Communication with the Dead
Communication (Between Living and Dead)
Communication (Between Living and Dead)
The possibility of communication between the living and the world of the dead (spirits and nonhuman intelligences) was the dominant issue raised by Spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century, and the verification of Spiritualist claims dominated psychical research through the first half of the twentieth century. Spiritualist claims that certain individuals could regularly demonstrate communication with the dead and psychical research's quest for scientific proof of this alleged phenomenon emerged in response to the Enlightenment's critique of super-naturalism and demands for scientific verification of any such assertions.
Claims of communication with the dead have been an integral part of human experience since the beginning of history. Accounts of spontaneous contact date to ancient times, as do reports of specialists who claimed an extraordinary ability at regular contact with the dead. Such specialists were known by a variety of names, but in Spiritualism they have been referred to as mediums. Most Spiritualists have been satisfied that the human organism of a talented medium is the best mechanism for communication with spirits. The clarity and reliability of communication are usually considered dependent upon whether unseen operators can make use of the medium's sensitivity when his or her will and consciousness are passive. This function has been termed sensory automatism by psychical researchers.
Sometimes communication is assisted by a mechanical indicator such as a planchette or Ouija board. Throughout the twentieth century mechanical devices to effect communication without using the human organism, such as the Ashkir-Jobson Trianion, have been invented. Such devices, of course, involve the presence of human observers, who, it might be supposed, could exert a mediumistic element, if only subconsciously. It was long hoped that a suitable instrument could be invented that would elevate communication with the dead to the domain of pure physics, but, with some notable exceptions, few scientists have been willing to risk ridicule by devoting their energies to such a project. One exception was inventor Thomas A. Edison, who hoped to construct an instrument for communicating with departed spirits. A review of mechanical devices used in spirit communication follows.
In his book Startling Facts in Modern Spiritualism (1874), N. B. Wolfe records a spirit prediction that a "thought indicator" instrument for spirit communication would be invented about 60 years later. In fact, during the 1930s a group of British psychical researchers formed the Ashkir-Jobson Trianion and devised several apparatuses, among them the communigraph and the reflectograph, to facilitate spirit communication by mechanical means.
From time to time other experimenters have also attempted to develop mechanical methods of spirit communication. In 1948 N. Zwaan, a Dutch delegate to the International Spiritual-ist Federation Congress in London, demonstrated an electrical device he claimed produced a field of energy capable of stimulating the psychic senses into activity. In 1949 Mark Dyne called a meeting of Spiritualists in Manchester, England, where Dennis Russell demonstrated a Zwaan ray apparatus, and the Spirit Electronic Communication Society was founded. In 1952 the Teledyne Research Unit was formed with Don Emerson as medium, and with spirit guidance the Teledyne instrument was constructed employing Zwaan ray principles.
Other devices included the dynamistograph and the Vandermeulen spirit indicator.
In the 1970s there was widespread interest expressed in the electronic voice phenomenon or Raudive voices, developed by Friedrich Jürgenson in Sweden and Konstantin Raudive in Germany. Jürgenson and Raudive claimed that voices of dead people could be recorded on a tape recorder, that these voices could answer questions and/or offer verifiable evidence of survival. The simplest technique involved merely making a recording in a quiet room with an open microphone, with a preliminary announcement, then to playing the tape back at maximum volume. A second method involved connecting the tape recorder to a simple diode circuit. A third method consisted of coupling an ordinary broadcast receiver to the tape recorder, which was tuned to a frequency that appeared devoid of normal signals.
Paranormal voices distinct from either radio signals, extraneous sounds, or the "white noise" backgrounds were said to have been recorded. In some cases the voices occurred at a different speed from the recording. They were sometimes noted to have broken through or interrupted radio sounds.
Because of the ambiguity of so many of the claimed paranormal voices and the susceptibility of a listener to hallucinate sounds from faint signals, there was initially a good deal of skepticism about the electronic voice phenomenon, but there was also much responsible scientific support. Interest in the phenomenon declined since it failed to produce results over a period of time.
Motor automatism refers to the action of the body, independently of the conscious will, in the production of extraordinary phenomena. Such motor automatism is seen in the movement, under the hand, of the séance table, Ouija board, planchette, coin, tumbler, or pendulum inside an alphabetical circle; in the striking of the pendulum against a glass; in raps when a nervous explosion appears to explain the phenomenon; in automatic writing, and in trance speaking. A stranger manifestation of motor automatism has been reported in some rare cases of stigmata, in which messages appear in raised letters on the surface of the medium's skin.
On occasion, the motor effects of the divining rod employed as a means of communication. According to Professor E. Garnett of the Transvaal University College is quoted in Stanley de Brath's book The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism (1947), "During the past few months my son has discovered that in reply to definite question, the rod [divining rod] behaves as planchette. The method he adopts is as follows: The rod is held at forehead level, almost vertical. Questions are asked in usual tone and pitch of voice. For 'Yes' the rod moves forward and downward. For 'No' the rod moves backward and downward."
The tilting of the table in table turning séances or the gentle tapping by a table leg indicating a letter of the alphabet was a crude and laborious, but popular form of communication during the nineteenth century. The Ouija board and other alphabetical arrangements represent a simplification of the process. Raps are more effective, and they eliminate the medium's sub-conscious to a greater degree, but they are rarer. The plan-chette approaches automatic writing, and trance speaking is motor automatism at its most effective.
Sensory automatism may involve some degree of mediumistic consciousness and is witnessed in the delivery of messages by clairvoyance, clairaudience, and telepathy, or in the perception of symbolic visions. The clairvoyant messages may be presented pictorially to the medium's mind, externalized in a crystal ball or other shining surface, or heard in seashells or by inner audition.
Many instances of message-bearing symbolic visions are recorded by Ernest Bozzano in the Annals of Psychical Science (volume 6, 1907). In one instance, a mother saw a little bird flying in a deserted plain a little bird whose wings suddenly fell off. Soon after the vision her son died.
Independent Physical Signals
In a third and further-developed stage of communication, Spiritualists have claimed that both motor and sensory automatism are dispensed with and messages occur in apparent independence through the operation of a mysterious psychic force. Observers have seen tables move without being touched and heard percussive sounds that could not be traced to the medium's organism.
Sir William Crookes recorded the following observations with the famous medium D. D. Home: "One of the most amazing things I have seen was the levitation of a glass water-bottle and tumbler. The two objects remained suspended above the table, and by tapping against each other answered 'yes' to questions. They remained suspended about six to eight inches above the table for about five minutes, moving in front of each person and answering questions."
At another time Crookes observed: "During a séance with Mr. Home a small lath moved across the table to me in the light and delivered a message to me by tapping my hand; I repeating the alphabet and the lath tapping me at the right letters. The other end of the lath was resting on the table, some distance from Mr. Home's hands.
"The taps were so sharp and clear and the lath was evidently so well under control of the invisible power which was governing its movements, that I said 'Can the intelligence governing the motion of this lath change the character of the movements, and give me a telegraphic message through the Morse alphabet by taps on my hand.' Immediately I said this the character of the taps changed and the message was continued in the way I had requested. The letters were given too rapidly for me to do more than catch a word here and there and consequently I lost the message; but I heard sufficient to convince me that there was a good Morse operator at the other end of the line, wherever it might be."
Deceiving Spirits and the Play of the Subconscious
To anyone seriously pursuing the possibility of spirit communication, the questions that present themselves are numerous. Are the communications to be accepted at their face value as emanating from spirits? Can they be explained by the sub-conscious powers of the medium, of the sitters, or of others?
As early as 1853 G. H. Lewes observed (and exploited for purposes of derision) that suggestion may play an important part in the shaping of the contents of mediumistic verbiage. He described a sitting for raps with Maria B. Hayden when, by carefully emphasized hesitation at the appropriate letters he had a conversation with one of the Eumenides. At the same sitting he induced the table to confess, in reply to his mental question, that Hayden was an impostor and that the ghost of Hamlet's father had 17 noses!
In The Book of Mediums, French medium Allan Kardec writes of an instance in which the medium evoked Tartuffe, who he showed himself in all his classical peculiarities. When the medium asked, "How is it that you are here, seeing that you never had any real existence?" Tartuffe answered "I am the spirit of an actor who used to play the part of Tartuffe."
But no such fencing was possible in the following case, also recorded by Kardec: "A gentleman had in his garden a nest of little birds. This nest having disappeared one day, he became uneasy as to the fate of his little pets. As he was a medium he went into his library and invoked the mother of the birds to get some news of them. 'Be quite easy,' she replied to him, 'my young ones are safe and sound. The house-cat knocked down the nest in jumping upon the garden wall; you will find them in the grass at the foot of the wall.' The gentleman hurried to the garden and found the little nestlings, full of life, at the spot indicated."
Highly improbable communications came sometimes even through mediums of established reputation. In a sitting with Lenora Piper in 1899, the biblical Moses reportedly communicated prophecies as well as a variety of meaningless utterances.
There have been numerous communications attributed to "deceiving" spirits. Theodor Flournoy, in his 1911 classic text Spiritism and Psychology, records instances in which mediumistic conversations were carried on for days with the spirits of friends who announced their sudden death. It was found afterward that they were in flourishing health and had no idea of the distress they had caused.
It was known from early times that communications allegedly coming from the spirits cannot always be trusted. Emanuel Swedenborg wrote in his spiritual diary: "When spirits begin to speak with man he must beware lest he believe them in any thing; for they say almost anything. Things are fabricated by them and they lie. If man then listens and believes, they press on and deceive and seduce in divers ways."
To some extent the character of an established control may be responsible for untrustworthy communications. Hester Dowden observed that the controls seem to have a private circle of acquaintances to draw from. These acquaintances always choose to come through the same control and are generally as trustworthy as the keeper of the unseen barrier. When the control was seeking a communicator Dowden often noticed that quite foolish and irrelevant little messages were spelled out as if spirits of the poltergeist type had been playing with the Ouija board.
Communications that seem to originate in an extraneous mind are sometimes followed by others in which the subconscious element is overwhelming. Dowden cited a case in which description of a haunted castle was given. She wanted to stop the communication as one of no interest when her guest interrupted and said that he was very much interested, since the story that came through was the plot of his new play.
Generally the communications are earnest and their tone is moral and religious. In discussing the various angles presented by the contents of mediumistic communications, F. W. H. Myers concluded:
"The high moral quality of these automatic communications is a phenomenon worth consideration. I must indeed confess myself unable to explain why it is that beneath frequent incoherence, frequent commonplaces, frequent pomposity of these messages, there should always be a substratum of better sense, of truer Catholicity than is usually to be heard, except from the leading minds of the generation. The almost universally high tone of genuinely automatic utterances—whether claimed as spirit communications or proceeding obviously from the automatist himself—has not, I think, been sufficiently noticed or adequately explained."
The Personal Character—Difficulties and Complications of Communications
The great question in all communications that originates in the subconscious is why they should take on the form of personal character. William James offered an explanation, that "all consciousness tends to personal form." He believed that genuine communications are extremely rare and that the information occasionally imparted by supernormal means is immediately seized upon by the subconscious mind and presented in a dramatized and elaborated form. His supposition is borne out by the observations of Frederik van Eeden with the medium Rosina Thompson. The sum total of his findings was that after the genuine information has ceased, the role of any spirit is easily and imperceptibly taken up by the medium.
What is the mechanism of communication? In the trance mediumship of Leonora Piper the controls took pains to give an explanation, later summarized by Richard Hodgson:
"We all have bodies composed of luminiferous ether enclosed in our flesh and blood bodies. The relation of Mrs. Piper's ethereal body to the ethereal world, in which communicators claim to dwell is such that a special store of energy is accumulated in connection with her organism, and this appears to them as 'light.' Mrs. Piper's ethereal body is removed by them and her ordinary body appears as a shell filled with this 'light.' Several communicators may be in contact with this light at the same time. There are two chief masses of it in her case, one connected with the head, the other in connection with the right arm and hand. Latterly, that in connection with the hand has been brighter than that in connection with the head. If the communicator gets into contact with the light and thinks his thoughts, they tend to be reproduced by movements in Mrs. Piper's organism. Very few can produce vocal effects, even when in contact with the light of the head, but practically all can produce writing movements when in contact with the light of the hand. Upon the amount and brightness of this light, caeteris paribus, the communications depend. When Mrs. Piper is in ill health the light is feebler and the communications tend to be less coherent. It also gets used up during a sitting and when it gets dim there is a tendency to incoherence even in otherwise clear communicators. In all cases coming into contact with this light tends to produce bewilderment, and if the contact is continued too long or the light becomes very dim the consciousness of the communicator tends to lapse completely."
To obtain communications from two different intelligences at the same time, one writing and the other speaking, was nothing unusual in Piper's mediumship. Attempts were even made at gaining the use of the left hand by a third intelligence for simultaneous communication. Hodgson reported that at a sitting where a lady was engaged in a profoundly personal conversation with Piper's control "Phinuit" concerning her relations, "the hand was seized very quietly and, as it were, surreptitiously, and wrote a very personal communication to myself purporting to come from a deceased friend of mine and having no relation whatsoever to the sitter; precisely as if a caller should enter a room where two strangers to him were conversing, but a friend of his is also present and whispers a special message into the ear of the friend without disturbing the conversation."
The attempt to write with the left hand was successfully made on March 18, 1895, in a sitting with a Miss Edmunds. Her deceased sister wrote with one hand and "G. P." with the other, while "Phinuit" was talking—all simultaneously on different subjects. Very little, however, was written with the left hand. The difficulty appeared to lie chiefly in the deficiencies of the left hand in writing.
Piper's case was not unique. Dr. David Underhill (later the husband of Leah Fox ), in his story of the mediumship of Abby Warner (related in E. Hardinge Britten's Modern American Spiritualism ), quotes affidavits and writes from his own experience that Warner often gave three separate communications at once—one with her right hand, another with her left, and a third through rapping.
Robert Dale Owen testified to the same versatility in Kate Fox. William Crookes confirmed Owen's observations: "I have been with Miss Fox when she has been writing a message automatically to one person present, whilst a message to another person on another subject was being given alphabetically by means of raps and the whole time she was conversing freely with a third person on a subject totally different from either."
Confusion and Incoherence
The incoherency of some of the messages received through mediums and the difficulties in communicating with the dead presented a very complex problem. Richard Hodgson, on the basis of his experiences with Piper, arrived at the following conclusions:
"If, indeed, each one of us is a spirit that survives the death of the fleshly organism, there are certain suppositions that I think we may not unreasonably make concerning the ability of the discarnate spirit to communicate with those yet incarnate. Even under the best conditions for communication which I am supposing for the nonce to be possible, it may well be that the aptitude for communicating clearly may be as rare as the gifts that make a great artist, or a great mathematician, or a great philosopher. Again, it may well be that, owing to the change connected with death itself, the spirit may at first be much confused, and such confusion may last for a long time; and even after the spirit has become accustomed to its new environment, it is not an unreasonable supposition that if it came into some such relation to another living human organism as it once maintained with its own former organism it would find itself confused by that relation. The state might be like that of awaking from a prolonged period of unconsciousness into strange surroundings. If my own ordinary body could be preserved in its present state, and I could absent myself from it for some days or months or years, and continue my existence under another set of conditions altogether, and if I could then return to my own body, it might well be that I should be very confused and incoherent at first in my manifestation by means of a human body. I might be troubled with various forms of aphasia and agraphia, might be particularly liable to failures of inhibition, might find the conditions oppressive and exhausting, and my state of mind would probably be of an automatic and dream-like character. Now the communications through Mrs. Piper's trance exhibit precisely the kind of confusion and incoherence which it seems to me we have some reason a priori to expect if they are actually what they claim to be."
Myers pointed out the resemblance of such communications to the fugitive and unstable discourse between different strata of personality of which embodied minds offer an example. He suggested that multiple personality may occur in the disem-bodied as well.
The explanations of Piper's control "George Pelham" presented a Spiritualist explanation of the communication process:
"In trance the ethereal body of the psychic parts from the physical body just as it does in dreams and then we take possession of it for the purpose of communication. Your conversation reaches us as if by telephone from a distant station. Our forces fail us in the heavy atmosphere of the world, especially at the end of the séance…. If I often blunder it is because I am mak ing use of an organism which does not fit me well…. When clear communications are wanted you must not stun them with questions. In order to reveal themselves to you the spirits put themselves in an environment that discommodes them a good deal. They are like persons who have received a blow on the head and are in a state of semi-delirium. They must be calmed, encouraged, assured that their idea will immediately be of great importance. To put ourselves into communication with you we must penetrate into your sphere and we sometimes become careless and forgetful as you are. That is the reason why we make mistakes and are incoherent. I am as intelligent as I ever was, but the difficulties of communicating with you are great. In order to speak with you it is necessary for me to re-enter the body and there dream. Hence you must pardon my errors and the lacunae in my speech and memory."
A message claimed to be from the deceased W. T. Stead, recorded in Julia's Bureau on June 2, 1912, is similar: "When I see now for myself the extraordinary difficulties in getting messages through from this side, I marvel not that we got so little in all our searchings when I was with you but that we got as much as we did. For it is you, your conditions which make the barrier."
Piper's controls could not hold on long in the body of the medium and often got confused through the eagerness of the interrogator. The spirit of Robert Hyslop said to his son, "You interrupt me, I ought to go now for my power is failing me and I don't know what I am doing." Another time he said "James, I am getting weaker, wait for me, I am coming back." This experience was common with all the communicators. Free, easy chatter, safe from concentration on tests is conducive to better communications. James H. Hyslop, in his sixteenth sitting with Piper, when he adopted the methods of the Spiritualists, obtained more identity proofs than in all the previous 15 sittings.
The first attempts in getting through are usually fraught with greater difficulties. By a curious process of inversion, the recently dead individual reproduces the symptoms of his last bodily illness in the body of the medium without conscious effort and causes her great discomfort. At the same time the communicator lapses into the mental state he was in as he was dying. Hyslop wrote on this point:
"The mental confusion relevant to the death of my father was apparent in his first attempt to communicate through Mrs. Piper, and when I recalled this period of his dying experience, this confusion was repeated in a remarkable manner, with several evidential features in the messages. Twice an uncle lost the sense of personal identity to communicate. His communications were in fact so confused that it was two years before he became at all clear in his efforts. He had died as a result of a sudden accident. Once my father, after mentioning the illness of my living sister and her name, lost his personal identity long enough to confuse incidents relating to himself and his earthly life with those that applied to my sister and not to himself." Hy-slop further observed:
"We may well suppose it possible that this coming back produces an effect similar to the amnesia which so often accompanies a shock or sudden interference with the normal stream of consciousness. The effect seems to be the same as that of certain kinds of dissociation which are now being studied by the student of abnormal psychology, and this is the disturbance of memory which makes it difficult or impossible to recall in one mental state the events which have been experienced in another."
The extent to which the medium is affected by the psychic state of the communicator at the moment of death is well illustrated by Emma Hardinge Britten 's description of her famous prediction of the loss of the steamer Pacific:
"That evening, just as my mother and myself were about to retire for the night, a sudden and unusual chill crept over me, and an irresistible impression possessed my mind that a spirit had come into our presence. A sensation as if water was streaming over me accompanied the icy chilliness I experienced and a feeling of indescribable terror possessed my whole being. I begged my mother to light up every lamp we had at hand; then to open the door that the proximity of people in the house out-side our room might aid to dissipate the horror that seemed to pervade the very air. At last, at my mother's suggestion, I consented to sit at the table, with the alphabet we had provided turned from me and towards her, so that she could follow the involuntary movements of my finger, which some power seemed to guide in pointing out the letters. In this way was rapidly spelt out: 'Philip Smith: Ship Pacific. ' To my horror I distinctly felt an icy cold hand lay hold of my arm; then distinctly and visibly to my mother's eyes, something pulled my hair, which was hanging in long curls; all the while the coldness of the air increasing so painfully that the apartment seemed pervaded by Arctic breezes. After a while my own convulsed hand was moved tremblingly but very rapidly to spell out: 'My dear Emma, I have come to tell you I am dead. The ship Pacific is lost and all on board have perished; she and her crew will never be heard from any more.' "
Just as the medium may prove hypersensitive to the thoughts of the sitters when in trance, so it appears that thought impressions of the spirits congregating around the "light" may have a garbling influence on the message of the control. This possibility was strongly borne out by the attitude of Piper's control "George Pelham, " who many times asked the waiting sitters to withdraw until he was through with his first messages. The assumption was that at the same time the spirits on the other side also left and saved him much confusion. Hyslop noted several instances in which the communication came through unintentionally.
The communication of names that have no special meaning is usually difficult for the controls when the messages are sent by telepathic or pictorial impressions. There is often confusion of the letters.
Hyslop also believed that the nature of the communicator's mind can present another difficulty in clear communication. If, for instance, the communicator was a good visualizer and the medium is a poor one, the pictorial messages impressed on the medium may come through imperfectly.
Hyslop made statistical calculations regarding the more important communications through Piper in 15 sittings. There were 205 in all; of these 152 were found to be true, 16 false, and 37 indecisive. In regard to 927 matters of detail alluded to in these communications, 717 were true, 43 false, and 167 undecided.
According to Hodgson, three kinds of confusion could be distinguished in the Piper communications: (1) confusion of the spirit as to whether it was communicating or not, primarily because of mental or bodily conditions when living; (2) confusion in the spirit produced by the conditions into which it came when in the act of communicating; and (3) confusion about the result because of lack of complete control over the writing (or other) mechanism of the medium.
Hodgson found that the best communicators were recently deceased children and adults who had died in the prime of a healthy life, like George Pelham, who only complained that the dreams of the medium got in his way.
In his first report on Piper, Sir Oliver Lodge stated that when "Dr. Phinuit" vacated his place for another communicator the speeches were "more commonplace, and so to say 'cheaper' than what one would suppose likely from the person himself." Phinuit said that after "entering the medium" he only remembered the messages entrusted to him for a few minutes and then became confused. Apparently he was not able to depart at once and kept on repeating incoherent statements.
Considering that in messages from the living the agents do not appear to exercise control over the contents any more than thoughts in dreams are controlled, it is a legitimate supposition that, in some cases, the dead may not be more conscious of sending a message than the living. Again, the communicator may be perfectly conscious of the message, yet uncertain of its receipt. The deceased Myers, purporting to communicate to Alice Kipling Fleming (Mrs. Holland), said, "Does any of this reach you, reach anyone, or am I only wailing as the wind wails—wordless and unheeded?" (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 21, p. 233).
Other Forms of Communication
Communication from the dead may come in dreams. One of the oldest instances is given by Cicero in De Divinatione: Two friends go to Megare, one lodges at an inn, the other at a private house. The latter, in his dream, hears his comrade call him for assistance against an assassin. He awakens, then sleeps again. The friend appears and tells him he has been killed and thrown into a wagon by the innkeeper and that manure had been thrown over his body. In the morning the friend finds the story true in every detail.
Communicating with the spirits through raps is commonly dated from the time of the so-called Rochester rappings at Hydesville, New York, in 1848. Four months after the Hydesville outbreak Isaac Post, a Quaker, revived David Fox's idea of asking the spirits to rap at the corresponding letter of the alphabet. The Hydesville discovery was not without precedent, however, as early as 858 C.E. it was described in a chronicle, Rudolf of Fulda. Also, before 1848 a spiritualistic interpretation was accepted by many for the phenomena of magnetic trance. The Shakers experienced a special influx of spirit manifestation between 1837 and 1844.
The Rochester rappings and the physical phenomena followed only appeared to confirm the existence of another world. At first it seemed to be inhabited by nonhuman spirits, angels, and other exalted beings. The manifestation of "John King " in the log house of Jonathan Koons marked a transition between nonhuman and human communicators. At first King said he was semidivine, one of "the most ancient angels," and claimed kingly attributes. Later he confessed to have been Morgan, the pirate king. From his early identity as the ruler of a primeval Adamic race, King evolved into a more humble entity who, in manifesting through mediums succeeding Jonathan Koons, laid no more claim to royalty.
Bander, Peter. Carry on Talking: How Dead are the Voices? U.K.: Colin Smythe, 1972. Beard, Paul. Survival of Death: For and Against. London, 1966.
Broad, C. D. Personal Identity and Survival. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1968.
Ducasse, C. J. A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death. Springfield, Ill.: Charles Thomas, 1961.
Ellis, D. J. The Mediumship of the Tape Recorder. Harlow, England: David J. Ellis, 1978.
Hart, Hornell. The Enigma of Survival: The Case for and against an After Life. Springfield, Ill.: Charles Thomas, 1959.
Hill, J. Arthur. Spiritualism: Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine. New York: George H. Doran, 1919.
Hyslop, James H. Contact With the Other World: The Latest Evidence as to Communication with the Dead. New York: Century, 1919. Reprint, Finch Press, 1972.
Kautz, William H., and Melanie Branon. Channeling: The Intuitive Connection. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
Leonard, Gladys Osborn. My Life in Two Worlds. London: Cassell, 1931.
Myers, Frederic W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. 2 vols. London: Longmans Green, 1903, 1954.
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Sargent, Epes. Planchette: or the Despair of Science. Boston, 1869.
Communication with the Dead
Communication with the Dead
Distant communication has been transformed since ancient times. People can bridge the distance between absent loved ones by picking up a cellular phone, sending e-mail, or boarding a jet that quickly eradicates physical distance. Nevertheless, technology has not improved communication when it is death that separates individuals. The rich and varied history of attempts to communicate with its tantalizing melange of fact and history continues into the present day.
Attracting and Cherishing the Dead
John Dee fascinated Queen Elizabeth in the middle of the sixteenth century when he provided valuable service to the Crown as a navigational consultant, mathematician, and secret agent. What especially piqued the Queen's interest, though, was Dee's mirror. It was an Aztec mirror that had fallen into his hands—along with its story. Supposedly one could see visions by gazing into the mirror in a receptive state of mind. The Queen was among those who believed she had seen a departed friend in Dee's mirror.
Some claim that the dead choose to communicate with the living and the living can also reach out to them by using special techniques and rituals. These propositions have been accepted by many people since ancient times. Greek religious cults and the Aztecs both discovered the value of reflective surfaces for this purpose.
Raymond A. Moody, best known for his pioneering work on near-death experiences, literally unearthed the ancient tradition when he visited the ruins of a temple known as the Oracle of the Dead. There, on a remote and sacred hilltop in Heraclea, priests could arrange for encounters between the living and the dead. Moody recounts his visit:
The roof of the structure is gone, leaving exposed the maze of corridors and rooms that apparition seekers wandered through while waiting to venture into the apparition chamber. . . . I tried to imagine what this place would have been like two thousand years ago when it was dark as a cave and filled with a kind of eerie anticipation. What did the people think and feel during the weeks they were in here? Even though I like to be alone, my mind boggled at the thought of such lengthy and total sensory deprivation. (Moody 1992, p. 88)
The apparition chamber was the largest room. It was also probably the most majestic and impressive room the visitors had ever seen. After weeks in the dark, they were now bathed in light. Candles flickered against the walls as priests led them toward the centerpiece, a cauldron whose highly polished metal surface glittered and gleamed with reflections. With priestly guidance, the seekers gazed at the mirrored surface and the dead appeared—or did they? No one knows what their eyes beheld. This ritual was persuasive enough, though, that it continued until the temple was destroyed by the conquering Romans. It is reasonable to suppose that some of the living did have profoundly stirring experiences, for they believed themselves to be in contact with loved ones who had crossed to the other side. Dee's Aztec mirror may also have been the stimulus for visions in sixteenth-century England. People thought they were seeing something or somebody.
The crystal ball eventually emerged as the preferred intermediary object. Not everybody was adept. Scryers had the knack of peering into the mystical sphere where they could sometimes see the past and the future, the living and the dead. Meanwhile, in jungle compounds thousands of miles away, there were others who could invoke the dead more directly—through the skull. Bones survived decomposition while flesh rotted away. The skull was, literally, the crowning glory of all bones and therefore embodied a physical link with the spirit of the deceased. It was a treasure to own a hut filled with the skulls of ancestors and perhaps of distinguished members of other tribes. The dead were there all the time and could be called upon for their wisdom and power when the occasion demanded.
Moody attempted to bring the psychomanteum (oracle of the dead) practice into modern times. He created a domestic-sized apparition chamber in his home. He allegedly experienced reunions (some of them unexpected) with his own deceased family members and subsequently invited others to do the same. Moody believed that meeting the dead had the potential for healing. The living and the dead have a second chance to resolve tensions and misunderstandings in their relationship. Not surprisingly, people have responded to these reports as wish-fulfillment illusions and outright hallucinations, depending on their own belief systems and criteria for evidence.
Prayer, Sacrifice, and Conversation
Worship often takes the form of prayer and may be augmented by either physical or symbolic sacrifice. The prayer messages (e.g., "help our people") and the heavy sacrifices are usually intended for the gods. Many prayers, though, are messages to the dead. Ancestor worship is a vital feature of Yoruba society, and Shintoism, in its various forms, is organized around behavior toward the dead.
Zoroastrianism, a major religion that arose in the Middle East, has been especially considerate of the dead. Sacrifices are offered every day for a month on behalf of the deceased, and food offerings are given for thirty years. Prayers go with the deceased person to urge that divine judgment be favorable. There are also annual holidays during which the dead revisit their homes, much like the Mexican Days of the Dead. It is during the Fravardegan holidays that the spirits of the dead reciprocate for the prayers that have been said on their behalf; they bless the living and thereby promote health, fertility, and success. In one way or another, many other world cultures have also looked for favorable responses from the honored dead.
Western monotheistic religions generally have discouraged worship of the dead as a pagan practice; they teach that only God should be the object of veneration. Despite these objections, cults developed around mortals regarded as touched by divine grace. The Catholic Church has taken pains to evaluate the credentials for sainthood and, in so doing, has rejected many candidates. Nevertheless, Marist worship has long moved beyond cult status as sorrowing and desperate women have sought comfort by speaking to the Virgin Mary. God may seem too remote or forbidding to some of the faithful, or a woman might simply feel that another woman would have more compassion for her suffering.
Christian dogma was a work in progress for several centuries. By the fourth century it was decided that the dead could use support from the living until God renders his final judgment. The doctrine of purgatory was subsequently accepted by the church. Masses for the dead became an important part of Christian music. The Gregorian chant and subsequent styles of music helped to carry the fervent words both to God and the dead who awaited his judgment.
Throughout the world, much communication intended for the dead occurs in a more private way. Some people bring flowers to the graveside and not only tell the deceased how much they miss them, but also share current events with them. Surviving family members speak their hearts to photographs of their deceased loved ones even though the conversation is necessarily one-sided. For example, a motorist notices a field of bright-eyed daisies and sends a thought-message to an old friend: "Do you see that, George? I'll bet you can!"
Mediums and Spiritualism
People often find comfort in offering prayers or personal messages to those who have been lost to death. Do the dead hear them? And can the dead find a way to respond? These questions came to the fore during the peak of Spiritualism.
Technology and science were rapidly transforming Western society by the middle of the nineteenth century. These advances produced an anything-is-possible mindset. Inventors Thomas Edison (incandescent light bulb) and Guglielmo Marconi (radio) were among the innovators who more than toyed with the idea that they could develop a device to communicate with the dead. Traditional ideas and practices were dropping by the wayside, though not without a struggle. It was just as industrialization was starting to run up its score that an old idea appeared in a new guise: One can communicate with the spirits of the dead no matter what scientists and authorities might say. There was an urgency about this quest. Belief in a congenial afterlife was one of the core assumptions that had become jeopardized by science (although some eminent researchers remained on the side of the angels). Contact from a deceased family member or friend would be quite reassuring.
Those who claimed to have the power for arranging these contacts were soon known as mediums. Like the communication technology of the twenty-first century, mediumship had its share of glitches and disappointments. The spirits were not always willing or able to visit the séances (French for "a sitting"). The presence of even one skeptic in the group could break the receptive mood necessary to encourage spirit visitation. Mediums who were proficient in luring the dead to their darkened chambers could make a good living by so doing while at the same time providing excitement and comfort to those gathered.
Fascination with spirit contacts swept through much of the world, becoming ever more influential as aristocrats, royalty, and celebrities from all walks of life took up the diversion. The impetus for this movement, though, came from a humble rural American source. The Fox family had moved into a modest home in the small upstate New York town of Hydesville. Life there settled into a simple and predictable routine. This situation was too boring for the young Fox daughters, Margaretta and Kate. Fortunately, things livened up considerably when an invisible spirit, Mr. Splitfoot, made himself known. This spirit communicated by rapping on walls and tables. He was apparently a genial spirit who welcomed company. Kate, for example, would clap her hands and invite Mr. Splitfoot to do likewise, and he invariably obliged.
The girls' mother also welcomed the diversion and joined in the spirit games. In her words:
I asked the noise to rap my different children's ages, successively. Instantly, each one of my children's ages was given correctly . . . until the seventh, at which a longer pause was made, and then three more emphatic raps were given, corresponding to the age of the little one that died, which was my youngest child. (Doyle 1926, vol. 1, pp. 61–65)
The mother was impressed. How could this whatever-it-is know the ages of her children? She invented a communication technique that was subsequently used throughout the world in contacts with the audible but invisible dead. She asked Mr. Splitfoot to respond to a series of questions by giving two raps for each "yes." She employed this technique systematically:
I ascertained . . . that it was a man, aged 31 years, that he had been murdered in this house, and his remains were buried in the cellar; that his family consisted of a wife and five children . . . all living at the time of his death, but that his wife had since died. I asked: "Will you continue to rap if I call my neighbors that they may hear it too?" The raps were loud in the affirmative. . . . (Doyle 1926, vol. 1, pp. 61–65)
And so started the movement known first as Spiritism and later as Spiritualism as religious connotations were added. The neighbors were called in and, for the most part, properly astounded. Before long the Fox sisters had become a lucrative touring show. They demonstrated their skills to paying audiences both in small towns and large cities and were usually well received. The girls would ask Mr. Splitfoot to answer questions about the postmortem well-being of people dear to members of the audience. A few of their skeptics included three professors from the University of Buffalo who concluded that Mr. Splitfoot's rappings were produced simply by the girls' ability to flex their knee-joints with exceptional dexterity. Other learned observers agreed. The New York Herald published a letter by a relative of the Fox family that also declared that the whole thing was a hoax. P. T. Barnum, the great circus entrepreneur, brought the Fox girls to New York City, where the large crowds were just as enthusiastic as the small rural gatherings that had first witnessed their performances.
Within a year or so of their New York appearance, there were an estimated 40,000 Spiritualists in that city alone. People interested in the new Spiritism phenomena often formed themselves into informal organizations known as "circles," a term perhaps derived from the popular "sewing circles" of the time. Many of the Spiritualists in New York City were associated with an estimated 300 circles. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, and a former Supreme Court judge were among the luminaries who had become supporters of the movement. Mediums also helped to establish a thriving market developed for communication with the beyond. The movement spread rapidly throughout North America and crossed the oceans, where it soon enlisted both practitioners and clients in abundance.
Table-rapping was supplemented and eventually replaced by other communication technologies. The Ouija board was wildly popular for many years. This was a modern derivative of devices that had been used to communicate with the dead 2,500 years ago in China and Greece. The new version started as the planchette, a heart-shaped or triangular, three-legged platform. While moving the device over a piece of paper, one could produce graphic or textual messages. The belief was that the person who operates the device really does not have control over the messages, which is up to the spirits.
The Ouija board was criticized by some as too effective, and, therefore, dangerous. Believers in the spirit world feared that evil entities would respond to the summons, taking the place of the dearly departed. Other critics warned that the "manifestations" did not come from spirits of the dead but rather had escaped from forbidden corners of the user's own mind and could lead to psychosis and suicide.
Fraudulent Communication with the Dead
The quest to communicate with the dead soon divided into two distinct but overlapping approaches. One approach consisted of earnest efforts by people who either longed for contact with their deceased loved ones or were curious about the phenomena. The other approach consisted of outright fraud and chicanery intended to separate emotionally needy and gullible people from their money. Examples of the latter were so numerous that those searching for the truth of the matter were often discouraged. At the same time that modern investigative techniques were being developed, such as those pioneered by Pinkerton detective agency, there was also the emergence of spirit sleuths who devoted themselves to exposing the crooks while looking for any possible authentic phenomena. The famed illusionist Harry Houdini was among the most effective whistle-blowers during the Spiritism movment. Calling upon his technical knowledge in the art of deception, he declared that astounding people with entertaining illusions was very different from claiming supernatural powers and falsely raising hopes about spirit contact.
The long list of deceptive techniques included both the simple and brazen, and the fairly elaborate. Here are a few examples from spirit sleuth John Mulholland:
- • A match-box sized device was constructed to provide a series of "yes" and "no" raps. All the medium had to do was to ask a corresponding series of questions.
- • A blank slate placed on one's head in a darkened room would mysteriously be written upon by a spirit hand. The spirit was lent a hand by a confederate behind a panel who deftly substituted the blank slate for one with a prewritten message.
- • Spirit hands would touch sitters at a séance to lend palpable credibility to the proceedings. Inflatable gloves were stock equipment for mediums.
- • Other types of spirit touches occurred frequently if the medium had but one hand or foot free or, just as simply, a hidden confederate. A jar of osphorized olive oil and skillful suggestions constituted one of the easier ways of producing apparitions in a dark room. Sitters, self-selected for their receptivity to spirits, also did not seem to notice that walking spirits looked a great deal like the medium herself.
- • The growing popularity of photographers encouraged many of the dead to return and pose for their pictures. These apparitions were created by a variety of means familiar to and readily duplicated by professional photographers.
One of the more ingenious techniques was innovated by a woman often considered the most convincing of mediums. Margery Crandon, the wife of a Boston surgeon, was a bright, refined, and likable woman who burgeoned into a celebrated medium. Having attracted the attention of some of the best minds in the city, she sought new ways to demonstrate the authenticity of spirit contact. A high point was a session in which the spirit of the deceased Walter not only appeared but also left his fingerprints. This was unusually hard evidence—until spirit sleuths discovered that Walter's prints were on file in a local dentist's office and could be easily stamped on various objects. Unlike most other mediums, Margery seemed to enjoy being investigated and did not appear to be in it for the money.
Automatic writing exemplified the higher road in attempted spirit communication. This is a dissociated state of consciousness in which a person's writing hand seems to be at the service of some unseen "Other." The writing comes at a rapid tempo and looks as though written by a different hand. Many of the early occurrences were unexpected and therefore surprised the writer. It was soon conjectured that these were messages from the dead, and automatic writing then passed into the repertoire of professional mediums. The writings ranged from personal letters to full-length books. A century later, the spirits of Chopin and other great composers dictated new compositions to Rosemary Brown, a Londoner with limited skills at the piano. The unkind verdict was that death had taken the luster off their genius. The writings provided the basis for a new wave of investigations and experiments into the possibility of authentic communication with the dead. Some examples convinced some people; others dismissed automatic writing as an interesting but nonevidential dissociative activity in which, literally, the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing.
The cross-correspondence approach was stimulated by automatic writing but led to more complex and intensive investigations. The most advanced type of cross-correspondence is one in which the message is incomplete until two or more minds have worked together without ordinary means of communication—and in which the message itself could not have been formulated through ordinary means of information exchange. One of the most interesting cross-correspondence sequences involved Frederick W. H. Myers, a noted scholar who had made systematic efforts to investigate the authenticity of communication with the dead. Apparently he continued these efforts after his death by sending highly specific but fragmentary messages that could not be completed until the recipients did their own scholarly research. Myers also responded to questions with the knowledge and wit for which he had been admired during his life. Attempts have been made to explain cross-correspondences in terms of telepathy among the living and to dismiss the phenomena altogether as random and overinterpreted. A computerized analysis of cross-correspondences might at least make it possible to gain a better perspective on the phenomena.
The Decline of Spiritism
The heyday of Spiritism and mediums left much wreckage and a heritage of distrust. It was difficult to escape the conclusion that many people had such a desire to believe that they suspended their ordinary good judgment. A striking example occurred when Kate Fox, in her old age, not only announced herself to have been a fraud but also demonstrated her repertoire of spirit rappings and knockings to a sold-out audience in New York City. The audience relished the performance but remained convinced that Mr. Splitfoot was the real thing. Mediumship, having declined considerably, was back in business after World War I as families grieved for lost fathers, sons, and brothers. The intensified need for communication brought forth the service.
Another revival occurred when mediums, again out of fashion, were replaced by channelers. The process through which messages are conveyed and other associated phenomena have much in common with traditional Spiritism. The most striking difference is the case of past life regression in which it is the individual's own dead selves who communicate. The case of Bridey Murphy aroused widespread interest in past-life regression and channeling. Investigation of the claims for Murphy and some other cases have resulted in strong arguments against their validity.
There are still episodes of apparent contact with the dead that remain open for wonder. One striking example involves Eileen Garrett, "the skeptical medium" who was also a highly successful executive. While attempting to establish communication with the recently deceased Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she and her companions were startled and annoyed by an interruption from a person who gave his name as "Flight Lieutenant H. Carmichael Irwin." This flight officer had died in the fiery crash of dirigible R101. Garrett brought in an aviation expert for a follow-up session with Irwin, who described the causes of the crash in a degree of detail that was confirmed when the disaster investigation was completed months later.
The Psychic Friends Network and television programs devoted to "crossing over" enjoy a measure of popularity in the twenty-first century, long after the popularity of the Spiritualism movement. Examples such as these as well as a variety of personal experiences continue to keep alive the possibility of communication with the dead—and perhaps possibility is all that most people have needed from ancient times to the present.
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