WAS ANYBODY THERE?
1997 / BBC - Open University.
Program summary: A Documentary about the investigations conducted in the 19th century by scientists such as Michael Faraday and William Crookes into the claims made by spiritualist mediums.
Spiritualism took off in Britain in the 1850s, its popularity boosted by demonstrations of the spirit world conducted by American Mediums at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Family seances in respectable Victorian parlours soon became all the rage with strange manifestations such as table-tilting and table-rapping the order of the day . But what exactly was the nature of the forces that made the tables tilt during these seances? Was it a supernatural phenomenon, as spiritualists claimed, or was there a more rational explanation?
To test this hypothesis,
the distinguished scientist and sceptic, Michael Faraday,
devised a simple but ingenious device consisting
of two pieces of paper: One piece was layed flat on the table and
the participants would place their fingers upon it (as shown in
the photo, right); The other (smaller) piece was folded in the
shape of a lever, and attached to the larger by a pin, about which
it could rotate freely. If it was the participants' hands that were
dragging the table, then the lever would rotate to the left
or right. If the table
moved "by itself" then the lever would remain stationary.
In many cases this device was able to prove that most table-tilting was the result of the subconscious involuntary movements of the participants. However Faraday was not, strictly speaking, a neutral observer. He belonged to a fundamentalist Christian sect called the Sandemanians, who believed that spiritualism was the work of the devil. He would therefore have had a vested interest in debunking the phenomenon.
Other scientists were not so ready to dismiss the claims of spiritualists. In 1871 William Crookes (right), renowned Chemist and Fellow of the Royal Society, invited the well-known Medium D D Home (left) to participate in a series of tests to prove or disprove his powers. In one famous example Home was apparently able to make an accordion play "Home sweet home" simply by laying his hands on the wire mesh box in which it was locked (above left).
As a result of his investigations, Crookes came to the conclusion that something existed which he called "psychic force". However he did leave himself open to criticism by not recording enough experimental detail, which led to suggestions that he may have been the victim of an elaborate hoax
famous Medium of the day investigated by Crookes was Florence
Cook (left), who was apparently able to produce materialisation and levitation phenomena
at will. From a respectable
working class home, she was 14 when she first started training as
a Medium. Crookes met her a year or two later and attended over
40 of her seances.
These sessions were conducted in the Cooke family home, with the invited audience seated around a table in the living room and Florence in a curtained-off alcove. The lights would be dimmed, Florence would go into a trance and a female figure dressed in white, would eventually appear to the audience from behind the curtain. The "spirit" announced herself as Katy King (pictured right), and would move amongst and talk to the audience on various matters.
Florence was eventually invited to take part in more rigorously controlled tests at Crookes's own laboratory. Crookes wanted to make sure that Florence Cook and Katy King were indeed two separate entities and so he insisted on checking "behind the curtain" during the sťance. However, spiritualists maintained that it was never possible to see all of the physical medium and all of the materialisation at the same time, because of laws that governed the balance between matter and spirit. Thus Crookes had to be content with only a partial view of Florence. He was, however, able to take several photos of the spirit manifestation Katy King (above right) until her abrupt departure in 1874.
argued that Florence must be genuine because she was so young and innocent
and clearly not capable of carrying out such a devious and sophisticated
hoax. Others, however, claimed that Crookes had an overly personal interest in both Florence and Katy King which might have
clouded his judgment in some way. These criticisms must have touched a nerve
because Crookes always preferred to cite his work with D D Home where there could be no suggestion of impropriety.
In 1882 William Crookes founded the Society for Psychical Research, eventually becoming president in 1898. The SPR set up a fully-equipped laboratory so that scientific techniques could be employed for the first time to study the phenomena associated with spiritualism.. As to whether Crookes was duped, or colluded with Florence Cooke, or whether there really was a spirit entity called "Katy King" is a matter for the reader's own judgment..............