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vol. 3, p. 177
from Adyar archives of the International Theosophical Society
vol. 3 (1875-1878)


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My Experiences in London and Brussels

By Dr. A. Butlerof, Professor of Chemistry in the University of St. Petersburg.
Translated from “Psychic Studies,” by Emily Kislingbury.

Another medium, whose remarkable seances I had the opportunity of attending in London, is the well-known Mr. Williams. My experiences with him are well calculated to show how easily one may be led to hasty conclusions when judging on insufficient evidence. The morning after our arrival in London, M. Aksakof and myself went to Mr. Williams’s house to ask for a private sitting with him. He was ready to give it at once, and we went into his little back room, where we seated ourselves at the table, holding Williams firmly by both hands, while we waited in the dark. Presently M. Aksakof felt something hard touch his face slightly; I also felt the same thing. We were wondering what it could be, when suddenly raps were heard, and the word “cabinet” was spelled out. This meant that the medium was to go into the cabinet. When we struck a light we found a chair upon the table before us. It came there in the dark, noiselessly, and now we concluded that it was this chair that had touched us in passing. Williams asked whether we wished to tie him; but as, on this occasion, we only desired to acquaint ourselves with the phenomena, we declined, and the medium went into his large cupboard, the so-called cabinet. This cabinet consists of thin boards with two doors in front, which are separated by a fixed panel, about as wide as one of the doors. At the top of each panel is a square opening, closed by a black curtain. Williams sat behind one door, which was fastened, while the other remained open. The light was then turned out, and manifestations began almost immediately. Within the cabinet we could see phosphorescent sparks darting about, and the various objects on the table at which we were sitting began to be moved in the air; the hand-bell was also rung. The manifestations were strong and decisive; but they were produced in a place to which we were strangers, in the dwelling of the medium, while he remained unbound. I must confess that, notwithstanding my former experiences, and the manifold and reliable testimony of various persons who had often attended Williams’s seances, and had seen similar occurrences under test conditions, yet I did not feel prepared to say, after this sitting, that I was at all convinced by what I then saw.

On the evening of the same day Mr. Williams held his ordinary public séance, to which each and all were admitted on payment of half-a-crown. I went alone and found the room empty. A little later five persons appeared, apparently all known to Mr. Williams. We went again into the little room, sat down at the table, and held hands all round. The manifestations began with great power; we heard the musical box wound up several times, the bells rose in the air, various other objects flew about, phosphorescent lights followed the flight of the bells, hands touched the faces of all present. A voice was heard, said to belong to “Peter,” a personage who is often audibly, but seldom visibly, present at Williams’s circles. The voice is characteristic, but certainly not natural, and is most like that assumed by clowns. That this voice did not come from Williams, who remained almost immovable throughout the manifestations, was pretty clear to my mind; but, on the whole, things looked suspicious. I was in a strange place, sitting with persons unknown to me and friends of the medium; I could not feel at my ease, and I was bound to use every precaution. My doubts and suspicions increased the more when I distinctly felt that the hand which was touching my forehead in no gentle manner proceeded from a cloth sleeve. The touches were also very unlike those that I had felt on former occasions under trustworthy conditions. Besides this, I detected a minute particle of the floating phosphorescent light on my sleeve; it continued to emit light for a moment, and then, as is always the case with phosphorus, was succeeded by a tiny luminous streak of smoke. I even fancied for a moment that I could smell the phosphorus, although I cannot now be sure that it was not an illusion. Now that I have learned to know Mr. Williams better, and have collected and weighed many new facts, I cannot assert that I was deceived on that occasion. Indeed, I know for certain that hands with sleeves have appeared at seances under strict test conditions, and that those hands are more or less material, according as circumstances and the power of the medium are more or less favourable to their production.

However that may be, I came away from Williams’s with the worst impressions; I could not shake off the strong and unpleasant suspicion that I had been the whole evening the sport of a number of persons, strangers to me, but well known to one another. The question had to be decided whether, supposing the above manifestations to have been artificial, similar, but genuine, ones did occur in Mr. Williams’s presence. With this view, we invited Mr. Williams to come to our hotel, where M. Aksakof and myself held five sittings with him. At one of these only, which proved unsuccessful, a Russian gentleman of our acquaintance was present; at the other four sittings we three were alone, and two of these were of a nature to leave no further room for doubt. And from this it is plain how necessary it is to be careful in forming a judgment, and how easy it is to arrive at wrong conclusions if they are founded on first impressions or on insufficient observations. Ordinary scientific sceptics fall not unwillingly into this mistake, and think themselves justified in giving passing attention to the phenomena, on which they proceed to judge of them in their dogmatic tone of infallibility. This was Tyndall’s mode, for example, whereas other men of science, who went to work with greater care and precision, found it necessary to pursue their investigations for a considerable length of time before they could announce anything as fact. So acted Wallace and Crookes, with whom I had the opportunity of conversing a few days later. When I expressed to the former of these my apprehensions with regard to the sparks of phosphorus on my sleeve, he directed my attention very rightly to the fact that it would be leaping to conclusions if I should decide from that one circumstance that the manifestations were artificial. Wallace suggested it as possible that phosphorus might be directly the cause of the light, and that the application of it might yet be due to the power which produced the rest of the manifestations. Crookes related that he had also believed that he saw phosphorescent smoke from the lights at seances, even on occasions when he knew them for certain to be of mediumistic origin.

The seances with Williams, of which I am now speaking, took place in our hotel [Inns of Court Hotel, Holborn], in M. Aksakof’s room; three of them, including two of the most successful, by day, when we excluded the light from the only window by means of shutters, curtains, and a piece of woollen cloth, so as to produce almost total darkness. The room was small, had but one door, and contained only the ordinary furniture of an hotel apartment; it had not even a wardrobe. The walls were papered in the ordinary manner; we were certain that there was nothing suspicious about them; the room was between two others, one of which was occupied by myself. We began each seance by sitting with hands joined round a small table; at the three last seances Williams sat both at the table and in the “cabinet,” which was formed by suspending my plaid across one corner of the room.

I will not describe every stance in detail, but will relate only the most striking manifestations. While we sat at the table, holding Williams fast, various objects were brought to us from a chest of drawers in the room, which stood behind Williams, Rt a distance of about four feet, Williams remaining meanwhile immovable. Even if he had had his hands free, the objects would have been beyond his reach. At the first sitting M. Aksakof and myself were both touched on the face with something soft. This, as we afterwards learned, was M. Aksakof’s silk scarf, which was lying in his hat on the drawers, and had been brought to us with the hat. Immediately afterwards the hat itself was crushed down on M. Aksakofs head, and then, at my expressed wish, also placed upon my head. At another sitting, we being all in the same position as before, a musical box, which was playing on the table, was raised in the air, and wafted to and fro, as we could tell distinctly by the sound. Presently the box was placed for a moment on my right shoulder, next to Williams, while I still continued to hold him fast. Another time various articles were brought, and placed upon our table or in our hands, such as a match-box, which was also opened, a clothes-brush and a travelling-strap.

When Williams was placed bound in the cabinet, or rather behind my plaid, which was suspended like a curtain, the phenomena were more powerful, especially at the two last seances. As we sat at the table we heard the voices of Peter and of John King. This latter personage is a well-known apparition at Williams’s circles, and manifests both <... continues on page 3-178 >

The Boston Times on Spiritualism

There is another sort of Spiritualism —indeed this fantastic fol-de-rol is not Spiritualism at all—which cannot be as easily dismissed. And for this reason, that it has its roots in the dearest hopes of the human race, its believers are a majority of the people in every land, and its phenomena form part of the authentic history of the world. All Christians, we might as well say all religionists, are Spirituilisls. It is doubtful if all the modern Spiritualistic writers put together have propagated as much supernatural ism, to much pure and simple miracle and mystery as the Bible, on which the whole fabric of Christianity rests. Extract from it its accounts of angels’ visits to the earth, of miraculous occurrences by land and sea, of materializations, of supernatural signs vouchsafed to prophets, of supernatural powers exercised by apostles, of prophetic visions, of warning dreams, of physical phenomena marvellous and inexplicable, and what remains of the foundations of the Christian faith? It is some what astonishing, as we think, in view of these facts, that modern Spiritualism has found its most contemptuous critics and most resolute opponents among professed Christians. A just appreciation of the basis on which their own faith rests would have seemed to call for another attitude towards Spiritualism and its phenomena, an attitude at one more sympathetic and more generous oust. Roman Catholism, in its practice, has at least avoided the extreme hostility of Protestantism toward the new faith; as witness the miracles of Lourdes and other places, where every year Catholic pilgrims are found by thousands worshipping at shrines made consecrated by supernatural occurrences.

And those of us who indiscriminately assail Spiritualism, as. in itself, false and fraudulent, are prone to overlook the long list of respected and even reverenced men who have given to it, in its higher forms, their adherence Allan Kar-dec, the great French Spiritualist, defined the faith that was n him in these words: “Whoever believes that he has something within him distinguished from matter is a Spiritualist.” How often, we wonder, do Methodists stop to remember that Wesley not only believed with Kardec that he had “something within him distinguished from matter,” but, like Kardec actually averred that he had been the recipient of communications from the spirit world. And Luther, long before had satified to the same effect. Nor have spiritual phenomen-been alone attested by divines, whose training and associations naturally incline them to a belief in their possibility. It will require more than the exposure of a few fraudulent mediums, a ho have made a business of imposters, and degraded a great and elevated belief to the level of a money making system of trickery, to dissipate all the evidence of the existence of spiritual forces, and the occasional manifestations of them among men in ways not susceptible explanation on a purely mat rial basis of reasoning.

The time may come when science shall have pulled back the veil of mystery so far that there will no longer be room for the supernatural to hide itself in the darkness of imperfect and limited knowledge in which the race now gropes. But that time is not yet, and, meanwhile, let us not be too dogmatic.

Editor's notes

  1. My Experiences in London and Brussels by Butlerof, A., London Spiritualist, No. 186, March 17, 1876, pp. 122-3. Alexandre Aksakof added a note after main article
  2. The Boston Times on Spiritualism by unknown author, Spiritual Scientist, v. 4, No. 15, December 14, 1876, pp. 164-5