Nineteenth-century psychical researchers posited the existence of a psychic force, the existence of which had a direct inspiration from the force described by Franz A. Mesmer in the previous century and which was investigated by different researchers and occultists under different names. The primary reference to such a force was as a healing power and a hypnotizing influence. It was soon discarded as having any relation to hypnotism and now survives as a psychokinetic force. In addition it was claimed by inquirers into Spiritualism that the human organism, i.e., the sitters, is in some mysterious way bound up with séance room phenomena. They posited the existence of a psychic force which operated beyond the periphery of the body, apart from any physical contact.
The researches of Baron von Reichenbach suggested the term "Odic force" to Dr. E. C. Rogers of Boston in 1852, Asa Mahan, also in America, and Count Agenor de Gasparin in France, and they accepted it as such. Marc Thury called it "ectenic force." Mayo at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, postulated on "exo-neural action of the brain." Edward William Cox recommended the term "psychic force" and this rather vague inclusive term came into general use by psychical research through the era of concentrated research on physical mediums.
In a letter to Sir William Crookes, Cox wrote in 1871:
"I noticed that the force was exhibited in tremulous pulsations, and not in the form of steady, continuous pressure, the indicator rising and falling incessantly throughout the experiment. The fact seems to me of great significance as tending to confirm the opinion that assigns its source to the nerve organisation, and it goes far to establish Dr. Richardson's important discovery of a nerve atmosphere of various intensity enveloping the human structure…. To avoid the appearance of any fore gone conclusion, I would recommend the adoption for it of some appropriate name, and I venture to suggest that the force be termed Psychic Force; the persons to whom it is manifested in extraordinary power Psychics; and the science relating to it Psychism as being a branch of psychology."
Later he added:
"The theory of Psychic Force is in itself merely the recognition of the fact that under certain conditions, as yet but imperfectly ascertained, and within limited, but as yet undefined, distance from the bodies of certain persons having a special nerve organisation, a Force operates by which, without muscular contact or connection, action at a distance is caused, and visible motions and audible sounds are produced in solid substances."
The speculation of the existence of a nervous atmosphere to which Cox alluded was expounded by Dr. Benjamin W. Richardson in the Medical Times, on May 6, 1871. As it came from a medical source, Crookes welcomed it, and noted in the Quarterly Journal of Science,
"I think I perceive what it is that this psychic force uses up for its development. In employing the terms vital force, or nervous energy, I am aware that I am employing words which convey very different significations to many investigators; but after witnessing the painful state of nervous and bodily prostration in which some of these experiments have left Mr. Home [The medium D. D. Home ]—after seeing him lying in an almost fainting condition on the floor, pale and speechless—I could scarcely doubt that the evolution of psychic force is accompanied by a corresponding drain on vital force."
Joseph Maxwell observed, "
Certain peculiar sensations accompany the emission of this nervous force, and with custom the passage of the energy expanded in a séance can be felt, just as the interruption of the flow can be discerned."
Maxwell was inclined to discern four principal sensations in connection with the generation of the force:
"1) The sensation of cool breezes, generally over the hands. "
2) The sensation of a slight tingling in the palm of the hand, and at the tips of the fingers, near the mounts.
"3) The sensation of a sort of current through the body. "
4) The sensation of a spider's web in contact with the hands and face, and other parts of the body—notably the back and the loins. "If the sensation of the 'passage of the current' may be feeble, it is not so with its abrupt interruption…. It may even cause a sensation of sudden indisposition, if the interruption coincide with the phenomenon in course of production…. The sensation of the breaking of the current is distinctly felt; and it is this which makes me think, that the feeble impression of the passage of the current is not altogether imaginary."
The medium Gladys Osborne Leonard in her book My Life in Two Worlds (1931) wrote of a visit to a materializing medium:
"He [the control ] instructed the sitter who sat at the extreme end of the left side of the horse-shoe, to release her left hand and throw it out towards him. She did so, and we could all see a stream of pale grey matter, like fog or steam from a kettle, oozing from her fingers. It was shaped like rods, about a foot long and an inch thick. The medium reached out his hands carefully towards the end of the rods, and seemed to try and coax the grey material to come farther away from the sitter, towards himself. The rods thinned slightly, as he induced them to extend, and after a couple of minutes the French control said, speaking through the medium again "No, not strong enough, link hands up, and close in the power again."
Harry Price wrote in 1930:
"I cannot help wondering whether there is really anything in the curious stroking movements which Rudi (or Olga) [Schneider] makes during the height of the trance and when she is leaving us. She 'gathers power' she says, by drawing his hands down my body and legs, or those of the second control-ler's. She 'releases' it at the end of the séance by similar movements, but in a reverse direction."
On the basis of his observations in the Goligher Circle, W. J. Crawford elaborated a more precise theory of psychic force:
"Operators are acting on the brains of the sitters and thence on their nervous systems. Small particles, it may even be molecules, are driven off the nervous system, out through the bodies of the sitters at wrists, hands, fingers, or elsewhere. These small particles, now free, have a considerable amount of latent energy inherent in them, an energy which can react on any human nervous system with which they come into contact. This stream of energized particles flows round the circle, probably partly on the periphery of their bodies. The stream, by gradual augmentation from the sitters, reaches the medium at a high degree of 'tension,' energises her, receives increment from her, traverses the circle again, and so on. Finally, when the 'tension' is sufficiently great, the circulating process ceases, and the energized particles collect on or are attached to the nervous system of the medium, who has henceforth a reservoir from which to draw. The operators having now a good supply of the right kind of energy at their disposal, viz., nerve energy can act upon the body of the medium, who is so constituted that gross matter from her body can, by means of the nervous tension applied to it, be actually temporarily detached from its usual position and projected into the séance room."
Crawford put both his sitters and his medium on the scale and found that the loss of weight of the sitters was, at the end of the séance, greater than that of the medium. The sitters lost, on an average, 5-10 ounces and were more exhausted than the medium. His speculations were favorably received by many when published in his 1916 volume The Reality of Psychic Phenomena as it seemed to accord with other observations.
For example, the control "Walter," in the "Margery" sittings, (see Mina S. Crandon ) always stated that he used the brain of the sitters. His assertion was no novelty. The control of the great medium Home indicated the same source of power at an early period.
Neurologist Charles Féré noticed that excitation of almost any kind tended to increase "dynamometrical" power. The average squeezing power exhibited by educated students was greater than that of robust laboring men. Maxwell observed in his 1895 sittings with the medium Eusapia Palladino that there was a marked loss in dynamometric force not only on the part of the medium, but also on the part of the sitters at the end of the séance. Sometimes the loss amounted to six kilos on the right side and fourteen on the left.
Admiral Usborne Moore complained of a drain on his vitality after his direct voice séances with medium Etta Wriedt. One of the reasons why Lord Adare retired from his researches with D. D. Home was that the séances physically exhausted him. Cromwell Varley, who assisted Crookes in his experiments with the medium Florence Cook, always felt depleted, while Crookes himself remained unaffected. James H. Hyslop had to go to bed for two days after his first sitting with the medium Leonora Piper. Richard Hodgson was also markedly affected.
Eugene Rochas said, in describing the case of levitation with Eusapia Palladino in his home: "We ought to add that one of the persons who was quite close to the table [Dr. Maxwell]; see Mediums almost completely fainted away, not from emotion, but through weakness, saying that he felt drained of his strength as the result of Eusapia's efforts."
The Nature of the Force
The method of the liberation of this vital force, the circumstances regulating the quantity of the supply, its use by the invisible operators of the séance room, and its relation to ectoplasm remained elusive. Reportedly, the force was subject to an ebb and flow. In some cases fasting or seclusion increased it, in some others a hearty meal. Psychological factors also enter to a great extent. In a calm, harmonious atmosphere it is more liberally generated. The operators spoke of lines of force and of a vibratory synchronization. They often asked the sitters to change places, the resulting combination frequently being surprising. Dr. Féré stated that "all our sensations are accompanied by a development of potential energy which passes into a kinetic state and externalises itself in motor manifestations."
The observations on psychic force and its generation offered a rationale for the disappearance of the reported phenomena of the séance room when a skeptical observer was present—the cold and suspicious observer destroys the harmonious atmosphere, disrupts the psychic forces, and hence cannot witness strong manifestations. In the absence of sensations, he may not contribute to the psychic power in the same proportion as other sitters do. He may even have an effect of negative force.
It was also claimed that certain bodies and materials such as tables, linen, wood, and dresses appear to conduct the force. Perhaps this is why women's dresses so frequently bulge out and approach the table during a séance. It also appears that some of the nervous force or fluid settles in the séance room or in the objects in use. According to the statements of controls, once the séance "room" has become charged the manifestations are easier to produce in that space at the next sitting. Controls often protested against the use of the séance room for other purposes. Again, in other instances, for reasons of their own, they had no concern for the preservation of the remains of the force.
Mrs. Stanhope Speer, in an account given to F. H. Myers, described nocturnal disturbances in her house after a séance with William Stainton Moses.
"The servants heard so much pounding in the séance room that they felt frightened and went to bed as quickly as possible. We were told afterwards that so much power had been generated that the spirits had to make the noise to get rid of it."
She also described a similar circumstance which occurred to her and her husband. Their bedroom door was violently shaken after they went to bed and they were afterward told that a spirit had been attracted by the spiritual light over the house and had used up power that had been left by shaking the doors.
P. P. Alexander, in his book Spiritualism; A Narrative with a Discussion (1871), gave evidence of a physical phenomena that transpired after D. D. Home had left the house of a scientific friend and his wife. Chairs moved slowly across the carpet and set themselves beside his own.
In the early mediumship of Agnes Guppy-Volckman (then Agnes Nichols), powerful phenomena were witnessed in the empty séance room afterward. Displacement of furniture was recorded in the adjoining rooms. And Robert Cooper stated in his book Spiritual Experiences, Including Seven Months with The Brothers Davenport (1867):
"I have occasionally heard the furniture in the room where we had been holding a séance, in motion after retiring to bed … On leaving a room in which I had been with Ira Davenport for the purpose of talking with the spirits in a chair followed me into the passage, myself being the last to leave."
When a medium-visitor of Eugene Rochas was shown into the room where the séance-suit of medium Auguste Politi was lying folded up and where, unknown to her, the investigations with Politi were going on, she became almost immediately controlled by an adverse and highly disagreeable influence. Rochas took up part of the suit and gave it to the medium. The effect was instantaneous; the controlling influence became violent and furious and was thought to be the spirit of a deceased monk who sometimes got hold of Politi and damaged the conditions as much as he could.
In one of W. J. Crawford's photographs, a vaporous substance seems to connect the medium Kathleen Goligher with the various sitters. Whether it was ectoplasmic emanation or a nervous fluid he did not attempt to answer.
The problem with the hypothesized psychic force, quite apart from the fraud committed by the mediums whose séances were the source of speculation about it, was the inability of researchers to find a way to have the force manifest in a way which would register on an instrument for measurement. The disconnection between the hypothesized source (cause) and the observed occurrence (effect) left too many explanations, quite apart from either fraud or psychic force, possible. Pierre Curie was occupied with the idea of devising an instrument which could register and direct the liberated psychic power. His death cut short his experiments. Before such an instrument could be devised, the era of the study of physical mediums ended.
(See also Od )
Crawford, William J. The Reality of Psychic Phenomena, Raps, Levitations, etc. London: J. M. Watkins, 1919.
Crookes William. "Some Further Experiments on Psychic Force." Quarterly Journal of Science (October 1, 1871).
Leonard, Gladys Osborne. My Life in Two Worlds. London: Cassell, 1931.
Maxwell, Joseph. Metaphysical Phenomena. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons; London: Duckworth, 1905.
Price, Harry. Rudi Schneider; A Scientific Examination of his Mediumship. London: Methuen, 1930.