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London Dialectical Society

London Dialectical Society

A British professional association that in the late 1800s investigated the phenomena of Spiritualism. Established in 1867, the London Dialectical Society was a highly regarded association of professional individuals. With the appearance and popularity of Spiritualism in England, the society resolved on January 26, 1869, "to investigate the phenomena alleged to be Spiritual Manifestations, and to report thereon." A committee was convened on which 33 members were appointed: H. G. Atkinson, G. Wheatley Bennett, J. S. Bergheim, Charles Bradlaugh (later a famous atheist leader), G. Fenton Cameron, George Cary, E. W. Cox, Rev. C. Maurice Davies, D. H. Dyte, Mrs. D. H. Dyte, James Edmunds, Mrs. James Edmunds, James Gannon, Grattan Geary, William B. Gower, Robert Hannah, Jenner Gale Hillier, Mrs. J. G. Hillier, Henry Jeffery, H. D. Jencken, Albert Kisch, J. H. Levy, Joseph Maurice, Isaac L. Meyers, B. M. Moss, Robert Quelch, Thomas Reed, G. Russel Roberts, W. H. Sweepstone, William Volckman, Alfred Russel Wallace (later a famous psychic researcher), Josiah Webber, and Horace S. Yeomans. Thomas H. Huxley and George Henry Lewes were both invited but refused, Huxley stating that even "supposing the phenomena to be genuine, they do not interest me."

The report with evidence was presented to the council of the London Dialectical Society on July 20, 1870. It was accepted, but since it appeared to favor Spiritualist phenomena, the society did not publish it. However, the committee felt that it was in the public interest to be published, so it privately printed the report in 1871.

The principal work was done in six subcommittees. The general committee conducted 15 meetings to receive oral evidence of personal spiritual (i.e., psychic) experience from 33 written statements from 31 persons. The general committee stated that the report of the subcommittees:

"substantially corroborate each other, and would appear to establish the following propositions:

  1. That sounds of a very varied character, apparently proceeding from articles of furniture, the floor and wall of the roomthe vibrations accompanying which sound are often distinctly perceptible to the touchoccur without being produced by muscular action or mechanical contrivance.
  2. That movements of heavy bodies take place without mechanical contrivance of any kind or adequate exertion of muscular force by the persons present, and frequently without contact or connection with any person.
  3. That these sounds and movements often occur at the times and in the manner asked for by persons present, and by means of a simple code of signals, answer questions and spell out coherent communications.
  4. That the answers and communications thus obtained are, for the most part, of a commonplace character; but the facts are sometimes correctly given which are only known to one of the persons present.
  5. That the circumstances under which the phenomena occur are variable, the most prominent fact being that the presence of certain persons seems necessary to their occurrence and that of others generally adverse; but this difference does not appear to depend upon any belief or disbelief concerning the phenomena.
  6. That, nevertheless, the occurrence of the phenomena is not insured by the presence or absence of such persons respectively."

The evidence was summarized in the report as follows:

  1. Thirteen witnesses state that they have seen heavy bodies-in some instances menrise slowly in the air and remain there for some time without visible or tangible support.
  2. Fourteen witnesses testify to having seen hands or figures, not appertaining to any human being, but life-like in appearance and mobility, which they have sometimes touched or even grasped, and which they are therefore convinced were not the result of imposture or illusion.
  3. Five witnesses state that they have been touched, by some invisible agency, on various parts of the body, and often where requested, when the hands of all present were visible.
  4. Thirteen witnesses declare that they have heard musical pieces well played upon instruments not manipulated by an ascertainable agency.
  5. Five witnesses state that they have seen red-hot coals applied to the hands or heads of several persons without producing pain or scorching; and three witnesses state that they have had the same experiment made upon themselves with the like immunity.
  6. Eight witnesses state that they have received precise information through rappings, writings, and in other ways, the accuracy of which was unknown at the time to themselves or to any persons present, and which, on subsequent inquiry was found to be correct.
  7. One witness declares that he has received a precise and detailed statement which, nevertheless, proved to be entirely erroneous.
  8. Three witnesses state that they have been present when drawings, both in pencil and colours, were produced in so short a time, and under such conditions as to render human agency impossible.
  9. Six witnesses declare that they have received information of future events and that in some cases the hour and minute of their occurrence have been accurately foretold, days and even weeks before."

"In addition to the above[,] evidence has been given of trance speaking, of healing, of automatic writing, of the introduction of flowers and fruits into closed rooms, of voices in the air, of visions in crystals and glasses, and of the elongation of the human body.

"In presenting their report your Committee, taking into consideration the high character and great intelligence of many of the witnesses to the more extraordinary facts, the extent to which their testimony is supported by the reports of the sub-committees, and the absence of any proof of imposture or delusion as regards a large portion of the phenomena; and further, having regard to the exceptional character of the phenomena, the large number of persons in every grade of society and over the whole civilised world who are more or less influenced by a belief in their super-natural origin, and to the fact that no philosophical explanation of them has yet been arrived at, deem it incumbent upon them to state their conviction that the subject is worthy of more serious attention and careful investigation than it has hitherto received."

Two of the subcommittees reported failure to obtain phenomena, one investigated the medium D. D. Home with very feeble results, and three witnessed strong physical manifestations without contact and intelligence behind the operations. Dissenting opinion to the report was registered by general committee chair Dr. James Edmunds and by three other members: Henry Jeffrey, Grattan Geary, and H. G. Atkinson.

Alfred Russel Wallace stated in On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1875) that, of the 33 acting members of the committee, only 8 believed in the phenomena from the outset, while not more than 4 accepted the spiritual theory. During the inquiry, at least 12 of the complete skeptics became convinced of the reality of many of the physical phenomena through attending the experimental subcommittees, almost entirely by means of the mediumship of members of the committee. At least 3 of the previous skeptics later became thorough Spiritualists. The degree of conviction was approximately proportionate to the amount of time and care given the investigation.

Among those who gave evidence or read papers before the committee were: Wallace, Emma Hardinge Britte, H. D. Jencken, Benjamin Coleman (later a member of the British National Association of Spiritualists ), Cromwell F. Varley, D. D. Home, and the Master of Lindsay. Correspondence was received from Bulwar Lytton, Dr. Robert Chambers, Dr. Garth Wilkinson, William Howitt, and Camille Flammarion.

Very little opposing evidence was brought in. Lord Lytton believed in material influences of whose nature we are ignorant, Dr. Carpenter in unconscious cerebration, and Dr. Kidd in the devil. Coverage of the report in the press, however, was largely hostile. The London Times pronounced it as "nothing more than a farrago of impotent conclusions, garnished by a mass of the most monstrous rubbish it has ever been our misfortune to sit in judgment upon." The Morning Post considered it entirely worthless. The Saturday Review was disappointed that it did not discredit a little further "one of the most unequivocally degrading superstitions that has ever found currency among reasonable beings." The Standard took a more open-minded view. The Daily News stated that "it may be regarded as an important contribution to a subject which someday or other, by the very number of its followers will demand more extended investigation." The Spectator agreed with the report's conclusion that the phenomena justified further cautious investigation.

Although the report considered only the phenomenal aspect of Spiritualism and not the question of survival, it highly influenced qualified investigators to look into the subject. Even arch skeptic Frank Podmore admitted so much in his book Modern Spiritualism (2 vols., 1902):

"The work done by the Dialectical Society was, no doubt, of value, since it has brought together and preserved for us a large number of records of personal experiences by representative Spiritualists. For those who wish to ascertain what Spiritualists believed at this time, and what phenomena were alleged to occur, the book may be of service. But, except in the Minority Report by Dr. Edmunds, there is no trace of any critical handling of the materials, and the conclusions of the committee can carry little weight."

Sources:

Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

London Dialectical Society. Report. London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1871. Reprint, London: J. Burns, 1873. Reprint, London: Arno Press, 1976.

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