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

The Late Mr. S. J. Davey's Experiments (S467: 1893)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the March 1893 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S467.htm

     [[p. 33]] Sir,--In reference to the explanations of Mr. Davey's methods of conjuring, given by Mr. R. Hodgson in the Proceedings of July last, I wish to make a few remarks. It is, of course, quite clear, from the facts now given, that Mr. Davey was a very clever conjurer; that he possessed the somewhat rare natural faculties of the high-class prestidigitateur; and that he had cultivated these faculties in the special department of imitating slate-writing and other spiritualistic phenomena. It also seems clear to me that he possessed the faculty of thought-reading and thought-impressing in a high degree; and, further, it seems probable that he also possessed mediumistic power, which occasionally took part in his performances.

     In regard to some of the sittings, Mr. Hodgson's explanations are so full as to show that all was performed by clever trick, but in others there is no explanation given, except a general reference to the "methods" used in other cases. I have neither time nor inclination to go into these cases in detail, nor would there be any use in doing so. The important question is, whether the methods which Mr. Davey used in his trick-performances are such as will serve to explain most, or all, of the slate-writing of professional mediums. I shall, therefore, accept Mr. Hodgson's challenge (in Proceedings, Vol. IV., Part XI., p. 404) to point out exactly where the difference lies between Mr. Davey's performances and those of mediums.

     I have not myself had so much experience of slate-writing as many other Spiritualists, nor have I received such marvellous and demonstrative tests as have occurred to others. But I have witnessed successful slate-writing with four different mediums; and their proceedings, in the three best cases, afforded none of the opportunities for trickery on which Mr. Davey appears to have mainly relied. I will now point out some of the conditions and arrangements on which Mr. Davey's performances depended, and which were not present on the occasion of either of my sittings.

     [[p. 34]] 1. Mr. Davey on several occasions asked his visitors to bring three slates with them, which afforded him the opportunity of writing on one of them, and substituting this for one of the others after they have been cleaned for the experiment.

     On no occasion were any slates asked for previous to my sittings, but a single slate was once taken, and writing obtained on it without its leaving my sight or that of my brother.

     2. During the greater number of Mr. Davey's sittings he left the room, either before or in the midst of the performance, often more than once, giving him the opportunity required for some of his best tricks.

     At none of my sittings did the medium leave the room.

     3. Many of Mr. Davey's tricks depended on the slate being held under the table.

     At none of my sittings, except the first (with Slade), were the slates ever put under the table.

     4. Mr. Davey had a duster and blotting-paper on his table, used ostensibly for cleaning and drying the slates, but which were of great use to him in concealing and transposing them.

     At none of my sittings were either of these articles on the table, a small piece of sponge being the only thing used for cleaning the slates.

     5. Long waiting, during the sittings, to relax the attention of the sitters, was used by Mr. Davey.

     At none of my sittings did I have to wait more than five or ten minutes, in several much less. At my best sitting, with Fred Evans in San Francisco, seven slates filled with writing or portraits, including letters signed with the correct Christian name or initials of several long deceased members of my family, together with six portraits produced on paper touched by no one but myself, were obtained in a sitting of about half an hour.

     6. At some of Mr. Davey's sittings the visitors were in the room an hour before the séance began, during which time some of their slates were taken away and written on.

     7. During some of the slate experiments, other tricks, with glasses, coins, etc., were sometimes interpolated, at other times three or more sitters were intermixed in one experiment, thus causing confusion and affording the opportunity for writing on or transposition.

     Nothing of this kind occurred during either of my sittings.

     8. Mr. Davey asked his sitters to change places, sometimes more than once during the same sitting; thus offering other opportunities for manipulation of the slates.

     No such change was made during my sittings for slate-writing.

     9. Apparently all Mr. Davey's visitors sat at the table, or if there were any onlookers they were, like Mr. Hodgson, in the secret.

     At one of my best sittings (with Keeler at Washington) a friend sat about a yard back so as to see all that passed at the table where I and the medium sat. On this occasion I examined two slates, tied them together, placed my hand on them, on the table, the medium placing his hand on mine, and in a minute or two I opened the slates and found several lines [[p. 35]] of writing inside. Nothing else whatever happened, and any substitution was simply impossible.

     At the sitting with Evans, I and my brother sat with the medium at the table, and two friends, who had had numerous sittings before, sat about three yards off, so as to see all that passed, while leaving the séance wholly to us. These conditions are, I submit, the most unfavourable to any trickery by the medium.

     I have now pointed out nine distinct features which differentiate Mr. Davey's performances from those of the slate-writing mediums I have had the opportunity of observing. These features, either singly or in combination, constitute the essential conditions of most of Mr. Davey's conjuring performances; and they correspond so closely with those used by all conjurers, and are so different from those adopted by most mediums, that the difference would have been at once noticed had those familiar with the slate-writing of a number of different mediums been allowed to witness Mr. Davey's experiments.

     There are a few points in connection with Mr. Davey's power of thought-reading and willing, and perhaps of mediumship, which call for notice. In Proceedings, Part XI., p. 406, Mr. Davey tells us that he was affected a good deal during his first experiments with "involuntary movements." Such movements are almost universal in the earlier stages of mediumship. Many of his sitters report that he was "violently agitated," that electric shocks seemed to pass through him; that he exhibited great nervous strain with beads of perspiration. These are usual phenomena with some mediums, but Mr. Davey does not tell us whether or no they were all simulated by him.

     At p. 412 of same Proceedings, Mr. Davey describes how he asked a gentleman to think of a number, apparently with no limitation as to number of digits. He then writes on a slate what he thinks is the number, and it proves to be correct, namely, 98. He adds that he has had "several somewhat similar experiences." This faculty, with the corresponding one of impressing his thoughts on others, he evidently calculates on; for Mr. Hodgson tells us (Proceedings, Part XXII., p. 275) that he draws a figure or number that he thinks the sitter is most likely to choose. Also, in his book experiments, he calculates on forcing a sitter to choose the book he requires. The record of his sittings shows that he tried this experiment with ten different sitters; with four it failed or was inconclusive, but with the other six it succeeded more or less completely. Now it is certain that with sitters whose choice was uninfluenced, not more than, if so many as, one in ten would choose the one book, out of a hundred or more, placed conspicuously in order to be chosen. Most people would avoid such a book. Not only the book has to be forced, but the line or page, chosen by chance and sometimes neither spoken nor written down, has to be accounted for. In several cases the words found on the slate were correct for either line or page, and sometimes for both, as in Sitting VII., of which no explanation is given. Then we have Mr. Dodds' case, where he chooses Taine on Intelligence, because he had been reading another work of Taine's that morning, and only thought of a page and line; yet words were written from that line of another page of the book. Again, in Sitting XVI., Miss Symonds has three book [[p. 36]] experiments, choosing a different book each time, she says "at random." Yet passages or words from two of these books were written, in one case from the page and line chosen; and in the third case it was written that there was no such page, which was correct. Of these three experiments, also, no explanation or suggestion of any kind is offered.

     In what is called the "Sitting for Materialisation," a confederate entered the room, and was enabled to do so by the complete darkness. I have witnessed numerous far better materialisation-phenomena in private houses, under circumstances which rendered the presence of a confederate impossible; and on none of these occasions was there darkness, but always light enough to allow all the persons in the room to be seen. The accounts of the sitters with Mr. Davey as to the locking and sealing of the door were so grossly inaccurate that I was led to suppose the phenomena were genuine.

     I think that I have now shown that there are very great differences between Mr. Davey's performances and those of mediums. This would have been of little importance had not his séances been given undue prominence by publication in the Society's Proceedings, and been thenceforth appealed to as proving that the slate-writing of mediums was also trickery. Mr. Davey's repeated refusal to exhibit his performances to those Spiritualists who had had a large experience of slate-writing in the presence of mediums, should, in my opinion, have been sufficient to exclude his paper from the pages of a scientific journal, since he thereby proved that to elicit the truth in the matter was not so much his object as to keep up his reputation as an exposer of the tricks of mediums. The comparative experiments, which could alone have given any scientific value to his performances, being absent, nothing remains to interest Spiritualists beyond clever conjuring intermingled with more or less of psychical or mediumistic power.

     I venture to hope that other Spiritualists may now make known their experiences of slate-writing phenomena, under conditions very different from those present during Mr. Davey's performances, and such as to exclude the agencies he mainly employed.

Alfred R. Wallace.

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