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Stuart Cumberland: The Victorian Mind Reader (CD), edited by Todd Karr and Barry Wiley

Publication Details: 
The Miracle Factory.
Publish date: 
June, 2009

Todd Karr of The Miracle Factory, in collaboration with Barry Wiley, has produced a CD devoted to a range of works by Stuart Cumberland (1857 – 1922).  Born Charles Garner, Cumberland was charismatic, an enthusiastic traveller, an author, and seemed to know everyone who was anyone.  He is mostly remembered today as a proponent of ‘muscle reading’, often called “Cumberlandism”, but as the works on the CD demonstrate, he achieved more than that.

Muscle reading takes advantage of ideomotor action, in William James’ terms a movement immediately following the idea of it, and defined by William Carpenter as muscular movement independent of volition.  Cumberland himself talked of “exalted perception of touch”, using the unconscious muscular cues of the subject. He caused confusion by talking of “thought reading”, which suggested a paranormal transfer of information from one mind to another without the operation of the known senses, but clearly there was nothing paranormal in this “mechanical transfer of impressions”, as Charles Mercier put it.  Indeed, Frank Podmore saw the skill being “due rather to long practice and careful observation than to any abnormal extension of faculty.”

Even so, Cumberland was able to obtain amazing results from what seems at first glance a limited skill.  He was able to locate persons, and hidden objects as small as a pin; reproduce pictures thought of; determine secret words, even when not in English; state the serial number of a hidden banknote; he could announce numbers merely thought of but not written anywhere.  Most dramatically, perhaps, an independent volunteer would act out the killing of a subject in gruesome detail while Cumberland was out of the room, and upon his return Cumberland would, blindfolded, find the ‘victim’ in his seat, take him back onto the stage, and reprise the actions of the ‘’murderer’ (a variation on the theme was ‘robbers and Queen’s Messenger’).  He was also proficient at reproducing the sorts of phenomena produced fraudulently in the séance room.

Cumberland travelled widely with his muscle reading act, and according to his own accounts mingled with large numbers of top-drawer people: royalty, aristocracy, eminent politicians and society figures, as recounted in A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts (1888) and People I have Read(1905).  The name-dropping can be forgiven considering that access to elite social circles was important as part of his marketing strategy.  He was adamant that he did not work for a fee when in such exalted company, which meant that, at least in his own eyes, he was treated as an honoured guest rather than a hired entertainer.  He was though well rewarded in kind for his efforts.

His relish in recounting his social successes entails a certain amount of repetition across his books as he describes how impressed they all were by his act, and he is keen to share his observations on both the personal and national characteristics of those he met and the countries he visited.  As indicated by his photographs, he portrayed himself as a clubbable man of the world.  You get the impression that for Cumberland the anecdote was all, as indicated by the relish with which he recorded that when he had exposed spirits in America, they had threatened to “shoot at sight” in retaliation, and there is a sense that he was prone to some exaggeration.  Even his first subject just happened to be the Dean of Lichfield (unfortunately pages 3-4 of A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts, covering these early attempts, are missing).

Cumberland’s social success is all the more surprising since he came from humble origins, the son of a clerk to a butcher in Oxford.  He had worked as assistant to Washington Irving Bishop (1856-1889), who was not above name-dropping himself, but struck out on his own.  Bishop resented his erstwhile employee’s ascendency, to judge by an amazing article from the New York Times, included on the CD.  It reproduces a circular Bishop had had printed in London, warning the public about Cumberland and giving details of his real name, parentage and origins.  Bishop charges Cumberland with abusing his trust – ingratiating himself with Bishop’s friends and then effectively stealing his act.  The disloyal Garner had changed his name to “the more euphonious and aristocratic name ‘Stuart Cumberland’.”  The clear charge was that Cumberland was an arriviste worthy only of contempt, ignoring the debt that they both owed to John Randall Brown, who preceded them.  Cumberland shrugged off this petulant diatribe and flourished.

Unsurprisingly there was much interest in Bishop and Cumberland among the members of the newly-fledged Society for Psychical Research.  It was keen to distinguish muscle reading from telepathy, the latter requiring complete lack of contact.  The sceptical Cumberland did not have much time for the SPR.  In A Thought-Reader’s Thoughts he claimed that he had fooled both those (unnamed) Spiritualists who saw him as a medium, and the SPR, whose members saw what he did as telepathy.  In reality the SPR was fully aware of muscle reading and the necessity to avoid contact in telepathy experiments.

The long article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 24 May 1884 (‘Muscle-Reading by Mr Stuart Cumberland: A Reception at the “Pall Mall Gazette” Office’) has not been included on the CD, but a follow-up letter by Cumberland has, in which he takes issue with Edmund Gurney of the SPR.  While not present at the Gazette demonstration, Gurney had written to say that muscle reading was commoner than supposed, and some friends of his were rather better at it than either Bishop or Cumberland (indeed, the first volume of the SPR’s Proceedings, 18 July, 1883, contains a note by the Rev. E H Sugden of Bradford describing achievements remarkably similar to Cumberland’s; and the following year he gave a practical demonstration of his skills at a conversazione held by the Society in London).

Gurney made the reasonable point that people seeing muscle reading in action could easily go away with the erroneous assumption that they had witnessed thought reading.  Cumberland’s reply is derisive of Gurney, charging that for Gurney, Cumberland’s performances “do not sufficiently savour of the supernatural.”  He counters the charge that his demonstrations lead to the confusion of muscle and thought reading with an exultant “So be it!”, arguing that his mission is to demonstrate that nobody has “supernatural” powers, and that non-contact thought transference as conceptualised by Gurney is nonsense, as indicated by the fact that whenever “mental picture-readers” had attempted it in his presence, they had failed.  Bishop and Cumberland became bêtes noires for the SPR, particularly William Barrett, who had already contributed an article on ‘Mind-reading versus muscle-reading’ to Medium and Daybreak in 1876, and was moved to write a brief article on ‘Pseudo Thought-Reading’ in the first volume of the SPR Journal, February 1884.

As his dismissal of Gurney suggests, Cumberland was on good terms with anti-paranormal scientists.  He was vocal in his denunciations of both Spiritualism and psychical research, making the arguments more palatable by dressing them up as entertainment.  Even so, as happened later with Harry Houdini and Conan Doyle, protestations that nothing paranormal had occurred might not necessarily convince those with the will be believe.  William Gladstone, an honorary member of the SPR and one of Cumberland’s subjects, seemed to be unsure about the extent of Cumberland’s powers, and he should have had some familiarity with the early literature on telepathy that had appeared in the SPR’sProceedings.  (Roger Luckhurst in his The Invention of Telepathy reprints the front page of The Illustrated London News, 28 June, 1884, which features the historic encounter, entitled ‘Politicians at Play: “Thought-Reading” at the House of Commons’.)

Cumberland’s travel books (a label that can be extended to his muscle reading reminiscences) show him to have been an enthusiast of Empire typical of his age, though with compassion for the native populations in North America which had suffered under white expansionism.  He is always ready to opine on national as well as individuals’ characteristics, in particular the dastardly Russians, criticisms of whom appear regularly in his books.  In The Queen’s Highway he travels Canada by rail from Vancouver to the Atlantic, marvelling at the achievement of a line running from coast to coast, opening a new route to Australia entirely through Empire territories.  He takes every opportunity to sing the praises of Canada compared to its southern neighbour, with a few sideswipes against the French-speaking inhabitants, happily “no longer slaves of an oppressive feudalism.”

What I Think of South Africa is an altogether angrier book.  He is dismissive of the black population, whom he considers generally “good-natured, simple-minded”, though he rates those in Natal (including the Zulus) more highly.  Naturally he was a great admirer of Cecil Rhodes.  But a large part of the book is devoted to a splenetic examination of the Boers, and in particular to Paul Kruger.  He saw the British ascendency over the Boers as inevitable, and a good thing too.  Ultimately though, he shows that, however much he thought he knew a place, he was not a sound forecaster.  There is no sense that the Second Boer War would begin three years after publication, and his long-term prediction was that the whites would eventually simply turn their backs on South Africa once its enormous resources had been exhausted.

Yet another string to his bow was as the author of “shilling shockers”.  He wrote three of these (a fourth was announced but does not seem to have appeared).  The Rabbi’s Spell is included on the CD, and shows Cumberland to have had a facile pen and a sense of dramatic movement (though given the subject-matter, a romance set against the persecution of the Jews in Russian-occupied Poland, unsurprisingly the sense of humour on display elsewhere in his books is absent).  It is a work designed to pass an hour on a train journey, while allowing him to vent his feelings about the untrustworthy Russians.

For someone who prided himself on his rationalism, it is also surprisingly mystical, particularly where the Rabbi himself is concerned.  The Rabbi carves a curse in Hebrew on the tree where the central murder occurs, and it is fulfilled later, at the climax of the story.  The murderer, unhinged by guilt, fear of discovery, and by having been the subject of a demonstration uncannily similar to Cumberland’s own murder simulation, hangs himself on the same spot.  The curse translates as: “He who hath done this bloody thing shall on this very spot render up his own life”, and the Rabbi sees its operation as divine intervention.  It seems curious that someone who was so sceptical of paranormal claims should be happy to employ such devices in his fiction, but as ever, Cumberland had an eye for the market.

There is a more significant supernatural element in A Fatal Affinity (1889), sadly not included on the CD.  This features women being stabbed to death on their twenty-first birthdays, and as well as taking inspiration from the recent Whitechapel murders, draws on a topical interest in eastern religion (it turns out that an astral-plane travelling Hindu assassin is responsible, the victims all having family connections with India, their deaths part of an initiation rite).  Cumberland wrote a play with a Theosophical theme called An Adept (he was on record as having “a supreme contempt for Mme. Blavatsky”).  This he said he had sent to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, only to find it had been plagiarised by Robert Buchanan as The Charlatan in 1894 and performed at The Haymarket, a theatre managed by Tree.  If it was any consolation to Cumberland,The Charlatan was not a success.  His own play, retitled The Wonder-Worker, was performed later that year in Margate, to establish the copyright, and was then to be put on in Berlin.

Cumberland retired from performing, comfortably off, in 1910.  In 1918, and again the following year, he returned to castigating Spiritualism, vigorous once more because of the catastrophe of the First World War.  He had begun his career with an open mind, he said, but found that the reports he read did not reflect his own experiences when attending sittings.   He became convinced that mediumistic phenomena were a combination of trickery and self-deception.  As he scathingly put it, he did not himself possess second sight, but he did possess common sense.

His anger at mediumistic “chicanery” shines through, and he argues that if the vulnerable cannot protect themselves, then they must be protected “against their own folly.”  While he is happy to tilt at Conan Doyle and Sir William Crookes, he surprisingly has more time for Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir William Barrett, whom he considers less credulous.  Among his subjects he tackles the use of séances as an intelligence-gathering device in wartime and the Indian Rope Trick, for which he finds no evidence.  He is clear that he has no issue with Spiritualism as a religion, his objection is to deception of all kinds, though he does think that there might be a short step from Spiritualism to Satanism, a phenomenon in the realms of mental disorder.

Cumberland’s willingness to put up £1,000 as a token of his confidence that William Eglinton would not be able to produce paranormal phenomena in the presence of a committee of sceptical scientists, matched by a similar amount from Henry Labouchère, makes the offer the ancestor of James Randi’s ‘Million Dollar Challenge.’  The CD includes biographical details of Cumberland extracted from David Price’s 1985Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurors in the Theater, and Price notes that Cumberland “placated Henry Labouchere” and handled him “delicately”.  But Labouchère (a rather disreputable MP best known as the author of the Labouchère Amendment which criminalised all male homosexual activity) provided support for Cumberland through his weekly paper Truth, so no placation was required.  Cumberland in That Other World (1918) refers to Labouchère, who died in 1912, as “one of my most enthusiastic supporters in my crusades against shams and impostures, and endeavours to advance scientific truth.”  Spiritualism – The Inside Truth (1919) is dedicated to “Truth”, which may be a reference to Labouchère’s journal as well as a noble endeavour in its own right.

In addition to Cumberland’s books, there is a small selection of articles and letters by and about him on the CD, ranging from a long two-part letter on ‘Illusionary and Fraudulent Aspects of Spiritualism’ published in the Journal of Mental Science in 1881/2, to one written to thePhiladelphia Inquirer in 1919, recounting his disappointment at not being able to find a genuine occurrence of “Hindoo magic” in India, including the Indian rope trick.  Also included is his obituary in the Times, which would probably have irritated him, as it not only devotes a large amount of its space to describing the early work of the SPR, but suggests that Cumberland may well have possessed genuine powers of thought transference.

Not much is known about his personal life over and above what he chose to include in his books.  According to Todd Karr, in a biographical note on the CD, he was married to Phyllis Bentley (known as “the celebrated antimagnetique”), a stage performer in her own right.  However, inPeople I have Read, he refers to "my wife, my relative, Miss Phyllis Bentley, and myself", and Phyllis is described variously in the press as his sister-in-law and niece.  He also said that he had a son at Cambridge.  A copy of Cumberland’s 1887 acceptance form for Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society is included on the CD.

Also on the CD, sounding like a provincial paper, is the 8-page Cumberland News, subtitled “An Illustrated Journal of World-wide Interest”, a promotional newspaper with details of his and Bentley’s activities, naturally focusing on the regal, aristocratic and society figures with whom he had been in contact (the two columns on the first page are headed ‘Court News’ and ‘Illustrious “Subjects”’ respectively).  He seems to have accumulated a large number of honours from his royal patrons, along with numerous “souvenirs”.  The newspaper shows his enterprising nature, listing his books and describing his and Bentley’s acts, suggesting that in the modern world he would have had his own website.  Bentley is referred to merely as his “relative” (her name appears in the South Africa book, but in passing in a list of performers, without even mentioning that they were connected; a curious relationship). 

This is not a complete collection of Cumberland’s works (and The Miracle Factory does specialise in publications relating to magic, so there is no reason why it should be), though there is a bibliography, compiled by Barry Wiley.  In particular it is missing his 1889 novels The Vasty Deep, reviewed rather unkindly by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette (even though he had supplied the half-time entertainment during thePall Mall Gazette tests in 1884), and A Fatal Affinity, which is discussed by Luckhurst in The Invention of Telepathy.  It would also be useful to see his dramatic works if they still exist: The Wonder-Worker and a one-act play, A Question of Conscience.  Some of the books included here are available elsewhere, either online or as reprints, but it is useful to see so much Cumberlandiana gathered handily in one place, and this is a feast for the enthusiast.

Cumberland has been neglected in recent years, with the notable exception of Luckhurst’s essay ‘Passages in the Invention of the Psyche: Mind-Reading in London, 1881-4’, in the 2002 collection Encounters: Transactions Between Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century.  He has also figured peripherally in the never-ending debates over the identity of Jack the Ripper as he claimed to have seen the murderer’s face in his dreams three times (and incorrectly predicted the killer would be captured after his ninth victim).  This CD represents a welcome opportunity to reappraise aspects of Cumberland’s career.  There is though much more to find out, from whether he was or was not arrested in Bohemia for allegedly ridiculing the Austrian flag, to an examination of The Mirror (for part of its life Stuart Cumberland’s Illustrated Mirror), the weekly he ran from 1889-92.  It is to be hoped that this collection will stimulate further scholarship examining his life and achievements.