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Saturday, November 18, 2023

Spookiest Years, Part 6: 1854 - 1855

In previous posts in this intermittently appearing "Spookiest Years" series on this blog (herehereherehere and here), I had looked at some very spooky events reported between 1848 and 1853. Let me pick up the thread and discuss some spooky events reported in 1854 and 1855. 

In 1854 William Lloyd Garrison (publisher of the leading anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator) remarked on the spiritual manifestations so widely reported during the previous few years:

"When we first heard of the ' Rochester knockings,' we supposed (not personally knowing the persons implicated) that there might be some collusion in that particular case, or, if not, that the phenomena would, ere long, elicit a satisfactory solution, independent of all spiritual agency. As the manifestations have spread from house to house, from city to city, from one part of the country to the other, across the Atlantic into Europe, till now the civilized world is compelled to acknowledge their reality, however diverse in accounting for them ; as these manifestations continue to increase in variety and power, so that all suspicion of trick or imposture becomes simply absurd and preposterous ; and as every attempt to find a solution for them in some physical theory relating to electricity, the odic force, clairvoyance, and the like, has thus far proved abortive, — it becomes every intelligent mind to enter into an investigation of them with candor and fairness, as opportunity may offer, and to bear such testimony in regard to them as the facts may warrant ; no matter what ridicule it may excite on the part of the uninformed or sceptical.

As for ourselves, most assuredly we have been in no haste to jump to a conclusion in regard to phenomena so universally diffused, and of so extraordinary a character. For the last three years, we have kept pace with nearly all that has been published on the subject; and we have witnessed, at various times, many surprising 'manifestations;' and our conviction is, that they cannot be accounted for on any other theory than that of spiritual agency."

As reported here, Baron de Guldenstubbe claimed that on the night of March 16, 1854 he witnessed a column of bluish vapor gradually change to become the form of a man. We are told that this happened after the apparition was viewed for a while:

"By slow degrees the outlines lost their distinctness ; and, as the figure faded, the blue column gradually reformed itself, inclosing it as before. This time, however, it was much more luminous...Very gradually the light faded, seeming to flicker up at intervals, like a lamp dying out. From the time the figure appeared until it began to fade mingling with the column, there elapsed about ten minutes : so that the witness of this remarkable apparition had the amplest opportunity fully to examine it."

The Baron also claimed that upon reporting this apparition to a resident of the house, that person said that the place the Baron slept that night had been unoccupied for two years, and that the Baron's report of the features of the apparition exactly matched the appearance of the last person who had slept in the room before himself.  The Baron also claimed that two other people had seen the same apparition previously. 

An account by John James Bird of Great Malvern (dated February 11, 1856) describes inexplicable events witnessed by Bird in 1855.  The account appeared in the March 2, 1856 Spiritual Herald. We read the following:

"One of the ladies brought a guitar, and placed it under the table ; as the table was large, it was easily seen; presently the strings were faintly agitated, the sounds became gradually louder, and a tune was fairly played out by invisible means. I observed the instrument to move twice, but I am sure no one touched it. After this the heavy table at which we were sitting gradually rose from the floor, our hands resting upon it; it rose at least six inches, and remained in a state of suspension some time, then tipped backwards and forwards ; this was succeeded by a vibration in the table, that was communicated to our bodies and the chairs upon which we were sitting, as if some powerful fluid were escaping. The sensation, as of the grasp of a hand, was felt on the knee of two of the party successively, followed by very loud raps from the table. A little before twelve o'clock we removed to a room upstairs, and took our seats at a large square table.; here we had loud raps on the table, and from some parts of the room. The lady, to whom I have before alluded, was sitting next to me, and we were both of us, with the chairs on which we were sitting, forced violently from the table, nearly to the end of the room, and then drawn round. I tried to resist this, but without success; the table followed us, leaving the rest of the circle behind it. Our host, who is a learned and most accomplished gentleman, watched the phenomena with a jealous eye, and he has since tested Mr. Home, and is satisfied that there could have been no trickery; he leaves it for science to explain. I am convinced there could have been no collusion or delusion."

In the May 4, 1856 edition of The Spiritual Herald, we have an account by S. W. Brittan of a prediction made near the end of 1855 (Brittan's name is misspelled as Britton):

"On the evening of December 23, 1855, while the writer was engaged, in conversation with several friends who had assembled in the room of S. B. Brittan, at the Tremont House in this city, Mrs. Harriet Porter being also present, was employed at the time in making magnetic passes over one of the editor's daughters, with a view to remove a neuralgic pain in the head. The writer was sitting near the parties. observing the movements of Mrs. P., when the latter suddenly turned round and said with a peculiar emphasis, ' You have asked for a test; I will now give you one: THE STEAMSHIP PACIFIC WILL BE WRECKED AND ALL ON BOARD WILL PERISH. Put that in your pocket and keep it for a test.'  The Spirit purported to be my son Edward, and on my enquiring for further particulars, he added, 'I will tell you nothing more now; there will be an excitement on the subject, and you will come to see me again. There will also be a report that she is safe, but it will prove to be false.' There were present on the occasion, Mrs. S. B. Brittan, Emma Frances Jay, E. Virginia Brittan, Mrs. Wells, Mr. and Miss Vail, the medium and myself, any of whom will verify the truth of the foregoing statement. I have still in my possession the original memorandum, on the back of which is the following indorsement, made at the time the communication was received-' Spiritual prediction given through Mrs. Harriet Porter, December 28, 1855.' Soon after the announcement respecting the loss of the Pacific was made, I communicated the same to the editor of the Telegraph and to Mr. Charles Partridge. Subsequently, and before any apprehension of the loss of the Pacific had been awakened, I mentioned the subject to many others, and exhibited the memorandum to some twenty persons, including several who had little or no confidence in the claims of spiritualism. The names of the persons here referred to can be given if necessary."

At the modern site here, we read what happened to the steamship Pacific within the next month:

"On 23 January 1856, Pacific departed Liverpool for her usual destination of New York, carrying 45 passengers - a typically small number for a winter voyage - and 141 crew. For this voyage, she had both a new captain and first mate, neither of whom had much transatlantic experience, and also a new chief engineer, who was unfamiliar with Pacific's engines. After the ship failed to arrive at New York, other ships were sent to conduct a search, but no trace of the vessel was found. The cause of Pacific's demise is still unknown."

In Brittan's account, he says he contacted the medium Mrs. Harriet Porter after the Pacific was reported missing, and asked for details on what happened. He was told that the ship had struck an iceberg.  We read this on page 115 of the May 4, 1856 Spiritual Herald:

"Not many days had elapsed, when the writer of this again found himself at Mrs. Porter's table: the company on this occasion consisted of twelve persons. We had been seated but a short time, when the medium was entranced by a Spirit who said his name was --Faulkner, that he was purser on board the Pacific, had a brother in New York, who was a silversmith, etc. In reply to questions, propounded by the writer and others, the following additional particulars were elicited: When six days out, the Pacific struck an iceberg, at 11 o'clock on the evening of Jan. 29th, and very soon went down, stern foremost. As the vessel sunk, three persons escaped from the wreck and found a temporary resting place on the ice, but they were subsequently frozen to death. It was further alleged that there were forty-eight passengers on board - forty males and eight females; that, at the time of the catastrophe, the ship was in lat. 40 degrees north; that the Captain was at fault in taking the course he did, his object being to make a quicker trip than the Persia, which was then on her first voyage."

The notion of so large a ship being lost in such a way may have seemed far-fetched at such a time, but in 1912 a very large ship was lost in such a way, when the Titanic sunk from striking an iceberg. The latitude of 40 degrees north is just where we would expect a 19th century steamship from Liverpool to be if it was traveling to New York City and was about six days out on its journey. The page here lists 45 passengers, close to the 48 stated above. 

According to this web page, in 1861 a bottle was discovered "washed ashore on the Hebrides island of Uist" (an island near Scotland) with a message telling what happened to the ship:

"On board the Pacific from Liverpool to N.Y. - Ship going down. Confusion on board - icebergs around us on every side. I know I cannot escape. I write the cause of our loss that friends may not live in suspense. The finder will please get it published. W.M. GRAHAM." 

According to another source, it was confirmed that W. M. Graham was aboard the ship. So it seems that the Pacific was sunk after striking an iceberg, just as the medium had said years before anyone knew how the Pacific was lost. This blog post is to the best of my knowledge the first time anyone has ever noted the remarkable match between the report inside the found bottle and the years-earlier seance claim (reported above) saying that the Pacific disappeared because it struck an iceberg (an idea unknown to authorities at the time the claim was made).  Around 1856 it was very rare for ships crossing the Atlantic to be sunk by hitting icebergs. Around that time ships crossing the Atlantic did not travel very fast, and a helmsman seeing an iceberg would tend to have had lots of time to evade the iceberg by steering away from it. When the Titanic sunk in 1912 after hitting an iceberg, it was traveling much faster than ships of the nineteenth century. 

In the January 13, 1885 edition of The Spiritual Telegraph, we read G.T. Moulton making these claims:

"After sitting five or six minutes in silence, with our hands lying on the top of the table, it began to tip and rock to and fro very rapidly, and stamp its legs on the floor as if trying to break itself to pieces. We asked the Spirits if they could raise the table clear from the floor with our hands lying on the top. Immediately it rose in the air about two feet, with all our hands lying on on its top ; and this was repeated at our request five times, and all done within fifteen or twenty minutes—thus completely upsetting Professor Faraday’s theory of mechanical pressure. Two of the circle then sat down on the top of the table and were immediately thrown off by my hands being placed on its top....After the two were thrown off the table, we formed a circle all around it by taking hold of hands and not touching or being within two feet of it, and then asked the Spirits to move it if they could without any person touching it. Soon the table began to move, and tip, and jerk, and for ten minutes we had questions answered by the tipping of the table without any human being touching it. It would move or tip any way at the request of any one in the circle."

In the April 14, 1855 edition of The Spiritual Telegraph, we read of a death threat received by those reporting manifestations like those above. In general those making the reports discussed in this "Spookiest Years" series were often subjected to extremely horrible psychological abuse, libel and vilification by the media, clergy and scientists of their time, and in general such people tended to conduct themselves in a very respectable way, particularly given such abuse that might have broken many people.  

In the July 28, 1855 edition of The Spiritual Telegraph   we read this:

"—Mr. P. Demarest, of this city, has just related to us the following occurrences, which he witnessed some time ago at a circle at the house of a gentleman at Green Point....They were requested to sit hack from the table so that they could not- touch it, when the table, a heavy one, surmounted by a marble top, rose bodily into the air, from a foot to two feet above the floor, and swayed about with various undulatory motions.... These movements of the table, which were continued, with variations, for some two or three hours, were accompanied with every variety of concussive sounds, which it was utterly out of the power of any one present to produce ; and when a question was asked, the sound given in answer to it seemed to correspond to its nature and subject. "

In the October 6, 1855 edition of The Spiritual Telegraph we read a letter from a G. W. Gage published in a Cincinnati newspaper. He says this, referring to a levitating fourteen-year-old:

"I have spoken to the people several times, and attended their circles as often. They have writing, speaking, healing, prescribing and other kinds of mediums. The night circles are for physical demonstrations, and are somewhat remarkable. The violin and tambourine are carried about the room with great rapidity, and played ; a bell is also carried about and rung in fine time with other instruments. At these meetings I have also felt the spirit-hand. What is most remarkable here is, the medium, a miss of about fourteen years of age, is taken up in her chair and carried rapidly around the room as high as the heads of the audience, and without the aid of human touch or contact. Prescriptions have been written out by spirits, which have cured the sick and afflicted by scores. The blind have been made to see, the young and old have been aided by this invisible and to many non-existent agency. And still the good work goes on."

We read the following about physicist and optics expert David Brewster in an 1855 event in an 1869 book, a passage discussing a meeting with the medium Daniel Dunglas Home:

"The late Sir David Brewster was almost as unfortunate as Faraday in his relations to this perplexing subject. In the early part of 1855, on the invitation of Mr. William Cox, of Jermyn Street, London, Brewster was at a seance, where Mr. Home was the medium. The late Lord Brougham, the late Mrs. Trollope, her son Mr. Thomas Trollope, and Mr. Benjamin Coleman, were also present. Seated in a private room, in the open light of day, the party saw among other extraordinary things, a heavy table rise from the floor...In a letter to Mr. Coleman (Oct. 9, 1855), Brewster writes, 'It is true that, at Mr. Cox s house, Mr. Home, Mr. Cox, Lord Brougham, and myself sat down to a small table, Mr. Home having previously requested us to examine if there was any machinery about his person ; an examination, however, which we declined to make. When all our hands were upon the table, noises were heard, rappings in abundance; and finally, when we rose up, the table actually rose, as appeared to me, from the ground. This result I do not attempt to explain.' "

In a public statement dated September 29, 1855, published as a letter to the Morning Advertiser,  the scientist Brewster lied by claiming this: "But though I could not account for all these effects, I never thought of ascribing them to spirits stalking beneath the drapery of the table ; and I saw enough to satisfy myself that they could all be produced by human hands and feet, and to prove to others that some of them, at least, had such an origin."  No such thing was seen, as can be proven by Brewster's letter to Coleman quoted above.  The same thing is proven by a letter Brewster privately wrote in June 1855 describing the encounter.  In that later Brewster stated this, which includes a reference to the mysterious "spirit hands" so often seen around this time:

"Last of all I went with Lord Brougham to a seance of the new spirit-rapper, Mr. Home, a lad of twenty. ... We four sat down at a moderately-sized table, the structure of which we were invited to examine. In a short time the table shuddered, and a tremulous motion ran up all our arms ; at our bidding these motions ceased and returned. The most unaccountable rappings were produced in various parts of the table, and the table actually rose from the ground when no hand was upon it. A larger table was produced, and exhibited similar movements...A small hand-bell was then laid down with its mouth on the carpet, and after lying for some time it actually rang when nothing could have touched it. The bell was then placed on the other side, still upon the carpet, and it came over to me and placed itself in my hand. It did the same to Lord Brougham. These were the principal experiments; we could give no explanation of them, and could not conjecture how they could be produced by any kind of mechanism. Hands are sometimes seen and felt, the hand often grasps another, and melts away, as it were, under the grasp. The object of asking Lord Brougham and me seems to have been to get our favourable opinion of the exhibition, but though neither of us can explain what we saw, we do not believe that it was the work of idle spirits." 

After Brewster's lying letter to the editor claiming he saw nothing paranormal, another person present at the event (William Cox) promptly wrote to the same editor, addressing Brewster, expressing "much surprise" at his statements, and saying, " I have a distinct recollection of the astonishment which both Lord Brougham and yourself expressed, and your remarkable and emphatic exclamation to me : — ' Sir, this upsets the philosophy of fifty years.' " 

A day earlier one of the other witnesses of the event (Mr. Coleman) also gave an account of the meeting sharply contradicting Brewster's insinuations about it. Coleman wrote that this exchange occurred between him and Brewster:

"I was as much astonished at what I saw, felt, and heard in the presence of Mr. Home, as any man ; and when I found that Sir David Brewster had been a witness of similar phenomena at the house of my friend, I called upon Sir David, accompanied by my neighbour, and in the course of conversation, Sir David said, that what he and Lord Brougham saw ' was marvellous — quite unaccountable.'

" I then asked him, ' Do you, Sir David, think these things were produced by trick ?' "

" ' No, certainly not,' was his reply."

" ' Is it delusion, think you ?'

" ' No, that is out of the question '

"'Then what is it?'

" To which he replied, ' I don't know ; but spirit is the last thing I will give in to.'

" I added, ' I can well understand the difficulty which a man like you would have in pronouncing an opinion on a subject which, if it be what it appears, would upset in a moment the philosophy of your life.'

" Sir David then told me what he and Lord Brougham had witnessed. ' The table — a large dinner-table, I believe — moved about in the most extraordinary manner ; and among other things, a large accordion was conveyed by an invisible agency to my hand, and then to Lord Brougham's, in which, held by his Lordship's right hand, apart from any person, it played an air throughout.' "

A thorough discussion of the Brewster scandal (including the quotes above) is contained in an appendix of Home's biography, an appendix which can be read here. The evidence here is clear, with three witnesses (and Brewster himself in private letters) giving testimony showing that the distinguished scientist Sir David Brewster lied when he wrote to a newspaper vaguely insinuating he could explain what he saw when meeting Daniel Dunglas Home, and vaguely insinuating that some trickery was involved.  The reality of the paranormal phenomena involving Home would later be confirmed by a scientist greater than Brewster, the scientist Sir William Crookes (discoverer of the element thallium) who thoroughly tested Home, and reported the same type of inexplicable phenomena described above, finding no evidence of any trickery. 

No one should be the least bit surprised to read the case above of a scientist lying about the paranormal, as lying and misspeaking on this topic routinely occur from professors. In his book The Enchanted Boundary, Walter Franklin Prince documented very many cases of professors speaking or writing dishonestly on this topic. In the 93 years since 1930 the kind of dishonesty and intransigent denialism documented by Prince in his 1930 book has continued full blast from professors, who tend to make generalizations about evidence of the paranormal indicating a great lack of scholarly diligence, and tend to sound exactly like people who failed to do their homework and people who developed unshakable convictions on such topics which they regarded as a substitute for seriously examining the relevant evidence. 

There is an expression that history is written by the winners. We see that very dramatically in the case of the rare mentions today of the inexplicable manifestations reported around this time.  The lies regarding such manifestations occurred mainly from those trying to heap scorn on those who reported the inexplicable effects rather than from such witnesses. History's winners ending up in professor positions after 1850 have given us a bogus history of these events, in which the gaslighting liars are depicted as the good guys, and the good honest witnesses are depicted as crazy or cheats. 

In 1855 Canadian author Susanna Moodie described a meeting she had with the medium Kate Fox, who Moodie describes as having the most beautiful eyes she ever saw:

"Miss F. [Kate Fox] told me to write a list of names of dead and living friends, but neither to read to her, nor to allow her to see them. I did this upon one side of a quire of paper, the whole thickness between her and me, writing with her back to me. She told me to run my pen along the list, and as a test the spirits would rap five times for every dead, and three times for every living, friend. I inwardly smiled at this. Yet strange to say, they never once missed."

Moodie reports a name being spelled out by raps, apparently under the common system of this time by which the alphabet would be recited, and a letter would be written down whenever a mysterious rap occurred after a letter was named.  The name spelled out (Anna Laura Harral) was someone whose name was unknown to Kate Fox, but who Moodie had made a compact with, under which either of the two people surviving death would try to communicate evidence of survival to the surviving person.  Moodie reports a wide variety of inexplicable sound phenomena occurring around Kate Fox (as did quite a few distinguished authors), including sounds (combined with vibrations) coming from the dirt or rocks Moodie stood on. Moodie reports a piano playing by itself, soon after Kate Fox suggested that it would. 

Moodie reports asking that the birth year and death year engraved under a ring Mr. Moodie was wearing be identified by the mysterious raps. The correct years were given, she says, as was her father's name and the date of his birth and death, and the place and cause of her father's death. Like countless other witnesses, she reports such questions were correctly answered, even though posed only mentally rather than orally. Could it all have been some super-elaborate fraud by some mastermind of a trickster? On the page here, former congressman Robert Dale Owen says that he had known Kate Fox for years, and that she was "one of the most simple-minded" persons he had ever met, and that she was "as incapable of framing, or carrying on, any deliberate scheme of imposition as a ten year-old child is of administering a government."

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