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Huxley on Spiritualism

His Experiences With Different Mediums, Especially With Madam X.

The oldest in date of my spiritualistic experience goes back about five-and-thirty years. It took place at the house of a relative of mine, and the “medium” was a pleasant, intelligent and well-mannered woman, a native of the United States, whom I call Mrs. X. The chief performance was the usual pencil and alphabet business, and operations began with me as scientific witness and doubter general. The ease and rapidity with which that quiet transatlantic lady fooled me was as she herself might have said, a caution. The name of the dead friend of whom I was thinking was spelled out in no time, and I was left morally agape, while Mrs. X. followed up her victory, and made one after another of the company a still easier prey. However, as soon as I could pull myself together. I watched the proceedings somewhat narrowly, I noted that the medium’s success was by no means uniform; and in the case of one of my friends who enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for outward impassibility, she failed altogether. So when Mrs. X. had made the round of the table I asked for another trial, and this time the failure was total and complete. The only difference in the conditions, however, was that on the second occasion I had my nerves and muscles under strict control, and took care that my pencil should pass along the letters of the alphabet as impartially as the hand of a watch over the figure son the dial. I have no doubt that on the first trial I had quite unwittingly rested longer on the letters which interested me, from part of the name which I had in my mind. Whatever the nature of the distinction and however slight it may have been it was quite enough for the keen eyes of Mrs. X., sharpened as they were by incessant training.

But the interpretation of the signs unconsciously given by the investigator, is only one-half of the medium’s work. The other is to notify that interpretation by the “raps,” Mrs. X.’s “spirits” did their work admirably. The raps were loud and abundant, and the company declared that they came form all parts of the room: indeed, there were some who maintained the persistence in the house for days afterward. At any rate, the suggestion that the particularly quiet woman who sat easily talking at the head of the table could be all the while making these wonderful noises seemed at first sight outrageous. Drive it away as I would, however the suspicion, the offspring, no doubt, of a basely materialistic philosophy, kept coming back-took shape as a theory, and finally, by dint of patience and perseverance, embodied itself into practice. From that time forth I became master of two spirits quite as efficient as those of Mrs. X., and, I verily believe, of the same nature, My “delicate Ariels” reside in the second toe of each foot. The method of evocation is simplicity itself. I have merely to bend the toe and then suddenly to straighten it; the result is a sharp rap on the sole of my shoe, which by practice may be repeated very rapidly, and rendered forte or piano at pleasure. To produce the best effect it is advisable to have thin socks and a roomy, hard soled boot; moreover, it is well to pick out a thin place in the carpet, so as to profit by the resonance of the floor. THe upper leather of the boot should be kid, rather than patent,a s a bright surface may betray a slight movement. By skillful modification of the force of the blows and conversational misdirection of people’s attention (by the methods familiar to conjurers and ventriloquists) the ordinary intelligent and well-educated member of society- who is about as competent to deal with these matters as a London street-boy with a dairy farm- may be made to believe anything as to the direction of the sounds. So long as no one is allowed to touch the foot of the operator, detection, is impossible. When I was in good practice I could stand talking on a well-lighted floor, while the bystanders, who knew that I caused the raps, could not divine how they were produced. And, at one time I got so in the habit of rapping that I used to catch myself doing it involuntarily, as a man in brown study may rap with his fingers.

But my particular black art is by no means the only effectual method of raising spirits. Some years after Mrs. X.’s performance I happened to dine at the Castle in Dublin. After dinner, Lord Carlisle, who held he Viceregal office at that time, turned the conversation on spiritualism; and I showed off the prowess of my familiars. But a young aide-de-camp who was present completely outshone me. His “raps” as he stood on the hearthrug, were like the cracks of a small whip. He told me they were produced by “slipping a tendon” behind the outer ankle but, as I could not examine the operation closely I confess I was not much wiser for the explanation. the important point is that his method would have been still more difficult of detection-especially in a feminine medium- than mine.

I learned something else that interested me that evening. One of the guests confided to me that some time before he had met Mrs. X. at a country house. In the course of a seance, my informant was told that the spirit of his deceased sister Mary desired to communicate with him, and with gravity befitting the circumstances, he took his share in the interesting and indeed touching, conversation which followed. At the end of the seance, the company broke into groups. Mrs. X. and my friend happened to stroll away from the rest toward a bay window, whereupon this brief but pregnant dialogue took place: She- Did you ever have a sister Mary? He-No. She- I thought not.

Any one could discern, on very short acquaintance, that my friend was a very kind hearted, chivalrous gentleman: but it is not everybody who would have perceived so shrewdly that Irish wit had, for once, been too much for Yankee ‘cuteness’, and that the only chance for the culprit was to throw herself on teh mercy of the court. Fraud is often genius out of place, and I confess that I have never been able to get over a certain sneaking admiration for Mrs. X. But as to the other two media whom I have tried and found wanting, they were merely male and female specimens of the Sludge family- wholly contemptible, clumsy creatures, with no faculty save boundless impudence.

….When I am told that certain of my contemporaries, justly esteemed in science or in literature, believe in spiritualism. I can but reflect that certain other persons of that day, most unquestionably not in any respect less worthy of consideration, believed in witchcraft and demoniacal possession. Kepler had faith in astrology; Descartes made a pilgrimage to Loretto, all the learning and acuteness of Henry More did not prevent him from enthusiastically backing another very acute and accomplished person. Glanvil, in his battle for the truth of the silly story about the “Deamon of Tedworth” as silly a story as any to be found in the records of “spiritualism.” If I decline not only to believe in astrology on the authority of Kepler; in the genuineness of the Palestinian house which flew to Loretto on that of Descartes; in the Deamon of tedworth on that of Glanvil and More; but even to allow that the favorable opinion of these eminent men makes out a prima facie case for these beliefs- it does not seem to me that I am wanting in due respect to Messrs. A, B and C, who are surely not the superiors of Kepler, Descartes and More, if, for the same reasons, I attach no greater weight on their authority, in purimateria.

No one deserves much blame for being deceived in these matters. We are all intellectually handicapped in youth by the incessant repetition of the stories about possession and witchcraft in both the Old and the New Testaments. The majority of us are taught nothing which will help us to observe accurately and to interpret observations with due caution. Very few of us have the least conception how much more difficult it is to make such observations with due caution. Very few of us have the least conception how much more difficult it is to make such observations and interpretations in a room full of people, stirred by the expectations of the marvelous, than in the calm seclusion of a laboratory or the solitude of a tropical forest. And one who has not tried it cannot imagine the strain of the mind involved in sitting for an hour or two in a dark room, on the watch for the dodges of a wary “medium.” A man may be excellent naturalist or chemist, and yet make a very poor detective. But, in these investigations those who know are aware that the qualities of the detective are far more useful than those of the philosopher.

I had no intention when I sat down to write so long a letter. But I have for many years watched, not without anxiety, the recrudescence in our times, and under respectable sanction, of that belief in man’s power of evoking spirits from which the basest and cruelest superstitions of bygone ages logically enough took their origin; and perhaps the expression of my views may be of use, at least to those who have not yet toppled over the edge of common sense into the spiritualistic puddle. Those who have seemed to be past praying.
-Prof. Huxley in Pall Mall Gazette

source: The Salt Lake Daily Tribune.
location: Salt Lake City, Utah


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