of her birth, emigration or death, or as to the place where she died. Apparently it all happened during the Seventeenth Century. With so many points left doubtful it is not surprising that she has not yet been identified with any demonstrably real person. Prince says (p. 34) that "she could not be brought to place any valuation on giving data about her alleged life on earth".

Exact identification being impracticable, can it be said that her communications are characteristic of her supposed role as a seventeenth century English farm girl transplanted to North America, perhaps from Dorset? The communications are partly in verse, partly in prose. In Telka, whose prose and verse are mixed, both are in English so far removed from present-day usage as to deter all but the most resolute reader. The language has been studied by scholars who report an extremely high proportion of words of Anglo-Saxon origin and an almost entire absence of wards of recent introduction, but at the same time do not find it characteristic of any specific period or district. If these findings are true, they seem to me not to leave much of a case for supposing that the book was dictated or inspired by any individual who at any time had an earthly existence, if Mrs. Curran herself may be left out of account.

There remains however a problem raising a different but difficult issue. Could anyone by conscious effort write in a language as archaistic as that of Telka with a fluency equal to Mrs. Curran's, unless he had made a much more intensive study of Early and Middle English than there is any reason to attribute to her? How many could do it even after considerable study, do it consciously and deliberately, that is? It should however be noted that the linguistic knowledge required is negative, that is to say ability to keep off words of Latin derivation or recent introduction, or to use them sparingly.

In addition to the linguistic problem Patience Worth raises the question as to the source of the literary power and skill which good critics have found in the books, several of which, it may be noted, are written in language free from archaisms. It was argued in an earlier chapter that imaginative writing of the highest order, like Paradise Lost, often gave grounds for supposing it to be the product of the author's subconscious, impersonating some external source of inspiration, such as Milton's Urania. Patience Worth, both in linguistic skill and literary power, goes beyond what might be expected from the Mrs. Curran of everyday life, but it does not seem necessary to look beyond her subconscious, provided one concedes to it powers parallel, though on a much lower level of achievement, to those shown in the poems of Milton, Blake and Shelley. Whether or not powers of this kind are to be regarded as paranormal, is a mere verbal question.

The faculties generally described by the phrase Extra-sensory Perception (ESP) on the other hand, are undoubtedly paranormal, if they really exist. Of the reality of one of them, telepathy, I have no doubt, and I shall therefore consider its bearing on messages received through mediums, before doing the like with regard to precognition and clairvoyance. The generally accepted definition of telepathy, "the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognised channels of sense" (see glossary to Human Personality and above), would cover cases of thought-transference occurring, not only between a living agent and a living percipient, but also cases where one or both were dead. Strict correctness would therefore call for the use in the first case of the words "telepathy between the living", but to avoid prolixity I shall use the single word "telepathy" in such cases, unless the longer phrase is needed to prevent confusion.

It was natural and right that, when in the early years of Mrs Piper's mediumship psychical researchers for the first time had to consider seriously communications ostensibly coming from the, spirits of the dead, alternative explanations should be examined, including possible telepathy between the sitter and the medium. And examination showed that telepathy was not merely a possibility of her mediumship but that there was evidence of its actual occurrence.

For instance Richard Hodgson, who strenuously maintained the survivalist view of the communications that came through Mrs. Piper, had one day been reading with great interest and attention Walter Scott's Life and Letters. The next day "Scott" made his first appearance at a Piper sitting, the very laughable "Scott" who said there were monkeys in the sun. The most reasonable explanation of this incident would be that Mrs. Piper's subconscious tapped by telepathy Hodgson's strong contemporary interest in Scott, and was in this way stimulated to produce a feeble dramatisation of Scott, embellished, as regards the monkeys, with a morsel of the dream phantasy with which most people's subconscious is well stored.

The Walter Scott case is not an isolated one. Several other instances might be quoted of a sitter's thoughts being given him as "communications" in circumstances which point strongly to the sitter's mind rather than to that of the purporting Communicator as the source. The sitter may for instance receive through the medium messages making statements that at the time he believes to be true, but which on enquiry he finds to be incorrect.

Walter Leaf, reporting on the early stage of the Piper mediumship, mentions (Proc. VI. 568-571) the sittings which his friend J. T. Clarke had with Mrs. Piper first in America in September 1889 and then in December of that year in England. Clarke, whose visit to America was caused by a financial failure the loss from which he was trying to minimise, was told by the Control. that he was in financial trouble, but would "wade through it all light" within four and a half months. The Control continued, "There are parties that haven't dealt honourably with you". The prediction proved untrue, as did the accusation about the "parties". But, adds Clarke in his note on the sittings, though the action of the men in question had in fact been entirely honourable, "my mind at the time undeniably entertained some apprehension lest the facts should prove to have been otherwise".

Later in the same sitting Clarke was warned emphatically against a man, H. He says that at the time he entertained "an unwarrantable distrust" of H. which "was soon removed altogether by a closer acquaintance with facts". And later again the Control, after a supposed visit to Clarke's house in England, said that a "big man with a dark moustache" had been in the kitchen a good while during the day, that he had been put there to watch the place and was trustworthy. Clarke, before leaving England, had arranged that in certain circumstances a policeman should be hired to guard the house: at the time of the sitting he did not know whether this arrangement had been carried out, but was "ready to suppose that a man was watching the "house". In fact no policeman, whether large or small, with or without moustache, had been called in.

Not long after this Mrs. Piper came to England at the invitation of the SPR, travelling on the same ship as Mr. Clarke, and gave sittings to several prominent members of the Society. She also gave a sitting at Mr. Clarke's house, when several messages were given about the relations of Mrs. Clarke who was German by birth. Although most of what the Control, Phinuit, said as to her mother and some of her near relations in Germany was wrong, he scored a number of remarkable successes, especially in connection with an Uncle C. and his children.

Phinuit made the following statements: (1) that Mrs. Clarke had belonging to her someone called M., the German name being correctly pronounced: that M., later referred to as a sister had trouble with her ankles (Mrs. Clarke had a sister of that name who was bedridden for ten years); (2) that she had a sister E.; (3) and another sister who painted; (4) that there was an uncle C., now in the spirit, who had been off his mind; (5) that Uncle C. had a son, E., also dead; "There was something the matter with his heart, and with his head. He says it was an accident." Later Phinuit said "he was hurt there (makes motion of stabbing heart)". Mrs. Clarke notes that this cousin "committed suicide in a fit of melancholia by stabbing his heart". (6) That Uncle C.'s widow had abdominal trouble. Mrs. Clarke says in her note, "a striking account of my uncle's family in Germany. The names and facts are all correct." This is not quite exact, as the cousin E.'s death was not due to an accident though he may possibly have wished that this family should regard it in that way.

Leaf's comment, after referring to Mrs. Piper's meeting with Clarke in America and on board ship, is (p. 559):

"It will be suggested no doubt that she had succeeded in pumping him as to his wife's family in the course of conversation. That any man could have imparted unconsciously such curious and unusual family histories as those told to Mrs. Clarke would be amazing enough. 'the supposition is simply impossible to those who have had the opportunity of watching Mrs. Piper, and estimating the singularly limited range of her conversation, and its inadequacy for the subtle designs attributed to it. M" over some of the facts stated were unknown to Mr. Clarke himself till he heard them asserted by the medium and confirmed by his wife."

Leaf, a very cautious and critical man, commenting on the whole series of Mrs. Piper's sittings on this visit to England, took the view that, while there was some fluking and fishing, these would not by themselves account for all her successful hits, but that if they were supplemented by "thought-transference", as telepathy was often called in those days, no further explanation was needed. Some of the other SPR investigators of that time, such as Hodgson, Lodge and Myers, were prepared to go further: the point to be noted here is that they and Leaf were unanimous that telepathy from the living was the minimum hypothesis worth considering.

More direct evidence for the intervention of telepathy in communications professing to come from the dead may be found in. cases where a sitter has foisted on the medium a fictitious "Communicator" of his own invention. This procedure has produced interesting results. On the debit side must be set the loss of confidence between medium and sitter, which may adversely affect later sitters. With mediums like Mrs. Piper and Mrs. Leonard, who have shown themselves anxious to co-operate in experiments, it is much better to follow up lines of experiment that have been previously explained to and approved by them, or even lines that they have themselves suggested.

The Clarke sittings may be taken as typical of good sittings uncomplicated by experiment. Many of the messages were completely wrong: others were doubtful or showed right and wrong mixed in various proportions: several others again were right, and were neither commonplace nor scattered at random among the mistakes, but clustered round particular topics. Where successes are clustered in this way, either in mediumistic communications or in the results of experiments, it is not reasonable to strike an average for the whole sitting or experiment, and, if that average proves near the borderline of chance, to deny the significance of the successes. The question is whether, as Leaf argued, telepathy is a sufficient explanation for the successful hits in the Clarke sittings and in other sittings of the same general type, and the answer will depend on what view is taken of telepathy, and by what evidence that view is determined.

A modern student will naturally have in the forefront of his mind the quantitative experiments of the last thirty years or so. A little evidence of this kind existed when Leaf wrote, but a great revival of this line of research was pioneered by Tyrrell, and has been vigorously promoted by Carington and Soal in this country, and by Rhine and others in America. Their experiments have beyond doubt added greatly to the cogency of the argument for telepathy as a real faculty. They are clear cut in a way that experiments with "free" material cannot be, and are more directly affirmative than "crisis apparitions", for which alternative explanations have been put forward. I have in an earlier chapter expressed my personal acceptance of the telepathic view of veridical spontaneous experiences, but that view, however correct, depends on inference. Unfortunately the more precise, scientific, statistically assessable experiments are, the less informative they are in some respects. They can, it would seem, show what type of person is likely to prove a good percipient; how far belief or disbelief in the faculty is likely to influence the results positively or negatively; what stimulative effect is produced by alcohol, mescaline, erotic pictures, and so on. All that of course has its value.

The precision with which the results of quantitative experiment can be assessed is due to the use of a limited number of targets for the percipient to aim at, five simple diagrams, it may be, or five assorted animals. But except in an experiment of this kind, the human mind does not Emit itself to making choices between five symbols, none of any interest to it. The experiments usually consist of a series of runs each of twenty-five guesses. Suppose that in one run the percipient guesses all twenty-five right: suppose even that in forty consecutive runs totalling one thousand guesses he scores one thousand hits, it is impossible to say which of those one thousand hits were paranormal, since by unaided chance he would have scored two hundred of them or thereabouts, and there is no method of discriminating between the two hundred flukes and the eight hundred instances of telepathy. Two hundred times he guessed, say, zebra when zebra was the target, but it is impossible to say on how many of those two hundred times, or on which of them he and the agent were en rapport, if indeed, which cannot be proved, they were ever en rapport so far as the zebras were involved. Again target, guess, target, guess follow each other with machine-like regularity at intervals of a few seconds, both agent and percipient being fully conscious at the time.

At almost every point the experimental situation differs widely from the mediumistic. It is true that where the communications consist of nothing more than commonplace names, Tom and Dick and Harry, the zebra situation is reproduced. If the sitter happens in fact to have lost a near friend called Tom, the mention of that name at a sitting may be a fluke; again, it may not. Who can say?

Consider however the information given through Mrs. Piper about Mrs. Clarke's German uncle and his son E., who stabbed himself in the heart. There is a definite correct statement for which an explanation, normal or paranormal, has to be found. The normal explanations are (1) chance; not very plausible in view of the unusual circumstances described; (2) cryptomnesia; again, not very plausible in view of the recency of the acquaintance between Mrs. Piper and the Clarkes; (3) fishing, or some other dubious practice, which may be ruled out by Mrs. Piper's known integrity and the considerations urged by Leaf in his comments. In default of a reasonable explanation of a normal sort, one must have recourse to some paranormal hypothesis, whether it be telepathy between medium and sitter at the period of the sitting when these statements are made, or, if that seems inadequate, the paranormal transmission of information in some other way.

Nor where hits occur in sittings, are they, as in quantitative experiments, separate self-contained affairs, each taking up a second or two. The hits, as in the Clarke case, often form a group, connected with each other by some central topic or idea, and requiring a longish time to develop. Another difference, which may or may not be material, is that in sittings one of the parties is in trance or some condition other than full normal consciousness.

During the last twenty-five years or so the only kind of telepathy which has engaged the attention either of students of psychical research or of such members of the public as have shown any interest in that subject, is the kind demonstrated by quantitative experiment. Between the results of that kind of experiment and communications received through the more successful mediums the differences are so many and so great as to make it seem ludicrous to explain or, as some would say, explain away veridical communications as due to nothing but telepathy. The absurdity is however due to the needlessly narrow view of telepathy now generally prevalent, and is greatly reduced if one takes into account telepathy as it manifests itself in experiments with "free" material, or in veridical crisis apparitions. In both of these the content by its complexity and variety, while quite unlike the bare choice between five targets offered in quantitative experiments, resembles that of communications through a medium, and also, it is to be noted, that of the ordinary processes of thought. For this last reason qualitative enquiry, experimental, spontaneous, mediumistic, is essential to the central and ultimate purpose of psychical research.

The objection sometimes brought against it that it fails to distinguish between flukes and significant hits is of little substance. In all forms of enquiry into paranormal cognition instances are bound to occur in which the operation of chance cannot be either proved or disproved. As a basis for theory these marginal cases must be discarded. In quantitative experiment, in which they are frequently found, a statistical rule of thumb is available to this end. In the other forms of enquiry commonsense. One does not need a tape-measure to ascertain that an elephant is larger than a mouse. Each form of enquiry has its own shortcomings, which I have attempted to describe; chance is the least serious of them.

Acceptance however of a view of telepathy wide enough to include qualitative experiments and crisis apparitions does not imply that telepathy thereby becomes an all-sufficient explanation of whatever veridical communications cannot reasonably be assigned to any normal cause. Before that can be assumed several situations must be considered where difficulties arise through the very limited knowledge we at present possess of the scope of telepathy and the conditions under which it functions. Here are some questions. To what extent is some normal contact between agent and percipient necessary, or conducive, to telepathy between them? What is the effect of emotional relationship between them? Is conscious effort on the part of one or the other a necessary, or favourable factor? Is the rapport between them capable of enduring for a considerable period, to be measured, say, in days, or months, or years? Is telepathy a one-way process, or a joint activity of both parties? Is there such a thing as group telepathy, in which the activities of several persons are combined?

The more elaborate realistic apparitions suggest that the role of the percipient is not entirely passive but that on the subconscious level agent and percipient collaborate. "Collective percipience" also implies more than simple one-way transference of thought between two persons. Thus the spontaneous cases in themselves, and apart from mediumistic and other phenomena, require for their explanation a sort of interpersonal mental activity of a paranormal kind, which can, if one so wishes, be called "telepathy", so long as one is not in too great a hurry to formulate a rigid definition of it.

If telepathy, so far as transmission is concerned, is a nonphysical process - and the very notion of such a thing is anathema to many scientists - it gives some support to the conception of a non-physical mode of existence after the dissolution of the body. That at least is a view which has often been maintained. But while telepathy between the living may increase the probability of survival, it also diminishes its provability, so long as its scope cannot be more clearly defined. The divergent views held by psychical researchers as to this have been responsible for the inconclusiveness of many of the elaborate discussions on survival which take up so much space in SPR Proceedings. In the course of them veridical communications have been closely examined to see whether instances could be found which could not be accounted for by telepathy, at any rate as basically conceived, and experiments have been devised, sometimes at the instance of the mediums, of a kind that, if they failed to exclude telepathy altogether, would at least push it further and further away into the region of the improbable.

The reason for these experiments, which will be described in the next chapter, is that while in most cases of telepathy, whether experimental or spontaneous, there appears to be some fairly close psychological connection between the parties concerned, whether arising from kinship, or friendship, or the fact that they are engaged in the joint adventure of an experiment, spontaneous cases do occasionally occur in which no such connection between apparent agent and apparent percipient can be traced. Thorough investigation therefore of a communication coming through a Medium must take account of the possibility, a very remote possibility perhaps, that the medium's subconscious has picked up information not only from the minds of the sitter, note-taker, and any other person with whom he has been in normal contact, but also from some other unidentifiable minds as well.

"Clairvoyance" is a word which has often been vaguely used to denote any visual experience which could not be assigned to normal sense perception. As so used it would include transcendental visions of angels and other supernatural persons or objects. "Travelling clairvoyance" is still sometimes used to describe waking visions or dreams of scenes that are either imaginary or, if real, remote from the actual locality of the percipient. But for a long time now psychical researchers have given "clairvoyance" the more precise meaning of the direct paranormal apprehension of physical facts by a percipient without the intervention of any other mind. These last words distinguish it from telepathy. Suppose a new pack of playing cards is thoroughly shuffled by A and placed face-downwards on a table, and that B coming in from another room says that the cards from twenty to thirty in the pack counting downwards are such and such. Suppose further that on the pack being examined B's claims are found to be correct. Suppose also, of course, that there has been no collusion between A and B. In such a case the successes could not reasonably be assigned either to chance, or to telepathy from A, who had no normal knowledge of the order of the cards. What the operative factor would be is hard to explain by reference to any normal and generally accepted sense of faculty. Clairvoyance is a convenient label, even if the derivation of the word suggests an unreal analogy with the ordinary power of sight.

"Precognition" is the word generally applied to occurrences in which there appears to be some anticipation of future events not due to chance nor based on inference from normal knowledge. Here again the derivation of the word is to some extent misleading. The anticipation may show itself by conduct such as a person would not take unless he knew what was going to happen, although there is no evidence to show that he in fact knew it. It might be a reasonable inference from his action that subconsciously he did know it. So again in experiments in card-guessing, if a percipient makes a significant proportion of hits not on the target coinciding in time with his guess, but on the next target to that, precognition hardly seems the appropriate word for that kind of displacement

The lack of exact knowledge of the scope and limits of telepathy makes it difficult enough to judge whether it is a reasonable explanation of a message through a medium conveying veridical information not within the medium's normal knowledge. But we are not wholly without guidance on these matters, as there is a mass of evidence about telepathy reaching us from hundreds of spontaneous experiences and from experiments both qualitative and quantitative. But with precognition and clairvoyance we are not so well placed. Our knowledge of clairvoyance is derived from a very few experiments, and of precognition from instances of "displacement" in card experiments, if that phenomenon is to be considered precognitive, supported by a few spontaneous cases where the facts are well established, but where other explanations, such as chance or normal inference, are possible. Mediumistic communication being essentially a bilateral or multilateral affair, it is less likely to be affected by faculties of living minds such as clairvoyance and precognition, which do not involve more than a single mind, than by telepathy where at least two, and possibly more, minds are concerned. In the chapters that follow some communications will be discussed in which faculties seem to have been operative, not entirely unlike clairvoyance and precognition as shown in experiments with living subjects, but yet not apparently quite the same. The term GESP (General Extra-sensory Perception) is sometimes applied to a situation where the facts seem to show that some paranormal faculty has been at work but are not sufficient to define whether that faculty is telepathy, clairvoyance or precognition. But the evidence from mediumship may require giving GESP a more extended meaning, to include another faculty, or other faculties, with powers that do not coincide with any of the three.

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