Is Spiritualism "Mockery"?
WILLIAM D. BAYLES
Spiritualism claims three million adherents—3,000 churches—as bereaved Britons seek messages from the war dead, and court rules it "Witchcraft"
WALKING through London’s Piccadilly in this sixth year of war, a Canadian soldier on furlough may see a placard announcing in large letters, “Red Eagle Speaks,” and rejoice that a native North American has followed him abroad. Imagine his surprise on learning that Red Eagle has been dead for three centuries and that it is his spirit which at a specified time and place will lecture to several thousand living Englishmen.
Red Eagle is a star attraction in the wave of spiritualism that is now sweeping England, classic land of the gremlin, hobgoblin and will-o’-the-wisp. Another feature performer of the spirit world, Silver Birch, has become so renowned as a lecturer and teacher that out of 40 London school children under 12 recently questioned 29 knew of him.
It is not the spiritualism of vague voices, shadowy materializations and Ouija boards, but streamlined, modern spiritualism that mentions names and registration numbers, describes in detail the war work of departed spirits, and places mediums in the top income tax bracket. So widespread is its influence that casualty information centres have been thrown sadly out of gear by frequent assurances from relatives that messages from the spirit world contradict news through worldly channels on the whereabouts or circumstances of death of missing sons and husbands. One prominent medium was prosecuted under war-
time security regulations when she announced the loss of a destroyer before the Admiralty had news of it. And death notices in newspapers occasionally end with such statements as, “With deep gratitude his mother acknowledges the positive proof she has received of her beloved son’s continued and happy life.” A spiritualist leader in London estimated that at least three million people now belong to the movement in England, an increase of two million since 1939, and this figure takes no account of millions more who participate privately but do not associate themselves publicly with any of the spiritualistic organizations. Three thousand spiritualist churches and lecture halls in England, Scotland and Wales are totally inadequate to meet the influx of new enthusiasts, and large public halls are now being booked for clairvoyance and spirit
lectures. Séances have even been held in Army trucks, desert tents and submarines, and it is contended that with modern methods the organization of spirits has made such progress that spirit airmen bring down Nazi planes and Jap spirits spot for living Jap gunners.
During the last war, when spiritualism experienced a similar boom, the prime mover was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; in the present war it is Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, former commander-inchief of RAF Fighter Command, the man who planned and won the Battle of Britain. Following his retirement from the RAF, Sir Hugh, a hardshelled fighting man with cold eyes and a determined mouth, turned to spiritualism. With the daughter of a friend acting as his medium, he is reported to have begun receiving spirit messages from many departed airmen, and in order to bring these assurances from “the other side” to a greater number of people he finally took to the lecture stage.
Audience Numbers Thousands
He is a monotonous, dreary speaker with no platform personality, but his audiences have grown from dozens to thousands, and there are constant fervent murmurs of “God bless you, sir,” and “Thank you,
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sir,” as he delivers his messages of comfort and cheer from the beyond. His spirit messages, often accompanied by exact addresses and instructions for forwarding, are dutifully posted, and as an increasing number of mothers and wives receive his assurances of the continued happy existence of their dead sons and husbands, his following grows. His speaking schedule for the week in which this article is being written includes lectures in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle in already soldout halls, each seating between two and three thousand people. The spiritualist headquarters which arrange his lectures would like to book London’s huge Albert Hall, seating 8,000, for him but cannot obtain an open date.
Sir Hugh has confessed his belief in spiritualism in a book, “Many Mansions,” which but for paper restrictions would undoubtedly rival the sevenfigure sales achieved by the government publication, “Battle of Britain,” dealing with another field of his work. The lengthy messages from the “other side” with which he fills his book reveal a highly substantial world of vigorous spirits whose sloughing off of their mortal shell has not retarded their interests, emotions, or even their liking for such worldly potations as a whisky and soda.
“It’s grand, just grand,” a sailor
drowned on an oil tanker is quoted as saying: “I wish my mother could know about it. We’re in a far better land than the one we left, and it’s all okay . . . Dad came to me soon after I realized this and we had a great time together. It seems queer to call him Dad, he’s younger than 1 am now, at least he looks it. We are to have a job together soon . . .”
“I was one of the casualties in Greece,” reports a New Zealander in announcing himself. “I am going straight on with the job, under my own officer, and with many of my pals. We work for the rest, especially when they are asleep. Sometimes we raid the enemies’ ‘dead’ battalions, fighting with our thought weapons.”
An American soldier killed by a Jap sniper is quoted by Sir Hugh as reporting: “I fell face downward in the swampy mud of the jungle and lay unconscious for a time in a sort of nightmare. After a time I began to see the Jap dead. They were helping their own fellows, and the living Japs could sometimes see and hear them, and they used all the information given, and this made me feel that we should be able to do the same. I tried awfully hard, but I couldn’t warn or suggest anything which could be accepted by the brains of our fellows, so I wandered off, wondering what to do next.”
“How I longed for a drink!” an airman killed in Libya said in his spirit message. “I wanted a whisky and
oda more than anything I’ve ever tasted in my life, and there it appeared, just like magic, with the soda sparkling and clear. 1 poured it out and drank and drank.”
A Cockney gunner named Johnson reveals in his message a very English spirit world of dialects, blasphemy and humor. “The noise of battle fairly shattered me to bits,” he reports, “but then all of a sudden 1 was cool and fit and fresh as a daisy, and perky as could be ... I couldn’t believe 1 was a gunner ... 1 saw my officer. He came up to me. 1 pointed to where his body lay, and he gave a kind of gasp, then sez, üh, well, I suppose that’s that. It’s a queer world, Johnson, and I suppose we’d best carry on.’ I sez, ‘Yes, sir, but wot does we do now?’ ‘Load the gun, of course, you blighter,’ sez he, just like he used to. I went to obey, but strong as 1 felt 1 couldn’t move the shells ... I tell the officer and he comes to help, cursing proper he was by this time, and the two of us had a go, but would she budge? Not an inch ... At last I sat down and laughed. ‘Well,’ 1 sez, ‘did you ever hear of two dead blokes firing a gun?’ ”
Sir Hugh Dowding even quotes a spirit airman who maintains that Luftwaffe planes have been accounted for by disembodied fliers. “Plane after plane came over,” his message states, “and suddenly lost speed, turned foihome or crashed.”
Based on Radio
For sceptics Sir Hugh advances an explanation of interworld communication based on radio principles. “The space around you,” he declares, “is filled with vibrations which make absolutely no impression on any of your senses. Yet if you have a radio set you can pick out of the ether any one of the hundreds of messages which are being simultaneously transmitted. It does not do violence to our reason therefore to suppose that out of scientific study might emerge a form of psychic radio which would increase our powers of contact with the spirit world and clarify our communications.”
The personal message with which Sir Hugh concludes his lectures is on the invariable theme: “The spirits
want their dear ones to know that their death should be regarded as a reason for joy and not for sorrow . . . Do not grieve for your dear ones . . . Look forward to death as something infinitely to be desired when your life’s work is done, and do not mourn or pity those who die before you, but think of them as fortunate.”
There can be no doubt that in his efforts to bring comfort to bereaved English homes, Sir Hugh Dowding is utterly sincere, and he accepts no money for his lectures, but otherwise spiritualism has become one of England’s best-paying businesses. “Speak with the War Dead” and other similarly provocative phrases advertise the services of mediums. Numerous book titles, such as “The War Dead Return,” are designed to catch the eye of those whose interest in the war dead is deep and personal. Despite wartime paper restrictions the sales of psychic literature has skyrocketed, and 140,000 books on spiritualism and 121,000 regular subscriptions to periodic psychic pubhcations have been distributed to the armed forces.
Mediums, described by Maurice Barbanell, editor of the potent spiritualist weekly Psychic News, as “a kind of human wireless receiving sets which pick up the messages from the spirit world and transmit them to us,” have perhaps benefitted most from the new interest in spiritualism. Essential, in the spiritualist belief, to anyone desir-
ing to communicate with the afterworld, they have emerged from their semiobscurity in the shadow world they once shared with fortunetellers and astrologers to become national celebrities commanding large incomes. A medium of reputation operates in England today through an agent who normally demands a guarantee of six seances on consecutive days at $75 to $100 a seance before he will schedule her for an appearance in a town.
The names of such mediums as Helen Hughes and Estelle Roberts are known the length and breadth of Britain. They are what might be called the stars of English mediumship, and the announcement that one of them is to appear is sufficient to guarantee a full house. On two occasions Estelle Roberts filled the Albert Hall to the last seat, using the loud-speaker system to convey messages from the dead to members of the vast audience. Less famous mediums advertise in psychic publications or are listed and vouched for by regional spiritualist groups. The price of admission to a seance is high, usually $2.50 or more, and private sittings and spiritualistic healing are often charged for at rates comparable with those of Harley Street medical specialists.
Seance Broken Up
Spiritualism, frowned on by the Church of England, strongly condemned by the Catholic Church, and incidentally violkting in involved ways certain laws of the realm, was bound, through its violent growth, to provoke opposition. The inevitable showdown came at the end of March when plainclothes constables worked their way into a seance at Portsmouth, and at a climactic moment leaped upon the medium, Mrs. Helen Duncan, and attempted to seize a spirit in the process of materialization. Then began in London’s Old Bailey a modern witchcraft trial which will go down in history with the other famous and infamous trials centred in that gloomy court.
The law violated by the medium was the Witchcraft Act of George II, dated 1735, which made it a punishable offense for anyone “to pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, or undertake to tell fortunes, or pretend, from his or her skill or knowledge in any occult or crafty science, to discover where or in what manner any goods or chattels supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found.”
For a week the case, christened by the newspapers, “The Boogie Woogie Trial,” continued, and everyone inside and outside the court knew that not only Mrs. Duncan but also spiritualism was on trial. The presiding judge pronounced the view of the State when he said, “If the prosecution’s case is proved, we shall have turned on the light a bit . . . and the mockery of the dead will have ceased . . .” The legalistic angles were sharp and violently contested. The medium herself was not permitted to testify because, being allegedly in a trance, she could not have known what was happening during her séance. When the defense offered to have the medium demonstrate to the court her powers to materialize spirits, the judge ruled against it, contending, “Had she given a demonstration of her powers and had nothing happened, she would have been condemned before she was tried.”
The trial had the musty, medieval air that Londoners love. The witnesses in the box were earthly, but their talk was of Albert, the spirit guide who spoke with ah Oxford accent and sang
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“South of the Border,” of Little Peggy, the spirit child who danced and skipped rope, of the Chinese called Chang with mustaches 20 inches long, of a boisterous spirit who slapped his fat thigh and shouted, “It’s solid!” of a mischievous poltergeist who leaped around and indulged in ruderies, of Bronco, the dead parrot that talked, and of a spirit cat that miaowed.
Against the list of defense witnesses, all eager to tell of spirits they had seen and conversed with at Mrs. Duncan’s seances, the prosecution had principally to rely on the testimony of the constable who had tried to apprehend Mrs. Duncan in the act of perpetrating fraud by seizing and holding one of her spirit materializations. After seeing two materialized figures move about a darkened séance room, the constable had leaped at a third figure and attempted to catch it. “I grasped it,” he testified, “but it began to move away ... It appeared to be a very flimsy substance, the nearest resemblance I can give is that it was like butter muslin. I actually felt it and held it for a moment before it pulled away.” In the subsequent search of the room no muslin was found. The court atmosphere became so unreal that toward the end of the trial the police guard was overheard explaining, “No more spectators. Gotta leave room for the blinkin’ ghosts.”
“With Her Head Tucked..
In his instructions to the jury the judge asked them to imagine, on the basis of the evidence, an afternoon in the spirit world: “They are sitting around,” he said, “Mary Queen of Scots—her head is on. St. Sebastian, the pincushion saint, is there, perfectly normal. There are various persons who have been mutiliated, looking perfectly all right. No arm or leg cut off, no eyes out. Then suddenly someone says something that is sad. Off comes the Queen’s head under her arm, 1 suppose. St. Sebastian begins to bleed, and unmutilated persons become mutil-
ated. It is absolutely fantastic. If,’* he concluded, “this is the sort of thing we are coming to, it is time we began to pull ourselves together and exercised a little common sense.”
The jury found Mrs. Duncan guilty. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 stipulates that persons convicted thereunder “shall be imprisoned for one year, and once in every quarter of the said year, in some market town of the proper county, upon the market day, there stand openly on the pillory by the space of one hour.” The modern sentence was nine months.
An appeal has been lodged, protest meetings have been held in several cities, and spiritualist leaders have announced their intention of taking the case even before the House of Lords, the highest tribunal in Britain. The Daily Express summed up public opinion on the trial with a cartoon showing a witch riding her broomstick across the sky, while below one firewatcher says to another, “She’ll have to be more careful in future. The courts take a poor view of that sort of thing these days.”
Meanwhile spiritualism, stimulated by the trial, has hit both the stage and screen. Including Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” no less than four spirit plays are now running in London theatres, and there are ghosts galore on the screen.
In the corridors of the House of Commons a spiritualist Member of Parliament, Sidney J. Peters, performs psychic healing on colleagues, who are willing to disregard his violation of the law for the comfort he brings to their gouty and rheumatic limbs.
Canadian military authorities are aware that many Canadian soldiers “are going in for spooks,” mostly from curiosity and a desire to know what it is that so many Englishmen and Irishmen are talking about. They are free to request and receive psychic literature from London centres, but when two privates who had overstayed their furlough advanced the excuse that they wanted to hear White Eagle speak and he only speaks on the first Sunday of each month, their Commanding officer just laughed and prescribed a spell of detention.