At least Maggie Fox was an entertaining candidate. The Seybert Commission had to put up with others who, unaccustomed to being watched by eagle eyes in surroundings they couldn’t control, essentially froze. And some were such lousy actors that they were hard to endure. After sitting through a medium’s feeble impersonations of an Indian maid and a Quaker gentleman, one commissioner switched to French for his summing-up: “Stifling atmosphere breathed for 1 1⁄2 hours, for what? Quelle bêtise [what nonsense].”
The commission also exerted a long reach. In the summer of 1886, George Fullerton happened to be in Germany. To date, the most authoritative investigation of spiritualism had been undertaken at the University of Leipzig in 1877-78, by a group of professors under the leadership of J.C.F. Zoellner. That inquiry had cheered believers everywhere. The Germans had awarded supernatural points to effects associated with American medium Henry Slade: “the bursting of [a] wooden screen, the passages of coins out of closed boxes, the abnormal actions of … solid wooden rings, the tying of knots in [an] endless cord … prints made upon smoke paper by the feet of four-dimensional beings.” Fullerton found this curious, for Slade had flopped in his appearances before the Seybert Commission. Indeed, Slade’s lack of polish had left Coleman Sellers indignant. “The methods of this Medium’s operations appear to me to be perfectly transparent,” he wrote, “and I wish to say emphatically that I am astonished beyond expression at the confidence of this man in his ability to deceive, and at the recklessness of the risks which he assumes in his deceptions, which are practiced in the most barefaced manner.” (According to a Sellers descendant, the ex-commissioner liked to entertain his family with parlor tricks he’d picked up while watching Slade.)
How, Fullerton asked himself, could such a blatant charlatan have duped the learned Germans? As Fullerton called upon them, one by one (except for Zoellner, who had died), he pieced together what had happened. Of the five examiners, two had wretched eyesight, and one was so “advanced in age” that “he did not even recognize the disabilities of his associates.” Herr Doktor Zoellner himself had not only been prejudiced but also, in Fullerton’s words, “of unsound mind.” An ardent believer in spiritualism, he’d hoped that the investigation of Slade would advance his pet cause: proving the existence of a fourth dimension. In his role as chairman, Fullerton noted, Zoellner had shown “a passionate dislike of contradiction, and a tendency to overlook any evidence contrary to a cherished theory.” The fifth and last memberthe only one with five sharp senses and a full set of marbleshad dissented from the group’s findings. Back in the States, Fullerton informed his fellow commissioners, with wry understatement, that his interviews with the Germans had put their “famous investigation in a somewhat new light.”
The Seybert Commission paused in 1887 to submit a “Preliminary Report” to the Penn trustees. Saving their eyewitness accounts for a lengthy appendix, the commissioners noted in the brief main body that so far not a “single novel fact” had turned up, but they offered to keep trying. That, however, proved to be that. The Philadelphia house of J.B. Lippincott published the report as a book, and the commission quietly went out of existence.
The Fox sisters and the Seybert Commission had each dealt spiritualism a blow, but not the death-blow of Maggie’s desiring. The movement hung on till World War I, which gave it a sizable boost. Grieving parents found solace in messages entrusted to mediums by their slaughtered sons, and séances became more popular than ever. Among the bereaved were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyper-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, and Doyle’s wife, Jean. Sir Arthur became the movement’s indefatigable defender and publicist, his wife one of its best-known practitioners: Her specialty was to go into trances and take dictation from the dead. The Doyles’ beliefs put them at loggerheads with their friend Harry Houdini, who regarded mediums as mere fellow-illusionists.
One afternoon in 1922, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lady Doyle held a séance for Houdini during which she took down a communiqué from his late, beloved mother. The result left Houdini shaking his head. Lady Doyle had drawn a cross at the top of the page, which clashed with the Houdini family’s Judaism (their surname was actually Weiss, and Harry’s father had been a rabbi). Worse for the Doyles, the message was written in perfect English, whereas Houdini’s mother had always spoken Yiddish and could write only in German. Moreover, it happened to be Houdini’s birthday, of which the message made no mention.
The Doyles were unfazed. Two years later, they quarreled with Houdini again over the authenticity of a Boston medium named Margery, whose feats were so impressive that Scientific American appointed a committee to investigate her. Despite Houdini’s watchful presence on the committee, Margery used her charm to co-opt some members, going so far as to sleep with one of them. Houdini repeatedly checkmated Margery during her séances“Houdini, you God-damned son of a bitch,” she once said to him in the guise of a frustrated spiritbut the corrupt panel let her get away with her reputation intact.
In his 1926 History of Spiritualism, Doyle had harsh words for the University of Pennsylvania. “There is no doubt that the report of the Seybert Commission set back … the cause of psychic truth,” he wrote. “Yet the real harm fell upon the learned institution which these gentlemen represented.” Penn, in his view, had tragically missed its chance to be a pathfinder to another world.
A less credulous observer might reach a different conclusion. In its heyday, spiritualism was put to the test by organized scholars and experts three times. The first group, in Germany, was a squad of the infirm and the dotty, easily discredited. The third, operating under the auspices of Scientific American, was a disgrace. Only the second, the Seybert Commission, acquitted itself honorably and capably. During three years of dogged and often tedious inquiry, its members acted exactly as truth-seekers associated with an institution of higher learning should. Applying the best available standards of proof, they watched carefully, thought clearly, and decided fairly on claims that too many others were willing to accept on faith.
Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.
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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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FEATURE: Feet and Faith