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Monday, January 27, 2014

The First Three, Part 2: Pease's "Spiritual Telegraph Dial"

I've had a long-lingering ambition: to digitize the entire 1852-1860 run of the Spiritual Telegraph--the US one--as a contribution to the IAPSOP archives. Sure, there are annually-collected volumes compiled by the publisher (some of which are already digitized), but they unfortunately excised the stuff a historical apparatus hunter really needs: the advertisements. The hunt has been a long one, with spotty microfilm collections that may or may not exist at the NYPL, an un-digitized and incomplete collection at the Huntington Library I've yet to get to, and others in various frustrating states of disrepair and completeness, none of which make for a sure-thing in the trade-a-plane-ticket-for-knowledge gambit. 

The reason for the hunt is that I hope to mine a gleaming gem that has eluded my digging to date: an illustrated advertisement for Isaac Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial.

The Mysterious Planchette website already contains much on Isaac Pease, and we know quite of bit of the Connecticut clockmaker's biography. His family bible was even listed for sale on eBay some years back. And, we even know that he acted as a "traveling agent" for the Spiritual Telegraph newspaper, thus sparking my hunt for the earliest issues in hopes to find either article or advertisement. But further information on the device he created has proven elusive. 

We know most of what we know of the dial from contemporary accounts, the earliest of which dates from the same January 12, 1854 New York Daily Tribune article that first heralded news of Wagner's Psychograph in America--an article entitled "Help for the Ghosts." the column notes that Pease had sent a letter announcing his invention to the newspaper on December 5, 1853, and until such time as any new information comes to light (as it did for Wagner), that's the earliest date we have for the Pease Spiritual Telegraph Dial--
he'll remain the runner-up in the race toward first commercially-available alphabetic spirit communication device, until further notice. And the Tribune pretty much made the same call, putting it as a runner up to Wagner in both propriety and function:
"As is the case with the steamboat and the electric telegraph, the glory of first applying labor-saving machinery to spiritual rappings, cannot be claimed as exclusively American, or at least, the claim will be disputed by foreign nations. Mr. Pease's letter is dated on Dec. 5, last, but we learn from Berlin, that as early as Nov. 15, the Baron Lieut Col. von Forstner had exhibited at a public lecture in that city, a machine called the Psychograph, the invention of a Mr. Wagner, which we must say, seems rather ahead of the Spiritual Telegraph Dial."
Just days later, on the 18th, the Boston Investigator featured the dial--complete with some tongue-in-cheek smarminess--in their article, "A Machine for the Spirits":
"I.T. Pease of Thompsonville (Conn.) has succeeded in inventing a machine which he denominates the Spiritual Telegraph Dial. This apparatus is contrived with a dial face on which are marked the letters of the alphabet, the Arabic numerals, the words Yes and No, and some other convenient signs. A moveable hand, or pointer, is fixed in the center, and when a ghost wants to communicate with its pupils and friends in the body, all that is requisite is for it to give a gentle twitch to the pointer, and the revelation is accomplished. Some Yankee ought next to invent a visible ghost and take out a patent."
And shortly thereafter, on February 4, the Scientific American reprinted the Boston Investigator article, replacing the smarmy endnote with a clarifying quote by Pease that "with a good tipping medium to facilitate the movements of the pointer by agitating the table, letters will be indicated to the dial as fast as an amanuensis can write it down."

Lastly, Pease himself addressed his device in the June 3, 1854 edition of the magazine for which he was an agent, and which shared the name of his invention: the Spiritual Telegraph. And there we have a more accurate picture of his invention, including its relatively small size:

"The dimensions of the instrument are only eight inches square, average thickness two inches, which makes only a small package, and can be sent by express to any part of the United States for a small sum. The face of the instrument is similar to a clock dial; a pointer is attached to the center wheel pivot, on this dial is printed, with a beautiful copper-plate engraving, the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, all the notes and characters in music, the Arabic numerals, and a number of short communications, such as “yes,” “no,” “don’t know,” “I think so,” “a mistake,” “I’ll spell it over,” “a message,” “done,” “I’ll come again,” “I must leave,” “good-bye,” etc. which may thus be given without repeating the whole alphabet to get one letter."
The Spiritual Telegraph Dial's most famous proponent, Dr. Robert Hare,was gracious enough to not only leave us with the next evolutionary form of devices based on Pease's work, but also responsible for the sole known contemporary depcition of a Pease dial in his famous 1855 treatise, Spiritualism Scientifically Demonstrated:

Hare's "Spiritoscopes," the specimens incorporating the Pease Spiritual Telegraph Dial pictured right.
Hare's illustration of the device is taken from a background illustration of several such modified devices, due to the fact that Hare utilized several in his early work, constructing various encasements around them meant to prevent their dishonest manipulation by test mediums. In addition, Hare provides further details on the Telegraph Dial that match his illustrator's depiction:
"The apparatus thus designated consists of a box F, which is a miniature representation of a low, square, four-sided house, with a single sloping roof, but without any floor closing it at the bottom."

"On the outside of the part serving as the roof, the alphabetic dial is depicted. On the inner surface of the roof board, the spring, pulley, and strings are attached, by which the index is made to revolve, so as to point out any letter."
"The words are as follows: Yes—Doubtful*—No—Don't know—I think so—A mistake—I'll spell it over—A message—Done—I'll come again—Good-bye—I must leave. These words are printed on equidistant radial lines, nearly dividing the area between them. The digits are printed on radial lines intermediate between those on which the words appear."

"Not only are the letters of the alphabet printed equidistant, in due order, on the margin of the disk or dial-face; there are likewise words, the digits, and notes of music." [MP: emphasis mine, which leads us to:]

"Five concentric circular lines, dividing the margin into as many smaller portions, as in music paper, serve for the inditing of musical notes; respecting which the directions are given by Pease upon a printed slip of paper pasted inside."
*It is worth noting that between the two descriptions, only one phrase is omitted from Pease's description: "Doubtful." Given Hare's meticulous nature, and Pease's list ending with "etc," is it more than likely that word was among the shorthand phrases present on the dial.
The inclusion of the concentric lines for music tablature, and even more symbols necessary for composure, has always confounded me. The dial is already stuffed with items, but, if Isaac's claim that it includes "all the notes and characters in music" is at least partially true, the dial's density becomes busy indeed, even if he stuck to the most rudimentary music typography (clefs, whole-notes through sixteenth-notes and the same counts in rests, clefs, sharp and flat intonations, among others) and re-used the alphabetic letters to represent to key and notes. Come to think of it, maybe this is how John Cage wrote his music.  

Pease dial detail from Hare illustration, left, and an interpretive mockup based on Hare's descriptions,
with most of the elements added back in--except for those pesky musical composition symbols.
Where in the world did Pease put them?
The actual mechanics of the Spiritual Telegraph Dial were somewhat confused by the earliest accounts, many of which reprinted the initial erroneous assumption that its operation was dependent on the direct manipulation of the spirits themselves: "when a ghost wants to communicate with its pupils and friends in the body, all that is requisite is for it to give a gentle twitch to the pointer." The fact is, the dial, unlike the Wagner Psychograph, was designed to modify a tipping table, with the box situated topside, and counter-weighted pulleys driving the pointer. As Isaac put it: "with a good tipping medium to facilitate the movements of the pointer by agitating the table, letters will be indicated to the dial." With the device, users could still participate in cooperative table-tipping seances, but now, rather than rely on tedious alphabet-calling and the resulting raps to indicate the spirits' chosen letters, the users could experience the thrill of the table's mysterious autonomous movements, while watching the messages being spelled out for themselves on the dial mounted topside, as Hare explained best:
"The apparatus of Pease...operates by means of a string extending from the brass ring, in which the pulley string terminates externally, to a weight situated upon the floor, so as to be taut when at rest. When this arrangement is made, tilting of the table, by raising the end at which the box is situated, causes the weight to pull the string, and of course to induce the revolution of the pulley, its pivot, and corresponding index. The restoration of the table to its usual position reverses the motion. Hence by these means the index may be moved either way, as requisite for the selection of the letters required for communicating."
This was likely the most common use of the device. Mark Twain likely described it as such in 1866. But Pease also pointed out in the pages of the Spiritual Telegraph that a more direct means of use was utilized by rapping mediums, who used it more as a speedy indicator in much the same way alphabet cards had been used:
"This instrument was designed for tipping mediums, but is now used by rapping mediums, who hold it in their hands; the pointer being passed over the letters they wish to use, the Spirits rap instead of holding it over the letter, as is the case when the instrument is used by tipping mediums. Printed instructions always accompany the instrument, which are so full and explicit that no one need have any difficulty in using it."
The Hare "Spiritoscopes"
The only evolutionary byproduct of Pease's dial plate known to have survived to the modern era is Hare's own "modification" of the Spiritual Telegraph Dial, which inspired his own "Spiritoscopes" in 1855. Illustrations from Hare's Spiritualism Scientifically Demonstrated indeed show at least two instances where he directly modified existing dials, rebuilding them to have varying motivational apparatus for the test of mediumship (as discussed above).

But illustrated modifications of Pease's device was not the only legacy Hare left behind. As his book describes, he constructed two further Spiritoscopes, these cast in iron (for "convenience and economy;" my, how times have changed) and set up in different operational test modes. The surviving specimen, now in the Mysterious Planchette collection, is the one Hare deemed "preferred by the spirits," and is a copy of the Pease dial, though the copious phrases and musical notations on its face were, as Hare some eloquently understated, "somewhat abbreviated." In fact, Hare wiped out the musical notation altogether, and contracted several of Pease's phrases (such as "I'll spell it over" to "Spell Over" and "I must leave" to "Must Go"), added one ("Think So"), and deleted others entirely ("A message," "Done," and "I'll come again"), though he perhaps accidentally left the extraneous "D" for "Doubtful," which can be seen in both the illustration and the surviving specimen.

It is an enduring legacy. And, if given the task to measure our two contenders so far--Wagner's Psychograph versus Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial, I think I would be as hard-pressed to choose between the two, just as the writer of the New York Daily Tribune piece found it difficult to decide: 
"Of course it is impossible for us to pronounce upon the merits of these competing machines. Possibly each has its own point of superiority, and we suggest that both of them should be patented, so that the invention cannot be pirated, and that they should then be handed over to the same Committee which Congress has been petitioned to appoint to investigate the mystery of "Spiritual Manifestations" in general. When that Committee reports, the public will know whether the Spiritual Telegraph Dial, or the Psychograph offers the greater advantages, and can govern their purchases accordingly. And meanwhile all parties who can find nothing more profitable to do can follow up the rappings."
In Part 3, we again depart America and return to Germany, where Pease's chief rival in the American press is facing a surprising rival of his own, and we unveil the final device of the "First Three." Stay tuned, true believers!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The First Three, Part 1: Wagner's "Psychograph"

There's a quote about the planchette's invention that's rather grown on me, as it so perfectly recognizes the tedious boredom that's ultimately responsible for sparking the invention of devices that will ultimately culminate in the Ouija board. It's from Louis Figuier's 1860 treatise, Les Table Tournantes, and he's talking about alphabet-calling and table-rapping, which, before the invention of the planchette, was the most efficient form of cooperative spirit communication. Even in an age before radio and television, when minds weren't constantly barraged by social media updates and numbed toward the expectation of instant gratification, sitting in the dark, spelling out communications one letter and rap at a time, could still be incredibly boring. His very next sentence after this one introduces the planchette's invention, but first he takes a moment to grind an axe over many dark hours spent waiting for rapped-out responses:
"it [alphabet-calling] was only a poor means of correspondence, and we know nothing more tedious than those endless meetings, in which we had considerable time and attention to compose responses from the table with an alphabet convention."
It's telling, I think, and after the table-tipping fad had run its course in both American and Europe, sympathetic inventors strove to refine that laborious method by one way or another, and enterprising entrepreneurs sought to turn a profit from them. And thank goodness--their results over the decades are why we're here! In this 3-part series, we examine the earliest fruits of those labors: the first three commercially-available alphabetic-spelling devices for autonomous spirit communication. Up first: Adolphus Wagner's "Psychograph."

A collaborative 2010 effort between the author and Ouija historian Robert
Murch to reconstruct the Wagner Psychograph from period descriptions
translated by the late talking board researcher Ed O'Brian. How accurate did
it turn out to be? Read on!

Even in the earliest days of their introductions, there was always some contention with who held the dubious distinction of "first" when it came to refined devices for spirit communication. Before this new information came to light, it was assumed that only two inventors vied closely for the crown: German composer Adolphus Theodore Wagner, and American clockmaker Isaac Pease. And that wasn't an entirely inaccurate assumption given what we knew. Wagner's hold on the world's claim as first to file for a patent on a talking board device is currently undisputed, with his "Psychograph," or "Apparatus for Indicating Person's Thoughts by the Agency of Nervous Electricity" application filed January 14, 1854, in London. But despite his application, Wagner's Psychograph competed for attention with another contender--Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial--in the earliest press coverage of the items (in this case, the January 12, 1854 New York Daily Tribune), when both parties announced their inventions at approximately the same time in America. Even at that time, those concerned with propriety struggled with which device was invented first:
"As is the case with the steamboat and the electric telegraph, the glory of first applying labor-saving machinery to spiritual rappings, cannot be claimed as exclusively American, or at least, the claim will be disputed by foreign nations. Mr. Pease's letter is dated on Dec. 5, last, but we learn from Berlin, that as early as Nov. 15, the Baron Lieut Col. von Forstner had exhibited at a public lecture in that city, a machine called the Psychograph, the invention of a Mr. Wagner, which we must say, seems rather ahead of the Spiritual Telegraph Dial. This German apparatus is so arranged that the ghosts not only point to the letters of the alphabet, but when they feel like it, can employ a pencil held by the machine over a sheet of paper convenient for their use. It is even said that poetry, (we hope it was much above the usual level of ghostly lyrics,) was written down in that way, and very tolerable jokes made by the machine before a public audience, without the intervention of any human hand At least, so it is related in respectable journals, while with regard to Baron Lieut Col. von Forstner, we can testify that he is a man of character and repute."
Unknown to either Pease or the editors of the Tribune, Wagner had been at his work longer than the Americans suspected. The first mention comes in a June 1853 edition of Bonplandia, Volume 1 by Wilhelm Eduard Gottfried Seemann, who briefly recounted:
“We must also mention here the "Psychograph" of the music director Wagner in Berlin, an instrument which, constructed in the form of so-called cranesbill*, is brought to a letter by the applied hand without the user being aware of the contents of the written word.”

*Note that in Seemann's original German vernacular, "storchschnabel" translates to the English word "cranesbill," which was slang for the pantograph. 
But that brief snippet is but a tease of a much more exhaustive account. Murch and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the late, great researcher of talking board history for providing the initial document that sparked the hunt: Ed O'Brian. In Ed's archives (note Ed also discovered the Wagner patent in the London archives), we rediscovered translations of documents showing that Wagner was introducing his device much earlier than the Tribune has supposed.

The account is dated July 12, 1853, now 5 years past the worldwide explosion in a belief in spirit communication spurred by the events in the Fox Sister's Hydesville, New York home. It is by a respected gentleman of Berlin society--Baron Lieut Col. A. von Forstner--who sat down to pen a soon-to-be-published testimonial regarding his introduction to Adolphus Wagner's incredible invention there. Written just "a few days" before the letter's publication, this pronouncement and the earlier newspaper blurb set a firm provenance to award the distinction of "first" to the Germans, many months before the Tribune's report in America. And, it should be noted, these events are nearly simultaneous with Kardec's accounts attributing the planchette's invention to Parisian seance-sitters in the summer of 1853 (though the earliest evidence we have for the planchette's first commercial availability is two years later in Paris, in 1855). 

So, there we are. Unless some compelling evidence surfaces that Pease was at work on his device much, much earlier than he himself claimed (and it may be that the currently un-digitized newspaper, the Spiritual Telegraph, holds those clues, given Pease's role as a distributor of that paper), Wagner remains the undisputed "first" among both talking board inventors and patent applications. So we begin with the Germans.

GB173: Wagner's 1854 London patent application for his Psychograph device
There are great differences in the forms and intents of use of these early devices. Unlike Pease's invention, which sought to transform the the autonomous movement of household furniture used for spiritual table tipping and rapping into a spelling device by the means of weighted pulleys and an alphabet dial, the Psychograph was a self-contained unit that relied not on the movement of an attached table, but rather the direct influence of the sitter's hands on the device itself--just as the French were concurrently discovering with planchettes. 

Mr. O'Brian's instincts were right in recognizing the importance of Baron von Forstner's account, as it is a goldmine of information on the Psychograph's earliest days:
"Herr Conductor Wagner (who approved this report for publication) most cordially allowed us to invite several friends and acquaintances to an inspection of the instrument and its performance yesterday afternoon [July 11, 1853], and all witnesses, fifteen in number, were completely satisfied by the phenomena; they gladly granted me permission to publish their names in this report of mine; I cite them (omitting the names of five ladies present) below, just as they signed a sheet of paper themselves: Dr. Scharschmidt, Prof. Lammatsch along with his son, Colonel von Roehl, First Lieutenant von Eberstein, Major von Berg, Paymaster D. Hornung, Consul Schiller from Memel, Lieutenant v. Forstner (son of [your] correspondent)." 
One participant, in particular, will become more important than Wagner might have realized, and he could not have known he was setting up his own rival, as we'll see in the Part 3 of this series. 

Baron Forstner went on to describe the item in minute detail in an entry that stretches nearly 2 pages, giving us the most complete account of the item right down to the measurements of its individual components. Just to give you an example of the exhaustiveness of this descriptive narrative without boring the pants off more casual readers, I'll post a brief snippet. I'll also spare you the poetry and communications received, as they're of the usual variety. If you want the rest, you'll have to email me:
"The instrument is essentially no different than the pantograph that is well known in practical geometry (for reduction of drawings), made entirely of wood with the necessary changes. An equilateral rectangle, we shall designate it by A B C D, [made] of moulding some 1 inch wide and l/4 inch thick, slides into itself by means of pins in the corners; the sides are 8 inches long and each of them extends a few inches; only endpoint A has no extension of the sides opposite it, but right alongside it is a housing perpendicular below, through which a pin is stuck; we shall call this pin the pointer...
...This is the instrument so far. The second part of the apparatus is now a sheet of paper (on cardboard, the size of an octavo sheet), on which the ten digits from 0 to 9 (arranged in two rows), and the letters of the alphabet (arranged in five rows) are located along with other characters, such as punctuation marks, some mathematical signs, and the like; the two first kinds of signs (the numbers and letters) however are enough. This sheet, attached to the surface of the table with wire tacks, is now placed on the table so that the above mentioned pointer can move freely to each sign..."
It was through this description that, in 2010, Bob Murch and I assembled around my kitchen table (how appropriate) and attempted to artistically reconstruct the Psychograph, line-by-line, using Photoshop and snippets of old patent drawings of similar devices to make our model. That's the drawing you see above. I'm still quite proud of the results, even if I was initially disappointed on that day when I finally spotted a contemporary illustration, to see the device depicted with 5 paddles. But it seems there may have been either variations or artistic license, particularly since Forstner's description implied only 3 paddles, AND a February 1854 account from the German Morning Newspaper for Educated Readers that provided an account nearly as exhaustive as Forstner's, which stated "Three of the corners of the square the ends extend beyond the square, and these ends carry round wooden discs." In any case, I think the drawing served its purpose as a "have-you-seen-me" wanted poster quite well. But we don't have to rely on this depiction anymore, because my chase of documents in languages-I-don't-speak finally led me to two depictions, one of which is contemporary.
The 1854 depiction, from German bookseller J.G. Cotta's newspaper "Morning Paper for Educated Readers."
The 1854 depiction is incredible, and, true to Forstner's and Cotta's descriptions, pretty much a modified pantograph. It is missing the glass plate Forstner described that facilitated smooth movement. It is also worth noting that this version is also missing an accessory that Forstner actually describes as optional. It seems obvious that in the absence of inheritance of the pantograph's supporting wheels, that the Psychograph would be doomed to sag under the pressure of the hands of 5 sitters. To account for this, Forstner notes:
"Now in order to give the instrument still another necessary stopping point, another pin below the disk in the extension of side B C could be attached as described above (moving on the glass plate); although Herr Wagner has given preference to catgut instead, leading from D to the upper part of the aforementioned support."
The "upper part of the aforementioned support" refers to the main table-clamp, and the "catgut" to a taut supporting thread attached to it, meant to counteract any flacidity imposed by the dead weight of the sitter's hands. This addition was likely a requirement in the absence of wheels, and is luckily depicted, though somewhat posthumously, in Gurtis Herausber's 1921 book, Stimmen aus einer andern Welt Wache Träume und metaphysische Phantasien:
From Gurtis Herausber's Stimmen aus einer andern Welt Wache Träume und metaphysische Phantasien, 1921.
Despite Forstner's enthusiastic endorsement and news of the device reaching American shores, we don't have much indication of how well the Psychograph performed commercially. We know it retailed for 5 thalers, which at least one reviewer called a "schwindel"--a swindle. But it seems it at least sold hundreds, as Wagner was quoted in 1854, in a style emulating later device-manufacturing peers from Kirby to T.H. White to William Fuld: "that hundreds of people, at society's highest levels, were already convinced of the wonderful benefits of Psychographs, and many of them are already experimenting in their own family circles." And it did well enough that he was attempting to paten the item in London.

If public mockery--as it so often is--marks the true moment of arrival of a cultural phenomenon, then by November of 1853 crowns the date of the Psychograph's recognition, when it was the subject of a humorous limerick in Kladderdash, which was the equivalent of the UK's Punch

The Psychograph had its detractors as well. In an 1854 letter to A. von Humbolt, K.A. Varnhagen described the device as one of many “solche ungeheuerlichkeiten”—“monstrous absurdities” plaguing Berlin seance circles, and that his own generally disapproved of such foolishness, and that he has grown tired of the phenomenon.

It is likely that the Psychograph simply rode the brief wave of popularity in table-tipping in Europe, and was discarded from the public's consciousness just as rapidly, as the phenomenon faded rather abruptly in Europe after a surge of experimentation. Wagner's device had served its purpose for some short time, at least, or, as Cotta had said at the time: "This invention thus exalts the great effort involved in counting the raps of lengthy table correspondence to get to a whole word and to get up to complete sentences, moving quickly from letter to letter." Though it might have sped up communications, it couldn't slow down the fade of table-tipping's popularity in the eyes of a fickle public, and, if anything, the expedient communications it provided may have very well help wagon-jumping enthusiasts reach the end of that chapter more swiftly before moving on to the next cultural fad.

Wagner's Psychograph does not seem to have ever physically reached American shores, though by applying for its patent, its inventor must have held some ambition to push it into London's then burgeoning Spiritualist scene, recently sparked by Maria Hayden's tenure there. It is also worth noting, in closing, that the Psychograph--with the replacement of the pointer with a pencil--was also convertible to an automatic-writing device, as detailed in at least two sources, including Vollmer's 1856 Naturkräfte und Naturgesetze: populäres Handbuch der Physik zum Selbstunterricht für die Gebildeten jeden Standes. Elektricität, Magnetismus, Galvanismus.

That's the Psychograph on its own merits, and though our next installment will return to American shores to observe the rise of the Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial, we'll see both Wagner and the Psychograph again in Part 3 of this series (along with Baron Forstner), where a close acquaintance develops a competing device in Berlin that leads to a bitter public feud. Until then, we hope you'll tune in for Part 2: Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Don't Knock It 'til You've Tried It: Earliest Origins of Table-Rapping

I posed the most rudimentary of questions to Marc Demarest early last evening:

"Where does table-tipping--and more specifically table-knocking--specifically enter the realm of spirit communication?"

Or, to put it another way that is equally important, marking as it does an opportunity for spirit communication to leak from exclusively-Spiritualist circles and bleed into popular culture:

"When did enthusiasts discover that they didn't need a rapping medium to produce phenomenon, and could perform DIY-seances through the movement of their kitchen table?"

These questions are, in fact, so rudimentary to our discipline that I was almost embarrassed to voice them to a respected peer, but it is something that I've pondered these last few days, only to come to the realization that I truly don't trust that this earliest mechanism of spirit communication entered into the dialogue of Spiritualism as a recycled demonstration of Mesmerism, as has long been assumed. We know it is early, and while we can peg the planchette's invention with Kardec's Spiritists in '53, and the talking board to Ohio enthusiasts in '86, the when...where...and by whom, of that most vital idea of placing one's hands on an unconsciously-manipulated device in anticipation of answers, has never been satisfactorily answered.

Table-Tipping as depicted in 1854's expose, The Rappers.
It turns out we've all rather taken the answer for granted. And without that phenomenon to drive the invention of devices to take advantage of it, us collectors of spirit communication devices don't have anything to collect.

Marc's response to my inquiry, which he posted publicly after going on something of a magnificent tear over the course of two hours, should demonstrate just how difficult the answer turns out to be. It is important, at the outset, to note the distinction of terms at work here. There is first, of course, table-tipping and table-tilting, which is the (depending on your beliefs) either attributable to ideomotor response or spiritual agency. (I noted with interest that the Southern Quarterly Review of October 1853 included an article entitled "What Moves The Table?" used term "ideo-motor" as a possible agency of table-tipping right at the outset of the phenomenon) This is the most basic manipulation: sitters place their hands on a table, and it moves involuntarily, sometimes quite convincingly. Sometimes not

Next on Fox: When Tipping Tables Attack!
But there's an important distinction between the table's movements, and their use to solicit communication which, for our purposes, we'll use the term "table-rapping." There's an even further distinction notable in accounts: rapping on tables via a medium (which isn't true table-rapping as we should consider it), and cooperative rapping produced by the table's movements in response to questions (which is). Both, of course, are in response to alphabet-calling or carding. Marc's post provides a great deal of material to consider, from his statistical analysis of keyword hits in newspaper archives to specific articles addressing the two distinct phenomena, and there is a lot to glean from the data if we hope to tell the story of the evolution of this earliest mechanism.

But I don't know if we draw the same conclusions just yet. Let's see.

Who & When
We know that by the early 1850s--the banner year seems to be 1853--that table-rapping was en vogue on both sides of the Atlantic, and where thereafter commonplace. Marc's earliest posted article dates from February 1, 1853, published in the Easton, Maryland Star. Journalist James Sargent reported from the American West in 1853 that "It was not by any means unusual, on entering a log cabin, to find the good, simple people seated round the rude table upon which raps were being made, and replying in the usual mode, to questions put by the auditory." Marc's post contains plenty of other examples from that year. Even the subject of our most recent post, Susanna Moodie, experienced the phenomenon in the relative backwater of colonial Canada by 1857, even if she did have the direct conduit of Kate Fox at her disposal. But, as is so often the case, we must push backward as far as possible to get toward the kernel of the metamorphosis from tipping to rapping.

And it turns out the Fox Sisters are important here, as they utilized mysteriously moving tables quite early, and from them the heavily-reported phenomenon likely spread. The first recorded instance I can find of table-movement (and, in this case, a chair) as an agency of spirit manipulation (or, by any agency, for that matter!) takes place in their hands, as reported pretty darn close to the birth of it all, with an October 20, 1849 account printed in Capron and Barron's Explanation and History of the Mysterious Communion with Spirits:

"The table was moved about the room, and turned over and turned back. Two men in the company undertook to hold a chair down, while, at their request, a spirit moved it, and notwithstanding they exerted all their strength, the chair could not be held still by them."

Another very early account, this one by J.M. Sterling of Cleveland, who wrote to Buchanan's Journal of Man on March 18, 1850 after a sitting with the Fox Sisters, also reports table movements attributed to present spirits:

"Upon rising from the table, I expressed a strong desire for a test by causing the table to move, whereupon one of the ladies asked— 'Will not the spirit gratify the gentleman by causing the table to move?' Very soon I discovered a tremulous motion in the table, and it was moved from one to two feet directly from me and against the girls, and pushing them off from their balance. I expressed myself satisfied for that time, and left."

So, very early on, and in the presence of the country's most famous mediums, we have eyewitness accounts of tables moving under the direct influence of spirits, and by request. And while it may have been used as proof of manipulation by spirit presences, it still wasn't communication. In fact, it might not even quite fulfill the first requirement of cooperative involuntary movements in the ideomotor fashion that will mark true table-tipping and pave the way for talking boards. That transition stills seems to take a few years, but we have tables moving under spiritual influence, at least, firmly established even as the afterbirth of the movement is being washed away in baptism.  

The assumption that table-moving phenomenon--that is, tables moving involuntarily--had long been a staple of the mesmerists' trade, and from there casually and easily slipped its way into Spiritualists circles in the New York melting pot of religious fervor, would seem an easy and rational explanation for the idea's introduction, particularly with the Fox Sister plunged as they were in the excitement and fervor of new religious thought born in the Burned-Over District. But, I think Marc ably demonstrates through his keyword diagnostics that instances of that table-tipping phenomena on public display just aren't where we thought they would be--the idea seems to hit, at the earliest, in March of 1853 in Mesmerist demonstrations in Germany and Austria, and by then we've already had the Fox Sisters touring the country and attributing table movements to spiritual agency for 4 years or so. And the Mesmerist assignment is what's been bothering me, ultimately.

So, let's see them, folks! We're looking for pre-1850s examples of table-moving phenomenon. The best place to look is likely the Mesmerists, but we'll take anything we can get. Were the Mersmerists up to it, and did the Spiritualists adopt the mysterious movements of the table for the own ends? Or do we have a different inspiration born of the Spiritualists themselves? I am aching for an answer.

I want to challenge Marc and, well, any readers, to re-examine the location of the phenomenon's origins. While several sources posted by Marc state in rather mater-of-fact tones that table-tipping and rapping is a European idea--specifically one born in Germany and France, I don't know if I can take those writers on their word, no matter how many times it is repeated. They don't provide any proof beyond 'well-of-course-everyone-knows-that' statements, and it all smells to me terribly similar to  the endlessly-repeated and cocksure accounts (among infinite other similarly-incorrect historical assumptions) of "Ouija" being a portmanteu of "oui" and "ja," the french and German words for "yes," when it turns out we have eyewitness accounts of the word's spontaneous creation at the hands of Helen Peters, using the board itself, no less.

Some accounts that do attempt to verify their claims and sources though, most definitely state the origins of the table phenomenon as being here in America, and even name specific points of introduction of the idea into the old country, and at the right time. Let's look at them each by region:

The French Connection
Table-turning took Paris by storm in early-to-mid 1853. The Reverend George Sandby--a mesmerist (and that's important here) reporting to Dr. Elliotson's The Zoist, captured the idea at its peak, writing on May 28, 1853 that: 

"All Paris is in excitement at the “dancing of the tables,” as they call it. We have heard of nothing else since our arrival. So engrossing is the topic that it has superseded the marriage and illness of the Empress, and become the rage of the day."
I think it interesting to note that Sandby--again, a mesmerist--seems taken with the phenomenon, which leads me to believe that he isn't witnessing something that, to him as a mesmerist, should be by now old hat if table-turning as he witnessed was a recycled demonstration of mesmerism. Marc notes that Chauncey Hare Townshend makes a similar report from Paris,  and judges that table-tipping is just another phenomenon attributable to mesmeric science--again with the implication that by just adding it to the list of attributable phenomena, that this is a new thing to him.

In short--just because someone says the phenomenon can be explained by animal magnetism or mesmerism, doesn't mean the idea is an outgrowth, or holds its origins, in practitioners of those disciplines.

An 1853 engraving depicting a smorgasbord of ideomotor movements of hats, tables, and pendulums that was by then
taking over Parisian society.
Sandby and Townshend don't attribute table-tipping's introduction to anyone in particular, though no less an authority than Kardec does. Kardec attributes table-turning--and in this sense he includes the evolution toward table-rapping--to America. Kardec had a front-row seat to its introduction, and though his earliest interest was in the idea as a demonstration of animal magnetism, he soon attributed the phenomenon to spiritual agency, as he writes in The Spirits Book:

"Of the facts referred to, the one first observed was the movement of objects, popularly called "table-turning." This phenomenon, first observed in America (or rather, renewed in that country, for history proves it to have been produced in the most remote ages of antiquity), was attended with various strange accompaniments, such as unusual noises, raps produced without any ostensible cause, etc. From America this phenomenon spread rapidly over Europe and the rest of the world. It was met at first with incredulity; but the movements were produced by so many experimenters, that it soon became impossible to doubt its reality."

Here we may have, embarrassingly, Kardec referring to the old "the ancients did it first" trope that has plagued talking board historians for decades, where Victorian writers, in particular, seemed wholly incapable of giving credit where credit was due when attributing the sources of modern phenomenon, and assumed everything must have its source with the revered agents. But that throwback aside (though it is not without merit), he more importantly recognizes America as the source of table-turning as he was then experiencing in Paris. And, again, table-turning, in Kardec's sense, accounts for communications via table-rapping by 1853, as he goes on to state:

"The earliest manifestations of intelligence were made by means of the legs of tables, that moved up and down, striking a given number of times, and replying in this way by "yes" or "no" to the questions asked...fuller replies were soon obtained, the object in motion striking a number of blows corresponding to the number of each letter of the alphabet, so that words and sentences began to be produced in reply to the questions propounded.

And remember that Kardec sets a firm date for the invention of the planchette in Paris on June 10, 1853--about the same time as Marc's culled accounts are on the rise and Sandby is noting its explosion in Paris--and that the planchette's invention was itself a refinement of table-rapping and alphabet-calling by Kardec's circle, which, to them, had become "tedious and inconvenient." So, we know that by June 1853, the old method of communications via table-rapping had grown tiresome, so who knows how long they had been indulged in the practice?

Allan Kardec
In Marc's first entry on table-tipping from April 2012, he noted "the prevailing opinion in the US, in the early 1850s, is that table-work is French, and is being imported into the US from France." And that may very well be the case, though I'm going to ask him for more examples [consider that my request, buddy]. Because the one example he does provide--a short, two-column article about the explosion of table-rapping in France from the June 25, 1853 Journal of Progress actually states just the opposite after reporting the table-turning fervor in Paris:

"Four pamphlets have been published on the subject; one of them gives the names of certain Americans who introduced the science into the city."

I guess we'll need those pamphlets to know for sure. It's a shame Robert Dale Owens and Gardner's Paris trip is still 5 years away, or they'd be good contenders, but at least we know they're responsible for bringing the planchette back over then. Fair trade, I'd say. 

In Germany
Similar evidence from Germany refutes contemporary writers' tenuous claims to table-turning's origins being in that country. In the August 6, 1853 edition of Notes & Queries, in an article entitled "Who First Thought of Table-Turning?" notes a German writer reporting in the April 4, 1853 edition of the Allgemeine Zeitung that the phenomenon first hit Germany on March 23, 1853, by way of Bremen, from a native son having recently written from New York:

"Respecting the origin of this curious phenomenon in America, I am not able to give your correspondent, J. G. T. of Hagley, any information; but it may interest him and others among the readers of "N. & Q." to have some account of what appears to be the first recorded experiment, made in Europe, of table-moving. These experiments are related in the supplement (now lying before me) to the Allgemeine Zeitung of April 4, by Dr. K. Andrée, who writes from Bremen on the subject. His letter is dated March 30, and begins by stating that the whole town had been for eight days preceding in a state of most peculiar excitement, owing to a phenomenon which entirely absorbed the attention of all, and about which no one had ever thought before the arrival of the American steam-ship "Washington" from New York. Dr. Andrée proceeds to relate that the information respecting table-moving was communicated in a letter, brought through that ship, from a native of Bremen, residing in New York, to his sister, who was living in Bremen, and who, in her correspondence with her brother, had been rallying him about the American spirit-rappings, and other Yankee humbug, as she styled it, so rampant in the United States. Her brother instanced this table-moving, performed in America, as no delusion, but as a fact, which might be verified by any one; and then gave some directions for making the experiment, which was forthwith attempted at the lady's house in Bremen, and with perfect success, in the presence of a large company. In a few days the marvellous feat, the accounts of which flew like wildfire all over the country, was executed by hundreds of experimenters in Bremen."

Telling, I think. Not definitive, mind you, but at least the article supports its claims with more than an unsubstantiated "Germany/France, of course" statement as so many other writers are guilty of. And we don't know if they are engaging in table-tipping, or table-rapping, but at least we have a possible port of entry, and we know the latter won't be far off, as we'll shortly see folks like Adolphus Wagner who seek to refine the mechanisms of the communications with inventions like his "psychograph" (not to mention other efforts to unravel the mysteries, including Faraday and Hare's efforts, which are notably interesting for not having taking place earlier, if the Mesmerists were up to table-tipping).

In closing, I think both Marc and I are off to a good start. We've got the Fox Sisters attributing involuntary table movements to spiritual agency in late 1849, only a year-and-a-half after the birth of modern Spiritualism. We know, solidly, that by 1853, the phenomena has morphed from simple demonstrations of movements to full-blown communications, which, most importantly, moves the agency of those communications from the cracking toe-knuckles of rapping mediums and places it directly into the hands of anyone with a kitchen table.

The search continues. We still haven't observed the phenomenon prior to the advent of Spiritualism, so I'm calling into question our long-held assumptions that table-tipping is an outgrowth of Mesmerism. But I'm ready--willing--to be proven wrong, should it open up new avenues of research and influence into this most basic form of spirit communication, because it's the spring from which all the floodwaters of my research flow. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Outfoxing Oneself: The Moodie "Spiritoscope"

I made an interesting discovery while falling further and further down various rabbit-holes this morning: a previously-undocumented early spirit communication device. Of course, it wasn't entirely undocumented, or we wouldn't be having this discussion, but it's the first time it appears in the record of talking board historians, as far as I know.

The account comes from an 1858 letter by author Susanna Moodie reprinted in Letters of a Lifetime. Moodie was an English author of children's books in her early life, but is now best-remembered for her accounts as a settler in Ontario, Canada, after she, her husband, and her daughter emigrated there from London in 1832. She wrote variously about her experiences as a colonial settler in the rougher wilds of Douro township (which she termed "the bush") and later Belleville (which she termed "the clearing") in her books Roughing it in the Bush and Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush, respectively.

Susanna Moodie, circa 1860.
Moodie was a prolific writer and correspondent, and the account which piques our interest comes from an 1858 letter she wrote to her publisher, Richard Bentley, detailing a series of spirit communications she received through a device constructed by her husband for that purpose. In the letter, after addressing some formalities, she proposes sending her publisher two new stories that, as she put it, were "founded upon magic and witchcraft," and then proceeds to open up about spirit communications received the previous year.

Moodie was cold to the embrace of Spiritualism. She had likely first come to know of it through newspaper accounts in New York, but also read Judge Edmond's 1853 tome Spiritualism with interest, and Hare's Experimental Investigation of Spirit Manifestations with somewhat less vigor, noting "he [Hare] reasons well, but ignores the truth of Revelation, in doing which, he is aiming a deadly blow at the subject he so ably defends." The texts failed to convince her, and, as she reminded Bentley, she was "not only a skeptic, but a scorner." And Moodie had no less a personage than Kate Fox to personally woo her to the cause. The famous Fox family, until their move to Hydesville, New York, in the late 1840s, lived in Belleville (Moodie's "clearing"), and the eldest sister, Elizabeth Osterhout, remained in the area in a nearby village, where Kate--as well as her mother and sister Maggie--visited in 1854 and 1855, and during which time Susanna was received by the medium for sittings on more than one occasion.

The Bellville home in which Moodie's spirit communications on her husband's "Spiritoscope" took place.
Even then, in the presence of one of the pair whose actions sparked a religion, Moodie remained unconvinced, even while she was smitten with charming young Kate: "I do not believe that the raps are produced by spirits that have been of this world, but I cannot believe that she, with her pure spiritual face is capable of deceiving." Moodie's resolve is commanding, given her convincing account of the sittings that included an accurate billet test in which Kate properly identified the names of deceased friends of Susanna's mixed in a list among the names of the living, and the spelling of a name of a childhood friend of Moodie's, that, the author insisted, "no one but myself on the whole American continent knew that such a person had ever existed." There were other spirit-induced miracles that failed to convince Moodie's firm skepticism: a closed piano accompanied her husband's flute in a duet in a later sitting, tinkling out a melody though its lid was tightly closed, while the spirits guessed the birthdate and deathdate of Mr. Moodie's mother engraved on the inner band of his mourning ring--dates which he himself had forgotten and had to remove the ring to check, finding the raps correct. In the same session, Kate's raps correctly spelled out Susanna's father's name, his birth and death dates, the disease that killed him, and the city in which he died--all seemingly unknowable facts as far as the couple was concerned.

Brooding Kate Fox, of whom Moodie said was "certainly a witch,
for you cannot help looking into the dreamy depths of those sweet
violet eyes till you feel magnetized by them." 
But 2 years later, Moodie's skepticism seems to have softened somewhat, and she found she was able to convince herself of the veracity of spirit communications in a way that the master Kate Fox had not be able. Or, as she put it: "I dare not now, exclaim, as I once confidently did, 'It is false. A mental puzzle. A delusion!'" She admitted to her publisher of having sat with a local medium--a Scottish servant of the local Tate family named Mary Williamson--on many occasions for table-tipping, and of having sparred with her now spiritualist-converted husband on her lingering skepticism despite the onslaught of proof they had witnessed together in multiple seances.

A Hare Spiritoscope, after which Moodie's device is named, though his sliding
board with brass dowels for rollers and an index for pointing to a table-bound
alphabet bears no resemblance to any of Hare's devices.
Moodie's letter notes, she received her first messages on June 22, 1857, from a device she curiously terms a "Spiritoscope," despite he derision and perceived contradictions of Hare's work. After a rough argument with her husband over their conflicting beliefs that left Susanna in tears, and a private moment where she became convinced the spirits had forcefully moved her unwilling hand after she dared them to prove themselves out loud by moving it, she immediately went downstairs to engage the device her husband had made to circumvent laborious alphabet calling:

"My husband had contrived a very ingenious sort of Spiritoscope, a board running upon two smooth brass rods with an index that pointed to the alphabet in order to save the trouble of calling over the alphabet. I had always refused to put my hands upon this board, which would move for people under the influence and spell out letter by letter messages and names. But being alone, I placed my hands upon the board, and asked, 'Was it a spirit that lifted my hand?' and the board rolled forward and spelt out 'Yes.'"

Moodie's account goes on to detail the messages she received, she believed from the spirit of her old friend Thomas Harrall. The communications continued "for many nights after," and she often found herself so entranced in the sessions that her husband, who began to take transcripts of her sessions, "had to employ the reverse passes in mesmerism in order to break the spell."

Moodie among her family, her white-bearded husband John--inventor
of the Moodie Spiritoscope--at right.
Unfortunately, no depictions of the Moodie Spiritoscope are known to exist. Given the description of the layout and Moodie's clarification that the board rolled forward, rather than side-to-side, it could be that the rolling board, placed as it was atop its brass rod rollers, served as the planchette, with a forward/back motion on the table, rather than a side-to-side motion, which means an alphabet was likely lined up vertically adjacent to it or placed upon the tabletop in some fashion so that the index could scroll letter-to-letter. Perhaps in some way similar to the later Snitch Baby. Or, "forward" may just mean she rolled it forward through the alphabet (and perhaps side-to-side), which would be a different classification for use, more akin to a Braham slide-plate. And who knows if the alphabet was on a card, stamped onto the table, or on a separate board. That's all pure pondering, and, as always, the clues are incredibly tantalizing but woefully incomplete. But, in any case, Moodie's description provides for us a brief glimpse into the world of early spirit communication devices, and in the process opens up a previously-unrealized window into the life of a prolific author who had a front-row seat to the birth of Spiritualism.