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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"High & Sacred Communications": The Seybert Dial Trials, 1857

"Do not the dry bones rattle now?"

This was the inquiry said to have been put forth by none other than Shakespeare, on July 21, 1857, through a previously-undiscovered array of alphabet dials and spirit communication devices invented, used, and refined by Philadelphia philanthropist Henry Seybert, most famously know for the namesake endowment that would sponsor the Seybert Commission 30 years hence.  Check that date again--that's 1857--less than a decade out from the birth of Spiritualism, and in the earliest years of the appearance of mechanical alphabetic séance apparatus.  For our game, that's eeeeeaaarly.

The excerpt appears in an incredible séance journal recently uncovered by my friends and colleagues John Buescher and Pat Deveney of IAPSOP at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and is part of the Seybert Commission collection there. It is now part of IAPSOP's Ephemera Wing, along with partial transcripts I made of the device-relevant passages, of which the document is predominantly composed.

Titled "Spiritual Communications obtained with the Aid of Instruments through the Mediumship of Miss Catherine Fox and H.C. Gordon," the journal dates from April-September, 1857, and consists of 72 pages of séance transcripts describing Seybert's efforts to test and refine a series of very early spirit communication devices with the aid of several mediums -- Kate Fox, H.C. Gordon, and S.B. Brittan among them. The transcripts record the communications of these mediums, guided by the spirit of Henry's deceased father, famed chemist and Congressman Adam Seybert, along with a host of celebrity spirit guides that include Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Napoleon, and Isaac Newton, as they seek to adjust and refine the apparatus being used to solicit the communications.

"New modes of communication" is the central focus of the document, and the spirits fluctuate from
approval to disapproval of instruments from one séance to the next.

The specific number of devices tested is difficult to determine, though there was at least one "Alphabetic Rod" or "Semicircular Dial" -- a table-mounted, pulley-controlled device that drove a vertical rod to spell out messages, that relied on table-tipping movements to spell out messages similarly to the Spiritual Telegraph Dial of Isaac Pease, which had debuted only a few years prior. They also call to mind other early contrivances, such as those revealed by Emma Hardinge Brittan in Modern American Spiritualism, or even Susanna Moodie's "spiritoscope," which also had a Fox Sister's connection and took place contemporaneously with Seybert's trials. 

Constant improvement and modification of a parade of new and old instruments created for communication makes
determining what's what difficult, as passages like this demonstrate.

Other communication machines mentioned in the transcripts include a "keyed instrument," a "new sliding instrument," a "wooden dial" built by trial participant Mr. Alhauss, a "cog dial" that may have been separate from the Alphabetic Rod, and the vaguely-defined "Telegraph," along with several false starts and discarded devices. Operating in the same time and locale that Dr. Robert Hare performed his famous public trials with his own Spiritoscopes (and who was something of a rival of Seybert's in his early chemistry career, a profession he gave up on after receiving his father's substantial inheritance), the transcripts of Seybert's trials provide a window into the early evolution of alphabetic spirit communication devices.

A new day, a new dial. It has a pin, and a rod, and an alphabet, and that's about all we know!
As linked above, IAPSOP has both photofacsimile images of the original journal, and my own notes and transcribed excerpts from that journal. I discovered when transcribing the document that Seybert italicized his own inquiries to the right, and the spirits' answers to the left, so that might help you make more sense of it if you read it for yourself. And I DO encourage you to investigate this amazing document for yourself, as it is an incredibly fascinating perspective into some of the earliest experiments in mechanical spirit communication in existence, and well worth the effort. Let me know what you discover! 

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