Before you read this post, I would love to know if, after hearing a little bit more about my next book, you can think of a fabulous, attention-grabbing title. The working title is ‘Death Disease and Dissection’ but it hardly covers it! If your title is chosen (just add it to the comments below the post) I will include you in the acknowledgements and ensure you get a free copy of the book….!!
I am actually working. Posting this is part of a proper writing day. Admittedly I have been sending lots of emails, arranging research trips and talking to people who have information that may be useful, but now I am getting words down on paper, and will continue to do so off and on for the rest of the day.
I am currently researching two commissions. The first is a book about medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, focusing on young apothecary apprentices and their education to the required standard to undertake the role of surgeon apothecary, a career roughly equivalent to present day general practitioners. In a past post I have bemoaned my lack of progress, and inspiration, but something has changed in the past couple of weeks, and writing this is, to me, a proof of my commitment to the project.
Whilst writing Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I became fascinated with the rejuvenation of the Spiritualist movement just before, during and after the Great War, on into the 1930s. People were so fascinated by the chapter in the book that dealt with the subject that I pitched an idea for another book to deal specifically with that subject, and how bereaved families turned to mediums and the spiritualist church in their thousands as a response to grief. That book has been commissioned and I am thrilled to have the chance to do more research on the subject.
Someone who has been a huge support to me as I try to find out more is Ian Stevenson, who has written on this blog twice before, most recently in response to a piece I wrote on spiritualism to highlight how people dealt with the psychological trauma of war. So, when I expressed some confusion about ‘theosophy’and its relationship to spiritualism, he offered to clarify things for me and I thought readers of my blog might be interested too… Here is a summary of his thoughts:
Theosophy means ‘The wisdom of the Gods’, and the Theosophical Society in England describes it as ‘the thread of truth in scriptures, creeds, symbols, myths and rituals. ‘ It is usually used to refer to teachings of the Theosophical Society founded in New York in 1875 by an American, Henry Olcott and a Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, usually called Madam Blavatsky, or HPB. Olcott was a Spiritualist but Blavatsky claimed to be a medium with psychic abilities and beliefs that caused disagreement with the Spiritualist Church. In her view mediums did not usually contact the real person who had died but a ‘shade’. In her view, once on the other side, the essential person began a process of life evaluation and progress to a new life. The personality of the life just left separated and became a shade. It could respond with the memory and characteristics of the deceased but it was not the real, essential person. After a while, it even lost the power to communicate and became a shell which drifted and eventually disintegrated. This did not go down well with the Spiritualists, who grappled with her controversial and often inconsistent views.
Today I welcome a post from Ian Stevenson, who contacted me following my recent post about spiritualism and the First World War, a subject I cover in Shell Shocked Britain. Ian is a counsellor and a member of the Scientific and Medical Network with expertise in the history of the period and a long standing interest in the subject. He offers the view that some of those offering support to the bereaved could have had a genuine gift. Is he right? Is it true that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…..’? I would love to hear your views…
I would like to give another side to the idea that people were taken in by frauds which is what links on Wikipedia and other internet sites relating to spiritualism during and after the First World War, suggest.
The Great War of 1914-18 created a number of revolutions; political, technical and social. One of them was the growing interest in non-Christian religions and the decline in church attendance. The huge number of war dead meant many families were in mourning and looking for comfort and answers. Spiritualism attracted a wide range of followers although it is probably true to say that women played a greater part than in most other churches and most members were ‘working class’. The church and the scientific world largely dismissed or ridiculed it. After all, they knew best.
One of its chief supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for Sherlock Holmes, who wrote a book ‘ The Land of Mist’ in which a young reporter (who first appeared in the story “The Lost World” ) and his female friend investigate Spiritualism. Doyle included a number of incidents which had a factual basis. In one chapter he has them going to the laboratory of a French investigator who he admits in the notes at the end, is based on Professor Richet, the Nobel Prize winner (he was a physiologist who worked on allergies among other things) who was involved in psychic research for thirty years.
In his book, Doyle has a character that pretends to be a medium and is portrayed as a ‘bad guy’. His brother in the story, a real medium, is sentenced to a term in prison for fortune telling. This is the other side of the coin. A friend recently told me told me that as a little girl she had to watch out for policemen when her mother was having a séance. Those attending a middle class séance had no such worries.
There is little doubt that many people did-and do- attain comfort from the Spiritualist churches which tend to be informal and welcoming. We need to distinguish between them and the ‘sole trader’ medium or clairvoyant who takes money. The years after 1918 were hard for many people and some may have tried to cash in, the ‘frauds’ referred to. However, I have come across many people who go to a medium and are given facts which are correct and often obscure.
Some skeptics might dispute this, claiming that this is cold reading. Dr. Gary Schwartz, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry in Arizona, arranged a series of experiments where the mediums could not see or hear the sitters (they could hear a yes/no response in some of the early experiments and in a second part could ask for feedback) The amount of accurate information is impressive. Schwartz invited stage magician ‘cold readers’ to try to duplicate the work of the mediums in the same conditions. None even tried.
Harry Houdini claimed to expose frauds but he seems to have been on a bit of a mission. I saw a few of his ‘exposures’ recreated on TV and was not convinced. He did talk about ‘genuine mediums’ which suggests a belief in an afterlife. His wife certainly did and there is a signed and witnessed document which says Houdini communicated a code word to her after his death.
The accusation often made is that grieving people or those who would like it to be true, have low standards of investigation or are gullible, at least in this respect. The Rev. Drayton Thomas investigated Mrs Osborne Leonard (who sat with Sir Oliver Lodge and Coonan Doyle)as did Lady Troubridge. They didn’t just turn up for an evening or two; they sat with her for years and made meticulous notes and she was never accused of fraud. Mrs Piper, in the USA with whom she is often compared, was investigated for some years by William James, the founder of the modern discipline of Psychology in that country, before he assented to her genuine ability. Wikipedia accounts tend to be hostile and sceptics (Skeptics in the US) tend to write the pages. Sir Oliver Lodge was a Fellow of the Royal Society and not just an ivory tower theoretician. He probably sent the first radio transmission a year before Marconi.
The Wiki page says ‘sceptics have analysed the mediumship of Mrs Leonard… and auto suggestion was used.’ Having read Raymond (the book written by Sir Oliver Lodge) I find it an amazing suggestion. Read the third section of the book by Sir Oliver in which he deals with questions of scientific method, theology and philosophy, you will see that a charlatan medium impressing her ideas on him and all his family is hardly worth considering. The assertion ‘Raymond’ could not remember the names of the officers with whom he had served, is refuted by looking in the book.
The astronaut Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic (new) Sciences. The chief Scientist is Dean Radin who got so tired of people saying ‘show me the evidence for the spiritual/ supernatural/paranormal and then maybe I’ll believe it,’ that he complied a list of formal experiments, trials and studies. Google ‘Radin /evidence’ and you will find nine pages of mainly recent peer-reviewed studies. If you want to have an informed debate, this might be a place to start.
If one starts from the view there is no afterlife-like Clodd- then there are only two explanations; one is that the medium is misinterpreting what they see, hear or feel (and may have even good motives) or they out to deceive. As it’s impossible, good results MUST be fraud. In most twentieth century science not only acknowledged matter and energy but quantum physics and dark matter and dark energy have shown the limits of what we thought we knew. There is evidence that consciousness may exist beyond the brain e.g. near death experiences. If we are open-minded it may be that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in some people’s philosophy.
My thanks to Ian, as I am always keen to offer the opportunity to reply to posts I have written. It feels uncomfortable, looking back, to judge whether those drawn to the Spiritualist Church during and after the Great War were duped. After all, for many electricity was still a mystery and radio waves impossible to fathom. Do please comment if you have a view. Ian will be happy to respond.
Do you believe in ghosts? Can you trust in mediums who claim to commune with the dead? In Shell Shocked Britain I look at the rise of spiritualism during and after the First World War, examining why it experienced an explosion in interest and what it offered a nation traumatised by loss and grief. It is a fascinating subject that encompasses not just the supernatural, but issues of gender, the role of religion and the psychological need for both certainty and succour.
Even before 1914 church attendance was declining. As now, the majority of the population would classify themselves as Christian, but religious observance was increasingly confined to traditional holidays such as Christmas, Easter, harvest festivals and rites of passage – births, marriages and deaths. Demographic changes had led to the breaking up of small and close knit communities and young people were finding the strictures of the scriptures less relevant to their lives.
The Great War thrust the established church back into the limelight as clergy were called upon to rally people to the cause and offer hope and comfort to combatants and civilians alike. However, many found the support of their local priest wanting. The church was sometimes viewed as too ready to promote an aggressive patriotism, focusing on fighting the good fight, rather than offering the necessary emotional support to those grieving. Yet if an individual priest were seen to be questioning the war, he would be vilified in local and national press. The church lost its way and a grieving nation sought meaning elsewhere.
Spiritualism as we would recognise it today began in mid-Victorian North America and by the 1870s there were numerous Spiritualist societies and churches throughout Britain and the United States, which in 1891 joined together to form the National Federation of Spiritualists. In 1902 the organisation became the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), which still exists today. Spiritualist mediums, whose influence had declined following the the heyday of the séance in the late nineteenth century, became, for thousands of people during the First World War, a focal point for grief and hope. Great crowds would attend spiritualist meetings across the country and enthusiasm for the gatherings went across all classes.
‘Celebrity’ endorsement furthered the cause. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge were great advocates for the movement, affected as they both were by the loss of sons to the war. In Shell Shocked I look at some of the key reasons why such eminent intellectuals were ‘taken in’, and at Mrs Osborne Leonard, one of the mediums who made such an impression on them. It makes disturbing reading, but in the 21st century there are equally audacious ‘cons’ that draw us in. Many sought to prove spiritualism was a fraud, including illusionist Harry Houdini, but that interest only heightened the public interest.
Gladys Osborne Leonard was born in 1882 and would later say that she had first had commune with spirits whilst still a child. Thwarted in her ambition to become a professional singer by illness, she turned to spiritualism and was giving professional sittings by 1915. It was when she came into contact with scientist Sir Oliver Lodge that her fame spread. Lodge’s experiences of working with her to communicate with his son, killed in action in 1915, were written up in his book Raymond or Life and Death – a paean to the afterlife and ultimately to his desperate grief at the loss of his son.
Leonard worked with the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation established to prevent fraud, which offered a veil of respectability. However, many later suggested Leonard was a clever charlatan who used auto-suggestion in a similar way to many of the doctors treating shell shocked soldiers, tapping into her client’s unconscious until they believed what she wanted them to believe. Her work may seem feeble by today’s standards, but in the days of early wireless technology it was not difficult for Sir Oliver Lodge to believe that invisible radio waves were acting as a conduit to his dead son’s existence on the other side.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a firm believer and said of Leonard:“The greatest trance medium with whom the author is acquainted is Mrs. Osborne Leonard. The outstanding merit of her gift is that it is, as a rule, continuous. It is not broken up by long pauses or irrelevant intervals, but it flows on exactly as if the person alleged to be speaking were actually present. The usual procedure is that Mrs. Leonard, a pleasant, gentle, middle-aged, ladylike woman, sinks into slumber, upon which her voice changes entirely, and what comes through purports to be from her little control, Feda”
It is little wonder that so many were attracted to this contact, and with the ‘Happy Valley’ in which Leonard said dead soldiers lived a comfortable life. They smoked pipes, drank whisky and took springtime walks.
As worrying as the fraud on the recently bereaved was the exploitation within spritualism itself. In the 19th century, the formal spiritualist movement had been dominated by female mediums, such as the Fox sisters. It was closely allied to women’s suffrage and offered an opportunity for women to make their views known. However, some of these women were preyed upon by male confidence tricksters who, to all intents and purposes, ‘pimped’ them around meetings and informal gatherings. A movement that had originally given women subject to the restrictive social mores of Victorian and Edwardian society a ‘voice’ now became another way to subjugate them.
In the inter-war years spiritualism was the only way many could make sense of loss and cling to the belief that their loved ones were in a ‘better place’. It stepped in where the Anglican church, along with other denominations, seemed muddled and without a lead, unable even to agree on what was meant by an ‘afterlife’.
In Shell Shocked Britain I look at this subject in more detail, to assess how hundreds of thousands came to rely on the voices of the dead to keep them in the land of the living. It is a fascinating aspect of the emotional turmoil the whole country experienced during and after the Great War, and one that is rarely discussed.
Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series of monthly mental health guest posts. This month we have a slightly different perspective. After reading my guest post on Spiritualist Helen Duncan for the Kith & Kin Research blog, Counsellor and writer Ian Stevenson shared a talk he was giving on the subject of the ‘spiritual’ support sought by those who suffer a bereavement. It looks at a report into Spiritualism commissioned, then suppressed, by the Church of England in 1937. Its subsequent ‘leaking’ in 1947 made news across the world. I am very grateful to Ian for this fascinating piece, dealing with a religious debate that continues today as we seek ways to come to terms with death and dying.
All of us have probably wondered about an afterlife. For those who don’t believe there is anything ‘beyond’ this world, it is a fantasy; for others it is a source of comfort as they or a loved one reaches the end of their life.
For the undecided, in the UK at least, there are two possible sources of information. One is the church. The other is the medium and the Spiritualist movement (and ‘psychic’ researchers perhaps).
We live in a scientific and sceptical world. Many of us will have seen Derren Brown showing how he (and, by inference fake mediums) can fool people by a process of “cold reading”- i.e. pretending to give messages from beyond but actually using generalities and picking up on feedback. It can look quite impressive, but is challenged. Professor Gary Schwartz in the USA did a number of sittings where the supposed ‘medium’ could not see or hear the sitter and they still came up with specific names and events (not generalities) and were up to 80% accurate.
We might well think that using ‘sincere’ mediums would give some empirical or practically derived evidence about what religion says, supporting what might otherwise be seen as a mere ‘story’. Historically some clergy have actively worked with mediums. The Reverend J Aelwyn Roberts’ Holy Ghostbuster and the more serious Yesterday’s People are two interesting accounts of his work as a Parson in North Wales in the latter half of the last century.
Generally the church distances itself from working with mediums. However, in 1937 the Church of England appointed a committee to investigate and report back to Archbishop Cosmo Lang. After two years they issued a report which urged continuing dialogue with “intelligent spiritualists”. There was a minority on the committee which strongly rejected the whole idea. The Archbishop was disappointed with the report and, with the approval of the House of Bishops, declined to publish it.
Let us first look at what Spiritualists – who don’t have a single, overarching organisation – say. They hold that when we first ‘pass over’, we are the same as when we lived on the earth plane with all our virtues, faults and prejudices. People who have been selfish and obsessed with material comfort are often “earthbound” that is unable to move on: cut off from the love and light of the next world. People, who have been generous and loving report pleasant surroundings. For some, it seems that we create our post-mortem conditions, but these gradually fade and we face a “second death” which is the leaving behind of the transitory aspects of the personality. Some believe in reincarnation; others in closer relationship to the Source – or God – if you like.
The committee of 1937 was chaired by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Francis Underhill. He was supported by several clergy, a barrister and a Harley Street Psychologist. It appears from that they attended a few séances and spoke to a number of Spiritualists but there is no record of how far the evidence was investigated by them. It seems they relied on secondary evidence and judged how it could fit in with Christianity.
The eventual report was also very heavily qualified. There were a number of paragraphs pointing out its dangers. The conclusion said,“if presented humbly it (Spiritualism) contains a truth and it is important not to see it as a new religion but only as filling up certain gaps in our knowledge. We should keep in contact with intelligent groups of Spiritualists. Leave practical guidance to the Church itself.”
It did actually accept that the fact of communication was true and the church in former times had called this the “communion of saints”. The committee felt the current practice of the church was lacking.
From a historical perspective, why did the Church reject the report? Firstly, some of the committee could only see Spiritualism through the filter of their own time and through the church. Spiritualism might give comfort to the bereaved but it lacked any in-depth theology.
The decline in church attendance caused the church to reassess the surge in the popularity of Spiritualism between the wars. Men of science were seeking answers outside traditional paths. Sir Oliver Lodge (1851–1940) was a British physicist and writer involved in the development of wireless telegraphy. After his son, Raymond, was killed in World War I, Lodge visited several mediums and wrote about the experience in a number of books, including the influential and best-selling Raymond, or Life and Death(1916). Popular writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had similarly turned to Spiritualism to comfort them in bereavement.
Mediums by-pass the hierarchy of church authority. At the time in Spain, Communists were shooting priests and monks, the Soviet Union taught atheism and Hitler threatened the churches. The Church feared a loss of imposed authority and an undermining of what they saw as the value of a superior (university) education not available to the majority.
Spiritualism teaches that the state or place we find ourselves in after death bears no relationship to formal religious belief. However, many evangelists believe that on death the soul loses consciousness until the Day of Judgement. Therefore, it is not possible to speak to the spirits of the departed. Any communications claiming to be spirits are really demons. Muslims tend to believe something similar but they say the entities which appear to communicate are djinns which are mischievous rather than wicked. Sufis, the mystical branch of Islam is more open to communication with the dead.
A possible theory for ‘hiding’ the report is that the church saw it as denying the core of Christianity. Many Christians then and some now – mainly the Evangelicals and Catholics – preach that people are only saved by “believing in Christ” and there is no salvation outside the church. On the contrary, Spiritualism says that we are all on a path of spiritual evolution and that a loving atheist might be in a better place in the hereafter than a bigoted believer – although all would come to God in the end. There is no eternal damnation. This view contradicted the Christian church and, if their evidence was accepted, it would undermine the Church’s authority and so the report had to be dead and buried.
Despite damaging publicity over the years, it has not been resurrected since.
A quick post just to let you know that No Wriggling has been given a guest slot over at Kith and Kin Research today. My subject is wartime spiritualist Helen Duncan and her trial under the Witchcraft Act in 1944. It is a fascinating story of exploitation, superstition and suspicion. Was any aspect of her ‘gift’ genuine? Was the government really concerned about the possibility of a war time security risk? Go over to Kith and Kin Research – The blog and see what you think…..
My thanks to Luke Mouland at Kith and Kin for allowing me to hijack his fabulous blog. Luke posts regularly on genealogy and social history and he is well worth a regular visit.