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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Utrecht Artifacts, Part 1: The Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum's Boards, Trumpets & Planchettes

After an unfortunately short stay in London, my family and I headed to Amsterdam, narrowly making our flight in the process. There's nothing like rounding the corner dragging your bouncing luggage behind you after a crazy sprint through a ridiculously long terminal, only to see them closing the gates. And my wife did it with a 1-year old strapped to her chest. Whew!

The purpose for the trip was actually the impetus for the entire journey--an invitation to lecture at the Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology conference in Utrecht. While the opportunity to share my knowledge and learn from other scholars of esotericism is enticing on its own, I was also drawn there to document the discoveries of Wim Kramer and his colleagues of the Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum collections, an amazing preserved archive of spirit communication devices and other artifacts dating collected in the 1930s by a Dutch Spiritualism museum.

Each morning, I took a lovely train ride through the countryside to Utrecht to attend the conference. While Amsterdam was a little nerve-wracking for me--it has an awful lot of cyclists zipping through its narrow streets--Utrecht was like a dream: this amazingly preserved medieval town dripping with charm. It was the perfect setting for our gathering.

My first order of business was to discuss the IAPSOP's mission, and how it relates to others doing similar work, such as Walter Meyer zu Erpen and John Reed and the WISE Wiki, Wim's HJBF Archive Projects, Shelley Sweeney and the Hamilton Collections, Eberhard Bauer and Andreas Fischer and their work with the IGPP, and so many others. The esteemed Leslie Price joined us from the College of Psychic Studies, and I got to meet the wonderful Loes Modderman! What an incredible assembly of occult scholars, archivists, and esotericists! I encourage you to download the sizable conference manifest and give it a good read--there are summaries of all of the lectures and profiles of the featured speakers that are well worth exploring.

I recall that as John, Walter, Shelley and I approached the conference gates for the first time, Wim greeted us and asked me if I needed to be in handcuffs--the items were already on display upstairs, you see, and he knew just how excited I was to get my hands--and lens--on these items I'd admired for so long, and traveled so far to see. Luckily, handcuffs weren't necessary, and Wim will be happy to know I didn't sneak in any secret fondling when he wasn't looking. Let's take a look at some of the artifacts from this amazing treasure trove!

The collection contains much more than I was able to document, so I focused primarily on devices, at the expense of numerous spirit paintings, automatic writings, and other artifacts. All told, I photographed a talking board, a spirit trumpet, 3 planchettes, 2 ghost lamps, several spirit slates with preserved writing, a couple of spirit paintings, and a few other assorted surprises, the first set of which we'll examine here.

Wim and his counterparts rediscovered these items in May, 2010, lodged in a box in the attic of the HARMONIA Dutch Society of Spiritualists, in a building that had been the Utrecht chapter since 1922. Before coming to rest in the attic there, the items had been collected and housed by a gentleman in Haarlem (a town near Amsterdam) in his "Spiritualistic Museum," from 1935-1941. He often hosted small exhibitions at HARMONIA's public meetings, and published several short articles in the Dutch Spirirualists' magazine Spiritische Bladen about the items, which is how we know of their provenance.

Little is known about the items and their histories beyond their tenure as museum artifacts. The spirit trumpet is a beauty: a sturdy single-piece horn that--as has become so common in my trumpet documentation--doesn't match the dimension of any other trumpet I've recorded. This isn't all that surprising: if someone wanted a spirit trumpet, particularly a non-telescoping one, they are simple affairs to construct, and in the period could be acquired from a local tinsmith fairly cheaply. But there was also an industry, so it is always difficult to differentiate between commercially-manufactured and locally-produced items. And I believe the latter instance is the case here. The trumpet has four rings of tape with thick luminous paint still attached. Just a beautiful and classic specimen.

The collection contains a couple of talking boards, though one is a later-model Parker Bros added more recently. The other is quite an interesting specimen, however, and one of Dutch origin. At first glance at the above picture, it may seem commercially-produced: its letters arch nicely and uniformly and have a great font, for example. But up close, it's obvious that this is a handmade piece or one produced on a very limited basis locally. The board's bright yellow and glossy black paint is thickly slathered on all dimensions and has a strange texture to it, almost like it dried with a Saran Wrap or gauze-like texture on it. Indeed, it almost still looks wet or tacky to the touch. It is constructed of hardboard. There is no planchette with the board, though it may be that the gold planchette among the trip below was meant for it, though they aren't much of a match. Of course, it has Dutch phrasing: "Ophouden" for "Stop/Cease/Finished" and "Goedenavond" for "Good Evening." And, of course, "Nee" and "Ja," which lends itself rather nicely for the board's "Neeja" nickname.

The trio of planchettes is really what brought the collection to my attention, and what incredibly beautiful specimens they are. All three are handmade, and I was reminded of the handmade CPS planchettes I had just visited in London. I'll examine the pointing planchette first, because it may be a companion to the handmade talking board, though I don't think this is the case. It doesn't match the board in any way, and its construction seems more in line with its older companions, shown below. It is made of plywood with two substantial supports that hold smooth pegged legs of some plastic or bakelight material, and a neat little metal arrow as an index. The gold paint looks distinctly of the spray-paint variety, and is a subtle metallic gold. Whether this plank once had a companion board or was used in more of a tabletop alphabet card capacity is unknown, but it really is a great piece.

My favorite item in the collection is this handmade automatic writing planchette. Its shape is so unusual and distinct, and unlike anything I had seen previously. The hardware is not the most effective. In a topic I've discussed before, it seems a lot of woodshop crafters and even commercial entities--including the Psychic Science Institute discovered in our fresh London foray--resorted to ball-bearing components for wheels that were not made to be smoothly-rolling castors. Wheeled pantographs were obsolete technology by this time, so the petite castors so common to the first generation of planchettes weren't commonly available. So, other hardware had to be used, and it is my belief that these components are repurposed door and cabinet hardware meant to keep closed doors closed, because there is an internal tension--likely a spring--that pushes the ball-bearing up against its housing and keeps it from freely rolling. I have similar hardware in my own home from the 1940s. This tension can be felt when pushing down on the ball-bearing and feeling the springiness beneath. Now, given that it is still a smooth ball-bearing, it likely still glides smoothly over a wooden tabletop or paper, but not quite as smoothly as one might suppose, because the tension keeps the ball from actually turning. There's also a simple little turn-screw pencil aperture that's very effective, and still holding its pencil after all these decades! By far my favorite of the bunch, and one of my favorite planchettes of all time.

The pattern of homemade construction and hardware continues in a third planchette, this one less elegant and fantastical in shape, but no less efficient. Blocky and triangular, this automatic writer seems made from the same stock of wood as its counterpart. Its ball-bearing castors are bulkier and lack the spring-tension of the type likely used for doors or cabinets, and are more likely small furniture castors similar to the "Roll-A-Weight" brand that were sold here in the States in small four-packs.  Without that tension, the ball-bearings would have served their purpose much better, and this would have been the best-working specimen of the bunch. The pencil aperture is just a simple screw and a small metal retainer embedded in the wood, and the pencil use would have to have been small. Beyond its museum origins, no account of its use of messages received through the item have survived, which would have been absolutely incredible, but we're lucky to even have it!

We're luckier to have some surviving script related to other artifacts in the Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum collection, but we'll need to wait for our next installment in Utrecht Artifacts, Part 2: The Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum's Slates, Ghost Lamps, & Miscellany. Stay tuned, folks, for the continuation of our review of this incredible cache of artifacts!

Monday, July 14, 2014

London Artifacts, Part 3: The CPS Talking Boards

The CPS' central stairwell, stretching
upward toward new discoveries!
The trip to the College of Psychic Studies (the review of which started in Part One of this series) was a whirlwind, mostly due to the mad rush of being in London a day late and having to trek immediately there from Heathrow. But through the distant lens of hindsight, I can see just how incredible those few short hours were. It wasn't all about the devices, mind you. There's a certain atmosphere that comes from being in hallowed halls once wandered by Sir Conan Doyle, and that hosted seances by Eileen Garrett and a veritable who's-who of 19th-and-20th-century mediums. I could spend another several blog posts just examining the artwork of the CPS, from their nearly-life-sized portrait of D.D. Home, their bust of one of my favorite mediums, J. J. Vango, and numerous frames of spirit-influenced art and portraits of important mediums who have visited or held residence in the college over its many years. And then there's the Stainton Moses archives themselves, boxes stacked upon one another just waiting to be explored further, containing all manner of glass slides of seances and spirit phenomena, spirit photographs, automatic writing, clairvoyant tools...the list just goes on and on. And, of course, there's the library itself and the undocumented wonders its texts contain, which IAPSOP is in the process of assisting in order to digitize as much of these rare tomes as possible. Maybe next trip I'll have the chance to examine these other discoveries. more closely. For now, let's continue where we left off from Parts One and Two, and examine the talking boards in the collection of the College of Psychic Studies.

As with the Psychic Studies Institute planchette we investigated in Part 2, two of the talking boards in the CPS holdings were not only unknown to us, but largely unknowable due to utter lack of markings or identification of any sort--they didn't even have and sort of name or variant of "Ouija" that we usually use as a starting point for studying boards. Instead, we had wood of a decently-fine grade, some degree of commercial craftsmanship, and letters and numbers. And that was it.

I did make a few observations, the most important of which was the applique of the letters and numbers: they are not printed or screened, and they aren't stickers. They are decals, of that sort familiar to airplane modelists that must be moistened, then carefully applied, often with tweezers--they are known as "waterslide" decals. They have a distinctive film around their perimeter, and carefully scrutinized in the right light, it was obvious each letter had a distinct film halo that gave them away. And it turns out, 2 of the 3 boards present--both of the wooden boards--had this sort of application. Could they be related?
The second wood board had the type of decal application, though with some differences, particularly with the size of the "Yes" and "No" and the numbers, as well as the alphabet's font. The board was also more square, and finely framed. But, again, no markings or label. But with the same type of decals, similar plywood, and identical (and telling) placement of letters (three rows, A-I, J-T, U-Z), there was a high probability the boards were related.

As with the discovery of the PSI planchette's identity, the answer was only a few hours off. When a properly-labeled PSI planchette popped up on eBay that evening, complete with the "BCM/PSI-LON" address, it gave us a keyword to research. And that turned up an old auction listing with a talking board identical to the first wooden CPS specimen, complete in its original box. The box identified a proper non-BCM address of 18 Worton Way, and from there, and with a little education from our mate and international-man-of-mystery Glenn Rinker, we were able to properly assign the board as a creation of the Psychic Science Institute, and date it to the late 1940s-late 1950s through ads placed in Prediction magazine. And in the confirmation of one, it is highly likely that the second, framed version is also a product of PSI, given the near identical means of construction and unique nature of the decals and overall design.      

Why not? A 1949 Prediction magazine ad for Psychic Science Institute's
planchettes, Ouija, and other "psychic appliances."
The final board would not reveal its secrets so easily. Its manufacture is uncommon, as it is constructed from some laminate--what is most likely cut Formica, or possibly Cusheen. The construction is identical to classic office door plaques and hallway signs, with a thin sheet of Formica set on a chipboard type material.

Now, if my arm was twisted toward wagering a guess, it would be that this is also a Psychic Science Institute board, and what we're seeing is a decade-long evolution in the manufacture of that company's products. Which way that evolution goes I wouldn't hazard a confirmation, but it's likely they began with the wood-and-waterslide-decal boards, then moved toward engraved Formica as that technology became available after entering the European market after World War II. The 3-row arrangement is the same as the other boards (A-I, J-T, U-Z) as is the placement and general arrangement of the alphabet, numbers, and Yes/No. There's also one additional piece of evidence: the planchette of this board is identical in construction--but not shape--to the planchette included in the old PSI eBay board auction. That is to say, it's a thin, single-ply sheet of wood paneling with some felt pads glued underneath. So there's that. And this planchette is an exact match to yet another PSI specimen--this one wooden like the first two--from the silver screen (see below). With all of the evidence, as well as PSI's proximity to CPS,  my money's on this board also being a Psychic Science Institute specimen.

A notable appearance of the PSI talking board, again brought to our attention by our ever-affable colleague Glenn Rinker,  is 1972's Tales from the Crypt, in that fantastic talking board and planchette-writing scene with Peter Cushing (at the 36:00 mark). Besides getting to see a Selchow & Righter Scientific Planchette in use, we're given another likely PSI variant here, most closely resembling the first specimen we looked at above, though with red "Yes/No" letters, and with a planchette that matches our Formica variant exactly. With all the similarities, the evidence seems more and more compelling that these are all fruits from the same tree...

Peter Cushing seeks guidance on a PSI talking board before turning, naturally, to his reliable writing planchette for
the real goods--a warning of D-A-N-G-E-R!
Before concluding my overview of the CPS collections, I want to post a triptych of some of the other marvels of the visit, which includes hints of some of the less-explored wonders that I'll have to make sure I have more time for next trip, including the massive and beautiful oil painting of D.D. Home, the magnificent bust of the medium J.J. Vango, and William Stainton Moses' personal scrying crystal, with his own archives curving in the view behind it.

A fitting end to this tribute to my visit to the CPS, and I would like to again thank the college for their wonderful hospitality, the generosity of their principal Gill Matini, and, of course, my friend Leslie Price, for taking the time to escort me through it all. I hope my research has been able to shed a little light on the items in their holdings, and tell them a little bit they didn't know before. Next up on our tour is the PHCP conference in Utrecht, where I visited to not only lecture on behalf of IAPSOP and my own device research, but similarly catalog a host of incredible items from the Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 7, 2014

London Artifacts, Part 2: The CPS Planchettes

Continuing where we left off in Part 1 of my visit to the College of Psychic Studies in London, I want to examine the planchettes in the college's holdings before moving on to their talking boards in Part 3. So let's get to it, shall we?

The CPS Library in a photo from Pinterest.
The CPS owns 3 talking boards and 4 writing planchettes. Like the trumpets, we are dealing with devices where identification is very difficult, and provenance has unfortunately been lost--the devices have lingered in the holding in various states of display and storage for as long as anyone can remember, which for my host Leslie Price dates back as far as 1968.

The rumor of planchettes in the collection is what first drew me to it. Unlike the trumpets, I had not been provided any sneak-peeks online, so I really had no idea what to expect. The first finding nearly knocked me over in surprise when Leslie retrieved it from storage:

The "bearskin rug" planchette, date unknown.
I've dubbed this specimen the "bearskin rug" planchette. It has a companion, which we'll get to in a minute, but it is a fantastically-constructed homemade planchette with some age to it. While the era is unknown, it does have brass hardware and ivory wheels, the latter of which we rarely see after the turn of the century. The shape is unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and facilitates the unusual 4-wheel construction. One wheel is unfortunately long-missing, and I'd love the opportunity at restoration to get this old bird back in operational order.

Note strange aperture and horizontal orientation.
The most unusual aspect of the planchette isn't its shape, however--it's the pencil aperture. There is an unusual central retaining joist on the plank, which is aligned with what should be an aperture. But it's built to hold a round rod horizontally, and inserting a pencil would position the lead facing forward, rather than down, which isn't going to produce any automatic writing results unless your paper is mounted upright, and even then, you can't produce script without any movement on both as x and y axises. And beyond that, it would only fit a very small, but necessarily long, pencil. And that front joist has a small retention spring within, so it would hold something relatively securely, but something else is going on here...

Let's explore this perplexing construction with an examination of the planchette's sister board:

The heart-shaped companion planchette--note relocated wheel wells.
The companion piece is more traditionally heart-shaped, but with the same 4-wheel construction. And, sadly, it also has a couple of missing ivory wheels. The wheels were actually moved and re-attached at some point in the plank's history, either to give them fresh support from old nail-holes or perhaps to correct some balance issues. Like its sister, it has an unusual central joist of sorts that lines up with the front aperture. But this one's different, in that whatever rod it once held would have to be flat--rather like a small door-bolt, which very well may be the source of the hardware. There's no pencil--not even a flat construction pencil--that's going to fit in that slim opening, and there's the same issue of orientation.

Castor and aperture detail.
But there's other evidence of what was going on here with both planchettes. The heart-shaped piece has some distinctive fading that indicates there was once something there--a bar that once ran nearly the entire equatorial length of the board. I think, in theory, that there was a flat brass attachment that would be held in place between the central guide and the front retainer, and would jut forth from the front of the planchette, and subsequently hold a vertical pencil that way--assuming, of course, that it's a pencil it once held. If that's indeed the case, it really harkens back to planchette's primordial form: the corbeille a béc ("beaked basket"), or ngọc cơ, still in use among Cambodian Spiritists, and which has a jutting writing implement displaced somewhat from the main body of the apparatus:

A Cambodian ngọc cơ basket planchette. Note extended writing implement.
It's really the only way to explain what's happening here--the retainer and aperture isn't built for a pencil, or chalk, or anything sort of writing instrument I can identify--it's just evidence of a missing part, that that part is what held the writing implement. Of course, I'm open to other interpretations here.

Possible types of hardware used in the plank's construction.
There's a last-minute discovery that hit us just before this blog goes to press, fortuitously made when ever-reliable friend and collaborator Bob Murch was offered an illustration from a 1907 issue of the French weekly, Le Monde Illustré. The illustration shows a "un medium typtologue" (who may be named in the still-waiting-for-the-issue-to-arrive-so-we-can-translate-it text) at work on an alphabet table, with a curiously-shaped planchette. The CPS "bearskin rug" planchette is not only the first 4-wheeled planchette I've ever encountered, but also the only one with that unique shape--the planchette pictured in this illustration is the second. And the drawing's planchette sure seems to be busy around the front end with the indicator jutting from its main board, and while I note it is depicted with pegs, not wheels, at the very least we have a depiction of a planchette very similar to the CPS specimen in actual use, in Paris, in 1907. The description to the picture leads to the next page of the scan, which we don't yet have--stay tuned for more analysis of this incredible find!

The "bearskin rug" depicted? An illustration from Le Monde Illustré, 1907.
Together, these two planchettes are a wonderful pair, even if incomplete, and the care and craftsmanship put into their construction is obvious. One hopes that they saw heavy use in the CPS's hallowed halls, and I hold out hope that Leslie will run across some strange brass hardware somewhere in the archives that completes the devices and solves the mystery of their intended use and construction.

The paddle planchette--a close approximation of Ouija's 1890s'-era pointer.
Another planchette was cause for a start when Leslie introduced me to it--a very traditionally paddle-shaped plank stained in a rick, dark patina. It is a lovely specimen, and most likely another handmade item. It immediately reminded me not only of the classic Kennard planchette of Ouija's Bond-patent era, but also more specifically of the Kennard-style index of Robert Murch's mysterious "London Ouija," which as far as we've been able to determine is a product of Elijah Bond's failed attempt to introduce the Ouija to the UK market. Despite the similarities, this device is singular, and while it only has smooth brass tacks as terminals on its tapering rear legs to act as any sort of castors, and no aperture hardware to speak of, it is a lovely piece that also seems to carry some age with it. As with much of the CPS holdings, here's hoping some clue to its identity shows up in their archives to help us tell this piece's story.

A 1940s-50s-era PSI planchette.
We know more about the CPS's fourth and final planchette. When I felt its slim board through the tissue paper in which it was wrapped, I immediately guessed it was a Two Worlds planchette. They were popular devices, I'd already seen a couple of Two Worlds trumpets, and its board was super-thin as we see in their Weyers Brothers-produced boards. But rather than a 30s-era plank, I unwrapped something dating a little later. It's a lovely little shield-shaped plank, with ball-bearing castors that are unfortunately stiff, likely due to the fact that the hardware isn't made to roll so much as provide tension to hold cabinet doors shut or some such--I've seen similar castors on planchette still for sale to this day, and eventually I'll figure out the true purpose of those castors, but that's a good guess.

The code cracked! Within a few short hours, a similar planchette appeared on an online auction site with a less-
obscured label (inset), giving us the vital legibility we needed to discover the planchette's true origins!
It's funny how quickly a frustrating mystery was solved in this case. It never happens this fast, folks! As you can see from the pictures, the planchette carried a stamp, but the ink was worn and very obscure--a frustrating discovery to know that all the information you need to ID the item was right there, and its faded remains are only stay behind to taunt you. So, with the stamp and quality of construction, it was obvious we had a commercially-manufactured item--we just didn't know who, when, or where. But I didn't have long to wait before a vital clue showed up--this time in the form of a near-identical specimen on eBay showing up later that evening, from the attic of a Spiritualist church not far away, with a more intact label. While the "C" and the "O" were a little tough to decipher, a few googled variations actually revealed another old eBay auction for a talking board by the same company that clarified everything: the label reads "Copyright BCM/PSI-LON. London. W.C.1 Design" and the box had an "18 Worton Way" return address. My pal and frequent guest commenter Glenn Rinker educated me on what I was looking at with these abbreviations, and even forwarded me a matching advertisement, to boot:

According to Glenn, BCM stands for "British Commercial Monomarks," and is an anonymous postal service similar to a PO Box for businesses, except that they receive your mail, then forward it to your proper address--an obviously attractive way for psychics and mediums to conceal their proper addresses. And "Psi-Lon" is the company's address abbreviation for BCM (in short, their PO Box designation) that stands for "Psychic Science Institute--LONdon." They advertised planchettes and other devices in the 1940s-1950s, and we'll examine a couple of their talking boards in Part 3 of our London examinations. It is unknown what connections there may be between that group and the CPS. Looks like this company also produced a spirit trumpet, which also may match up with one or another of the CPS trumpets, but we'll have to wait for those particular auction items to arrive to know for sure. 

So there you have it. An incredible assortment of automatic writing planchettes, courtesy of the College of Psychic Studies. We'll conclude our examination of their devices in Part 3, as we turn toward their talking boards and an extra-special item connected to the college's founder I had the rare privilege of documenting.