The séances of “physical” mediums in America and England during the last half of the nineteenth century promised marvels, and often delivered them: mysterious spirit rappings and light orbs, unearthly music and voices, furniture that moved or levitated without human contact, musical instruments that appeared to play themselves. In dubious experiments, loaded guns being provided, invisible hands lifted them and fired at targets with deadly accuracy.
Strangest of all were the temporary “materializations” of bodies or body parts. Spirit-hands, described variously as fleshy and warm, or corpse-cold, would appear before “sitters” (a séance, in French, is a sitting), shake hands with them, touch them, and perhaps take up pencils to write messages.
Investigators with unimpeachable scientific credentials attested that physical mediums had sometimes materialized complete persons with mobile eyes, legs that moved, personalities, and conversational powers. These figures might appear dressed in clothes made of what appeared to be woven fabrics.
Investigators with unimpeachable scientific credentials attested that physical mediums had sometimes materialized complete persons with mobile eyes, legs that moved, personalities, and conversational powers. These figures might appear dressed in clothes made of what appeared to be woven fabrics. Oxford philosopher H.H. Price, always suspicious of fraudulent mediums, witnessed the materialization of a girl who had died at age six. He felt the girl’s pulse and heard her breathing. Asked if she loved her mother present at the séance, she said yes, before falling silent and fading away.
Charles Richet, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1913, was among scientists who gave materializations serious attention. “I shall not waste time in stating the absurdities, almost the impossibilities, from a psycho-physiological point of view, of this phenomenon,” he wrote in Thirty Years of Psychic Research (1923). “A living being, or living matter, formed under our eyes, which has its proper warmth, apparently a circulation of blood, and a physiological respiration, which has also...a will distinct from the will of the medium--in a word, a new human being!”
But facts were facts, and Richet’s list of scientists who had examined the most gifted physical mediums for trickery “not once, but twenty, a hundred, or even a thousand times”--and found none-- included Alfred Russel Wallace, a colleague of Darwin’s who wrote on various aspects of evolutionary theory, and physicist-chemist Sir William Crookes.