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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Letter from Dr. Alfred R. Wallace,
In Re Mrs. Ross (S396: 1887)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter dated 23 February 1887 that was printed on page 4 of the 5 March 1887 number of the Boston spiritualist newspaper The Banner of Light. In it Wallace discusses two séances he attended with the famous philosopher William James. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S396.htm

To the Editor of the Banner of Light:

    In Prof. James's letter, published by you last week, he refers to myself as having been present with him at two séances at Mrs. Ross's when he believes there was "certainly roguery." In order that my silence may not be interpreted as implying that I accept this view, I ask leave to make a few remarks.

    Prof. James adduces a certain number of circumstances which seemed to him suspicious. My own experience of materializations extends to about twenty séances with five different mediums, under the most varied conditions and tests, and I am satisfied that such suspicions as Prof. James adduces are absolutely worthless as evidence. When from such "suspicions"--which are very different from proofs--he arrives at the conclusion that there "certainly was roguery," he seems to me to exhibit such an unphilosophical frame of mind as to deprive his opinion of the value it might otherwise possess.

    With respect to the two séances at which I was present with Prof. James, I will adduce a few facts as opposed to his suspicions. The usual, and I believe almost universal practice at Mrs. Ross's séances, is to have the sliding doors between the front and back rooms closed, and, if desired, sealed. If, therefore, confederates get into the room, they must enter by some secret opening into the cabinet. At our first séance the doors were left open, at Prof. James's special request, in order to render it impossible for confederates to enter from the back room, and I was invited to sit in the opening. This departure from the usual course, at request of a visitor, after the rooms had been well searched by a party of sixteen persons, and just before the séance began, would alone satisfy most persons that confederates were not employed, since, their supposed ordinary mode of ingress being rendered useless, they could not take part in the performance. Prof. James thinks, however, that they could have entered the back room noiselessly, and could have slipped close past me into the cabinet, unperceived by myself or by any other person. I myself am positive this could not have been done; and I am also sure that the female figure in white, which, as Prof. James says, came out to me "the moment the séance began," was not Mrs. Ross (unless completely transformed in size and figure), as I held her hand and looked closely into her face. But, on Prof. James's theory, it must have been Mrs. Ross, since no other person was at that time in the cabinet.

    At the second séance the doors were shut and sealed, and the confederates, if any, must have entered the cabinet itself by some secret opening. Seven distinct figures appeared, varying in size from a tall man down to a baby. Now, in order to account for the presence of these figures, Prof. James makes two statements, which I invite him to prove experimentally. First, he says "good carpentry can make a secret door in any wall." Many persons, thinking of secret doors in cabinets and in wainscotted rooms, will hastily assent to this proposition; but the wall in question is papered down to the mopboard eight inches above the carpet, and on the opposite side it is smoothly plastered down to a four-inch board. I ask Prof. James to produce anywhere a secret door in such a wall which some one of six intelligent men, having access to both sides of the wall, shall not discover in five minutes, and I submit that unless he has seen such a secret door that cannot be detected, his statement is unfounded and misleading, and ought not to have been made.

    His second statement is, that such secret door can be unmade in forty-eight hours--of course so that the unmaking cannot be detected. Here again I invite him to produce new woodwork, new paint, new putty over nailholes, and new plaster and paper, which cannot be detected as being new work by some one of six men of average intelligence after five minutes' examination.

    It is by such thoughtless statements as these that most of the accusations against mediums are supported; but when they are made by an investigator, who claims to be both unprejudiced and scientific, they should be either upheld by an appeal to facts, or unreservedly withdrawn.

    These remarks apply equally to the mythical mopboard door, the only means of ingress and egress for confederates alleged by the exposers. Even if it were not demonstrated by the careful examination of Dr. Moore and others, as given in your paper of the 19th inst., that there has not recently been any secret opening in the place referred to, no person of common sense could believe that a slit eight inches wide on one side, and four inches on the other, could allow of the noiseless and rapid ingress and egress of full-grown men and women, besides children, night after night, without hitch or detection.

    I am, myself, as anxious as Prof. James to have the whole truth of this matter brought to light; but I am not, as he seems to be, satisfied with evidence which would be valueless in a court of justice. Of course, if the whole thing is held to be incredible, because impossible, there is no need for any evidence or for any exposure. But this is not Prof. James's point of view. He claims to be an unprejudiced investigator, who, by the very fact of being an investigator, admits the possibility that the phenomena of materialization may be produced otherwise than by imposture. What, then, is the evidence on which he founds his accusation against the Ross family of being a "gang" whose fraud has been exposed?

    Twelve gentlemen go together on purpose to expose, and by their superior force are able to do what they please; yet, up to this date, we have no statement by them, or on their behalf, which is not either disproved by facts or quite consistent with the forms seized being what they profess to be. None of the alleged confederates were secured, or any steps taken to identify them. They have all vanished into space, and the "ghostly muslin" with which they were said to be draped has vanished likewise. The "frightened children" said to have been found in the cabinet were not asked for their names, or the addresses of their parents, so as to secure their appearance in a court of justice, if required. The tall Indian, the two young men and the two children, are all as if they had no existence! If it is asserted that they must have been human beings from the mere fact of their visible and tangible appearance, then no other evidence was needed; but if imposture is to be proved--not merely asserted--then we have a right to ask for some material and producible evidence of the existence to-day of the five alleged confederates; and not a particle of such evidence is given us! Again, we are entitled to ask, Was the mopboard story an observed fact or a mere inference? Will any one of the twelve gentlemen give us the exact particulars of this marvelous secret door, which twenty-one other gentlemen declare, after careful examination, to have left no traces of its existence? Will they tell us how wide and how long it was? Did it open with a hinge or by sliding? and if the latter, did it slide up, or down, or sideways? What was the character and size of the corresponding secret door into the cupboard in the back room, of which there in now no trace? Did any one of the twelve exposers themselves pass through this opening, or even put their heads or their arms through it, so as to prove that it really existed?--that it was, in theatrical language, "a practicable passage" for men, women and children? All this is of the essence of the question, whether the forms seized temporarily, but none of them retained or identified, were actual human confederates, since it is admitted that only by some such opening could confederates have entered the room. Yet up to the present time we have no single fact of this kind clearly alleged by eye-witnesses; and we are accordingly forced to conclude that these twelve gentlemen, who went specially to expose an imposture, came away without any careful examination of the one thing which would confirm their story!

    Under these circumstances, I wait for fuller and more precise statements of what occurred at this now celebrated séance, before I can accept Prof. James's dictum that Mr. and Mrs. Ross, with at least five confederates, form a gang of unconvicted impostors.

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