Direct Writing

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Direct Writing

The claimed phenomenon in Spiritualism of spirit writing that is produced directly without visible physical contact with the medium and sometimes without writing material. It dispenses with mechanical contrivances such as the planchette and Ouija board and bypasses table tipping or table turning.

Eusapia Palladino is reported to have rubbed the end of her finger with blue chalk, asked Charles Richet to hold it, and, advancing to the table, drew two crosses over the tabletop in the air. The blue marks disappeared from her finger, and the crosses were found on the underside of the table. She also drew scrawls on Richet's jacket with the fingers of F. W. H. Myers, who was present. A blue mark was found on Richet's shirt front under the waistcoat. Then, holding Richet's clean finger as though it were a pencil, she drew a blue line on a piece of white paper in good light. A Professor Schiaparelli bought a block of new writing paper and asked Palladino to write her name. She grasped his finger and moved it over the paper as if it were a pen; the writing was found inside the block.

One of the most well known forms of direct writing was that made popular by the mediums Henry Slade and William Eglinton slate writing. Slate writing was, of course, one of the easiest of phenomena to fake and Slade and Eglington were caught in their attempts. In any case, the proximity of the medium to the writing on the slate would throw doubt on the reality of the spirit hypothesis. The most convincing direct writing was that which was not solely dependent upon prepared materials but was produced anywhere and under any circumstances.

Thus, during a poltergeist disturbance in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1850 and 1851, direct writing was found on turnips that sprang apparently from nowhere. An unfinished letter left for a few moments would be found completed in a different hand, although of course during the interval it could easily have been accessible to another human.

In 1856 experiments in direct writing were carried out by the noted Spiritualist Baron L. von Guldenstubbe. He locked paper and pencil in a small box and carried the key around with him. At the end of 13 days he found some writing on the paper; he repeated the experiment with similar success. Later he visited galleries, churches, and other public places, leaving writing materials on the pedestals of statues, on tombs, and so on.

In this way he claimed to obtain direct writing in English, French, German, Latin, Greek, and other languages, purporting to come from Plato, Cicero, St. Paul, Juvenal, Spencer, and Mary Stuart. The baron was accompanied on these expeditions by Comte d'Ourches and other friends, and on one occasion a medium was mentioned as being present. Of course, such communications are in no way evidence of spirit agency, since under such circumstances anybody could have written messages for the baron. However, another experiment on November 24, 1856, was at the baron's own apartment. He recorded that while waiting for two other witnesses to join a séance, the furniture began to creak. Then the medium seated herself at the piano, directing the group to place an untouched packet of paper in a particular spot. The medium played for 15 minutes, then stopped. The packet of paper was opened and communications from "Cicero," "Plato," and "Spencer" were revealed. The baron's book La Realité des Esprits et le phénomène merveilleux de leur Écriture directe (1857) created a sensation.

The Rev. Stainton Moses, a medium with experience of direct voice phenomena, published the first study devoted entirely to direct writing, which he named "psychography." In his Direct Spirit Writing (1878), he discusses his own experiences and those of other individuals. It is an uncritical book, but of great interest for its discussion of the circumstances surrounding the phenomenon. Moses notes that in his own experience there were convulsive movements associated with the writing: "I was slightly convulsed, and my hands were moved under the table while the writing was going on beneath."

Moses' investigation of the direct writing of Slade is particularly valuable. Slade's hands were sometimes feverishly hot, and emitted during the writing (which was nearly always in his own hand), crackling and detonating sounds. These detonations occasionally amounted to veritable explosions and even pulverized the slate at times. The pulsations, throbs, and convulsive shudders of Slade's body were frequently communicated to those holding his hands. The claimed "exposure" of Slade by a Professor Lankester was partly based on the observation that the tendons of his wrist were in motion.

Charles E. Watkins of Cleveland, another slate-writing medium, always wrote as if in torture. He claimed he felt a sudden "drawing" from his body and was unable to articulate distinctly. As soon as the writing was finished, with a jerk he was himself again.

This invisible link between medium and direct writing may not be solely physical. Most of the direct scripts of Mrs. Thomas Everitt proved to be quotations from various, sometimes inaccessible books, bearing on the teachings of Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg. Because the medium belonged to the Church of the New Jerusalem, her subconscious mind may have had some part in the contents. There is much reason for this suppositionC. C. Massey's experience with Eglinton on April 23, 1884, suggests that even the sitter's subconscious mind may be tapped.

As quoted in John S. Farmer's Twixt Two Worlds (1886), the contents of a very private letter that Massey had written alone in his own room and mailed himself a week before had been rifled, and, taken out of context, passages were woven into a censorious communication. "The postscript was of a peculiarly malicious character, referring to other confidential correspondence of mine of a very delicate and personal nature," Massey complains. "I must own that this particular shot took effect and caused me no small embarrassment and annoyance." Massey at once wrote to his friend in Paris and received the assurance that nobody other than himself saw, read, or heard of the letter.

In Experiences in Spiritualism with D. D. Home (1869), Lord Adare 's father is quoted: "A sheet of paper was lying on the edge of the table next to the window, on which a pencil was placed. We presently saw the pencil moving about on the paper. Mr. Home saw the fingers holding it. Adare noticed it also more than once, but of undefined form."

Sir William Crookes recorded his first experience in direct writing with Kate Fox-Jencken: "A luminous hand came down from the upper part of the room, and after hovering near me for a few seconds, took the pencil from my hand, rapidly wrote on a sheet of paper, threw the pencil down, and then rose up over our heads, gradually fading into darkness."

Robert Dale Owen saw, in a sitting with Slade on February 9, 1874, in sufficient gas light, a white, feminine, marblelike hand, detached and shaded off at the wrist, creep up his knees, write on the notepaper placed there on a slate, then slip back with the pencil under the table. Five minutes later the performance was repeated by a smaller hand that resembled the first.

Such experiences are reminiscent of that most dramatic account in the biblical book of Daniel (5:5): "In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king's palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote."

There are many instances on record when apparently fully materialized phantoms have left written messages behind. The spirits of George Spriggs sat down to write letters, "Katie King" left behind farewell messages when she took her leave. "Friedrich," a materialized form different from the medium S. F. Sambor both in stature and gesture, wrote something on the inside of a watch belonging to "Mr. S." in Petersburg.

There is a case so unique that it can only be called an instance of direct automatic writing. "The Mahedi," a materialized phantom associated with the medium Francis W. Monck, wrote in Egyptian characters. The Mahedi was then controlled by Monck's guide, "Samuel," who spoke through him and wrote with his hand in English characters that Thomas Colley, from comparison with pieces of direct writing, found to be in "Samuel's" hand. Colley observed that, while the writing was going on, the medium, standing some seventeen feet away, involuntarily or absentmindedly moved his hand and said afterward that he felt his hand wanting to write, yet he did not know what was being written.

During a séance with D. D. Home, Crookes desired to see the actual production of a written message. Crookes noted:

"Presently, the pencil rose up on its point, and after advancing by hesitating jerks to the paper, fell down. It then rose and again fell. A third time it tried but with no better results. After three unsuccessful attempts, a small wooden lath, which was lying near upon the table, slid towards the pencil and rose a few inches from the table; the pencil rose again, and propping itself against the lath, the two together made an effort to mark the paper. It fell, and then a joint effort was again made. After a third trial the lath gave it up and moved back to its place, the pencil lay as it fell across the paper, and an alphabetic message told us'We have tried to do as you asked, but our power is exhausted.' "

Led by a similar desire, Moses made the following observations in an out-of-the-body experience from "the other side":

"It was not done, as I had imagined, by guiding my hand or by impressing my mind, but was by directing on to the pen a ray which looked like a blue light. The force so directed caused the pen to move in obedience to the will of the directing spirit. In order to show me that the hand was a mere instrument not essential to the experiment, the pen was removed from the hand, and kept in position by the ray of light which was directed upon it. To my great astonishment it moved over the paper and wrote as before. I cried out with astonishment and was warned to keep still lest I should break the conditions."

Horace Greeley quoted in Putnam's Monthly Magazine the experience of former Senator James F. Simmons of Rhode Island in obtaining direct writing by a pencil dropped through the ring of a pair of scissors. The pencil stood firmly poised and slowly and deliberately traced the words "James D. Simmons." The handwriting was a facsimile of his deceased son's signature. It was obtained in daylight.

In direct-writing séances with Everitt, Crookes noticed that no matter how thin the paper was, the pencil produced no indentation. Nevertheless, it was clear that the pencil had been used, since once, the words appeared double, because the lead had a double edge. Another supernormal phenomenon was the speed with which the scripts were delivered and the success in overcoming the handicaps that had been experimentally set up. The paper had often been placed in a closed book, in a locked box and slates; the sheets were marked and writing was demanded on a given page in a book or on folded sheets in a sealed envelope. In Everitt's case, the writing often covered one side of the marked sheet and when, after examination, the light was again extinguished, it was continued on the back side of the same paper. Everitt's husband, Thomas, declared during meeting of the Marylebone Association of Inquirers into Spiritualism that he had known as many as 936 words to be written in a second.

To test the powers of the medium Sambor, a cone of sheet iron was prepared under the direction of the head of the printing works at Petersburg. A piece of paper and a pencil were placed inside. The engineers had an iron lid fixed on with special rivets. The cone was then left for several days in a room that Sambor never entered. In a later séance Sambor declared that writing would be found in the cone. After much difficulty, the cone, which was found intact, was opened. The paper was inscribed with a few words.

The direct writing produced by Lujza L. Ignath in Oslo (September 30, 1931) on wax tablets in a closed box appeared, under microscopic enlargement, to have been "melted" into the wax by fine rays, swinging together from the direction of the sitters.

The writing may be in the medium's hand or in strange characters. The language of the writing may also vary and the script may contain words or sentences desired by the company.

The Beginning of Direct Writing

The scene of the most ancient instance of direct writing was perhaps Mount Sinai, where Moses obtained the Ten Commandments. The first modern record of experiments is to be found in Baron von Guldenstubbe's book La Réalité des Esprits. The phenomenon was observed during the poltergeist disturbances in the house of a Rev. Phelps at Stratford in 1850. Direct scripts were delivered in the locked spirit room of the Koon log house in Vermont.

Mary Marshall, the first English professional medium, produced direct writing on sheets of glass that were smeared over with a composition of oil and whitening and kept under the table. This was the rudimentary beginning of slate writing, of which the first English account, with Marshall in 1861, was published by Thomas P. Barker.

The explanation often given at to why slate writing came into vogue is that it furnished a comparatively quick message from departed friends without an excessive drain on the medium, since the space between the slates served as a convenient dark chamber. However, the process was abandoned in the early twentieth century. Laura Pruden, of Cincinnati was one of the last mediums claiming to produce the phenomenon. Hereward Carrington perhaps explains its loss of popularity: "Now there are so many different ways by which such writing [slate writing] may be obtained by trickery that it is almost impossible to obtain conclusive evidence by this means. Personally, I have never seen a genuine example, in all the years during which I have been investigating this question." This statement also refers to his experiences with Pierre Keeler, with whom he had two sittings at Lily Dale, the Spiritualist camp, in 1907 (he came to the conclusion that fraud was practiced on both occasions) and the sitting with Laura Pruden, of Cincinnati. In the latter case, Carrington admitted that the evidence was not so conclusive; indeed, his detailed account fails to show anything but a strongly imaginative possibility of fraud.

Henry Slade, Monck, Eglinton, Watkins, and W. H. Powell were the best-known exponents of slate writing. The commotion caused by the Slade trial resulted in some interesting public testimonies. William Barrett, in a letter quoted in the book Psychography by Moses, declares that he noted the same suspicious circumstances to which Lankester alluded and also that Slade always sat with his back to the light and sideways, so that the front of his person was in comparative shade, though generally in full view. Barrett suspected fraud, but instead of forcibly interrupting Slade to discover whether the writing was already on the slate when it was not supposed to be, he took a clean slate, placed a crumb of a slate pencil below, held it firmly down with his elbow and only allowed the tips of Slade's fingers to touch the slates. He observes:

"While closely watching both of Slade's hands which did not move perceptibly, I was much astonished to hear scratching going on apparently on the under side of the table, and when the slate was lifted up I found the side facing the table covered with writing. A similar result was obtained on other days; further, an eminent scientific man obtained writing on a clean slate when it was held entirely in his own hand, both of Slade's being on the table."

In a letter to the Spectator of October 6, 1877, Alfred Russel Wallace describes a remarkable experiment. The sitting was held in a private house with the medium Monck. Two slates were examined, cleaned, and tied together by Wallace and placed on the table, never out of his sight. Monck asked Wallace to name a word he wished to be written on the slate inside. He named the word "God." Monck then asked how it should be written. He replied: "lengthways of the slate and with a Capital G." In a very short time writing was heard on the slate. The medium's hands were convulsively withdrawn, Wallace himself untied the cord, and on opening the slates found on the lower one the word written in the manner he asked.

The general procedure with Slade was to place the slates under the table against the slab or lay his hands over them on top of the table. The process of writing (a scratching sound) was not only heard, but the tremors could be felt if a hand was placed over the locked slate. The finishing of the message was usually indicated by raps. The crumb of slate pencil, worn away, was usually found at the end of the written line.

With other slate-writing mediums the conditions varied. In Mrs. Harman's case, as reported by J. L. O'Sullivan (former American minister in Portugal), a steady stream of rapid little ticks was audible. In the case of Mrs. Francis, of San Francisco, the direct movement of the pencil on the slate was seen by Elliot Cowes and E. Coleman. Charles E. Watkins was offered $50,000 by Hiram Sibley, of Rochester, for the secret of his slate-writing trick. He claimed he did not know it himself. E. Crowell asked how the writing was effected and received the following answer in a séance with Slade: "The smaller the pencil the more easily we can write, the larger the pencil the greater the difficulty. We move the point by our willpower entirely, and that enables us to write. Very few spirits can directly control the pencil. That is the reason why the medium's wife comes so often to show other spirits how to do this."

Precipitated Writing

Fred P. Evans, of San Francisco, obtained slate writing in colored chalk. The phenomenon was witnessed by Wallace in San Francisco in 1887. Two thick lines drawn across the slate with a slate pencil seemed to prove that the colored chalk, not provided by the medium, was precipitated after the slates had been locked. Examples of precipitated writing offer some of the more curious instances of psychic phenomena on record.

There is, for example, the case of Moses' interaction with his several spirit controls. Moses wrote a note beneath the signature of "Imperator" under a communication received on March 3, 1876: "While I was writing the above automatically, the underwritten pencil letters grew under my hand. No pencil was near me. I watched them from time to time, merely covering the page so as to get darkness." On his inquiry he was told by "Prudens" that it was not necessary for the communicators to have the materials for direct writing. As a demonstration, "Magus" wrote in blue when there was no blue pencil in the room and produced a red message in a closed book. When Moses asked for a message in multicolors, the names of various controls were signed in a closed book after a count of five in red, blue, and black pencils.

Henry Steel Olcott also obtained colored slate writing with the medium Cozine without the use of pencil or crayon "Papus" (pseudonym of Gérard Encausse ) in a lecture before the Society d'Etudes Psychiques at Nancy in 1907, related:

"In 1889 a well-known magnetiser, named Robert, had succeeded in putting two subjects to sleep, a man and a girl, and he placed them in such a state of hypnosis that these subjects projected characters and lines of writing on blank sheets of paper, without using a pencil or pen. The characters appeared of themselves on the paper. Dr. Gibier and I went to study this phenomenon. During this séance we were able to obtain in full light on a sheet of paper, signed by twenty witnesses, the precipitation of a whole page of written verses signed 'Corneille.' I examined the substance which formed the writing under the microscope and I was led to the conclusion that it consisted of globules of human blood, some altered and as if calcined, others still quite distinct. 'Papus' believed that the blood of the medium and his nervous force exteriorized itself and reconstructed itself at a distance. The medium was preparing for the stage and had studied Corneille during the whole of the preceding day" (Annales des Sciences Psychiques, 1907).

Sometimes direct writing was witnessed in strange forms. Blavatsky's Posthumous Memoirs, published by Joseph M. Wade (1896) in Boston, is claimed to have been produced by the direct spiritual operation of a typewriter. Direct typewriting was also claimed by the Bangs sisters of Chicago.

Sheets of unexposed bromide paper or photographic plates may also be impressed with direct scripts. These messages are called psychographs. They may appear to the medium's eyes like luminous scrolls. The theory is that they are built on ectoplasmic patches. They have been found on the plates of spirit photographers.

In poltergeist cases the phenomenon has also occurred. In The Great Amherst Mystery, Dr. Carritte is standing by Esther Cox's bedside when all present hear the sound of writing on the wall and looking round they see cut deeply into the plaster on the wall the terrible words: "Esther Cox, you are mine to kill." The writing remained visible for years afterward.

Frau Gilbert's control, "Dr. Franciscus Nell," apparently produced direct writing by engraving his name on cigarette cases held under the table.

Writing in fire (i.e., by psychic lights) is another variety of direct writing. In a séance with Ada Bessinet, Admiral Usborne Moore saw names traced in the air in front of the sitter in letters of bright light. The effect was not permanent and the beginning of a letter disappeared before the end was completed. James Hyslop writes in Contact with the Other Worlds (1919) of his experiences with the medium Miss Burton: "The messages were written in letters of fire in the air in pitch darkness and gave cross-references with other psychics. They had to be read sometimes a letter at a time and repeated until I could be certain of them."

Dermography, or skin writing, may also be considered a form of direct writing, related to some aspects of stigmata.


Cholmondely-Pennell, H. "Bringing it to Book": Facts of Slate-Writing through Mr. W. Eglinton. London, 1884.

Holms, A. Campbell. The Facts of Psychic Science and Philosophy Collated and Discussed. London, 1925. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1969.

Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves, First Series. Madras, India, 1895.

Owen, J. J. Psychography. San Francisco, 1893.