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Friday, July 12, 2013

Antediluvian Automatism: Ignatius Donnelly & the Dempsey Speaking Dial

"Go! from the speaking dial learn/ 
A lesson all divine/
From faults that wound your fancy turn/
And mark the hours that shine."
"I Mark the Hours that Shine"--Sophia H. Oliver

I don't normally cross the streams of my various interests here on the MysteriousPlanchette blog, but today's an exception. I recently returned from my publisher's annual convention, and encountered quite the talking board revelation while there. For those who don't know, I write adventures for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game by Paizo Publishing. I've long drawn on our real-world esotericism and occult topics for my subject matter, such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's concepts of "vril" and Ignatius Donnelly's lost-Atlantis theories, inspirations of which appeared in my previous works Sunken Empires and From Shore to Sea. My most recent adventure for Paizo, Rasputin Must Die!, actually pits the players against the historical Rasputin set against the backdrop of 1918 Russia in the throes of revolution--quite a departure from the typical swords-and-wizards fantasy tropes. The book also contained no insignificant amount of rules and essays on the occult in Russia during the period, and it was this subject that caught the eye of one of my editors, Christopher Paul Carey, who, as it turns out, is an Ignatius Donnelly scholar. And he just so happened to have previously stumbled across an amazing revelation not only on the antediluvian theorist's spirit-communication activities, but also added a new talking board to the investigative vaults. Needless to say, we spent the whole weekend riffing on our various disciplines while we had the chance to do so in person, and I can't thank my friend enough for sharing!

Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), Antediluvian Theorist
Chris discovered typed transcripts of Donnelly's journals from the last decades of his life in the microfilm archives of the Minnesota Historical Society. Within, he found a fascinating personal portrait of the man, and a wealth of information on Donnelly's use and endorsement of a new-to-us talking board: the Dempsey "Speaking Dial."

St. Paul Daily Globe, July 13, 1895.

P.J. Dempsey was the patriarch of a large family in St. Paul, Minnesota, an avid Spiritualist, and inventor of the "Speaking Dial." The first recorded appearance of his unique talking table design arrived just one week prior to an important Spiritualist camp occurring near Lake Como, Minnesota, the week of July 13, 1895--important due to the featured appearance of famed trance medium Cora Richmond. The paper proclaimed the dial would "be in operation each day until the end of the month" at the camp, and, according to the accounts, the 12-hour exhibitions caused "something of a sensation" at these public appearances. Another interesting account hints that the Speaking Dial had been exhibited the year before by Dempsey at the state Capitol during previous Legislature in April of that same year:
St. Paul Daily Globe, June 09, 1895
The ads hinted at in the above story start with that issue--at first promoting the dial's appearance at the Como Camp--and proceed in a more commercial fashion through at least February of 1896 with local solicitations continuing to appear in the St. Paul Daily Globe. The ads, fittingly, typically appear nestled near familiar company: clairvoyants such as Madame Teitsworth and Mrs. Alice Austin, the "second-sight seer" Madame Moss, and "Dr." Harvey, the "trance, test, and business medium," among others.  
Assorted Speak Dial advertisements, St. Paul Daily Globe, 1895-1896
 The ads reveal some interesting markers as we try to decipher the mechanism and use of the Speaking Dial. The inventor proposed all manner of motive forces driving the dial's communication that run the gamut of pseudo-scientific explanations for spirit communication: "an unseen force," "an intelligence," "animal magnetism," "dear spirit friends," and "positive proof of spirit return" are found among the taglines to promote sales of the $2.00 device.

Luckily, we don't have to rely on unillustrated advertisements alone to determine the exact nature of the Speaking Dial's appearance and operation. Again, Chris has already done the discovery for us during the course of his Ignatius Donnelly research and, again, the Minnesota Historical Society, from whom he acquired the Donnelly journals, holds a revealing artifact among their archives. It is very likely a photograph of P.J. Dempsey's family, if the possibly-misspelled "G.W Dempsie" letterhead is any indication of a family relation in the Minneapolis photography studio business. Whatever the relation, a Speaking Dial is pictured in all of its glory.

Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
Unless the Dempsey family was particularly diminutive, the Speaking Dial would be one of the largest dial plate devices on record. In imagining its operation, my first hunch was that it was suspiciously similar to the 1922 Swallow patent:

"Spirit Wheel" by William H. Swallow, #1,418,686, June 6, 1922
But the dates are obviously way off, and it is apparent from the Speaking Dial's photograph that the indicator is driven by a cord or elastic line--possibly some pulley mechanism--and an important hint. As I sat there with Chris over the weekend comparing notes and absorbing the clues he'd uncovered, I turned toward his subject--and his generously supplied copies of Donnelly's personal journal--to see if there were any answers contained within.

Ignatius Donnelly in 1898, one year prior to his
first recorded exposure to the Speaking Dial.
August 9, 1899 marks Donnelly's first mentions of the Speaking Dial in his journals. And it is a fortuitous occasion: he remarks that "We expect Miss Marie Dempsey of Minneapolis, daughter of the inventor of the "Speaking Dial," down to visit us, this afternoon." His next reference in the same entry is more obscure, noting that the "board says will sell 121 copies [of] book first week. First month between 500 and 600." The book mentioned is likely his just-then-released work, The Cipher in the Plays, and on the Tombstone.

On August 12, Donnelly records another visit with Ms. Dempsey, where he reportedly received communications from his brother, John, and his mother and deceased grandson. The communications are full of typically inspirational and encouraging words from departed family members, including his first wife, who offers a positive endorsement of his second and still living wife. It is curious that once the more obvious member's of Donnelly's immediate family and their fates are run through, a curious blockade manifests. With Donnelly and Marie Dempsey working the board cooperatively, there comes a message from Donnelly's mother that "many dear ones whose names are in memory" are present. But, when pressed to name other departed friends and family whose spirits are said to be in attendance, the board falls silent, leaving the question open of whether Ms. Dempsey--perhaps in an attempt to impress the former lieutenant governor and congressman--might have been guiding the indicator during their session to provide some impressive and easily-researched answers, only to find herself at a loss when pressed for more details. Donnelly himself notes that he was prepared to quiz the board, but wasn't given the chance. It is unknown if his own suspicions were aroused to Marie's possible implications in the board's dishonesties.

By his own account on January 12, 1900--less than a year before his death--Donnelly returns to the Speaking Dial "for the first time in many months "to commune with the unknown force that manifest itself through it." His questions are general, and typically focus on inquiries to book sales and reviews, with responses predicting a favorable on in England's Pall Mall Gazette. Other typical communiques of the times follow, with predictions of storms, the outcome of the Boer War, and even a prediction of Donnelly's own election as US President in 1904! Donnelly is impressed, but not convinced, remarking "I do not, of course, attach any confidence in these prophecies, but there is an intelligence here separate and apart from our own, and it is wortwhile to try to find out its characteristics and limitations."

It is curious to note in the next day's entry, January 13, Donnelly notes that they are visited by a Stanley Twitchell, who himself is mentioned as having purchased his own Speaking Dial before coming to Donnelly to learn how to operate it, and it seems Ignatius made be a bigger proponent of the device than he truly lets on. But his entries and inquiries constantly test the board's intelligence and answers, and he seems to be constantly attempting to trap the spirits in some contradiction.

The Speaking Dial in its natural environment.
On February 5, 1900, the Minneapolis Times featured an article on a lecture Donnelly presented at the behest of the State Spiritualist's Association of Minnesota--a standing-room only performance. The clipping, transposed in Donnelly's journal, details more of Donnelly's use with the Speaking Dial in a subtly mocking tone, but also exposes his public endorsement of the device. Donnelly's lecture revealed lengthy purported conversations with Napolean and Shakespeare (Donnelly would also later claim lively conversations with General Custer in his June 1900 entries), and he even defended the dial's often-incorrect answers by noting that the spirits with which he communed had heard the same false rumors as the living! Perhaps more interestingly, Donnelly hinted at spectral experiences in seances as a member of Congress--a facet of congressional life no doubt worth investigating further.

But it is Donnelly's February 20, 1900 entry that finally reveals and appears to confirm the board's mechanism--a mechanism hearkening back to the earliest days of spirit communication devices. That night, while he is apparently still living at Minneapolis' Hotel Waverly, Mr. Dempsey himself, accompanied by his daughter, Marie, visited Ignatius and his wife. With them, they carried a new Speaking Dial as a gift, which they claimed Dempsey's spirit "control" had advised them to construct and deliver to the author, since they had heard his old one was worn from use. The next sentence that proceeds a lengthy correspondence with a former rival politician (and an incredibly humorous aside as Donnelly references his January 13 entry to prove the dial was incorrect in its Pall Mall Gazette predictions!) gives us a vital clue to the Speaking Dial:

"He fastened it upon the little table, and Marion and Marie proceeded to operate it."

What is so important in this entry is the inclusion of a table in the dial's operating mechanism. This, together with the earlier clue from the following advertisement, indicates that the board did not operate independently like most dial plate mechanisms, but more than likely relied on a tipping table to operate, finally explaining the cord running to the dial's indicator.


More than any other mechanism of this period, this would make the Speaking Dial a nearly-direct spiritual descendant of the earliest manufactured means of spirit communication: Isaac Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial which, as we know from Dr. Robert Hare's descriptions of the device, was an independent mechanism that relied on the lifting of a table to operate its counterweights and pulleys to drive its indicator. It seems most likely that Dempsey's device harkened back as a refinement of this system.

The "Sage of Nininger" made a final dial-relevant entry on June 9rd, 1900, from transcripts of a June 3rd sitting. Before dropping another enticing hint that he has been experimenting with a rival to the Speaking Dial, the so-called "Odic Telegraph" presented by a friend from St. Paul, Donnelly opens himself up to a sincere personal moment that reveals his subtle interest in the device even at times of despondency, and truly reveals what must have been his well-informed thoughts on the whole Speaking Dial matter.

"Tonight, feeling somewhat dejected over the probable failure of our crops, and the general gloomy outlook, Marion and I, to kill time, got out the Dempsey "Speaking Dial," to see if we would get anything to instruct or amuse us. There is certainly  a power behind it, and a remarkable intelligence, even though it is generally used in the construction of falsehoods I sometimes think it is a mysterious emanation from our own vitality; but if it is it is an intellect growing out of an intellect, and differing from its parent source in many respects." Finally, Donnelly closes his record of the Speaking Dial with a fitting epitaph:

"It is all very strange and mysterious."

It appears the Speaking Dial held on for some time past its 1895-96 prime and even Donnelly's turn-of-the-century endorsements. Though advertisements and references fade after 1896, there is a brief revival in the May 27, 1905 edition of the Washington Post, with a .50 cent price drop, under the heading "A Minneapolis professor wrote," where it was said the Donnelly-endorsed Speaking Dial "proves immortality and spiritual communion":

Of course, any endorsement by Donnelly at this time would have had to come from the Speaking Dial itself--Ignatius died as the new millennium turned on January 1, 1901, at the age of 69 years--which, had he answered if called, may have been proof indeed.

For more fascinating information on the incredibly life of Ignatius Donnelly and a glimpse into the life of a passionate researcher and author, please head over to Christopher Paul Carey's blog, and I can't thank him enough for his contributions and revelations to the talking board's history. We've got a new one to find, folks, so eyes peeled wide!