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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Twixt Two Worlds: Dr. Hutchinson's Dial Plate, 1878

My esteemed colleague, Marc Demarest, has made recent attempts at unraveling the dual authorship of an important (and beautifully illustrated) Spiritualist text: 1886's Twixt Two Worlds. While I'll leave him to discuss the finer points of its confusing composition first here and again here, his recent post on the matter leave me a fantastic opening to address a more easily-deciphered topic found in the materials--the Hutchinson Dial Plate.

The device is revealed when the subject of the book--the well-traveled spirit medium William Eglinton--was invited in May of 1878 to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, for seance sittings with the Cape Town Psychological Society. His host and sponsor was one Dr. Berks T. Hutchinson, with whom he would stay 9 months as the subject of psychical study when the preliminary sittings with the Psychological Society soured with dissent, and with whom he would also study dentistry during his months abroad, to the extent that he was a "duly-qualified practioner" on his return to England the following year.

Eglinton made the trip in July of 1878 and arrived in August, apparently after enduring contention while trapped aboard his steamer with a dissatisfied former client who saw fit to prejudice the other travelers against the medium's claimed abilities. On his arrival in Cape Town, the author of the book--here most likely T. L. Nichols--relies heavily on Dr. Hutchinson's own notes taken during the nine-month span to build the narrative of Eglinton's time abroad.

Dr. Hutchinson had first become acquainted with Eglinton's mediumship in 1877 while on a trip to England, and while he did not have a chance for a sitting then, was impressed enough with what he heard of the medium's abilities to sponsor his visit to South Africa, where he was a houseguest of the dentist and even inducted into Hutchinson's Cape Town Masonic Lodge.

Eglinton at play with the slates, from Twixt Two Worlds.
Some 3 years previously, so Hutchinson claimed, he had invented a test apparatus for spirit communication but, unable to find a "good physical medium" to put the device to use, he was "compelled to put it on one side until a favorable opportunity occurred." That opportunity came with Eglinton's visit. Hutchinson described the dial-telegraph-inspired device as:

"A disk made of galvanised sheet iron, eighteen inches in diameter, had white paper pasted over the upper part, and around the edge were arranged the letters of the alphabet, together with the words " Yes " and " No." (Fig. 4). In the centre a small round hole, about half an inch in diameter, was cut, and a pin about three inches long by one-eighth of an inch thick put through; on the top of this was a wooden pointer, arrow-shaped, fixed on so that by having a small crosspiece of wood fixed to the under part, a materialised spirit hand could move the arrow round to any letter. In the centre of my seance table I had cut out a small circular piece (which I leave in when not wanted), so that spirits might project their hands ; the space immediately beneath the wood of the table made a sort of camera, which prevented the light falling on the spirit hands, and thereby dissipating the material molecules collected over them. Having taken out the circular piece of wood, I placed the circular disk over the hole, and then fixed the cross-piece to the portion of the pin that was beneath the table. The apparatus looks very much like a telegraphic instrument I have seen, where the operator moves the key round to the different letters."

According to Hutchinson's account of Eglinton's sittings with his dial plate, the initial communications and the method of their attainment were quite remarkable: the isolated dial plate, surrounded by 9 sitters and the medium, produced a full-light message as Eglinton entered a trance. Hutchinson attested that the "arrow of the dial began to oscillate and revolve alternately" and "spin round at a very rapid rate, then stop, and oscillate, and vibrate strongly; the sensitive shivered, and was much agitated whilst the arrow was in motion" in conditions in which "no blind force could act on the apparatus." In other words, by Hutchinson's account, the dial plate produced rapid messages surrounded on all sides by 9 sitters, physically unmanipulated by the medium. This phenomenon produced only a two messages in this fashion, however--"Godunderstandsiloveyoualljoeyiswithyou" and "Isolatethemedium"--before Eglinton lapsed from his trance and "suggested that his eyes should be blindfolded and his hand be allowed to guide the arrow" in a more traditional and believable display of device manipulation.

Hutchinson, at least, was convinced: "Where there was no confederate, scientific mechanism, or a properly arranged platform or apparatus with secret machinery, nothing would make the simple apparatus act as I have stated, except guided by supernatural means." It may be that the device was manipulated from beneath as the design intended, though whether it was the work of manifest spirit hands or Eglinton's own efforts I leave my scrupulous readers to decide. Other sittings with the device followed, but none matched the initial hands-free phenomenon:

"At one improvised sitting, we received several messages by the aid of the dial, the hand of the medium directing it. To get messages by direct agency is too trying for the sensitive; hence, when his hand is used, it greatly economises power."

One of Twixt Two Worlds incredible cover plates, showing
Eglinton in a stage of proto-ectoplasmic manifestion.
There is more to Eglinton's Cape Town adventures, but here his adventures with Hutchinson's Dial Plate come to a close. I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to pursue those stories of automatic writing and materialization (emanations of fine mists produced by the medium's body and eventual full-form veiled spirits, in the days before the term "ectoplasm" was coined) and public quarrels for yourself, found in Chapter 7 of Twixt Two Worlds. Happy reading!

Monday, December 9, 2013

George Blackie & Company's "Mysterious Planchette"

It is always jarring to see the phrase around which you've sculpted your entire public front used in a context years-removed from its original source. Which is why a recently-discovered ad for George Blackie & Company's "Mysterious Planchette" came as such a surprise.

Readers more familiar with the website than I have any right to expect know that my site's title comes from a relatively common planchette produced for an exceptionally long term by Glevum Games in the UK. For an inordinate amount of time, this item vexed and avoided my inquiries into the real identity of its manufacturer. For years, these most-commonly-encountered planchettes were discovered with only an elusive "British Manufacture" byline on their boxes. Commonly encountered more than planchettes by other makers, I've affectionately referred to them as "the Fulds of the planchette world" or even "the Parker Bros. of planchettes" in a bit of harassment to my best pal and longtime associate (and Ouija and William Fuld scholar), Robert Murch.

Luckily, one collector, who's one of my favorite folks and a phenomenal spirit communication device maker--Madame Sheol herself--managed to discover a specimen printed with the actual manufacturer's name: Glevum Games. And thus the case was--finally--burst wide open, and the manufacturer revealed. With that, we learned more--quite a bit more, in fact--from the man himself, Malcolm J. Watkins, the leading expert on Roberts Brothers/Glevum Games and author of the spectacularly exhaustive Games-Makers to the Empire: Robert Brothers of Gloucester 1890-1957. Mr. Watkins was kind enough to investigate his own archives for the earliest evidence of a Glevum planchette, and shared what is their earliest known advertisement: a Gamages catalog image from 1913, which until a few weeks ago remained the earliest known hint of a device using the "mysterious planchette" moniker.

It was the earliest use of the term, that is, until I met antiquarian bookseller and bibliophagist Garrett Scott. Garrett runs the always-entertaining Bibliophagist blog, and one entry in particular caught my eye. Garrett's post explored a fantastic little relic of a book by George Blackie & Company called Kuaint, Kueer & Kurious and Book of New Receipts, with Catalogue of Novelties and Wonders. As you can see for yourself in his post, it is a wonderful little novelty catalog chock-full of quackery, rubber mustaches and bowties, magic tricks and illusions, fortune-telling accessories, marked cards, and all manner of hoo-has, geegaws, and doodads that would make Pee-Wee Herman lock up his beloved bike and run inside to shop

The cover of Kuaint, Kueer, & Kurious, courtesy of Garrett at
Imagine my surprise when Garrett's blog mentioned an ad for a "Mysterious Planchette." It wouldn't have been too surprising in and of itself, except that the catalog dates from the mid-to-late 1870s, just about a decade after the planchette's first great craze, and pre-dating the earliest known Glevum Games ad by a good 35 years! And since Glevum wasn't established by Harry and John Roberts until 1894, I had an honest-to-goodness mystery--and a likely new addition to the "undiscovered devices" archive--on my hands.

So Garrett was kind enough to provide a scan of the page for my inspection. As it turns out, George Blackie & Company did indeed list a "mysterious planchette" offering previously unknown to this humble researcher. The ad is full-page, and includes an oft-quoted passage from an 1868 article printed in the New York Evening Post explaining the mysteries of planchettes as well as a previously-unseen illustration of the planchette in use: depictions of which I never grow tired:

Much more often than not, I find these illustrations to be pretty accurate depictions of the product they are pitching. If that's the case here, the Blackie planchette would conform to the typical American form--a classic heart shape--but would sadly be lacking true castors. But planchettes without wheels aren't unheard of. Both Wilder's "Mystic Hand" planchette and Singer's "Mystic Wanderer" had only tiny turned dowels to hold them above the table, for example. And forgoing castors would likely be an effective cost-cutting measure in a time when production of planchettes was at an all-time low and castors unlikely to be readily available from other firms or jobbers. Which, of course, begs the question of whether or not Blackie & Co had a manufacturing branch, or were simply acting as distributors for another firm's product in the grand stationer's tradition that gave birth to the planchette industry in the first place. If that's the case, there isn't currently a known planchette from the period that matches the depiction in the catalog, so for now that determination will remain a...wait for it...mystery.

So, yet another to add to the list, true believers! And since the catalog would make such an awesome Christmas gift to those like me that grew up flipping through Sears and Montgomery Ward holiday catalogs in search of hidden treasures, keep in mind that the "Kuaint, Kueer & Kurious" volume is a stunner, full of fantastic engravings of this nature, and for sale! You can find Garrett's listing for the catalog on his website.  Many, many thanks go out to him for his kind generosity and assistance in this exciting discovery!