//
you're reading...
Features, Ronnie Pontiac

Mr. X’s Floating Trumpet, Houdini and the Witch of Lime Street: Scandalous Psychic Adventures of the Roaring 20s

An ancient Chinese dialect from a barely literate psychic was only one of the inexplicable happenings.  These events didn’t occur in the 19th century in some rural town.  They happened in 1927 in New York City.   Dr. Neville Whymant, linguistics professor at both London University and Oxford, formerly of Tokyo University and Peking University, didn’t know what he was getting into when in October 1926 Judge William Cannon invited him to his posh Park Avenue home for a dinner party.  A discussion of psychic phenomena was part of the evening’s agenda.  Grown accustomed to peculiar American preoccupations Whymant and his wife agreed to attend.  He had fallen into a trap set by the judge’s wife.

PSYCHIC ADVENTURES IN NEW YORK

Psychic Adventures in New York is a slender fifty page book published in London by Morley and Mitchell in 1931.  Whymant begins by explaining that he has no agenda, no belief to sell.  In fact, he didn’t want to write the book at all.  But he was asked so many times to explain every detail of what happened to him, and no one else being willing to step up to the author’s chair, he finally accepted the responsibility of reporting the mysterious event he witnessed.  I’m fortunate to own a copy with Whymant’s inscription to his sister.  In neat but tiny handwriting in ink Whymant wrote:

To my sister Grace,

Who was so sweet and faithful a

companion during my troubled days

in India: who cheered my lonely

hours and to whom I owe a depth

of affection I can never repay

from Neville

with all his love

London, September 18, 1931

A. Neville J. Whymant is best known as the author of Colloquial Northern Chinese, A Mongolian Grammar and A China Manual.  He also wrote the unfortunately named The Psychology of the Chinese Coolie and Chinese Coolie Songs.  The doctor was in America studying native dialects, to add to his familiarity with thirty living and dead languages.  Hearing that he was one of the world’s authorities on obscure dialects, Mrs. Cannon set her sites on getting the doctor to her next séance.  It seems a spirit speaking Chinese had been showing up and she wanted to know what he was saying.

The medium the Chinese spirit spoke through was George Valiantine.  Few mediums have experienced such a rise to international fame and such a crushing fall to obscurity and poverty.  Like most famous mediums George was a fraud who seemed to occasionally produce real phenomena or a real medium who resorted to fraud.  Dr. Whymant was about to become part of one of the most stubborn mysteries of American Metaphysical Religion.  Just how did a barely literate American like George channel an ancient Chinese dialect?

When the situation was explained to the doctor he responded that he had no interest in talking to ghosts or any other spiritualist activity.  He and the Mrs. had tried séances out ten years before and found the activity boring and useless.  They remained rather skeptical.  Mrs. Cannon apologized for not warning him in advance, but she was afraid he would have politely refused the invitation.  Whymant decided to stay.

H. Dennis Bradley, Valiantine’s most devoted booster, observed of George in his book And After: “He is a man of instinctive good manners but it is essential to state that he is semi-illiterate. He possesses no scholastic education whatever, beyond the ordinary simplicities; he is ill versed in general conversation and ideas. I mention these facts because many of the communications which have been made in the direct voice under his mediumship have been brilliant in their expressions and culture.”

Whymant was more blunt: “Before the sitting began I had a talk with Valiantine, who struck me as a typical example of the simpler kind of country American citizen. His speech was far from polished, he seemed to lack imagination, and his interests were of a very commonplace order.  He was almost untraveled, and exhibited no desire to see or know anything of countries other than his own. Occasionally he made amusing (and obviously unrehearsed) blunders in speech and misconception, and above all he seemed always to be natural. It was as if he were incapable of any form of acting at all. He was, in that company, a fish out of water, and although somewhat bewildered at it all, he seemed quite prepared to accept the position and make the best of it.”

Whymant and company entered a small dining room.  They were invited to look around and examine everything to see for themselves that nothing was out of the ordinary.  “There was no appearance or suspicion of trickery,” he wrote, “but I mention these things to show that I was alert from the beginning, and that within the limits imposed upon us I was prepared to apply all the tests possible to whatever phenomena might appear.”

Whymant records an interesting list of prohibitions: “we were warned at the beginning of the sitting that among the forbidden acts was the sudden production of a light (this, it was said, might be so dangerous to the medium as to prove fatal); the seizure of any touching or tapping agent; leaving one’s seat after the lights were turned off; and crossing the legs—this was supposed to break the “circle of power” and reduce the possibility of good results.”

The lights were shut off.  The Lord’s Prayer was recited.  The gramophone was turned on and sacred music filled the room to provide an atmosphere of calm harmony.  Unlike most mediums, especially modern, spirits did not speak through Valentinian.  They spoke through an aluminum trumpet daubed with phosphorescent paint so its movements could be seen in the dark.

The first voice, a doctor, seemed to bellow from beneath the floor a brogue so loud Whymant thought he felt the vibrations of it.  Next came a Native American called Blackfoot after his tribe.  He was said to be the keeper of the spirit door.  Here is the melting pot of American Metaphysical Religion in action.  The natives who had been slaughtered and cheated out of their land were now gatekeepers to the afterlife, a constant theme in American mediumship from its beginnings.  Whispers to séance regulars followed, private conversations with lost loved ones.  Then a rich singing voice louder than the doctor’s spoke fluent Italian in a conversation with Whymant, that end with an obscure Sicilian dialect Whymant could identify but not understand.

“THE MELODY OF ETERNITY”

Then the séance took a surprising turn.  Next was heard “the sound of an old wheezy flute not too skillfully played.  Whymant was reminded of street musicians he had heard on his visits to China.  Then the doctor was surprised to hear from the trumpet an ancient Chinese dialect.  “Greeting,” the spirit said, “O son of learning and reader of strange books!  This unworthy servant bows humbly before such excellence.”

“Peace be upon thee, O illustrious one,” Whymant responded.  “This uncultured menial ventures to ask thy name and illustrious style.” At first Whymant had trouble understanding what was being said: “the next sound seemed to be a hollow repetition of a Chinese name—K’ung fu tzu—the name by which Confucius was canonized. I was not quite sure that I had heard aright, but I did recognize the sound for some variety of Chinese speech and so I asked, in Chinese, for another opportunity of hearing what had been said before. This time without any hesitation at all came the name K’ung fu tzu. Now, I thought, was my opportunity. Chinese I had long regarded as my own special research area, and he would be a wise man, medium or other, who would attempt to trick me on such soil. If this tremulous voice were that of the old ethicist who had personally edited the Chinese Classics, then I had an abundance of questions to ask him. More even than any classical scholar could have to ask of Plato or Socrates should they venture to put in an appearance in a twentieth century classroom. For if Homer and his followers nodded, at least they had a language far easier than that of Confucius and his successors, and the loose ends in the Chinese Classics had defied the efforts of twenty five centuries of commentators.

“The voice, as I have said,” Whymant continued, “was tremulous. It was very difficult to discover what was said next, and I had to keep calling for a repetition. Then it burst upon me that I was listening to Chinese of a purity and delicacy not now spoken in any part of China.   As the voice went on I realized that the style of Chinese used was identical with that of the Chinese Classics, edited by Confucius two thousand five hundred years ago. Only among the scholars of Archaic Chinese could one now hear that accent and style, and then only when they intoned some passage from the ancient books. In other words, the Chinese to which we were now listening was as dead colloquially as Sanskrit or Latin, and had been so for even a greater length of time. If this was a hoax, it was a particularly clever one, far beyond the scope of any of the sinologues now living. I was determined to test the matter to the full limit permitted, and so my next remark took the form of a question intended to prove the identity of the communicator.

Whymant explained: “All Chinese who attain any eminence in public or private life have an abundance of names bestowed upon them at different periods. Confucius was no exception, and I asked for details of his life and “style” (the name by which a man is known as soon as he achieves individuality in early manhood), for particulars of his preoccupations on this earth, and set some posers of the type with which all students of Chinese have wrestled in their studies of the Confucian Canon. All my questions were answered at once, without any pause or fumbling; in fact, the answers came so swiftly upon the question that all too often I had to ask the voice to repeat its answer, as I had been unable to follow. The voice grew stronger with the passing of the moments, so that although the early part of the conversation was to some extent lost or doubtful, the succeeding phrases were quite clear so far as I was able to understand them. Although I had given much study to the classics—even to the length of knowing whole sections of them by heart—I found it extremely difficult to follow a voice speaking in that style. Another remarkable thing about this communicator was that, sensing my difficulty, he gradually assimilated his speech to my own, all the time, however, keeping his own accent and intonation so distinct that it was obvious to the other sitters (none of whom understood Chinese) that there were two distinct voices and that an actual conversation was going on.”

Whymant’s Colloquial Chinese (Northern) published in 1922

Remembering that the Shih King, The Classic of Poetry of Confucius included several poems that had baffled both Chinese and Western scholars the doctor asked: “This stupid one would know the correct reading of the verse in Shih King. It has been hidden from understanding for long centuries, and men look upon it with eyes that are blind. The passage begins thus: Ts’ai ts’ai chüan êrh…” the first line of the third ode of the first book of Chou Nan.  But Whymant couldn’t remember the other fourteen lines.  The voice recited the rest accurately, then made sense out of the part that had baffled so many scholars.

Whymant continued his exploration switching to the Analects of Confucius: “Shall I ask of one passage in the Master’s own writing? In Lun Yu, Hsia Pien, there is a passage, which is wrongly written.  Should it not read thus: . . . ?” But before I could get out even the details of the passage in question, the “voice” took up my sentence and carried it through to the end. “You were going to ask me about the two characters which end the last two phrases: you are quite right. The copyists were in error. The character which is written se should be i, and the character which is written yen is an error for fou.” Whymant admitted: “again, all the winds had been taken out of my sails!”

Whymant pondered the idea that some sort of telepathy had been involved, as if a medium could get into his brain and pick out the ancient Chinese dialect and literature there, and then use them fluently.  But even if one were to go to such lengths for a telepathic explanation, Whymant dismissed the possibility since he had never considered the elegant solution the voice provided to this linguistic mystery.

Confucius became weaker in voice and more banal in message ending his portion of the séance with this advice to Whymant: “I go, my son, but I shall return… Wouldst thou hear the melody of eternity? Keep then thy ears alert.”  Next up was a voice that claimed to be Whymant’s father-in-law, speaking the specific accent of Somerset.  This especially impressed Whymant because everyone at the séance mistakenly thought his wife was American.

Whymant attended another eleven séances.  Not only did Confucius return but also other languages were heard. A different voice spoke an obscure French dialect that the doctor recognized as Labourdin Basque. Whymant wrote: “Altogether fourteen foreign languages were used in the course of the twelve sittings I attended. They included Chinese, Hindi, Persian, Basque, Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, Yiddish, (spoken with great fluency when a Yiddish and Hebrew speaking Jew was a member of the circle), German and modern Greek.”

Whymant wrote that at one of these séances Valiantine was having a conversation with the person beside him in American English while the trumpet was producing foreign languages. That meant that not only was telepathy not a satisfactory explanation, neither was ventriloquism though “voices seemed to come from the far corners of the room, out of the very wall against which the back of one’s chair was pressed, from the ceiling, and from the floor.

Another strange event was the appearance of the spirit of Abdu’l-Baha, the second leader and son of the founder of the Bahá’í faith, who had died five years earlier.  A friend of the holy man’s daughter was at the séance.  The voice spoke “in a Levantine dialect of which I had the sketchiest knowledge. I could not understand much of what was said, but I translated the more elementary parts of what was quite a long speech. I must frankly admit that I did not even understand the purport of my English rendering, as it had much to do with the practice of the Bahá’í faith, of which I knew very little. But I was assured at the end of the evening that the long awaited message had been delivered.”

Four months later New York Herald Tribune carried a lengthy report on the English professor’s strange experience that even included a respected translation of the poem in question, and the translation given by the alleged spirit of Confucius.

Whymant concluded that he had no conclusions.  He was left with one overwhelming question: “there was no doubt that somebody or something had been speaking most excellent Chinese there that evening, better Chinese than I, with all my training and experience in China, could speak. Whence came it, and for what purpose?”

MR. X

Valiantine had spent most of his life as a small manufacturer in Williamsport, New York.  At age 43 after hearing inexplicable knocks on his hotel room door he consulted a spiritualist who took him to a séance.  Communications with mysterious knocks and raps led to a message from George’s late brother-in-law.  Working with his brother-in-law as his spirit guide, George became a medium.

In 1923 he entered a competition the Scientific American sponsored offering 2,500 dollars for verifiable physical phenomena by any medium.  He called himself Mr. X.  Mr. X was the first medium tested.  Famous magician Harry Houdini was a member of the committee. The SA committee heard voices that seemed to be high in the air.  But an electric apparatus they had secretly attached to George’s chair showed no weight in the chair for almost fifteen seconds.  They couldn’t explain how being out of the chair for a few seconds could have produced voices conversing at length above them, but Mr. X didn’t win the prize.

A year later, at his Ramsey, New Jersey home, American retired lawyer/financier Joseph de Wyckoff introduced Valiantine to Irish writer H. Dennis Bradley, a wealthy businessman.  Bradley was on his first visit to America, and he was not a believer in spiritualism.

A copy exists of Bradley’s book Not for Fools he inscribed to the artist Louis Wain four years earlier in 1920.  Wain was a household name around the turn of the century famed for his humorous anthropomorphic cats.  Not for Fools collects opinion pieces published in the advertisement columns of newspapers criticizing the bureaucracy of World War One.  By then Wain’s popularity was beginning to wane, and his charming quirkiness was only four years away from the violent outbursts that led him to spend the rest of his life in institutions.  Of course, given the ruthless treatment this innocent artist received from so many business partners, he may have welcomed his refuge in a sheltered world of fantasy.  1924 also challenged Bradley’s sense of reality.

Louis Wain, the Syd Barrett of turn of the century English painters

As he wrote later, after twenty minutes of singing hymns: “it was fortunate that our expressions could not be seen, for my nose was tilted in scorn and my lip curled in unrestrained contempt.  I wondered at intelligent people submitting to such infantile forms of amusement.  I wondered how a shrewd mind like that of my host could be induced to waste his time on such silly exploits.”

Bradley’s books would bring news of Valiantine’s adventures to the English speaking world despite the author’s frequent rants at skeptics, and his lack of detail and method.  At the first séance George’s wrists were bound by luminous bands so any movement would be clearly visible in the dark.  “The phenomenal happened,” was Bradley’s comment on the events that unfolded.

Bradley sensed a presence in the room he thought was another person.  He later wrote: “I was called by my name, and the voice, which sounded about three feet away on my right, was full of emotion.” He heard his first name whispered repeated twice, and then his sister, Annie, who had died ten years before, identified herself.  “Then we talked, not in whispers, but in clear, audible tones, and the notes of our voices were pitched as if we might have been speaking on earth.  And that which we said to each other were things of wondrous joy.  Every word was heard by the other three men in the room.”

For fifteen minutes Bradley and his sister discussed details of family life.  “She said sayings in her own characteristic manner.  Every syllable was perfectly enunciated and every little peculiarity of intonation was reproduced.  Any suggestion of ventriloquism is ridiculous,” Bradley continued.  “No man living could imitate the clear and gentle voice which spoke, and, beyond this, no man living could talk in Annie’s characteristic way, with her individual enunciation, her own choice of words, and her knowledge of the many things which she and I alone could have known.”

The next night the séance was attended by Joe de Wyckoff’s cook and butler.  Annie returned: “Her tones were clear and bell-like, her notes were sympathetic and understanding, and were radiant. How can I describe the indescribable?”  More secrets only his sister knew were communicated.  Then the cook was addressed by her late husband.  They shared a conversation in fluent Spanish.  Bradley wrote: “Doubt took flight when faced by an unchallengeable fact and the mind understood in a flash that what had hitherto appeared to be impossible was possible.”  He declared it the “most staggering event of my life.”

Bradley was also amazed as Valiantine’s trumpet “floated in the air and careened around the room.”  In later reports of séances Bradley wrote: “Valiantine, the medium, often speaks and can be spoken to at the same moment that the spirits are speaking.” Materializations and mysterious lights were described.  A hand surrounded by astral light rested on Bradley’s hand for a second.  “Luminous lights floated about the room.”

THE GUYANA PAPERS

George showed his financier friend Joe pages of writing he claimed were produced out of nowhere, by no human hand.  The message was about a mission to Guyana.  Guyana’s history of experience with mediumship goes back to the indigenous culture, as it usually does.  French Guiana in particular received further influence through the popularity of the French father of Spiritism Allen Kardec, author of the popular spiritualist classics The Spirit’s Book and The Medium’s Book but most George’s Guyana messages were a probably a get rich quick scheme.

But Joe de Wyckoff was a businessman with an eye for detail.  He noticed the similarity in handwriting between George and the spirits urging the Guyana adventure.  So he took the samples to a handwriting expert.  They were identical.  George stubbornly insisted he had not handwritten the message about Guyana.  Joe proposed a test.  George would be tied to a chair at a séance and if writing showed up on paper he would be vindicated.  The séance was a failure.  Joe turned his back on George.  Back home Bradley heard the disturbing news in a cable from Joe.

Bradley consulted the famous English medium Gladys Osborne Leonard.  Gladys was the daughter of an entrepreneur who made a fortune in the yacht business.  When her father lost his wealth she became a singer and theatrical actress.  Singing at a Spiritualist church, without having much interest in or knowledge of their beliefs, she was told her guides were busy planning what would become her “great spiritual work.”

Gladys Osborne Leonard

Gladys’ mother was ill but not gravely.  Gladys wrote down the strange experience she had: “I looked up and saw in front of me, but about five feet above the level of my body, a large, circular patch of light. In this light I saw my mother quite distinctly. Her face looked several years younger than I had seen it a few hours before.  She gazed down on me for a moment, seeming to convey to me an intense feeling of relief and a sense of safety and well-being. Then the vision faded. I was wide awake all the time, quite conscious of my surroundings.” She found out the next morning that her mother had died at that exact time.  That sent her back to the Spiritualists.

The Society for Psychical Research conducted hundreds of tests on Gladys.  They concluded that she was impeccably trustworthy and under strict conditions had provided credible evidence of the survival of personality after death.  For fifty years Gladys conducted her practice as a medium.  After death theories have been proposed to explain away her record.  One of her favorite tricks, for example, was to pick out a person’s favorite book from their bookshelves.  Later analysis showed that she was only 35% successful.  On the other hand, you try to pick out a stranger’s favorite book with a success rate better than 1/3.  Her most famous case involved Sir Oliver Lodge and his son who had died in the war.  Lodge was so convinced his son was communicating to him he wrote the best seller Raymond, named after him.  Raymond also communicated to his father through Valiantine’s trumpet, and Lodge wrote the forward to Whymant’s Psychic Adventures in New York.  When Bradley consulted Gladys his sister appeared again.  She repeated enough of the conversation she had with Bradley during the Valiantine séance to convince him he had cross-evidence of life after death.

Visiting Europe, Joe de Wyckoff told Bradley he thought George Valiantine a fraud.  But Bradley insisted otherwise.  His results had been too impressive to ignore, and they had been corroborated by a second medium totally unconnected.  So Joe invited George to join them in England.  Over a five week period fifty prominent people attended George’s séances in Bradley’s home where over a hundred different voices spoke a large variety of languages including obscure Cardiganshire Welsh, which Caradoc Evans, a Welsh novelist, being present, verified; not only that, but he was convinced he had spoken to his father.

EXPERIMENTS, DEMONSTRATIONS AND ACCUSATIONS

 H. Dennis Bradley

But again in April 1924 Joe believed he had caught George in a cheat.  Sensing movement in the dark at the end of a séance Joe struck a match and there was George fiddling with the trumpet.  Not only that, but the trumpet was warm just where a hand would be placed and the mouthpiece was moist.  But that didn’t disturb Bradley.  He reported that those phenomena were common, even on trumpets he had seen flying around the room.  He theorized it was ectoplasmic manifestation.

Tests by the Society for Psychical Research the following spring produced nothing deemed worthy of further study.  But their research officer Dr. Woolley back at Bradley’s house heard eleven distinct voices he could not explain by rational means.  He also reported a luminous trumpet moving in the air that he considered a supernatural phenomenon. In broad daylight he heard faint voices from inside the trumpet though the mediums lips never moved.  Investigators often brought unknown guests to the séances without advance notice yet the voices provided details like names, relationships, personality traits, and events.  Most left believing they had spoken to friends and relatives from beyond the grave.

Bradley himself wrote about a séance in 1925 where he claimed he heard a prophecy that came true.  Fourteen years before World War 2 one of Valiantine’s spirit guides, the doctor speaking in a Scottish brogue, “gave a very grave warning about the secret preparations of Japan and Germany for war in the air, although any forecast is problematic, yet he insists on the point that the next war will be comparatively soon and that it will be the most terrible that human civilization has had to endure.”  Hitler, recently released from prison, would publish Mein Kampf a few months later.

The Marquis Centurione Scotto of Genoa visited the Bradleys in 1927 for a séance with Valiantine.  The Marquis and his wife were stunned to hear their late son speaking in fluent Italian providing convincing details.  When they returned to Italy they became mediums themselves.

That same year Valiantine was tested in London again.  Countess Ahlefeldt-Laurvig provided an ancient Chinese shell for a séance in the apartment of Lord Charles Hope.  The circular folds of the shell tapered to a small mouthpiece.  In China these shells were used as horns.  The guests tried but they couldn’t make any sound with it.  During the séance the shell horn was blown, even the notes matched the melody known in China.

Having received no information that impressed him, Hope remained skeptical, but reported quite a list of inexplicable events.  While most of the information the spirits provided was worthless there were moments when accurate information.  Not only was Japanese spoken to the satisfaction of a Japanese guest, but real Chinese characters were written down, though how the medium managed it in the dark room with his limited literacy Hope did not know.  An expert in Chinese calligraphy told Hope he couldn’t have done it.  A conversation in old-fashioned German, and the floating trumpet completed the bafflement.

Columbia gramophone circa 1925

On March 25, 1927, the voices were recorded.  A telephone cable was set up to connect Hope’s apartment to Columbia Gramophone Company’s recording house.  Hope, Bradley and his wife heard three distinct voices that spoke in English, one in a native American dialect, one in Hindustani, another in Italian, and two in Chinese. The last, claiming to be Confucius, Whymant said sounded to him like the voice he had heard back in New York.

Whymant was invited to hear the recording by the Society for Psychical Research.  He could only interpret a few sentences because the voice was faint and the recording distorted.  But he recognized enough of the intonations to gather the general meaning.  The Society for Psychical Research dismissed Whymant as unscientific.  They focused on the lack of strict controls in the initial sittings in America.  One SPR writer speculated that Valiantine had picked up enough Chinese from local immigrants to fool the doctor into fooling himself.  Unable to exactly make out what the voice was saying she argued that the doctor’s subconscious filled in the startling details he reported.  Here is a remarkable example of the irrationality of the rational.  To believe that an internationally acclaimed linguist would fool himself into mistaking pseudo Chinese gibberish for a conversation with Confucius assumes a level of enthusiasm or intoxication Whymant lacked.

Over the next two years Bradley conducted over one hundred experiments he declared 95% successful.  In April 1929, mere months before the infamous Wall Street crash, Valiantine and the Bradleys traveled to Germany for séances with the Berlin Occult Society, who were put off by the lack of strict controls, and two members claimed to have seen the medium moving when he was supposed to be still.

A month later, in Genoa, Italy, Valiantine’s séance with the Marquis and the psychical researcher Ernesto Bozzano was strictly controlled: he was tied to a chair by ropes with sealed knots, the doors were locked, and an adhesive bandage was stuck on his mouth.  The results were the opposite of what had occurred in Germany; everyone was impressed, at first, but as the séances continued one guest claimed he felt Valiantine lean forward to speak into the trumpet.  Another caught Mrs. Bradley touching him on the back of the head.  The indignant accused refused to stay another moment.  Later the accusers were less certain.  One apologized to Mrs. Bradley.

Here’s what Bradley himself had to say about it: “The Marquis Centurione Scotto, Mr. Rossi and Madame Rossi, unknown before to me or to Valiantine, visit me in England in 1927. The Marquis, to his astonishment, speaks to his son in Italian. The Marquis and Mrs. Rossi then develop voice mediumship entirely from, and because of, their meeting and initiation with Valiantine. Valiantine then, in 1929, visits them in Italy and is accused of being a fraud. The poet is right when he declares, “It is a mad world.”

THE FINAL SCANDAL

In 1931 Valiantine was accused of fraud again.  He was attempting to fingerprint three late English notables including the recently deceased Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  The ectoplasmic prints made on wax and smoked paper would be compared with an actual print of Doyle’s thumb.  Valiantine had managed this feat before and Bradley had written about it in The Wisdom of the Gods.  The print provided turned out to be a match for Valiantine’s big toe.  When confronted with the evidence, George sobbed and insisted.  “I cannot understand it.”

The experts who examined him reported he used his big toe, middle finger, and elbow for the various prints, and that the chemical used was found all over his body.  Could he have been so stupid as to believe his big toe print could be mistaken for Doyle’s actual fingerprint, or anyone else’s?  Some spiritualists have claimed that this was typical of the pranks played by spirits drawn to such ostentatious demonstrations.  Bradley turned his back on the medium he had so righteously defended, but he was careful to say that George’s fraud did not invalidate the voice phenomena.

Bradley blamed the debacle on the sudden wealth and fame Valiantine had found.  He had become conceited and arrogant.  Yet, Bradley wrote: “his reason for attempting these imprint frauds will remain incomprehensible. He received no money from me, and for him to imagine that in the presence of imprint experts he could commit palpable fraud and escape detection was a sign of sheer lunacy.”

Not long after, Surgeon-Admiral Nimmo had two sittings with Valiantine by daylight. He reported hearing voices from the trumpet that gave him intelligent communications he considered evidence of survival after death.  Another observing doctor also reported hearing the voices but his observation of the medium showed no signs of movement of his lips, hands, or feet.  George was not manually responsible for whatever was happening.

Were Valiantine and the Bradleys co-conspirators in an elaborate fraud?  How then to explain the inexplicable events that occurred like the Confucian experience of Neville Whymant?

Valiantine’s fate is a mystery.  All we know is that he died without the fame or wealth his mediumship had gained him.  Mrs. Eileen E. McAlpine who knew Whymant at the end of his life wrote that a few days before his death he told her of a “brief black-out when he saw two old friends of his, holding out their hands to receive him.  They were Mr. F.T. Cheng, the pre-Mao ambassador to the UK and Lionel Giles – keeper of oriental books at the British Museum.  They were great friends of his in life.  I subsequently had a sitting with F. Jordan Gill, Neville told me, through him, that they had indeed been the first friends who greeted him after he died.”

HOUDINI VS. THE WITCH OF LIME STREET

 Photograph of the Witch of Lime Street by Houdini

Valiantine wasn’t the only famous medium to produce evidence in Chinese.  Dr. Whymant was also called in to verify some automatic writing by Mina Crandon, better known as Margery the Medium, or the Witch of Lime Street.  In total darkness she had written two columns of Chinese.  Try to write a few words with ink and brush in the dark, not an easy task even for a skilled calligrapher, seemingly impossible for Margery, who didn’t know Chinese, and who had no experience with Chinese calligraphy.

Margery was already married and a mother when she met Dr. Crandon; he took out her appendix.  As a teenager she had played in professional bands and orchestras and had been good at sports.  World War 1 brought them together again at the New England Naval Hospital where he was a top doctor and she was a civilian volunteer ambulance driver.  She divorced her first husband and married the aristocratic Boston physician who loved reading the writings of Lincoln.  But he was an older man, and his day job as a surgeon had understandably left him preoccupied with mortality.  Some say Margery at first treated mediumship as an amusement to distract and reassure her husband, who was fascinated by telekinesis and séances.

Impressed by his wife’s displays of powers, including classical magician tricks like making a dove appear, he wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was impressed enough to put the matter in front of his friends at the Society of Psychical Research in America.  As the wife of a respected doctor, a charming and refined woman, without need for more money than she already had, Margery quickly became popular.

Lascivious rumors about Margery multiplied.  Were they true?  Mediums who met in private with strange men aroused and outraged regular folk.  Margery was said to have greeted her clients in a sheer dressing gown, bedroom slippers, and silk stockings supposedly intended as transparency.  Nothing could be hidden since everything could be seen.  Margery was attractive, girlish, her dark blonde hair worn bobbed set off her sparkling blue eyes.  The roaring twenties must have been roaring indeed if the allegations are true that her husband not only helped her commit fraud but allowed her to enjoy affairs with occasional clients, also their favored method for silencing important critics.  Was it mere rumor or fact when some reported that Margery conducted séances in the nude, allegedly the better to manifest ectoplasm.

Like Valiantine, Margery was seriously considered for the Scientific American prize in 1924 for telekinetic phenomena demonstrated under strict control.  The committee reported effects produced in a sealed glass jar, with electric bells under a lid, and on a scale.  The committee member most convinced was said to be romantically involved with her.  A. Malcolm Bird, an officer of the American Society for Psychical Research, and the one who had first proposed the Scientific American contest, leaked a story that the committee was leaning toward verifying her.  A headline declared that another of the judges, Harry Houdini had been stumped.  Bird confided to Houdini that he considered Margery fifty to sixty percent genuine.  Researchers were well aware of the strange brew of fraud and evidence mediums provided.

Kienholz wishes

Houdini didn’t take kindly to the rumor that he had found Margery genuine since he had so far been absent from the proceedings.  He personally supervised the next round of tests, which quickly degenerated into accusations.  Houdini built an elaborate box that would prevent Margery from committing any clever fraud.  Margery was game.  The bell the spirits were asked to ring rang though she was supposedly immobilized.  When the lights were turned on everyone could see the top of the box had been forced open.  Houdini claimed Margery was responsible.  She said her late brother Walter, her principle spirit guide, had done it because he was infuriated by Houdini.

There’s no way around it; this was a kinky scene.  Margery in nothing but a flimsy dress, sitting in a restraining contraption with her legs spread.  Houdini ankle to ankle with her, his leg on the inside of her thigh pressed against her bare skin, holding her hands or wrists.  He said his suspicions (among other things?) were aroused when he felt Margery’s muscles move whenever anything happened.  When the spirits were asked to ring the bell five times, Houdini felt Margery move her leg five times coincidentally with each ring.  Later he wrote that he thought she might have believed he would play along with her.

At the next séance, back in the repaired isolation box, Margery was asked again to ring a bell. Walter complained that the bell could not be rung because Houdini had rigged it.  When the bell was examined a small eraser was found pushed in far enough to stop the bell from ringing.  Houdini denied putting the eraser there.  Was this a clever ruse by Margery and or her husband to neutralize the relentless Houdini?  When Dr. Crandon found a ruler hidden inside the box Houdini had prepared for Margery he was furious.  He accused Houdini of deliberate sabotage and threatened to end the experiments if Houdini didn’t leave never to return.

Despite promising Houdini that he would debunk Margery, in 1924 Bird published three articles about her in Scientific American, portraying her in a positive light.  Houdini began demonstrating some of her tricks during his performances.  He wrote a pamphlet against her also published in 1924 that gave the secrets of her stunts.  Despite his exposes, Margery was still a popular medium for the middle class and the elite.

“Margery genuine says Conan Doyle, he scorns Houdini,” a Boston Herald headline declared.  Doyle even defended Margery from the pioneer parapsychologist J.B. Rhine’s accusations of fraud, going so far as to buy an ad in Boston newspapers that stated, “J.B. Rhine is a monumental ass.”  Rhine was deeply disappointed by his experience with Margery, which he called: “premeditated and brazen trickery.”  The experience set him on a different path of research into the paranormal that resulted in his famous parapsychology program at Duke University where research on ESP replaced studying mediums as a national preoccupation.

In 1925, Bird, far from denouncing Margery as he had promised Houdini he would, published a book about her.  He was convinced her powers were genuine proof of life after death.  The Society for Psychical Research in London tested Margery, too, and reported that their famous fraud proof table had been twice levitated six inches off the ground, not in the dark, but in bright light.  One scientist reported playing a game of checkers with Walter.

Apparently Walter had a sick sense of humor.

When Scientific American said they wanted to conduct another investigation, why did Margery agree?  Three professors conducted the experiment.  One of them, Dr. Wood, an enthusiastic debunker of mediums, noticed the silhouette of a rod moving over the luminous checkerboard on the table across from Margery. Moving side to side it lifted an object.  Wood touched it with his fingertip following it right up to Margery’s mouth.  He figured she was holding the stick in her teeth.  Warned that touching the ectoplasm might kill the medium, Doc Wood gave it a good pinch.  Margery didn’t react.  He reported it felt like a knitting needle wrapped in soft leather, as Wood dictated to the stenographer. Margery shrieked then fainted.  Wood was never allowed to set foot near her again.

 WTF, as the man on the left seems to be thinking.

In 1928 Margery and Valiantine were tested side by side by the American Society for Psychical Research.  They were also tested together on separate continents.  In one experiment involving dates they both wrote 3-5-10 though Margery was in Boston and Valiantine was in Venice, Italy.  The Margery Mediumship, the voluminous notes of this series of experiments published by the ASPR, reached over one thousand pages.  Margery would sign copies for friends and clients.  Enough inexplicable events occurred to exhaust the imagination of the most skilled debunker.  Utterly improbable coincidences abounded.

But in 1930 Bird turned in a report denouncing Margery as a fraud.  He confessed she had asked him to be her accomplice.  Crestfallen, he resigned from the society and disappeared.  Like Valiantine, Margery’s reputation was damaged most by a fingerprint stunt.  The print in wax turned out to be her dentist’s and he admitted to teaching her how to do the trick.  Less popular but still in demand, Margery continued her practice with fewer and fewer followers.  She sought solace in alcohol.  Soon she looked old before her time.  Her slim figure turned stout and her casual erotic disarray was described as dumpy.  After long illness her husband died in 1939.  Margery became depressed.   At one of her last séances she ran off to the roof where she threatened suicide.

Houdini claimed that one of his spies had been told by Margery that she respected the magician for not being duped by her.  She claimed to have become a medium only to save her marriage when her husband had become bored with her.  According to the spy Dr. Crandon became so infatuated with her mediumship and her hundreds of thousands of followers, he would brutalize her to force her to invent new and better wonders.

The most lurid accusations against Margery included ectoplasmic manifestations from her vagina.  Demands to examine her vagina she refused.  Demands that she wear tights during the séance she also refused.  Speculations that her husband had surgically altered her to enable her trickery take this trend to its inevitable extreme.  Did Margery really perform séances in the nude?  Or are these rumors another example of the sexualized slander of mediums, so common among the first generations of women who found in mediumship a way to have power in the world males had formerly excluded them from.

 Photo of Margery’s ectoplasmic display or proof of 4chan in the 1920s?

What was the purpose of these elaborate frauds?  Merely amusement?  Some have accused Margery’s husband of acquiring animal parts through hospital labs; for example, writers have speculated that the ectoplasm in photographs of Margery were sewn together tracheas or strands of animal lung tissue.  But neither Margery nor her husband left any indication of what their motivations might have been.  Cocaine comes to mind.  But as is the case with almost every famous medium, amid all the obvious fraud there remain mysterious moments witnessed by many.

A story is told that a psychic researcher asked Margery on her deathbed to confess for posterity how she had fooled so many.  He couldn’t hear her muffled response.  When he asked her to repeat it, she said clearly, with a twinkle in her eyes: “I said you can go to hell.  All you psychic researchers can go to hell.  Why don’t you guess?  You’ll all be guessing for the rest of your lives.”  Those were last words.  She died in 1941 at age 53.

In 1959 American novelist William Gresham published his nonfiction book Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls in which he wrote about Houdini and his assistant Jim:  “Years later, when the Self-Liberator was dead, Jim Collins was asked about the mysterious ruler.  Collins smiled wryly.  ‘I chucked it in the box meself. The boss told me to do it. He wanted to fix her good.'”

Houdini died of acute appendicitis on Halloween eve 1926.  A diseased appendix began the relationship between Dr. Crandon and Margery, and ended their conflict with their nemesis Houdini.  The great magician’s widow Bess announced a ten thousand dollar reward for any medium who could deliver the ten word coded message Houdini and she had decided on as his final challenge.  Three years later Arthur Ford the pastor of the First Spiritualist Church of New York became world famous when Bess declared, after thousands of failures, that he had delivered Houdini’s message in a séance in her home.

It began when Houdini’s mother, the spirit the magician had been most eager to contact, who was supposed to provide a medium a word to prove her survival of death, showed up at one of Arthur’s séances.  She gave him the word “forgive” and told him to write Bess.  Bess must have been impressed when this stranger delivered the word Houdini had vainly hoped for.  But eleven months before Bess had revealed the word in a newspaper interview.

 “My two sweethearts, Houdini, 1907”

Ford conducted séances for months working on Houdini’s coded message for Bess.  The words Arthur channeled were: Answer – Tell –  Pray Answer –  Look  – Tell – Answer Answer  – Tell.  Bess asked Ford to conduct a séance in her home.  At that séance a spirit claiming to be Houdini revealed the code, which used each word to provide a letter spelling out: believe.

The message started with a word that didn’t need to be unlocked by a code: Rosabelle, a short ditty that Bess sang for Houdini at their first show together.  The lyrics were etched inside her wedding ring:  “Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle, I love you more than I can tell. Over me you cast a spell. I love you my sweet Rosabelle.” Rosabelle was Houdini’s pet name for her.

The full message was: “Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle, believe! Spare no time or money to undo the attitude of doubt I had on earth. Teach the truth to those who’ve lost the faith, my sweetheart. Tell the world there is no death.”  The very same day in an interview with the New York Times Bess said: “They are the exact words left for me by Harry, and I am absolutely convinced that my husband talked to me and that there is life beyond the grave.”

Two days later A New York newspaper accused the widow of being in cahoots with Arthur Ford.  The reporter claimed to have witnesses to Ford telling him that he had paid Bess for the secret.  But Ford had witnesses who swore he had been somewhere else at the time.  Why would Ford brag to a reporter immediately after arranging the hustle that would make him famous?  Bess vehemently denied it.  She wrote the paper’s famous columnist Walter Winchell a letter defending Ford and herself.

But when it came time to pay Ford his ten thousand dollar reward she refused claiming that spiritualists had convinced her to retract it to preserve the purity of the proof.  Due to the bad press Ford was suspected of chicanery by his own kind and was ostracized from spiritualist circles, until no proof of fraud was found.  A reporter suggested that Bess had accidently leaked the details to the press.  Perhaps she leaked the message, but would she have explained the complicated code?

The controversy was discussed in every newspaper.  As men and women in every town and farm had to give their opinion, too, Spiritualism found itself more popular than ever.  Crowds of fifty thousand showed up for events in Lily Dale and other spiritualist communities.

A friend of Houdini’s argued that a clever reader could figure out how to use the code from a book published the year before that Bess had co-authored: Houdini: His Life-Story.  By 1930 Bess was telling reporters she had never gotten Houdini’s message from a medium.  She added that she had given up on contacting him. Nevertheless she held séances on the anniversary of his death for seven more years.

Bess  Houdini in 1936 at the last seance for her husband she attended.

Skeptics argue that Bess knew Ford had tricked her.  Believers point out that she quickly learned from the hostile reactions of her social circle, and the press, that if she became a spiritualist they would all write her off as a batty old lady.  By reminding the world once a year of her husband Houdini, each séance brought the eye of the public back to Bess.  She never outright discredited Ford, she just ignored that he had convinced her, at least until the subject of the ten thousand dollars came up.  A recent biography of Houdini suggests that Bess was infatuated with Ford, twenty years her junior, and that as lovers they hatched a scheme she quickly regretted.

Ford was injured in the car accident that killed his sister not long after the Houdini publicity.  He became addicted to morphine and alcohol for the chronic pain he suffered the rest of his life.  Ford became famous again years later when in 1967 Bishop Pike was convinced on national television in Canada that his late son communicated from beyond the grave.  But after Ford’s death in Florida four years later, startling evidence of fraud was discovered.  Ford owned bound volumes of poetry he liked to read from before each séance.  But those weren’t poems he was reading; the books actually contained a collection of cut out obituaries and newspaper articles.  He was a man who did his research.  Just imagine the stunning readings he could have done with access to the Internet.

THE ULTIMATE FRONTIER

The Zen koan like effects of these narratives of outrageous fraud mixed with moments of seemingly impossible serendipity end up saying more about the observer than the subjects of observation.  Rationalists will dismiss the inexplicable as the self hypnosis of the credulous, guaranteed by the human capacity to delude ourselves, which seems as unlimited as our imaginations, and our selective memory.  Spiritualists will dismiss evidence of fraud as inevitable human frailty that doesn’t diminish actual evidence.  No amount of hearsay will convince a skeptic who has not had the experience personally.  No logic will dissuade the believer who has.

America is the country where communication with the dead was attempted from the earliest colonial days and has been pursued ever since.  While France and other European countries, especially England, conducted their own experiments in mediumship, and the practice existed already in Asian cultures, and among most indigenous tribes, America can be viewed as the field for an extensive experiment of the dead speaking to the living.  An experiment that evolved new techniques from primitive knocking to direct voice archaic Chinese, from ectoplasmic phantasms to quietly prescribing cures, there are many colors in the full spectrum of mediumship in America.

Quakers in Pennsylvania in the 1600s not only debated about biblical authority for communication with the departed, some tried it out for themselves.  The Shakers were notorious for their experiments in mediumship.  The Fox Sisters in the 1800s became world famous because of mysterious knocks that seemed to answer questions.  As with most experiments with mediumship fraud tarnished their efforts, yet evidence remains that something inexplicable also happened.  Soon mediums began channeling spirits through their own voices, or with more spectacular effect through so called direct voices like the ones that spoke through Valiantine’s floating trumpet.

Andrew Jackson Davis is probably pretty pissed off to be put in such downright uncouth company.

But the 1800s also offered the more refined experiment in mediumship of Andrew Jackson Davis prior to the Fox Sisters and the theater of the absurd.  Davis went into trance to prescribe cures fifty years before Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet.  Though he had little education, starting at age 21, Davis wrote over thirty books.  Almost a decade before Darwin published On the Origin of Species in his book The Great Harmonia Davis wrote that men evolved from animals, and that plants evolve.  He wrote about Neptune and Pluto before astronomers discovered them.  However his beliefs reflected the confusion of his times.

A staunch believer that slavery must be abolished, from the earliest days of the Civil War he advocated giving African Americans the right to enlist as soldiers.  His theory of evolution divided human progress into two double helix like trends folding in on each other: black and white, female and male, art and science.  But Asians and Native Americans, in between races, were doomed to extinction, like species of animals rendered obsolete by changes in climate and terrain.  Davis described in detail an afterlife of evolving spirits happy to help incarnates as part of the overall process of evolution.  Free of fraud and the tragic endings so often associated with famous mediums, Davis died quietly at age 84, spending his last decade in his small book shop prescribing herbal remedies for his clients and friends.

But for those who preferred their proof of life after death in more theatrical forms ectoplasmic manifestations introduced true spectacle.  What was this white colored ozone scented substance, neither solid nor vaporous, which allegedly emanated from mediums to become ghostly hands, faces or even the bodies of spirits? The German tourist Will Reichel around 1900 traveled across America visiting psychics and was disappointed until he met a medium in San Francisco who manifested an ectoplasmic phantom of a long dead friend who not only gave details of their youth together but also used the proper obscure accent for the area they had grown up in.  But none of that was as impressive as the fact that the phantom was dressed in the correct regional clothing. Photography was the ideal medium to capture the frequent frauds and rare mysteries of ectoplasm.

In the 1930’s the spectacle of spirit communication faded and more service-oriented experiments in afterlife communication emerged.  Edgar Cayce’s cures include some that are now verified by modern medicine.  His practice was devoted to service, not the entertainment of phenomenon.  His stories of past lives were meant to help the living understand themselves better.  In the 30s Stewart Edward White and his wife Betty began their living work of art, comparable to a ballet or opera, providing the most intimate demonstration of survival after death on record, just in time for the bereaved of World War 2.  Margery and Valiantine seem to belong in the nineteenth century, doing parlor tricks in the old west, though they were still active when the Whites were well on their way to their extraordinary testimony of love after death that inspired Carl Jung to write in a letter to a friend: “I must own that with regard to Betty, I am hesitant to deny her reality as a spirit; that is to say I am inclined to assume that she is more probably a spirit than archetype, although she presumably represents both at the same time.”

In today’s American culture where words like karma and shows like Long Island Medium are popular, it’s hard to imagine that until the new age movement of the 1980s subjects like reincarnation and communication with the dead were largely ignored by television and other mass media, appearing mostly in the quirky reflections of the beat and hippie subcultures of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. These days our ghost hunters seem, like most of today’s mediums, to be less ambitious than their predecessors. Perhaps another evolution of the great American experiment with spirit communication is on the way?

SOURCES:

One evening’s observation on the Margery mediumship
Rhine and Rhine
The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 21 (4), 1927

Nothing So Strange
Ford, Arthur
Harper and Row, 1958

Hamlin Garland: Centennial tributes and a Checklist of the Hamlin Garland papers in the University of Southern California Library

George Valiantine, medium.  Records of sittings.  New York, 1926.  Neville Whymant, recorder.  Photostat of holograph ms 15 leaves.

Houdini’s Afterlife Experiment – Did It Work?
Did Mrs. Houdini want to become a “nut”?
Razzeto, Thomas

Infinitely Mystical, 2007

Teleplasmic thumbprints: Experiments in thought transference: account of experiments made in the Margery mediumship during the years 1927 and 1928
American Society for Psychical Research, 1928

HOUDINI EXPOSES THE TRICKS USED BY THE BOSTON MEDIUM “MARGERY” TO WIN THE $2500 PRIZE OFFERED BY THE SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.  ALSO A COMPLETE EXPOSURE OF ARGAMASILLA THE FAMOUS SPANIARD WHO BAFFLED NOTED SCIENTISTS OF EUROPE AND AMERICA WITH HIS CLAIM OF X-RAY VISION Adams Press 1924

“Margery Mediumship”
Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research,
Volume 2 American Society for Psychical Research., 1933

Margery, Harvard, veritas: a study in psychics
Mark Wyman Richardson, Charles Stanton Hill
Blanchard Printing Co., 1925

The Spirits of Lily Dale
Nagy and Lajudice
Galdy, 2010

Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation
Morell, Michael
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010

Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization
Burton and Grandy
Indiana University Press, 2003

The Wisdom of the Gods
Bradley, H. Dennis
T.W. Laurie ltd, 1929

Houdini v. The Blond Witch of Lime Street: A Historical Lesson in Skepticism
Polidoro
CICAP, 2000

Supernatural America: A Cultural History
Samuel, Lawrence
Praeger, 2011

Radical Spirits:
Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in 19th Century America
Braude, Anne
Indiana University Press,  2001

And After
Bradley, H. Dennis
T.W. Laurie ltd, 1931

The Articulate Dead
Tymn, Michael
Galde Press, 2008

Towards the Stars, revised ed.
Bradley, H. Dennis
T.W. Laurie ltd, 1937

Doctor Wood: Wood as a Debunker of Scientic Cranks and Frauds and his War with the Mediums
Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1941

The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox
Stuart, Nancy
Harcourt, 2005

Parapsychology, Philosophy, & Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration
Griffin, David
State University of New York Press, 1996

Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism
Cox, Robert
University of Virginia Press, 2004

George Valiantine
anonymous
NAS Newsletter, Feb-Mar 1996

The Case for Life After Death: Parapsychologists Look at Survival Evidence
McAdams and Bayless
Rowman & Littlefield, 1981

George Valiantine
McAlpine, Eileen

The Voice Box, 2007

Written by Ronnie Pontiac

Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.

Advertisements

Discussion

One thought on “Mr. X’s Floating Trumpet, Houdini and the Witch of Lime Street: Scandalous Psychic Adventures of the Roaring 20s

  1. I am regular visitor, how are you everybody? This paragraph posted at this site is actually good.

    Posted by servicii seo | February 28, 2013, 10:56 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: