Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
Dr Ian Rubenstein, a full-time General Practitioner in Enfield, North London, is also a practising medium, an unusual combination. While you might expect a doctor to keep such extra-curricular activities quiet, Rubenstein is far from coy in publicising his dual role. In 2009 he appeared in a Channel 4 documentary called Talking to the Dead, about Vestry Road Spiritualist Church, Walthamstow, which he attends, and he has now written what I suppose we might characterise as a spiritual autobiography.
On the face of it, someone from the hard sciences does not seem likely to become a medium giving stage demonstrations at a Spiritualist church. Rubenstein had no strong religious beliefs growing up, coming from a secular background, and no particular interest in the paranormal, though he had had a couple of strange experience when younger which may have indicated exceptional sensitivity.
The most dramatic of these occurred at the age of 19 and involved seeing a woman’s face transfigured into that of some kind of “snow queen”, a kind of guardian spirit of the person, which he felt was somehow able to see into his soul and divine his ignoble motives. His younger sister, who was present, saw something odd happening as well, weird enough to make her scream. She later confirmed that some kind of change had occurred in the person’s face, supporting Rubenstein’s experience and perhaps raising the possibility of a genetic component to the experience.
But these episodes he put to one side, and concentrated on his career and family life. Then one day a patient came in to have his blood pressure checked, and proceeded to tell Rubenstein that the doctor’s deceased grandfather was present and had a message. There followed a twenty-minute session with Rubenstein being told numerous things about himself and his family in conditions which, if described accurately, would seem to suggest limited scope for cold reading. But then, to undermine the strength of the message, he is told to expect a visit that evening from his brother who had grown up in the spirit world after their mother miscarried him. The brother does not show, leaving Rubenstein uncertain what to believe.
Despite this uneven contact with mediumship, there was enough there to intrigue him. Rubenstein gradually became convinced that he too had paranormal abilities through intuitions, and the book details his journey exploring them, and finding out how to use them to best advantage to help people in conjunction with his more conventional role as a doctor. This is a steep learning curve, and a time-consuming one, so all credit to his wife Punam for her tolerance of the amount of effort he has to put in on top of a busy career and many trips to the gym.
Throughout he has tried to keep an open mind, and not dismiss out of hand his experiences, and those reported by others, however odd. He joined a development circle at the Spiritualist Church, and while not embracing the religious component of Spiritualism, he did become open to a reality beyond that our senses can perceive, developing to the point where he was able to stand on a stage himself and transmit messages from the departed.
His burgeoning psychic abilities were indicated by odd little circumstances, for example a feeling that his keys would be stolen from his office and his car broken into, which it duly was; the lesson, listen to your intuition when it’s talking to you, and don’t bat it away Being mediumistic and working in a medical capacity though led to a blurring of boundaries which he was acutely aware could lead to problems (I was expecting him to state at some point that a complaint had been made to the General Medical Council by a scandalised patient with whom he had been too forthright about the source he claimed for his information). However, it is clear that he does not rely on his spirit guides to help him with diagnoses, though they do help with counselling patients.
In addition to his involvement as a stage medium he recounts his interest in the paranormal more generally, describing visits to Stansted Hall and a conference run by the Scientific and Medical Network, and conversations with researchers Maurice Grosse and Gary Schwartz. He admits he has no full answers despite his lengthy investigation. He was though able to go to the aid of friends and sort out a poltergeist that was bothering them, but then the interpersonal skills that he already possessed are a large part of dealing with such incidents.
As well as an exploration of his own spirituality and development of mediumistic abilities, the book is an affectionate portrait of those in the Spiritualist movement on the terrestrial plane with whom Rubenstein comes into contact. There is a chalk and cheese element to this as he is accused by them of over-thinking his situation, when, rather than doing too much questioning, they argue that he should just accept Spirit. He takes a sceptical stance all the way through to his experiences, such as trying parsimoniously to attribute his spirit guides to his own subconscious, much to the bemusement of his mentors at the Spiritualist church, who take an uncomplicated view of their reality. Such unwillingness to probe too deeply into matters of evidence many outsiders find difficult to accept, and makes Consulting Spirit rather different to much Spiritualist literature. Where others would have embraced the strangeness uncritically, he is seen to challenge it, and look for alternative explanations.
There is always the issue of whether he uses his conventional sensitivity based on longstanding clinical experience, merely attributing it to Spirit, but a good example of how this could not have been the case was when he became convinced that a child who had swallowed a pen cap had it lodged in her lung, without seeing her and without any indications in her behaviour that this is what had occurred. Despite initial reports that the child was fine, the cap was indeed found in her lung, and safely removed. His readings on stage were often similarly highly accurate according to his account, though there with the benefit of having the person for whom he was doing the reading in front of him.
One thing that does grate, at least to an English reader, is the use of American English vocabulary which makes for some curious language, given the London setting, not least Rubenstein’s description of himself as a “primary care physician”, not a term much used in Enfield I’ll be bound. But that seems to be our fault – he could not interest a UK publisher in his story and the manuscript was snapped up by Anomalist Books, for whom he changed the text to suit an American audience.
Despite the language issue, this is an extremely readable book. Its author comes across as completely honest, with no position to defend, but taking the reader where he sees the evidence leading him. As a person he seems very nice, sociable, and much more open about himself with patients than the doctors I have come across. There is a sense that his willingness to try new things provides a flexibility which can assist him to integrate his spiritual life into his everyday one more easily than would be the case with a person more mentally rigid.
It has to be said that while he does try throughout to examine the evidence, there is nothing here that will trouble the sceptic, who will be happy to dismiss it all as anecdotal, and make the usual accusations of possible misperception, selective memory, ignoring of misses, cryptomnesia, exaggeration, etc. Rubenstein’s good faith is certainly not in doubt. This is not his career, and he has nothing to gain, not even status or self-esteem, by telling lies. As a well-paid GP he is certainly not in it for the money. Those willing to entertain the possibility that something really is going on here will find Consulting Spirit (a great punning title) an unusual but very useful case study.
Given that there are so many ‘how to’ guides for the paranormal investigator on the market, potential purchasers are bound to ask why they should buy this one and not some other. Rich Newman, founder of the group Paranormal Inc, asks the same question and supplies a number of answers. Firstly it is aimed at the beginner, and is laid out is a clear, logical manner. Secondly it uses scientific methods. Thirdly, it is based on the author’s extensive experience, making it reliable. So how does the book measure up to these claims?
Well, it will not go over the beginner‘s head but while it is straightforward, it is not patronising. We begin with some definitions, and. while his categorisations are fine at this level, the idea of demonic infestation is controversial, though fortunately not an issue many groups are likely to run across. There is some background on why the paranormal is so popular, and a very brief history of ghost hunting. He clearly points out that ghost tourism is a commercial activity and that ghost-hunting reality shows have more to do with ratings than the paranormal – important points for the would-be investigator to appreciate. In his view, while the TV shows are entertaining (debatable in mine), they are not suitable models for groups.
The heart of the book is a practical guide on how to carry out investigations, sprinkled with case studies, many Newman’s own, to illustrate points. He deals with the basics of good practice and emphasises the need to rule out normal explanations before assessing an event as possibly more (though, as always, one is left wondering how one ever knows if something was truly paranormal rather than misperception or equipment-generated artefact). He stresses the need to adopt a neutral approach to cases rather than have preconceived ideas, and to be sensitive to the situation and beliefs of the client/host.
There are several chapters devoted to equipment, broken up into audio, video, photography and environmental monitors. These sections are very useful, and emphasise the importance of experimentation, trying new approaches and discarding what does not work. This is all generally sound, though he does not indicate that the use of EMF meters is controversial. He cautions against the use of mediums – not recommended as they provide false information that confuses the situation – and has sensible advice on the use of Ouija boards.
Newman’s methodology is encapsulated by the acronym DICE – Detect, Interact, Capture, Escalate, After the pre-investigation research stage and once a vigil is in progress, you first detect your ghost; interact with It if possible; capture evidence; and finally escalate the interaction by generating energy, giving the ghosts a source on which to ‘feed’ in order to manifest more clearly. These are not discrete steps but indicate the necessary elements of a successful investigation. He finishes with advice on forming a group and putting a website together. Appendices cover suggestions for equipment to take, a short step-by-step checklist for an investigation, recommended books and websites, and a glossary.
The book is clearly written and will be of use not only to beginners but older hands as well, though anyone with some experience will soon want to supplement it with a more detailed guide. The equipment chapters are particularly useful, full of tips for the novice on a tight budget wondering how to prioritise purchases. Ghost Hunting for Beginners is definitely a good place for anyone wanting to give field work a try to begin, setting out the need for professionalism, sensitivity and good practice above all else. There is one error I must correct though – in describing the Toronto ‘Philip’ experiment, Newman says that the scenario included Philip serving in the American Civil War. It was of course the English Civil War: ‘he’ fought at Marston Moor.
The History Press and Amberley Publishing continue to produce high-quality books of interest to the paranormal enthusiast. Under review are three that deal with the ghosts and folklore of Wales.
Richard Holland, editor of Paranormal magazine until its demise, and several earlier books on aspects of haunted Wales including the amusingly-titled Wales of the Unexpected, has produced a model of what a ghost gazetteer should look like. He has ranged widely in the antiquarian literature, and has traced each story back to its source. To allow the reader to follow up his entries he has included references and an extensive bibliography.
Accounts are restricted to those originally collected before the Second World War, to keep the book to a manageable size, and he has bypassed later versions written up by undependable authors. One result of this policy is the omission of some well-known stories that he has not been able to track back to reliable early sources and where he does not trust more modern ones. Given the extensive quantity of stories that he could have included, he has confined himself to English-language sources, though he adds that many of the Welsh-language accounts have been ably translated into English anyway.
He begins with an overview of the categories of paranormal he has included. Despite the title, it is not restricted to ghosts, encompassing apparitions of the living and of animals, poltergeists, and all sorts of folkloric beings. There is a section on ghosts’ motivations for haunting, and one outlining the major collectors on whose work he has drawn. The bulk of the book comprises a well illustrated county-by-county tour (taking a rather eccentric clockwise route beginning in Flintshire and ending in Powys) which is well-written and clearly laid out, making the text easy to navigate. The current (at time of writing) county boundaries have been adopted.
Very welcome is the presence of an index, a rarity in this kind of book, divided by named ghosts and places. Also included are a glossary of Welsh unfamiliar terms used and a thematic index which allows the reader to find with ease topics on, say, headless ghosts or links to fairy lore. Perhaps the book should have been called Haunted Old Wales, considering the absence of post-war accounts. There is a complementary volume to be written on more recent ghost stories (and possibly one examining untranslated Welsh-language accounts), but within its terms of reference it is doubtful if this one could be bettered.
Peter Underwood’s Haunted Wales might sound as if could be that complementary volume detailing recent cases, but despite the confusingly similar title to Holland’s book, this is actually an almost straight reprint of Underwood’s 1978 Ghosts of Wales with a few minor editorial adjustments. No material has been added, and the only item in the bibliography published after 1978 is the author’s own 2009 Haunted Gardens as it includes two Welsh locations which appeared in the earlier work. Haunted Wales is organised alphabetically by place-name, with the county added, and the result of a more or less straight reprint is that he has fallen foul of the Welsh predilection for altering boundaries. That quibble aside, Underwood always writes elegantly, and is a pleasure to read. Given the large quantity of material from which they had to choose, it is unsurprising that there is not much overlap between this and Holland‘s book. Both are worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone interested in Wales’s paranormal heritage.
Richard Holland expresses surprise that Anglesey has such a paucity of ghost stories, and speculates that this is perhaps because it keeps its secrets. That has not been a problem for Bunty Austin, who has now written three books on the island’s ghosts. Being based there helps, and Bunty bach, as she is often affectionately called, is clearly gregarious, able to encourage people to open up to her and tell their stories. This makes More Anglesey Ghosts far different in style to the other two books, being chatty and full of direct speech most probably reproduced from memory.
The author, an ex-head teacher, crafts each account with an eye to its narrative structure, and that is a problem for anyone hoping to use the book as a guide. The chapters are essentially anecdotes, and it is disconcerting to read the line “Those are the facts that I took to Peggy (padded out a bit by me to make a good story).” Another account given to her which she transcribes she has been told is “embellished a little”. Such throwaway statements make the reader wonder how much the incidents recounted might have been shaped in the service of telling a “good story“. Whatever the status of the contents, it is an extremely enjoyable read, though of limited use either to the researcher or to visitors, and rather out of place in the Amberley range of ghost guides.
Amberley also publishes Anglesey Ghosts, by Bunny Austin. The History Press publishes Haunted Swansea and Beyond; Haunted Cardiff and the Valleys; and Hunted Newport and the Valleys, all by ‘South Wales Paranormal Research’.
Todd Karr of The Miracle Factory, in collaboration with Barry Wiley, has produced a CD devoted to a range of works by Stuart Cumberland (1857 – 1922). Born Charles Garner, Cumberland was charismatic, an enthusiastic traveller, an author, and seemed to know everyone who was anyone. He is mostly remembered today as a proponent of ‘muscle reading’, often called “Cumberlandism”, but as the works on the CD demonstrate, he achieved more than that.
Muscle reading takes advantage of ideomotor action, in William James’ terms a movement immediately following the idea of it, and defined by William Carpenter as muscular movement independent of volition. Cumberland himself talked of “exalted perception of touch”, using the unconscious muscular cues of the subject. He caused confusion by talking of “thought reading”, which suggested a paranormal transfer of information from one mind to another without the operation of the known senses, but clearly there was nothing paranormal in this “mechanical transfer of impressions”, as Charles Mercier put it. Indeed, Frank Podmore saw the skill being “due rather to long practice and careful observation than to any abnormal extension of faculty.”
Even so, Cumberland was able to obtain amazing results from what seems at first glance a limited skill. He was able to locate persons, and hidden objects as small as a pin; reproduce pictures thought of; determine secret words, even when not in English; state the serial number of a hidden banknote; he could announce numbers merely thought of but not written anywhere. Most dramatically, perhaps, an independent volunteer would act out the killing of a subject in gruesome detail while Cumberland was out of the room, and upon his return Cumberland would, blindfolded, find the ‘victim’ in his seat, take him back onto the stage, and reprise the actions of the ‘’murderer’ (a variation on the theme was ‘robbers and Queen’s Messenger’). He was also proficient at reproducing the sorts of phenomena produced fraudulently in the séance room.
Cumberland travelled widely with his muscle reading act, and according to his own accounts mingled with large numbers of top-drawer people: royalty, aristocracy, eminent politicians and society figures, as recounted in A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts (1888) and People I have Read (1905). The name-dropping can be forgiven considering that access to elite social circles was important as part of his marketing strategy. He was adamant that he did not work for a fee when in such exalted company, which meant that, at least in his own eyes, he was treated as an honoured guest rather than a hired entertainer. He was though well rewarded in kind for his efforts.
His relish in recounting his social successes entails a certain amount of repetition across his books as he describes how impressed they all were by his act, and he is keen to share his observations on both the personal and national characteristics of those he met and the countries he visited. As indicated by his photographs, he portrayed himself as a clubbable man of the world. You get the impression that for Cumberland the anecdote was all, as indicated by the relish with which he recorded that when he had exposed spirits in America, they had threatened to “shoot at sight” in retaliation, and there is a sense that he was prone to some exaggeration. Even his first subject just happened to be the Dean of Lichfield (unfortunately pages 3-4 of A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts, covering these early attempts, are missing).
Cumberland’s social success is all the more surprising since he came from humble origins, the son of a clerk to a butcher in Oxford. He had worked as assistant to Washington Irving Bishop (1856-1889), who was not above name-dropping himself, but struck out on his own. Bishop resented his erstwhile employee’s ascendency, to judge by an amazing article from the New York Times, included on the CD. It reproduces a circular Bishop had had printed in London, warning the public about Cumberland and giving details of his real name, parentage and origins. Bishop charges Cumberland with abusing his trust – ingratiating himself with Bishop’s friends and then effectively stealing his act. The disloyal Garner had changed his name to “the more euphonious and aristocratic name ‘Stuart Cumberland’.” The clear charge was that Cumberland was an arriviste worthy only of contempt, ignoring the debt that they both owed to John Randall Brown, who preceded them. Cumberland shrugged off this petulant diatribe and flourished.
Unsurprisingly there was much interest in Bishop and Cumberland among the members of the newly-fledged Society for Psychical Research. It was keen to distinguish muscle reading from telepathy, the latter requiring complete lack of contact. The sceptical Cumberland did not have much time for the SPR. In A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts he claimed that he had fooled both those (unnamed) Spiritualists who saw him as a medium, and the SPR, whose members saw what he did as telepathy. In reality the SPR was fully aware of muscle reading and the necessity to avoid contact in telepathy experiments.
The long article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 24 May 1884 (‘Muscle-Reading by Mr Stuart Cumberland: A Reception at the “Pall Mall Gazette” Office’) has not been included on the CD, but a follow-up letter by Cumberland has, in which he takes issue with Edmund Gurney of the SPR. While not present at the Gazette demonstration, Gurney had written to say that muscle reading was commoner than supposed, and some friends of his were rather better at it than either Bishop or Cumberland (indeed, the first volume of the SPR’s Proceedings, 18 July, 1883, contains a note by the Rev. E H Sugden of Bradford describing achievements remarkably similar to Cumberland’s; and the following year he gave a practical demonstration of his skills at a conversazione held by the Society in London).
Gurney made the reasonable point that people seeing muscle reading in action could easily go away with the erroneous assumption that they had witnessed thought reading. Cumberland’s reply is derisive of Gurney, charging that for Gurney, Cumberland’s performances “do not sufficiently savour of the supernatural.” He counters the charge that his demonstrations lead to the confusion of muscle and thought reading with an exultant “So be it!”, arguing that his mission is to demonstrate that nobody has “supernatural” powers, and that non-contact thought transference as conceptualised by Gurney is nonsense, as indicated by the fact that whenever “mental picture-readers” had attempted it in his presence, they had failed. Bishop and Cumberland became bêtes noires for the SPR, particularly William Barrett, who had already contributed an article on ‘Mind-reading versus muscle-reading’ to Medium and Daybreak in 1876, and was moved to write a brief article on ‘Pseudo Thought-Reading’ in the first volume of the SPR Journal, February 1884.
As his dismissal of Gurney suggests, Cumberland was on good terms with anti-paranormal scientists. He was vocal in his denunciations of both Spiritualism and psychical research, making the arguments more palatable by dressing them up as entertainment. Even so, as happened later with Harry Houdini and Conan Doyle, protestations that nothing paranormal had occurred might not necessarily convince those with the will be believe. William Gladstone, an honorary member of the SPR and one of Cumberland’s subjects, seemed to be unsure about the extent of Cumberland’s powers, and he should have had some familiarity with the early literature on telepathy that had appeared in the SPR’s Proceedings. (Roger Luckhurst in his The Invention of Telepathy reprints the front page of The Illustrated London News, 28 June, 1884, which features the historic encounter, entitled ‘Politicians at Play: “Thought-Reading” at the House of Commons’.)
Cumberland’s travel books (a label that can be extended to his muscle reading reminiscences) show him to have been an enthusiast of Empire typical of his age, though with compassion for the native populations in North America which had suffered under white expansionism. He is always ready to opine on national as well as individuals’ characteristics, in particular the dastardly Russians, criticisms of whom appear regularly in his books. In The Queen’s Highway he travels Canada by rail from Vancouver to the Atlantic, marvelling at the achievement of a line running from coast to coast, opening a new route to Australia entirely through Empire territories. He takes every opportunity to sing the praises of Canada compared to its southern neighbour, with a few sideswipes against the French-speaking inhabitants, happily “no longer slaves of an oppressive feudalism.”
What I Think of South Africa is an altogether angrier book. He is dismissive of the black population, whom he considers generally “good-natured, simple-minded”, though he rates those in Natal (including the Zulus) more highly. Naturally he was a great admirer of Cecil Rhodes. But a large part of the book is devoted to a splenetic examination of the Boers, and in particular to Paul Kruger. He saw the British ascendency over the Boers as inevitable, and a good thing too. Ultimately though, he shows that, however much he thought he knew a place, he was not a sound forecaster. There is no sense that the Second Boer War would begin three years after publication, and his long-term prediction was that the whites would eventually simply turn their backs on South Africa once its enormous resources had been exhausted.
Yet another string to his bow was as the author of “shilling shockers”. He wrote three of these (a fourth was announced but does not seem to have appeared). The Rabbi’s Spell is included on the CD, and shows Cumberland to have had a facile pen and a sense of dramatic movement (though given the subject-matter, a romance set against the persecution of the Jews in Russian-occupied Poland, unsurprisingly the sense of humour on display elsewhere in his books is absent). It is a work designed to pass an hour on a train journey, while allowing him to vent his feelings about the untrustworthy Russians.
For someone who prided himself on his rationalism, it is also surprisingly mystical, particularly where the Rabbi himself is concerned. The Rabbi carves a curse in Hebrew on the tree where the central murder occurs, and it is fulfilled later, at the climax of the story. The murderer, unhinged by guilt, fear of discovery, and by having been the subject of a demonstration uncannily similar to Cumberland’s own murder simulation, hangs himself on the same spot. The curse translates as: “He who hath done this bloody thing shall on this very spot render up his own life”, and the Rabbi sees its operation as divine intervention. It seems curious that someone who was so sceptical of paranormal claims should be happy to employ such devices in his fiction, but as ever, Cumberland had an eye for the market.
There is a more significant supernatural element in A Fatal Affinity (1889), sadly not included on the CD. This features women being stabbed to death on their twenty-first birthdays, and as well as taking inspiration from the recent Whitechapel murders, draws on a topical interest in eastern religion (it turns out that an astral-plane travelling Hindu assassin is responsible, the victims all having family connections with India, their deaths part of an initiation rite). Cumberland wrote a play with a Theosophical theme called An Adept (he was on record as having “a supreme contempt for Mme. Blavatsky”). This he said he had sent to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, only to find it had been plagiarised by Robert Buchanan as The Charlatan in 1894 and performed at The Haymarket, a theatre managed by Tree. If it was any consolation to Cumberland, The Charlatan was not a success. His own play, retitled The Wonder-Worker, was performed later that year in Margate, to establish the copyright, and was then to be put on in Berlin.
Cumberland retired from performing, comfortably off, in 1910. In 1918, and again the following year, he returned to castigating Spiritualism, vigorous once more because of the catastrophe of the First World War. He had begun his career with an open mind, he said, but found that the reports he read did not reflect his own experiences when attending sittings. He became convinced that mediumistic phenomena were a combination of trickery and self-deception. As he scathingly put it, he did not himself possess second sight, but he did possess common sense.
His anger at mediumistic “chicanery” shines through, and he argues that if the vulnerable cannot protect themselves, then they must be protected “against their own folly.” While he is happy to tilt at Conan Doyle and Sir William Crookes, he surprisingly has more time for Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir William Barrett, whom he considers less credulous. Among his subjects he tackles the use of séances as an intelligence-gathering device in wartime and the Indian Rope Trick, for which he finds no evidence. He is clear that he has no issue with Spiritualism as a religion, his objection is to deception of all kinds, though he does think that there might be a short step from Spiritualism to Satanism, a phenomenon in the realms of mental disorder.
Cumberland’s willingness to put up £1,000 as a token of his confidence that William Eglinton would not be able to produce paranormal phenomena in the presence of a committee of sceptical scientists, matched by a similar amount from Henry Labouchère, makes the offer the ancestor of James Randi’s ‘Million Dollar Challenge.’ The CD includes biographical details of Cumberland extracted from David Price’s 1985 Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurors in the Theater, and Price notes that Cumberland “placated Henry Labouchere” and handled him “delicately”. But Labouchère (a rather disreputable MP best known as the author of the Labouchère Amendment which criminalised all male homosexual activity) provided support for Cumberland through his weekly paper Truth, so no placation was required. Cumberland in That Other World (1918) refers to Labouchère, who died in 1912, as “one of my most enthusiastic supporters in my crusades against shams and impostures, and endeavours to advance scientific truth.” Spiritualism – The Inside Truth (1919) is dedicated to “Truth”, which may be a reference to Labouchère’s journal as well as a noble endeavour in its own right.
In addition to Cumberland’s books, there is a small selection of articles and letters by and about him on the CD, ranging from a long two-part letter on ‘Illusionary and Fraudulent Aspects of Spiritualism’ published in the Journal of Mental Science in 1881/2, to one written to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1919, recounting his disappointment at not being able to find a genuine occurrence of “Hindoo magic” in India, including the Indian rope trick. Also included is his obituary in the Times, which would probably have irritated him, as it not only devotes a large amount of its space to describing the early work of the SPR, but suggests that Cumberland may well have possessed genuine powers of thought transference.
Not much is known about his personal life over and above what he chose to include in his books. According to Todd Karr, in a biographical note on the CD, he was married to Phyllis Bentley (known as “the celebrated antimagnetique”), a stage performer in her own right. However, in People I have Read, he refers to "my wife, my relative, Miss Phyllis Bentley, and myself", and Phyllis is described variously in the press as his sister-in-law and niece. He also said that he had a son at Cambridge. A copy of Cumberland’s 1887 acceptance form for Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society is included on the CD.
Also on the CD, sounding like a provincial paper, is the 8-page Cumberland News, subtitled “An Illustrated Journal of World-wide Interest”, a promotional newspaper with details of his and Bentley’s activities, naturally focusing on the regal, aristocratic and society figures with whom he had been in contact (the two columns on the first page are headed ‘Court News’ and ‘Illustrious “Subjects”’ respectively). He seems to have accumulated a large number of honours from his royal patrons, along with numerous “souvenirs”. The newspaper shows his enterprising nature, listing his books and describing his and Bentley’s acts, suggesting that in the modern world he would have had his own website. Bentley is referred to merely as his “relative” (her name appears in the South Africa book, but in passing in a list of performers, without even mentioning that they were connected; a curious relationship).
This is not a complete collection of Cumberland’s works (and The Miracle Factory does specialise in publications relating to magic, so there is no reason why it should be), though there is a bibliography, compiled by Barry Wiley. In particular it is missing his 1889 novels The Vasty Deep, reviewed rather unkindly by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette (even though he had supplied the half-time entertainment during the Pall Mall Gazette tests in 1884), and A Fatal Affinity, which is discussed by Luckhurst in The Invention of Telepathy. It would also be useful to see his dramatic works if they still exist: The Wonder-Worker and a one-act play, A Question of Conscience. Some of the books included here are available elsewhere, either online or as reprints, but it is useful to see so much Cumberlandiana gathered handily in one place, and this is a feast for the enthusiast.
Cumberland has been neglected in recent years, with the notable exception of Luckhurst’s essay ‘Passages in the Invention of the Psyche: Mind-Reading in London, 1881-4’, in the 2002 collection Encounters: Transactions Between Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century. He has also figured peripherally in the never-ending debates over the identity of Jack the Ripper as he claimed to have seen the murderer’s face in his dreams three times (and incorrectly predicted the killer would be captured after his ninth victim). This CD represents a welcome opportunity to reappraise aspects of Cumberland’s career. There is though much more to find out, from whether he was or was not arrested in Bohemia for allegedly ridiculing the Austrian flag, to an examination of The Mirror (for part of its life Stuart Cumberland’s Illustrated Mirror), the weekly he ran from 1889-92. It is to be hoped that this collection will stimulate further scholarship examining his life and achievements.
Charles Colbert, author of A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America, here turns his attention to Spiritualism and its relationship to American art in the nineteenth century. Given that the artists he discusses did not depict Spiritualist themes overtly, it is easy to overlook the profound effect that the religion had on artistic practitioners of the period. As he notes, such beliefs are likely to influence one’s entire outlook, artistic products as much as any other sphere of life. Artists it seems were particularly susceptible to the messages of Spiritualism because of their sensitivity to the world around them and a desire to delve beneath a surface appearance to find its essence. Colbert sees the intertwining of Spiritualism and art as a response to the stresses of a mechanistic worldview, the narrow perspectives of Protestantism, the aesthetic restrictions of Puritanism, and in general “the demons of modernity.” He stresses that for these artists, their work was not a substitute for religious feeling, but rather “a place where religion happened.”
In what is itself a large canvas, he takes a chronological approach, split into pre- and post-Civil War sculptors, painters and critics, and brings the story into the early twentieth century, when the link between art and Spiritualism began to break down under eclectic modernist influences. Some of the artists discussed had had profound spiritual or paranormal experiences which inclined them to Spiritualism, others simply found it a congenial belief system. Either way, they saw both art and Spiritualism as possessing transformative aims. Thus William Sidney Mount and George Innes in their landscapes attempted to capture a sense of the invisible ether in which all life is immersed and which forms a bridge to the afterlife. The style known as Tonalism was particularly suited to this type of ethereal image, and we can catch oblique glimpses of an idealised world that shades imperceptibly into the Summerland.
In addition to Spiritualism, ideas such as phrenology, clairvoyance and psychometry informed artists’ practice. For example, Hiram Powers was influenced by phrenology when producing sculptures designed to express aspects of character. Even where these were idealised depictions rather than real individuals, viewers often saw a resemblance to deceased family members, in the same way that spirits in the séance room were often taken to be persons known to a sitter, despite their generic appearance.
In a sense, it could be said, looking at art was itself like participating in a séance; it was considered a bridge between the here and the higher realms. Works were consumed with an “awed reverence” – paintings and busts frequently arranged to form shrines within the house, objects of contemplation and veneration. The spiritualising effect worked at a subliminal level, using clairvoyance and intense engagement to absorb the energies imbued in the piece by its maker. Viewing was akin to psychometry in that a reciprocal relationship between the observer and object, in which things could become thoughts, but thoughts could become things. For this process to work, having the original was crucial because it allowed the viewer to make a direct connection with its spiritual content that a copy did not allow.
The thrust of Spiritualism was a gradualist connection between matter and spirit, which made the contemplation of art an activity commensurate with other modes of spiritual development. The idea of the ‘temple of art’ expanded the gallery as a place of conspicuous consumption and connoisseurship into one where the values imbedded in the work by the artist could be absorbed by the act of viewing it. Far from being a passive or dilettantish activity, scrutinising at art was seen as an activity that would encourage people away from the pleasures of earthly life to a contemplation of more elevated standards.
Artistic production did not operate in a intellectual vacuum, and in addition to sketching in the standard history of Spiritualism from the Fox sisters on, Colbert traces some of the philosophical underpinnings of culture at the time, notably the Spiritualist ideas of Andrew Jackson Davis and the long-lasting ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg This nexus of art and spirituality can also be seen in the philosophy of William James, who was aware of the wider importance of aesthetic experience, and whose emphasis on continuity resonated with the tenets of Spiritualism.
It is a pity that the publishers, in such a well-produced volume, could not have found the budget to include some colour plates. The book has numerous reproductions, but they are all in black and white, which is unfortunate when much of the discussion hinges on the role of tone to evoke the paintings’ numinous character. It would also have been useful to have had some comparison with European painters who hinted at the transcendental in their work, such as Henri Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich (there were no Gothic trappings in these New World paintings), and perhaps an idea of how Spiritualist influences on art intersected with ideas of the sublime within Romanticism.
However, that would have made a long book even longer, and Colbert has given us a rich pudding which brings a raft of lesser-known (with the exception of James McNeill Whistler, who was based in England for most of his career) but clearly significant American artists to greater attention. He has done a wonderful job in explicating influences that are not obvious at first glance, but which expand our understanding of the artworks and the milieu in which they were produced. As he rightly says, “Sometimes a painting must become a little strange before it can become familiar.”
Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) is one of the most famous, and controversial, of the physical mediums. She is probably best known in the English-speaking world through the classic 1909 paper in the SPR’s Proceedings by Everard Feilding, William Wortley Baggally and Hereward Carrington, ‘Report on a Series of Sittings with Eusapia Palladino’, and Carrington’s book Eusapia Palladino and her Phenomena. The first of these was given a new lease of life through the controversy ignited by Richard Wiseman’s analysis of the sittings in his 1992 SPR Journal paper ‘The Feilding Report: A Reconsideration’, in which he suggested that a confederate may have removed a panel in the door at the back of the ‘cabinet’ used in the séances, in order to fake phenomena.
Hitherto largely unknown outside Italy (and apparently not much better known in it) is Filippo Bottazzi’s account of sittings with Palladino, Fenomeni Medianici, osservati in una serie di sedute fatte con Eusapia Paladino. Published in the same year as Carrington’s book and Feilding et al’s paper, it has been translated into English by Antonio Guiditta and Irmeli Routti. as Mediumistic Phenomena, Observed in a Series of Sessions with Eusapia Palladino. The new edition has been issued by ICRL Press, the publishing arm of Brenda Dunne and Robert Jahn’s International Consciousness Research Laboratories.
The translators have added very brief biographical sketches of Palladino, Bottazzi, and themselves, and Guiditta’s foreword explains how he came across the neglected book through a friendship with Bottazzi’s grandson. Bottazzi (1867-1941) was an eminent physiologist, falling neatly into that band of scientists in the Victorian and Edwardian periods who brought their expertise in the physical sciences to bear on the subject-matter of Spiritualism. He claimed that he began as a sceptic of mediumship, insofar as he thought of it at all, a view which he said was reinforced by allegations that Palladino had resorted to fraud. Disdain for the séance room seemed to be common among professional colleagues who had never attended a sitting, he added, which was hardly encouraging.
Despite this negative climate of opinion, he was intrigued by newspaper accounts of Palladino’s séances (which indicates how well known she was to the Italian public at the time), and he decided to take a closer look, examining her in his laboratory with the same dispassionate gaze that he would use for any other scientific investigation. He therefore organised tests of Palladino at the Royal University of Naples in 1907, sessions which are the subject of his book. Bottazzi notes Palladino’s dislike of innovation, preferring a familiar set-up, which meant that he had to overcome some resistance from her to using the laboratory as she had wanted to meet in a private house, but he eventually won her over.
His goal was to obtain superior documentation to that of previous investigations, and the variety of instrumentation he employed indicates a high degree of ingenuity in constructing devices. His rationale for using a range of these was that doing so would provide stronger evidence than endorsements based only on eyewitness testimony, which were open to dispute. The investigation would adhere to the standards of any other scientific research programme, recording events automatically and objectively. That, with the possibility of fraud excluded, would carry much more weight than earlier accounts, and also give more fine-grained (and permanent) detail than would be possible with sitters’ recollections. People can disagree in good faith over an event but technology does not, he thought. Critics, presented with unbiased documentation, would not be able to claim that there was misperception or misinterpretation on the part of the sitters. If such critics still carp, Bottazzi loftily argues, their opinion is not worth entertaining because of their lack of scientific education. True to his word he reproduces photographs of equipment, traces from recording cylinders, and a couple of action shots taken during a session.
Bottazzi sets out the conditions under which the experiments were made, the laboratory being amenable to his control and making it possible to record without Palladino being aware. The intention was to conduct both proof and process experiments, to demonstrate the genuineness of the phenomena, and attempt to understand how they occurred. However, he does not appear to have examined Palladino’s person, which was a major weakness. Also, the curtains and rings used for the cabinet were provided by Palladino. These were too long by about 10cm and were folded on the floor. Palladino insisted that this was necessary, and although Bottazzi confessed he did not know why it should be, he was happy to accommodate the medium.
Palladino was generally agreeable to the suggestions for sitters that Bottazzi made, except that she showed a “keen desire” that one individual, Prof De Amicis, be included in the sessions. The rest, chosen by Bottazzi, were novices in the séance room, though with scientific credentials and a high degree of discretion. They were mostly at professorial level and with impeccable track records in science. Eight sessions are described, lasting from 17 April to 5 July 1907. Bottazzi wrote detailed reports shortly after each one to go with the instruments' output, all discussed with the other sitters to obtain a final account. Events occurred too quickly to allow for contemporaneous notes to be made, and there was no secretary, but Bottazzi is at pains to stress that his recollection was clear and vivid, his reports accurate in every respect.
Complete darkness was used only rarely – the room was usually illuminated by a lamp with a heavily-painted red shade, light enough to see Palladino’s hands and upper body. This proved to be too bright still, so Bottazzi had a rheostat fitted to allow the illumination to be reduced further without being extinguished entirely. Palladino’s urine was collected and analysed before and after several sessions, and details of the analysis are supplied, though what paranormally-relevant conclusions might have been drawn from this procedure are unstated.
Séances got off to a slow start, but phenomena increased in frequency and impact as Palladino became familiar with the set-up. There was a certain restlessness in the room; Palladino herself was noted for this, but it extended to other participants, who often left the circle in order to observe events from a distance, free, as they saw it, of the medium’s influence. During the fourth session they attempted to lure Palladino into obvious fraud by placing objects inside the cabinet within her reach, but she passed the test to their satisfaction.
The sitters experienced a wide range of phenomena with Palladino being controlled, some while a participant was standing with his arms around her shoulders. There were levitations, rappings outside the cabinet and movements within. A chair was shunted about 40cm with Bottazzi sitting on it (total weight about 93kg), a feat a colleague found difficult to replicate by main strength. A mandolin moved on its own and was strummed. Faint lights were seen. More dramatically, flames appeared to emanate from Palladino’s head. Current of air of unknown origin moved the curtains of the cabinet. Invisible hands were felt by the sitters.
There were ‘materialisations’ of some shape, hard to discern among the shadows in the dim light, which could have been a head or a large fist. At other times the spirit hands were visible, while Palladino‘s own hands were being controlled. These spirit hands had the same sensitivity, Bottazzi says, as her physical ones. At one point they were apparently simultaneously beating a tambourine and a table, on another the table, tambourine and a telegraph key, again while her physical hands were held, on yet another occasion they depressed a balance plate (Palladino had been standing close to it when this occurred but Bottazzi considers and discounts the use of a hair to produce the effect, as she had been caught using in previous experiments).
There were instances of the hands grasping those of the sitters from inside the cabinet, well above Palladino‘s head, while her own were being held. The spirit hands felt real, but could not have been Palladino’s. Yet a Wiseman-style theory that a confederate could have entered the building surreptitiously (not an hotel as in the Feilding sessions, but a university building in which a stranger would have been more likely to be challenged), and crept into the cabinet from the adjacent room through the door at the cabinet’s rear, is not tenable as equipment was piled behind it with tubes going through the door to apparatus inside the cabinet. This arrangement could not have been disturbed without the experimenters noticing it.
Occasionally Palladino touched the curtains, but never put her own hand inside the cabinet, even though her invisible spirit hands apparently did enter it. Palladino never inspected the cabinet herself at any time, but Bottazzi says that she had no need as she did so with her invisible limbs during the sessions. He attributes the ease with which Palladino’s ‘spirit hand’ was able to lift and move furniture, compared to the fine motor skills needed to press a key, to the fact that force was easier than skill, and her invisible hands required training in the same way that her visible ones did, improving as the sessions progressed.
Despite the remarkable proceedings in his laboratory, Bottazzi acknowledged that Palladino’s powers were waning because of her advancing age and ill-health, and he expressed the hope that younger mediums, of which he was convinced there were many, would be amenable to testing, to allow the conditions to be explored more fully. All of the sitters were convinced that what they experienced was genuine, but the meaning was open to dispute. Though Palladino’s spirit control ‘John King’ was heard inside the cabinet, Bottazzi remained convinced that ‘John’ was an aspect of Palladino’s personality, whether conscious or unconscious. He felt that a spiritualistic explanation for the results was less likely than that Palladino’s powers emanated from within herself, in some form analogous to a split personality but that was both physiological and psychic. Bottazzi refers to the way the phenomena synchronised with muscle contractions of the medium’s closely controlled limbs, which to him suggested some direct (ie psychokinetic) effect: the effects could not have been hallucinations, as Palladino’s movements corresponded with events further off that were perceived acoustically or visually by the sitters. Fraud was naturally ruled out.
An issue which Bottazzi does not confront was that the network of investigators was quite small. Bottazzi and his circle knew Charles Richet (who furnished a letter of introduction to Palladino) and Cesare Lombroso, for example, and as Richet and Lombroso were on good terms with Palladino, there was a disincentive for Bottazzi to attempt any procedure which might have annoyed Palladino. It may well have been that she was happy with the arrangements while they worked to her advantage, and Bottazzi did not appreciate how much flexibility they provided her to cheat. Unusually for a scientific author he acknowledges the emotional aspect, and it is clear that the sitters were caught up in the excitement of the project. His belief that the arrangements were rigorous may have led to complacency, and he considered Palladino to be of low intelligence, surely a dangerous assumption. As with other investigations of working-class mediums, there is the possibility that the professors underestimated the ability of Palladino to manipulate the situation.
The translators and publisher are to be congratulated on making this text available to non-italophones, though a fuller introductory discussion would have been welcome. While unlikely to shift established opinions on the subject at a distance of a hundred years, Bottazzi’s entertaining and very readable account is seemingly immune to the sorts of ad-hoc accusations levelled against the work with Palladino carried out by Feilding and Co. It is a valuable addition to the literature on this enigmatic and fascinating personality, one who still arouses fierce debate on the value of her mediumship.
The Scole experiment continues to be of enormous interest since sittings terminated in 1998. To add to the books, articles, presentations and blog posts comes Tim Coleman’s professionally-produced film which, while not just about Scole, does make it the focus. Most valuably, the film incorporates some of the material generated by the Scole group. They assiduously documented the phenomena generated in their collaboration with a spirit team. There were a vast number of these; according to the group’s reckoning more than in any other experiment in the history of the paranormal.
All four of the primary living participants – Robin and Sandra Foy and mediums Diana and Alan Bennett – were interviewed by Coleman, and the points they and other interviewees make are illustrated by original recordings, supplemented by reconstructions, clearly labelled, to indicate what the experiences would have been like for the sitters. The Afterlife Investigations has clearly been a long time in the making as there is footage taken within the cellar where the bulk of the activity occurred, and the Foys have not lived there for some time. There are two short extras on the DVD: contributions from some of the interviewees on what the afterlife might be like, and what appears to be a deleted scene on direct voice at Scole.
The viewer certainly gets a flavour of what participants witnessed during the five years the group sat. There were temperature changes and breezes. Intelligent-seeming lights flashed around the room, bouncing on and seeming to go through the table, touching sitters on request and even seeming to enter them. There were patches of light forming human faces, a disembodied hand and other materialisations. There were levitations of objects. Amazing images were recorded on 35mm film, faces, glyphs, diagrams, verses, texts in various languages. Some eighty apports were received, a good selection of which are displayed in the film. The best had to be the postcard with the caption, “If living please write, if dead don’t bother” which indicates a sense of humour on someone’s part.
In addition to the spectacular light shows and images, there were a thousand hours of spirit communication. The personalities coming through were consistent, sometimes answering questions before they had been asked. Tapes in a recorder with the microphone removed still captured voices and there were other voices which emanated from different parts of the room, referred to as ‘extended voice’. Sadly there is a gulf between the sometimes astonishing visual products and the general dullness of the verbal communications. The culmination of the work was ‘Project Alice’, an experiment using a video camera and mirrors angled to so that it recorded its own viewfinder. The set-up produced amazing images, including faces, colours, otherworldly scenes, and what seemed to be some kind of ’inter-dimensional doorway’, none of which could be explained by it being simple feedback of the camera’s own output.
In a welcome spirit of openness many outsiders were invited to sessions, some of whom are interviewed for the film. In addition to sittings in Norfolk, the group went overseas, to the Continent, Ireland and the United States. The implication is that the larger the number of sitters, the harder it would have been for fraud to occur. Naturally much time is devoted to the investigation by senior members of the Society for Psychical Research, and there are interviews with Montague Keen and David Fontana, with archive footage of the third SPR investigator, Arthur Ellison, who died in 2000. There is an interview with Rupert Sheldrake, who attended a sitting and was impressed by what he saw. Fontana is clear about Scole, that it is paradigm-changing. He believed that when you had sittings as successful as those at Scole, you saw “miracles”, inexplicable by the normal laws of science.
Miracle is a word also used by Ellison of one rather startling display during which a crystal, illuminated internally by the spirit team, levitated and settled in a Pyrex bowl. Ellison was invited to pick it up, which he did. He was then asked to try again and found that his fingers went through it. When asked for the third time, he was once more able to pick it up. Robin Foy explains that this was designed as a metaphor for our lives, the earthly body giving way to the incorporeal, only our essence remaining when the physical is removed. Keen added that Arthur was close to the bowl with his head over it to prevent a hand or mechanical device reaching in. It is at such points as these that possible scenarios for fraud are stretched their utmost - assuming of course that the witnesses were accurately describing what was happening, rather than what they thought was happening.
In answer to the question why the production of such a mass of material was deemed necessary, Keen explains that put together it comprises a complex puzzle which makes the case stronger, as the more difficult it is to solve, the less easily can it be attributed to the Scole group. He always emphasised the ‘bundle of sticks’ argument, that is, pieces of evidence were stronger when combined than they would be taken in isolation. This though seems a double-edged method when assessing controversial data. While the enormous range of events at Scole could be taken as mutually reinforcing, on the grounds that to fake them in front of large numbers of independent witnesses without being caught would tax the resources of the faker beyond breaking point, the critic can retort that a bundle of nonsense is still nonsense. It is clear that the amount of effort required to decipher a puzzle is unlikely to be equivalent to the effort required to compile it, given access to obscure sources by the compiler.
The obvious issue of whether there was fraud at Scole is mentioned, in particular the issue of séances being held in the pitch dark and the reluctance of the team on the other side to allow infrared. This was asked for, particularly by Keen, but the sitters were told it would interfere with the energy. The insistence on total darkness is obviously the fatal flaw for some critics, but the commentary suggests that criticisms were satisfactorily overcome by the strength of the controls. Appeals to the scientific credentials of the SPR investigators are bolstered by saying that the SPR has long experience of exposing fake mediums, and its investigators are not easily fooled. One likes to think that this is so, but there are no guarantees. The three main SPR investigators saw themselves as guests, and while they searched the cellar, and never found anything suspicious, they never searched the mediums themselves, a distinct weakness in the investigation.
Chris French is wheeled on for an opinion but he merely gives his standard statement that the evidence for life after death is not strong, and he does not tackle Scole specifically. He did not attend any sittings there and was not involved in the debates when the Report was published so he can hardly count as an informed critic (though to be fair he is balanced by parapsychologist Charles Tart talking about quantum connections with psi, and Tart did not visit either). French’s unwitting role is to indicate that opposing views to the genuineness of Scole are not strong, but actually Coleman was asking the wrong critic. It is a feature of this case that the scrutiny given to it by the sceptics has been thin indeed, presumably because they had already made up their minds without having to bother with it (Sue Blackmore and Richard Wiseman, who were invited but didn‘t make the trip certainly appear to have done so). Instead it was SPR members who engaged industriously with the evidence, finding alternative explanations.
The film’s commentary slips over such opposing views by saying that there have been discussions of how individual events might have been faked, but that the principal investigators were still convinced they were genuine. Fontana is bullish about fraud, saying to the critics that if they think if something was faked, then they should duplicate it (and not hypothetically from an armchair, as so often happens). Keen says that the images on film had either been projected by spirits in some way we cannot recognise, or they were all fakes. He plumps for the former but it is curious that he does not admit the possibility of the sort of mixed phenomena that investigators thought they saw in Eusapia Palladino‘s mediumship, genuine and fake together. There is a brief discussion of whether the phenomena could be attributed to action by the minds of the living participants rather than discarnate entities, but the conclusion is that on a balance of probabilities, given that micro-PK effects tend to be very small, they were more likely to be caused by spirits.
There were some omissions in the film. Given the numbers visiting the Scolehole over the years, more of them could have been interviewed. There is a reunion of sitters who attended sessions in California, but nothing similar was done for the more numerous Norfolk participants. No dissenting first-hand witnesses are included, though there were certainly some. The film does not allude to the material compiled by critics (Donald West, Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell) at the back of the SPR‘s Scole Report. Much is made of a supposedly tamper-proof wooden box constructed to hold film securely, but there is no reference to the controversy over whether it was amenable to opening, and if it could be so under controlled conditions. Instructions for building a machine for facilitating communications, the diagram of which was put on film, was found to have Edison’s initials, but the film does not say that when Ellison tried to build it, it did not work.
Sheldrake, Fontana and Robin Foy talk about lights going through objects and bodies. LEDs, which Sheldrake suggests, and promptly dismisses, as an obvious candidate for these, would not be able to do that (though West had agreed that a demonstration by Cornell using an LED resembled what he had seen when he attended a sitting), but it does raise the question how one can be so sure in the dark, despite the protestations from the principal SPR investigators that the darkness sharpened their other senses.
The most obvious omission is an explanation for the cessation of the sittings, which will play havoc with anyone’s boggle threshold. This involved entities from the future, who were attracted to the energies being generated at Scole, interfering with the laws of time and space by creating an “interdimensional time wave pattern“ which violated the “Cosmic and Interdimensional laws relating to time and space”, thereby severing contact with the spirit team. Naturally this brought the experiment to an abrupt end, on 6 November 1998. It is understandable why Coleman should think this would confuse the viewer, but he has left a significant element out of the story.
In addition to Scole, the film interweaves three other strands: the long-running work being done in Italy by Marcello Bacci, a bereaved mother‘s use of EVP to contact her son, and an attempt by a medium to contact Monty Keen, who died during the making of the film. Bacci uses Direct Radio Voice, voices that come through vintage valve radio sets and can hold conversations with sitters. These voices are fairly distinct, unlike many EVP recordings, though responses in English seem to have a bit of an Italian accent. It has been found that Bacci can still get results with his equipment in a Faraday cage, and switched off with the tube removed. Irrespective of how it is done, he clearly has a devoted following.
The film follows a visit by the Foys to see Bacci in action. Robin asks to speak to Manu, the major control of the Scole spirit team. They receive a response from Manu, and Harry Oldfield for the Scole Group is able to ask some questions which satisfy the participants. A brief glimpse of a Bacci séance in Italy is in total darkness but is recorded using a “nightshot camera”, ie using infrared. If only the spirits at Scole had been so accommodating, one inevitably thinks. Fontana is probably right in saying in his letter in the SPR‘s Journal, October 2010, that even this would not have satisfied hard-core sceptics, but it would have ruled out some of the more obvious hypotheses revolving around fraud which rush to fill an explanatory vacuum. In Italy the infrared captures a table rising into the air after the film-makers had been asked to turn the camera off. Apports, in this case flowers, are shown arriving, or at least landing at the sitters’ feet.
The other strands are dealt with more quickly. A distraught Vicky Talbot uses EVP to receive messages from her son who died twenty years earlier. Celebrity medium Allison DuBois is tested at the University of Arizona attempting to contact the discarnate Keen, who died in January 2004. Despite being optically blurred, one of the Arizona researchers is clearly Gary Schwartz, so this took place before he and DuBois fell out in 2005. He is shown sitting with a colleague a few feet behind DuBois while she gives her reading. Schwartz had known Monty and was aware how he had died, and his significant movements in his chair - he leans forward eagerly when DuBois is making statements pertinent to the circumstances of Keen’s death - could provide assistance. It is surprising that a researcher with Schwartz’s experience should use such a poorly-controlled set-up.
This is a frustrating film to assess. On the one hand, because Tim Coleman had the cooperation of the Scole group and the surviving SPR investigators, and was able to interview some of the visitors, he has produced a succinct condensation of what occurred in several hundred séances over five years, and a welcome opportunity to see some of the recordings made by the group. On the other, there is no real sense of the critiques to which Scole has been subjected, and the newcomer to the subject could easily go away believing that any counter-arguments to the survival interpretation have been safely dispatched as having been fully assessed and found wanting by Keen, Fontana and Ellison.
The situation is more complicated than can be indicated in a ninety-minute documentary, and the subtitle - “The definitive investigation into life after death” - is somewhat exaggerated. But for anyone interested in the evidence for survival, and in particular physical mediumship, this is highly recommended, even if by itself it is unlikely to shift already-held opinions. Scole will put most outside observers such as myself, who never visited and now have to assess the products second hand, in a quandary: impossible to accept all of it, difficult to reject some of it. It is possible that we will never come to a definitive conclusion over what happened in that Norfolk cellar, but for anyone willing to make the effort to tackle the case’s complexities, this film will have a worthy place alongside the SPR’s Scole Report and Robin Foy’s impressively detailed blow by blow account in his Witnessing the Impossible.
Colette Shires has produced a fascinating account of persistent paranormal phenomena which she says plagued her family from 1958, when they removed to a house in Grant Street (now demolished), off Roundhay Road in Leeds, and even after they were forced to leave it in dramatic circumstances nine years later. The experiences, a huge number in total, ranged from the strange – a baby crying where there wasn‘t one, footsteps, objects disappearing and only sometimes turning up again, for example – to the bizarre and frightening, including several full-form apparitions.
The most striking of these was a ghastly episode when Colette was trying to take a dress out of her wardrobe but meeting some resistance and, putting her hands in, felt “something soft but solid” which when she pulled the clothes to one side turned out to be the ghost of a man in a striped jacket crouching among them. It says something for her self-control that she could still go to a works’ do and, as the photograph taken that evening which she includes suggests, act as if nothing untoward had happened.
These unsettling incidents culminated in August 1967, when the house partially collapsed early one morning. Nobody was injured but the house was uninhabitable and Colette’s parents had to be rehoused. They moved to Potternewton in Leeds, but the ghosts followed. Later Colette’s mother’s had a terrible accident and eventually lived in a number of residential homes where she had the company of what seemed to be an invisible friend that followed her as she moved from home to home – until another resident claimed to have seen her too. At the same time Colette’s father, now on his own in the Potternewton house, still encountered paranormal phenomena, and remarkably suffered a similar problem with the floor to the one that had caused the catastrophe in Grant Street.
The paranormal events were clearly person- rather than place-centred, as they followed her parents when they moved, leaving Colette wondering where they might turn up next. Ordinary objects – a tin trunk, a display cabinet – came to be regarded with suspicion as possibly acting as carriers for some kind of paranormal contamination. There is also no sense of closure, in that there is always the feeling that the ghosts, not having a defined reason for appearing in the first place, could return without the family knowing why. More to the point, once present, there seemed to be no way of getting rid of them. Her mother’s Catholic faith was not enough, and blessings by clergy proved ineffectual.
Running alongside the ghost story is also the story of Colette’s transition from child to young woman in the Swinging 60s, the ups and downs of marriage and the confidence that comes with managing her own life. It is a warm portrait of a closely-knit Anglo-Irish family getting on with their lives, and not allowing their strange experiences to dominate them, unlike many families in similar circumstances. The ordinariness of domestic life makes the paranormal aspect all the more unnerving.
Nothing here is going to convince a sceptic, but it is a straightforward and sincere narrative. The author employs a lot of dialogue that has to be approximate, but it seems authentic enough. A couple of statements from family members have been included, but there are no contemporaneous notes, nor independent witness statements, leaving the reader no way to assess the accuracy of Colette’s story. The family tried to keep the thing to themselves, which is understandable if they feared neighbours’ gossip, but it does mean that the reader has to accept Colette’s memories going back over fifty years. The way it is told seems credible, which makes it all the more frustrating that there is so little corroboration.
Country Books of Bakewell, Derbyshire, is a small publishing company with a varied list. One of its categories is Ghost Walks of Britain, a series of guides which do precisely what they say on the cover. Seven titles have been published so far, nearly all written by Jill Armitage and covering the Derbyshire area. These are: Bakewell, Chesterfield, Eyam, Cromford, the Peak District, Ashover, and the odd one out, Brighton.
The books follow the same format, describing pleasant walks that show the reader spooky points of interest along the way. This is a useful method as the reader can choose a walk of suitable length and follow the author’s directions, whereas with many gazetteers the contents are arranged alphabetically, which may mean skipping through different pages to find the bits relevant to where one happens to be.
The walks in the samples I examined vary in length, but none seems unduly demanding, and the Derbyshire books include maps to supplement the step-by-step instructions. Total mileage for each walk is included in the Derbyshire books (the Brighton one gives timings instead, which presupposes a standard pace). Sections of routes that might present a difficulty to the less able are highlighted. All of the books are well illustrated.
The Brighton title, by Maxine Morrey, is of particular interest to SPR members as there are several references to the Society (though she relies heavily on SPR Council member Alan Murdie’s 2006 book for Tempus, Haunted Brighton, which has more detail). One is the 1948 SPR report of Mrs F Priestley’s strange experiences which, with various other Brighton cases, can be found in the SPR’s archives. Another reference to the SPR is in connection with ‘Miss X’ (Ada Goodrich-Freer)’s Preston Park Manor séance in 1896. The Old Ship Hotel, where the SPR held its annual conference in 1997, also features.
The SPR’s most famous link with Brighton is of course Edmund Gurney’s death at the Royal Albion Hotel during the night of 22/23 June 1888. Refreshingly, Morrey does not refer to Trevor Hall’s speculations on the reason for Gurney’s presence in Brighton, but, like Murdie, attributes Gurney’s presence in Brighton to the investigation of a haunted house (in Prestonville Road – Gurney’s secretary, and later film pioneer, George Albert Smith and his wife Laura living there between August 1888 and September 1889).
As Brighton is fairly compact, the walks are short, and the author has expanded the text to cover other places in the vicinity. Unusually for a book of this type (including the Derbyshire volumes in the series), there is an index. It is not the most comprehensive book on Brighton ghosts, a city well served by paranormal guides, but it is still a useful one.
This is a series which could be extended to other parts of the country, and it is to be hoped that writers with knowledge of the paranormal elsewhere will pitch ideas to Country Books. A minor drawback of the format is that it is not suitable for recent case reports where the householders have requested anonymity. These can be included in other types of guide with names and locations removed, but in the form of a walk it might still be possible to identify the individuals concerned.
A more general concern is that, with so many publishers developing lists of regional paranormal guides and a limited number of authors qualified to write for them, there will be a temptation to recycle material – both one’s own and others’ – for different outlets. However, this is likely to be more of an issue for residents who want a comprehensive library covering their place of residence than it is for visitors who are probably only going to pick one book to carry with them as they stroll about.
The authors of the very well received The Borley Rectory Companion have compiled a guide to seventy-five ecclesiastical buildings in England which have paranormal stories attached to them. They range from cathedrals to the smallest of chapels, plus some no longer in use as places of worship. Entries are handily arranged by geographic region and then listed by county, making it easy to find the buildings in a particular area. In addition to the full entries, there is an appendix with another forty which have abbreviated details, using the same geographic classification. To make the guide even more helpful, each entry in the main section has a brief note on its whereabouts, and all entries have Ordnance Survey grid references. Country maps, in both the main section and the appendix, also indicate locations.
As might be expected, given the authors’ credentials, the research has been carefully done and they sketch in the historical background before describing the ghostly stories. The book is lavishly illustrated with black and white photographs, mostly by Eddie Brazil. These are very atmospheric, though perhaps he has been over-lavish in his use of the red filter (or its digital equivalent), leading to glowering skies which suggest he prefers to work in bad weather.
Some of the cases are well known, others less so, and it is good to see them have an airing. Personally, I was pleased to see St Giles, Camberwell, where my parents were married and I was baptised. Unsurprisingly, Borley’s church is included, but there is no warning that the village’s inhabitants do not take kindly to visitors and it is difficult to gain entry to the church. This prompts the thought that, more so than with the normal gazetteer, a guide to haunted churches, priories, abbeys and so on, which is designed to stimulate paranormal tourism, raises ethical considerations that the authors do not address. Some clerics may be uncomfortable with the idea of people arriving hoping to witness a ghost, and judging by accounts from Borley over the years, not all ghost-seeking visitors treat churches and their environs with respect.
The authors do express the hope that those who use Shadows in the Nave as a source for their outings will behave responsibly, but they note the relationship between ghost-hunting and the media, presumably concerned that exaggerated depictions of the pursuit on television will encourage a heightened emotional response that not only inhibits careful investigation, but will also bring the enterprise into disrepute. On the other hand, if you are in an area, and all other things are equal, it adds extra interest to know that a particular church has an unusual history, and like pubs which appear in ghost books, featured churches may find their revenues increasing as a result.
The introduction discusses the macabre associations of churches, and wonders how it is that churches possess the attributes of spookiness necessary to a good ghost story. They should be places of comfort but can be unnerving; I remember that when I was head choirboy at St Barnabas, Dulwich (which was sadly destroyed by fire in 1992), I was occasionally sent by the choirmaster from the tower room where we practised to fetch music kept in the vestry. I disliked walking through the creepy, semi-dark church on my own, and was always relieved to get back to the sanctuary of the practice room; shadows in the nave indeed. As the authors aptly put it, a church is “an icon to feed the imagination with dark fancies”. There is plenty here to get your teeth into.
Amberley continue their series of paranormal guides, to which Jill Armitage contributes two dealing with her home county of Derbyshire. These sorts of books are usually done either by someone who investigates the paranormal with a ‘ghost-hunting’ group and has a good knowledge of the subject (but sometimes shaky writing skills), or by a local historian or journalist who writes well and knows how to use archival material to full effect, but does not have much in the way of current case reports on which to draw. Armitage, author of a series of local Ghost Walks book, falls into the latter camp, and has produced a pair of well-written books which round up stories relating to the stranger side of her county.
Rather than take the usual geographical or alphabetical approach, Paranormal Derbyshire is arranged thematically, which is an interesting departure from the more typical organisation, but the lack of an index makes the book less useful for the casual visitor who wants to see if a particular location has something of interest in it. The first chapter asks if an apparently ghostly occurrence might be a haunting (ie something ‘out there’) or an hallucination, and discusses the various sense modalities through which ghosts might be perceived in addition to the visual: smell – olfactory (as opposed to old factory) ghosts – auditory, and touch. Accounts are grouped according to the sense involved and Armitage discusses whether experiences were likely to have been objective or subjective; more than one person involved suggests it is external to the individual, but on the other hand she highlights how tiredness and monotonous visual stimuli can trigger misperception.
A chapter on ‘Action Replays’ looks at what can be termed the ‘stone tape’ theory, that there is some imprint on the environment which lacks consciousness, though whether an incident belongs in this or the previous chapter is open to question when it occurs only once. The following chapter covers earth mysteries and folklore, and the next deals with things seen in the sky, including phantom aircraft, and sometimes falling from it. ‘Ghosts and Spirits Captured on Camera’ gives a brief overview of spirit photography and thoughtography before covering anomalies in photographs taken locally, several by the author. Some of these are orbs, but there are descriptions of other oddities captured either on still cameras or CCTV. The book concludes with a chapter on activities that the reader can try, such as Instrumental Transcommunication, the planchette and ouija board, dowsing rods and vigils. There is also a section on poltergeists and psychokinesis as applied to stopped timepieces.
In addition to the historical accounts, Armitage has interviewed individuals with a story to tell. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case in these popular guides, source information is usually sketchy, even where names and dates are provided, making it difficult for the investigator to follow up many of the cases. Even so, there is much here to interest both the ghost investigator and casual reader.
Haunted Pubs, Inns and Hotels of Derbyshirehas a more traditional organisation and lists places alphabetically, ideal for the traveller to check quickly if a town is included. As with Paranormal Derbyshire it contains a mix of historical and folkloric anecdotes mixed with more recent interviews conducted by the author, all put together in a readable and engaging style. You can never tell with commercial premises how much exaggeration is going on to encourage trade, but even so, this book is a useful supplement to a pie and a pint.
As always with Amberley books, the production values are good and both volumes are well illustrated. In addition to learning about Derbyshire’s paranormal aspects, the reader will come away knowing more about its history more generally. Given the University of Derby’s increasingly prominent role in parapsychological researchthrough its Psychology of Paranormal Phenomena Research Group, it seems appropriate to celebrate the county’s spooky heritage, and these two complementary books do that well.
John Fraser became interested in the paranormal as a teenager and has been actively investigating the subject for well over twenty years. He has distilled this experience into a chatty and non-technical guide that will be useful reading for all those new to the subject and keen to try hands-on research. He has strong credentials for such a book: he is a Council member of the SPR and is on its Spontaneous Cases Committee. He has also been heavily involved with the Ghost Club (both during Peter Underwood‘s time and since the split which saw Underwood go off to form the splinter Ghost Club Society). Naturally both organisations feature strongly, forming two of the “Big Three” as Fraser terms them, the third being the relative newcomer ASSAP, the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena.
Fraser analyses the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major organisations for the person whose primary interest is in the practical side of the paranormal, and also delves into the state of university laboratory-based parapsychology. This recognition of the university scene (albeit only in the UK) is very welcome in this type of book, and Fraser indicates ways in which the two strands of research might collaborate to the advantage of the subject generally. A brief history of ghost hunting starts with Athenodorus, but mostly focuses on the way the methodology has evolved since Harry Price’s day. Local groups of varying levels of ability have proliferated in recent years, facilitated by television programmes and the internet, hence the need for books such as this to provide guidance.
An all-too brief chapter outlining the various theories of what ghosts are is followed by the heart of the book, the nuts and bolts of mounting an investigation. The first of these chapters is about equipment, and Fraser is very clear that there can be an inverse ratio between quantity of kit and the quality of the results obtained with it. In particular the EMF meter, considered de rigueur by many groups, is critically discussed, and Fraser considers that this gadget, along with some other components of the average paranormal investigator’s toolbox, is there more for show and to add a spurious air of professionalism than for any meaningful results. As he points out, too much technology to monitor can induce fatigue and be counter-productive, even obstructing engagement with the premises altogether if one is stuck in the hub, and the list of low-tech equipment he adds shows that perfectly good vigils can be run with fairly modest assistance.
A more contentious chapter discusses the utilisation of what Fraser calls “non-scientific equipment”, by which he means such disputed information-gathering devices as the Ouija board, planchette, the use of table turning, and also mediums. While he stresses that all of these should be used with care, and expectations for success may not be high, Fraser is relaxed about their use, both in case something useful comes out of it – because given our state of knowledge we need to be flexible about what might work – and on the pragmatic grounds that in the watches of the night, when energy levels are low, a change of pace can help to restore concentration. Dowsing, undergoing something of a fad at present, he dismisses with the quip that he would rather use a wire coat hanger to hang his coat on than as a dowsing tool.
Fraser then gets on to the different kinds of investigation and their mechanics. He does not see ghost tourism as a problem for the field, but does warn of the difficulties that can be encountered by investigators in a family home. His main interest is the set-piece vigil (a term he does not use) in larger premises with a well-defined team. This is now the most common form of investigation and Fraser goes into some detail advising how it can be run for maximum effect. However, some idea of the types of records to be kept during the various stages of an investigation (and something on interviewing techniques) would have strengthened the discussion.
In what is perhaps a surprising running order, a chapter emphasising the necessity for thorough research follows, and Fraser gives some excellent examples of how long-standing stories can be exploded by basic research, indicating how lazy many writers are in regurgitating old stories without scrutiny. An example Fraser gives is that of Ightham Mote, where Dorothy Selby was supposed to have been walled up as punishment for betraying the1605 Gunpowder Plot. Numerous authors have repeated this tale, yet Fraser found her monument in the local church bearing the date of death as 1641, the cause being an infected needle (this example from the book was used by Alan Murdie as the subject of his ‘Ghostwatch’ column in Fortean Times in June 2010).
A significant but often-overlooked question to which Fraser devotes a chapter is whether ghost hunting should be fun, or whether it is too serious for that. He distinguishes between ‘cavaliers’ and ‘roundheads’ approaches and see merit in both. This is not to say that an investigation is a frivolous business, but rather it should be done with humour and style, while still maintaining a rigorous approach. Participants need some motivation for giving up their time, he feels, and having an interesting experience need not preclude obtaining scientifically valid results, as long as the limitations of any particular method are recognised and taken into account. A section discusses publicising results through the media, and the chapter concludes with a few possible locations where investigations might be fruitfully undertaken.
The conclusions mull over what the point of investigations is, whether they are worth doing when evidence is likely to be either unforthcoming, or at best ambiguous. Fraser draws out the emotional aspects of research, which is more than the sum of temperature readings and electromagnetic fields. His upbeat verdict is that the effort is still worth making because it keeps the topic under discussion, and even if it provides no firm answers that would satisfy the most ardent critic, it can still help the investigator to assess the likelihood or otherwise of survival on a personal level.
This is an entertaining and informative book, but there are several points at which I take issue with the author. In his discussion of handling “cry-for-help” situations, Fraser suggests that in certain cases discussing, though not recommending, an exorcism might be beneficial. I would NOT favour discussing an exorcism with members of a household, though raising the possibility of a blessing by a clergyperson can itself have a soothing effect on a tense situation, even if it is not actually performed.
The discussion of the Scole phenomena gives the impression that this was an SPR investigation mounted by Montague Keen, David Fontana and Arthur Ellison. The three were in fact acting in a private capacity and not as representatives of the SPR, and as Robin Foy’s Witnessing the Impossible shows, séances at Scole were attended by a large number of people, including other members of the SPR. Not all who examined the evidence were as convinced as those three, as the Scole Report itself shows (Fraser highlights Tony Cornell’s critical examination of the supposedly apported 1 April 1944 issue of the Daily Mail). Fraser acknowledges the unsatisfactory nature of the controls employed at Scole, but feels that, as long as limitations are borne in mind, it still has value as evidence. Yet Scole is a classic instance where the poor controls have dogged it ever since, miring it in controversy and preventing any kind of satisfactory verdict. I agree with Fraser that this case, like so many others, has to be assigned to the, as he puts it, “interesting but inconclusive” category, which still allows for a wide latitude of opinions on the probability of whether or not phenomena were genuine.
One unfortunate error is the statement that while the bulk of the SPR’s library is based at Cambridge, items can be called back to the London office by members on demand. This is not so; the archives and rare books were sent to Cambridge University Library on loan, but they cannot be removed from CUL, though SPR members have free access to the SPR holdings at Cambridge on production of a letter from the Society’s Secretary.
The book was generally up to date regarding the British paranormal scene when written, but this will make those sections of the book date quickly. For example, Deborah Delanoy (not Delaney, as she is called twice) is no longer the SPR president. Paul Stevens has not been on the SPR’s Council for some years (though at the time of this writing his Bournemouth University profile says that he is). I was pleased to see an index, which this type of book often lacks, but on the debit side History Press has displayed an insouciant disregard for copy-editing which would have tidied up the text considerably.
Fraser’s book sits comfortably among the increasing number of such guides which differ greatly in orientation to the subject and degree of detail supplied. The more useful ones that I know of include Mark Rosney et al’s A Beginner’s Guide to Paranormal Investigation (probably the best), Joshua P Warren’s How to Hunt Ghosts: A Practical Guide, Richard Southall’s How to be a Ghost Hunter, Michelle Belanger’s The Ghost Hunter's Survival Guide: Protection Techniques for Encounters With the Paranormal (somewhat New Age in style), and Beth Brown’s Conducting a Paranormal Investigation: A Training Guide. For the more advanced is David Rountree’s Paranormal Technology: Understanding the Science of Ghost Hunting, subject of a forthcoming review in JSPR by C J Romer. One might also add Robert Baker and Joe Nickell’s Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, & Other Mysteries. Fraser has supplied an enjoyable page-turner, and one which carefully evaluates what is of use to the researcher, bearing in mind the current state of our knowledge. The results will help novices to get more out of their investigations, both to their benefit and that of the subject.
Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide was also reviewed by Gordon Rutter in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 75, Issue 1, January 2011.
This special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies was published to mark the centenary of William James’s death in 2010 and is dedicated to David Fontana (1934-2010), SPR president during 1995-8 and vigorous promoter of transpersonal psychology. This is especially appropriate as James was himself SPR president 1894-5. Guest edited by Allan Combs, the issue contains a wide variety of articles of mostly excellent quality which will act as a useful springboard for anyone with an interest in the development of psychology in the nineteenth century.
It examines the state of consciousness studies at that time, focusing largely on the work of James, and shows the continuing relevance of ideas developed during the period, such as those on the subconscious, altered states of consciousness, extra-sensory perception and survival of bodily death. While not specifically designed to air issues related to psychical research, the fact that the subject features so extensively indicates the importance of the SPR’s (and the American SPR’s) first two decades in the formation of psychology as a discipline. Collectively, the papers indicate the influence of psychical research on the development of psychology, a neglected past which is at last being rectified in recent scholarship examining the contributions and impact of such thinkers as James, Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers. (Eugene Taylor is surely exaggerating though in referring to Myers as “long forgotten”. He has not exactly been missing from the SPR’s publications during the twentieth century, and the SPR ran a series of ‘Frederic W H Myers Memorial Lectures’ for many years from 1929. Mainstream psychology is not the world.)
After a foreword by the editor there is a commentary by Taylor which is helpful in highlighting some of the topics discussed (and his conclusion is that James at the time of his death was still fifty years ahead of where we are now!). Carlos Alvarado and Stanley Krippner examine dissociation through the work of James on mediumship, hypnosis and debates that were circulating around secondary personalities. G. William Barnard writes crisply about Henri Bergson’s theory of consciousness from Time and Free Will in 1889 to The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932). Although Bergson’s ideas had much in common with James’s, despite his celebrity during his lifetime he is much less well known (at least to Anglophone audiences and outside psychical research) than he should be, and it is to be hoped that Barnard will stimulate fresh interest in this underrated thinker. Jonathan Bricklin, in a complex and wide-ranging paper, deepens the discussion of James’s philosophy by examining his “neutral monism” (with which Taylor disagrees as a “colossal misreading” of James) and the ‘mystical’ question of whether consciousness is pre-existing and needs merely to be uncovered, as opposed to being generated.
Combs himself provides an overview of ‘Neurology and the Mind at the Turn of the [twentieth] Century’, showing how debates then were surprisingly similar to those of today, such as differences between views of mind which were pitched at a neurological level and those focusing on properties of consciousness, and how such differences affected treatment strategies. Combs, Krippner and Taylor combine to look at the mind as a “chaotic attractor”, and ask whether there is awareness outside attention. They examine thinkers such as James, Myers, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Pierre Janet, who all discussed dissociation, a phenomenon which indicated awareness outside attention, and who assisted in establishing where the boundaries of conscious awareness were. The situation was much more complex than historians of the intellectual life of the period have often assumed, and Sigmund Freud has in the past been given undue prominence in this fertile mix.
Arthur Hastings in a brief note ponders the type of radical transformation that happens like a switch being flipped, for example religious conversion. James addressed this phenomenon in The Varieties of Religious Experience, and an understanding of the process is still very relevant. Unfortunately the topic is not here given the dissection it deserves and does not address possible negative consequences of such radical transformations (for example in cults). An essay by Gary Schwartz examines alleged mediumistic communication with James, among others, and is out of place here. Eugene Taylor asks “Who Was Frederic William Henry Myers?”, an addition to the literature on a figure whose significance is being increasingly recognised. Taylor notes resonances between the study of consciousness in the nineteenth century and in the present, and acknowledges that the downgrading of Freudian views has opened up a space for a proper evaluation of other approaches, such as that of Myers (though one might add that it has been slow in coming over the last twenty or thirty years).
Other items of interest to psychical researchers are reviews of Michael Tye,‘s book Consciousness Revisited , Michael N. Marsh’s Out of Body and Near-Death Experiences and Charles Tart’s The End of Materialism. This issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies will be of value to those interested in the intersection of psychical research and psychology when each was new(ish), and the lessons for discussions of consciousness today. Together the articles give a sense of what an amazingly productive period the end of the nineteenth century was for discussions of consciousness (rather like now in fact), and its enduring fascination.
Mark L Cowden’s claim, as indicated by the subtitle, is that in early 2010 he recorded a live two-way conversation between this world and the next. However, the book is more than an account of this event, which comes right at the end. He also covers his previous experiences with the paranormal, the development of his views concerning it, and how one can obtain the optimum conditions for interaction with the afterlife.
In his examination of the field he came across a number of groups of self-styled experts. He writes amusingly of the deficiencies of many of these ghost-hunting teams, their obsession with equipment masking their lack of knowledge – most of which seems to be culled from watching ghost-hunting shows on television and the internet – and usually led by someone whose sole credential is that he had the idea for the group and thought up the name. All that Cowden leaves out is the group medium who never comes up with any information that can be verified.
I have to agree with his assessment. As he suggests, the thought of such groups being unleashed on the vulnerable public is scary. You could say that however much the idea of commercial companies charging large fees to organise ghost hunts which are little more than a social activity feels exploitative, at least they are keeping individuals off the streets who might otherwise be causing extra stress to householders who already have enough problems to keep them busy. Cowden himself avoids such ‘house calls’.
He is an expert at using audio-visual equipment, and inventive in developing technology to improve Instrumental Transcommunication (ITC). He came up with the idea of the ITC Orchestra, adding a violin and cello to his set-up to act as ‘natural amplifiers’ which extended the range of his audio equipment into the infrasound and ultrasound ranges, beyond that which humans can hear.
His approach, in contrast to the one adopted by many groups, is to blend the technology with a spiritual approach. So as well as the hardware he packs a pendulum to dowse a location, and places emphasis on mediation and spiritual development. This allows him to form a psychic connection with a location and any spirits that might be present, rather than adopt a gung-ho approach typical of many investigators who have an obsession with the latest gadgetry. In his work with groups he recognises that, without some psychic sensitivity, they will not be successful in their efforts. While important, the kit is secondary, the intentions and attitude are crucial. More people can achieve results, he argues, but are blocked by the limitations of their approach.
The key event of the book, recording a conversation with spirit voices, occurred during the filming of a paranormal television show, Northern Ireland's Greatest Haunts. This was a rather complicated set-up, with a medium and another colleague sitting in one room attempting to communicate with a spirit, while Cowden and his monitoring equipment were in another room recording both the medium’s and the spirit’s responses, while a camera crew in each location made a visual record. The spirit replies could not be heard in the room in which the medium sat, so Cowden, who could hear them, had to feed them to the medium. He was not able to relay all of the messages at the time, but enough to assist the medium conduct a meaningful conversation, and both sides were available in full for later analysis.
ITC samples are usually difficult to decipher, and there are issues of interpretation. Cowden claims that his spirit voices increased in clarity until they were as clear as the voices of those in the room, and their utterances made sense within the conversation. Whether the voices are real and not artefacts of the recording process, and more to the point there is intelligence behind them, will hopefully be established with further work.
As to whether this really was the first ‘live’ dialogue, well, not really. Father Gemelli’s frustrating experience with a wire recorder in 1952, leading to a brief exchange with his deceased father, and George Meek’s Spiricom spring readily to mind as involving real-time communication. Marcello Bacci’s Direct Radio Voice method, using old valve radios with bits removed to render them useless for their intended purpose, is able to obtain voices on a regular basis which can hold a meaningful conversation (and be recognised by relatives). Bacci can be seen in action in Tim Coleman’s film The Afterlife Investigations.
Cowden’s recording may be superior to these efforts, and he may be implying that all past results, or at least those obtained prior to the beginning of 2010, were fraudulent (and this is certainly a controversial area), but he does not discuss them at all, nor say why he feels he has priority. He appears to have achieved promising results with his set-up, and hopefully he will publish more on his work, with further detail than he has given here. In the meantime this is a very readable account of one person’s journey in the field of paranormal investigation.
Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874-1956) was a compulsive diary-keeper for most of her life, the total amounting to about a million and a quarter words. Of this vast quantity, Peter Lord has selected entries from the years 1909-24 for reproduction here, and the results (200,000 words) represent just over a third of the original for that period. Editorial interpolations bridge the gaps and orient the reader, essential given the complexity of Winifred’s life and times. Lord, author of a companion volume, Winifred Coombe Tennant: A Life through Art, has done a huge service in bringing Winifred to a wider audience, and his annotations to the entries are informative and even-handed. The text is enhanced by a wide range of photographs, many taken from the family collection, supplemented by items drawn from the Tennant papers in the West Glamorgan Archives. He tops and tails the volume with a potted biography of Winifred’s early life and a brief envoi describing her life after 1924.
The diaries are useful background reading for anyone interested in the cross correspondences and the early history of the SPR. Lord has excluded much of the material relating to Winifred’s mediumship as being too complex, but he provides some fascinating context against which to read books like Signe Toksvig’s Swan on a Black Sea: A Study in Automatic Writing – The Cummins-Willett Scripts (1965) and Archie Roy’s The Eager Dead (2008), and papers in the SPR’s Proceedings such as Gerald Balfour’s ‘Some Recent Scripts Affording Evidence of Personal Survival’ (1914) and ‘A Study of the Psychological Aspects of Mrs Willett’s Mediumship, and of the Statements of the Communicators Concerning Process’ (1935).
For those who know Winifred primarily as ‘Mrs Willett’, the more rounded character that emerges from the diaries will come as a surprise. For those who know her primarily as a major figure in the distasteful exercise in ‘spiritual eugenics’ known as The Plan, as expounded in The Eager Dead, she will surely be a more sympathetic character than the one Roy presents. That is not to say she did not have major flaws. One again feels sorry for the collateral damage of her adulterous relationship with Gerald Balfour: Lady Better Balfour, whom Winifred strangely adores until the rupture with Gerald after the death of her son Christopher; and her husband Charles, invariably referred to in her diaries baldly as “CCT”. Her pathologically self-absorbed mourning at the loss of her infant daughter Daphne in 1908, amply demonstrated here, must have been a trial to all round her, at least until she largely switched her obsessive grief to Christopher, killed in 1917 on the Western Front, and she gives no sense of an appreciation that Charles too must have suffered at losing two of his children.
Poor Charles clearly could not gain his wife’s full love, divided unevenly as it was not only between him and Gerald, but also the long-dead Edmund Gurney, who was in regular contact from the Other Side. One is hard put to determine whether Charles was kept in ignorance or was complaisant during the affair with Gerald. Winifred was good at keeping secrets, as the revelation of her identity as Mrs Willett only becoming widely known after her death, in the obituary published in the SPR’s December 1956 Journal, attests. C D Broad in his foreword to Swan on a Black Sea quotes her son Alexander saying that a favourite motto of hers was “Never give unnecessary information!”. Significantly Charles’s Who’s Who entry stated that he had two sons (ie Christopher and Alexander) which implicitly indicates his acknowledgement that Henry was not his.
Even so, it is a shock to realise that Charles was in residence at the time Winifred became pregnant by Balfour, and bizarrely, on the very day she conceived, Charles asked Balfour if he would be the Coombe Tennant’s children’s guardian, to which request Gerald “agreed with pleasure”. Whether ignorant or choosing to look the other way, Charles seems to have generally tolerated his wife’s frequent absences as she pursued her various activities (there is just one incident recorded of him losing his temper, over a trivial incident which was probably stress-related). One gets the impression that he spent a lot of time at the Tennant family home in London, perhaps his way of dealing with a difficult situation. Winifred found him dull and narrow-minded, but one longs to hear his side of the story. The impression is that Charles symbolised restrictions against which she chafed but it is hard to know because he barely figures in the diaries, partly because they led separate lives for much of the time, and partly because she did not find much about him worth recording.
For her part, possibly Balfour’s wife Lady Betty was happy for Winifred to ‘entertain’ her husband. There is a telling entry (9 August, 1909, before Winifred and Gerald commenced their affair) in which Winifred says:
"I had a little talk with Lady Betty and wept in her arms. She is a noble and great woman. She told me she so wanted the bond between Gerald and me to be a source of strength and peace to me, and not an added sorrow ... Lady Betty told me to make use of Gerald to the utmost and that I should always find him the same, unchanging."
Three days later she writes:
"Received divine letter from Betty Balfour. She says ‘Gerald’s friendship for you is a great new joy in his life – a great new tenderness. I rejoice in it’, and she wants me to think of Fisher’s Hill [the Balfours’ residence] as a home where I can come to have ‘free and unfettered intercourse with your friend.’ Wrote to her. I deeply honour her."
However much she dressed it up with frequently-used terms such as honour and nobility, it did not stop Winifred from carrying on with Lady Betty’s husband and taking liberally the injunction to make use of him to the utmost and have free and unfettered intercourse with him. When Winifred writes of Balfour on 15 September 1911 that “Our love is compact of purity and therefore wrongs no-one”, a natural reaction is one of astonishment at such self-serving self-delusion that ignored anyone peripheral to the self-absorbed pair. When Betty had a baby in 1912 Winifred was devastated by what she saw as a betrayal of her – Gerald having sex with his wife – melodramatically outlining the day in the diary in black, but somewhat comforted by Gerald’s declarations that he had no interest in the child whatsoever. Yet even after Betty knew about the liaison and Henry’s paternity, she accepted the situation, and remained on friendly terms with Winifred, partly as a result of their shared interest in women’s suffrage (surely ironic for someone so passive in her domestic arrangements). One wonders if Betty was grateful to have Gerald’s attentions turn elsewhere as he and Winifred do seem to have been two of a kind.
In one way the adulterous relationship was good for Winifred. After Daphne’s death she became obsessed with the idea that her own life was essentially over, and all she longed for was to join her daughter. The mediumship was essentially a way to reinstate he relationship with Daphne and develop her love affair with Edmund Gurney, for whom Balfour was to an extent a proxy (though overlaid with a more earthly element, even if dressed up as The Plan). This allowed Winifred to sublimate her death-drive, though never erase it, in her desire for Balfour. One obvious question is why Winifred and Gerald did not divorce their unsatisfactory spouses and marry each other. They did discuss the possibility but decided against it. Obvious reasons would be the difficulty of divorce and the scandal, especially an issue given Gerald’s brother Arthur’s political career and their own social standing. But there is also the sense that the semi-clandestine nature of the liaison appealed to Winifred’s sense of self-dramatisation.
In these early years Winfred does not appear to be the self-confident figure of Roy’s book, or indeed of Broad’s foreword to Swan on a Black Sea,in which he characterises her as “a somewhat formidable lady”. She is frequently diffident, unsure of herself and prone to hero-worship, whether of Gurney and the equally deceased Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers, or Sir Oliver Lodge and later Gerald, when writing about whom in the early years she seems to dissolve and positively gush; you know their relationship has turned a corner when she refers to him as “Gerald” rather than the habitual “belovèd”. Gerald, reading between the lines, comes across as a seducer from the start, pressing Winifred’s emotional buttons. He cites Dante’s Vita Nuova, which Winifred gladly accepts as symbolic of their relationship, even though the courtly love quickly transformed into a physical one, overlaying any professional relationship based on the cross correspondences.
Her recorded activities turn away from the SPR after the First World War, mainly to politics, but even those whose interest in her primarily revolves around psychical research will find her later life fascinating. The diaries help to project her as a many-faceted person rather than simply one of the names involved in the cross correspondences. She clearly exhibited a great sensitivity to the suffering of others, perhaps a reason for her identification with Gurney, who had felt the same. She cared deeply about the plight of children, and disliked injustice in all its forms. At one point she discovers that an old couple had been given notice to quit their cottage on the Tennant estate because they could not afford the rates and taxes, and she paid them herself. Perhaps typically she can write, after noting that the estate is geared to maximising profit: “I can hardly eat my own good food or look at my comfortable house when I think of where it comes from and how it is paid for!”, while continuing to enjoy the lifestyle that the estate’s income provided for her and her family (the Afterword notes the extent of her picture-buying in her later years so clearly her disposable income was considerable, and she could not have engaged in public life without private means).
She had a deep love for Wales and its cultural life, took a sophisticated interest in politics and social reform, local and national, was a firm supporter of women’s suffrage, and was one of the first female magistrates. Firmly Liberal in inclination, she disliked authoritarianism in politics and expressed anti-monarchist sentiments on occasion. Her administrative work was admirable – the list of committees on which she served during the Great War is extensive and she was to train travel what the frequent flyer is to aircraft. She took an active interest in Tennant estate business at a time when such a role was uncommon for women, spurred on by Charles’s loosening grip, and was clearly a capable administrator. She might have become a Member of Parliament, standing unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Forest of Dean, and doubtless would have done the job well given her energy and attention to detail and shrewd grasp of politics, domestic and international. She was a member of the British delegation to the League of Nations at Geneva and a close friend of Lloyd George.
Of course she had a certain narrowness of view common to her class; it is amusing to read about her shopping for clothes and feeling exhausted (admittedly pre-war), or a sense that her clearly comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle was onerous. She frequently complains about the grind of organising the household, yet enjoys the luxury of a chauffeur-driven car and a full-time nurse for the children. Servants are often a trial, and as she points out after the death of an unsatisfactory land agent, “If one has no agent, underlings try and mount the high horse.” She wrote to the Times in 1935 about the importance of service as training for married life, perhaps not appreciating that its absence in her own life had not done her any harm and that its presence would hardly have caused her to treat Charles more kindly.
In short, she comes across as someone not, as the title of this book indicates, situated between two worlds, but someone who saw herself within two worlds, able to shuttle between them almost at will, and comfortable in both. Small details only to be found within the intimate confines of a diary cast side-lights on her public persona, and little snippets, such as A W Verrall’s bad arthritis, SPR administrator Alice Johnson looking old, Winifred’s own extensive dental problems, her active dislike of her sisters-in-law Eveleen (F W H Myers’s widow) and Dorothy, help to make more human names familiar from the publications and histories of the SPR.
Hopefully the full diaries will eventually be made available to researchers who want to examine the fine detail of her life not available in an abridgement, and follow the trail after 1924: the Darwin Correspondence Project may be a suitable template for Winifred’s diaries. As an example of Between Two Worlds’ limitations, Lord supplies a paragraph following the entry for 12 October 1917, when Winifred had received a letter from Sir Oliver Lodge, which states: “Winifred seems to have had no contact with Lodge since their disagreement nearly three years before. The rapprochement marks the beginning of an estrangement from other SPR colleagues and their methods.” After the first sentence there is a footnote which says: “See the Diary for 6 December 1914.” This is clearly a pivotal moment in her association with the SPR, and as Lord indicates, it marks a diminution in the number of references to psychical research in the diaries thereafter; in fact the entry for 14 October 1917 is highly critical of the SPR strategy of keeping mediums involved in the cross correspondences rigidly separated, and argues for a more collaborative effort (“A clearing house of SPR stuff is what is wanted...”). So one turns eagerly back to the entry for 6 December 1914, to find that the diary skips from Saturday 5 December to the following Tuesday, the 8th. There had been a passing reference to her irritation with Lodge for exerting pressure on her to produce scripts when she was not in a suitable frame of mind, but no sense of a rupture between them. He slips from view as her priorities change, so it is a surprise to read that they had had a serious disagreement that affected their relationship. The full text may hold useful information for the specialist concerned with such matters.
Despite her varied and often high-profile activities, it is easy to forget that until recently Winifred was largely unknown outside the confines of psychical research. The Times did publish an obituary on 1 September 1956 focusing on “A life of Service in South Wales”, even though for much of her life she lived elsewhere, and referring to her as “Mrs Charles Coombe Tennant”, but she was generally neglected outside discussions of mediumship. The Daily Telegraph obituary of Henry, or Dom Joseph as he became (28 November 1989), has no mention of his Coombe Tennant parentage whatsoever, something that certainly could not happen today. Winifred is a figure of some significance in the history of the early twentieth century, and Lord’s skilful editing has given psychical researchers and historians of the period access to an important primary source.