The Absolute Proof

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Uncharted Coast - V. The Absolute Proof is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Strand Magazine in november 1920.



The Uncharted Coast - V. The Absolute Proof

The Strand Magazine, p. 439 (november 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 440 (november 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 441 (november 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 442 (november 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 443 (november 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 444 (november 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 445 (november 1920)

In his recent work, "Life After Death," Professor Hyslop, who was formerly Professor of Logic at Columbia University and is now the chief American authority upon matters psychic, has a sentence which sounds rather intolerant. It runs: "Any man who does not accept the existence of discarnate spirits and the proof of it is either ignorant or a moral coward." The words are literally true, and yet what removes the sting is that there is really no reproach up to now in being ignorant. Much of the final absolute proof is very recent and is contained in works which have not been translated and which are expensive and difficult to get. It is true that we have Crawford's splendid work at Belfast and Crookes's researches of fifty years ago, but both of these needed the corroboration and elucidation of the Continental observers to bring . out their full meaning. I have all the documents before me, and I will try in this article to show any man who is capable of adapting his mind to fresh facts that this tremendous issue is no longer a fair subject for debate, but has been definitely settled up to a certain point — a point which gives us a solid basis for the researches of the future, All recent discoveries, whether they be of aviation, wireless telegraphy, or other material novelties, are insignificant beside a development which shows us a new form of matter, with unheard-of properties, lying latent in all probability within each of us. By a strange paradox the searchers after spirit have come to know more about matter, and its extraordinary possibilities, than any materialist has learned.

It should first be stated that the development of psychic phenomena was a gradual one, and that it was some years after the Hydesville outbreak that actual materializations of spirit were reported. During the 'sixties and 'seventies they became more common, lending themselves greatly to fraud, as people had little critical knowledge as vet and darkness was a physical necessity for their production. Apart from the frauds, however, discriminating observers were aware that there was a large residuum of cases which were undoubtedly genuine. In examining and reporting these cases the witnesses averred that certain people, whom they called "materializing mediums," had the strange physical gift that they could put forth from their bodies a viscous, gelatinous substance which appeared to differ from every known form. of matter in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes, and yet could be reabsorbed, leaving absolutely no trace even upon the clothes which it had traversed in leaving the body. This substance was actually touched by-some enterprising investigators, who reported that it was elastic and appeared to be sensitive, as though it was really an organic extrusion from the medium's body. These views were naturally much ridiculed by scientific men, who disposed of them easily upon anatomical and also on general physical grounds. Later investigation has, however, shown, as I hope to demonstrate in this article, that in this as in other matters the early Spiritualists were the pioneers of truth, and that they had come upon the most singular manifestation of matter with which we have any acquaintance.

Mme. Alexandre-Bisson, a French lady with a scientific bent, set herself in the year 1909 to study this phenomenon, having as her subject a woman named Eva, who had the power of forming this substance, which Charles Richet, the great French physiologist, has named ectoplasm, She had as collaborator a German doctor, Schrenck-Notzing, who afterwards collected the notes of the sittings and had them published in French with Mme, Bisson's name appended, under the title "Les Phénomènes dits de Matérialisation." A single sentence from the preface gives the gist of the book. He says "We have very often been able to establish that, by an unknown biological process, there comes from the body of the medium a material, at first semi-fluid, which possesses sonic of the properties of a living substance, notably that of the power of change, of movement, and of the assumption of definite forms." He adds: "One might doubt the truth of these facts if they had not been verified hundreds of times in the course of laborious tests under varied and very strict conditions." Could there be a more complete vindication of those early Spiritualists who for two generations bore with patience the ridicule of the world? Schrenck-Notzing ends his dignified preface by exhorting his fellow-worker to take heart. " Do not allow yourself to be discouraged in your efforts to open a new domain for science, either by foolish attacks, by cowardly calumnies, by the misrepresentation of facts, by the violence of the malevolent, or by any other sort of intimidation. Advance always along the path that you have opened, thinking of the words of Faraday, 'Nothing is too amazing to be true.'"

The methods of these wonderful experiments were as follows. All conceivable precautions were taken against fraud. Eva, the medium, seems, so far as one can trace her career, to have been no worse if she was no better than her fellows. A fierce controversy had raged round a previous series of experiments with her conducted in 1906 in Algiers, but Charles Richet and other observers had found no flaw in them. However, nothing was left to chance. The key of the seance room was kept in Mme. Bisson's own pocket. Eva was compelled to change into a special dress when in that room, undressing again when she emerged. She submitted to physical examinations at the hands of doctors. The illumination of the room was gradually increased until six strong, red, electric lamps were at work — red being, as in photography, the one bearable colour. Most important of all, a number of cameras, eight in the last period, were directed upon the medium from all angles, and these were operated by flashlight without warning, so that no motion upon her part could be unobserved. Altogether two hundred and one photographs were taken and reprinted in the book. The sittings lasted with intervals for four years, and were witnessed not only by Mme Bisson and the German doctor, but by a number of scientific observers whose names are given.

The results are, in my opinion, the most notable of any investigation which has ever been recorded. It was testified by witnesses, and shown by the photographs, that there oozed from the medium's mouth, ears, nose, eyes, and skin this extraordinary gelatinous material. The pictures are strange and repulsive, but many of Nature's processes seem so in our eyes. You can see this streaky, viscous stuff hanging like icicles from the chin, dripping down on to the body and forming a white apron, or projecting in shapeless lumps from the orifices of the face. When touched, or when undue light came upon it, it writhed tack into the body as swiftly and stealthily as the tentacles of a hidden octopus. If seized and pinched, the medium cried aloud. It would protrude through clothes and vanish again, leaving hardly any trace upon them. With the assent of the medium, a small piece was amputated. It dissolved in the box in which it was placed as snow would have done, leaving moisture and some large cells which might have come from a fungus. The microscope also disclosed epithelial cells from the mucous membrane in which the stuff seemed to originate.

It should be explained that the usual Spiritualistic habit of putting the medium into a confined space formed by curtains was followed. This is called the cabinet. She sat therein upon a chair, but her hands always protruded, as an additional safeguard against fraud, The object of the cabinet is that some condensation of material, which we can best describe perhaps as a heavy vapour, is necessary before you get the ectoplasm. The methods call for clearer scientific definition, but in practice it is found that anything which will make an enclosed space and conserved force is of great importance. Those curious, curving draperies which are seen round spirit photographs are the means which the control upon the other side adopts for this end, and I have often observed that the spirit lights at a seance are hooded and flanked by some fine, filmy material for the same reason.

The production of this strange ectoplasm is enough in itself to make such experiments revolutionary and epoch-making, but what follows is far stranger, and will answer the question in every reader's mind, "What has all this to do with spirits?" You must know, then, utterly incredible as it may appear, that this substance, after forming, begins in the case of some mediums, Eva being one, to curdle into definite shapes, and those shapes are human limbs and human faces, seen at first in two dimensions upon the flat, and then moulding themselves at the edges until they become detached and complete. Very many of the photographs exhibit these strange phantoms, which are often much smaller than life. Some of these faces may represent thought-forms from the brain of Eva taking visible form, and some rough resemblance has been traced between some of them and pictures which she may have seen and stored in the memory. One, for example, looks like an extremely rakish President Wilson with a moustache, while another resembles a ferocious rendering of M. Poincare. One of them shows the word "Miroir" printed over the head of the medium, which some critics have claimed as showing that she had smuggled in the journal of that name, though what the object of such a proceeding could be has not been explained. Her own explanation was that the controlling forces had in some way, possibly by rapport, brought in the legend in order to convey the idea that these faces and figures are not their real selves, but their selves as seen in a mirror.

Even now the reader may see no obvious connection with Spiritualism, but the next stage fakes us all the way. When Eva is at her best, and it occurs only at long intervals and at some cost to her own health, there forms a complete figure ; this figure is moulded to resemble some deceased person, the cord which binds it to the medium is loosened, a personality which either is or pretends to be that of the dead takes possession of it, and the breath of life is breathed into the image so that it moves and talks and expresses the emotions of the spirit within. The last word of the Bisson record is "Since these seances and on numerous occasions the entire phantom has shown itself, it has come out of the cabinet, has begun to speak, and has reached Mme. Bisson, whom it has embraced on the cheek. The sound of the kiss was audible." Was there ever a stranger finale of a scientific investigation? It may serve to illustrate how impossible it is for even the cleverest of materialists to find any explanation of such facts which are consistent with his theories, that the only one which Mr. Joseph MacCabe, in his recent public debate with me, could put forward was that it was a case of the regurgitation of food ! He seemed to me unaware that a close-meshed veil 'was worn over the medium's face in some of the experiments without in the least hampering the flow of the ectoplasm.

These results, though checked in all possible ways, are none the less so amazing that the inquirer has a right to suspend judgment until they are confirmed. But this has been fully done. Dr. Schrenck-Notzing returned to Munich and there he was fortunate enough to find another medium, a Polish lady, who possessed the faculty of materialization. With her he conducted a series of experiments which he has recorded in his book, "Materialisation-phénomène." Working with Stanislawa, the Polish medium, and adopting the same strict methods as with Eva, he produced exactly the same results. His book overlaps that of Mme. Bisson, since he gives an account of the Paris experiments, but the most important part is the corroboration furnished by his check experiments in the summer of 1912 in Munich. The various photographs of the ectoplasm so far as they go are hardly to be distinguished from those already taken, so that any theory of elaborate fraud upon the part of Eva postulates the same fraud on the part of Stanislawa. Many German observers checked the sittings. In his thorough Teutonic fashion Schrenck-Notzing goes deeper into the matter than Mme. Bisson. He obtained hair from one of the materialized forms and compared it microscopically with hair from Eva (this incident occurred in the French series), showing by several tests that it could not be from the same person. He gave also the chemical result of an examination of a small portion of ectoplasm, which burned to an ash, leaving a smell as of horn. Chloride of soda (common salt) and phosphate of calcium were amongst the constituents. Finally, he actually obtained a cinematograph record of the ectoplasm pouring from the mouth of the medium. Part of this is reproduced in his book.

It should be explained that though the medium was in a trance during these experiments she was by no means inanimate. A separate personality seemed to possess her, which might be explained as one of her own secondary individualities, or as an actual obsession from outside. This personality was in the habit of alluding with some severity to the medium, telling Mme. Bisson that she needed discipline and had to be kept up to her work. Occasionally this person showed signs of clairvoyance, explaining correctly, for example, what was amiss with an electric fitting when it failed to work. A running accompaniment of groans and protests from Eva's body seems to have been a mere animal outcry apart from intelligence.

One observation of the German scientist is worth noting, as it suggests that great injustice may have been done in the past. He is commenting upon a case where Eva was entirely covered by a fantastic helmeted garment of ectoplasm and stood up from her chair. He says: "This case is interesting because it throws a light upon the state of so-called transfiguration, which in the sense used by the Spiritualists means that a medium plays the part of the spirit, since he is clad with materialized stuff and seeks to imitate the character of the person concerned. This transition stage is to be found in the career of nearly all materialization mediums. Literature records a number of exposures of such mediums acting the part of spirits, like the medium Bastian before Crown Prince Rudolph, Crookes's medium Miss Cook, Mme. Esperance, and others. In all these cases people seized the medium, but the stuff used for the disguise vanished instantly and could not afterwards he traced."

Spiritualists have been slow in advancing this plea, lest it seem to exonerate real fraud, but this conclusion from a man of science in an independent position should be set on record lest indiscriminate disgrace should fall upon the human hyena with his material muslin and the true medium in trance clad in ectoplasmic drapery.

These separate results of the German and the French investigators would seem final to any reasonable mind, but they are corroborated once again by the shorter research of Dr. Geley, of Paris, who held a series of sittings with Eva, summoning a hundred men of science to witness one or other of them. So strict were his tests that he winds up his account in "Physiologie Supernormale" with the words: "I will not merely say that there is no fraud. I will say that there has not been the possibility of fraud." Again he walked the old path and found the same results, save that the phantasms in his experiments took the form of female-faces, sometimes beautiful and, as he assures me, unknown to him. They may be thought-forms from Eva, for in none of his recorded results did he get the absolute living spirit. There was enough, however, to cause Dr. Geley to say "What we have seen kills materialism. There is no longer any room for it in the world." By this he means, of course, the old-fashioned materialism of Victorian days, by which thought was a result of matter. All the new evidence points to matter being the result of thought. It is only when you ask "Whose thought" that you get upon debatable ground, I append what is either a thought-form or a spirit-face sent to me by Dr. Geley as a Christmas-card. It is curious to observe that an unused wisp of ectoplasm still hangs from it. "They had great beauty and a remarkable appearance of life," says Dr. Geley, though they came as miniatures as well as full size.

Once again, then, Mme. Bisson is corroborated, and we have three separate investigators and two separate mediums giving identical results. Is it not a perfect insanity of incredulity to wave these things aside because they will not it into our present philosophies? Surely it is evident that the time has come when the philosophies must be expanded to receive them.

Now, having thoroughly got it into our heads that it is possible for a person to evolve very singular stud with a tendency to form human frames which seem for a time to be tenanted by manifesting spirits, let us hark tack and apply the knowledge to cases which were proved but not understood before these wonderful experiments. At once the instance of Crookes and Florrie Cook in 1873 springs to the front. In this classic case, as is well known, the celebrated chemist for three years experimented with this young medium, who put herself at his disposal in order to clear herself of a charge of personation made against her. It may well have been an example of transfiguration, as may some other alleged cases which were said to have occur-red in later years when she was Mrs. Corner, Crookes exonerated her completely as the result of his research. She was shut up in the dark time and again in his small study. Then, after an hour or so, there would emerge into the adjoining laboratory an entirely different woman, who moved, spoke, and gave her name as Katie King, saying that she was a spirit who had lived in the reign of Charles and was now permitted for a brief visit to inhabit the body moulded from Miss Cook, who could be heard, and on certain occasions seen, in the adjoining room. Naturally the obvious criticism was made that this was Miss Cook masquerading as a phantom, but the first objection to such a theory was that it makes Professor Crookes out to be either a lunatic or a deliberate liar. No one but a lunatic could be so deceived, and no one but a liar could declare that the new corner was four and a half inches taller than the medium, had beautiful brown hair, along tress of which was traced up to the scalp and then severed (Miss Cook was a brunette), and finally that the pulse rate of the two women was entirely different. The whole course of Crookes's life proved that he was neither liar nor lunatic, and so a reasonable man could only believe that this prodigy corroborated by forty photographs was true, but totally unrelated to any other facts of the universe.

But now the matter appears otherwise. Thanks to the recent researches we are in. a position to enter that darkened room and to reconstruct what is happening to Florrie Cook. She lies with an occasional animal moan upon. the sofa. From her there drains the vital ectoplasm, forming a cloud of viscous substance, a pattern, a and finally form. The form disengages, the cord breaks, and Katie King, infusing her spirit into this reconstruction of what was probably a simulacrum of her earthly body, walks forth to spend her strange brief hour upon earth, conversing with Professor Crookes, playing with his children, telling them stories of olden days. and finally, with the words, "My mission is finished," leaving them for ever. Her mission was to prove the survival of the spirit to an incredulous generation, and it would indeed have been accomplished had it depended upon the bravery of her witness, and not upon the dense stupidity and materialism of the scientific, religious, journalistic world in which he lived. Now after many days we are slowly understanding the message.

So much for the Crookes episode, and the light which has now been thrown upon it. But there is another famous series of investigations which are also confirmed and illuminated by this new knowledge. These are the very remarkable experiments made by Dr. Crawford, of Belfast, upon the medium Miss Goligher, and described in two successive books "The Reality of Psychic Phenomena" and "Experiments in Psychic Science." Miss Goligher, as her portrait will show, is a young lady of character and education, sprung from a decent Belfast family — a fact which has not prevented our opponents, in their desperate plight for an explanation from endeavouring without a shred of evidence to depict her as a systematic fraud. If is a deplorable thing that people with this rare power, who submit themselves unpaid for the research of scientific men, should be assailed in this fashion, for it frightens others away, and makes the whole investigation more difficult.

The main lesson, as it seems to me, to be drawn from the Crawford experiments is that the ectoplasm is a substance which can be used for many purposes by the force which lies behind it. In the former cases it was used to build up moulds of the human figure, In the Belfast experiments this same ectoplasm was used for the making of rods or columns of power, heavy and yet impalpable objects, which protruded from the body (generally from the extremities) of the unconscious girl, and produced results such as raps, or the movement of objects, at a distance from her. Such a rod of power might be applied. with a sucker attachment, wider a table and lift it up, causing the weight of the table to be added to that of the medium, exactly as if she had produced the effect by a steel bar working as a cantilever and attached to her body. Or it might be placed above the table and hold it down, a loss of weight of thirty, forty, or even fifty pounds being registered upon the weighing chair on which Miss Goligher sat. The medium became a mere residuum, with a third and more of her own substance outside herself, the difference showing itself rather in a refining of the whole body than in a visible loss of substance. One can well believe that under such abnormal circumstances any rough disturbance of the conditions which caused the external third to fly back with unnatural speed to the body would cause physical suffering. I have known a medium have a broad weal from breast to armpit through the sudden elastic recoil of the ectoplasm. Is it a wonder, then, that Spiritualists object to the type of researcher who suddenly flashes a powerful electric torch in the middle of a séance? When this matter is more clearly understood our descendants will, I think, be appalled well as amused by some of the incidents which have been the outcome of our ignorance.

Dr. Crawford's experiments have been an explanation and a justification of the ordinary phenomena of the dark séance. No philosophical or unprejudiced mind could have failed to see that results which are always of the same type, whether the conditions be produced in Iceland or in Java, must have fixed laws underlying them. Our critics have continually bemused themselves by considering individual cases and failing to take a broad view of the cumulative evidence. Dr. Crawford makes every defail plain. He has even, by staining with moist carmine a cloth in front of the medium, got crimson marks at a distance showing that the column of force as it, push forward was solid enough to carry some of the staining agent with it. This is a particularly fine and convincing experiment.

This is but a very brief indication of the general line taken by this remarkable research. Once again a sceptic may say, "But this is physical power of some unknown type and not an intelligence apart from the sitters," A fuller knowledge, however, shows that at every stage there was a controlling intelligence, advising, directing, and showing its wishes by a code of signals. Whose intelligence was it? "I am quite satisfied in my own mind that the operators are discarnate human beings." says Dr. Crawford in his very latest work, with all the results before him. I do not see how anyone else is in a position to go behind his own interpretation of the facts which he has himself made clear. He appears to have begun his investigation in the agnostic attitude, which is the ideal starting-point for the truly scientific mind, but he had the courage and adaptability which made him gain positive results instead of that endless round of experiments leading to no conclusion which is typical of so many psychical researchers.

Such, then, is the story of Mme. Bisson, of Dr. Schrenck-Notzing, of Dr. Geley, of Professor Crookes, and of Dr. Crawford. Can it be laughed away? Is it not time, after seventy years of ever-varying proof, that such an attitude be. abandoned? But when it is abandoned, and when the conclusions have been accepted, what an eternity of ridicule is waiting for those solemn Panjandrums of Science who have for so long held up their warning hands lest the public should believe the truth!

The story of the Italian Cardinals and Galileo will seem reasonable when compared with the attitude of Victorian science to this invasion of the beyond. Of the theologians I say nothing; for that is another aspect of the matter, and they have only lived up to their own record but material science, which, made mock of mesmerism until for very shame it had to change, its name to hypnotism before acknowledging it, has a sad reckoning before it in the case of Spiritualism. The fear is lest the reaction go too far, and in contemplating its colossal blunder we may forget or underrate the thousand additions which it has made to the comfort of the human race.

Be this as it may, who can read the facts here quoted and doubt that in those mists and shadows which I have described as hanging round the uncharted coast we have at least one solid, clear-cut cape which-juts out into the sunshine? Behind, however, lies a. hinterland of mystery which successive generations of pioneers will be called upon to explore.

Mme. Bisson's book, which is now unobtainable in the original (French) edition, is incorporated in Schrenck-Notzing's much larger work. "The Phenomena of Materialisation," just published by Messrs. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, and Co., with 225 large illustrations, of which the foregoing pictures are reductions (by consent of the publishers).