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

Mr. Podmore on Clairvoyance and Poltergeists
(S561: 1899)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A long letter to the Editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research printed in its February 1899 issue. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. 22]] Sir,--Will you allow me to make a few remarks on the treatment of these questions by Mr. Podmore in the Proceedings for December, 1898? In my opinion the credit of the Society as a body for the scientific investigation of a variety of very remarkable and little known phenomena is seriously injured by the method he has adopted--that of omitting to refer to the best evidence in the matters he discusses, giving prominence to every possible supposition of imposture on the part of the agents and of incompetence on the part of the observers, and then stating his adverse conclusions with a confidence and authority which should only be displayed after a full presentation and unprejudiced discussion of the whole evidence available. I will only refer to a few examples to justify this statement, as I have neither time nor inclination, nor is it here necessary, to do more.

    Mr. Podmore devotes more than five pages to the case of Alexis Didier, who, he endeavours to show, might have been, and, therefore, probably was, an impostor. He first describes the mode of bandaging the eyes "generally," which was not the more effective mode usually adopted as described by Dr. Lee and others. He then states that, from the detailed descriptions of many [[p. 23]] observers, he concludes that "the power exercised by Alexis was perfectly normal"--that is, that he saw with his eyes in the ordinary way, and that his reading sealed letters, describing the contents of closed boxes, and playing ecarté rapidly and often telling his opponents' cards as well as his own, were, or might have been, all clever trickery. Every difficult case quoted is explained on this assumption, though acknowledging that this explanation was not necessarily correct. But he continually dwells on the possibility of fraud, on the agents having highly-trained confederates, on the simplicity of the numerous witnesses, and on the fact that "the reports which we possess are mostly at second-hand."

    But in a very well known work, Dr. Edwin Lee's Animal Magnetism, that physician reports, from personal observation, fourteen séances in Brighton and Hastings at which a large number of experiments were made, far the greater number of which were entirely successful, and many very remarkable. Especially so was the description of a tin box and its contents in the coroner's office at Norwich, Dr. Lee having put into the medium's hands a letter from the coroner in which this box was referred to as a test (p. 257). The reading of passages in books several pages in advance is what Mr. Podmore considers to be "most strongly suggestive of trickery"; but Dr. Lee gives numerous cases where no opportunity for trickery existed. The books were often brought by visitors as being old or uncommon, they were opened at any page and Alexis marked a line and was then asked to read the same line 10 or 20 pages in advance. The line given by him was usually found at the same level but not at the same number of pages from the open page. Many sceptics applied this test with books of their own, and in some cases the sentences read were quite unexpected and unusual. Mr. Podmore states that in the accounts he has read, when sealed packages were given him "the seal must be broken and the contents shown to a sympathetic witness"; but in the long series of experiments of this nature reported by Dr. Lee, I find that this condition was required only in one or two cases, while many sealed packets are stated to have been described correctly while unopened.

    The card-playing, which Mr. Podmore considers to be "most probably deliberate fraud," happens to be that as to which the evidence that it was not fraud is most conclusive. It occurred at almost every séance, and in a number of cases cards were named correctly as they lay upon the table backs upwards, while on one occasion a large folio volume was placed upright between the two players without preventing Alexis from naming the cards in his opponent's hand. But the absolute proof of the reality of the clairvoyance while card-playing is the evidence of Robert Houdin, who has been called the prince of conjurers and to whom everything that could be done with cards was perfectly familiar.

    At the request of the Marquis de Mirville he had two séances with Alexis, and certified in writing that he found it "impossible" to class the phenomena "among the tricks which are the objects of my art." And after the second séance he wrote--"I therefore came away from this séance as astonished as any one can be, and fully convinced that it would be quite [[p. 24]] impossible for any one to produce such surprising effects by mere skill."1 With such testimony as this, and that of Dr. Lee himself, what is the value of Mr. Podmore's suggestions of "deliberate fraud," or at the best of "unconscious jugglery" when in the trance state, together with his final suggestion of an elaborate "intelligence department," and of "highly-trained confederates" as an explanation "not to be summarily dismissed"?

    And such explanations as this, given as the result of an examination of the best evidence, are the more futile when we consider the mass of first-class personal testimony to the reality of clairvoyance of the same nature as that of Alexis that is accessible to every enquirer. Such are those by the late Professor Gregory in his Letters on Animal Magnetism (pp. 395-408) forming absolutely conclusive tests through an ignorant girl who could not read or write, and of a character more marvellous than any of the clairvoyance of Alexis. Other cases with the same medium are recorded by Dr. Joseph Haddock, M.D., of Bolton, who had her in charge as a patient, in the Appendix to his work on Somnolism and Psycheism. In three separate cases this girl recovered lost property when all other means had failed; besides successfully describing distant persons and events unknown to any of the persons near her. Dr. Herbert Mayo, in his Letters on the Truths contained in Popular Superstitions, gives a successful test experiment with a Parisian clairvoyante, he being at the time in Prussia. And besides these we have the Report of the Commission of the Académie Royale de Médecine strongly affirming the reality of clairvoyance. But all this evidence of men of the highest character and ability, after careful and often long-continued personal observation and test, is wholly ignored by Mr. Podmore in his attempt to show that Alexis might have been, and probably was, an impostor. I submit that such a mode of treating this important subject is utterly unscientific, is opposed to the rules of evidence and of common sense, and is unworthy of the prominent place it occupies in the Proceedings of the Society.

    The same defects in an even more exaggerated form are found in his conclusions as to "Poltergeists" given in his review of Mr. Andrew Lang's Making of Religion in the same number of the Proceedings. He says that he formerly thought it "not improbable that there was something inexplicable in these Poltergeist manifestations." Now, having taken the eleven cases investigated by the Society, and, presumably, given due weight to all other well known records, he concludes:--"I cannot find any evidence that would [[p. 25]] justify such a supposition (that is, that there is anything inexplicable in them) even as a working hypothesis." Then, after nearly two pages of reply to Mr. Lang's criticisms he thus concludes:--"For myself, I am grieved to think that the Poltergeist should go. He was a more picturesque figure than the naughty little girl who takes his place. There are too many naughty little girls on this planet already."

    If this judgment is given on the eleven cases alone, the evidence for which he has adversely criticised, then he should not state in such positive terms a conclusion founded upon such utterly inadequate evidence. If, on the other hand, his words--"I cannot find any evidence"--imply that he has considered the best of the existing testimony, then so positive a conclusion should not be stated without at least pointing out the grounds on which he rejects it. For it is the case that no class of psychical phenomena rests on such an extensive basis of well attested facts--facts which were at the time, and have ever since remained, inexplicable by other than a supernormal cause. I will, therefore, briefly enumerate a few of the best attested of these cases for the benefit of such readers as are not acquainted with them; seven which occurred during the present century and two earlier ones.

    1. The Drummer of Tedworth, as the disturbances at the house of Mr. Mompesson in 1662 are usually termed, deserves attention, both because it presents the main features of all these cases, and especially because it was recorded by a contemporary and eye-witness of the highest character and of exceptional ability, the Rev. Joseph Glanvil, a fellow of the Royal Society and a writer on the Baconian philosophy. In this case "the naughty little girl" was 10 years old, and the disturbances continued for two years, to the great distress of Mr. Mompesson who would have been delighted to have had the cause of it discovered. The disturbances consisted of various noises, knockings, scratchings, and drums heard as if over the house; shaking of the floor and of the whole house; the children's clothes and other articles thrown about the room, and chairs and stools moving about by themselves in the presence of numerous witnesses. The noises were sometimes so loud that they were heard in the fields near and even awakened people in the village at a considerable distance. Mr. Glanvil himself heard the knocks and scratchings continuing for half an hour while the children on whose bed it occurred were lying quite still with their hands outside. He also heard loud pantings as of a large dog, which was so violent as to cause the windows and the whole room to shake. The account is given in considerable detail in Glanvil's Sadducismus Triumphatus, and I cannot understand how anyone admitting, as Mr. Podmore does, that "it is solely a question of evidence," can come to the conclusion that we have here no evidence of anything inexplicable, "even as a working hypothesis."

    2. Half a century later, in 1716, we have the remarkable disturbances at Epworth Parsonage, Lincolnshire, where the Rev. Samuel Wesley was rector. Here again we find exceptionally good contemporary records by various members of the Wesley family, all far above the average in intelligence and freedom from superstition. Samuel Wesley himself kept [[p. 26]] a journal in which all the chief occurrences were described, and there are also numerous letters from various members of the family to their friends and to John Wesley, describing the various events as they occurred. It is interesting to note that the manservant who first heard the noises and witnessed the movements of various articles, had no fear whatever, and that each member of the family in turn, when told of what had happened, entirely disbelieved that there was anything that could not be soon explained, till he or she had witnessed the phenomena, when it was perceived to be wholly beyond their experience and utterly inexplicable by any known causes. At length the whole household--nine or ten persons--witnessed the disturbances, Mr. Samuel Wesley being the last and most incredulous, and he too was forced to admit that they were wholly abnormal.

    The noises were of various kinds, knockings, footsteps, and creaking or drumming noises, which moved about to various parts of the house while being followed, but no cause for which could ever be detected. Often there were tremendous bangings and clashings as if heavy lumps of coal were rolling down the stairs, or all the glass and china in a cupboard smashed to pieces, yet nothing could be found. Movements were also varied. Hand-mills were whirled round, windows rattled, door-latches moved up and down making a great clatter. On one occasion, when Mr. Wesley went to his study, of which he always kept the key, the door was pushed back against him as if by a person inside, but there was nobody. Then began a knocking in various parts of the room, and he was pushed against his desk as by an invisible person. Often the noises were so loud and varied that for the greater part of the night no one could sleep. The disturbances lasted with more or less violence for two months and then wholly ceased. Many of the sounds were of a nature that no one could imitate, and were often such that no person could produce without instant detection. The letters and journal were preserved and were published by Priestly in 1791, and by Dr. Adam Clarke in his Memoirs of the Wesley Family; while John Wesley himself, in 1720, collected the evidence of all the witnesses and published his account in the Arminian Magazine.

    Here surely is another case in which the evidence of "something inexplicable" is both good in itself and demonstrative of inexplicability. It is widely known and easily accessible. Yet Mr. Podmore says:--"I cannot find any evidence" to justify the supposition of "inexplicability."

    3. Coming to the present century we have first the case of the castle of Slawensik, in Silesia, in 1807. These disturbances were witnessed by Councillor Hahn and Cornet Kern, both young men of good education and in perfect health, and free from all superstitious ideas. For more than two months they witnessed almost daily and nightly the most extraordinary phenomena. Pieces of lime appeared to fall from the ceiling and flew about the room to such an extent that the whole floor and tables were often covered, yet the closest examination could not detect any sign of its having come from the ceiling. Noises were heard like hammering on boards or the sounds of distant artillery. But most extraordinary were the movements of almost every loose article in the room, such as knives, forks, brushes, [[p. 27]] slippers, soap, candlesticks. Sometimes these things would rise from the table before the eyes of both of them and then fall to the floor. Many other persons, officers, inspectors, tradesmen, and visitors saw the same things, and no witness of them could ever suggest a natural explanation. Hahn soon became greatly interested in these strange occurrences, applied many tests and kept a careful record of them. And he especially notes, in reply to the objection of delusion, that whenever several persons were present, after each abnormal event he asked each person what he saw or heard, and in every case all witnessed the same thing; while many of the phenomena happened while he was entirely alone.

    He gave his narrative of these events to Dr. Justinus Kerner, who has published it in his book on the Seeress of Prevorst (pp. 274-289 of Mrs. Crowe's translation), and a good abstract is given in Dale Owen's Footfalls. Here again we have absolutely inexplicable occurrences, and the evidence for them must certainly be classed as exceptionally good.

    4. We now come to the remarkable bell-ringing at Major Moor's house, Great Bealings, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, in 1834. It began on February 2nd, and continued almost daily till March 27th. The most careful examination and observation by the Major and his friends failed to discover any natural cause. All the bells rang either together or separately, except the front door bell, which would be the most easy to play tricks with. They rang just the same when all the servants were brought together by Major Moor; and also in the presence of reporters and others. The violence of the peals and the rapidity of the moving bells could not be imitated. Major Moor wrote an account of the disturbance in a letter to the Ipswich Journal, and besides many inadequate or foolish attempts at explanation he received letters from all parts of the kingdom describing similar occurrences in various houses. A clergyman, who wrote from a rectory in Norfolk, described various loud and disturbing noises resembling those at Epworth, which had been heard by himself and family for nearly nine years, and which could be traced for sixty years back. Lieutenant Rivers had equally mysterious bell-ringing with those at Bealings in his rooms at Greenwich Hospital. Constant watching by himself, by friends, by the official surveyor and bell-hanger, failed to discover any cause whatever. This ringing lasted four days.

    In a little book called Bealings Bells Major Moor gives an account of his own case and those of the various other persons who had communicated with him; and the whole constitutes a body of facts attested on the best possible evidence, which is alone sufficient to demonstrate that "something inexplicable" of which Mr. Podmore declares he cannot find any good evidence at all!2

    5. In 1838 a violent outbreak of stone throwing and other disturbances occurred at the farmhouse of Banchory, in Aberdeenshire. On the 5th of December and for five days after, great numbers of sticks, stones, and earth-clods flew about the yard and struck the house. Hundreds of persons [[p. 28]] came from far and near to see the marvel and none could find any cause. Then for two weeks the disturbances occurred inside the house, where knives, plates, mustard pots, flat irons, and many other articles flew about the room or came down the chimney. Sometimes they flew from room to room; and there were also tremendous knockings on the doors and roof, while sticks and stones flew against the windows and broke them. People for 20 miles round came to see the phenomena, including farmers, gentry and clergymen, but could find no explanation. At length the two servant-girls were "strictly examined" and sent to prison, and as the disturbances then ceased the conclusion seemed to be that they must have done it all, although of the hundreds who had been present no one ever saw them do a single thing. The phenomena were closely like those at the castle of Slawensik, and suggest a common cause. The case is reported by Mackay in his Popular Delusions and is summarised in Owen's Footfalls, p. 183.

    6. The case of Mary Jobson of Sunderland, in 1839, is especially interesting because she was attended by Dr. Reid Clanny, F.R.S., who published an account of the extraordinary things witnessed by himself and also by three other medical men and other persons, sixteen in all. The phenomena consisted of violent knocking, footsteps, doors opened and shut, voices, music, water thrown on the floor, and beautiful designs appearing on the ceiling, all without any discoverable cause; and all in presence of a sick girl of thirteen who had been long treated for a mysterious disease by bleeding, blistering, and purging which almost killed her. A short abstract of Dr. Clanny's publication is given by Howitt in his History of the Supernatural, Vol. II., p. 450. Dr. Clanny was ridiculed and persecuted, but always maintained his firm conviction of the reality of these inexplicable phenomena.

    7. The disturbances in a burial-vault beneath a chapel in the public cemetery of Arensburg in the island of Oesel, in 1844, are noteworthy, because they were officially inquired into by a commission consisting of Baron de Goldenstubbé, the Bishop of the province, a physician, the Burgomaster of the town, and two members of the Consistory. The disturbances consisted in the coffins which had been placed side by side in the vault, being found, on the occasion of a funeral, to have been displaced so as to lie on each other in a confused heap. They were put back in their places and the doors securely locked, but when privately inspected shortly afterwards by the Baron who was president of the Consistory, they were found in the same disorder as before. After satisfying themselves that the foundations and floor of the vault were untouched, and that there was no secret entrance, the Commission had the coffins replaced, and fine wood ashes were strewn over the pavement of the vault, the stairs, and the floor of the chapel. All the doors were locked and doubly sealed with official seals, and a guard of soldiers watched the building for three days and nights. Then the members of the Commission returned, found the seals intact, the ashes throughout the chapel, stairs, and vault, wholly undisturbed, and with no marks of footsteps; yet all the coffins but three (as before) were scattered about in confusion, the lid of one had been forced open, and several others, [[p. 29]] though very heavy, had been set up on end. An official report was drawn up stating these facts, and was signed by all the members of the Commission; it is preserved with the archives of the Consistory, and may be seen by any respectable visitors. The disturbances are said to have continued for some months longer, when it was determined to cover the coffins thickly with earth so as completely to bury them, after which no further disturbances of any kind took place. The facts are stated by R. D. Owen in his Footfalls, p. 186, he having obtained them, in 1859, from the daughter and son of Baron Goldenstubbé, who were living near at the time and heard of all the occurrences when they happened. Here, again, we have the best evidence as to occurrences which were, and are, wholly inexplicable.

    8. Stone-throwing in Paris. This is remarkable as having been watched by the police for three weeks continuously without detecting the cause. A small house in a populous quarter, but isolated by the removal of other houses, was, as stated in the police report, assailed "every evening and through the whole night by a hail of projectiles which, from their bulk and the violence with which they have been thrown, have done such destruction that it has been laid open to the day, and the woodwork of the doors and windows reduced to shivers, as if it had sustained a siege, aided by a catapult or grape shot." The stones, etc., appeared to come from a great height in the air, and all the powers of the police, employed day and night on the spot, were never able to discover the cause.

    This case is referred to in Owen's Footfalls, but a fuller account is given by De Mirville in his work Des Esprits. I have given a full account, translated from La Gazette des Tribunaux (the official organ of the French police), in my Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, p. 284, which was verified by a literary friend at the British Museum as an exact translation. A later notice declared that "the phenomena remain inexplicable," and De Mirville tells us that nearly a year afterwards he enquired of the police, of the Gazette, and of the owner of the house, who had suffered serious loss both in house and furniture, but nothing whatever had been discovered. (Des Esprits, Vol. I., p. 384.) Yet Mr. Podmore tells us that he can find no evidence of any such inexplicable occurrences!

    9. The next, and in some respects the most remarkable case to be cited, is that of the disturbances in the house of the parish priest of Cideville, Seine Inferieure, in 1851, which lasted two months and a-half, and was the subject of a law-suit for defamation of character, during which all the main facts were legally established and duly recorded. The story is a long and interesting one, and is given in full detail in Dale Owen's Footfalls, pp. 195-203, and, briefly, in my Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, p. 79.

    The phenomena were much the same as in the other more violent disturbances already described. Tremendous knockings, scratchings, and shakings of the house occurred, sometimes as if everyone in the house were simultaneously beating the floors with mallets; fire-irons, hammers, tables, desks, and other articles moved about the rooms in the presence of many witnesses, without any apparent cause. The Marquis de Mirville, who owned property in the neighbourhood, the Mayor of Cideville, and many of [[p. 30]] the gentlemen, ladies, and clergy of the country round, witnessed these phenomena and gave evidence before the court, which sat while the disturbances were still going on. A full summary of this case is given by De Mirville; with the detailed judgment of the Court and the more important parts of the evidence (Des Esprits, Vol. I., Chap. XI.) and every reader of this narrative must agree with Dale Owen's concluding remark, "I doubt if it be possible to find a case more explicit or better authenticated than the foregoing."

    In conclusion, I maintain strongly that the nine cases I have here briefly summarised rest upon emphatically good evidence, and are of such a nature as to be quite inexplicable on any supposition of delusion or imposture. And further, I maintain that they are quite as worthy of attention and of equal weight, as if they had been observed and described by Mr. Podmore himself or by any of the most trusted members of the Society for Psychical Research; while they rest on better evidence, and have every one of them greater importance whether on account of their duration, the nature of the phenomena observed, or the character and ability of the witnesses than even the best of the eleven cases by criticising which Mr. Podmore founds his general conclusion, that he can find no evidence whatever of any of these phenomena being genuine or even "inexplicable," and that the only "Poltergeists" are "naughty little girls." I therefore urge that his mode of treatment as regards this wide-spread and important class of psychical phenomena, is utterly inadequate and unscientific, and therefore unworthy of a place in the Proceedings of the Society.

    Alfred R. Wallace.

    Note.--Besides the above, every enquirer should examine the cases of "Stone-throwing" given by William Howitt in three articles in Vol. VI. of the Spiritual Magazine. Several of these are as marvellous and as well attested as those here given, especially that of another French parsonage in 1835 (p. 51), and one in Ceylon in 1863 (p. 66). Numerous cases are also to be found in the later volumes of this magazine.

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1. Dr. Lee, in his Animal Magnetism, pp. 162-3, gives the essential part of Houdin's two letters; but in order to understand the full weight of this testimony it is essential to read De Mirville's detailed account of his interviews with Houdin, and of the séances with Alexis, to which Houdin went with the full belief that he could expose him. This most interesting account occupies the first chapter of De Mirville's great work, Des Esprits et de leurs Manifestations Fluidiques, which is in the Society's library. Houdin also tested the reading of closed books; and Alexis informed the great expert of a fact relating to one of his most intimate friends, which Houdin declared at the time could not possibly be true, but which he afterwards acknowledged to be correct. (See Des Esprits, I., p. 26, footnote.) [[on p. 24]]

2. This book is in the library of the Society, and a good summary of the facts is given in Owen's Debatable Land, pp. 239-245. [[on p. 27]]

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