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The Curiosities of Credulity (S285: 1878)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the 12 January 1878 number of the Athenæum. See also S287, representing the next installment in the discussion. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S285.htm

    [[p. 54]] Owing to absence from home I have only just seen Dr. Carpenter's letter in the Athenæum of December 22nd, to which I now beg leave very briefly to reply.

    I must first remark on the extreme inconvenience of Dr. Carpenter's erratic mode of carrying on a discussion. As soon as his lectures on 'Mesmerism, Spiritualism, &c.,' were published, I wrote a review of them in the Quarterly Journal of Science of July last. To this Dr. Carpenter replied in Fraser's Magazine of November, promising a fuller reply to certain points in the new edition of his 'Lectures,' then in the press. As the article in Fraser was of a very personal character, I issued a rejoinder in the same periodical the following month. A discussion has also been carried on in Nature, and the scene of the contest is now removed to the Athenæum, many of whose readers are probably ignorant of its previous phases.

    Dr. Carpenter comes before a fresh audience in order to reply to a specific charge of mis-statement which I made against him in the Quarterly Journal of Science (July, 1877, p. 398), which charge, as I will proceed to show, he endeavours to evade by a wordy defence, which really amounts to an admission of it. In his 'Lectures' (p. 71) is the following passage:--


    "It was in France that the pretensions of mesmeric clairvoyance were first advanced; and it was by the French Academy of Medicine, in which the mesmeric state had been previously discussed with reference to the performance of surgical operations, that this new and more [[p. 55]] extraordinary claim was first carefully sifted, in consequence of an offer made in 1837 by M. Burdin (himself a member of that Academy) of a prize of 3,000 francs to any one who should be found capable of reading through opaque substances. The money was deposited in the hands of a notary for a period of two years, afterwards extended to three; the announcement was extensively published; numerous cases were offered for examination; every imaginable concession was made to the competitors that was compatible with a thorough testing of the asserted power; and not one was found to stand the trial."

    My readers will observe that this is deliberately stated to be the first time that clairvoyance was carefully sifted in France; yet it now appears that Dr. Carpenter perfectly well knew of the Commission of the same Academy about ten years earlier, which, after five years of most careful and elaborate experiments, gave a unanimous Report positively in favour of the reality of clairvoyance.

    But Dr. Carpenter would have us believe that he studiously avoided all mention of this Report because it had been proved to be wholly founded on imposture or error; and he endeavours to establish this by giving a single hearsay case of a confession of imposture on another person not even a member of the Commission! I feel sure that the impression conveyed to the readers of Dr. Carpenter's letters would be that the case of alleged imposture by one of the mesmeric patients of MM. Georget and Rostan occurred to members of the Commission, and that the case had been examined by them and reported on as genuine. But this impression would be entirely erroneous. The members of the Commission, whose names are appended to the Report, are as follows: 1, Bourdois de la Motte (President); 2, Fouquier; 3, Gueneau de Mussy; 4, Guersent; 5, Itard; 6, Leroux; 7, Marc; 8, Thillaye; 9, Husson (Reporter). Against the voluminous and interesting details of this Report, its carefully repeated experiments, its cautious deductions, its amazing facts, not one particle of rebutting evidence is adduced. Yet Dr. Carpenter thought himself justified not only in ignoring its existence, but in giving his readers to understand, by an express form of words, that no such inquiry was ever made! This was the accusation I made against him, and the readers of the Athenæum can now judge as to the candour and sufficiency of the reply.

    I must add a few words on the way in which Dr. Carpenter treats M. Rostan, "one of the ablest medical psychologists of his day." Dr. Carpenter states, as a fact, that, "when a second edition of the 'Dictionnaire de Médecine' came out in 1838, he (M. Rostan) withdrew the article he had contributed to the first"; and then, further on, it is stated that "M. Rostan, by his own confession," had been led away by cunning cheats in the matter of clairvoyance. Now I have always understood that M. Rostan was much annoyed at his article being superseded in the second edition of the Dictionnaire; and, as this is à priori probable, I require some direct evidence of Dr. Carpenter's assertion that he voluntarily withdrew it. This is the more necessary because the still more important and damaging statement--that M. Rostan made a "confession" that he had been led away by cunning cheats--is also given as a hearsay report without any reference or authority; and it looks very much as if Dr. Carpenter's logic had deduced the "confession" as an inference from the "withdrawal," no evidence whatever being offered for either of them. If this should really be the case, then the severest things I have said as to Dr. Carpenter's mode of carrying on this discussion will be more than justified.

    Throughout my discussion of this subject with Dr. Carpenter I have strictly confined myself to questions of fact and of evidence, and have maintained that these are of more value than opinions, however numerous or weighty. My criticisms have, for the most part, been directed to misrepresentations of facts and suppressions of evidence on the part of my opponent. The readers of the Athenæum will now be able to judge, as regards one case, whether that criticism is sound; and for numerous other cases I refer them to my articles in the Quarterly Journal of Science and in Fraser's Magazine. If they read these, they will, I think, agree with me that the cause of truth will not be advanced by the further continuance of a discussion in which one of the parties perpetually evades or obscures the most important points at issue, and at every step introduces fresh mis-statements to be corrected and fresh insinuations to be rebutted, as I have shown that Dr. Carpenter has done in his numerous writings on this subject.

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