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Seybert Commission

Seybert Commission

A commission for the investigation of Spiritualism, appointed by the wish of Henry Seybert, a Philadelphia Spiritualist who, in his will, left $60,000 to the University of Pennsylvania to be devoted "to the maintenance of a chair in the said University to be known as the 'Adam Seybert Chair of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy,' upon the condition that the incumbent of the said chair, either individually or in conjunction with a commission of the university faculty will make a thorough and impartial investigation of all systems of morals, religion, or philosophy which assume to represent the truth, and particularly of Modern Spiritualism."

The commission, which began its investigations in March 1884, was composed as follows: William Pepper, Joseph Leidy, George A. Koenig, Robert Ellis Thompson, George S. Fullerton, and Horace Howard Furness; added afterward were Coleman Sellers, James W. White, Calvin B. Knerr, and S. Weir Mitchell. Pepper, as provost of the university, was ex-officio chairman. Furness acted as chairman and Fullerton was secretary to the committee.

Seybert was represented in the committee by Thomas R. Hazard, a personal friend. Hazard was charged by Seybert to prescribe the methods to be used in the investigation, designate the mediums to be consulted, and reject the attendance of those whose presence might be in conflict with the harmony or good order of the spirit circles. In May 1887, the committee published a preliminary report with negative conclusions in the whole field of Spiritualist phenomena. No final report was ever published, nor was the investigation continued.

The committee first turned its attention to slate-writing. Two séances with Mrs. S. E. Patterson led to no result. The committee then sent to New York for Henry Slade and promptly caught him in fraud. As no other slate-writing medium was available for testing, a mock séance was arranged for the committee by Harry Kellar, one of the more capable magicians of the day, and he proceeded to deliver messages in French, Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Gujerati, and German, without the committee being able to discover the trick.

The committee then turned to the issue of spirit rappings. Margaret Kane-Fox (of the Fox Sisters ), the medium of these experiments, stood on four glass tumblers, the heels of her shoes resting upon the rear tumblers and the soles upon the first tumblers. After many attempts, raps were heard and Furness remarked to the medium, "This is the most wonderful thing of all, Mrs. Kane, I distinctly feel them in your feet. There is not a particle of motion in your foot, but there is an unusual pulsation." After two séances the experiments were abandoned as the medium expressed doubt that in her state of health a third meeting would bring more striking results. According to the committee, this investigation was not sufficiently extensive to warrant any positive conclusions. The report, however, points out that "sounds of varying intensity may be produced in almost any portion of the human body by voluntary muscular action. To determine the exact location of this muscular activity is at times a matter of delicacy."

An attempt was made to study spirit photography. This was frustrated as the committee felt disinclined to accept the high fees of William M. Keeler. He asked three hundred dollars for three séances and the right to demand, if conditions made it necessary, the exclusive use of the dark room and his own instruments. The committee refused and concluded "that in these days of composite photography it is worse than childish to claim a spiritual source for results which can be obtained at any time by any tyro in the art."

The investigations into materialization with Pierre L. O. A. Keeler, into telekinesis phenomena with Dr. Rothermel, and into direct voice with Maud E. Lord were declared to have been negative.

In 1886 Fullerton visited to Germany to reexamine psychic researcher Johann C. F. Zöllner 's experiments with Henry Slade. He interviewed William Wundt, philosopher of the University of Leipzig; Gustave Theodore Fechner, emeritus physicist at the University of Leipzig; W. Schneibner, mathematician of the University of Leipzig; and Wilhelm Weber, emeritus physicist at the University of Göttingen. With the exception of Weber, the learned professors declared that Zöllner's mental condition was not normal. The results of Fullerton's investigation in Europe appeared as an appendix to the Seybert Report.

The report of the Seybert Commission was received with indignation by Spiritualists. Thomas R. Hazard, the only Spiritualist on the committee, declared that he repeatedly protested against the committee's methods, but his protests were disregarded. In the Philadelphia North American, Hazard publicly argued for the removal of Fullerton, Thompson, and Koenig as prejudiced researchers. For, he continued, " had the object in view been to belittle and bring into discredit, hatred and general contempt the cause the Trustees could scarcely have selected more suitable instruments for the object intended from all the denizens of Philadelphia than are the gentlemen who constitute a majority of the Seybert Commission."

This protest was considered and rejected. The report subsequently appeared, and A. B. Richmond, a Philadelphia lawyer, replied in two books. Frank Podemore observed, "Spiritualists contend, and not apparently without justification, that the intentions of Mr. Seybert were never fairly carried out, and that the prepossessions of the committee against the subject under investigation are demonstrated by their willingness to leave the inquiry unfinished and to divert the funds entrusted to them to an object which was regarded by the testator as at most of secondary importance."

The negative results attained by the Seybert Commission, and its implicit condemnation of the movement for harboring fraudulent mediums, which has been substantiated by later research, did much to set the intellectual community in the United States against Spiritualism and marginalize it in the religious community.

Sources:

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

Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism. London: Methuen, 1902. Reprinted as Mediums of the Nineteenth Century. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.

Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania to Investigate Modern Spiritualism. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1887.

Richmond, A. B. What I Saw at Cassadaga Lake; A Review of the Seybert Commissioners' Report. N.p., 1888.

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