Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
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/
A review by Robert L Charman will appear in the SPR's Journal.
Chris Aspin, a member of the SPR, has written a booklet containing paranormally-related anecdotes that have their origin in and around Helmshore in Lancashire. He is a local historian, and came across many of these during the course of his general researches into the area. Most were told to him personally, including a striking one from his grandmother and great-aunt which must have occurred in the late 1890s: they passed in the street, and spoke to, a local man they knew well, before remembering that he had hanged himself the day before. They saw him go into a pub, but on following him in (quite a brave thing for two teenage girls to do) were told that nobody had entered for some time.
This story is typical of the sort Chris Aspin has recorded. Many involve the ghosts of people, and animals too, including a ‘small bear’ on a staircase witnessed independently by two individuals unknown to each other. A pre-war commotion heard one night by a newly-appointed second footman at Compton Verney, and recounted many years later to Aspin, had apparently been experienced on a number of occasions previously, and was thought to be linked to the 1642 Battle of Edgehill.
Aspin also has examples of poltergeist activity, including one from his bank manager, not normally the sort of person with whom one discusses these things – or these days even has – and a Second World War instance of a dog that knew when its owner, or at least the son (a serviceman) of its owner, was coming home. There is a mediumistic communication involving the author’s grandfather, and a number of coincidences round off the booklet.
As Aspin points out in the introduction, these sorts of accounts can be found across the country, and they make intriguing, if frustratingly inconclusive, reading. Helmshore is changing, having been a place noted for its mills, but now part of the Greater Manchester commuter belt, yet these sorts of stories have a timeless quality that roots us in a place, and connects us to those who came before us. In turn, capturing testimony before it vanishes is a valuable project because we can never know what significance may be found in it by those who come after us.
The booklet is twelve A5 pages. Copies can be obtained from the author at £2 plus 60p p&p - email chris_aspin[at]yahoo.co.uk. for details. I’m sure he would also welcome further stories about the area to add to his collection.
Patricia Pearson, like many people, became interested in the possibility of an afterlife, and what it might be like, as a result of bereavement. In her case it was the deaths of her father and sister in a short space of time which prompted her interest, but more importantly her sister Katharine’s feeling, while suffering from aggressive breast cancer, of a presence the night their father died but before she learned of it. It suggested to Katharine the possibility that he had visited her to say farewell, giving her much comfort. Intrigued by this event, Patricia decided to look into the subject to see if it could have a meaning that pointed to something more than coincidence.
Opening Heaven’s Door is the result. In it Pearson surveys phenomena which suggest the continuation of some kind of consciousness, interweaving her research and interviews with her own anecdotes, giving her journey a personal aspect lacking in technical academic texts. Her approach makes discussion of the issues more digestible for the interested person who does not want to wrestle with the specialised literature. She covers a range of issues relevant to the consideration of the survival of bodily death, such as deathbed visions, or ‘Nearing Death Awareness’, including terminal lucidity, shared (between living and dying) death visions and the highly significant ‘Peak in Darien’ cases in which a dying person recounts seeing someone who has died but of whose parting they were unaware; apparitions; dreams and visions of the living that coincide with someone’s death; the sense those in extreme peril often have of a guiding force coming from outside themselves; and of course Near-Death Experiences, the topic with the highest profile in the field today.
In the process she shows how common these various phenomena are, but not much talked about by either those who have them or those who witness others having them, because people do not want to be tagged as hysterical, delusional, or weak-minded. In a society where ‘letting go’ is prized for mental health, talking about connections with the afterlife comes to seem pathological. She recounts a conversation at a party in which she discussed her sister’s experience the night their father died, and was shocked at how easily it was attributed to imagination, with no attempt to consider whether there was some factor that could not be reduced to a chance correlation. By contrast she finds the sorts of theories couched in terms of hallucinations, wishful thinking, anoxia and other by-products generated by a dying brain to ease the transition to extinction to be inadequate as explanations. End-of-life experiences and those reported by people who have undergone an NDE possess a coherence and vividness not exhibited by the fragmentary imagery caused by lack of oxygen or administration of drugs.
However, the secrecy that has surrounded these experiences in the past is giving way as those who have undergone them are becoming more willing to speak out than they used to be and more research is published, attaining a higher profile in the media. The result is an ever-expanding database, and complex theoretical debates, that have generated a rich body of data that can be daunting to the newcomer. That it can still be difficult to speak out is indicated by Pearson herself, when she recounts how she saw a platform medium who gave a series of messages highly relevant to her that seemed to come from her late sister, but which she found she could not acknowledge in public.
The book is very readable, though Pearson perhaps foregrounds the personal angle more than is necessary. What is lacking in her journalistic approach is the depth that comes from a thorough familiarity with the literature beyond that which meets her immediate needs. For example she refers to Sir William Barrett simply as a physicist in Dublin, and suggests that he wrote his classic 1926 book Death-Bed Visions because of a case that his wife had drawn to his attention in 1924 (it appears in the December 1924 issue of the SPR’s Journal, ‘A Remarkable Case of Vision of the Dying’). She does not indicate what a significant figure he had been more generally as a psychical researcher during the preceding half century. The SPR itself barely rates a mention.
There is no new research here, but it is a useful survey that makes an accessible introduction and anyone interested enough to read this will have a good foundation to go into the topics Pearson covers in more detail. It is possible that much of the evidence she presents can be explained in terms of normal, if unusual, processes, but to reflexively dismiss such experiences as ‘woo’, as so often happens, is inimical to healthy debate. Many possess a dimension that on the face of it seems to indicate something extraordinary is occurring. It is the type of experience that suggests some psi element at work which particularly deserves close scrutiny to see if we can determine what is going on. Pearson finished her investigation a different person to the one who started it, and her journey of discovery deserves to be taken seriously, whatever conclusions we wish to draw from it.
A separate review, by Robert McLuhan, appeared in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Michael Potts appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Steve Hume appeared in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.