Progress in English Spiritualism

[This is taken from Arthur Conan Doyle's The History of Spiritualism.]


Mrs. de Morgan’s account of ten years’ experience of Spiritualism covers the ground from 1853 to 1863. The appearance of this book, with the weighty preface by Professor De Morgan, was one of the first signs that the new movement was spreading upwards as well as among the masses. Then came the work of D. D. Home and of the Davenports, which is detailed elsewhere. The examination of the Dialectical Society began in 1869, which is also dealt with in a later chapter. The year 1870 was the date of the first researches of William Crookes, which he undertook after remarking upon the scandal caused by the refusal of scientific men “to investigate the existence and nature of facts asserted by so many competent and credible witnesses.” In the same periodical, the Quarterly journal of Science, he spoke of this belief being shared by millions, and added: “I wish to ascertain the laws governing the appearance of very remarkable phenomena, which, at the present time, are occurring to an almost incredible extent.”

The story of his research was given in full in 1874, and caused such a tumult among the more fossilized men of science-those who may be said to have had their minds subdued to that at which they worked-that there was some talk of depriving him of his Fellowship of the Royal Society. The storm blew over, but Crookes was startled by its violence, and it was noticeable that for many years, until his position was impregnable, he was very cautious in any public expression of his views. In 1872-73, the Rev. Stainton Moses appeared as a new factor, and his automatic writings raised the subject to a more spiritual plane in the judgment of many.  The phenomenal side may attract the curious, but when over-emphasized it is likely to repel the judicious mind.

Public lectures and trance addresses became a feature. Mrs. Emma Hardinge Britten, Mrs. Cora L. V. Tappan, and Mr. J. J. Morse gave eloquent orations, purporting to come from spirit influence, and large gatherings were deeply interested. Mr. Gerald Massey, the well-known poet and writer, and Dr. George Sexton, also delivered public lectures.  Altogether, Spiritualism had much publicity given to it.

The establishment of the British National Association of Spiritualists in 1873 gave the movement an impetus, because many well-known public men and women joined it. Among them may be mentioned the Countess of Caithness, Mrs. Makdougall Gregory (widow of Professor Gregory, of Edinburgh), Dr. Stanhope Speer, Dr. Gully, Sir Charles Isham, Dr.  Maurice Davies, Mr. H. D. Jencken, Dr. George Sexton, Mrs. Ross Church (Florence Marryat), Mr. Newton Crosland, and Mr. Benjamin Coleman.

Mediumship of a high order in the department of physical phenomena was supplied by Mrs. Jencken (Kate Fox) and Miss Florence Cook. Dr. J. R.  Newton, the famous healing medium from America, arrived in 1870, and numbers of extraordinary cures were registered at free treatments. From 1870 Mrs. Everitt’s wonderful mediumship exercised, like that of D. D.  Home, without charge, convinced many influential people. Herne and Williams, Mrs. Guppy, Eglinton, Slade, Lottie Fowler, and others, secured many converts through their mediumship. In 1872 Hudson’s spirit photographs created enormous interest, and in 1875 Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace published his famous book, “On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism.”

A good means of tracing the growth of Spiritualism at this period is to examine the statements of worthy contemporary witnesses, especially those qualified by position and experience to give an opinion. But before we glance at the period we are considering, let us look at the situation in 1866, as viewed by Mr. William Howitt in a few paragraphs which are so admirable that the author is constrained to quote thetas verbatim. He says:

The present position of Spiritualism in England, were the Press, with all its influence, omnipotent, would be hopeless. After having taken every possible means to damage and sneer down Spiritualism; after having opened its columns to it, in the hope that its emptiness and folly would be so apparent that its clever enemies would soon be able to knock it on the head by invincible arguments, and then finding that all the advantages of reason and fact were on its side; after having abused and maligned it to no purpose, the whole Press as by one consent, or by one settled plan, has adopted the system of opening its columns and pages to any false or foolish story about it, and hermetically closing them to any explanation, refutation, or defense. It is, in fact, resolved, all other means of killing it having failed, to burke it. To clap a literary pitch-plaster on its mouth, and then let anyone that likes cut its throat if he can.

By this means it hopes to stamp it out like the rinderpest.

If anything could annihilate Spiritualism, its present estimation by the English public, its treatment by the Press and the courts of law, its attempted suppression by all the powers of public intelligence, its hatred by the heroes of the pulpits of all churches and creeds, the simple acceptance of even the public folly and wickedness attributed to it by the Press, its own internal divisions-in a word, its pre-eminent unpopularity would put it out of existence. But does it? On the contrary, it never was more firmly rooted into the mass of advanced minds; its numbers never more rapidly increased; its truths were never more earnestly and eloquently advocated; the enquiries after it never more abundant or more anxious. The soirees in Harley Street have, through the whole time that Press and horsehair wig have been heaping every reproach and every scorn upon it, been crowded to excess by ladies and gentlemen of the middle and higher classes, who have listened in admiration to the eloquent and ever-varied addresses of Emma Hardinge.  Meantime, the Davenports, a thousand times denounced as impostors, and exposed impostors, have a thousand times shown that their phenomena remain as unexplainable as ever on any but a spiritual theory.

What means all this? What does it indicate? That Press and pulpit, and magistrate and law courts, have all tried their powers, and have failed.  They stand nonplussed before the thing which they themselves have protested is poor and foolish and false and unsubstantial. If it be so poor and foolish and false and unsubstantial, how is it that all their learning, their unscrupulous denunciation, their vast means of attack and their not less means of prevention of fair defense, their command of the ears and the opinions of the multitude-how happens it that all their wit and sarcasm and logic and eloquence cannot touch it? So far from shaking and diminishing it, they do not even ruffle a hair on its head, or a fringe of its robe.

Is it not about time for these combined hosts of the great and wise, the scientific, the learned, the leaders of senates and colleges and courts of law, the eloquent favorites of Parliament, the magnates of the popular Press, furnished with all the intellectual artillery which a great national system of education, and great national system of Church and State and aristocracy, accustomed to proclaim what shall be held to be true and of honorable repute by all honorable men and women-is it not time, I say, that all this great and splendid world of wit and wisdom should begin to suspect that they have something solid to deal with? That there is something vital in what they have treated as a phantom?

I do not say to these great and world-commanding bodies, powers and agencies, open your eyes and see that your efforts are fruitless, and acknowledge your defeat, for probably they never will open their eyes and confess their shame; but I say to the Spiritualists themselves, dark as the day may seem to you, never was it more cheering. Leagued as all the armies of public instructors and directors are against it, never was its bearing more anticipatory of ultimate victory. It has upon it the stamp of all the conquering influences of the age. It has all the legitimatism of history on its head. It is but fighting the battle that every great reform-social or moral or intellectual or religious-has fought and eventually won.

As showing the change that occurred after Mr. Howitt wrote in 1866, we find THE TIMES of December 26, 1872, publishing an article entitled “Spiritualism and Science,” occupying three and a half columns, in which the opinion is expressed that now “it is high time competent hands undertook the unraveling of this Gordian Knot,” though why the existing hands of Crookes, Wallace or De Morgan were incompetent is not explained.

The writer, speaking of Lord Adare’s little book (privately printed) on his experiences with D. D. Home, seems to be impressed by the social status of the various witnesses. Clumsy humor and snobbishness are the characteristics of the article:

A volume now lying before us may serve to show how this folly has spread throughout society. It was lent to us by a distinguished Spiritualist, under the solemn promise that we should not divulge a single name of those concerned. It consists of about 150 pages of reports of séances, and was privately printed by a noble Earl, who has lately passed beyond the House of Lords; beyond also, we trust, the spirit-peopled chairs and tables which in his lifetime he loved, not wisely, but too well. In this book things more marvelous than any we have set down are circumstantially related, in a natural way, just as though they were ordinary, everyday matters of fact. We shall not fatigue the reader by quoting any of the accounts given, and no doubt he will take our word when we say that they range through every species of “manifestation,” from prophesyings downwards.

What we more particularly wish to observe is, that the attestation of fifty respectable witnesses is placed before the title-page. Among them are a Dowager Duchess and other ladies of rank, a Captain in the Guards, a nobleman, a Baronet, a Member of Parliament, several officers of our scientific and other corps, a barrister, a merchant, and a doctor. Upper and upper middle-class society is represented in all its grades, and by persons who, to judge by the position they hold and the callings they follow, ought to be possessed of intelligence and ability.

Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, the eminent naturalist, in the course of a letter to THE TIMES (January 4, 1873), describing his visit to a public medium, said:

I consider it no exaggeration to say that the main facts are now as well established and as easily verifiable as any of the more exceptional phenomena of Nature which are not yet reduced to law. They have a most important bearing on the interpretation of history, which is full of narratives of similar facts, and on the nature of life and intellect, on which physical science throws a very feeble and uncertain light; and it is my firm and deliberate belief that every branch of philosophy must suffer till they are honestly and seriously investigated, and dealt with as constituting an essential portion of the phenomena of human nature.

One becomes bemused by ectoplasm and laboratory experiments which lead the thoughts away from the essential. Wallace was one of the few whose great, sweeping, unprejudiced mind saw and accepted the truth in its wonderful completeness from the humble physical proofs of outside power to the highest mental teaching which that power could convey, teaching that far surpasses in beauty and in credibility any which the modern mind has known.

The public acceptance and sustained support of this great scientific man, one of the first brains of his age, were the more important since he had the wit to understand the complete religious revolution which lay at the back of these phenomena. It has been a curious fact that with some exceptions in these days, as of old, the wisdom has been given to the humble and withheld from the learned. Heart and intuition have won to the goal where brain has missed it. One would think that the proposition was a simple one. It may be expressed in a series of questions after the Socratic form: “Have we established connection with the intelligence of those who have died?” THE SPIRITUALIST says: “Yes.” “Have they given us information of the new life in which they find themselves, and of how it has been affected by their earth life?” Again “Yes.” “Have they found it correspond to the account given by any religion upon earth?” “No.” Then if this be so, is it not clear that the new information is of vital religious import? The humble Spiritualist sees this and adapts his worship to the facts.

Sir William (then Professor) Barrett brought the subject of Spiritualism before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1876.

His paper was entitled “On Some Phenomena associated with Abnormal Conditions of Mind.” He had difficulty in obtaining a hearing. The Biological Committee refused to accept the paper and passed it on to the Anthropological Sub-section, who only accepted it on the casting vote of the chairman, Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace. Colonel Lane Fox helped to overcome the opposition by asking why, as they had discussed ancient witchcraft the previous year, they should not examine modern witchcraft that year. The first part of Professor Barrett’s paper dealt with mesmerism, but in the second part he related his experiences of Spiritualistic phenomena, and urged that further scientific examination should be given to the subject. He gave the convincing details of a remarkable experience he had had of raps occurring with a child.*

·        THE SPIRITUALIST, Sept. 22, 1876, Vol. IX, pp. 87-88.

In the ensuing discussion Sir William Crookes spoke of the levitations he had witnessed with D. D. Home, and said of levitation: “The evidence in favor of it is stronger than the evidence in favor of almost any natural phenomenon the British Association could investigate.” He also made the following remarks concerning his own method of psychic research:

I was asked to investigate when Dr. Slade first came over, and I mentioned my conditions. I have never investigated except under these conditions. It must be at my own house, and my own selection of friends and spectators, under my own conditions, and I may do whatever I like as regards apparatus. I have always tried, where it has been possible, to make the physical apparatus test the things themselves, and have not trusted more than is possible to my own senses. But when it is necessary to trust to my senses, I must entirely dissent from Mr. Barrett, when he says a trained physical inquirer is no match for a professional conjurer. I maintain a physical inquirer is more than a match.

An important contribution to the discussion was made by Lord Rayleigh, the distinguished mathematician, who said:

I think we are much indebted to Professor Barrett for his courage, for it requires some courage to come forward in this matter, and to give us the benefit of his careful experiments. My own interest in the subject dates back two years. I was first attracted to it by reading Mr.  Crookes’s investigations. Although my opportunities have not been so good as those enjoyed by Professor Barrett, I have seen enough to convince me that those are wrong who wish to prevent investigation by casting ridicule on those who may feel inclined to engage in it.

The next speaker, Mr. Groom Napier, was greeted with laughter when he described verified psychometric descriptions of people from their handwriting enclosed in sealed envelopes, and when he went on to describe spirit lights that he had seen, the uproar forced him to resume his seat. Professor Barrett, in replying to his critics, said:

It certainly shows the immense advance that this subject has made within the last few years, that a paper on the once laughed-at phenomena of so-called Spiritualism should have been admitted into the British Association, and should have been permitted to receive the full discussion it has had to-day.

The London SPECTATOR, in an article entitled “The British Association on Professor Barrett’s Paper,” opened with the following broad-minded view:

Now that we have before us a full report of Professor Barrett’s paper, and of the discussion upon it, we may be permitted to express our hope that the British Association will really take some action on the subject of the paper, in spite of the protests of the party which we may call the party of superstitious incredulity. We say superstitious incredulity because it is really a pure superstition, and nothing else, to assume that we are so fully acquainted with the laws of Nature, that even carefully-examined facts, attested by an experienced observer, ought to be cast aside as utterly unworthy of credit, only because they do not at first sight seem to be in keeping with what is most clearly known already.

Sir William Barrett’s views steadily progressed until he accepted the Spiritualistic position in unequivocal terms before his lamented death in 1925. He lived to see the whole world ameliorate its antagonism to such subjects, though little difference perhaps could be observed in the British Association which remained as obscurantist as ever. Such a tendency, however, may not have been an unmixed evil, for, as Sir Oliver Lodge has remarked, if the great pressing material problems had been complicated by psychic issues, it is possible that they would not have been solved. It may be worth remarking that Sir William Barrett in conversation with the author recalled that of the four men who supported him upon that historical and difficult occasion, every one lived to receive the Order of Merit-the greatest honor which their country could bestow. The four were Lord Rayleigh, Crookes, Wallace and Huggins.

It was not to be expected that the rapid growth of Spiritualism would be without its less desirable features. These were of at least two kinds.  First the cry of fraudulent mediumship was frequently heard. In the light of our later, fuller knowledge we know that much that bears the appearance of fraud is not necessarily fraud at all. At the same time, the unbounded credulity of a section of Spiritualists undoubtedly provided an easy field for charlatans. In the course of a paper read before the Cambridge University Society for Psychological Investigation in 1879, the President of the Society, Mr. J. A. Campbell, said*:

·        THE SPIRITUALIST, April 11, 1879, p. 170.


Since the advent of Mr. Home, the number of media has increased yearly, and so has the folly and the imposture. Every spook has become, in the eyes of fools, a divine angel; and not even every spook, but every rogue, dressed up in a sheet, who has chosen or shall choose to call himself a materialized “spirit.” A so-called religion has been founded in which the honor of the most sacred names has been transferred to the ghosts of pickpockets. Of the characters of which divinities, and of the doctrines taught by them, I shall not insult you by speaking; so it ever is when folly and ignorance get into their hands the weapon of an eternal fact, abuse, distortion, crime itself; such were ever the results of children playing with edged tools, but who but an ignoramus would cry, naughty knife? Gradually the movement is clearing itself of such excretions, gradually is it becoming more sober and pure, and strong, and as sensible men and educated men study and pray and work, striving to make good use of their knowledge, will it become more so.

The second feature was the apparent increase of what may be termed anti-Christian, though not antireligious, Spiritualism. This led to William Howitt and other stalwart supporters ceasing their connection with the movement. Powerful articles against this tendency were contributed to the SPIRITUAL MAGAZINE by Howitt and others.

A suggestion of the need for caution and balance is afforded in the remarks of Mr. William Stainton Moses, who said in a paper read before the British National Association of Spiritualists on January 26, 1880*:

·        THE PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW, Vol. II, p. 546.


We are emphatically in need of discipline and education. We have hardly yet settled down after our rapid growth. The child, born just thirty years ago, has increased in stature (if not in wisdom) at a very rapid rate. It has grown so fast that its education has been a little neglected. In the expressive phraseology of its native country, it has been “dragged up” rather promiscuously; and its phenomenal growth has absorbed all other considerations. The time has now come when those who have regarded it as an ugly monster which was born by one of Nature’s freaks only to die an early death, begin to recognize their mistake. The ugly brat means to live; and beneath its ugliness the least sympathetic gaze detects a coherent purpose in its existence. It is the presentation of a principle inherent in man’s nature, a principle which his wisdom has improved away until it is well-nigh eliminated altogether, but which crops out again and again in spite of him-the principle of Spirit as opposed to Matter, of Soul acting and existing independently of the body which enshrines it. Long years of denial of aught but the properties of matter have landed the chief lights of modern science in pure Materialism. To them, therefore, this Spiritualism is a portent and a problem. It is a return to superstition; a survival of savagery; a blot on nineteenth century intelligence. Laughed at, it laughs back; scorned, it gives back scorn for scorn.

In 1881, LIGHT, a high-class weekly Spiritualist newspaper, was begun, and 1882 saw the formation of the Society for Psychical Research.  Speaking generally, it may be said that the attitude of organized science during these thirty years was as unreasonable and unscientific as that of Galileo’s cardinals, and that if there had been a Scientific Inquisition, it would have brought its terrors to bear upon the new knowledge. No serious attempt of any sort, up to the formation of the S.P.R. was made to understand or explain a matter which was engaging the attention of millions of minds. Faraday in 1853 put forward the theory that table-moving was caused by muscular pressure, which may be true enough in some cases, but bears no relation to the levitation of tables, and in any case applies only to the one limited class of psychic phenomena. The usual “scientific” objection was that nothing occurred at all, which neglected the testimony of thousands of credible witnesses.  Others argued that what did happen was capable of being exposed by a conjurer, and any clumsy imitation such as Maskelyne’s parody of the Davenports was eagerly hailed as an exposure, with no reference to the fact that the whole mental side of the question with its overwhelming evidence was untouched thereby.

The “religious” people, furious at being shaken out of their time-honored ruts, were ready, like savages, to ascribe any new thing to the devil. Roman Catholics and the Evangelical sects, alike, found themselves for once united in their opposition. That low spirits may be reached, and low, lying messages received, is beyond all doubt, since every class of spirit exists around us, and like attracts like; but the lofty, sustaining and philosophic teaching which comes to every serious and humble-minded inquirer shows that it is Angelism and not Diabolism which is within our reach. Dr. Carpenter put forward some complex theory, but seems to have been in a minority of one in its acceptance or even in its comprehension. The doctors had an explanation founded upon the cracking of joints, which is ludicrous to anyone who has had personal experience of those percussive sounds which vary in range from the tick of a watch to the blow of a sledge-hammer.

Further explanations, either then or later, included the Theosophic doctrine, which admitted the facts but depreciated the spirits, describing them as astral shells with a sort of dreamy half-consciousness, or possibly an attenuated conscience which made them sub-human in their intelligence or morality. Certainly the quality of spirit communion does vary greatly, but the highest is so high that we can hardly imagine that we are in touch with only a fraction of the speaker. As it is asserted, however, that even in this world our subliminal self is far superior to our normal workaday individuality, it would seem only fair that the spirit world should confront us with something less than its full powers.

Another theory postulates the ANIMA MUNDI, a huge reservoir or central bank of intelligence, with a clearing-house in which all inquiries are honored. The sharp detail which we receive from the Other Side is incompatible with any vague grandiose idea of the sort. Finally, there is the one really formidable alternative, that man has an etheric body with many unknown gifts, among which a power of external manifestation in curious forms may be included. It is to this theory of Cryptesthesia that Richet and others have clung, and up to a point there is an argument in its favor. The author has satisfied himself that there is a preliminary and elementary stage in all psychic work which depends upon the innate and possibly unconscious power of the medium. The reading of concealed script, the production of raps upon demand, the description of scenes at a distance, the remarkable effects of psychometry, the first vibrations of the Direct Voice-each and all of these on different occasions have seemed to emanate from the medium’s own power. Then in most cases there would appear an outside intelligence which was able to appropriate that force and use it for its own ends. An illustration might be given in the experiments of Bisson and Schrenck Notzing with Eva, where the ectoplasmic forms were at first undoubtedly reflections of newspaper illustrations, somewhat muddled by their passage through the medium’s mind. Yet there came a later and deeper stage where an ectoplasmic form was evolved which was capable of movement and even of speech. Richet’s great brain and close power of observation have been largely centered upon the physical phenomena, and he does not seem to have been brought much in contact with those personal mental and spiritual experiences which would probably have modified his views. It is fair to add, however, that those views have continually moved in the direction of the Spiritualistic explanation.

There only remains the hypothesis of complex personality, which may well influence certain cases, though it seems to the author that such cases might be explained equally well by obsession. These instances, however, can only touch the fringe of the subject, and ignore the whole phenomenal aspect, so that the matter need not be taken very seriously.  It cannot be too often repeated, however, that the inquirer should exhaust every possible normal explanation to his own complete satisfaction before he adopts the Spiritualistic view. If he has done this his platform is stable-if he has not done it he can never be conscious of its solidity. The author can say truly, that year after year he clung on to every line of defense until he was finally compelled, if he were to preserve any claim to mental honesty, to abandon the materialistic position.





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