Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
A review by Robert McLuhan appears in the October 2015 issue of.The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Christian Romer appears in the October 2015 issue of The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
God’s Magic, first published in 1960, is the final volume in a series of four short books written by Hugh Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding, on the subject of Spiritualism, all of which have been brought back into print by White Crow Books. Lord Dowding is best known for his distinguished military career, particularly his role in the Battle of Britain, but he was also a committed Spiritualist and Theosophist, and his books are collectively a trenchant defence of the idea of survival of death.
In God’s Magic he urges caution in examining testimonies from those who have passed beyond as even honest mediums can make mistakes, and he readily concedes that mediumship is not an exact science. In addition, those who have died do not necessarily immediately change personalities to become honest and truthful if they were not before, necessitating a degree of caution in accepting what they say. Despite these difficulties, he argues that the messages are still a vital source of information about life after death, and their accumulation will encourage conviction in those studying them.
He addresses the suggestion that we might as well wait for the future to reveal itself in its own time if the messages are problematic. There are a number of reasons why it is worth making the effort, even if what is produced is fragmentary and unreliable. One is the possibility of conversing with those it was never expected to be able to reach in this lifetime, which brings comfort. Also, knowing that there is an existence beyond death removes fear of it, and will assist in the process of integration following the transition. Communication is a two-way street because we can assist the departed, such as those who had been traumatised by war or who had harboured emotions of hatred while alive, to adjust to their new state. This is accomplished using the power of thought, which in Dowding’s opinion is all that prayer represents. He describes cooperating with helpers who have themselves passed over (including his own wife, who died in 1920) in rescue work for those who fell in the war but had not realised it, to encourage them to move on.
Obtaining ‘proof of survival’ is only the beginning, not the end, of the process of contact with the other side. The accumulation of data gives an inkling of ‘the Scheme of the Universe and of the Progress of Humanity’, insofar as we are able to comprehend it. That the evidence may be contradictory Dowding considers a reason to be more energetic, not less, in disentangling the truth. Widespread acknowledgement of survival would, he believes, provide a broader perspective and undermine the materialism which flows from an assumption that death is the end. He emphasises the continuum between this world and the next, that ‘eternity is here and now’. The way we treat our fellow beings has consequences for our True Personality, something that is far more than the traits we develop during the course of a single lifetime. It is not essential to attend services or séances in his view, it is the way we live our lives that counts.
In that sense our behaviour can be said to be ‘enlightened self-interest’, which is what he understands by religion. However, he is interested in the essence of religion, not its outward trappings; those he sees as a distraction because their formulaic nature dulls meaning. While Dowding is operating within a Christian framework, he is adamant that the established Church has been found wanting in the effort to make sense of these matters, particularly its reluctance to delve into conditions in the afterlife, about which it is ‘woolly’. If the Church’s teachings on the subject are vague, he argues, the public is simply going to ignore them. There is a need for intellectual honesty in assessing the phenomena.
He includes some brief talks by ‘Z’, a discarnate Egyptian, received though Dowding’s circle in July 1945. ‘Z’ supplies general Spiritualistic advice on issues such as the state of the world and what Spiritualists should do, the problem of pain and the proper attitude to death – to approach it without fear. The volume concludes with a broad outline of the different levels that the individual ascends, each with finer vibrations than the one below as earthly preoccupations are progressively shed. Dowding’s style is bluff and straightforward, and his practical experience as a military man lends his Spiritualist writings credibility, though the reader may wish for more testing of the evidence that he finds so convincing.
Alistair Duncan has established himself as an active author and blogger about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as a champion of the Undershaw Preservation Trust which is fighting to preserve one of Conan Doyle’s houses as it stands empty and decaying. No Better Place completes a trilogy tracing the last forty years of Conan Doyle’s life and career using the houses he owned as a peg., following The Norwood Author: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Norwood Years (1891-1894) and An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes (1897-1907). The third volume examines the years when he lived at Windlesham, near Crowborough, East Sussex, starting rather abruptly in November 1907 with Conan Doyle and his second wife Jean in France, about to reach England at the conclusion of their honeymoon and move into their new house. The ‘No better place’ of the title is Conan Doyle’s verdict on Windlesham, given in a letter to his mother.
No Better Place draws primarily on contemporary newspapers, particularly the Daily Express and Daily Mirror, plus a scattering of foreign papers, mainly the New York Times. Duncan also had assistance from Georgina Doyle, the third wife of John Doyle, the son of Conan Doyle’s younger brother Innes, and has used her book Out of the Shadows: The Untold Story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s First Family. Of other published sources, Brian W Pugh’s A Chronology of the Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a mainstay, but biographies are used sparingly. The result is a straightforward year-by-year account of the final third of Conan Doyle’s life.
As the book’s cover image and subtitle indicate, the main activity during this period was the promotion of Spiritualism, but Conan Doyle was still writing Sherlock Holmes stories as well as plays and other fiction, notably the Professor Challenger stories. At the same time he was campaigning against miscarriages of justice and on social issue such as euthanasia and divorce law reform. He agitated for a channel tunnel, worked to expose Belgian cruelties in the Congo, and visited the front in the First World War. He broke into film, with both Holmes and Challenger depicted on screen.
As well as these varied activities he campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Spiritualism, defending it against all comers and touring the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Africa. He threw his weight behind the Cottingley fairies and spirit photography. The book covers as well the friendship and falling out with Harry Houdini, the births of his three children with Jean, the loss of loved ones in war and peace, but also his leisure interests – boxing, cricket, billiards and motoring. He had a huge amount of energy and packed an enormous amount in, and Duncan traces the winding down as overexertion and ill health tell, the pages devoted to each year becoming fewer as 1930 approaches.
Duncan treats Conan Doyle’s first family sympathetically, and acknowledges that Conan Doyle did not always treat Mary and Kingsley well after their mother’s death, influenced by Jean’s determination to be the centre of his world. On the other hand he is more generous to Jean than some commentators have been, arguing that she was not a gold-digger as she sincerely loved Conan Doyle and was prepared to wait for him to be free to marry her without knowing when that might be. The children though remain shadowy, especially the three youngest.
The strongest aspect of the book is the use of newspaper articles charting Conan Doyle’s activities, particularly the overseas ones that tracked and commented on his extensive tours. The weakest unfortunately is the coverage of Spiritualism, a real problem in a book in which it is so prominent. Duncan’s introduction acknowledges that he is not familiar with the subject and that his lack of knowledge was initially an inhibiting factor in deciding whether to follow his Undershaw book with a further volume on the Windlesham period. It is therefore surprising to find that Kelvin I. Jones’s Conan Doyle and the Spirits: The Spiritualistic Career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not used at all as it would have provided valuable background.
There are a number of points at which this lack of familiarity shows, some more significant than others. For example the Rev. Charles Drayton Thomas is called Brayton Thomas (Pugh’s book has the correct spelling of Thomas’s name but Duncan cites the Daily Mirror). In covering Conan Doyle’s resignation from the Society for Psychical Research, Duncan prints an extract from the ‘Reply by the President and Hon. Secretaries’, attributing this to the President. Lawrence J Jones (whom he calls the chairman) alone, whereas it was signed by Jones along with Eleanor Sidgwick and W H Salter, the two Hon. Secretaries. He adds ‘[sic]’ in a reference to physical mediumship in quoting their reply as if the word physical is incorrect, whereas it is being used to distinguish physical from mental mediumship (the same sentence refers to ‘physical phenomena’).
The well-known psychical researcher and SPR Research Officer Eric J Dingwall makes a brief appearance as just an SPR representative ‘named Dingwall’, no first name supplied, in connection with a poltergeist case near Wisbech. The Scientific American competition to find genuine mediumistic phenomena is mentioned but not Mina Crandon (‘Margery’), whom Conan Doyle recommended to the committee. The description of the court case involving psychical researcher Frederick Bligh Bond, medium Geraldine Cummins, and the Cleophas scripts is misleading because Duncan relies for his information about Cummins v. Bond on a single article in the Daily Mirror, and does not tell us how it was resolved (Cummins won, costs were awarded against Bond), instead simply saying ‘the case was adjourned’. And so on. Some slips and omissions can be rectified in a subsequent printing, but other topics are too vaguely presented to be particularly informative. The problem with newspapers is that as a first rough draft of history they can be very rough indeed, and often fail to tell us a story’s ending.
Justine Picardie’s memoir of her search for post-mortem contact following her sister Ruth’s death from cancer was first published in 2002. It has been republished by Picador with the addition of an introduction by Andrew O’Hagan and an afterword by Justine Picardie. As well as a heartfelt exploration of sisterly love and the grief of bereavement, it provides an interesting outsider’s perspective on the state of psychical research and mediumship research at the time, as Picardie tries various methods of contact and meets individuals who may have answers for her.
The book is written in the form of a diary covering a year, from Good Friday 2000 to Easter Monday 2001. Ruth, her best friend as well as only sibling, had died in 1997 at the age of 33, but three years later Justine still felt the rawness, and thought and dreamt about her constantly. The usual methods used to control the worst symptoms – therapy, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, Valium, homeopathic remedies – having proved useless, she decided to follow up a suggestion given to her some time earlier that she visit the medium Arthur Molnary at the College of Psychic Studies. This was the start of an investigation into the possibility of communication with Ruth, or exploring ‘the underworld of spiritualism’ as the Picador description puts it.
Unfortunately Molnary, being extremely popular, was not available for a couple of months, so in the meantime she had a session with a ‘junior sensitive’ at the College which was less than illuminating. She was then contacted by Judith Chisholm, an Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) researcher, who sent her book Voices from Paradise after reading an article Justine had written about Ruth. Picardie visited Chisholm to listen to samples of EVP, but was unpersuaded, Chisholm’s interpretations of the recordings seeming to be an example of something Picardie was to encounter many times during the course of the year, finding what you want to find. Her sitting with Molinary went better than the one with the junior sensitive, but while he was able to tell her things about Ruth that were true, much else was banal, and she felt it unlikely that he was communicating with Ruth. Her attempts at EVP and automatic writing were failures.
On a visit to New York she met Dale Palmer, another EVP researcher whose grand plans for comupterised communication with the dead have gone the way of many grand plans in psychical research, and a medium who charged her $120 for a sitting and gave her a book by Sylvia Browne. The indications are that Picardie did not find the sitting a good investment of time and money. A visit to the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain was similarly fruitless. Attending a mediumship training weekend at the Arthur Findlay College (the most notable aspect of which was the bizarre presenting style of course leader Glyn Edwards) showed mainly to demonstrate that Picardie has some talent for cold reading.
She even flew to Tucson, Arizona, USA, to a conference run by Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek at a grim venue in an industrial area, where she learned about Schwartz’s emphasis on love, which irritated her, and his fondness for singing James Taylor songs at the drop of a hat. She met a woman who claimed to be a transfiguration medium, but despite squinting hard and getting a headache, Picardie could not see it. On the other hand Ray Hyman, Executive member of what was then the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, did a cold reading on her to show how easy it is for mediums to get what appears to be information from those in the afterlife, and was woefully inadequate. Despite the presence of supposedly top-notch mediums, the quality of the evidence at the conference seemed no better than that in England.
Of particular interest to SPR members will be those sections dealing with aspects of the Society. Picardie attended a Gwen Tate lecture given by David Fontana where she met Montague Keen and purchased a copy of The Scole Report, written by Fontana, Keen and Arthur Ellison, which discusses séances held by a group in Norfolk. Having read the Report, she had lunch with Keen, where he told her about the ‘Spellchecker’ case at Westwood Hall school, Leek; a discarnate spirit, ‘Prudentia’, was said to be communicating through a computer via corrections to misspellings in documents (the case was reported in the October 2005 SPR Journal). Monty also attended the Schwartz conference and later he and Picardie visited Westwood Hall for a demonstration of the mysterious computer, but when Picardie attempted to communicate with hers she failed to obtain meaningful results, perhaps because her Mac did not have the requisite software bug that allowed Lady Prudentia to manifest.
Picardie’s approach to those who are sure of communication with the afterlife is one of sympathetic objectivity, being willing to examine the evidence yet not allowing her judgement to be clouded by her wish to believe that Ruth survived death. Sceptical friends she talks to about her researches express surprise that she should engage in what they consider an irrational activity, but she is always prepared to try if there is a chance of success. As she proceeds though her initial excitement and sense of anticipation fade as one failure follows another, until the sense is that by the end of the book nothing has convinced her that the various techniques have indicated Ruth’s survival of bodily death. True a briefly reported telephone reading by medium Rita Rogers contained a significant proportion of hits, but even they do not prove that Ruth continues to exist and was the source of the information.
The book is not just about Picardie’s venture into afterlife research. It also recounts everyday life with her family and friends, including her children and her divorced parents, who grieve for their lost daughter in their own ways, her therapist mother unostentatiously, suggesting various ideas in Freud’s writings to help Justine, her father floridly emphasising his Jewishness as his means to find consolation. What comes through the account of family life is the sense that bereavement can result in self-absorption, an unwillingness to let go of the dead that can affect relationships with the living. The true hero of this book is Justine’s then-husband Neill MacColl, endlessly patient throughout Justine’s search for answers despite his own tragedy – the death of his half-sister Kirsty MacColl in Mexico in December 2000, hit by a speedboat as she pushed her son to safety. Despite his own grief he still has to listen to his wife’s obsession with her sister while trying to come to terms with the loss of his own. Picardie refers to Kirsty MacColl as ‘a semi-famous pop star’, which seems an unnecessarily grudging verdict on someone who was very well known, as if Kirsty’s death is a distraction from Picardie’s preoccupation with Ruth.
There are no easy answers about the loss of a loved one, for Picardie as for any of us, but perhaps the main, hesitant, conclusion she reaches is one she comes to near the beginning of her search, not at the end:
‘But still I love my sister. And my sister loved me … And now I know, at least I think I know, that after all, after all of this, in the end there is a beginning. And there is life after death, because I am still living.’
Even those who have researched the nineteenth century Spiritualist scene will probably know little about the mediumship of Mrs Guppy other than she was noted for her apports (objects which appeared mysteriously in the séance room), and most famously her three mile spirit-powered ‘aerial transit’ on 23 June 1871 over the roofs of London from her home in Highbury, landing unceremoniously in the middle of a séance in progress in Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, her account book in one hand and a wet pen in the other. That journey is alluded to in Molly Whittington-Egan’s title and on the cover, but as she amply demonstrates, there was more to Mrs Guppy than that.
Determining what that ‘more’ was is not an easy task. Mrs Guppy’s life has hitherto been obfuscated by the mythologised version of her origins she promoted, one which has too often been taken at face value by later commentators. What has helped to disentangle the fabrications she disseminated, and makes this portrait so valuable, is the power of the electronic search which facilitated a comparison of Mrs Guppy’s version against the facts. The result is a straight no-frills biography aiding enormously in tracing her life. What Whittington-Egan has discovered is that Mrs Guppy wove a ‘bogus family history’ to improve her social standing.
So Elizabeth White (not Agnes Nichols or Nichol or Nicholl) came from a humble background; she was born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire and the family moved to Hull when she was a small child. Later she portrayed herself as having more genteel origins. Whittington-Egan describes her as ‘upwardly mobile’, ‘an opportunist of the actress type with natural dramatic ability’. The reference to actresses carried a wider set of connotations at the time than merely having the ability to play a role, but otherwise it is probably a fair assessment.
Like many in her position, she reinvented herself in order to break through rigid class constraints. Mediumship was one way in which working-class women could better themselves socially, and Mrs Guppy did this with aplomb, moving in circles far removed from her modest origins. Her talents can be gauged by her avoidance of the outright exposures that plagued her confreres, and by the significant influence she wielded on Alfred Russel Wallace, for whom, in Whittington-Egan’s words, ‘she was the enchantress’, but who was ‘blind to her legerdemain and gross conjury’.
Her apports were extremely varied, including feathers, live starfish, eels and lobsters, butterflies, doves, ducks prepared for the oven, and enough fruit and flowers to keep Covent Garden in business by herself. The volume later puzzled Frank Podmore, who wondered at the economics. Remarkable as her productions were, what mainly marks her out from her fellow physical mediums is the contrast between what we think of as a rather ethereal pursuit, contacting spirits, and her undoubted bulk. Reference by contemporary commentators to her aerial journey as a ‘transit of Venus’ was a clever but cruel pun, likening her to an astronomical object. She stands out among the general mass of mediums operating at this time because of her size; to move around the séance room in the dark undetected required a great deal of skill, and the image of the portly Mrs Guppy tip-toeing in the dark strikes the reader as ridiculous.
As well as tracing the trajectory of Mrs Guppy’s career, Whittington-Egan is good on the social aspects of being a regular attendee at séances and becoming part of the community of believers. Mediumship was not just about wanting to make contact with the departed, it was also about a social network that gave its members a particular identity and offered mutual support, as well as the chance for a chat over tea and cakes. Mrs Guppy had good connections in the movement and Whittington-Egan follows many of the threads that connected Mrs Guppy to her fellow workers for Spirit which could express themselves in both close friendships and hostile rivalries. Her mediumship enabled her to marry twice, Samuel Guppy and William Volckman, both Spiritualists and prosperous in business. But times changed, she outlived her husbands, and a son, and when she died in Brighton of ‘senile decay’ in December 1917 her occupation as a medium had long been over, her fame evaporated.
Whittington-Egan’s view is that Mrs Guppy was (putting it loosely) a humbug, and it difficult to demur. Despite this dispassionate verdict it is a warm and affectionate portrait, even clearing Mrs Guppy of the most egregious charge made against her, that she had arranged in a fit of jealousy to have vitriol thrown in the face of ‘Katie King’ at a Florence Cook séance, thereby ruining Miss Cook’s looks (this plot rests on the assumption that Cook and Katie were the same). Whittington-Egan reasonably characterises Mrs Guppy’s accuser as a ‘man of bad character’, and concludes that there is no necessity to believe his accusation.
Mrs Guppy Takes a Flight is an important study for anyone with an interest in Victorian Spiritualism as it clears away much misinformation while avoiding the excesses of cultural theory, and presents Mrs Guppy in, as it were, the round. More, it helps to bring alive the sense of adventure as well as solemn pursuit after truth that characterised the early days of Spiritualism, before psychical researchers came along and in their determination to control the mediums made it, in Whittington-Egan’s words, ‘deadly serious and dull’. Just one puzzle remains: why the publisher has chosen to categorise this as ‘true crime’ rather than biography. Whittington-Egan has written about crime previously, but the only crimes that Mrs Guppy can reasonably be charged with, on the evidence presented here, are against the credulity of her sitters.
A review by Prof. John Poynton will appear im The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Professor Donald J. West will appear in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Released in late 2012, Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven garnered an enormous amount of attention, including making the cover of Newsweek, being discussed on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and picking up a cover endorsement from the doyen of near-death experience (NDE) research Raymond Moody which declares that ‘Dr Eben Alexander’s near-death experience is the most astounding I have heard in more than four decades of studying this phenomenon...’ As a result of all the exposure it has now sold millions of copies, as indicated by the cover announcement ‘The New York Times bestseller’. While that attention has waned, the questions surrounding the author and his remarkable story have grown.
As Alexander, a neurosurgeon, tells it, in November 2008 he fell prey to a devastating strain of E. coli bacterial meningitis that left him in a coma for seven days, his cortex completely shut down. Against all medical prognostications he survived this massive assault on his brain that by rights should have led to death or a vegetative state, but he came back with a bizarre description of where he had been during the time his body lay helpless in an intensive care unit. While the doctors were battling to save his life against what seemed hopeless odds, and his family were preparing themselves for what they believed was the inevitable, Alexander himself was, he says, undertaking a hyper-real journey into the afterlife.
First there was what he terms ‘the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View’, a place of darkness that he describes in a chapter appropriately titled ‘Underworld’. Then he was transported to what he calls ‘The Gateway’, filled with light, beautiful sounds, and with wonderful butterflies flitting around. Riding on one of the butterflies (scale being meaningless in this place) was a beautiful young woman who gave him a message of hope. Finally there was ‘The Core’, where Alexander understood that God (or ‘Om’, a word he uses interchangeably but which does not have the same associations as the term God), the omniscient creator, is real, and that we are loved unconditionally. He learns lessons which, he says, will take a lifetime to unpack and digest, and presumably promote in subsequent books. With a brief side-trip back to the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View he wakes up just as his doctors are debating whether to switch off his life support. The prime lessons he learned may not have been original, but for him they were profound: that everything in the universe is connected, and the force that binds is Love. After his return he saw a photograph of a deceased sister he had never met (he was adopted) and recognised her as the person who had ridden a butterfly.
The first thing to say is that this is not a technical book written for the specialist community of NDE researchers. Nor does it engage with the NDE literature, despite a six-page reading list. It is a popular, not an academic volume, and it is doubtful it would have sold as well if it had been. That is fine as long as it is rigorous enough to sustain the claims made in it, but its degree of rigour is where the issues start. The book has been hugely controversial, polarising readers into opposing camps. The detractors are spearheaded by Luke Dittrich in a 2013 Esquire feature called ‘The Prophet’. Dittrich takes issue with a number of details in the book, and also attacks Alexander on a professional level. The implications of the article’s biographical exposé are that Alexander lacks sufficient focus and attention to detail to be a first-rate doctor, is prone to interpersonal problems with his superiors, and the theme emerges of him altering the historical record in his surgical practice to conform to the narrative he wants to promote: he did it during a number of malpractice suits according to Dittrich, and the implication is that he is doing the same with this book. Dittrich paints a picture of a troubled professional life, Alexander having failed to live up to his adoptive father’s standards (his father was also a neurosurgeon). His natural father was a high achiever too, and Alexander implies in the book that he has suffered from self-esteem problems.
While Dittrich’s lengthy critique was disputed by Alexander, the subtext of the controversy being whether or not Alexander could be trusted, it is important because we have to rely on Alexander’s account of his ‘journey into the afterlife’ with no independent verification, and Dittrich argues that Alexander is unreliable. The book’s success, Dittrich continues, pulled Alexander out of a financial hole caused by long periods of unemployment resulting from work problems. On the other hand, Alexander’s contention is that despite travails stemming from his personal history (he does mention a struggle with alcohol, though not the malpractice issues) he is still a fine surgeon and a truthful witness. Trying to square both sides simply raises uncertainty about the veracity of what Alexander has said and what his motives may have been for saying it. He seems happy to sacrifice precision for dramatic licence, but his willingness to do so leaves open the issue of where that licence ends and strict accuracy begins. It is one of those books, marketed as nonfiction, which raises doubts as to the amount of fiction it might contain.
The debate seems to have got hung up on minor elements, such as whether Alexander had a tube down his throat which would have prevented him shouting out ‘God help me!’, as he said he did, or whether there could have been a rainbow as he regained consciousness – he and his family say there was, his detractors counter that meteorological records indicate there could not have been. Of course, if he can embroider the small things, he can do so with bigger things, but such aspects are of less importance than the key issue of whether the condition of Alexander’s brain during coma precluded the claimed experience. One significant discrepancy is Dittrich’s discovery that Alexander’s coma was not caused by the infection, rather it was medically induced, which is not how Alexander depicts the course of events, and is frankly less dramatic. According to one of the doctors Dittrich spoke to, Alexander’s brain was active throughout his ordeal; he was ‘conscious but delirious’. That doesn’t seem to square with a medically-induced coma either, but whichever is the case, conscious or unconscious, this is a long way from a complete lack of cortical activity.
In an appendix Alexander lists several alternatives that might still explain his NDE, but dismisses them all as they founder on him having had a completely inert cortex, and any activity in the lower brain regions would not have been sufficient, considering its richness. But coma is a long way from a case like Pam Reynolds’, say, where the blood was drained from her head and her brain activity could be carefully monitored. Alexander cannot reasonably aver that all brain function had ceased on the basis of occasional scans. It seems odd that he uses his scientific credentials to buttress his contention that he visited heaven, yet as a scientist he does not adopt the parsimonious explanation that he was hallucinating but assumes that what he encountered possessed an external reality. He has jumped to the conclusion that he was vouchsafed a vision of heaven for no other reason than it felt profound to him, but it is conjecture that his ‘trip’ coincided with a lack of cortical activity. Even if his cortex did shut down completely, and that has not been demonstrated beyond doubt, his trip could have been an hallucination occurring after the resumption of activity, possibly over a short period of time.
Part of the problem is that Alexander stresses that words cannot do justice to what happened to him, which goes beyond language to a state in which to see is to know directly and without mediation. The corollary is that his readers will not be convinced by what he says unless they are predisposed already to accept that he visited heaven and met his sister (he recounts the irony of trying to convince colleagues who reacted in much the way he used to when his patients tried to tell him of similar experiences they had undergone). To his critics’ argument that after such a severe trauma there is no guarantee that Alexander could produce a reliable record afterwards, his response is that while he is attempting to render in words something beyond language, such memories, which are not reliant on the brain, do not fade as conventional memory traces would; but this is speculation, without independent corroboration. Psychical research has struggled since its inception for ways to isolate communications alleged to originate in the afterlife from other explanations, and demands a far higher level of evidence than can be found here. Alexander may be right when he says he went to heaven, but to maintain he has proof is incorrect. If this were submitted to a peer-reviewed journal it would be sent back saying that the data were insufficient to validate the conclusions. Taking these caveats into consideration, the book’s title is a loaded one.
Even if his account is taken to be broadly accurate, it is still a leap to the existence of God/Om and of heaven. There is nothing here that contradicts standard Christian theology. More to the point, there is nothing that contradicts Alexander’s own religious persuasion, and this reinforcement of existing beliefs will be a bonus for many of his followers. One wonders how its reception would have been affected if Om had informed him that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger. Yet despite the book’s trajectory feeling convenient, it is possible that Alexander has been maligned by critics, and that his journey happened in the way he said it happened, and supplies evidence for an afterlife (whether or not one wants to go further and characterise that as heaven presided over by a supreme being). Alternatively it may be that he is a cynical charlatan with a money-making scheme to compensate for the loss of a medical career. Or he may be honest but misguided, fantasising that his NDE – an atypical one as he concedes – has more meaning that it actually warrants, and happy to ignore small discrepancies in search of the big picture.
His recovery from such an illness may have been miraculous (in either a loosely metaphorical or strictly theological manner), but whatever occurred during his time in the intensive care unit, there is nothing in his book that provides a definitive answer. A reasonable conclusion is that Alexander has spun a little into a lot, and pushed his conclusions far past the point warranted by the evidence. There is an assurance that makes the book superficially convincing, but its reluctance to acknowledge counter-arguments, and its omissions, generate doubt. That may be why, although Universal Pictures quickly picked up the film rights to the book, nothing has been heard of a screen adaptation since. Alexander comes over as superficially sincere, but there are too many questions raised to take what he says at face value, let alone as proof of heaven.
A review by Robert Charman will appear in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Robert Charman will appear in the SPR's Journal.
A review by Alan Murdie will appear in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
The Britten Memorial Museum, named after Emma Hardinge Britten, is housed in the Arthur Findlay College at Stansted Hall, Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex. The College is administered by the Spiritualists’ National Union, and the museum contains a wide range of exhibits relating to Spiritualism. Among these are a number of casts made from wax moulds, artefacts said to demonstrate the reality of spirits. The museum’s curator, Paul Gaunt (also editor of both the Psypioneer and The Pioneer electronic journals) has compiled this informative booklet which discusses the museum’s collection of casts, other instances of them in the literature, and the debate that took place within the Society for Psychical Research over the evidential value they provide.
The theory behind the moulds is that a spirit would be able to produce one by materialising a portion of itself, usually a hand but also part of a foot or even its face, and pushing it into a bowl of warm paraffin wax. The resulting wax sleeve could be set in cold water, leaving a mould that would be undamaged upon the limb’s dematerialisation. Repeated immersions, building up layers, would serve to increase the thickness and strength of the mould. As wax is so fragile, it can be filled with plaster of Paris which upon setting retains (leaving aside distortions and damage from handling) the shape and detail of the materialised body part in a more permanent form.
Wax moulds date from as early as the 1870s, but those at Stansted Hall were donated by Sutton-in-Ashfield Spiritualist church in Nottinghamshire, where they had been on display since 1938. These, Gaunt suggests, may well have been the last done by mediums (as opposed to researchers). An article in the 16 December issue of Two Worlds, which is reprinted, describes their production through the mediumship of William and George Finney, uncle and nephew, at Sutton-in-Ashfield.
According to the Two Worlds article, the moulds were created by the pair in informal conditions, not during a séance but sitting in the dark in a cupboard under the stairs with buckets of melted wax and cold water. The booklet contains three colour photographs of the museum’s casts, wax still adhering, showing them in all their strange beauty. One is of a pair of hands with interlinked fingers presented in a way that, it has been argued, would be more difficult to fake than it would a single hand.
The article is followed by an outline history of wax moulds, placing them in the context of the development of Spiritualist phenomena. Wax moulds were preceded by impressions left in putty and flour, but paraffin offered a more suitable material, and the technique was used by a number of mediums. Gaunt gives a short overview of some of them, but notes that each generally only tried the procedure for a brief period, and after becoming fashionable in the 1870s it went into abeyance until revived by the remarkable Franek Kluski, subject of a recent book by Zofia Weaver. Weaver and Gaunt both mention that at least in Kluski’s case it was a messy business, with splashes of wax everywhere, which perhaps made it unappealing for sitters even though the results were startling.
Gaunt includes sections on experiments with Kluski at the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris and in Warsaw conducted by Gustave Geley (three photographs, two of hands and one of a foot, from Geley’s 1927 Clairvoyance and Materialisation are shown, the hands revealing remarkable skin features), and on the rather fractious debate that took place in the pages of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in the early 1990s over whether it was possible to reproduce moulds like Kluski’s by normal means.
Gaunt’s conclusion from the debate is that a living hand can be removed from a wax mould IF the wax is of a reasonable thickness caused by repeated immersion; but the thinness that Kluski is reported to have achieved through a single immersion, and without setting in cold water, should make the operation impossible as the mould would be too fragile for withdrawal without its destruction. His verdict is that, pending further research which adheres to Geley’s precise method (which recreations so far have failed to do), Kluski’s moulds can be considered good evidence for the return of spirits.
Beatrice Brunner (1910-83) was a German-speaking Swiss trance medium. Over a period of 35 years (1948-83) she produced some 2,500 lectures, including 91 reports said to derive from departed individuals. A selection of twelve such reports, received between 1961 and 1969, have been transcribed into faultless English from the German-language tape recordings and published by ABZ Verlag, Zürich. Typically an account gives some indication of what life was like before death, initial experiences after it, and how spiritual progress has been made since. The focus is firmly Christian, but earthly religious affiliation is irrelevant; it is the quality of the life which was lived that is important, and divine justice ensures that sins and good deeds are weighed. Even atheists are allowed entry, and they soon see the errors of their ways when it becomes obvious that God exists and is the supreme ruler. If their admittance comes as a surprise, even more so is the existence of gnomes and elves living alongside humans described in one narrative.
So what is it like in this place? All arrive on equal terms, as status on earth is irrelevant here – in fact an easy past life can prove to be a disadvantage as it means more work to catch up spiritually. This is a world of balance and karma (though not a term that is used). An increase in earthly prosperity has it appears actually created a change in afterlife conditions. In the old days, when more people had nothing, arriving in the hereafter was to find comparative luxury. The humbler circumstances prevailing during life meant that more ‘spiritual purification’ could be achieved prior to death. With conditions for many improving though, that pre-mortem process is less available, requiring greater effort after it. Having been pious in life is not enough to guarantee progress in the afterlife if it was in form only; there has to have been sincerity behind it. The degree of sincere devoutness the person had on earth, and the amount of adversity faced, influence the speed of advancement in the Hereafter. One gets credit for having remained true to one’s faith in difficult circumstances, or enduring extreme poverty and hardship, or even having had a lot of children.
It can take time for the newly-arrived to adjust, but there is guidance on offer to help smooth the transition (assisting others conferring credit). Once the adjustment is made, the emphasis is on work. This is not the sort of afterlife where one relaxes with a cigar and a glass of whisky. At first life can be rather tedious, often with plenty of manual labour, though there is a suggestion that things get better as one grows spiritually and has atoned for past sins. There may be a Swiss work ethic reflected here, with Brunner unable to contemplate a heaven where souls simply sit around idle and the means of sustenance are provided without effort. The work is much the same as on earth, as it is obligatory to learn skills. It is also necessary to learn foreign languages, the afterlife not having apparently overcome the language barrier. Fortunately labour is not the sole occupation, as time is set aside to worship God. One spirit attends an appearance by Jesus which sounds much like a celebrity arriving to greet fans, and for some reason Jesus has guards to look after him.
With that sort of exception it sounds a dull place, with a rigid hierarchy, a surprisingly authoritarian emphasis on receiving permission to do things, and a requirement for obedience. Everybody we meet is parochial, with little appetite for exploring further afield, even though the territory, we are informed, is vast. There is also a strange obsession with one’s appearance, hard work and therefore progression enabling nice clothes to be acquired and the higher spirits looking, well, divine. Those who refuse to work wear drab tatty garments and are ignored by the grafters. Others cling resolutely to the earth for a time, unwilling to give up its pleasures even though they can only enjoy them second-hand, until they realise how futile it is. Everybody gets with the programme eventually.
Development thereafter is a personal task, and it is common for those newly arrived to be told that they cannot meet relatives, or only for a brief period, as they must all pursue their own individual paths. The wishes of individuals themselves count for little in the grand scheme. There is even a reference to being ‘re-educated’, which has a sinister ring. It is not a straightforward picture of heaven as a place of unconfined joy. Mixed in with the idea of upward progress is that of reincarnation, returning to the living world to undertake further learning (going from aristocrat to shepherd in consecutive lives, for example).
The publisher has done a good job with the book’s production but less well with the provision of supplementary information. There is an introduction, but it mainly deals with general issues of mediumship, much of it in a Biblical context. An epilogue indicates that Brunner is extremely influential in the German-speaking world: her lectures have been published in Geistige Welt, the oldest Christian Spiritualist paper, since 1948, and there is a very attractive centre in Zürich in which the recordings are played. Both enterprises are managed by an organisation called Pro Beatrice. However there is little information on Brunner herself, there is no indication why these twelve accounts should be particularly noteworthy, nor how they relate to the many lectures she gave.
It is entirely possible that Beatrice Brunner was able to tap into the afterlife, and the people there were able to channel testimonies through her that will help those whose turn is yet to come to be prepared. The general consistency of the witnesses would be the result of their world’s reality. On the other hand there is never any information that would help to identify them as having lived, and it is entirely possible that the consistency is more the result of Brunner’s own views on what the afterlife should be like.
While it always pleasant to think that our consciousness survives death, these reports do not come across as a particularly appealing view of the hereafter. The communicators talk about ‘coming home’, ‘for the true life is the life of the spirit’, yet it is hard to see how its strictness can compare favourably with the earth life left behind for anyone who has not previously suffered extreme privation and who can therefore anticipate being fast-tracked. It doesn’t feel like a place to look forward to for the rest of us if these descriptions of it are a reliable indication.
NB This volume was published in 2013. It was republished the following year in ebook form by ABZ Verlag as Life after Life: A Selection of Individual Experiences in the Beyond.
Pro Beatrice’s website: http://www.probeatrice.ch/index.php/en/
Dr Zofia Weaver, co-author with Ian Stevenson and Mary Rose Barrington of A World in a Grain of Sand: The Clairvoyance of Stefan Ossowiecki (2005), and a past editor of the Journal and Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, has produced a short book packed with information on the mediumship of Warsaw-born Teofil Modrzejewski (1873-1943), who used the pseudonym Franek Kluski. He is not as well known in the English-speaking world as other mediums, notably D D Home and Eusapia Palladino, or even Rudi Schneider, largely because much of the reporting of his mediumship was in Polish. Weaver has helped to redress the situation by making available material not previously translated into English and providing a balanced assessment of Kluski’s extraordinary career as a medium.
That career was an unusual one. The most significant portion of it was also surprisingly short, comprising some 340 sittings held between 1918 and 1925. He was already 45 when he began in late 1918, and fell into it by accident: he attended a séance and discovered that he too seemed to possess mediumistic abilities, though he did claim to have had psychic experiences in childhood. He began to hold séances himself, but never gained financially from doing so, never performed in public, and did not seek recognition. He thought mediumship in general to be a ‘circus’, of which he had no ambition to become a part. His choice of pseudonym itself played down the remarkable events which surrounded him – Weaver says that kluski is a particularly dull type of pasta.
In addition to providing biographical details and outlining what is known about Kluski’s character, Weaver sets this period in the context of Poland’s fortunes before the First World War and its emergence as an independent state in November 1918. It seems likely that Kluski was involved in the conflict as he had extensive military connections and was a volunteer during the Polish-Soviet War (and he had actually fought a duel in his twenties). After the war he had a day job in banking, in addition to being a journalist and man of letters, though he never wrote about his séance room activities and was reluctant to talk about them. In addition to his military friends he had a wide range of professional connections. People from both spheres attended his séances and Weaver provides details of a few of these individuals, giving an insight into the milieu in which Kluski moved. In short he did not conform to the typical stereotype of a medium only partially connected to this world.
Kluski’s mediumship was intensively scrutinised, not only by Polish psychical researchers, but by others further afield, notably Charles Richet, Camille Flammarion, Everard Feilding, Barbara and Hewat McKenzie of the British College of Psychic Science, and particularly Gustave Geley. Kluski was happy to work with sympathetic investigators, and they were impressed by what occurred in their presence. A primary source is the 586-page Polish-language book, Reminiscences of Séances with the Medium Franek Kluski (1926), by Colonel Norbert Okolowicz, who attended many of Kluski’s séances, and Weaver draws on it extensively. A further important source is Gustave Geley’s Clairvoyance and Materialisation (1927), which has much to say about Kluski. In addition Weaver has been able to examine Polish records compiled by others, and provide information on Kluski and his achievements that has not hitherto been available in English.
The sheer range of what went on around him is astonishing. Kluski is probably best known for the production of wax moulds said to be made by the immersion of spirits’ materialised body parts, but there was a great deal more. Phenomena included strange phosphorescent mists, movement of objects, odd noises and raps, odours, apports in and out of the séance room and lights moving around. Figures were frequently visible, sometimes only partly materialised. At other times they became increasingly clear until they achieved their final form, seeming to take their energy from the participants by rubbing their clothing, or growing from a small to full size in accordance with the sitters’ intention. It is important to note that Kluski did not insist on complete darkness; dim red light and luminous plaques aided vision, and a number of the figures were self-illuminating. Sitters often recognised the visitors and there was interaction between them; the materialised apparitions demonstrated personality, some could read sitters’ minds and would respond to thoughts. The participants’ attitudes set the tone, and the degree of group cohesion, along with Kluski’s physical and mental health, influenced the production and strength of phenomena.
In addition to the human figures, too dissimilar to Kluski to be the result of impersonation, materialisations included dogs, cats, squirrels, a large bird, all suggesting that not only humans survive bodily death, and an ape-like creature which Geley called ‘Pithecanthropus’ and which was said to smell like a wet dog. Strange phenomena were not confined to the séance room but occurred outside it as well. These included floating lights, compass needles in a display case moving when Kluski leaned over them, and affecting electric lighting. On one occasion at a regimental dinner he held a fluent conversation with Tartar officers in their language, despite not knowing it, and only understood he had done so when told the following day. He was able to exercise clairvoyance, and most dramatically (a somewhat relative term when discussing Kluski) had a facility for bilocation, including one occasion when Geley saw him in Paris while he was actually in Warsaw.
Weaver deals at length with the wax moulds, the subject of vigorous controversy in the pages of the SPR’s Journal in the 1990s following first a book review by Michael H. Coleman in 1989 which dismissed them, and then stimulated further by Weaver’s 1992 paper ‘The Enigma of Franek Kluski’. The hope that they (or at least the plaster casts taken from them) might represent an unambiguously permanent paranormal object has not been fulfilled, but if they were a trick, it was an accomplished one in the confines of the séance room, surrounded by witnesses. In a refinement to the normal procedure Geley and Richet added blue colouring to the paraffin to guard against pre-prepared wax moulds being smuggled in, and the wax in which the mould was made was found to be blue, showing that it had to have been created in situ. An alternative safeguard was to add cholesterol to the paraffin; the advantage over a dye is that it does not discolour the wax on its own, but when sulphuric acid is added it becomes red. These are controls which critics need to account for when assessing how the moulds might have been produced.
Kluski’s general health was not good and he suffered during séances, finding them exhausting. At times Kluski turned more to automatic writing, which placed less strain on him. The words were sometimes in a language he did not know, albeit he was a polyglot, and the handwriting and content (though not necessarily the views, perhaps influenced by Kluski) were acknowledged by sitters as appropriate to particular deceased individuals. Messages occasionally arrived from people who were living but asleep at the time. Weaver notes that his mediumship continued after 1925, but again the emphasis was on automatic writing. He clearly felt that there was a tension between his mediumship and his religious faith and he eventually stopped altogether in September 1939 because of Church disapproval; one suspects though that he did not find it difficult, considering the physical toll, and perhaps he felt he had nothing to prove so no reason to continue.
Weaver draws comparisons with other mediums and concludes that while elements of Kluski’s mediumship can be found in theirs, what makes it noteworthy was its scale. To explain it away as trickery is to assume a high degree of gullibility, but many of the sitters were highly experienced and aware of methods of cheating. That is not to rule out deception completely, and an assumption of expertise can lead to complacency; but if the sitters had been gullible then Kluski’s success at fooling them so comprehensively would betoken a degree of idiocy as incredible as the things they witnessed. If fraud, it was of a sophisticated kind that could hoodwink sharp and knowledgeable researchers so thoroughly. While séances seem to have been well-controlled (Kluski was prepared to participate naked, which definitely shows a willingness to cooperate), sceptics will argue that holding them in Kluski’s own apartment was a fatal weakness. Yet he was happy to work in red light, and there were still manifestations when Kluski was away from home, including visiting the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris in 1920 where he was studied by Geley, its director. Again that does not rule out fraud completely, but it does make it more difficult to dismiss the phenomena.
Kluski is a significant figure in the history of psychical research who deserves to be better known, and for more than just the production of ‘spirit hands’. What makes him special in Weaver’s eyes is that his mediumship manages to combine just about every aspect of mental and physical mediumship. In trying to evaluate this wealth of data she asks: ‘what is impossible?’ If we can’t answer that, how can we dismiss Kluski’s evidence as not being possible, however unlikely it is? Alan Gauld, who contributes the foreword, characterises Kluski as ‘a uniquely puzzling individual’, so the use of ‘enigma’ in the subtitle is well chosen. Any kind of conclusion is elusive, but Kluski, as a result of Dr Weaver’s efforts, can assume his place among those mediums of the first rank whose accomplishments pose challenges for our understanding of the world. She concludes with the suggestion that physical mediumship should be taken more seriously today for what it might tell us about, in her words, ‘realities not available to most of us’. Who knows, in so doing we may find another Franek Kluski.
An interview with Carlos Alvarado, in which Zofia Weaver discusses the book, can be found here: https://carlossalvarado.wordpress.com/tag/zofia-weaver-franek-kluski-physical-mediumship/