Foster, Charles H. (1838-1888)
Foster, Charles H. (1838-1888)
American medium who had a controversial career. The claim put forward in The Salem Seer (1891) by his enthusiastic biographer, George C. Bartlett, that he was the greatest spiritual medium since Emanuel Swedenborg seems somewhat exaggerated, and whatever powers he possessed he probably magnified through fraud.
Foster was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and educated at a public school there. According to Bartlett, the first indications of his mediumship were noticed at age 14. During school hours raps were heard on his desk. At night he was awakened by violent noises and the furniture was tossed about in his room. Some time later the phenomena began to occur in daylight, and furniture was heard moving about in rooms where no one was present. Skin writing (see dermography ) and pellet reading were the special features of his mediumship. Both were subjects of lively discussion and controversy.
According to an amusing story told in his biography, Foster was once rudely seized by the arm when skin writing was produced. Two men asked for a test in plain sight. While they were holding him, in large round characters the words "Two Fools" appeared on the medium's arm. In such skin writing the letters were blood-red and, as a rule, displayed the name of the communicating spirit. They appeared mostly on Foster's forearm.
In pellet reading the usual procedure was to ask the sitters to write the names of their deceased relatives on slips of paper while the medium was out of the room, roll them up, and put as many blank pellets as they liked together with them in a heap on the table. On his return the names on the slips were spelled out by raps, and Foster picked out the writing, delivered trance addresses, and gave clairvoyant and clairaudient descriptions of spirits. He claimed that Virgil, Camoens, Cervantes, and many other illustrious entities were among his communicators.
In 1861 Foster visited England and while there materialization phenomena were added to his performances. His first séance was given in the house of William Wilkinson, the editor of Spiritual magazine. He became friendly with the Master of Lytton, with whom he stayed at Knebworth. The literary elite— Charles Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Robert Chambers, and William Howitt—came to him for sittings. John Ashburner, an authority on animal magnetism and Spiritualism, recorded unusual phenomena. He saw nine materialized hands floating over the dining table and witnessed a levitation of the medium and of the piano on which he was playing.
In January 1862, at the invitation of Thomas P. Barkas, Foster gave four séances in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At each of these, ten persons participated. Their names were kept in a private book and withheld from the medium. With these 40 people the errors in the communications, according to Barkas, did not exceed three percent, and these usually happened during some trifling confusion or controversy.
Nevertheless, Barkas had the impression that, although Foster was a genuine medium, he occasionally, perhaps frequently, heightened the effects by trickery and deception. In support of this surmise, Barkas points out, in his Outlines of Ten Years Investigations into the Phenomena of Modern Spiritualism (1862), that the names of the departed spirits were written by the medium according to the spelling on the pellets, which was sometimes wrong; the communications were extraordinarily similar; his rapid entrancement and sudden relief were more likely to be apparent than real; and the writing, whether obtained directly or automatically, always resembled the normal writing of the medium.
Sentiment eventually turned against Foster. In 1863 Spiritual magazine stated that the editor had received from a Judge Edmonds such "sickening details of his criminality in another direction that we should no longer soil our pages with his mediumship." Foster simply left England for the Continent. He went to Paris, appeared before Napoleon III, toured Australia, and finally returned to New York.
Epes Sargent records convincing personal experiences in pellet reading with Foster in Planchette, or the Despair of Science (1869). On the other hand, John W. Truesdell, in The Bottom Facts Concerning the Science of Spiritualism (1883), tells of an exposure in 1872 in New York. Foster palmed the pellets and read them by continually relighting his cigar, the match being held in the hollow of his hand.
The case of Charles Foster well illustrates the difficulty of assessing the phenomena of psychic people. It seems likely that Foster was often guilty of fraud, particularly in such phenomena as pellet reading, which is peculiarly amenable to simple magic tricks. On the other hand there is strong testimony of some genuine mediumistic insights.
Foster was a convivial character who enjoyed drinking alcohol and smoking long cigars in barrooms with his companions as much as he did transmitting messages from the dead. His biographer, Bartlett, summarizes his observations of Foster thus: "He was extravagantly dual. He was not only Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he represented half-a-dozen different Jekylls and Hydes…. He was an unbalanced genius, and at times, I should say, insane…. He wore out many of his friends. He seemed impervious to the opinions of others, and apparently yielded to every desire."
Some of Foster's strangest phenomena, like skin writing, appear to have been involuntary. During Foster's tour of England in 1861 Dr. John Ashburner was called to Foster's bedside by one of his companions, who stated that Foster was near death. Ashburner found him in a drunken stupor, following a night of unrestrained drinking with friends. After Ashburner examined the medium, then in a drunken torpor, an extraordinary phenomenon occurred, as Ashburner narrates in his book Philosophy of Animal Magnetism and Spiritualism (1867):
"Suddenly the bedclothes were tightly rolled downwards as far as his groin. The shirt was then rolled tightly, like a cord, exposing to our view the skin of the chest and abdomen. Soon there appeared in large red letters raised on the surface the word 'DEVELOPMENT,' which extended from the right groin to the left shoulder, dividing the surface into two triangular compartments. These were filled up with sprigs of flowers, resembling fleur-de-lys. The phenomenon lasted nearly ten minutes, when the shirt and bedclothes were unrolled gently and replaced as they were at first."
In his later years Foster became addicted to alcohol. In 1881, at age 48, he was taken to Danvers Insane Asylum, suffering, according to reports, from advanced alcoholism and softening of the brain. For the last four years of his life he apparently lived a vegetable existence under the care of an aunt, simply staring into space most of the time.
A few days after his death the equally controversial psychic Kate Fox was practicing automatic writing with her friend Mrs. Taylor and found her hand galvanized into frantic, incoherent messages that were signed "Charles Foster, medium."
Ashburner, John. Philosophy of Animal Magnetism and Spiritualism. London, 1867.
Bartlett, George C. The Salem Seer. New York, 1891.
Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.
Truesdell, John W. The Bottom Facts Concerning the Science of Spiritualism. New York: G. W. Carleton, 1883.