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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.

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