views updated


Percussive sounds of varying intensity without visible, known or normal agency, a common phenomenon of nineteenth-century Spiritualism. Typtology was the name given to the "science" of communicating with spirits by means of raps. While a simple phenomenon, raps were considered to be of tremendous importance by nineteenth-century psychical researchers. Charles Richet, for example, wrote in Thirty Years of Psychical Research (1923):

"The reality of these raps is of primary importance, and this phenomenon carries the implication of the whole of metapsychics. If it is established that mechanical vibrations can be produced in matter, at a distance, and without contact, and that these vibrations are intelligent, we have the truly far-reaching fact that there are in the universe human or non-human intelligences that can act directly on matter."

Modern Spiritualism began with rappings at Hydesville, New York, in 1848 in connection with the Fox Sisters. But the history of this paranormal manifestation reaches back into antiquity and the belief that it was in the house of the Fox family that intelligent contact with the unseen world through such agency was established for the first time is shortsighted.

Historical Background

Rudolf of Fulda, a chronicle dating from 858 C.E. spoke of communications with a rapping intelligence. The sixteenth-century physician Paracelsus called it "pulsatio mortuorum" an omen of approaching death. The early church knew of spiritus percutiens (rapping spirits). They were conjured away by old Catholic formulae at the benediction of churches.

Raps were recorded by the theologian Philipp Melancthon in 1520 at Oppenheim, Germany. Montalambert, chaplain to François I, described raps which he heard in Lyon about 1521. According to a manuscript from 1610 at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, Mr. Welsh, a clergyman in Ayr, conversed with spirits by raps and observed movements of objects without contact.

The first detailed account of the phenomenon is in Joseph Glanvill 's Saducismus Triumphatus (1681). It described the disturbances of the so-called Drummer of Tedworth in the home of Magistrate Mompesson in 1661. It was discovered that an invisible entity would answer in drumming anything that was beaten or called for. But no further progress was made.

The phenomenon was a part of the Epworth Phenomena noticed at the home of Rev. Samuel Wesley, the father of John Wesley, in 1716. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Justinus Kerner detected in raps a means of conversation with the spirit visitants of Frederica Hauffe, better known as the Seeress of Prevorst. Then came the historic outbreak at Hydesville, followed two years later by the Stratford disturbances chronicled by Rev. Eliakim Phelps. Amid much public acrimony a literature grew up around the reality of the strange knocks.

The theories which have been advanced to explain the phenomenon are of historic interest. The cracking of knee joints and toe joints, the snapping of fingers, and the contraction of the respiratory muscles were variously called the scientific solution to the mystery. S. L. Loomis (1822-1896) offered one of the more creative theories. He discovered the effect of the vibrations of a dam over which water plunged. These sounds, transmitted to a distance by the earth, would produce sudden alarming knocking sounds in dwellings.

Raps were very likely often the product of fraud. British surgeon William Faulkner testified before the committee of the London Dialectical Society in 1869 that he was in the habit of selling trick magnets to produce rapping sounds at Spiritualist séances. The magnets could be concealed about the person or attached to furniture. By pressing a small brass button, raps could be produced whenever desired. Methods of fraud were described in various books by Hereward Carrington, Ed Lunt, and David P. Abbott.

Underneath the scientific theories there was a physiological foundation that suggested the use of a bodily mechanism of the medium that is responsible for the raps. Still it is one of the aberrations of scientific orthodoxy that when the Seybert Commission investigated the raps of Margaret Fox, one of the Fox Sisters, in 1884, the evidence for the genuine nature of the phenomenon was ruled out because one of the members of the committee, when placing his hand on her feet, distinctly felt an unusual pulsation although there was not a particle of motion in it.

Early Explanations of the Raps

But why should spirits knock and rap? According to Andrew Lang : "Were we inventing a form for a spirit's manifestation to take, we never should invent that." He frankly admitted that medieval and later tales of rapping have never been satisfactorily accounted for on any theory. He advanced a theory of "spectral aphasia," suggesting that raps may be the easiest signs which a spirit wishing to affect the physical plane may produce, though he may aim at a different effect.

In the March 1888 issue of Psyche, a Dr. Purdon reported on the curious connection he had discovered between raps and chorea. He noted the case of two soldiers in Guernsey, both of them of neurotic temperament, in whose presence rappings of an unnatural character were heard. Under the administration of iodide of potassium, salicylate of soda, and arsenic in full doses, the men improved wonderfully, and the rappings became less frequent.

E. Howard Grey, in his book Visions, Previsions and Miracles in Modern Times (1915), quoted a similar experience with a member of his own family. The attack commenced during the cutting of a child's permanent teeth, sometimes convulsions occurred in the night, and these generally seized upon the little girl about the same hour. He stated:

"We were usually well prepared for these nocturnal troubles by explosive and other auditory sounds, either on the wall or by Drs. Drury and Purdon, indeterminate or derial. Sometimes a tinkling sound as of dropping water would be heard, but none was visible, they occurred when the child was asleep, also in her absence

"When she was in bed upstairs, they heard them in a room below; sometimes her mother heard them sounding like little taps on a newspaper she was reading. They did not exhibit intelligence. The last, or departing rap was especially loud. The cure was effected in a few months by the administration of bromide of potassium."

In speaking of the curious "thrilling" of the table in the presence of the great medium D. D. Home, Mrs. Augustus de Morgan wrote in From Matter to Spirit (1863):

"The last time I witnessed this phenomenon, an acute surgeon present said that this thrilling, the genuineness of which was unmistakable, was exactly like what takes place in that affection of the muscles called subsultus tendinum. When it ceased the table rose more than two feet from the floor."

In the closing years of the medium Henry Slade, loud raps were heard on the bedstead, walls, and furniture while he was asleep. Chairs and other furniture moved about. The phenomena occurred even after he sank into senile dementia. The same phenomenon was observed around the deathbed of Margaret Fox. The mysterious illness of Mary Jobson started with loud rapping sounds. When D. D. Home was ill the same manifestation was continually witnessed. Many observed a connection between abnormal conditions and paranormal phenomena, but the larger percentage of such manifestations involves no bodily affliction.

The Varieties of Rapping Experience

Simple as the phenomenon appears to be, various important accounts reflect an astounding variety of manifestation. John Worth Edmonds heard raps on his own person. The Rev. Samuel Watson, a nineteenth-century British Methodist preacher, had similar experiences. "The noise made on my shirt bosom," he wrote, "resembled more the telegraph machine than anything else." Abby Warner, of Massillon, Ohio, was prosecuted in 1851 for disturbing the Christmas service in St. Timothy's Church by raps which sounded in her presence.

Considerable excitement was caused in New York in 1871 in the prominent Brooklyn, New York, congregation of Henry Ward Beecher. In front of the rostrum at the reporter's table, raps were heard for a succession of Sabbaths, and slow and deliberate motion of the table was witnessed. Eugene Crowell reported that it kept time with the preacher's words and assented to Beecher's demands for reform with great pushes and movement to the opposite side of the sanctuary as if to say: "That's so, that is the truth."

Leah Underhill, the eldest of the Fox Sisters, wrote in her book The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism (1885) that during the funeral of Calvin Brown, her second husband, raps were heard all over the room while S. B. Brittan delivered the funeral sermon and Edmonds the eulogy.

Robert Dale Owen recorded some very curious experiments in raps with Underhill in 1861. He heard raps on the seaside in a ledge of rock. "Placing my hands on the same ledge, a few steps from Mrs. Underhill and asking for raps, when this came audibly I felt, simultaneously with each rap, a slight but unmistakably distinct vibration or concussion of the rock." Owen heard raps onboard an excursion boat and later in a sailing boat sounding from underneath. He also obtained them in the open air on the ground; "a dull sound, as of blows struck on the earth; then I asked Mrs. Underhill to touch one of the trees with the tips of her fingers and applying my ear to the tree I heard the raps from beneath the bark." In an account of a séance on February 22, 1860, in which psychic lights were seen, Owen wrote:

"While I was looking intently at such a light, about as large as a small fist, it rose and fell, as a hammer would, with which one was striking against the floor. At each stroke a loud rap was heard in connection. It was exactly as if an invisible hand held an illuminated hammer and pounded with it."

As to the objectivity of the raps produced by Kate Fox, Sir William Crookes argued,

" it seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner I have heard them in a living treeon a sheet of glasson a stretched iron wireon a stretched membranea tambourineon the roof of a caband on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary. I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, &c. when the medium's hands and feet were heldwhen she was standing on a chairwhen she was suspended in a swing from the ceilingwhen she was enclosed in a wire cageand when she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have heard them on a glass harmoniumI have felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner."

The membrane of which Crookes spoke was part of a complicated apparatus. A small piece of graphite was placed on it so as to be thrown upward by the slightest jar. The point of a lever registered in curves the amount of mechanical energy employed in the effect.

As to the sounds, Crookes observed: " delicate ticks, as with the point of a pin; a cascade of sharp sounds as from an induction coil in full work; detonations in the air; sharp, metallic taps; a cracking like that heard when a frictional machine is at work; sounds like scratching; the twittering as of a bird, &c."

"We have been present with Kate Fox," wrote J. J. Morse in The Two Worlds newspaper (vol. 19) "when the raps were heard on a sheet of paper, held between the thumb and forefinger of another person standing beside the medium, the paper visibly shaking from the violence of the raps produced upon its surface."

Lord Adare 's father, in experiments with D. D. Home, heard raps upon the medium's hand when he placed it upon his head. Raps came on a sheet of paper which they held by the corners. Adare heard raps under his feet and distinctly felt the jar while the raps were taking place. He saw a table leg rap. The spirits by raps joined into their conversation and signified approval in a most emphatic way. Adare was told to understand that by remaining in the earth's atmosphere, spirits get so charged that it is a positive relief to make sounds. Sometimes they cannot help rapping, and cannot control them. They discharge their electricity by a whole volley of taps.

The sounds may be single or combined knockings. "It was the most singular noise," wrote William Stainton Moses on December 5, 1873, "that the combined knockings made. The room seemed to be full of intelligences manifesting their presence." The sounds had distinct individuality. They had characteristics as permanent as the voice, and the communicator could often be recognized by his rapping style.

Dr. J. Garth Wilkinson wrote of an inward thrill going through the table and chairs and found the sensation best conveyed by the exclamation of his daughter: "Oh, papa, there is a heart in my chair."

"The departure of the spirits," wrote J. H. Powell in Spiritualism; Its Facts and Phases (1864), "was preceded by an indistinguishable number of raps, loud at first, then gradually faint and fainter until, like echoes on a hill, they faded away in the echoing distance."

In volume, the sounds may grow from a tiny tick to a loud crash. But the crashing blows leave no mark, although normally such force would be expected to smash the table. The tonality of the raps differs according to the object upon which they resound. They may resemble the slight noises made by a mouse, a fretsaw, or the scratching of a fingernail on wood or cloth, and their rhythm is as varied as their tonality.

They often sound like detonations. There are instances in which the impression is borne out by effect. Archdeacon Thomas Colley, in a slate-writing experiment with the medium Francis W. Monck, placed his foot on the slate and felt a sensation of throbbing in the enclosed spacea heaving as when the confined steam lifts the lid of a kettleand in a moment, an explosion took place that scattered the slate in fragments over the carpet, like spray from a fountain. Such explosions and shatterings of the slate were frequently reported in séances with the medium Henry Slade.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, was a powerful rapping medium in her teens. While later accused of reproducing Spiritualist tricks, she was said to have caused raps inside the spectacles of a skeptical professor with such force that they were sent flying from his nose. In reply to a somewhat frivolous woman who asked what was the best conductor for raps, the table spelt out "gold," and the next moment the lady in question rushed out of the room with her hand clapped on her mouth, as she had felt the raps on the gold in her artificial teeth.

Joseph Maxwell obtained raps in restaurants and railway refreshment rooms which were loud enough to attract public attention. In his book Metapsychical Phenomena (1905), he described experiences of "Doctor X." with the medium Meurice:

"The raps on the open umbrella are extremely curious. We have heard raps on the woodwork and on the silk at one and the same time; it is easy to perceive that the shock actually occurs in the woodthat the molecules of the latter are set in motion. The same thing occurs with the silk, and here observation is even more interesting still; and each rap looks like a drop of some invisible liquid falling on the silk from a respectable height. The stretched silk of the umbrella is quickly and slightly but surely dented in; sometimes the force with which the raps are given is such as to shake the umbrella. Nothing is more absorbing than the observation of an apparent conversationby means of the umbrellabetween the medium's personifications. Raps, imitating a burst of laughter in response to the observer's remarks, resound on the silk, like the rapid play of strong but tiny fingers. When raps on the umbrella are forthcoming, M. Meurice either holds the handle of the umbrella, or someone else does, whilst he simply touches the handle very lightly with his open palm. He never touches the silk."

Maxwell concluded, "

(1) Every muscular movement, even a feeble one, is generally followed by a rap. (2) The intensity of the raps does not strike me as being in proportion with the movement made. (3) The intensity of the raps did not seem to me to vary proportionately according to their distance from the medium."

He questioned mediums about their sensations when raps were being produced. They acknowledged a feeling of fatigue, of depletion, after a good séance, a feeling perceptible to observers. One of the mediums reported a cramp-like feeling in the epigastric region when the raps were particularly loud.

In From Matter to Spirit (1863), the wife of Augustus de Morgan wrote that once, through typtological communication (i.e., through raps), she was informed that raps would come through herself that day.

"This was not expected but it was worth trying, and I therefore went into an uncarpeted room barely furnished, and sat down by the table, on which I laid my arm. Very soon loud raps, which I called some of the family to hear, resounded on the table. There seemed to be power enough to rap the number of times desired, but not to indicate letters so as to spell anything. The sounds soon ceased and never returned. As each rap seemed to be shot through my arm it was accompanied by a feeling like a slight blow or shock of electricity and an aching pain extending from the shoulder to the hand, which remained for more than an hour after they had entirely ceased. This experiment seemed to prove that the nerves of the human body were necessary, if not for the production, at least for the propagation of the sounds.

In the experiments of W. J. Crawford, the loudness of the raps varied with weight and massiveness of the psychic "rods." Crawford put the medium, later discovered to be producing phenomena by trickery, on a weighing machine and measured the exact amount of ectoplasm necessary for the increase of rapping strength. He also found that the raps reacted upon the medium's body but that she was not conscious of any stress. The reaction, however, was not always the case, as he noted: "As soon as the séance begins, we hear noises, raps, rap, rap on the floor near the medium. They become louder and louder, on the table, on the chairs of the sitters. Sometimes they are like hammerblows, so loud that they can be heard outside, and they shake the floor and the chairs. They can imitate any different sounds, the step of a man, the trot of a horse, the rubbing of a match, or the bouncing of a ball."

Sir William F. Barrett, who like Crawford also sat in the Goligher circle, wrote in On the Threshold of the Unseen (1917): "Very soon knocks came and messages were spelt out as one of us repeated the alphabet aloud. Suddenly the knocks increased in violence, and being encouraged, a tremendous bang came which shook the room and resembled the blow of a sledge hammer on an anvil.

In Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (vol. 17,p. 726), a case of rapping was described by a Mrs. Davis who had received a letter from India with the request to forward it to a Mrs. W. She placed the letter on the mantelpiece. Some time after, raps were heard. They seemed to emanate from the neighborhood of the letter. She placed it on another spot. The raps followed the letter. It was discovered afterward that the letter had some urgency attached to it as it announced the death of Mrs. W.'s husband.

James H. Hyslop, in a sitting with a young non-professional female medium, heard loud raps in a closed piano. He wrote, in Contact with the Other World (1919):

"After getting raps under her feet I had her stand on a very thick cushion. When she was standing on the cushion, which was at least six or eight inches thick, the raps occurred exactly as before, with the same quality of sound. If made by the joints, the raps would have been muffled when the feet were on the cushion. I then had her stand with a foot on each of my hands, which rested on the cushion, and the raps occurred apparently on the floor with the same quality of sound as when her feet were on the floor. I then tried the steam radiator some distance away, and the rap had a metallic ring, as if on iron. I then tried the piano experiment again. The raps were very loud, and made the string ring so that the sound could be heard perhaps a hundred feet away."

Again Barrett, in his On the Threshold of the Unseen, observed:

"On one occasion I asked for the raps to come on a small table near me, which Florrie [the medium] was not touching, they did so; I then placed one of my hands on the upper and the other on the under surface of the table, and in this position I felt the slight jarring made by the raps on the part of the table enclosed between my hands. It made no difference whether Florrie and I were alone in the room, as was often the case, or other observers were called in."

The distance to which the sound of raps carry may be considerable. In Southend, England, metallic raps produced on the rail in the presence of Moses and Dr. Stanhope T. Speer were audible to both of them when they were seventy yards apart. The raps were apparently made in the space between them.

An interesting non-psychic method of procuring raps was described in Psychic Research (February 1930) by John E. Springer, a attorney from Palo Alto, California:

"In one face of a small cardboard box I cut an aperture the size and shape of my ear. When fitted to the ear the box sticks on securely and becomes a sort of sounding board. Upon retiring I affix the box to the ear which is not to rest on the pillow, and I will as strongly as possible that as I fall asleep I shall be awakened by a given series of raps upon the cardboard. It frequentlybut not alwayshappens that when I reach the stage of drowsiness where unconsciousness is about to supervene, loud and clear raps upon the box in the predetermined series bring me back to wakefulness with a start. The raps may be subjective, but it is difficult for one who experiences them to escape from the conviction that they are objective psychic raps."

The medium Eusapia Palladino frequently rapped a certain number of times on the table with her fingers. Holding her hands about eighteen inches above the table the faint echoes of the raps were heard in the wood about two seconds later. She produced the same phenomenon with scratching sounds.

In the séances with Mina A. Crandon ("Margery"), the first raps were faint but definite, sounding like something soft inside a wooden box. Dr. Crandon listened to them through a stethoscope applied to the table. They were so magnified as to be unlike anything in his experience. Later they developed to such a degree that the control "Walter" could render tunes or rhythmical phrases with a marked syncopation upon the cabinet, the table, the arm of "Margery," the hands of the sitters, and even on the limited surface of a ring. Once he rapped out a popular tune unknown in his day and answered in explanation that they (the spirits) go everywhere, to our theaters and other places.

There are some rare cases on record in which raps were produced in the distance. The Seeress of Prevorst (Frederica Hauffe) could cause raps in the houses of others. There were similar testimonies in the mediumship of D. D. Home. Cromwell Fleetwood Varley stated before the London Dialectical Society that he heard raps in his home after his arrival from a séance with D. D. Home. The next morning he received a letter from Home which disclosed that the medium knew of the occur-rence.

Countess Panaigai wrote in a letter to Human Nature (vol.11) that in a sitting with Home the name of her deceased child was rapped out and that Home predicted the hearing of raps in her own house. The prediction not only came true, but when a friend called her attention to it she found the little boot of her child (kept in a locked box in a bureau) from which the raps appeared to proceed, imprinted by a perfect star with a letter at each of the six points forming the name "Stella," as the deceased was called. Not even the family of the Countess knew anything of the box and Home, to whom she was an utter stranger, was never in her house.

Interconnection of Psychic Phenomena

According to the hypothesis of spirit communication, raps represent the most primitive form of such communication. They may be manifest independently or through the faculties of a psychic individual. They may be obtained collectively through table-tipping or table-turning, in which a group sits round a table with their hands resting on it, and the raps indicate a letter of the alphabet, or a simple "yes" or "no" by one rap or two. This is a slow and tedious procedure.

Much more rapid communication is established through such simple devices as the ouija board or the planchette. Much swifter and more direct is automatic writing, in which the communicating entity operates the hand of the psychic.

In the presence of specially gifted mediums, direct writing by spirit hands has been reported. More direct still are the messages received vocally through a medium and, in rare instances, direct voice independent of the vocal apparatus of the medium.

It is not always clear if claimed spirit messages are the product of the subconscious mentation of the medium or the sitters, since fictitious entities can be created in séances (see "Philip" ). Evaluation depends upon the detail and overall paranormal quality of the evidence in individual cases.


Abbott, David P. Behind the Scenes With the Mediums. LaSalle,Ill.: Open Court, 1907.

Brownson, Orestes Augustus. The Spirit-Rapper. Boston: Little, Brown, 1854.

Carrington, Hereward. The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism. Boston: Small; London: T. Werner Laurie, 1907.

Crowell, Eugene. Identity of Primitive Christianity and Modern Spiritualism. 2 vols. 1875-79.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism. 2 vols. London: Cassell New York: Geo. H. Doran, 1926. One volume. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Jackson, Herbert G., Jr. The Spirit Rappers. Garden City,N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

Lang, Andrew. Cock Lane and Common-Sense. London: Long-mans, Green, 1896. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1970.

A Medium [Ed Lunt]. Mysteries of the Séance. Boston: Lunt Brothers, 1905.

Pearsall, Ronald. Table-Rappers. London: Joseph, 1972. Reprint, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.

Rochester Knockings! Discovery and Explanation of the Source of the Phenomena Generally Known as the Rochester Knockings. Buffalo, N.Y., 1851.

"A Searcher After Truth." The Rappers; or, the Mysteries, Fallacies, and Absurdities of Spirit Rapping, Table-Tipping and Entrancement. Long, N.Y. 1854.