P.9: Phenomena on Trial
In spite of the Hodgson/SPR report showing the "Mahatma Letters" did not just appear on paper, or that H.P. Blavatsky could not materialize cups, saucers and vases as is claimed today, Dr. James Santucci, Professor at the University of California, writes in the current, Spring 2003 "Theosophical History" Journal, published by the same University, that the Hodgson/S.P.R. report claiming the above is wrong. (1)
In 1882 Spiritualism and Theosophy in London had jointly given birth to a new kind of spiritual group, the Society for Psychical Research, or S. P R. Most were members of the spiritualist Church, and the SPR just as the Societe Espirite Parissienne before that, where hoping to proof the spiritualist phenomena with scientific means.
Members of the Church of Spiritualism (like later Vernon Harrison, who wrote J'Accuse: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885), in fact complained that the Journal of the Society, contained work antipathetic to beliefs of the Church.
And SPR members began resigning after Eleanor Sidgwick pronounced (in the Journal only) that the celebrated medium William Eglinton was only a conjuror. Light, as organ of the London Spiritualist Alliance, produced a huge dossier of evidential support for Eglinton, and ended with the view that unless her accusation of fraudulence was withdrawn, it "will have the effect of forcing a crisis, and causing a schism in the Society which would, not improbably, split it to the core." (Light, 24 July 1886, p., 329.)
Because of his semi-skepticism, Richard Hodgson was disliked by a considerable segment of the SPR. But by today’s (April 2003) standards Hodgson cannot be considered extremely skeptic, and his report should be seen as the best possible at the time.
For example following the report about Blavatsky, Hodgson restricted Mrs. Piper’s sensitivity to telepathic gleanings, but next removed any agency from his object, referring to Mrs. Piper as "a delicate protoplasmic machine." ( Richard Hodgson, "A Further Record of Observations of Certain Phenomena of Trance," PSPR 13, 1897-8, p.357.)
As has been shown in a number of well researched books, the SPR convened itself around an intellectual aristocracy based in Cambridge, which remained the enemy of the dissenting scientific naturalists, and the intellectual home of natural theology. (See: Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research, 1968; Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1983); Ruth Brandon, The Spiritualists, 1983;John Cerullo, The Secularisation of the Soul, 1982. J. P. Williams's thesis, The Making of Victorian Psychical Research: An Intellectual Elite's Approach to the Spiritual World, remains unpublished, Cambridge, 1984)
Today most religious scholars tend to avoid all discussions whether the claims of a religious tradition are true or false in matters of historical and scientific record.
To defend there position academic scholars often will fall back on the scholastic pronouncement used by Thomas Aquinas, that since we can neither proof or disprove that God (“materializations, the Great White Brotherhood,” and so on) truly exist, we should therefore hold off any judgments and remain “agnostic” meaning open for all, not disproved "possibilities." (2)
Scholars of the Spiritualist Church and Theosophy today, in spite of the non-availability of scientific evidence for materializations, therefore can continue to claim the phenomena in question are factual. Dr. James Santucci who now deconstructs the Hodgson report, plus infamous Theosophical apologetic Daniel H. Caldwell will indeed produce numerous eyewitness reports, to "proof" that the spiritist phenomena of Blavatsky contrary to Hodgson’s claims, in fact should be considered real.
Non-scholastic Voltaire on the other hand remarked already that many "excellent persons think they have seen what they have not seen and heard what was never said to them.
In fact the following is quoted form the fifth edition of E. Roy Calvert's Capital Punishment:
Adolf Beek was sentenced in 1896 to seven years penal servitude for a series of robberies from women, and in 1904 was again convicted for similar offenses. On the first occasion he was identified by no less than ten women, and the second trial by five women, each of whom swore to his identity as the man who had swindled her; a handwriting expert testified on oath that the letters written by the real culprit were in Beek's handwriting; two prison officials wrongly identified Beck as a previously convicted man-Smith-who was afterwards proved to be the real perpetrator of the crimes for which Beek was found guilty. Rarely has evidence been so overwhelming as it was in this case, yet Beck was subsequently discovered to be absolutely innocent.
There is no shadow of foundation: stated the official report, "for any of the charges made against Beck," and the Home Office awarded him 5,000 pound compensation. Yet it took Adolf Beck nine years to establish his innocence.
Maybe that is also why a few hundred years ago Voltaire wrote that were witnesses are trying to back up a cherished religious belief, their "eye witness" reports, are "worth nothing."
Before H.P. Blavatsky could be served with the papers for the trial where she would have to provide evidence for her claims, Blavatsky (on advice from the TS board of directors) immediately flew the country and left the Asian continent forever. Had the courtcase against Blavatsky and the Theosophical society in regards to claims surrounding the “Mahatma Letters” had proceeded as planned, it would have given us probably more evidence, then the Hodgson report the only investigations (there where two) we have. Yet it is of interest to see how even in case of a a “precipitation-trial” some years earlier in France, apologetics would still deny all evidence.
Some of the leading Spiritists were tried on June 16-17, 1875, before the seventh chamber of the Tribunal Correctionnel de la Seine. The courtroom was packed with spectators.
For contemporary observers, a striking moment of the trial was the Comtede Bullet's interroatoire.
Bullet's first sitting with Buguet had yielded a spirit image of the Comte's sister, who lived in Baltimore. When the Prisident questioned him about the authenticity of the picture, Bullet refused to admit that it might be false:
Q. Nevertheless you have the box of portraits here; do you not think that two women's faces could resemble one another?
A. Oh! Everyone recognized my sister, it was certainly she.
Q. Well, monsieur, you have been duped.
Q. You now know Buguet's procedure? Here, look, do you not think it possible that two pictures of women could resemble one another... In any event, Buguet’s procedure has been demonstrated.
A. I certainly saw a mannequin ... that was shown to me; but that proves nothing: he is a medium.
Q. Yes, this doll; and beside it, you see the collection from which he look your sister's portrait.
A. M. le juge showed me these heads; a mannequin; but what does that prove? He could have used them once, twice; but in my case, I summoned my sister's spirit, which appeared I am convinced.
Bullet believed so completely in the reality of spirit phenomena that he was willing to explain away even the most overwhelming evidence of fraud, and even to endure being called a "dupe" in a public trial. Bullet, however, did not see his conviction in these terms. Indeed, he viewed himself as a scientifically-sophisticated researcher of spirit phenomena, and held that his beliefs were the product of systematic empirical study.
The power of this basis for belief became increasingly clear as the testimony of Leymarc's witnesses continued. Over and over again, the Prisident would present the box of cut-out heads and the doll; over and over, convinced Spiritists would refuse to accept this evidence as proof that their particular photographs had been faked. All of these witnesses - many, of whom were technical trained, either as army officers or engineers - viewed the-or belief in scientific terms, and attempted to present It to the court in a similar manner.
The Spiritists were deeply discouraged by the Prisident's refusal to accept what they saw as clear evidence that at least a few of Buguet's photographs had been authentic.
The President, for his part was frustrated by the obstinacy of the Spiritist witnesses, who refused to draw "rational " conclusions from the irrefutable evidence of fraud the prosecutor presented.
Leymarie contested the police assumption that he had been Buguet's knowing accomplice. The editor insisted he had believed in the authenticity of Buguet's powers as completely as any of the photographer's satisfied clients; he was therefore as much a victim of fraud as they. Despite this abundant testimony and Ia chaud's exhaustive, sentimental plaidoirie, the outcome of the trial was as unfavorable for Leymarie: as it was for the others accused.
Buguet and Leymaric however were both sentence to one year in prison and fined 500 francs, in addition to court costs; Firman was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 300 francs. All three appealed the court's decision, but the Cour d'Appel, after hearing essentially the same arguments, upheld the judgment.
Both the Spiritists' justifications for their belief and the court's reactions to them provide telling insights into the complex relationship between believers, and the skeptical mainstream.
The Spiritists tailored their "experiments" to what they believed to be the elusive nature of spirit phenomena. These manifestations, they argued, were not simple, repeatable processes like chemical reactions; instead, spirit phenomena were dependant on a wide variety of conditions, including the observer's emotional state, the presence of a medium, and the will of the spirits themselves. As a result, Spiritists tended to stress the importance of eyewitness accounts, and above all the quantity of evidence. A phenomenon may have been impossible to produce reliably in an experimental context, but if it could be shown to have occurred frequently nevertheless, Spiritists believed, its existence could be considered "pro."
The Spiritist effort to take what they saw as the fundamental unpredictability of spirit phenomena into account, while nevertheless retaining an essentially "scientific" approach, made their ideas seem utterly bizarre to outsiders. Spiritist science, however, appeared perfectly rational when viewed in the context of Spiritist assumptions about the nature of the beyond.
Leymarie provided a particularly revealing example of the dissonance between "court science - and -Spiritist science." The President, in the process of asking Leymarie why he had published so many testimonials from Buguet's customers, argued that he had printed these letters in order to manipulate his audience. Leymarie took a different tack, asserting instead that the testimonials, constituted a form of scientific proof in their own right, particularly since he had only included them in the Revue after experimentally. verifying the authenticity of Buguet's photographs. The sheer number of letters proved the truth of these experimental findings: "only a crowd of testimonials makes it possible to recognize that a fact is true, that there is a strict and severe criterium, " Leymarie told the Judge.
Any phenomenon supported by such an impressive number of eyewitness accounts, Spiritists argued, had to be real, even if it could not always be replicated in the laboratory." The unpredictability of spirit phenomena also served to explain those instances in which Buguet failed to produce the likeness the sitter requested. In the Revue, Leymarie noted, “we ceaselessly repeated that M. Buguet could not always obtain a complete result."
Mediumism was a temperamental faculty, and no human being could presume to have the spirits at his beck and call. Hence, for Spiritists, the very inconsistency, of Buguet's results was proof of their authenticity. If Buguet were a fraud, would he not he have made sure every picture turned out properly? Other Spiritist witnesses attempted to explain their point of view more fully. When the President questioned the reality of spirit photography in scientific terms, for example, arguing that invisible entitles cannot be photographed, the Spiritist Colonel Carrd offered a rebuttal:
A. Because you have mentioned science, allow me to mention that when you pass light through a prism, it yields the solar spectrum; at each end of it, you have invisible rays; some are perceptible because of the heat they produce, others are chemical rays; they exist, even if you do not see them The rays of the sun breakdown in a manner that covers the spectrum, and on one end of it, vou have calorific rays, which are something you cannot sec, that can only be perceived with a thermometer or extremely sensitive instruments...
Q. This does not disprove what I have said. We cannot, in any case, have scientific discussions here.
A. If ultraviolet and infrared light had been proved to exist, then why not spirits? Perhaps the soul is made of a substance that man had simply not yet developed the instruments to detect. Perhaps the medium, working in conjunction with a camera, was the necessary instrument.