Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Logic of Table Turning


Contents:

Bias in belief. Difficulty of examining problems in which unknown personal conditions are dominant. Comte Agenor de Gasparin on table-turning. The rise of modern table-turning. Rapping. French examples. A lady bitten by a spirit. Flying objects. The 'via media' of M. de Gasparin. Tables are turned by recondite physical causes: not by muscular or spiritual actions. The author's own experiments. Motion without contact. Dr. Carpenter's views. Incredulity of M. de Gasparin as to phenomena beyond his own experience. Ancient Greek phenomena. M. de Gasparin rejects 'spirits'. Dr. Carpenter neglects M. de Gasparin's evidence. Survival and revival. Delacourt's case. Home's case. Simon Magus. Early scientific training. Its results. Conclusion.


While reason is fondly supposed to govern our conduct, and direct our conclusions, there is no doubt that our opinions are really regulated by custom, temperament, hope, and fear. We believe or disbelieve because other people do so, because our character is attracted to, or repelled by the unusual, the mysterious; because, from one motive or another, we wish things to be thus, or fear that they may be thus, or hope that they may be so, and cannot but dread that they are otherwise. Again, the laws of Nature which have been ascertained are enough for the conduct of life, and science constantly, and with excellent reason, resists to the last gasp every attempt to recognise the existence of a new law, which, after all, can apparently do little for the benefit of mankind, and may conceivably do something by no means beneficial. Again, science is accustomed to deal with constant phenomena, which, given the conditions, will always result. The phenomena of the marvellous are not constant, or, rather, the conditions cannot be definitely ascertained. When Mr. Crookes made certain experiments on Home's power of causing a balance to move without contact he succeeded; in the presence of some Russian savants a similar experiment failed. Granting that Mr. Crookes's tests were accurate (and the lay mind, at least, can see no flaw in them), we must suppose that the personal conditions, in the Russian case, were not the same.

Now an electric current will inevitably do its work, if known and ascertained conditions are present; a personal current, so to speak, depends on personal conditions which are unascertainable. It is inevitable that science, accustomed to the invariable, should turn away from phenomena which, if they do occur, seem, so far, to have a will of their own. That they have a will of their own is precisely their attraction for another class of minds, which recognises in them the action of unknown intelligences. There are also people who so dislike our detention in the prison house of old unvarying laws, that their bias is in favour of anything which may tend to prove that science, in her contemporary mood, is not infallible. As the Frenchman did not care what sort of scheme he invested money in, 'provided that it annoys the English,' so many persons do not care what they invest belief in, provided that it irritates men of science. Just as rationally, some men of science denounce all investigation of the abnormal phenomena of which history and rumour are so full, because the research may bring back distasteful beliefs, and revive the 'ancestral tendency' to superstition. Yet the question is not whether the results of research may be dangerous, but whether the phenomena occur. The speculations of Copernicus, of Galileo, of the geologists, of Mr. Darwin, were 'dangerous,' and it does not appear that they have added to the sum of human delight. But men of science are still happiest when denouncing the 'obscurantism' of those who opposed Copernicus, Mr. Darwin, and the rest, in dread of the moral results. We owe the strugforlifeur of M. Daudet to Mr. Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace, and the strugforlifeur is as dangerous and disagreeable as the half- crazy spiritualist. Science is only concerned with truth, not with the mischievous inferences which people may draw from truth. And yet certain friends of science, quite naturally and normally, fall back on the attitude of the opponents of Copernicus: 'These things,' they say, 'should not even be examined'.

Such are the hostile and distracting influences, the contending currents, in the midst of which Reason has to operate as well as she can. Meanwhile every one of us probably supposes himself to be a model of pure reason, and if people would only listen to him, the measure of the universe. This happy and universal frame of mind is agreeably illustrated in a work by the late Comte Agenor de Gasparin, Les Tables Tournantes (Deuxieme edition: Levy, Paris, 1888). The first edition is of 1854, and was published at a time of general excitement about 'table-turning' and 'spirit-rapping,' an excitement which only old people remember, and which it is amazing to read about.

Modern spirit-rapping, of which table-turning is a branch, began, as we know, in 1847-48. A family of Methodists named Fox, entered, in 1847, on the tenancy of a house in Hydesville, in the State of New York. The previous occupants had been disturbed by 'knocking,' this continued in the Fox regime, one of the little girls found that the raps would answer (a discovery often made before) a system of alphabetic communication was opened, and spiritualism was launched. {307} In March, 1853, a packet of American newspapers reached Bremen, and, as Dr. Andree wrote to the Gazette d'Augsbourg (March 30, 1853), all Bremen took to experiments in turning tables. The practice spread like a new disease, even men of science and academicians were puzzled, it is a fact that, at a breakfast party in Macaulay's rooms in the Albany, a long and heavy table became vivacious, to Macaulay's disgust, when the usual experiment was tried. Men of science were, in some cases, puzzled, in others believed that a new force must be recognised, in others talked of unconscious pushing or of imposture. M. Babinet, a member of the Institute, writing in the Revue des Deux Mondes (May, 1854), explained the 'raps' or percussive noises, as the result of ventriloquism! A similar explanation was urged, and withdrawn, in the case of the Cock Lane ghost, and it does not appear that M. Babinet produced a ventriloquist who could do the trick. Raps may be counterfeited in many ways, but hardly by ventriloquism. The raps were, in Europe, a later phenomenon than the table-turning, and aroused far more interest. The higher clergy investigated the matter, and the Bishop of Mans in a charge, set down the phenomena to the agency of some kind of spirits, with whom Christian men should have no commerce. Granting the facts, the bishop was undeniably right.

There was published at that time a journal called La Table Parlante, which contained recitals of phenomena, correspondence, and so forth. Among the narratives, that of a M. Benezet was typical, and is curious. In recent years, about 1872-80, the Rev. Mr. Stainton Moses, a clergyman and scholar of the best moral reputation, believed himself to be the centre of extraordinary, and practically incredible, occurrences, a belief shared by observers among his friends. M. Benezet's narrative is full of precisely parallel details. M. Benezet lived at Toulouse, in 1853; and his experiences had for their scene his own house, and that of his relations, M. and Mme. L. The affair began in table-turning and table-tilting: the tilts indicated the presence of 'spirits,' which answered questions, right or wrong: under the hands of the L.'s the table became vivacious, and chased a butterfly. Then the spirit said it could appear as an old lady, who was viewed by one of the children. The L.'s being alarmed, gave up making experiments, but one day, at dinner, thumps were struck on the table. M. Benezet was called in, and heard the noises with awe. He went away, but the knocks sounded under the chair of Mme. L., she threw some holy water under the chair, when her thumb was bitten, and marks of teeth were left on it. Presently her shoulder was bitten, whether on a place which she could reach with her teeth or not, we are not informed. Raps went on, the L.'s fled to M. Benezet's house, which was instantly disturbed in the same fashion. Objects were spirited away, and reappeared as oddly as they had vanished. Packets of bonbons turned up unbeknown, sailed about the room, and suddenly fell on the table at dinner. The L.'s went back to their own house, where their hats and boots contracted a habit of floating dreamily about in the air. Things were hurled at them, practical jokes were played, and in September these monstrous annoyances gradually ceased. The most obvious explanation is that Mme. L. demoralised by turning tables, took, consciously or unconsciously, to imitating the tricks of which history and legend are full. Her modus, operandi, in some phenomena, is difficult to conjecture.

While opinion was agitated by these violent events, and contending hypotheses, while La Table Parlante took a Catholic view, and Science a negative view, M. Agenor de Gasparin, a Protestant, chose a via media.

M. de Gasparin, the husband of the well-known author of The Near and the Heavenly Horizons, was a table-turner, without being a spiritualist. His experiments were made in Switzerland, in 1853; he published a book on them, as we said; M. Figuier attacked it in Les Mysteres de la Science, after M. de Gasparin's death, and the widow of the author replied by republishing part of the original work. M. de Gasparin, in the early Empire, was a Liberal, an anti-Radical, an opponent of negro slavery, a Christian, an energetic honest man, absolu et ardent, as he confesses.

His purpose was to demonstrate that tables turn, that the phenomenon is purely physical, that it cannot be explained by the mechanical action of the muscles, nor by that of 'spirits'. His allies were his personal friends, and it is pretty clear that two ladies were the chief 'agents'. The process was conducted thus: a 'chain' of eight or ten people surrounded a table, lightly resting their fingers, all in contact, on its surface. It revolved, and, by request, would raise one of its legs, and tap the floor. All this, of course, can be explained either by cheating, or by the unconscious pushes administered. If any one will place his hands on a light table, he will find that the mere come and go of pulse and breath have a tendency to agitate the object. It moves a little, accompanying it you unconsciously move it more. The experiment is curious because, on some days, the table will not budge, on others it instantly sets up a peculiar gliding movement, in which it almost seems to escape from the superimposed hands, while the most wakeful attention cannot detect any conscious action of the muscles. If you try the opposite experiment, namely conscious pushing of the most gradual kind, you find that the exertion is very distinctly sensible. The author has made the following simple experiment.

Two persons for whom the table would not move laid their hands on it firmly and flatly. Two others (for whom it danced) just touched the hands of the former pair. Any pressure or push from the upper hands would be felt, of course, by the under hands. No such pressure was felt, yet the table began to rotate. In another experiment with another subject, the pressure was felt (indeed the owner of the upper hands was conscious of pressing), yet the table did not move. These experiments are, physiologically, curious, but, of course, they demonstrate nothing. Muscles can move the table, muscles can apparently act without the consciousness of their owner, therefore the movement is caused, or may be irrefutably said to be caused, by unconscious muscular action.

M. de Gasparin, of course, was aware of all this; he therefore aimed at producing movement without contact. In his early experiments the table was first set agoing by contact; all hands were then lifted at a signal, to half an inch above the table, and still the table revolved. Of course it will not do this, if it is set agoing by conscious muscular action, as any one may prove by trying. As it was possible that some one might still be touching the table, and escaping in the crowd the notice of the observers outside the circle, two ladies tried alone. The observer, Mr. Thury, saw the daylight between their hands and the table, which revolved four or five times. To make assurance doubly sure, a thin coating of flour was scattered over the whole table, and still it moved, while the flour was unmarked. M. de Gasparin was therefore convinced that the phenomena of movement without mechanical agency were real. His experiments got rid of Mr. Faraday's theory of unconscious pressure and pushing, because you cannot push with your muscles what you do not touch with any portion of your body, and De Gasparin had assured himself that there was no physical contact between his friends and this table.

M. de Gasparin now turned upon Dr. Carpenter, to whom an article in the Quarterly Review, dealing with the whole topic of abnormal occurrences, was attributed. Dr. Carpenter, at this time, had admitted the existence of the hypnotic state, and the amenability of the hypnotised person to the wildest suggestions. He had also begun to develop his doctrine of 'unconscious cerebration,' that is, the existence of mental processes beneath, or apart from our consciousness. {312} An 'ideational change' may take place in the cerebrum. The sensorium is 'unreceptive,' so the idea does not reach consciousness. Sometimes, however, the idea oozes out from the fingers, through muscular action, also unconscious. This moves the table to the appropriate tilts. These two ideas are capable, if we admit them, of explaining many singular psychological facts, but they certainly do not explain the movements of tables which nobody is touching. In face of M. de Gasparin's evidence, which probably was not before him, Dr. Carpenter could only have denied the facts, or alleged that the witnesses, including observers outside the chaine, or circle, were all self-hypnotised, all under the influence of self-suggestion, and all honestly asserting the occurrence of events which did not occur. His essay touched but lightly on this particular marvel. He remarked that 'the turning of tables, and the supposed communications of spirits through their agency' are due 'to the mental state of the performers themselves'. Now M. de Gasparin, in his via media, repudiated 'spirits' energetically. Dr. Carpenter then explained witchcraft, and the vagaries of 'camp-meetings' by the 'dominant idea'. But M. de Gasparin could reply that persons whose 'dominant idea' was incredulity attested many singular occurrences. At the end of his article, Dr. Carpenter decides that table-turners push unconsciously, as they assuredly do, but they cannot push when not in contact with the object. The doctor did not allege that table-turners are 'biologised' as he calls it, and under a glamour. But M. de Gasparin averred that no single example of trance, rigidity, loss of ordinary consciousness, or other morbid symptoms, had ever occurred in his experiments. There is thus, as it were, no common ground on which he and Dr. Carpenter can meet and fight. He dissected the doctor's rather inconsequent argument with a good deal of acuteness and wit.

M. de Gasparin then exhibited some of the besetting sins of all who indulge in argument. He accepted all his own private phenomena, but none of those, such as 'raps' and so forth, for which other people were vouching. Things must occur as he had seen them, and not otherwise. What he had seen was a chaine of people surrounding a table, all in contact with the table, and with each other. The table had moved, and had answered questions by knocking the floor with its foot. It had also moved, when the hands were held close to it, but not in contact with it. Nothing beyond that was orthodox, as nothing beyond hypnotism and unconscious cerebration was orthodox with Dr. Carpenter. Moreover M. de Gasparin had his own physical explanation of the phenomena. There is, in man's constitution, a 'fluid' which can be concentrated by his will, and which then, given a table and a chaine, will produce M. de Gasparin's phenomena: but no more. He knows that 'fluids' are going out of fashion in science, and he is ready to call the 'fluid' the 'force' or 'agency,' or 'condition of matter' or what you please. 'Substances, forces, vibrations, let it be what you choose, as long as it is something.' The objection that the phenomena are 'of no use' was made, and is still very common, but, of course, is in no case scientifically valid. Electricity was 'of no use' once, and the most useless phenomenon is none the less worthy of examination.

M. de Gasparin now examines another class of objections. First, the phenomena were denied; next, they were said to be as old as history, and familiar to the Greeks. We elsewhere show that this is quite true, that the movement of objects without contact was as familiar to the Greeks as to the Peruvians, the Thibetans, the Eskimo, and in modern stories of haunted houses. But, as will presently appear, these wilder facts would by no means coalesce with the hypothesis of M. de Gasparin. To his mind, tables turn, but they turn by virtue of the will of a 'circle,' consciously exerted, through the means of some physical force, fluid, or what not, produced by the imposition of hands. Now these processes do not characterise the phenomena among Greeks, Thibetans, Eskimo, Peruvians, in haunted houses, or in presence of the late Mr. Home,--granting the facts as alleged. In these instances, nobody is 'circling' round a chair, a bed, or what not, yet the chair or bed moves, as in the story of Monsieur S. at St. Maur (1706), and in countless other examples. All this would not, as we shall see, be convenient for the theory of M. de Gasparin.

His line of argument is that the Greek and Latin texts are misunderstood, but that, if the Greeks did turn tables, that is no proof that tables do not turn, but rather the reverse. A favourite text is taken from Ammianus Marcellinus, lib. xxix. ch. i. M. de Gasparin does not appear to have read the passage carefully. About 371 A.D. one Hilarius was tortured on a charge of magical operations against the Emperor Valens. He confessed. A little table, made of Delphic laurel, was produced in court. 'We made it,' he said, 'that confounded little table, under strange rites and imprecations, and we set it in movement, thus: it was placed in a room charged with perfumes, above a round plate fashioned of various metals. The edge of the plate was marked with the letters of the alphabet separated by certain spaces. A priest, linen clad, bowed himself over the table, balancing a ring tied to a thin thread. The ring, bounding from letter to letter, picks out letters forming hexameters, like those of Delphi.' This is confusing. Probably the movements of the table, communicated to the thread, caused the bounds of the ring, otherwise there was no use in the table moving. At all events the ring touched THEO (which is not a word that could begin a hexameter) when they asked who was to succeed Valens. Some one called out 'Theodore' and they pursued the experiment no farther. A number of Theodores and Theophiles were put to death, but when Theodosius was joined with Gratian in the Empire, the believers held that the table had been well inspired. Here there was no chaine, or circle, the table is not said to lever le pied legerement, as the song advises, therefore M. de Gasparin rules the case out of court. The object, however, really was analogous to planchette, Ouija, and other modern modes of automatic divination. The experiment of Hilarius with the 'confounded little table' led to a massacre of Neoplatonists, martyrs of Psychical Research! In Hilarius's confession we omit a set of ritual invocations; as unessential as the mystic rites used by savages in making curari.

The spiritus percutiens, 'rapping spirit' (?) conjured away by old Catholic formulae at the benediction of churches, was brought forward by some of M. de Gasparin's critics. As his tables did not rap, he had nothing to do with the spiritus percutiens, who proves, however, that the Church was acquainted with raps, and explained them by the spiritualistic hypothesis. {317}

A text in Tertullian's Apologetic was also cited. Here tabulae and capae, 'tables and she-goats,' are said to divine. What have she- goats to do in the matter? De Morgan wished to read tabulae et crepae, which he construes 'tables and raps,' but he only finds crepae in Festus, who says, that goats are called crepae, quod cruribus crepent, 'because they rattle with their legs'. De Morgan's guess is ingenious, but lacks confirmation. We are not, so far, aware of communication with spirits by raps before 856 A.D.

Finally, M. de Gasparin denies that his researches are 'superstitious'. Will can move my limbs, if it also moves my table, what is there superstitious in that? It is a new fact, that is all. 'Tout est si materiel, si physique dans les experiences des tables.' It was not so at Toulouse!

Meanwhile M. de Gasparin, firm in his 'Trewth,'--the need of a chaine of persons, the physical origin of the phenomena, the entire absence of spirits,--was so unlucky, when he dealt with 'spirits,' as to drop into the very line of argument which he had been denouncing. 'Spirits' are 'superstitious,'--well, his adversaries had found superstition in his own experiments and beliefs. To believe that spirits are engaged, is 'to reduce our relations with the invisible world to the grossest definition'. But why not, as we know nothing about our relations with the invisible world? The theology of the spirits is 'contrary to Scripture'; very well, your tales of tables moved without contact are contrary to science. 'No spiritualistic story has ever been told which is not to be classed among the phenomena of animal magnetism. . . . ' This, of course, is a mere example of a statement made without examination, a sin alleged by M. de Gasparin against his opponents. Vast numbers of such stories, not explicable by the now rejected theory of 'animal magnetism,' have certainly been told.

In another volume M. de Gasparin demolished the tales, but he was only at the beginning of his subject. The historical and anthropological evidence for the movement of objects without contact, not under his conditions, is very vast in bulk. The modern experiments are sometimes more scientific than his own, and the evidence for the most startling events of all kinds is quite as good as that on which he relies for his prodigies, themselves sufficiently startling. His hypothesis, at all events, of will directing a force or fluid, by no means explains phenomena quite as well provided with evidence as his own. So M. de Gasparin disposes of the rival miracles as the result of chance, imposture, or hallucination, the very weapons of his scientific adversaries. His own prodigies he has seen, and is satisfied. His opponents say: 'You cannot register your force sur l'inclinaison d'une aiguille'. He could not, but Home could do so to the satisfaction of a scientific expert, and probably M. de Gasparin would have believed it, if he had seen it. M. de Gasparin is horrified at the idea of 'trespassing on the territory of acts beyond our power'. But, if it were possible to do the miracles of Home, it would be possible because it is not beyond our power. 'The spiritualistic opinion is opposed to the doctrine of the resurrection: it merely announces the immortality of the soul.' But that has nothing to do with the matter in hand.

The theology of spirits, of course, is neither here nor there. A 'spirit' will say anything or everything. But Mr. C. C. Massey when he saw a chair move at a word (and even without one), in the presence of such a double-dyed impostor as Slade, had as much right to believe his own eyes as M. de Gasparin, and what he saw does not square with M. de Gasparin's private 'Trewth'. The chair in Mr. Massey's experience, was 'unattached' to a piece of string; it fell, and, at request, jumped up again, and approached Mr. Massey, 'just as if some one had picked it up in order to take a seat beside me'. {319a}

Such were the idola specus, the private personal prepossessions of M. de Gasparin, undeniably an honourable man. Now, in 1877, his old adversary, Dr. Carpenter, C.B., M.D., LL.D, F.R.S., F.G.S., V.P.L.S., corresponding member of the Institute of France, tout ce qu'il y a de plus officiel, de plus decore, returned to the charge. He published a work on Mesmerism, Spiritualism, etc. {319b} Perhaps the unscientific reader supposes that Dr. Carpenter replied to the arguments of M. de Gasparin? This would have been sportsmanlike, but no, Dr. Carpenter firmly ignored them! He devoted three pages to table-turning (pp. 96, 97, 98). He exhibited Mr. Faraday's little machine for detecting muscular pressure, a machine which would also detect pressure which is not muscular. He explained answers given by tilts, answers not consciously known to the operators, as the results of unconscious cerebration. People may thus get answers which they do expect, or answers which they do not expect, as may happen. But not one word did Dr. Carpenter say to a popular audience at the London Institution about M. de Gasparin's assertion, and the assertion of M. de Gasparin's witnesses, that motion had been observed without any contact at all. He might, if he pleased, have alleged that M. de Gasparin and the others fabled; or that they were self-hypnotised, or were cheated, but he absolutely ignored the evidence altogether. Now this behaviour, if scientific, was hardly quite sportsmanlike, to use a simple British phrase which does credit to our language and national character. Mr. Alfred Wallace stated a similar conclusion as to Dr. Carpenter's method of argument, in language of some strength. 'Dr. Carpenter,' he said, 'habitually gives only one side of the question, and completely ignores all facts which tell against his theory.' {320} Without going so far as Mr. Wallace, and alleging that what Dr. Carpenter did in the case of M. de Gasparin, he did 'habitually,' we may briefly examine some portions of his book which, perhaps, leave something to be desired. It is written with much acuteness, with considerable fairness, and is certainly calculated to convince any reader who has not been perplexed by circumstances on which Dr. Carpenter throws little light.

Our own chief perplexity is the continuity and uniformity of the historical and anthropological evidence for certain marvels. We have already shown the difficulty of attributing this harmony of evidence, first to savage modes of thought, and then to their survival and revival. The evidence, in full civilisation, ancient and modern, of educated and even sceptical witnesses to phenomena, which are usually grotesque, but are always the same everywhere, in every age and land, and the constant attendance of these phenomena on persons of a peculiar temperament, are our stumbling-blocks on the path to absolute negation. Epilepsy, convulsions, hysterical diseases are startling affairs, we admit. It was natural that savages and the ignorant should attribute them to diabolical possession, and then look out for, and invent, manifestations of the diabolical energy outside the body of the patient, say in movements of objects, knocks, and so forth. As in these maladies the patient may be subject to hallucinations, it was natural that savages or ignorant men, or polytheists, or ardent Catholics, or excitable Covenanters, should regard these hallucinations as 'lucid' or 'clairvoyant'. A few lucky coincidences would establish this opinion among such observers as we have indicated, while failures of lucidity would not be counted. The professional epileptic medicine- man, moreover, would strengthen his case by 'prophesying on velvet,' like Norna of the Fitful Head, on private and early information. Imposture would imitate the 'spiritual' feats of 'raps,' 'physical movements of objects,' and 'luminous forms'. All this would continue after savagery, after paganism, after 'Popery' among the peasants who were for so long, and in superstition are even now, a conservative class.

All that 'expectancy,' hysterics, 'the dominant idea' and rude hypnotism, 'the sleep of the shadow,' could do, would be done, as witch trials show. All these elements in folklore, magic and belief would endure, in the peasant class, under the veneer of civilisation. Now and again these elements of superstition would break through the veneer, would come to the surface among the educated classes, and would 'carry silly women captive,' and silly men. They, too, though born in the educated class, would attest impossible occurrences.

In all this, we might only see survival, wonderfully vivacious, and revival astonishingly close to the ancient savage lines.

We are unable to state the case for survival and revival more strenuously, and the hypothesis is most attractive. This hypothesis appears to be Dr. Carpenter's, though he does not, in the limits of popular lectures, unfold it at any length. After stating (p. 1) that a continuous belief in 'occult agencies' has existed, he adds:--

'While this very continuity is maintained by some to be an evidence of the real existence of such [occult] agencies, it will be my purpose to show you that it proves nothing more than the wide-spread diffusion, alike amongst minds of the highest and lowest culture, of certain tendencies to thought, which have either created ideal marvels possessing no foundation whatever in fact, or have, by exaggeration and distortion, invested with a preternatural character occurrences which are perfectly capable of a natural explanation'.

Here Dr. Carpenter does not attempt to show cause why the 'manifestations' are always the same, for example, why spirits rap in the Australian Bush, among blacks not influenced by modern spiritualism: why tables moved, untouched, in Thibet and India, long before 'table-turning' was heard of in modern Europe. We have filled up the lacuna in the doctor's argument, by suggesting that the phenomena (which are not such as a civilised taste would desire) were invented by savages, and handed on in an unbroken catena, a chain of tradition.

But, in following Dr. Carpenter, we are brought up short at one of our old obstacles, we trip on one of our old stumbling-blocks. Granting that an epileptic patient made strange bounds and springs, we can conceive savages going farther in fancy, and averring that he flew, or was levitated, or miraculously transported through space. Let this become matter of traditional belief, as a thing possible in epilepsy, i.e., in 'diabolical,' or 'angelical possession'. Add the honest but hallucinatory persuasion of the patient that he was so levitated, and let him be a person of honour and of sanctity, say St. Theresa, St. Francis, or St. Joseph of Cupertino. Granting the survival of a savage exaggeration, granting the hallucinated saint, we may, perhaps, explain the innumerable anecdotes about miraculous levitation of which a few are repeated in our paper on 'Comparative Psychical Research.' The witnesses in witch trials, and in ecclesiastical inquiries, and Lord Orrery, and Mr. Greatrakes, and the Cromwellian soldiery in Scotland, the Spanish in Peru, Cotton Mather in New England, saw what they expected to see, what tradition taught them to look for, in the case of a convulsionary, or a saint, or a catechumen. The consensus in illusion was wonderful, but let us grant, for the sake of argument, that it was possible. Let us add another example, from Cochin China.

The witness and narrator is Delacourt, a French missionary. The source is a letter of his of November 25, 1738, to Winslow the anatomist, Membre de l'Academie des Sciences a Paris. It is printed in the Institutiones Theologicae of Collet, who attests the probity of the missionary. {324}

In May or June, 1733, Delacourt was asked to view a young native Christian, said by his friends to be 'possessed'.

'Rather incredulous,' as he says, Delacourt went to the lad, who had communicated, as he believed, unworthily, and was therefore a prey to religious excitement, which, as Bishop Callaway found among his Zulu converts, and as Wodrow attests among 'savoury Christians,' begets precisely such hallucinations as annoyed the early hermits like St. Anthony. Delacourt addressed the youth in Latin: he replied, Ego nescio loqui Latine, a tag which he might easily have picked up, let us say. Delacourt led him into church, where the patient was violently convulsed. Delacourt then (remembering the example set by the Bishop of Tilopolis) ordered the demon in Latin, to carry the boy to the ceiling. 'His body became stiff, he was dragged from the middle of the church to a pillar, and there, his feet joined, his back fixed (colle) against the pillar, he was transported in the twinkling of an eye to the ceiling, like a weight rapidly drawn up, without any apparent action on his part. I kept him in the air for half an hour, and then bade him drop without hurting himself,' when he fell 'like a packet of dirty linen'. While he was up aloft, Delacourt preached at him in Latin, and he became, 'perhaps the best Christian in Cochin China'.

Dr. Carpenter's explanation must either be that Delacourt lied; or that a tradition, surviving from savagery, and enforced by the example of the Bishop of Tilopolis, made a missionary, un peu incredule, as he says, believe that he saw, and watched for half an hour, a phenomenon which he never saw at all. But then Dr. Carpenter also dismisses, with none but the general theory already quoted, the experience of 'a nobleman of high scientific attainments,' who 'seriously assures us' that he saw Home 'sail in the air, by moonlight, out of one window and in at another, at the height of seventy feet from the ground.' {326}

Here is the stumbling-block. A nobleman of high scientific attainment, in company with another nobleman, and a captain in the army, all vouched for this performance of Home. Now could the savage tradition, which attributes flight to convulsive and entranced persons, exercise such an influence on these three educated modern witnesses; could an old piece of folklore, in company with 'expectancy,' so wildly delude them? Can 'high scientific attainments' leave their possessor with such humble powers of observation? But, to be sure, Dr. Carpenter does not tell his readers that there were three witnesses. Dr. Carpenter says that, if we believe Lord Crawford (and his friends), we can 'have no reason for refusing credit to the historical evidence of the demoniacal elevation of Simon Magus'. Let us point out that we have no contemporary evidence at all about Simon's feat, while for Home's, we have the evidence of three living and honourable men, whom Dr. Carpenter might have cross-examined. The doings of Home and of Simon were parallel, but nothing can be more different than the nature of the evidence for what they are said to have done. This, perhaps, might have been patent to a man like Dr. Carpenter of 'early scientific training'. But he illustrated his own doctrine of 'the dominant idea'; he did not see that he was guilty of a fallacy, because his 'idea' dominated him. Stumbling into as deep a gulf, Dr. Carpenter put Lord Crawford's evidence (he omitted that of his friends) on a level with, or below, the depositions of witnesses as to 'the aerial transport of witches to attend their demoniacal festivities'. But who ever swore that he saw witches so transported? The evidence was not to witnessed facts, but only to a current belief, backed by confessions under torture. No testimony could be less on a par with that of a living 'nobleman of high scientific attainments,' to his own experience.

In three pages Dr. Carpenter has shown that 'early scientific training' in physiology and pathology, does not necessarily enable its possessor to state a case fully. Nor does it prompt him to discriminate between rumours coming, a hundred and fifty years after the date of the alleged occurrences, from a remote, credulous, and unscientific age: and the statements of witnesses all living, all honourable, and, in one case, of 'high scientific attainments.' {327}

It is this solemn belief in his own infallibility as a judge of evidence combined with his almost incredible ignorance of what evidence is, that makes Dr. Carpenter such an amusing controversialist.

If any piece of fact is to be proved, it is plain that the concurrent testimony of three living and honourable men is worth more than a bit of gossip, which, after filtering through a century or two, is reported by an early Christian Father. In matters wholly marvellous, like Home's flight in the air, the evidence of three living and honourable men need not, of course, convince us of the fact. But this evidence is in itself a fact to be considered--'Why do these gentlemen tell this tale?' we ask; but Dr. Carpenter puts the testimony on the level of patristic tattle many centuries old, written down, on no authority, long after the event. Yet the worthy doctor calmly talks about 'want of scientific culture preventing people from appreciating the force of scientific reasoning,' and that after giving such examples of 'scientific reasoning' as we have examined. {328} It is in this way that Science makes herself disliked. By aid of ordinary intelligence, and of an ordinary classical education, every one (however uncultivated in 'science') can satisfy himself that Dr. Carpenter argued at random. Yet we do not assert that 'early scientific training' prevents people from understanding the nature of evidence. Dr. Carpenter had the training, but he was impetuous, and under a dominant idea, so he blundered along.

Dr. Carpenter frequently invoked for the explanation of marvels, a cause which is vera causa, expectancy. 'The expectation of a certain result is often enough to produce it' (p. 12). This he proves by cases of hypnotised patients who did, or suffered, what they expected to be ordered to suffer or do, though no such order was really given to them. Again (p. 40) he urges that imaginative people, who sit for a couple of hours, 'especially if in the dark,' believing or hoping to see a human body, or a table, rise in the air, probably 'pass into a state which is neither sleeping nor waking, but between the two, in which they see, hear, or feel by touch, anything they have been led to expect will present itself.'

This is, indeed, highly probable. But we must suppose that all present fall into this ambiguous state, described of old by Porphyry. One waking spectator who sees nothing would make the statements of the others even more worthless than usual. And it is certain that it is not even pretended that all, always, see the same phenomena.

'One saw an arm, and one a hand, and one the waving of a gown,' in that seance at Branxholme, where only William of Deloraine beheld all,


And knew, but how it mattered not, It was the wizard, Michael Scott. {329}


Granting the ambiguous state, granting darkness, and expectancy, anything may seem to happen. But Dr. Carpenter wholly omits such cases as that of Mr. Hamilton Aide, and of M. Alphonse Karr. Both were absolutely sceptical. Both disliked Home very much, and thought him an underbred Yankee quack and charlatan. Both were in the 'expectancy' of seeing no marvels, were under 'the dominant idea' that nothing unusual would occur. Both, in a brilliantly lighted room of a villa near Nice, saw a chair make a rush from the wall into the middle of the room, and saw a very large and heavy table, untouched, rise majestically in the air. M. Karr at once got under the table, and hunted, vainly, for mechanical appliances. Then he and Mr. Aide went home, disconcerted, and in very bad humour. How do 'expectancy' and the 'dominant idea' explain this experience, which Mr. Aide has published in the Nineteenth Century? The expectancy and dominant ideas of these gentlemen should have made them see the table and chair sit tight, while believers observed them in active motion. Again, how could Mr. Crookes's lack of 'a special training in the bodily and mental constitution, abnormal as well as normal,' of 'mediums,' affect his power of observing whether a plank of wood did, or did not, move to a certain extent untouched, or slightly touched, and whether the difference of position was, or was not, registered mechanically? (p. 70). It was a pure matter of skilled and trained observation in mechanics. Dr. Huggins was also present at this experiment in a mode of motion. Him Dr. Carpenter gracefully discredited as an 'amateur,' without 'a broad basis of general scientific culture'. He had devoted himself 'to a branch of research which tasks the keenest powers of observation'. Now it was precisely powers of observation that were required. 'There are moral sources of error,' of which a mere observer like Dr. Huggins would be unaware. And 'one of the most potent of these is a proclivity to believe in the reality of spiritual communications,' particularly dangerous in a case where 'spiritual communications,' were not in question! The question was, did an indicator move, or not, under a certain amount of pressure? Indiscreetly enough, to be sure, the pressure was attributed to 'psychic force,' and perhaps that was what Dr. Carpenter had in his mind, when he warned Dr. Huggins against 'the proclivity to believe in the reality of spiritual communications'.

About a wilderness of other phenomena, attested by scores of sane people, from Lord Crawford to Mr. S. C. Hall, Dr. Carpenter 'left himself no time to speak' (p. 105). This was convenient, but the lack of time prevented Dr. Carpenter from removing our stumbling- block, the one obstacle which keeps us from adopting, with no shadow of doubt, the theory that explains all the marvels by the survival and revival of savage delusions. Dr. Carpenter's hypothesis of expectancy, of a dominant idea, acting on believers, in an ambiguous state, and in the dark, can do much, but it cannot account for the experience of wide-awake sceptics, under the opposite dominant idea, in a brilliant light.

Dr. Carpenter exposed and exploded a quantity of mesmeric spiritualistic myths narrated by Dr. Gregory, by Miss Martineau, and by less respectable if equally gullible authorities. But, speaking merely as perplexed and unconvinced students of argument and evidence, we cannot say that he removed the difficulties which have been illustrated and described.

Table-turning, after what is called a 'boom' in 1853-60, is now an abandoned amusement. It is deserted, like croquet, and it is even less to be regretted. But its existence enabled disputants to illustrate the ordinary processes of reasoning; each making assertions up to the limit of his personal experience; each attacking, as 'superstitious,' all who had seen, or fancied they had seen, more than himself, and each fighting gallantly for his own explanatory hypothesis, which never did explain any phenomena beyond those attested by his own senses. The others were declared not to exist, or to be the result of imposture and mal-observation,--and perhaps they were.

The truly diverting thing is that Home did not believe in the other 'mediums,' nor in anything in the way of a marvel (such as matter passing through matter) which he had not seen with his own eyes. Whether Home's incredulity should be reckoned as a proof of his belief in his own powers, might be argued either way.


Andrew Lang