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Authors: Christine Wicker

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T
he first time I tried to contact spirit was the night medium Patricia Price showed us how to fake reading billets. Faking was easy, she said, but so was doing the real thing. She had us pair off and write a question to spirit on a piece of paper. My partner and I sat with knees facing and exchanged our folded notes. My partner was a nice older woman who'd been a Spiritualist for forty years. None of her three children was a believer. Holding her note, I shut my eyes and waited. Nothing. My mind was completely blank.

“Keep trying,” she said. “Something will come.”

I saw a sheaf of pink roses. That was so lame. It's what local wags call the universal message: “I've got a grandmotherly spirit with roses and she's sending love.” I didn't have the grandmother or the love. Just roses. How humiliating.

But that's all I saw, and so I said it. “I see roses.” She smiled.

“Anything else? Be patient with yourself.”

“Nooooo.”

The Spiritualist lady looked disappointed. This was ridiculous. I felt silly and at the same time inadequate. It was as though I'd failed to make the in-crowd, been snubbed by the spirits. I was not the first to feel Lily Dale's peculiar pressures.

“One of the most curious facts about the Dale Spiritualists is the pique they exhibit when compelled to admit that they are not receiv
ing any messages,” wrote psychology student George Lawton after visiting Lily Dale in 1929. “A person returning to the hotel veranda from a meeting is apt to be met with the eagerly-put query: ‘Did you get a message?'” If the answer was no for too many days, the Spiritualist was likely to begin responding with a “Spiritualist type of feeling of inferiority—a sense of hurt and shame arising from the belief that one of two things is true: either he is unloved by those in the beyond or, through some fault or even delinquent strain, he generates vibrations which repel all attempts at communication.”

I opened the Spiritualist lady's note. On it was written, “How did you die? Was it really the car wreck that killed you?”

My partner didn't even smirk. “You did get something,” she said gently.

Right. So what was spirit saying? He was pelted to death with roses?

I grimaced.

“That was his mother sending love,” the Spiritualist lady said.

Nice try. This is all Lily Dale is, I thought. Nice, gullible, well-intentioned people coming together and convincing each other that they're special enough to talk with ghosties. That's what Murry's message seemed to be, and now here it was again. All these messages were information the mediums already knew or inanities that allowed the hearer to fill in the blanks. I went away discouraged. I'd begun to like the people in Lily Dale. I hated thinking that they were dupes.

 

W
illiam James noted that belief in psychic events has been recorded in every society in every age. He listened to and investigated such accounts, and the sheer number of them impressed him. Any one of the stories might not be enough to convince a cautious person, he reasoned. Each account is a mere twig that can be easily snapped, but put the accounts together and they make a sturdy bundle that does not yield easily.

“I find myself believing that there is ‘something' in these never ending reports of physical phenomena, although I haven't yet the least possible notion of the something,” he wrote in
The Final Impressions of a Psychical Researcher.
One of the bundles of sticks I encountered as I researched psychic events was the number of brilliant people who have believed that reality might include spirits, talking dead people, meaningful coincidences, or other strange events.

Thomas Edison was one of those who trusted spirit help and other strange forces. He once connected rubber tubes to his forehead, directed them toward a pendulum suspended on the wall of his laboratory, and attempted to move it with the force of his will. He recorded mind trips into the outer reaches of the cosmos, and when dealing with a problem he couldn't solve, he often napped as a way of accessing impressions from the universe at large. When he awoke, a new idea would lead him to the solution. His ideas and inventions didn't come from his own brain, he said. He was merely a receiving apparatus or recording plate.

He believed the universe consists of an infinite number of “monads,” conscious centers of spiritual force or energy that are constant and immortal. Humans are made up of these bits of energy combined in different ways, he said. Late in life he worked on a spirit machine to detect and record the monads he believed were prowling through the ether of space.

He theorized that living people may communicate with the dead because personality is recorded in the brain's memory cells. When the physical body decomposes, memory cells may abandon the useless vessel and swarm free in space. These bits of energy are intelligences that carry the essence of the human personality they once were part of.

 

C
arl G. Jung experienced a number of what seemed to be poltergeist experiences, and séances he attended for two years were the basis for his doctoral dissertation. He was not a Spiritualist, as the title of his dissertation—
On the Psychology and Psychopathology
of So-called Occult Phenomena—
attests. But his experiences with séances caused him to wonder whether the unconscious mind receives strange and mysterious material that the conscious mind would never be able to accept. Later in life the psychiatrist followed his own inner voices into strange realms. Biblical, mythical, and historical figures arose in his mind. Salome appeared, and Elijah the prophet. In one of his dreams a winged figure came sailing across the sky. It was an old man with the horns of a bull, who became known to Jung as Philemon. Jung considered Philemon his
psychagogue,
the teacher who would instruct his soul on matters of the unconscious.

The old man Philemon was a fantasy and also a “force which was not of myself,” Jung wrote. Philemon assured Jung that thoughts are like people in a room. Neither he nor any other thinker generates their own thoughts, Philemon said. So thought is not the thinker's responsibility.

Jung worried about his own mental stability, but the fact that he could step in and out of his visions reassured him. One day he found himself less in control. He felt a strange and almost unbearable tension. Even his children seemed to act oddly. He felt surrounded by outside voices, while his mind was filled with inner voices. Relief came only when he began to write.

For three nights, he wrote a document that he called
Seven Sermons of the Dead.
The dead he referred to were spokesmen for the realm beyond human understanding, he believed. The manuscript was written in old-fashioned language, and at the end Jung signed the manuscript with the name Basilides, an Alexandrian Gnostic who lived about 120 years after Christ. Jung wrote that the conversations helped him organize and explain his theories about collective consciousness, which he would spend much of his life exploring.

Jung seemed to be of two minds about the spirits communicating with him. “Spirits are complexes of the collective unconscious which appear when the individual loses his adaptation to reality or which seek to replace the inadequate attitude of a whole people by a
new one. They are therefore either pathological fantasies or new but as yet unknown ideas,” he wrote. Jung also said that Westerners use thinking and sensation as their dominant ways of experiencing the world. This separation from feeling and intuition cuts them off from whole realms of knowledge.

Freud didn't agree with Jung's mystical ideas and the psychiatrists' association ended over them. But even the father of psychoanalysis himself believed telepathy might be possible when he noticed that patients and analysts often seemed to be able to pick up each other's thought.

 

C
ommodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, once the richest man in America, credited the spirit world with having given him good health and financial success. Asked how he made such astute business decisions, he said, “Do as I do. Consult the spirits.”

His mistress, Tennessee Claflin, and her sister, Victoria Woodhull, were well-known clairvoyants in the mid-1800s who advised the millionaire on investments and other matters. He was so grateful for their aid that he helped finance a brokerage firm the sisters started for female investors, the first such business ever.

Vanderbilt believed portraits enabled spirits to communicate and always carried a miniature of his late mother, Phebe, in his breast pocket. When Victoria attempted to conjure Phebe's spirit, she sat under the old lady's portrait in the parlor of the Vanderbilt mansion. During the sessions, Vanderbilt said he could smell soap and lavender, scents that reminded him of his mother. He trusted Victoria's talents implicitly, and she helped him in many ways. But she had her limits. When the millionaire wanted her to construct a spirit portrait of his late father, whose face Vanderbilt well recalled, she declined despite many offers of ample payment.

Vanderbilt once gave a Staten Island medium enough money to retire to Vermont after she rid him of two spirits who had haunted
his dreams. One was a seven-year-old boy killed by Vanderbilt's carriage horses in Central Park, and another was a railroad worker mangled beneath the wheels of the Commodore's private railroad car, the
Flying Devil.

 

M
uckraker and Socialist Upton Sinclair was one of the most famous and respected journalists of the early twentieth century. He became a believer in psychic phenomena after his wife, Mary Craig, began experimenting with telepathy.

“I am the despair of my orthodox materialistic friends because I insist upon believing in the possibility of so many strange things,” he wrote in his autobiography. “My materialistic friends know that these things are
a priori
impossible; whereas I assert that nothing is
a priori
impossible. It is a question of evidence, and I am willing to hear the evidence about anything whatever.”

He detailed his and Mary Craig's experiments in a book titled
Mental Radio.
Sinclair wrote that he would sit at a desk in one room while his wife reclined in another room. He would draw a picture and take it to his wife. Without looking at it, she would put the picture face down on her solar plexus, get a mental impression, and draw it. The book, which records 210 successes, reproduces both his drawings and Mary Craig's.

When he couldn't find a publisher, Sinclair published the book himself. His friends objected vehemently, warning him that
Mental Radio
would ruin his credibility. One published an article titled “Sinclair Goes Spooky.”

But not everyone was so frightened of the subject. A publisher did eventually pick up the book, and Albert Einstein wrote the preface for a German edition. He wrote that while telepathy might seem fantastic, it was inconceivable “that so conscientious an observer and writer as Upton Sinclair should attempt a deliberate deception of the reading world. His good faith and trustworthiness cannot be doubted.”

The Sinclairs had many psychic experiences and sat in circles with a number of mediums. One of the most dramatic stories was of the weekend Mary Craig had a premonition that something terrible was going wrong for their friend Jack London. She and Upton debated driving to London's ranch but decided not to. Sinclair wrote that two days later they received news London had killed himself. (Other sources say London died of kidney disease, and some blame a morphine overdose.)

 

P
oet William Blake was famous for believing in unearthly powers. In more recent times, so was poet James Merrill, who, with his companion David Jackson, spent twenty years consulting the Ouija board. Night after night in the cupola of their house in Stonington, Connecticut, they sat next to each other in lavender Victorian chairs, while the board sat on a round table topped with milk glass. They used the handle of an upside-down, blue-and-white willowware teacup as their pointer and propped a mirror on a chair facing the table so they could see each other and the spirits could see them. Merrill kept one hand on the cup and transcribed with the other.

Their main spirit guide was Ephraim, who identified himself as a Greek Jew and a favorite of the Emperor Tiberius. With Ephraim's help, they composed a three-part, 560-page epic poem called
The Changing Light at Sandover.
It was filled with gods, angels, demons, and ghosts. Some people think it was Merrill's masterpiece. Others have dealt with it less kindly.

In the early years of Merrill and Jackson's Ouija boarding, Ephraim dazzled the writers with his wit and connected them with dead friends. W. H. Auden and both men's parents supposedly made contact.

Their friend Alison Lurie wrote a book about their Ouija board experiences. In it she wrote that David's unconscious mind was the
main impetus for the spirit messages and that James went along as a way of giving his lover, who was a failed novelist, an outlet for creativity. But the two men gave every evidence of truly believing that they were in contact with spirits. They told Lurie that their guide once directed David to put his hand flat on the board. Both men said they saw his hand become red and creased as though it had been stepped on, and he could not lift it from the board.

Commerce with spirits was so alluring, Lurie wrote, that her two friends withdrew from real life as it became “drab, faded, even unreal” in comparison. Eventually spirits began to assure Merrill and Jackson that they were more highly evolved spiritual beings than ordinary mortals. Ephraim encouraged the couple to take other lovers whenever they liked. They did, and Merrill died of complications from HIV infection.

 

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