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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.

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