Friday, 5 February 2010

Skepticism - 1895 Style

I found the following article on a floppy disk. It was probably written for the Skeptic magazine and either not sent or (more likely) not wanted. The newspaper from which I drew the story would have been in the Harry Price Library, which I used to frequent when the late Alan Wesencraft was in charge there. Trusted readers were allowed to use the HPL unsupervised, which enabled much happy browsing. Wonderful times. Unfortunately I don't know when I wrote this as all of the files on the disk (which were written using WordStar) are dated 1 January 1980. It was probably about the same time as my 1992 article on 'The Fasting Woman of Tutbury', which was accepted by the Skeptic.


Skepticism is nothing new, and an amusing newspaper report from the end of the nineteenth century describes how one reporter challenged a medium - at peril of his life.

The front page of an American paper, The Herald, for 22 July1895, carried an article by journalist Harry A Warren. The previous day he had attended the annual camp meeting of the Southern Californian spiritualists' association which was being held at Santa Monica. He claimed that he had borne no prior feelings of animosity towards the subject, and had been instructed to give a fair and impartial account of the proceedings.

These began with a flag-raising ceremony and patriotic songs, after which the association's president gave an uplifting speech. He was followed by more speakers, one of whom acknowledged that there was much fraud in spiritualism. Then Dr Louis Schlesinger (a well-known medium of the period and publisher of the spiritualist newspaper Carrier Dove, though the report consistently misspells his name as "Schlessinger") was introduced to the audience, around whom succeeding events revolve.

Some biographical details for Dr Schlesinger are given. He was born in Liverpool in 1832, and had emigrated to the US at the age of 16. He was Jewish until middle age, when he became a spiritualist. He was a wealthy businessman (the implication being that he was not in mediumship for the money). Harry Warren had met him before, and Dr Schlesinger had expressed the desire to give him a personal demonstration.

The medium said that his role was to substantiate the philosophy expounded by the preceding speakers. Indeed, spirits were present who had "come to greet the skeptic". One of the spirits communicated to a particular lady, giving family information which was accepted by her. The procedure was repeated with other members of the audience.

Schlesinger stated that he would convert eight skeptics, so there seem to have been a good many present. This would be done by means of "special tests in an adjoining tent." Warren was asked to be one of the company in this endeavour. The group moved next door, and Warren and a Mrs Templeton were ushered into a separate enclosure some distance away. Schlesinger then performed his speciality, the "Living and Dead Test".

In this test a person writes down the names of five individuals, one of whom is dead. The paper is torn into slips, each with one name on, and these are placed in a hat. Mrs Templeton went first, and her deceased nominee was correctly picked out. At this point Schlesinger informed her that a spirit wished to speak to her privately, and she obligingly left (this begs the question of how necessary the medium was to the communication).

It was now Warren's turn to write out some names. Schlesinger handed him one of the slips, and asked him if "Harry McKnight" was deceased, to which Warren replied in the affirmative. This seemed to be another hit. As a variation on the standard test, Warren was requested to write out three slips bearing the names of a city and a disease, one of which stated the city in which, and the disease by which, Mc Knight had died.

These too went into the hat, but this time the doctor was wrong twice. "Let's try it again" he said, and the pieces of paper went back into the hat. Warren noticed that the third one, which had to contain the required information, had its corner turned down. Schlesinger unsurprisingly picked the correct slip. Warren returned to the main tent.

Schlesinger must have smelled a rat, because shortly afterwards he came in, and again asked if McKnight were dead. Warren said that in fact that gentleman was very much alive. At this a hum arose from the assembly. Schlesinger grandly announced that Warren had come with a falsehood, and had received a falsehood, being thereby defeated in his subterfuge. Warren clearly did not agree, and pointed out that the spirits should have been able to distinguish between truth and falsehood. (Why Warren said this is not clear – it was possible that the spirits had informed Schlesinger of the deception as he seemed to have worked the ruse out; presumably Warren was implying that they should have done so at the time.)

After that the proceedings degenerated into farce. Warren was confronted by a woman who berated him over a spiritualist scandal he had investigated. A lady had been involved who was known to Warren's accuser, to which Warren tartly replied that it did the latter no credit. Her husband promptly challenged him to a duel, and the journalist had to warn the aggrieved spouse to take care in the presence of ladies. Warren disingenuously claimed that he had not come to cause dissension, but as far as he was concerned the Life and Death test had been a failure. At this some "excitement" ensued, but it soon died down, and Warren took his leave.

That there were no hard feelings on the newspaper's side was attested to by the fact that the camp's programme for that day was printed at the end of the article. The most surprising thing about this report is the amount of space it had been allotted on the front page. It must have been a slow news day.