From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Spiritualistic Monkey-Tricks is an article written by Nevil Maskelyne published in The Sketch on 26 february 1919.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's description of a "spiritualistic seance" he attended on Feb. 15 has been going the round of the Press, and appears to have created some excitement. The "medium," who was accompanied by his brother, is a collier of Pendarren. Describing the two, Sir Arthur says, "They looked more like international footballers than spiritualistic media. They were fine specimens of humanity, perfectly open, and insisted on being thoroughly searched before the phenomena appeared." The medium was tied with ropes to a chair, the sitters joined hands, the lights were turned down, and then the fun began. Not immediately, of course, but after some hymns had been sung.
From the description of this séance one gathers that the bad old days of spiritualism have come again. We have the same old rattling of tambourines, the same old mysterious hands touching the sitters, the same old taking-off of the bound medium's coat, the latter being deposited in the lap of one of the sitters.
Now this sort of thing has been going on for generations, and, naturally, we have learned a good deal about it. From the very beginning it was obvious that, apart from tests of a stringent character, such "manifestations" could easily be produced by trickery. Thus it has been the common practice to devise and impose tests which should, if possible, prevent the possibility of trickery being employed. Yet, in spite of the imposition of tests supposed to be conclusive, mediums have again and again been detected and exposed. It has been found that tests supposed to be conclusive were really no tests at all.
For example, it has been shown that rope-tying is no test, and hand-holding is no test. Mediums have been tied and held in every possible way, and yet have found means for working their tricks. This has been proved to demonstration. Yet a capable man like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can still reconcile it to his intelligence to believe that manifestations produced by a medium whilst bound and held must necessarily have a supernatural origin.
In the face of past experience, that reason can Sir Arthur have for assuming that that he saw at the Cardiff séance was anything more than trickery? Why should he so definitely assert that the power whereby the manifestations were produced is conveyed by the aether of space? The aether was sufficiently overburdened already, without imposing upon it the duty of banging tambourines and rattling castanets.
For goodness' sake, let us look at such matters in the light of common-sense. There is one rule of which sight should never be lost — namely, that, until we have exhausted normal possibilities, we should never assume the intervention of the supernormal. Looking back upon the history of this subject, we are hound to say that, in the present instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has no right to assume that normal possibilities were exhausted, and that, therefore, the manifestations could not be due to trickery. Mediums have been bound and held times out of number, and yet have had no difficulty in resorting to trickery. That is a matter of absolute fact, clearly demonstrated. Then, since it has been done before, why not again?
No mediums have been more securely bound and held than were the Davenports and the Fays in years gone by. Yet they managed to work their tricks quite easily. And that they were tricksters is a fact upon which no doubt can be cast.
Of all the tests ever applied to a medium that of rope-tying is, perhaps the most futile. To begin with not one man in a million knows how to tie a person securely. I have often heard my father say that, when reproducing the Davenport trickeries, he had sometimes the greatest difficulty in preventing the ropes from falling off him. People have always the idea that, if plenty of rope be used, the performer must necessarily he tied securely. If one turn of the rope does not hold him, another will; so put on plenty and he must be rendered helpless. No greater mistake could be made. I defy anybody to tie a person securely with a long piece of rope. Given rope enough, there will always be enough slack to enable the performer to get free. Years ago, the rope-tying business used to be performed at fairs and at street-corners. There is no reason to suppose that the art has entirely died out.
Of course, the most effective "manifestation" recorded by Sir Arthur is that in which the luminiferous aether dragged off the medium's coat and deposited it upon Lady Doyle's lap. Well, did, not my father do that very thing years ago, at Sandringham, before the late King Edward and Queen Alexandra? Here is his account of the matter, as given in his Reminiscences—
"I mention this performance particularly, as some very amusing incidents took place. I was performing the famous coat-trick of the Davenports. Ira Davenport, with his wrists tied behind his back and the knots sealed, could take off his coat in a few seconds. I improved upon that trick. I was secured in the same manner, and, in addition, I allowed a piece of tape to be passed through the button-holes of the lapels of my coat, tied tightly across the chest, and sealed. In this condition, I could take off my coat in five seconds.
"I had practised throwing things in the dark, and could also very accurately. I threw my coat at King Edward, intending that it should fall into his lap. Unfortunately, however, my also was not so good as usual. When the lights were turned up, his head was completely enveloped in my coat.
"To show that there was no trick in the coat, I asked to have one lent to me. The King told one of the party who was about my also to lend me his dress-coat. To create a laugh, I put the coat on inside out. When the lights were turned up, it was seen that the lining of the coat was a mass of rags. The King was convulsed with laughter, and exclaimed, 'Dick, Dick, is that your coat?' The reply was, 'No, Sir it is one I borrowed.'"
I have seen my father do this coat-trick many times, but I have never known him to have hymns sung in order to "harmonise the influences." Hynm-singing is, no doubt, an excellent cover for any noise an inexperienced performer may make in getting his bonds free enough to allow him sufficient room. But, really, comic songs would serve the purpose equally well. The idea of singing hymns in order to get the nether into condition for shaking a tambourine or for pulling a man's coat over his head seems ridiculous to the verge of insanity.
By the way, while they were about it, why did they not think to tie up the medium's brother? It would not, of course, have served any useful purpose. But neither did tying up the medium.
By inference, the strong point about Sir Arthur's account is the presumed innocence of the collier-medium. That is nearly always the attitude adopted in such cases. It was so in the case of poor old Boursnell, the spirit photographer. But that did not prevent the rabbet-marks upon his negatives from showing evidences of three exposures — one for the sitter, one for the "spirit," and one for the halo surrounding the latter. It was so in the case of Eusapia Paladino but that did not prevent her from being one of the most unscrupulous frauds that ever hoodwinked innocent-minded dupes.