In all cases 

Davey used 

only methods he

thought were 

detectable - 

simple tricks of

distraction and




Spiritualist Memories
Mediums, Messages, and their Meanings
 By Jeanine DeNoma 

This article is based on the talk Loren Pankratz gave at the 1994 CSICOP annual convention in Seattle.

For more than 25 years Henry Slade and other mediums won the best minds in the world for spiritualism with their slate writing. "They have been tested and examined by skeptics in every grade of incredulity, men in every way qualified to detect impostures or to uncover natural causes: trained physicists, medical men, lawyers, men of business. But in every case, the investigators have either retired baffled or become converts," wrote believer Alfred Wallace in 1875.

     Throughout this era, no experimental evidence provided a comprehensive physical explanation for the spiritualists' phenomena. Mediums appeared sincere, sound of mind, and convincing. They all said the same thing: This is a gift, I didn't ask for it, I didn't want it.

     A conjurer named S. J. Davey became interested in spiritualism after a close friend died. One day, in a pensive mood Davey pulled two slates from his desk, held them together and began to meditate. When he opened the slates, he was shocked and frightened to find "Beware" written on one. He later learned a friend had secretly written it there and, although he had thought he had examined both sides of each slate, the word had been there all along.

     Davey began to think up ways to trick people using slates and decided to try some experiments. Davey contacted Richard Hodgson, a member of the Society for Psychical Research and a believer in spiritualism. Together they designed the first study to investigate the reliability of eyewitness reports. They conducted 16 séances and collected 39 lengthy descriptive reports written by attending subjects.

     The subjects were told Davey was a conjurer, were warned to watch for trickery, and were encouraged to suggest controls. Davey did not allow the séances to be emotionally charged, saying, "I was unwilling to trade upon their emotions by professing to give messages from dead relatives or friends." Davey never claimed to have spiritualistic powers but said, "The phenomena you will see can not be accounted for by spiritualistic theory."

     In all cases Davey used only methods he thought were detectable - simple tricks of distraction and misdirection. He failed to show both sides of the slate. He switched slates. He wrote on slates while sitters were distracted. No one ever discovered what he was doing!

     One subject described Davey as "thoroughly honest and above all trickery." Another reported Davey was a gentleman "incapable of intentional deception." As evidence of Davey's sincerity, subjects described how he struggled to receive the messages. His efforts, in fact, were because he was extremely ill at the time of these experiments.

     Describing a séance one subject wrote, "We were all quite certain the slates were never out of the hand of one or the other of us. And we are totally unable to account for the slate writing." Another wrote, "I never lost sight of you. As far as I could judge, it was impossible for you or anyone present to have done it."

     Hodgson discovered people were unreliable in reporting what they saw. The reports reflected Davey's suggestions and the subjectís preconceived notions about séances, not actual events. Reporters transposed events, made inaccurate observations, and created events which did not occur. Hodgson confirmed the reports were flawed by inaccurate memories and concluded, "The results of the investigation show that the sort of testimony hitherto offered in favor of the genuineness of so called psychography [slate writing] is worthless," (Hodgson, Proceedings of Society Psych. Res., vol. 4 p.38, 1886).

     Davey died shortly after this study was published, but the debate continued. One letter to the editor, for example, refuted the conclusions of the study saying, "The magic tricks of Davey were done with obvious extraordinary skill and adroitness ... none of them [mediums] could possibly have been so clever." Finally, Alfred Wallace concluded Davey was a medium and had been deceiving himself and the public with these tricks!

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© 2001 Oregonians for Rationality