Eglinton, William (1858-1933)

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Eglinton, William (1858-1933)

Famous British medium who convinced statesman W. E. Gladstone of the reality of psychic phenomena. Eglinton was born in Islington, London, July 10, 1858, and showed no sign of psychic power in his boyhood. He first heard of Spiritualism in February 1874 at a debate in the Hall of Science, London, between a Dr. Sexton and a Mr. Foote.

Moved by curiosity, Eglinton's father formed a home circle. For seven or eight evenings there were no manifestations, and William expressed his feelings by placing upon the door of the séance room large cards with the sarcastic inscription, "There are lunatics confined here; they will be shortly let loose; highly dangerous!" His father was highly offended and told him to either join the circle or leave the house during the investigation. He elected to join the circle and sat down at the table "determined that if anything happened I would put a stop to it. Something did happen, but I was powerless to prevent it." The table became animated and answered questions intelligently.

The evening following the séance, William himself passed into trance for the first time, and in a few months' time very strong phenomena developed under the guidance of a spirit calling himself "Joey Sandy." Eighteen months later another guide, "Ernest," appeared, and very good materializations were obtained in moonlight.

The news of Eglinton's powers soon spread. He was besieged with so many requests for séances that he gave up his job in a printing firm and became a professional medium. The earliest record of his séances was published in The Medium for September 1875. At the end of the year, several séances were given to the Dalston Association of Spiritualists, which later elected him an honorary member.

Many eminent men of the day attended his later sittings at the Brixton Psychological Society and at the British National Association of Spiritualists at 38 Great Russell St., Bloomsbury, London. These were the so-called Blackburn séances, three series of 12 sittings each, Eglinton being one of the first mediums engaged. They were made possible by the generosity of Charles Blackburn of Manchester and represented the beginnings of organized psychical research.

The sittings were mostly held in light, which greatly impressed the early observers of his work. It was also noted that from the time he turned professional until 1883 he never gave a séance in his own rooms and complied with all conditions of control, his hands restricted by his sleeves being sewn to his knees or behind his back to his coat.

His first levitation is described by Archdeacon Thomas Colley in The Spiritualist, June 2, 1876:

"The medium was next entranced and carried by invisible power over the table several times, the heels of his boots being made to touch the head of our medical friend [Dr. Malcolm]. Then he was taken to the further end of the dining room, and finally, after being tilted about as a thing of no weight whatever, was deposited quietly in his chair."

The general impression created by his power is conveyed in the Western Morning News of July 28, 1876: "If Mr. Eglinton is a conjurer he is undoubtedly one of the cleverest who ever lived. Maskelyne and Cook are not a patch upon Mr. Eglinton. The Egyptian Hall exposure of Spiritualism is mere child's play compared with what we witnessed." The Daily Telegraph reported on October 10, 1876, that the Scientific Research Committee of the British National Association of Spiritualists had obtained direct spirit writing under absolute test conditions through the membership of Eglinton.

Marvels of Materialization

Among the many remarkable séances for materialization he gave at this time, the most surprising results were obtained during his stay at Malvern as the guest of a Dr. and Mrs. Nichols. In a written account of the séances Nichols observes:

"All our séances are held under test conditions. They are held in a small upper room in my own house, with its one door locked, and its one window, thirty feet from the ground, fastened. The number of persons present never exceeds six, all of whom I know intimately. I know pretty accurately what can be done by sleight-of-hand, ventriloquism, palmistry or otherwise."

He sums up his experiences thus:

"Four times I have seen a white-robed form standing by Willie Eglinton. I have seen "Joey" make yards of muslin. I have seen him standing beside his medium, and I have heard him speak in a brilliantly-lighted room, when Mr. Eglinton was with us and no more entranced than the rest of us. I have seen hands and arms and the face only, and I have seen full forms appear and disappear. I have seen a tall man appear and after many minutes with us, and in good light, I have seen him gradually sink down and become invisible, all but a few inches of form, and then that seemed to snap out. I have seen a full form dis-solve and leave the drapery suspended as if held up by a hand; and I have seen the form shrink away to nothing visible and leave the garments lying about the floor. These not long after disappeared."

Nichols's descriptions of Eglinton's open-air materializations in his garden, related in the appendix to Epes Sargent 's The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism (1881), are among the most extraordinary accounts in the history of Spiritualism. In one he relates that,

"Mr. Eglinton lay on a garden bench in plain sight. We saw the bodies of four visitors form themselves from a cloud of white vapour and then walk about, robed all in purest white, upon the lawn where no deception was possible. One of them walked quite around us, as we sat in our chairs on the grass, talking as familiarly as any friend [and] took my hat from my head, put it on his own, and walked off with it where the medium was lying; then he came and put it on my head again; then walked across the lawn and up a gravel walk to the foot of the balcony and talked with Mrs. Nichols. After a brief conversation he returned to the medium and gradually faded from sight."

According to this narrative, the medium was constantly in sight, no confederate could have come over the wall without being seen or heard, and the maximum distance of the materialized spirit from the medium was 66 feet in the direct line, whereas altogether about 400 feet were covered by the spirit from the time he first left the medium to his final return.

The accounts published in the Spiritualist periodicals of the time also describe Eglinton's one-armed control "Abdullah" who on occasion was reported to have materialized. He was adorned with amazingly rich jewels, which he allowed to be examined. He was bedecked with precious stones, rings, crosses, and clusters of rubies that were worth a fortune. A description by John S. Farmer, Eglinton's biographer, of a materialization séance so much agrees with observations of the flow of ecto-plasm that it created a strong presumption for Eglinton's genuine psychic powers in many researchers' minds:

"All this time the breathing of the psychic had been increasingly laboured and deep, accompanied at times with groans. Now standing, in full view I saw him, by a quick movement of the fingers, gently draw, apparently from under his morning-coat, the top button of which was fastened, a dingy, white-looking substance. The movement of the fingers was such as to draw it at right angles from him, allowing it to fall and hand by its own weight down his left side. As it emerged from under his coat and fell, it gradually increased in volume until it reached the ground, covering Mr. Eglinton's left leg from the knee downwards, the connecting link between this portion and his side being preserved the whole time. The mass of white material on the ground increased in breadth, and now commenced to pulsate and move up and down, also swaying from side to side, the motor power being underneath the mass of material, and concealed from sight by it. The height increased to three feet, and shortly afterwards, the 'form' quickly and quietly grew to its full stature, carrying the abovementioned dingy white material with it.

"All this time the link (of the same white appearance as already described) was maintained between the growing 'form' and Mr. Eglinton, who had remained in sight of all of us during the whole operation. The connecting link was either now completely severed, or became so attenuated as to be invisible, and the 'form' [a bearded man of middle age] advanced to Mr. Everitt, shook hands with him, and passed round the circle, treating nearly every one in the same manner then reapproached Mr. Eglinton, who was now partially supported from falling by Mr. Rogers, and, taking the psychic firmly by the shoulders, dragged him into the cabinet."

There is a strange contrast between the foregoing testimonies and Elington's subsequent exposure by Archdeacon Thomas Colley. During a séance in Owen Harris's house, Colley cut a piece of the robe and a piece of the beard of the materialized figure. The pieces fitted to perfection the muslin and beard that he found in the medium's portmanteau. The story of this exposure was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Eglinton was in South Africa when the revelation was made public and denied the charge on his return. The Council of the British National Association of Spiritualists ordered an investigation, which, at the end, dismissed the charge on the basis that no direct evidence could be obtained from the accusers. Colley's exposure presaged events yet to come, but before Eglinton's fraudulent ways were decisively known, he presented some dramatic performances.

The most extraordinary phenomenon Eglinton produced was his own teleportation on March 16, 1878, at Mrs. Makdou-gall Gregory's house, through the ceiling into the room above, an account of which was published in The Spiritualist of March 22, 1878. He followed this with a year of travel. On July 5, 1878, on the invitation of a Dr. Hutchinson, Eglinton left for Cape Town, South Africa. He spent nine months with his host, giving many séances, of which copious notes were made. He studied dentistry in his leisure time and was enrolled in 1879 in England as a duly qualified practitioner.

After his return to England in May 1879, Eglinton produced some interesting results while the guest of Colonel and Mrs. Francis Lean (Florence Marryat ) at Bruges, Belgium, in a haunted house, the ghost of which he finally laid to rest.

Shortly after this he received an invitation to visit Sweden. He gave 19 séances in Stockholm, which were attended by many scientific and literary men. Professors Tornebom and Ed-land, both of them skeptical previously, published a favorable report on his mediumship in the Aftonblad of October 30, 1879. He also gave sittings at Upsala University and then left for Denmark,Germany, and Bohemia. In Munich he was the guest of Gabriel Max, the eminent painter, and furnished the inspiration for his impressive painting Geistesgrüss.

After his return he gave striking séances at Cambridge University under the auspices of the Psychological Society, during which he was handcuffed to one person and held by another. It was in this month that Florence Cook was exposed by Sir George Sitwell and Carl von Buch. The atmosphere was decidedly hostile, and in March 1880 Eglinton again left for the Continent. He was engaged in Leipzig by Baron von Hoffman to give séances to Johann C. F. Zöllner and others connected with the University of Leipzig.

Zöllner was very satisfied with the result of his 25 sittings and intended to publish a book on his experiences, but death intervened. In Vienna Eglinton gave more than 30 séances to Baron Hellenbach.

After traveling again to Munich to carry out an engagement for 12 séances, the 11th of which was marred by some evidence of fraud, Eglinton returned to England. He gave no more professional séances that year, but the Spiritualist press was kept informed by Nichols of the many experiments in direct writing and drawing that were conducted in his house. In February 1881 Eglinton sailed for New York and remained in the United States until the middle of May.

Miracles in Indiaand a Disaster

In October 1881, following an invitation from J. G. Meugens, a wealthy Indian merchant, Eglinton left for Calcutta. He was apparently very successful in his Indian séances, some of which were held at the residence of the Maharajah Sir Jotendro Johun Tagore and reported in the daily Indian Mirror, but it is noteworthy that with the increase in distance from London there was a proportionate increase in the marvels.

The spirit "postmastership" that Eglinton "established" between London and Calcutta was almost unprecedented in the annals of Spiritualism. According to the narrative of a Mr. Meugens, privately marked sheets of paper were whisked by the spirits to London and returned shortly after to Calcutta with the handwriting of a close friend describing how his room had been suddenly filled with light and how the spirit "Ernest" stood by and waited for the letter to carry it back. It was claimed that this happened on several occasions. Indeed, once Meugens asked that the ring of a Mrs. Fletcher, who was then in Tothill Fields Prison (in Meugens's belief unjustly convicted), be brought to him. The spirits complied. The ring could not be identified, but a few days later the spirits brought a letter in Fletcher's own handwriting telling Meugens that she had sent the ring.

Such accounts of Eglinton's phenomena were so eagerly received that for the period of his stay in Calcutta a new fortnight-ly journal, similar to the Light, was started to meet the demand. The venture was said to have met with considerable success. Throughout Eglinton's visit to Calcutta, Harry Kellar, the famous conjurer, was also there, giving stage exposures of fraudulent Spiritualism. He issued a challenge to Eglinton in the Indian Daily News for January 13, 1882, and promised an unbiased opinion as to the natural explanations of the phenomena.

An invitation was duly extended. Afterward Kellar publicly stated, "I went as a skeptic, but I must own that I came away utterly unable to explain, by any natural means, the phenomena that I witnessed on Tuesday evening." He held the medium's left hand and was half levitated with Eglinton. He had no doubt that this phenomenon was genuine and reiterated this conviction in print many years later. But he wavered on endorsing independent slate writing, of which he also obtained a convincing demonstration.

After Meugens left India, Eglinton went to Howran, across the Hooghly River from Calcutta, as the guest of a Colonel and Mrs. Gordon and remained with them for the rest of his stay.He converted Lord William Beresford to Spiritualism and left for England in April 1882.

Eglinton sailed for England on the SS Vega. He claimed that during the voyage he was visited by Koot Hoomi (or Kut Humi). He described this meeting in a letter that was mysteriously transported from the open seas to Bombay and fell into the center of a room where Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, cofounder of the Theosophical Society, held company. The letter was addressed to Mrs. Gordon in Calcutta. Blavatsky wrote some notes on visiting cards and wrapped them up with the letter, which was then transported by the same mysterious agency to Calcutta and dropped from the ceiling in the company of Olcott and the Gordons. It was later claimed that the Mahatma letters were written by Blavatsky, and it appears likely that Eglinton was in concert with her and left a letter, identical to the one written on the ship, with her, and that she made careful arrangements for its mysterious appearance at the appropriate moment. There is indirect proof of this supposition in the fact that J. E. O'Conor, a Theosophist on board ship, unexpectedly asked Eglinton to enclose, as an additional test, a letter from himself to Blavatsky. Eglinton undertook the task. Blavatsky, however, at the time of the alleged delivery of Eglinton's letter, made no communication of O'Conor's note. In excuse she said that O'Conor's letter was private and she did not know whether he wished it to be made public. In further explanation she added that for some unaccountable reason, O'Conor's letter arrived an hour after the one from Eglinton was received.

Eglinton denied that he had met Blavatsky in India at all, but it appears to be a fact that he took many letters of introduction to her and to her colleague, Henry S. Olcott, then president of the society, and that he met Blavatsky in Calcutta. In light of this and considering that the evidence of the manufacture of the Koot Hoomi letters by Blavatsky appears to be strong, the grossness of the fraud seemed clear. He was also accused, in the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 3, p. 254), of conspiring with Blavatsky.

This highly damaging incident was hardly touched upon in John Farmer's biography. He contented himself "with putting on record the maturer conclusions of Mr. Eglinton with regard to the 'appearance' on board the Vega. He now believes the apparition to have been a spontaneous materialization, of a somewhat unusual order, of someone who called himself 'Koot Hoomi.' "

After his return from India, Eglinton attempted to retire from professional mediumship by entering into partnership with a gentleman in a publishing firm, operating under the name Ross Publishing Company. In August 1883, however, he severed his connection and fell back again on mediumship as a means of living.

The Great Slate-Writing Problem

From 1884 on Eglinton concentrated on slate writing, which he suggested was simply a far easier means of bringing conviction than materializations (and also offered less chance of detection in fraudulent activity). According to biographer Farmer, he sat almost daily for this phenomenon for upward of three years before he obtained any results at all. His slate-writing séances were impressive, as he subjected himself to every test condition posed to him and, in contrast to Henry Slade, remained passive and quiet throughout the performance. As a result of some very successful sittings, W. P. Adshed of Belper, in northern England, offered a challenge of £500 to anyone who was not a medium and could produce the same results under the same conditions.

On October 29, 1884, British Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone had a séance with Eglinton. He obtained answers to his questions, which were privately written on the hostess's own slates, both when the slates were held under the table and when they were laid upon the table in full view of all present, as well as when the slates were locked. Some of the questions were put in Spanish, French, and Greek and answered in the same language. Gladstone was so impressed that soon after he joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).

On two occasions in 1884 Eglinton gave public performances from the stage at a meeting of the London Spiritualist Alliance and at a lecture of his own in St. James's Hall, London. Both séances were eminently successful.

In 1885 Eglinton left again for the Continent. In Paris he made the acquaintance of J. Tissot, the celebrated French genre painter, and in a materialization séance on May 20 completely convinced him of spirit return. Tissot's mezzotint Apparition Medianimique, later hung at the offices of the London Spiritualist Alliance, was an idealized conception of his experience.

During Eglinton's stay in Paris, Charles Richet had some sittings with him. He obtained what was for him further verifi-cation of Eglinton's powers on a subsequent visit to London in company with a Dr. Myers, brother of F. W. H. Myers.

Richet nevertheless did not attribute much importance to his slate-writing experiences, as revealed in his book Thirty Years of Psychical Research (1923):

"I drew a design on the slate so that Eglinton could not see the drawing. The slate was reversed and a small piece of chalk placed on it. I took the slate in my hand and without letting it go, held it under the table, Eglinton holding the other end of the slate. After two or three minutes a curious facsimile of my sketch was reproduced, but I think that a skillful illusionist could have done as much."

Yet Richet admitted, in the same book, that "Eglinton was a very powerful medium, and though he has been suspected of fraud, he was able, finally, to prove that the allegations of his enemies were calumnies."

Alfred Russel Wallace was convinced of the genuineness of Eglinton's materializations. He had seen his phantom "Abdullah" in a private house while Eglinton was also visible, sitting in evening dress in an armchair. A careful search was made, but no paraphernalia were discovered.

From Paris Eglinton left for Vienna, where he met Baron du Prel, who published some of his experiences under the title A Problem for Conjurers, in which he concludes: "Through Eglinton I have received the proof that [Johann] Zöllner, who was the first in Germany to have courage to speak of these slate writings, discovered a grand truth and that all his opponents who have neither read nor seen anything in this domain are in the wrong."

In 1886 a bitter fight over slate writing was waged between the SPR and Spiritualists in general. S. T. Davey, an associate of the SPR and also an amateur conjurer, was most impressed by Eglinton's performances, but soon became suspicious. He studied the subject from the point of view of conjuring and, placing himself in the hands of the SPR, came out, with Richard Hodgson as manager, under an assumed name as a medium. Owing to the ensuing sensation caused by Davey's performances, Eleanor Sidgwick, writing in the Journal of the SPR, claimed "no hesitation in attributing the performances of Eglinton to clever conjuring."

In Davey's account of his actions, which was published in the SPR's Proceedings, he told the story of about 20 sittings in which he rivaled the feats of professional slate writers. He produced messages on the sitters' own slates and in screwed, sealed, and locked double slates; wrote them in colors; answered questions in various languages; performed successful reading tests; produced written numbers on mental request; made a tumbler walk across the table in strong gaslight; floated music boxes; and produced materialized figures in a séance room.

Davey's explanation of his slate-writing feats was that he either substituted prepared slates with a message already written or wrote the message himself noiselessly under the table by means of a fragment of pencil fixed in a thimble that he slipped on his finger. For many of his phenomena, however, he failed to furnish a satisfactory explanation. Spiritualists took this as a confirmation of their belief that Davey himself was a renegade medium.

Alfred Russel Wallace, who responded to Davey in the 1891 issue of the Journal of the SPR, writes, "Unless all can be so explained, many of us will be confirmed in our belief that Mr. Davey was really a medium as well as a conjurer, and that in imputing all his performances to trick he was deceiving the society and the public."

In the same volume of the Proceedings in which the Davey report was published, Carvill Lewis reported that, by purposely turning his head away and pretending to divert his attention, he heard Eglinton write on a slate and occasionally saw the movements of the tendons of the wrist in the act of writing. The SPR also requested "Professor Hoffmann" (well-known conjurer Angelo J. Lewis) to report in his professional capacity on Eglinton's performances. He conducted 12 sittings and studied the reports furnished by others, concluding that, although many of the circumstances suggested occasional trickery,

" on the other hand, I do not believe the cleverest conjurer could, under the same conditions, use trickery in the wholesale way necessary to produce all these phenomena without exposing himself to constant risk of detection. If conjuring were the only explanation of the slate-writing phenomena, I should certainly have expected that their secret would long since have become public property."

As a result of the bitter controversy that arose over the accusations of the SPR, many Spiritualists resigned their member-ship. Eglinton invited testimonies from his sitters. They came forth in abundance. Eglinton had given nearly 3,500 sittings up to this period, and only three claims of fraud were made against him. Then assistant secretary to the SPR, Edward T. Bennett, in his Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism (1906), states: "What I may call the Eglinton problem was, at least so it seems to me, left not only in an incomplete, but in an unsatisfactory state after the death of Mr. S. T. Davey."

In 1887 Eglinton visited Russia and gave a séance for Emperor Alexander III. Spiritualist leader Alexander Aksakof had opportunities for repeated experiments, and he also maintained that Eglinton possessed great and genuine psychic powers. After returning from Russia, Eglinton married and started a new career. He abandoned mediumship and Spiritualism for journalism. He became editor of well-known publications such as The New Age and The Tatler. In 1890 he traveled in South Africa and indulged a passion for game shooting, acquiring a large private collection of trophies. In 1895 he was vice-chairman of the Anglo-African Writers Club, and he was chairman in 1896. He founded the British and South African Export Gazette, which he also edited, and was proprietor of the British Export Gazette. As a notable journalist his former association with mediumship was never referred to, and he achieved the distinction of entry in the prestigious publication Who's Who, where his recreations were listed as shooting, yachting, golf, and croquet. He died March 10, 1933.


Farmer, John S. Twixt Two Worlds. London, 1886.

Marryat, Florence. There Is No Death. New York: John W. Lovell, 1891. Reprint, New York: Causeway Books, 1973.