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Monday, February 10, 2014

Talking Tables, March 1853: Pack's "Medium Table"

Marc and I have undergone the same tactic we recently used in mapping out the evolution of spirit trumpet mediums and mediumship, and decided to take all of the accumulated evidence on the earliest years of table-turning (in this case 1849-1853) from our respective blog posts and other evidence since gathered, and created a chronological timeline of accounts. It has shaped up nicely and, I think, verifies our working theory: that the "physical phenomenon" of mysteriously moving tables begins with the Fox Sisters as early as 1849, and, as news spreads, cooperative, non-mediumistic table-tipping morphs into a popular parlor entertainment. In America, at least, it is near-synonymous with, yet still distinct from, spirit rappings, and is more often than not attributed to some spiritual agency. By 1852, communications are being received through the tables' tappings and tiltings. We know table-turning enters Europe the following year, most likely via Bremen, Germany, in March of 1853, and from their spreads over the Continent and to the UK by the summer, where it is viewed somewhat more pragmatically, and assigned an animal magnetic cause for a time before some sects settle on the explanation of spirit manifestation already long-adopted by Americans. We can see clearly now. The rain is gone.

During all of our digging, I ran across a fantastic account of a great mechanism. I've long been on the hunt for some manufactured, specialized tipping-table appearing this early in the record. It just seemed to make sense that among the Wagners and Peases and Hornungs, some burgeoning entrepreneur would take advantage of table-tipping's popularity and market something to ride that wave. This thought seemed confirmed after glimpsing an interesting snippet in Ronald Pearsall's Table Rappers that a manufacturer in Florence produced a table specifically for turning, sold under the advertising byline "It Moves!" Unfortunately, as we often find in his study, Mr. Pearsall failed to provide documentation of any sort on this claim, and while I have little doubt that he found something, somewhere, we can't confirm the discovery without knowing his source.

But now we have something. One of the earliest spirit-rapping-and-table-turning expose texts--and now by far my favorite for its detailed descriptions--is Reverend H. Mattinson's Spirit Rapping Unveiled! I'm really taken with Reverend Mattinson's enthusiastic efforts to debunk the spirit rapping and table-turning fervor that has swept the nation as he's writing. In particular, I enjoy his plain, pragmatic language and efforts to shed light on a subject that he doesn't see as being all that mysterious. I particularly like his real-time breakdown of alphabet calling, as he and a friend indulge in some experimentation, spelling out simple sentences to one another as they call through the alphabet again and again, to not only show the ruthless inefficiency of the method, but also the improbability of the veracity of massive blocks of alphabet-called spirit communications that are being published at the time, given that even their expedited, rapid process produced only 240 characters per hour. That's less than two tweets, folks.

But on to the mechanism: Hiram Pack's "Medium's Table." Mattinson's account is a personal one, gathered when he was approached after a lecture in Hartford, Connecticut, by a man who claimed that a cabinet-maker friend of his had been approached about creating a fraudulent table for a rapping medium, with the caveat that the craftsman would be oath-bound not to reveal the method. Which he didn't accept, leaving him free to divulge the inquiry:

This set Mattinson on the hunt, and, as chance would have it, directly to the cabinetmaker Hiram Pack, who not only admitted to the manufacture of at least two such tables, but penned a lovely detailed affidavit for Mattinson, dated March 25, 1853, which the Reverend subsequently published:

I think it's lovely, particularly for its details--the internal hammer, the wires, the routed recess and hollow resonating chamber. It reminds me, of course, of how Houdini and Dunninger often resorted to complicated descriptions of possibly non-existent mechanisms to describe mediumistic phenomenon when, more often than not, a good medium just needed a dark room and a believing audience. But then again, in the absence of the biological propensity for repeated, resonating knuckle-cracking, maybe some mediums felt the need for a mechanical means to ply their trade.

The tables are now, no doubt, in some stodgy old estate or Manhattan skyrise, with the owner nary-aware that a subtle nudge with their foot or hand on a concealed trigger could set the spirits a'knocking. I'm sure my wife would be thrilled each night at dinner with the retinue of bad jokes I'd have at my disposal if only I had spirits to answer. When I shared the account with Marc, he wanted to make sure the account wasn't too convenient on the part of the author, so he quickly confirmed Mr. Pack's identity and NYC residency in the 1850 census (no occupation listed), found is occupation as "cabinetmaker" in Brooklyn in 1869, and spotted him again in the New Canaan, CT census of 1870, where he's listed as a chairmaker. We have a winner, folks.

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