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Friday, June 7, 2013

Two Early Contrivances: The EHB Revelations

Sometimes the truth is hiding in plain sight.

Emma Hardinge's incredible opus Modern American Spiritualism is the great survey of Spiritualism's earliest days, so it is not surprising for me to find, despite years of thumbing through during bedside perusals, previously-unexplored hints of early spirit communication devices beyond tipping tables and spirit rappings that otherwise fill up the intimidating volume. And it is no wonder my friend Marc spends every waking hour investigating every gleaming facet of the woman's incredible life.

And what a couple of surprises did I discover in one of my random perusals last night!

The first is an account from Wilson's Grove, Iowa. Now a ghost town, Wilson's Grove was a small hamlet that--like much of the rest of the country--had some citizens intensely interested in the trend of spirit communication that had been sweeping westward in America. But like so many others, the tediousness of rapping and alphabet calling could drain the enthusiasm of even the most ardent believer, and, thus, in the early 1850s, many sought to expedite this process--the most famous early  innovators being Isaac Pease and Aldolphus Wagner--both of whom, in 1853, marketed spirit communication devices to ease the burden of tedious discourse with the dead.

But the idea was not unique, and there are instances of homemade expeditious inventions during the period, two of which Hardinge is kind enough to illuminate for us from the pages of the Spiritual Telegraph. The home circle of Oliver T. Fox (no relation to the sisters) was kind enough to report their efforts in the Fall of 1856, with the note that their contrivance had been in use for some "five or six years past," which, if true, would actually place the innovation 2-3 years prior to the competing efforts of Pease and Wagner, in the 1850-51 date range.

The account isn't as clear as we'd like to see, as we always hope for descriptions a touch less vague and, well, something more solidly reconstructive in nature. But it is nonetheless fascinating, and shifts the dialogue once again on precursors to the talking board back several years. This particular device, like those of Hare in subsequent years, was meant to modify the table which was the center of most spiritual circle's activities, using cooperative action to achieve communication via tipping and rapping in a similar way that later users would place their hands' upon Ouija's planchette to spell out messages. By adding the counter-pulley mechanism to indicate sequential letters on a wall-mounted board, rather than relying on perpetual repeats of the alphabet in anticipation for answering raps, the sitters are able to utilize the table's movements more efficiently as their cooperative action on the tabletop points out messages on the nearby wall.

The two important elements are there for a true talking board precursor: an alphabet board and a means of cooperative indexing. The comparatively complex pulley mechanism and reliance on the table's tipping to drive the index make it a curious transition piece, but nonetheless it is a wonderful revelation lurking right there in front of our eyes in one of the most well-known books on the subject!

But Emma is not done revealing other mechanical means of communication. Another letter from the pages of the Telegraph--this time from South America--appears in the book. Written by Mr. Seth Driggs of Caracas, editor of El Espiritualiste, it gives an additional account of a fascinating contrivance for spirit communication he witnessed performed by his "Caracas Circle" in Venezuela. 

The construction and use of this device is somewhat more clear, and its operation wholly unique in the world of spirit communication devices: its planchette runs on rails. In plain language, the sitters took a round pedestal table, arranged an alphabet on the perimeter of the tabletop, then used what seems to be the tracks and car of a toy train set inside that perimeter, with the modified train car becoming the device's index. While captive planchettes and even running grooves are not unheard of in both the physical and patent record for talking tables, this is the first appearance I can call to mind of rails. The light touches of the finger rings familiar bells to modern readers familiar with the use of planchettes both ouija and otherwise, and the sitters were prepared to gather messages by similar means in the absence of the prepared table by using another to cooperatively point out letters arranged around it on the floor.

This letter is undated, but given that the Telegraph ceased publication in 1860, we can be sure that this episode dates between 1852 and 1860.

It just goes to show us that we should never stop looking, even in those places we though long exhausted of any evidence. In subsequent weeks--likely writing after my wife gives birth to our new baby girl--I promise to explore other early contrivances; some well-recorded, and others only recently discovered as these, in a multi-part series breaking down everything we know about what we know.