Theobald, Morell (1828-1908)

views updated

Theobald, Morell (1828-1908)

British Spiritualist and author of Spiritualism at Home (1884) and Spirit Workers in the Home Circle (1887), the latter describing a series of curious psychic manifestations in his home that lasted for many years.

Some of Theobald's family members reportedly possessed psychic giftshis grandfather and father saw spirits. His own friendship with the author William Howitt and family initiated him into writing and mediumship in 1855. The psychic ties were further strengthened by intimacy with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Everitt, and the two families held séances together for many years. Not surprisingly, the loss of three children increased the receptivity of the Theobald family. A sitting following their death led to rapping phenomena, which, in the presence of three living children, developed into movements of a heavy dining table and, eventually, intelligent communications.

The book by Theobald's sister titled Heaven Opened; or, Messages for the Bereaved from Their Little Ones in Glory (1870) contains records of these experiences. The contact with the beyond was, at this period, threefoldthe elder boy fell into trance and was controlled by the deceased children and others; Theobald and his wife wrote automatically; and Mrs. Everitt produced direct voice manifestations for the family.

The strange phenomena of later years were first heralded during a joint excursion with the Everitt family to Cornwall in 1871. To quote from Spirit Workers in the Home Circle:

"As we sat on woodland slopes we had the curious sensations of rapping beneath the solid earth on which we sat. If we took a basket of sandwiches, that was moved about by our sportive invisible friends. At an inn where we stayed with our hamper of provisions we expected the waiter would be scared, for raps resounded on the window, walls and wainscoted panelling, while our hamper was bodily taken off by invisible hands into one corner of the room and there opened and partly unpacked for us."

In 1882 Mary, a new cook, was discovered to have clairvoyant powers. When Tom, the youngest son, complained that his hair was being pulled by invisible beings, Mary saw and described the phantom visitors. Because of her gifts Mary was soon advanced to the standing of a trusted friend of the family. After the maid left, Nellie Theobald and Mary occupied the same bedroom and looked jointly after the household duties.

Morell Theobald employed many tests to verify strange occurrences in the house; he often got up in the middle of the night in an attempt to catch the perpetrators in the act, but he was unsuccessful.

For some time, Theobald resisted every request of competent psychic investigators to take Mary to their own rooms for investigation. In this resolve he was strangely strengthened by spirit advice in direct writing. The limited investigation of Frank Podmore and Frank S. Hughes of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was finally allowed to continue in the Theobald home in 1884, and cast considerable doubt on many of the marvelous occurrences, especially on the spirit writings, which appeared in every conceivable placeon the ceiling, on the walls, on locked drawers and receptacles, on marked papers, and came in many languages: old French, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and Raratongan, among others.

The SPR investigators were never able to witness the actual performance of the various phenomena and found many circumstances that suggested human origin in the spirit writings. The letters were regularly formed and of normal size when they appeared in places accessible to persons of ordinary stature but became straggling and irregular on higher places as if they had been written with a broomstick with a pencil attached. The locked secretaire in which writing was produced was not fraud -proof. A piece of paper could easily be slipped in through a crack.

The investigators also contended that the small characters in certain pieces of spirit writing could have been written by anybody with a sharp pencil and patient practice. They found many crude mistakes in the Latin and Greek scripts and discovered finally the facts contained in the communications coming from "Saadi" had been published in an article, "Persian Poetry in the Past" in Part 6 of Chamber's Repository of Instructive and Amusing Tracts. It also appeared that "Wamik," who claimed to have been "Saadi's" friend and contemporary poet, was a fictitious entity, the imaginary hero of the poem to which he subscribed his name. In the end it appeared that Mary was the mundane source of much if not all of the phenomena.

The findings of the two investigators were strongly criticized in Light (January, February, and March 1885). The editor concluded that the investigation was incomplete and hasty and that fraud could not explain the extraordinarily varied phenomena of the Theobald house.

Morell Theobald admitted that "many of the writings are comparatively feeble compositions" and that he had found the source of the most puzzling pieces of direct writing (i.e., the Lord's Prayer as used in the twelfth century and the Rarantongan Script) in a volume he had given Mary as a Christmas present. He refused to seek a normal explanation to the diversified styles of handwriting, even when the scripts were handed out by Mary herself from the cabinet in which she sat to develop materializations.

There was no better evidence for deep-rooted unshakable faith than Theobald's account of the test undertaken on behalf of the SPR in 1886. He was handed two sealed envelopes by E. T. Bennett, assistant secretary of the SPR, in order to have the hidden contents deciphered by spirit agency. After some weeks, writing was obtained on the outside of the envelopes that proved to be a fairly good counterpart of the inside. Theobald was then handed a third envelope, which was in his careful keeping for some months, according to him "no one in the house besides myself and my wife knowing of its existence."

Again the contents were revealed, but instead of triumph, a very painful accusation was made against the Theobald family: the SPR claimed that all the envelopes had been opened and gummed up again. To make matters worse, the handwriting on all three was identical in character with the well-known scripts.

Theobald believed mischievous and fraudulent spirits had spoiled the tests. He said that the family had broken the essential condition of trust and thereby had opened the door to such evil influences. This conviction of Theobald's was apparently borne out by psychometric readings of the envelopes through a clairvoyant and by many mediumistic communications. One of the readings was obtained through the mediumship of William Eglinton, who was on more than one occasion caught in mediumistic fraud. It is a very legitimate inference that the atmosphere of blind faith that pervaded the Theobald family had allowed serious deception.


"Alleged 'Physical Phenomena' in the Family of Morell Theobald." Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 2 (1886).

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