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Ethnology and Spiritualism (S208: 1872)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor that appeared in the 7 March 1872 number of Nature. In this note Wallace replies to Edward B. Tylor's own reply to Wallace's earlier review (S207) of Tylor's book Primitive Culture. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S208.htm

    [[p. 363]] There is only one point in Mr. Tylor's communication (Nature, Feb. 29, p. 343) on which it seems desirable that I should say a few words, in order that I may not be supposed to assent to what I conceive to be a most erroneous view. Mr. Tylor suggests that the phenomena that occur in the presence of what are called mediums, are or may be of the same nature as the subjective impressions of persons under the influence of a powerful mesmeriser. Five and twenty years ago I was myself [[p. 364]] a practised mesmeriser, and was able to produce on my own patients almost the whole range of phenomena which are exhibited in public as illustrative of "mesmerism" or "electro-biology." I carried on numerous experiments in private, and paid especial attention to the conditions under which the phenomena occur. During the last seven years I have had repeated opportunities of examining the phenomena that occur in the presence of so-called "mediums," often under such favourable conditions as to render trick or imposture simply impossible. I believe, therefore, I may lay claim to some qualifications for comparing the mesmeric with the mediumistic phenomena with especial reference to Mr. Tylor's suggestion, and I find that there are two great characteristics that broadly distinguish the one from the other.

    1. The mesmerised patient never has doubts of the reality of what he sees or hears. He is like a dreamer to whom the most incongruous circumstances suggest no idea of incongruity, and he never inquires if what he thinks he perceives harmonises with his actual surroundings. He has, moreover, lost his memory of what and where he was a few moments before, and can give no account, for instance, of how he has managed to get out of a lecture-room in London to which he came as a spectator half an hour before, on to an Atlantic steamer in a hurricane, or into the recesses of a tropical forest.

    The assistants at the séances of Mr. Home or Mrs. Guppy are not in this state, as I can personally testify, and as the almost invariable suspicion with which the phenomena are at first regarded clearly demonstrates. They do not lose memory of the immediately preceding events; they criticise, they examine, they take notes, they suggest tests--none of which the mesmerised patient ever does.

    2. The mesmeriser has the power of acting on "certain sensitive individuals" (not on "assemblies" of people, as Mr. Tylor suggests), and all experience shows that those who are thus sensitive to any one operator are but a small proportion of the population, and these almost always require previous manipulation with passive submission to the operator. The number who can be acted upon without such previous manipulation is very small, probably much less than one per cent. But there is no such limitation to the number of persons who simultaneously see the mediumistic phenomena. The visitors to Mr. Home or Mrs. Guppy all see whatever occurs of a physical nature, as the records of hundreds of sittings demonstrate.

    The two classes of phenomena, therefore, differ fundamentally; and it is a most convincing proof of Mr. Tylor's very slender acquaintance with either of them, that he should even suggest their identity. The real connection between them is quite in an opposite direction. It is the mediums, not the assistants, who are "sensitives." They are almost always subject to the mesmeric influence, and they often exhibit all the characteristic phenomena of coma, trance, rigidity, and abnormal sense-power. Conversely, the most sensitive mesmeric patients are almost invariably mediums. The idea that it is necessary for me to inform "spiritualists" that I believe in the power of mesmerisers to make their patient believe what they please, and that this "information" might "bring about investigations leading to valuable results," is really amusing, considering that such investigations took place twenty years ago, and led to this important result--that almost all the most experienced mesmerists (Prof. Gregory, Dr. Elliotson, Dr. Reichenbach, and many others) became spiritualists! If Mr. Tylor's suggestion had any value, these are the very men who ought to have demonstrated the subjective nature of mediumistic phenomena; but, on the contrary, as soon as they had the opportunity of personally investigating them, they all of them saw and admitted their objective reality.

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