An Old Story Re-Told
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
- in The Strand Magazine (september 1920 [UK]) 2 illustrations by Howard K. Elcock + 1 photo
- in The History of Spiritualism (1926) as The Hydesville Episode
- in The Edge of the Unknown (1930) as The Rift in the Veil
The Uncharted Coast - IV. An Old Story Re-Told
Whether the reader belongs to that majority who are incredulous upon the subject, or to that increasing minority who accept the evidence, he can hardly fail to be interested in the circumstances in which the whole strange psychic movement arose. The student is aware that there was a long preparatory stage which began with Swedenborg and Mesmer, and ended with Andrew Jackson Davis, called the Poughkeepsie Seer, who at an early age, without education, wrote or dictated one of the deepest, most comprehensive explanations of the universe ever framed. Passing these we will begin the narrative with the happenings of Hydesvale, and give some account of these less-known developments which followed the new movement, sometimes to its great glory and sometimes to its temporary degradation.
The hamlet of Hydesville, near Rochester, in the State of New York, consisted of a cluster of wooden houses of a very humble type. In one of these, a residence which would hardly pass the requirements of a British district council surveyor, there began this development which will, in my opinion, prove to be far the most important thing -which America has given to the common weal of the world. It was inhabited by a decent farmer family of the name of Fox — a name which, by a curious coincidence, has been already registered in religious history as that of the evangel of the Quakers. Besides the father and mother, who were Methodists in religion, there were two children resident in the house at the time when the manifestations reached such a point of intensity that they attracted general attention. These children were the daughters, Margaret, aged fifteen, and Kate, aged twelve.
About the beginning of 1848 many loud noises like sudden blows had been heard both by day and by night in the house, accompanied by a vibration of the furniture. Rats, mice, and the hammering of a neighbouring cobbler were all put forward as explanations, and each proved equally inadequate. As the spring advanced these sounds became more insistent and more varied in character, and occasionally were accompanied by actual motions of the furniture. It was soon observed that daylight was inimical to the phenomena, and the idea of trickery was thereby suggested, but careful watch by Mr. Fox failed to detect anything of the kind. Finally. upon March 31st, there was a very loud and continued outbreak of inexplicable sounds. It was upon this evening that one of the great points in the history of psychic evolution was reached, for it was then that young Kate Fox, having lost all sense of fear in the presence of that which use had made familiar, challenged the unseen power to repeat the snaps of her fingers. This challenge, though given in flippant words, was instantly accepted. Each snap was answered by a knock. However humble the operator at either end, the spiritual telegraph was at last working, and it was left to the patience and moral earnestness of the human race to determine how high might be the uses to which it was put in the future. Unexplained forces were many in the world, but here was a force claiming to have independent intelligence at the back of it. That was the supreme sign of a new departure. "Fancy a new spiritual departure in a frame house in an American hamlet!" Yes, and fancy a previous one in a camel-driver's tent in Arabia, and before that the greatest of all in a carpenter's shop in Judea ! Exaltavit humiles !
Mrs. Fox was amazed at this development, and at the further discovery that the force could apparently see as well as hear, for when Kate snapped her fingers without sound the rap still responded. The mother asked a series of questions, the answers to which, given in numerals, showed a greater knowledge of her own affairs than she herself possessed, for the raps insisted that she had had seven children, whereas she protested that she had six, until one who had died early came back to her mind. A neighbour, Mrs. Redfield, was called in, and her amusement was changed to wonder, and finally to awe, as she also listened to the correct answers to intimate questions.
The neighbours came flocking in as some rumours of these wonders got about, and the two children were carried off by one of them, while Mrs. Fox went to spend the night at Mrs. Redfield's. In their absence the phenomena went on exactly the same as before, which disposes once for all of those theories of cracking toes and dislocating knees which have been so frequently put forward by people unaware of the true facts. The happenings of the night were at once recorded and were printed in pamphlet form within three weeks of the event, so that it would be difficult to get more prompt and direct testimony, which was subscribed to by a number of disinterested witnesses.
Having formed a sort of informal committee of investigation, the crowd, in shrewd Yankee fashion, spent a large part of the night of March 31st in playing question and answer with the unseen intelligence. According to its own account he was a spirit, he had been injured in that house, he rapped out the name of a former occupant who had injured him, he was thirty-one years old at the time of death which was five years before, he had been murdered for money, he had been buried in the cellar ten feet deep. On descending to the cellar dull, heavy thumps, coming apparently from under the earth, broke out when the investigator stood at the centre. There was no sound at other times. That, then, was the place of burial ! It was a neighbour named Duesler who, first of all modern men, called over the alphabet and got answers by raps on the letters. In this way the name of the dead man was obtained — Charles B. Rosma. The idea of connected messages was not developed until four months later, when Isaac Post, a Quaker of Rochester, was the first pioneer. Such, in very brief outline, were the events of March 31st, which were continued and confirmed upon the succeeding night, when not less than a couple of hundred people had assembled round the house. Upon April 2nd it was observed that the raps came in the day as well as at night.
Excavations were begun in the cellar, but the spring thaw and a swollen river had flooded the land, and water was struck a foot or so below the surface. When the summer came, a hole was dug by David Fox, the young son, who had come from a distant farm after the disturbances broke out. He was aided by Henry Bush, Lyman Granger of Rochester, and others. His account of what occurred was published in Capron's "Modern Spiritualism," 1855, and was confirmed personally in conversation with the Hon. Dale Owen, so that the evidence is very clear and direct. They passed a plank five feet down, and below it came on some crockery, charcoal, and quicklime, under which was some human hair, several bones, and part of a human skull. Clearer evidence of murder and its concealment could hardly be asked for. These were corroborative details, for a young girl, Lucretia Pulver, came forward with an account of how a pedlar had called there while she was acting as "help" to Mr. and Mrs. Bell. He had remained for the night, while she, the girl, had been sent away, and was kept away three days. The pedlar had promised to call at her father's house, but he never came. On her return she had heard for the first time the rappings and noises in the house. She observed that the centre of the cellar was soft, which was explained by Mrs. Bell as being due to rat-holes. Afterwards, Mr. Bell carried down some earth and was at work for some time. Shortly afterwards the Bells left the house and the neighbourhood, but their successors, the Weekmans, were conscious of the same noises which finally culminated under the Fox tenancy.
As might be expected, Bell, who was a blacksmith by trade, vigorously denied this accusation and produced many certificates as a proof that he was a man of good character. The spiritual story was also weakened by the fact that the man Rosma could not be traced in Orange County, New York, whence he pro-fessed to have come, and a search for five alleged children was equally fruitless. This is less remarkable as he was by profession a wanderer. It must be admitted that the case against Bell needed further corroboration before it could be called substantial. Two great undoubted results did emerge, however, which have never been shaken, that the origin of the raps could. by no means be explained, and that they did convey the unknown fact that a human body had been buried in the cellar. This is the vital core of the whole matter, for it touched that which is of eternal interest to all of us, while the question of individual guilt is temporary and incidental.
The danger of blindly following alleged spirit guidance was clearly shown some months later in the neighbouring town of Rochester, where a man disappeared under suspicious circumstances. An enthusiastic Spiritualist had messages by raps which announced a murder. The canal was dragged, and the wife of the missing man was actually ordered to enter the canal, which nearly cost her her life. Some months later the absentee returned, having fled to Canada to avoid a writ for debt. This, as may well be imagined, was a blow to the young cult. The public did not then understand what even now is so little understood, that death causes no change in the human spirit, that mischievous and humorous entities abound, and that the inquirer must use his own instincts and his own common sense at every turn. "Try the spirits that ye may know them." In the same year, in the same district, the truth of this new philosophy upon the one side, and its limitations and dangers on the other, were most clearly set forth. These dangers are with us still. The silly man, the arrogant inflated man, the cock-sure man, is always a safe butt. Every observer has had some trick played upon him. I have myself had my faith sorely shaken by deception until some compensating proof has come along to assure me that it was only a lesson which I had received, and that it was no more fiendish or even remarkable that disembodied intelligences should be hoaxers, than that the same intelligence inside a human body should find amusement in the same foolish way.
The first effect of the new dispensation was to bring utter misery and ruin to the Fox family. Within their house there were constant disturbances from the insistent manifestations, while from without they were plagued by sight-seers and wonder-mongers, many of whom looked upon the unfortunate people as being concerned in something diabolical. Hate was sent away to Rochester to join her married sister, Mrs. Fish, but her absence appears to have had no effect upon the sounds which continued to disturb the family, who at last abandoned Hydesville altogether, hoping that the manifestations would remain behind. It speedily became evident, however, that the unseen powers were no longer attached to the place, but that they specially associated themselves with the two girls, for they were as insistent in the town as in the hamlet, In vain the family prayed with their Methodist friends that relief should come, In vain also were the exorcisms of the ministers of various creeds. Beyond joining with loud raps in the Amens, the unseen presences took no notice of these religious exercises.
The whole course of the movement had now widened and taken a more important turn. It was no longer a murdered man calling for justice. The pedlar seemed to have been used as a pioneer, and now that he had found the opening and the method, a myriad of Intelligences were swarming at his back. Isaac Post had instituted the method of spelling by raps, and messages were pouring through. According to these the whole system had been devised by the contrivance of a band of thinkers and inventors upon the spirit plane, foremost among whom was Benjamin Franklin, whose eager mind and electrical knowledge in earth life might well qualify him for such a venture. Whether this claim was true or not, it is a fact that Rosma dropped out of the picture at this stage, and that the intelligent knockings purported to be from the deceased friends of those inquirers who were prepared to take a serious interest in the matter, and to gather in reverent mood to receive the messages. That they still lived and still loved was the constant message from the beyond, accompanied by many material tests, which confirmed the wavering faith of the new adherents of the movement. When asked for their methods of working and the laws which governed them, the answers were from the beginning exactly what they are now — that it was a matter concerned with human and spirit magnetism, that some who were richly endowed with this physical property were mediums, that this endowment was pot necessarily allied to morality or intelligence, and that the condition of harmony was especially necessary to secure good results. In seventy-two years we have learned very little more — and after all these years the primary law of harmony is invariably broken at the so-called test seances, the members of which imagine that they have disproved the philosophy when they obtain no results, whereas they have actually confirmed it.
In one of the early communications the Fox sisters were assured that "these manifestations would not be confined to them, but would go all over the world." This prophecy was soon in a fair way to be fulfilled, for these new powers, and further developments of them which included the discerning and hearing of spirits and the movement of objects without contact, appeared in many circles which were independent of the Fox family. In an incredibly short space of time the movement, with many eccentricities and phases of fanaticism, had swept over the Northern and Eastern States of the Union, always retaining that solid core of actual tangible fact, which might be occasionally simulated by impostors but always reasserted itself to the serious investigator who could shake himself free from preconceived prejudice. Disregarding for the moment these wider developments, let us continue the story of the original circles at Rochester.
The spirit messages had urged upon the small band of pioneers a public demonstration of their powers in an open meeting at Rochester — a proposition which was naturally appalling to two shy country girls and to their friends. So incensed were the discarnate Guides by the opposition of their earthly agents that they threatened to suspend the whole movement for a generation, and did actually desert them completely for some weeks. At the end of that time communication was restored and the believers, chastened by this interval of thought, put themselves unreservedly into the hands of the outside forces, promising that they would dare all in the cause. It was no light matter. A few of the clergy, notably a Methodist named the Rev. A. H. Jervis, rallied to their aid, but the majority thundered from their pulpits against them, and the mob eagerly joined in the cowardly sport of heretic-baiting. On November 14th, 1849, the Spiritualists held their first meeting at the Corinthian Hall, the largest available in Rochester. The audience, to its credit, listened with attention to the exposition of facts from Mr. Capron of Auburn, the principal speaker. A committee of five representative citizens was then selected to examine into the matter and to report upon the following evening, when the meeting would reassemble. So certain was it that this report would be unfavourable that the Rochester Democrat is stated to have had its leading article prepared, with the headline : "Entire Exposure of the Rapping Humbug." The result, however, caused the editor to hold his hand. The committee reported that the raps were undoubted facts, though the information was not invariably correct. They added that these raps came on walls and doors some distance from the girls, causing a sensible vibration. "They entirely failed to find any means by which it could be done."
This report was received with disapproval by the audience and a second committee from among the dissentients was formed. This investigation was conducted in the office of a lawyer. Kate, for some reason, was away, and only Mrs. Fish and Margaret present. None the less, the sounds continued as before, though a Dr. Langworthy was introduced to test the possibility of ventriloquism. The final report was that "the sounds were heard, and their thorough investigation had conclusively shown them to be produced neither by machinery nor ventriloquism, though what the agent is they were unable to determine."
Again the audience turned down the report of their own committee, and again a deputation was chosen from among the most extreme opponents, one of whom vowed that if he could not find out the trick he would throw himself over the Falls of the Genessee River. Their examination was thorough to the length of brutality, and a committee of ladies were associated with it. The latter stripped the frightened girls, who wept bitterly under their afflictions. The i r dresses were then tied tightly round their ankles, and they were placed upon glass and other insulators. The committee was forced to report "when they were standing on pillows with a handkerchief tied round the bottom of their dresses, tight to the ankles, we all heard the rapping on the wall and floor distinctly." The committee further testified that their questions, some of them mental, had been answered correctly.
So long as the public looked upon the movement as a sort of a joke it was prepared to be tolerantly amused, but when these successive reports put the matter in a more serious light, a wave of blackguardism swept over the town, which reached such a pitch that Mr. Willetts, a gallant Quaker, was compelled at the fourth public meeting to declare that "the mob of ruffians who designed to lynch the girls should do so, if they attempted it, over his dead body." There was a disgraceful riot, the young women were smuggled out by a back door, and reason and justice were for the moment clouded over by force and folly. Then, as now, the minds of the average men of the world were so crammed with the things that do not matter that they had no space for the things that do matter. But Fate is never in a hurry and the movement went on. Many accepted the findings of the successive committees as being final, and indeed it is difficult to see how the alleged facts could have been more severely tested. At the same time this strong new fermenting wine began to burst some of the old bottles into which it was poured to the excusable disgust of the public.
The many discreet, serious, and religious circles were for a season almost obscured by swollen-headed ranters, who imagined themselves to be in touch with every high entity from the Apostles downwards, some even claiming the direct afflatus of the Holy Ghost and emitting messages which were only saved from being blasphemous by their crudity and absurdity. One community of these fanatics, who called themselves the Apostolic Circle of Mountain Cove, particularly distinguished themselves by their extreme claims and furnished good material for the enemies of the new dispensation. The great body of Spiritualists turned away in disapproval from such exaggerations, but were unable to prevent them. Many well-attested supernormal phenomena came to support the failing spirits of those who were distressed by the excesses of the fanatics. On one occasion, which is particularly convincing and well-reported, two bodies of investigators in separate rooms received the same message simultaneously from some central force which called itself Benjamin Franklin. This double message was : "There will be great changes in the nineteenth century. Things that now look dark will be made plain. The world will be enlightened." It must be admitted that the prophecy has up to now been only partially fulfilled — and it may at the same time be conceded that, with some startling exceptions, the forecasts of the Spirit people have not been remarkable for accuracy, especially where the element of time is concerned.
The question has often been asked : "What was the purpose of so strange a movement at this particular time, granting that it is all that it claims to be?" Governor Tallmadge, a United States Senator of repute, was one of the early converts to the new cult, and he has left it upon record that he asked this question upon two separate occasions in two different years from different mediums. The answer in each case was almost identical. The first said: "It is to draw mankind together in harmony and to convince sceptics of the immortality of the soul." The second said: "To unite mankind and to convince sceptics of the immortality of the soul." Surely this is no ignoble ambition and does not justify those narrow and bitter attacks from ministers and the less progressive of their flocks from which Spiritualists have up to the present day had to suffer. The first half of the definition is, I think, particularly important, for I believe that one of the ultimate results of this movement will be to unite Christianity upon a common basis so strong and, indeed, self-sufficient that the quibbles which separate the Churches of to-day will be seen in their true proportion and will be swept away or disregarded. One could even hope that such a movement might spread beyond the bounds of Christianity and throw down some of the barriers which stand between great sections of the human race.
Within two years from the crisis at Hydesville, the Fox sisters, still little more than children, were in New York, in the centre of the huge public discussion which raged round the subject. They stayed as guests for a short time in the house of Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune, one of the clearest thinkers in America, and whilst there gave constant exhibitions of their strange powers. Greeley had the courage to imperil the fortunes of his great newspaper by publicly stating that the phenomena which he had tested were undoubtedly genuine. "We devoted what time we could spare from our duties, out of three days, to this subject," he wrote. "It would be the basest cowardice not to say that we are convinced beyond a doubt of the ladies' perfect integrity and good faith. Whatever may be the origin or cause of the rappings, the ladies in whose presence they occur do not make them. We tested this thoroughly and to our entire satisfaction. Their conduct and bearing are as unlike that of deceivers as possible." So said Horace Greeley, cute Yankee and man of the world, after personal investigation. Against this, what is the worth of the opinion of people who even now talk nonsense about cracking joints and ventriloquism?
What impressed the New Yorkers as much as the actual sounds was the extreme accuracy of the answers and the fact that unspoken questions were replied to as readily as those which were audible. We have records of one particular seance at which there were more famous men assembled than have ever perhaps been present at one demonstration. Among them were Fenimore Cooper, the novelist, Bancroft, the historian, Cullen Bryant and N. P. Willis, poets, Bigelow, Dr. Griswold, with several doctors and clergymen. As befitted such a company the phenomena were mental rather than material, but absolutely convincing. Mrs. Fox and the three daughters were the mediums. It is interesting to note that half an hour elapsed before any sounds were . heard.' Strong brains charged with prejudice were present and time was needed, even by those remarkable mediums, to harmonize the conditions. Then at last came slight sounds, increasing gradually in volume until they were very clear. Each member of the company in turn asked questions, some mentally, some aloud, and all attested that the correct answers were given by the knockings. The record is too long to give in detail, but some of the information was so exact and so unusual that it was absolutely convincing. It is said that nearly all the guests were converted by this remarkable experience, and that this knowledge coming when their feet were, as the future proved, on the very threshold of death, was of inestimable comfort to Cooper and to Willis.
In the presence of these extraordinary happenings it may be imagined that American science was not silent. It was loud in its mockery and disapproval. At last the flood rising from that small spring at Hydesville had become so great that it could no longer be ignored. The religious exorcisms had failed. Could not science put a stop once for all to this disturbing intrusion? There were two scientists in the United States at that time who had a European reputation. One was Agassiz, the naturalist; the other Robert Hare, the chemist, who invented among other things the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe. It was Robert Hare who went forth to slay the new delusion. He started in that thoroughly unscientific frame of mind in which science has always approached the question. He felt called upon, he said, "to bring whatever influence he possessed to the attempt to stem the tide of popular madness which, in defiance of reason and science, was fast setting in favour of the gross delusion called Spiritualism." This can hardly be called an impartial method of approaching an inquiry, and can only be compared with Faraday's contemporary assertion that in investigating such a matter one should make up one's mind beforehand what is possible and what is not. Here was a brave and honest man, however. The huge tome which recorded his investigation lies upon my table as I write. It is adorned with pictures of the spring balances, double tables, and other appliances with which he endeavoured to confound these heretics, and was himself confounded. So searching was his investigation that every other one has been forestalled by it, for every possible source of error was eliminated. As a result Professor Hare declared after a year that he had been entirely mistaken, and that the claims of the new philosophy not only as to the phenomena, but as to their source and meaning, were absolutely justified. For this he was boycotted and bullied by the American Scientific Association, which seems to have behaved as unwisely as all of our own scientific bodies in its unreasoning opposition to what it did not comprehend. Whilst the report of this eminent scientific man was ignored, great stress was laid upon the absurd report of three unknown medical men of Buffalo, who declared that in their opinion the sounds made by the Fox sisters were caused by the repeated partial dislocations of their knee-joints. How these dis-locations answered unspoken questions was not explained.
The persecution endured by Professor Hare was repeated in the case of Judge Edmonds, head of the High Court of New York, who had also approached the movement with a view to exposing it, but who found himself con-founded by the appearance of phenomena within his own family circle, and by the development of his own daughter into a medium, possessing in some directions greater powers than the Fox sisters. Like Professor Hare, he proclaimed his conversion in a book, and had to leave the Bench in consequence. Such intolerance was deplorable, and yet there is this excuse for it, that numerous cranks calling themselves Spiritualists had burst into all sorts of wild theories, and also that the vile race of spurious mediums, or of mediums who eked out real powers by faked phenomena, were beginning to appear and to cause those scandals with which we are too familiar. Unable to distinguish the true from the counterfeit, the public, busy with its own affairs and impatient with the claims of another world, was glad to dismiss the whole subject as one vast delusion. Its hold, however, was too strong, and before the year 1860 it was calculated that a quarter of the population of the States believed in the new message, while it had penetrated into every country of the world.
A word must be said as to the tragic fate of the two younger Fox sisters, a subject which is painful to Spiritualists and yet must be faced. Both fell victims to that dipsomania which was hereditary in the family. Each had made a remarkably good marriage, Margaret becoming the wife of Dr. Kane, the famous Arctic explorer, while Kate married Mr. Jencken, a member of the English Bar. The latter was very thoroughly tested by Professor Crookes, who was a most severe critic of psychic powers, though opponents of the movement represent him as credulous. Margaret became a Roman Catholic, and high influences were used, according to her own account, to place her in a convent. What with religious excitement and her hereditary weakness she fell in her later years into a pitiable state, in which she alternately denounced Spiritualism, proclaiming herself an impostor, and recanted her statement with the most solemn vows. Personally. I am of opinion that she was by no means free from the suspicion that when psychic power was wanting she supplemented it by fraud. As to her final assertions and denials I think that Father Thurston may be right when he says that both were in a sense true. Mr. Isaac Funk, the famous lexicographer, says of her in her later years, "For five dollars she would have denied her mother and sworn to anything."
I have said that such a fate befalling the early mediums is painful to Spiritualists, but it has small bearing upon their faith. A medium is in no sense a teacher or an example, but is a passive instrument for forces outside herself. There have been, and are, many mediums who have been of saintly mould. There have been others who have yielded to some human weakness, very especially to drink. Their powers and their message are to be held distinct from themselves, as a Catholic would hold that a bad priest may celebrate a true sacrament, or a materialist that a foolish operator may transmit a wise telegram. These weaknesses delay the acceptance of the new knowledge. It still stands upon the threshold — but the door is slowly opening.