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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lippitt's Last Stand, 1873-76

The Boston booksellers Colby & Rich produced--or distributed--a number of spirit communication devices during their tenure as a prolific publisher of Spiritualist texts. They produced planchettes long after the fad had faded, still advertising them for true believers as late as 1877, and in that same year offered the "Mediometer," which was some as-yet undiscovered device meant to attach to a planchette--perhaps a shield or cover of some sort--to prevent fraud.

And there's a strange undercurrent among their devices that users of them must be protected from using them fraudulently to preserve the veracity of communications received through them. One such device, and perhaps their most intriguing, was Lippitt's Psychic Stand & Detector. The apparatus was invented by lawyer and Civil War veteran General Francis J. Lippitt, a close friend and confidant of Helena Patrovna Blavatsky who corresponded with him frequently in the 1870s regarding spirit communications with the ever-present spirit guide, John King.

Psychic Stand inventor, Francis J. Lippitt.
Lippitt reflected on the contrivance in 1881 in the January 8 edition of Mind & Matter as an "oval stand, the size of a small cardtable, the top of which would tilt up under pressure." The operation took two people: the medium, who "sat at one end, with her hands placed lightly on the top" and an observer, who sat opposite and watched "a small metallic aperture or window on the under side of the stand, always invisible to the medium." Lippitt goes on:
"The movements of the stand top under the medium's hands caused letters of the alphabet to appear at this little window, by which communications were spelled out with more or less rapidity; no one besides the medium touching the table. The communications came sometimes in answer to oral questions. Sometimes in answer to mental questions, and at other times spontaneously, without any questions being put at all."
The operation brings one other device immediately to mind: Hornung's Emanulector. There are some differences, of course: Hornung's apparatus was built to attach to a pre-existing table, the tilting of which caused the inner disk to rotate and expose a selected letter shielded from the user and only observable by a second party. The Psychic Stand ad hints that the device may have also had interchangeable alphabet disks ("an alphabet the medium cannot see, and the location of which may be changed at the pleasure of the observer"), which the Emanulector also boasted, though it just may be that the observer could reset the alphabet's starting point with a quick turn. So, it seems in application is was essentially an Emanulector-like device built into a tabletop.

The invention has an interesting and particularly troubled history. The first hints of the device come not long after its conception, in summer of 1873, when Lippitt sought to patent the idea using his working prototype. The resulting mess became national news when the patent office declined his patent, as the officer's statements (published by Lippitt and Robert Dale Owen in multiple public sources) sparked a flood of bad press from Spiritualists when the rejection letter admitted the device's novelty, but then stated "the Office cannot concede the truth of spiritualism; as, though individual scientists may have given the phenomena some attention, scientific men as a body or in any great numbers have never conceded their reality," and derided such admissions as "injurious to society." The patent office conjectured that by approving a device meant to facilitate spirit communication (though Lippitt strongly reminded them his test device might also disprove the reality of Spiritualism), they would be giving government endorsement of such beliefs. The office was kind enough to suggest to Lippitt that if he tempered his application and downgraded the device's claims to a "game table" or other amusement device, he stood a much larger likelihood of patent approval.

The November 12, 1873 Boston Evening
covered some of the patent controversy.
But Lippitt rejected the notion of soliciting his serious scientific invention as a mere amusement or parlor game, and instead appealed the decision, and was again--and finally--rejected. The patent office cited other examples of patents rejected on the same basis, including an application by Isaac Pease for his Spiritual Telegraph Dial, which is going to be fun to investigate. Lippitt failed to yield where others had or would. The 1868 Jennings planchette patent, the 1880 Becker talking board patent, and, most importantly, the Elijah Bond Ouija patent in 1890, all (among others) made patent claims on a "toy fortune telling device" or, in the case of Ouija, a "toy or game," and left more spiritual interpretations of their operation to the imaginations of consumers.

After the patent setback and public feud, the device goes underground for a couple of years, from the perspective of modern evidence. And while there are no known records that mention the device in 1874, in 1875 Lippitt shows up again testing and refining the device, which he reported to none other than his friend, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Letters to Theosophy's founder indicate that Lippitt was immenently concerned with the device's fool-proof veracity. His writings report that he performed a series of tests during "daily sittings" in Boston between May 28 and June 28, 1875, "with that excellent medium Mrs. M.A. French" of Washington D.C.

DETOUR: You may be wondering if this is perhaps May French, the daughter of celebrated medium Elizabeth J. French (who developed Emma Hardinge Britten). It's a good guess, and would have been an intriguing tangle of prominent Spiritualists, but it is not meant to be. The medium is Monisa Antoinette French, described in 1871 as "visionist and clairvoyant" working in Boston, and later listed as a trance medium and clairvoyant working out of Washington D.C. in the May 15, 1880 edition of the Religio-Philosophical Journal.  So we never need plow this field again, my colleague Marc has broken down all the evidence for your consumption over on his ever-reliable Chasing Down Emma blog.

Lippitt recollected the seances in the January 8, 1881 edition of Mind & Matter, when he wrote in to  publicly defend charges that his friend Blavatsky had never controlled spirits. And the contents of those recollections are verified by Lippitt's contemporaneous correspondence with Blavatsky herself, who at the time was seriously ill after suffering a fall in Philadelphia that threatened to have her infected leg amputated. The communications are curious because Lippitt notes in his return correspondence to Blavatsky that a mysterious "overscript" in blue pencil--messages from John King--appears as scrawled postscripts in Blavatsky's correspondence, which Lippitt noted with curiosity "was probably written by J.K. after your letter was sealed."

So it comes as little surprise that the main focus of the Psychic Stand test seances are the communications with John and Katie King, who was at that time making her rounds in spiritualist circles, first materializing with Florence Cook in London in the early-to-mid 1870s, and more recently, equally controversially--and closer--with Jennie and Nelson Holmes in New York, which Blavatsky railed against in her letters to Lippitt, chastising Francis for assisting in fundraising efforts for the couple who had recently been turned out as frauds.  [MP: It is also worth noting that these very well may be the same people behind the Holmes & Company Alphabetic Planchette from the 1868 craze, but that'll take some digging to confirm.]  

What is curious is that Lippitt actually wrote to Blavatsky's kind-of-sort-of-husband, Michael Betanelli, on June 2, and asked him to petition the severely-ill Blavatsky to send John King to the test sessions at French's home, and requested she send the spirit the following day at 5 pm. Right on queue, John King showed up, as "the stand began to work with a rapidity and precision never before witnessed, indicating a new and powerful control." King introduced himself, and shared some dire news about Blavatsky's health, which improved over the course of the seances.

The reported communications are about what you'd expect, but one, in particular, I found pretty amusing. On June 30, Blavatsky responded to Lippitt's inquiry about a confusing jumble of letters received through the Psychic Stand (according to the 1881 recollection, it looked something like "IESH at des MINSE RHINGO URSLA TOLK TSHE BOS TIS VY LKIST"). Blavatsky's reply was that the jumble was actually written in a cyphered alphabet, in 4-5 different languages, including “the Kabbalistic employed by Rosicrucians and other Brotherhoods of the occult sciences,” and hints that John King “knew how to write that way, of course.” [MP: Emphasis mine]

It is also noteworthy that HPB is not allowed to reveal the translated communications because she is not at liberty to share them, though she eventually "translated" the messages and confirmed the presence of the spirit of "Omniloff," a "Russian officer in Caucasus...killed in last war with Schamill." The correspondences further state that King has “done all that he could do towards helping you with your stand—but he is not allowed the poor fellow to do more,” proposing that Lippitt’s device was refined with suggestions of the spirit first summoned by Jonathan Koons in 1853. Also curious to note that HPB states “he [King] is not even permitted to manifest himself any more, except by letters he writes or words he spells—unless I [HPB] am alone with him.”

So, finally, after patent disputes, seance trials, and input from some of Spiritualism's most prominent influences and spirit guides, the device did make it to market, with ads appearing in 1876. It sold for $3.50, which is equivalent to approximately $75 these  days.

What's curious is that Francis J. Lippitt wrote extensively on his own life before his death, publishing his autobiography, Reminiscences of Francis J. Lippitt, written for his family, his near relatives and intimate friends, in 1902 just before his death that year at the age of ninety. Surprisingly--or not--that book contains not a single admission of his advocacy or enthusiasm for Spiritualism, much less any hint of his invention. Even the book where he did write about his seance experiences, 1888's Physical Proofs of Another Life, there's nary a trace of the device, communications with it, or the patent controversy, which is unusual in that the book is a retort to the Seybert Commission, and Lippitt certainly had an axe to grind with the government. And, sadly, the text contains no illustration of the device, and I've found none in the references sources here or on, where the gettin' is best. So, for now, this is what we know--now on to the patent archives to see what's what!


  1. The ingenuity of our Victorian ancestors never ceases to amaze me. In your opinion, was the Psychic Stand an influence on the later Ashkir-Jobson Trianion's Communigraph - or is it simply a case of being similar in style but not construction?

    1. How's the weather, Mr. Rinker? The Communigraph is such a different, bizarre beast that it is hard to draw a direct correlation between it and Lippitt's device. I hesitated, even, to draw the Emanulector comparison, because I don't want to imply that there was a direct influence that we can't prove. There may have been one, but from the viewpoint of modern evidence, it doesn't appear there was a whole lot of press on Hornung's device here in the States, so it's very difficult to discern if Lippitt had the spark of the idea independently or not. And not that it matters too much. But the Communigraph, with its independently-swinging pendulum and alphabet triggers, didn't rely on autonomous movement, nor was it a blind test device. And with a few decades between them, I'm not sure we could ever tie their heritages together.

    2. My thoughts exactly Brandon. It was Ann Bishop and the award-winning Newswatch team who thought there might be a connection.