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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. 

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