The psychic phenomenon of skin writing, related to stigmata but with one essential difference—stigmatic writings last for months, years, or throughout a lifetime, whereas skin writing disappears in a few minutes or in a few hours at the most. For that very reason the possibilities of fraud in skin writing are high. Given the sensitive skin of neuropsychopaths, writing may appear in a few minutes after the letters are directly traced by any blunt instrument or the fingernails.
As a preliminary to a skin writing demonstration, or pellet reading, some mediums burn up the pellet on which a name or question is written and rub their arm or forehead with the ashes. The rubbing process may give a good opportunity for covertly tracing the intended message.
However, in at least one case on record this tracing was reportedly done via telekinesis. In 1869 Manuel Eyre testified before a committee of the London Dialectical Society on his experience with a Mrs. Seymour at Waukegan, near Chicago, as follows:
"In trance she would hold out one arm, and with the forefinger of the other hand make a rapid motion as if writing, the movement of the finger being in the air about a foot from the arm; a few minutes after she stripped off her sleeve, and there on her arm, so distinctly written that it could be read across the room, was the peculiar signature of the spirit giving the communication."
According to the American Spiritualist newspaper Spiritual Telegraph, the writing on Seymour's arm appeared in raised letters and could both be seen and felt distinctly for 15 or 20 minutes. Gradually it faded away, leaving the skin natural, smooth and uncolored. Seymour appeared several times before an investigating committee in Milwaukee, but the committee could find no explanation.
In the case of a Miss Coggswell of Vermont, the writing appeared on her arms and forehead in answer to mental questions. Skin markings have also been produced by suggestion in experiments with hypnotism. The part that suggestion may play in such demonstrations was shown in 1933 at the Institute Métapsychique International of Paris, where Olga Kahl produced on her skin a mentally communicated word or image.
Psychologist Richard von Kraft-Ebing recorded that the writing traced on the anesthetic right side of d'Ilma S. appeared reversed on the left side.
Thomas Killigrew testified to the appearance of the names of St. Joseph and the Virgin upon the hands of the prioress of the Ursuline nuns at Loudun in France about the year 1635. He said, "I saw her hand, white as my hand, in an instant change color all along the vein and become red and all of a sudden a word distinctly appeared, and the word was Joseph."
In the case of mediums, the demonstration of skin writing, while interesting, is of little value for contemporary parapsychology because of the variety of mundane ways in which it can be produced. It was reported occasionally in the nineteenth-century Spiritualist press, however. British medium Stainton Moses reported October 12, 1873, that the following names appeared on his arm: "Imperator," "Mentor," "Solon" and "Plato." Solon's name was impressed with a capital Sigma. The names were those of Moses' spirit controls. Charles H. Foster, "the Salem Seer," gave abundant demonstrations of the phenomenon. Before the London Dialectical Society, Edward Laman Blanchard told the story of how the name of his father appeared in red letters on the arm of the medium and immediately afterward, in answer to a question, the number 24 appeared on the palm of his hand, indicating the number of years since his father's death. The phenomenon was very rapid, the letters and numbers disappearing in the sight of those present without the arm of the medium being withdrawn. A Dr. Ashburner examined Foster's skin letters under a magnifying glass. He observed clearly that they were in relief and that the coloring matter was under the skin. The color disappeared after two or three minutes.
Foster's biographer, George C. Bartlett, described an amusing incident. A certain Mr. Adams came to consult Foster. He saw the room was filled with spirits in Foster's presence. About two o'clock the next morning he woke up, complaining to Bartlett that he could not sleep because the room was still filled with spirits of the Adams family. They were writing their names all over the seer. To his astonishment Bartlett counted 11 distinct names, one written across Foster's forehead, others on his arms, and several on his back.
In 1926 psychical researcher Harry Price carried out a series of careful tests on the psychic Eleonore Zügun and obtained stigmatic marking phenomena under laboratory conditions.
On occasion, skin writing is pictographic. One such case was reported in the American Spiritual Telegraph regarding the appearance of a clearly defined human heart with a wound, as if made by a bullet, on the arm of one Coggewell in answer to the request by a sitter that his friend, who died when shot in the heart, should manifest.
A more graphic phenomenon was exhibited in New England by an African-American woman then working as a servant to Lewis Burtis. As narrated by Emma Hardinge Britten in Modern American Spiritualism (1870), red lines had formed "into a distinct and beautifully-represented picture of a kneeling man, with a woolly head and African cast of features, a chain round his waist terminating in two balls, which were ingeniously fitted into the veins at the end of the arm, whilst above the whole was written in fine character the words: 'A poor old slave.'&43" The woman servant was nearly illiterate. Messages frequently appeared on her arm while she was at her household work and would disappear after having been read by the Burtises.
Dermography differs from stigmata, where as, for example in the case of Thérèse Neumann and Padre Pio, actual bleeding appeared on their hands and feet, indicating identification with the suffering of Christ. Stigmata reproduces the wounds of Christ as reported in the Bible's New Testament.