Stead, William T(homas) (1849-1912)

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Stead, William T(homas) (1849-1912)

British editor, journalist, publicist, and champion of Spiritualism. He was born July 5, 1849, at Embleton, Northumberland, England, the son of a Congregationalist minister. He was first educated by his father, then attended school in Wakefield.

In 1863, Stead left school to apprentice in a merchant's countinghouse in Newcastle-on-Tyne. At the age of eighteen, he was impressed by the poems of James Russell Lowell and resolved to dedicate his life to helping other people. Throughout his subsequent career as an editor, he campaigned for truth and justice. In 1880, while editing the Northern Echo at Darlington, England, he protested against the Bulgarian atrocities. The Pall Mall Gazette of London, a pro-Turk paper, unexpectedly changed owners, and he was offered the post of assistant editor. Three years later, he received full control of the paper.

Stead founded the Review of Reviews in 1890. His interest in psychic subjects was first demonstrated in the publication (as the Christmas issue of the Review of Reviews ) of his book Real Ghost Stories in 1891. Next year it was followed by More Ghost Stories.

In 1892, Stead believed he discovered his ability to receive communications in automatic writing. This was the beginning of his psychic activities. Stead claimed proof of survival in the form of a message received through his hands, from Julia Ames. Ames was a journalist acquaintance and editor of The Woman's Union Signal of Chicago, who had died shortly before. On March 14, 1893, in an address to members of the London Spiritualist Alliance, Stead made his first public confession of faith, narrating the details of his discoveries and early psychic experiences.

Reportedly, a communication from "Julia" suggested he could obtain automatic scripts from living friends as well. He noted,

"I put my hand at the disposal of friends at various degrees of distance, and I found that, although the faculty varied, some friends could write extremely well, imitating at first the style of their own handwriting, sometimes for the first few words until they had more or less established their identity, and then going on to write exactly as they would write an ordinary letter. They would write what they were thinking aboutwhether they wanted to see me, or where they had been."

In 1893, Stead began publication of Borderland, a quarterly psychic magazine that ran until 1897, in which the "Letters from Julia" he had obtained automatically were published for the first time. They were printed in a book in 1897 under the title After Death.

Stead was assisted in the editorial work by Miss X. (Ada Goodrich-Freer, later Mrs. Hans Spoer). In her notes on the origin of Borderland she stated:

"Mr. Stead was as definitely spiritualist as I was definitely an anti-spiritualist. He believed in everybody until they were found out, and often afterwards, and he would seek to introduce into Borderland the lucubrations of people at whom as a disciple of Lavater I shuddered."

For the 1893 Christmas issue of Review of Reviews, Stead wrote a story entitled "From the Old World to the New," a fiction concerning the dangers of icebergs in the Atlantic Ocean. The story is set on a ship named the Majestic with Captain Smith as commander. Reportedly, this is the same Captain Smith who 21 years later goes down with the Titanic. The narrative pictures the sinking of the liner and depicts the Atlantic Ocean as a grave.

Stead's eldest son, Willie, died in December 1907. It is believed this incident demonstrated to him the need for consoling the bereaved. Reportedly, "Julia" always urged Stead to establish a "bureau" where free communication with the Beyond should serve inquirers.

Julia's Bureau was opened on April 24, 1909. A small circle of sensitives supposedly chosen by "Julia" herself met every morning at ten at Mowbray House, Norfolk St., London, W.C. Strangers were not admitted to this circle. The sittings were invariably held in broad daylight. Robert King was engaged as a special clairaudient and clairvoyant. When he was unable to attend, Alfred Vout Peters attended. Records were kept of private sittings. Psychometry (divination through material objects) was believed to be successful.

In the three years of its existence about 1,300 sittings were given in the bureau. Its maintenance cost Stead 1,500 pounds a year. Besides King and Peters, Mrs. Wesley Adams and J. J. Vango were employed as psychics.

In addition to "Julia," Stead claimed an influence, calling itself "Catherine II" of Russia, among his communicators. In the Contemporary Review for January 1909, under the title "The Arrival of the Slav," an article was published under Stead's name. It contained Catherine's "Manifesto to the Slavs," a singularly prophetic script made up of different Catherine messages obtained through the hands of Stead and his secretary.

Stead's review of Sir Oliver Lodge 's book The Survival of Man (1909) disclosed an experiment. Supposedly, while writing the review, it occurred to Stead to ask one of Sir Oliver's spirit friends on the other side to write the concluding passage of the review through two automatists, one of whom had read the book and one who had not. There was a distance of 70 miles between the two automatists. The second automatists did not know where the script of the first ended. In his review, Stead concluded the two automatists had performed satisfactorily.

As a result of his article "When the Door Opened" in the Fortnightly Review, the Daily Chronicle challenged Stead on the eve of general elections to obtain Gladstone's views on the political crisis. He consulted "Julia." Supposedly, she deprecated the attempt but did not forbid it. Accordingly, King listened for a clairaudient communication that seemed to come to Stead as though from a long distance. It was published to ridicule and public derision. Stead himself did not claim that it emanated from the spirit of Gladstone, but thought that it resembled the recorded utterances of Gladstone.

The sequel to this interview was obtained from scripts through a nonprofessional automatist as letters of further explanation. They were not published at the time. But in 1911, Admiral Usborne Moore telephoned Stead and informed him that during a séance in Detroit with the medium Etta Wriedt, "Gladstone" purported to speak and ask whether Moore remembered the name of the lady in England through whose hand he had given a message. The voice then gave the correct name. As the story of the "Gladstone" interview sequel was only known to a few, Stead considered this as a good test.

There was a constant dispute between Stead and the Society for Psychical Research. "What are known as psychical research methods," wrote Edith K. Harper in her book Stead, the Man (1918), "was abhorrent to him. He held them truly unscientific in the most extended meaning of the word. He said he would rather die in the workhouse than believe that anyone would tell him a deliberate falsehood for the mere purpose of deceiving him."

Speaking against the society in admitting evidence of communications from the dead, Stead drew, before the members of the Cosmos Club in 1909, a graphic, imaginary picture of himself, shipwrecked and drowning in the sea and calling frantically for help. He imagined that instead of throwing him a rope the rescuers would shout back: "Who are you? What is your name? 'I am Stead! W. T. Stead! I am drowning here in the sea. Throw me the rope. Be quick!' But instead of throwing me the rope they continue to shout back: 'How do we know you are Stead? Where were you born? Tell us the name of your grandmother.' "

The picture of a sinking ocean liner with its attendant horrors often recurred in Stead's writings. His earliest prediction took the form of a narrative by a survivor in the Pall Mall Gazette. It was attended by the following editorial note: "This is exactly what might take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats." Twenty-six years afterwards 1,600 lives were lost on the Titanic, due to a shortage of lifeboats, and Stead went down among them.

He was invited to speak at Carnegie Hall, New York, on April 21, 1912, on the subject of world peace. Before his departure on the Titanic he wrote to his secretary: "I feel as if something was going to happen, somewhere, or somehow. And that it will be for good "

George Henslow 's book The Proofs of the Truths of Spiritualism (1919) stated that Archdeacon Thomas Colley (who later printed a pamphlet The Foreordained Wreck of the Titanic ) sent a forecast of the disaster to Stead and received the answer: "I sincerely hope that none of the misfortunes which you seem to think may happen, will happen; but I will keep your letter and will write to you when I come back."

Reportedly, Stead intended to bring Etta Wriedt, the Detroit direct voice medium, to England when he returned. Wriedt was waiting for him in New York. The Titanic was struck by an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912. Supposedly, two nights later, "Dr. Sharp," Wriedt's control, gave a detailed account of the Titanic disaster, assured sitters of Stead's death and gave the names of some who went down with the ship. Reportedly, the following night, three days after his death, Stead himself communicated. Reportedly, his articulation was weak in the beginning but he was understood.

The messages which purported to emanate from Stead through automatic writing, direct voice, materialization, and psychic photography were summed up by James Coates in his book Has W. T. Stead Returned? (1913). Coates concluded the messages had established his identity. There was a W. T. Stead Memorial Society in Britain: c/o Victor Jones, "Rosamund," 7A Seagrave Ave. (Hants.), Hayling Island, PO11 9EU, England.


Coates, James. Has W. T. Stead Returned? London: L. N. Fowler, 1913.

Harper, Edith K. Stead, the Man. London: W. Rider & Son, 1914.

Stead, William T. After Death. New York: John Lane, 1907. Reprint, London: Review of Reviews, 1914.