A frequent occurrence in physical mediumship. On rare occasions such phenomena have been witnessed in apparent independence of mediumistic conditions.
The chronicles of religious revivals are full of instances of transcendental lights. For example, during both the great Irish revival in 1859 and the Welsh revival in 1904 there were multiple accounts. A Mr. Jones of Peckham, editor of the Spiritual Magazine (1877, vol. 18), quotes a leading official belonging to the Corporation of London:
"Having heard that fire had descended on several of the great Irish assemblies during the Revivals, I, when in Ireland, made inquiry and conversed with those who had witnessed it. During the open-air meetings, when some 600-1,000 people were present, a kind of cloud of fire approached in the air, hovered and dipped over the people, rose and floated on some distance, again hovered on that which was found afterwards to be another revival meeting, and so it continued. The light was very bright and was seen by all, producing awe."
Of the Welsh Revival an interesting account was published by Beriah G. Evans in the Daily News (February 9, 1905). The lights he saw appeared for the first time on the night when Mary Jones began her public mission at Egryn. The first light, Evans writes, "resembled a brilliant star emitting sparklets. All saw this. The next two were as clearly subjective, being seen only by Mrs. Jones and me, though the five of us walked abreast. Three bars of clear white light crossed the road in front, from right to left, climbing up the stone wall to the left. A blood-red light, about a foot from the ground in the middle of the roadway at the head of the village street was the next manifestation."
A Daily Mirror correspondent confirmed Evans' account. He said he saw both sets of lights. A third confirmation was published in the July 1905 Review of Reviews by the Reverend Llewellyn Morgan.
These lights seem to have been the result of an outpouring of the combined psychic forces that religious ecstasy supposedly generates. Religious enthusiasm and ecstasy in general have often been reported to be accompanied by luminous phenomena. The Bible says that Jesus was transfigured before his disciples and that his face shown as the sun and his garments were white as light (Matt. 17:2). As Paul walked to Damascus, he encountered a light from heaven that shone around him (Acts 9:3). The saints and martyrs spoke of an interior illumination. St. Ignatius Loyola was seen surrounded by a brilliant light while he prayed and his body shone with light when he was levi-tated; St. Columba was said to have been continually enveloped in a dazzling, golden light, reminiscent of what is today termed an aura.
William James quotes many interesting instances in Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In Cosmic Consciousness (1901), R. Maurice Bucke speaks of his heightened state being heralded by an influx of dazzling light. The body of the medium Leonora Piper was described by the communicators as an empty shell filled with light.
"A medium," said "Phinuit," the spirit control of W. Stainton Moses, "is for us a lighthouse, while you, non-mediums are as though you did not exist. But every little while we see you as if you were in dark apartments lighted by a kind of little windows which are the mediums."
This light or flame, according to communications obtained by Hester Dowden, appears to be pale, "a clear white fire" that seems to grow more vivid as the medium gets into better touch with the spirit world.
It has been suggested that spectral lights may have a psychic origin. The fire of St. Bernardo was studied in 1895 in Quargnento by a Professor Garzino. It was a mass of light that wandered every night from the church to the cemetery and returned after midnight. A similar light was observed at Berbenno di Valtellina. The light passed through trees without burning them.
The phenomenon has not been explained by reference to known chemical laws. The main difficulty that such lights present is the absence of a human organism to which their origin could be traced. But such an absence is also noted in uninhabited haunted houses where the human link is strongly emphasized.
As luminous phenomena emerged in a Spiritualist context, many of the accounts were tied to the rather questionable phenomena of materialization. Not a major concern of psychical research, the strange—even extraordinary—luminous phenomena reported by sitters could simply have been additional phenomena produced as part of a total fraudulent event.
The Psychic Lights of D. D. Home and Stainton Moses
Sir William Crookes, in Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism (1874), relates the following:
"Under the strictest test conditions I have seen a solid luminous body, the size and nearly the shape of a turkey's egg, float noiselessly about the room, at one time higher than anyone present could reach standing on tiptoe, and then gently descend to the floor. It was visible for more than ten minutes, and before it faded away it struck the table three times with a sound like that of a hard solid body. During this time the medium was lying back, apparently insensible, in an easy chair.
"I have seen luminous points of light darting about and settling on the heads of different persons; I have had questions answered by the flashing of a bright light a desired number of times in front of my face…. I have had an alphabetic communication given me by luminous flashes occurring before me in the air, whilst my hand was moving about amongst them…. In the light, I have seen a luminous cloud hover over a heliotrope on a side table, break a sprig off and carry the sprig to a lady."
Viscount Adare writes in his Experiments in Spiritualism with D. D. Home (1870): "We all then observed a light, resembling a little star, near the chimney piece, moving to and fro; it then disappeared. Mr. Home said: Ask them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, if this is the work of God. I repeated the words very earnestly; the light shone out, making three little flashes, each one about a foot higher above the floor than the preceding."
The color of the lights was sometimes blue, yellow, or rose. They did not light up their surroundings. Special effort was necessary to produce an effect of illumination. When Ada Menken's spirit tried to make her form visible, writes Adare, "the surface of the wall to Home's right became illuminated three or four times; the light apparently radiating from a bright spot in the centre. Across the portion of the wall thus illuminated we repeatedly saw a dark shadow pass."
Adare saw the extended hand of Home become quite luminous. On another occasion his clothes began to shine. Once the top of his head glowed with light as if a halo surrounded it. The tongues or jets of flame described by the Master of Lindsay and Capt. Charles Wynne as issuing from Home's head probably refer to this experience. Lindsay and many other witnesses often saw luminous crosses in Home's presence. They were variously globular, columnar, or star-shaped.
Reading a paper before the London Dialectical Society, Lindsay said:
"I saw on my knee a flame of fire about nine inches high; I passed my hand through it, but it burnt on, above and below it. Home turned in his bed and I looked at him, and saw that his eyes were glowing with light. It had a most disagreeable appearance…. The flame which had been flitting about me now left me, and crossed the room about four feet from the ground, and reached the curtains of Home's bed; these proved no obstruction; for the light went right through them, settled on his head and then went out."
In a letter to the London Dialectical Society, Lindsay narrated a further experience:
"At Mr. Jencken's house I saw a crystal ball, placed on Mr. Home's head, emit flashes of coloured light, following the order of the spectrum. The crystal was spherical, so that it could not have given prismatic colours. After this it changed and we all saw a view of the sea, as if we were looking down at it from the top of a high cliff. It seemed to be the evening as the sun was setting like a globe of fire, lighting up a broad path over the little waves. The moon was faintly visible in the south, and as the sun set, her power increased. We saw also a few stars; and suddenly the whole thing vanished, like shutting the slide of a magic lantern; and the crystal was dead. This whole appearance lasted about ten minutes."
Many similar observations were recorded in the medium-ship of Stainton Moses. Stanhope Templeman Speer observed that the light could be renewed when it grew dim by making passes over it with the hand. The light had a nucleus and an envelope of drapery. It seemed to be more easily developed if Moses rubbed his hands together or on his coat. The drapery passed over the back of his hand several times. It was perfectly tangible. These large globes of light could knock distinct blows on the table. A hand was distinctly generated in their nucleus.
These globular lights ceased after a time because the drain on Moses' strength was too great. They were supplanted by a round disk of light that had a dark side, generally turned toward the medium; the light side gave answers to questions by flashes. On rarer occasions the light was a tall column, about half an inch in width and six or seven feet high. The light was of bright golden hue and did not illuminate objects in the neighborhood. For a minute a cross developed at its top and rays seemed to dart from it.
Around Moses' head was a halo, and another cluster of light, oblong in shape, was at the foot of the tall column. It moved up and the big, luminous cross gradually traveled toward the wall until it had passed over an arc of 90 degrees. Solid objects afforded no obstacles to one's view of the lights. If they appeared under a mahogany table they could be seen from above just as well as if the tabletop were glass. Sometimes as many as 30 lights were seen flashing about like comets in the room. The big lights were usually more stationary than the smaller ones, which darted swiftly about the room.
Accidents in Light Production
The chemistry for the production of these lights misfired on April 14, 1874. Speer writes:
"Suddenly there arose from below me, apparently under the table, or near the floor, right under my nose, a cloud of luminous smoke, just like phosphorus. It fumed up in great clouds, until I seemed to be on fire, and rushed from the room in a panic. I was very frightened and could not tell what was happening. I rushed to the door and opened it, and so to the front door. My hands seemed to be ablaze and I left their impress on the door and handles. It blazed for a while after I had touched it, but soon went out, and no smell or trace remained. I have seen my own hands covered with a lambent flame; but nothing like this I ever saw. There seemed to be no end of the smoke. It smelt phosphoric, but the smell evaporated as soon as I got out of the room into the air. I was fairly frightened, and was reminded of what I had read about a manifestation given to Mr. Peebles similar to the burning bush. I have omitted to say that the lights were preceded by very sharp detonations on my chair, so that we could watch for their coming by hearing the noises. They shot up very rapidly from the floor."
The next day, "Imperator" (Moses' spirit control) explained that the phosphoric smoke was caused by an aborted attempt on the part of "Chom" (another spirit) to make a light. There were, he said, ducts leading from the sitters' bodies to the dark space beneath the table, and into this space these ducts conveyed the substance extracted for the purpose of making the light. The phosphoric substance was enclosed in an envelope that was materialized. It was the collapse of this envelope that caused the escape of the phosphoric smoke and the smell. This substance was the vital principle, he said, and was drawn mainly from the spine and nerve centers of all the sitters—except those who were of no use or would be deterrents to the process.
Another miscarriage of psychic light was described by W. H. Harrison. It occurred at a séance with the mediums Frank Herne and Charles Williams. Harrison said, "The name of the spirit was then written rapidly in large phosphorescent letters in the air near Mr. Williams. In the same rapid manner the spirits next began writing 'God Bless—' when there was a snap, like an electrical discharge, and a flash of light which lit up the whole room." At the end of the sitting a slight smell of phosphorus was perceptible. However, a more likely explanation of this phenomenon is that it was caused by the sudden striking of a match, since suspicion of fraud is attached to the séances of Herne and Williams.
The following description is from the Livermore records of séances with Kate Fox (of the Fox sisters ): "A spherical ovoid of light rises from the floor as high as our foreheads and places itself on the table in front of us. At my request the light immediately became so bright as to light up that part of the room. We saw perfectly the form of a woman holding the light in her outstretched hand."
A Dr. Nichols, in whose house William Eglinton gave a series of sittings, wrote of "masses of light of a globular form, flattened globes, shining all through the mass, which was enveloped in folds of gauzy drapery."
"'Joey' "[a spirit control], wrote Nichols, "brushed the folds aside with his finger to show us the shining substance. It was as if a gem—a turquoise or a pearl—three inches across, had become incandescent, full of light, so as to illuminate about a yard round. This light also we saw come and go. 'Joey' allowed his larger light to go almost dark, and then revived it to its former brilliancy. I need hardly say that all the chemists of Europe could not, under these conditions, produce such phenomena, if indeed they could under any." [Nichols' account indicates that he was duped by Eglinton's trick.]
The spirit entity "John King" often brought a spirit lamp when he materialized. Once, in a séance with Williams, the lamp was placed in the hands of Alfred Smedley, who states in his book Some Reminiscences (1900), "To my great surprise it was like a lump of solid, warm flesh, exactly similar to my own." Others observed that the lamp was often covered with lacelike drapery. This is not surprising, since the appearance of psychic lights often heralded materializations. A disk of light could transform itself into a face, a star into a human eye. To the touch, the light was sometimes hard, sometimes sticky, sitters reported.
In a séance with Franek Kluski on May 15, 1921, Gustav Geley recorded: "A moment later, magnificent luminous phenomena; a hand moved slowly about before the sitters. It held in the palm, by a partial bending of the fingers, a body resembling a piece of luminous ice. The whole hand appeared luminous and transparent. One could see the flesh colour. It was admirable."
After another séance on April 12, 1922, Geley wrote: "A large luminous trail like a nebulous comet, and about half a metre long, formed behind Kluski about a metre above his head and seemingly about the same distance behind him. This nebula was constituted of tiny bright grains broadcast, among which there were some specially bright points. This nebula oscillated quickly from right to left and left to right, and rose and fell. It lasted about a minute, disappeared and reappeared several times. After the sitting I found that the medium, who had been naked for an hour, was very warm. He was perspiring on the back and armpits; he was much exhausted."
With the same medium, a Professor Pawlowski recorded the appearance of a completely luminous figure of an old man that looked like a column of light. It illuminated all of the sitters and even the more distant objects in the room. The hands and the region of the heart were much brighter than the rest of the body.
Admiral Usborne Moore stated that he had seen tongues of spirit light issue from the body of the medium Ada Besinnet. They were about one-third of an inch broad at one end and tapered away, for a length of about one and a half inches, to nothing.
In a séance with the medium Indridi Indridason, Harald Nielsson counted one evening more than 60 tongues of light of different colors. "I could not help thinking of the manifestations described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles," he writes in Light (October 25, 1919), "especially as a very strong wind arose before the lights appeared. Later on the whole wall behind the medium became a glow of light."
An unusual type of "psychic" light was shown by the medium Pasquale Erto ("the human rainbow") in séances at the Meta-psychical Institute of Paris, the genuineness of which was later doubted. Flashes like electric sparks proceeded from the lower part of Erto's body, lighting up the floor and sometimes the walls of the room. He also produced luminous white rays up to eight meters in length; luminous spheres from the size of a walnut to an orange in white, reddish, or bluish color; zig-zag flashes; and rocketlike lights. They were cold lights, devoid of actinic rays.
Before each séance Erto was completely stripped and medically examined in all cavities—mouth, ears, rectum, and even urethra. Erto demanded absolute darkness and did not permit hand control. Geley found out that the phenomena could be produced by the use of ferro-cerium, and believed the medium used this trick.
Erto's phenomena were not unique. Maria Silbert occasionally produced somewhat similar psychic flashes, but her mediumistic reputation was far above that of Erto.
In the Boston séances of the medium "Margery" (Mina S. Crandon ) a glowing light was seen on Margery's left shoulder. On touch, no luminous material was rubbed off, and the light continued to be seen through a black sock, though with decreased frequency and brilliance. On examination the medium's left shoulder strap was found to be luminous. There was a less distinct brightness on her chest and luminous patches on her right shoulder that soon faded and went out. When the luminous shoulder strap was brought into the séance room, a sudden increase in its intensity was noticed. During a close examination a whisper in the voice of "Walter" (the spirit control) said "goodnight." At approximately the same time, the light of the shoulder strap faded except for one tiny luminous point that seemed more persistent than the rest. At another time Hereward Carrington, holding Margery's left hand, noticed at the end of the sitting that his hand was faintly luminous.
Charles Richet attempted to imitate psychic lights with a neon tube six feet long and one inch in diameter. By rubbing the tube he induced a frictional electric charge that made a brilliant glow in the neon at the point of the tube where the hand had made contact. It looked like a realistic psychic phenomenon in the dark.
A Professor Dubois collected a number of examples to prove that under exceptional, but not paranormal, conditions, the human organism is capable of creating light. A woman suffering from breast cancer, under treatment at an English hospital, showed luminosity of the cancerous area strong enough to be recognized from several paces away and bright enough to read watch hands by at night from a few inches away. The discharge from the tumor was also very luminous. Bilious, nervous, redhaired, and, more often, alcoholic subjects have sometimes shown phosphorescent wounds.
Geley, working with the now-obsolete idea of ectoplasm, concluded that organic light and ectoplasmic light were rigorously analogous. They had the same properties. They were cold light, giving off neither calorific nor chemical radiations. Both were nearly inactinic and had considerable powers of penetration into opaque bodies. They impressed photographic plates through cardboard, wood, and even metal. Geley believed it likely that analysis of ectoplasmic secretion would reveal the two constituents—luciferin and luciferase—in the luminous secretions of Dubois' cancer patient.
Julien Ochorowicz, in his research into the radiography of etheric hands, found it significant that when an etheric hand radiated light it did not, and apparently could not, materialize at the same time. Upon materializing, it lost its luminosity.
Recorded experiences caution against generalization about luminous phenomena. Many lights were found to be created through fraud, and the ease with which the phenomena can be produced chemically encourages caution in assessing the genuineness of any claimed phenomena.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.