Communication with the dead is known in every culture throughout history. But in America in the spring of 1848 in the cabin of the Fox Sisters something happened that captured the imaginations of human beings all over the world, unleashing a wave of experimentation, and fraud. So much fraud that we can’t help but wonder if Willy Reichel is telling tall tales when he describes the marvelous phenomena and revelations he witnessed on his journey through America in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.
But dismissing Spiritualism as a mere hustle for the superstitious ignores other important cultural aspects of the movement (and its descendent movements like the New Age milieu of the late 20th century). The deep connection between feminism and Spiritualism has been explored in books published by the top university presses, and its roots in Platonism and the American Renaissance have been laid bare. “A frontier spirit brought to bear on the afterlife,” is Cathy Gutierrez’s description of this peculiar American phenomenon.
In 1974 Colin Wilson wrote: “If all Reichel says is true, then spiritualism is very important. It should have forced science to completely reverse its foundations. Instead, for the most part, scientists sat tight and insisted that the occult explosion was all a lot of nonsense and would soon blow over. “ Wilson denied that An Occultist’s Travels is “a collection of inexplicable absurdities.” But his half-hearted introduction to the 1975 Running Press reprint of Willy’s book raises more questions than it answers. Wilson points out that it should be easy enough for some researcher to look up the newspapers Willy mentions, but no one ever did, and none of Reichel’s references appear anywhere online. Wilson’s endorsement rings hollow as the author wonders about the connection between mediumship and hysteria. Reichel never appeared in Wilson’s own classic works on the occult.
But Reichel’s value is not only in the evidence he wishes he could provide for the reality of the mysterious phenomena he described. His travelogue of turn of the century America reveals not only a lost world of occult enigmas but also lost natural beauty. His book is stark proof of the enormity of the impact of our ever-growing population. Wonders that had existed for thousands of years disappeared in mere decades. Reichel witnessed history, from the San Francisco Earthquake to the European colonies in China, he provided a quirky diary of a journey through a world that was changing more rapidly than anyone could imagine, with two world wars, and nuclear bombs, just ahead.
A GERMAN IN HAWAII
Having exhausted his opportunities for adventure over new horizons on the west coast of North America, Willy decided to explore the mysterious Far East. A six-day boat ride “reached Oahu, Hawaiian Islands, and stopped for eight hours at Honolulu. The cocoanut and sago palms, the Royal Palm, rice, sugar, etc., grow there. The Moana Hotel, situated right by the sea, buried in tropical vegetation, brought me nearer to the Nirvana of Buddhism.”
As usual, Willy is reminded of his travels in Europe. “Black-brown Kanakas, the aborigines of the Hawaiian Islands, dived after coins like the South Italians at Castellamare on the Gulf of Naples, and I stood in wonder in the Aquarium, which contains fishes of the Southern Seas in quite incredible variety of forms and colours.”
However like many a tourist from northern Europe, Willy found April in Hawaii overwhelming. “But the tropical sun burnt hotly, and I was quite ready to leave these wonderful islands.”
A GERMAN ADMIRES JAPAN
The arrival was non-eventful. “At night on May 9th we reached Yokohama, and on the 10th, after a medical examination, we went ashore in the Land of the Chrysanthemum, cherry-blossom, and lotus flowers.”
Willy didn’t take his own good advice when he wrote: “I could easily write a book about my impressions, of travel in Japan and China, but these would not be suited to the compass of the present little work, which is mainly concerned with metaphysical subjects, and I must therefore be brief.” He will not be brief, and he won’t have much to say about metaphysics.
The travel guide commences: “On landing in Japan the traveler is beset by a lot of rickshaws, small two-wheeled carriages which are drawn by a running Japanese; horses are not used, except for military purposes. In Japan people do everything themselves, and as the Japanese live almost entirely on rice, fish, and vegetables, there are very few cattle, practically no sheep or swine, and therefore little manure except human excrement, the smell of which is very offensive to travelers. Those who know this eat no raw fruit, such as strawberries, etc. Every spot of ground is planted with rice, tea, wheat, and barley, even on the hills, for the 49,700,000 (nearly) inhabitants have to make all the use they can of the 162,372 square miles of land, most of it mountainous, in order to live.”
Mt. Fuji charms him: “The scenery around is hilly and pleasing, and on clear days the snow-crowned summit and graceful outlines of Fuji-san are most distinctly visible. Beyond the plain on which the town is built rises a sort of semi-circle of low hills called The Bluff, which is thickly dotted with handsome foreign villas and dwelling houses in various styles of architecture, all standing in pretty gardens. During my stay at Yokohama I visited the porcelain manufacturers, and at one of them, Kawamoto’s, Eggshell Porcelain Manufacturer, 18 Honcho, I had a porcelain service made with figures of warriors in old Japanese armor. I then visited the cloisonné, lacquer, woodcarving and bronze exhibits. I was also present at a tea ceremonial.”
Breaking his promise to be brief Willy now dwells on a long list of interesting details of turn of the 20th century Japanese life: “The Japanese have no furniture; people sit on straw mats, and a girl, with slow, tripping steps, brings in tea and cakes, kneels down in front of the guests and places the tea and cakes in front of each with continual nodding of her head. I made acquaintance with some new fruits there; the sweet mango fruit, the lychee, and the Papaya.” Willy takes another swipe at the skeptics back home in Germany who had exiled him: “The cold North knows nothing of these fruits of the Orient. “
Willy points out that in Japan everything is half as expensive as in the United States, “except at the Grand Hotel, Yokohama, which charges American prices— but in this hotel one receives the best attention. “
Leaving Yokohama Willy’s guide for tourists beings in earnest: “In about half an hour by railroad from Yokohama we reach Kamakura, with the forty-nine foot high bronze statue of the Buddha.”
Today Japan suffers an aging population but a hundred years ago the opposite was true. “In the capital, Tokyo, I admired the wonderful wisterias, with their pendent masses of blue flowers. Tokyo has about 1,819,000 inhabitants, and I have never in any country seen such an abundance of children as in Japan.”
The travelogue resumes: “In parts of Tokyo there are beautiful broad avenues, and in the neighborhood is the palace of the Mikado standing on an eminence, surrounded by a stone wall and water, with many modem European buildings. I saw many soldiers, the infantry resembling the German and the cavalry the French, and museums containing trophies from the Russo-Japanese war. The Imperial Hotel meets European and American requirements fairly well.”
Next Willy traveled to the interior of Japan, to Miyanoshita. “The road to this place is not unlike the Swiss country roads, with high mountains, deep valleys, and noisy brooks. At the Fujiya Hotel there one finds every comfort in a chair carried by four Japanese bearers I made an excursion to the Hakone Lake, passing the Ojigoku, a smoking volcano, like that in the Yellowstone Park, Wyoming. On May 18 I left the Fujiya Hotel to go to Nagoya; during the journey one sees for hours the snow-clad Fujiyama (12,366 feet high). This holy mountain with its white top, surrounded by green meadows, affords a lovely prospect.
As always, Willy heads off the beaten track: “In Nagoya, during the three days of my stay, I did not see a single European. The Temple there contains 500 different statues of Buddha. Every sculptor thinks that his own is the only correct looking one; I also saw there the manufacture of cloisonné that wonderful silver work executed on copper. In the Misonoza Theatre I saw the Japanese Feast of Flowers represented; the Flower-Dance of the Geishas is unique, but the Japanese have no notion of music. On wooden drums and a kind of guitar they make a noise that one would gladly run away from.”
Willy was just too German to fully appreciate partying with the Geishas. “I passed through miles of bamboo forest to Kyoto, and put up at the Kyoto Hotel. This city is prettily situated, and is divided into two halves by the Kamo River. Kyoto is celebrated for its dancing girls. During my visit I was present at a Japanese dinner at one of the most exclusive teahouses, with Geishas and dancing girls in attendance. There were ten of us, and as we ought to have taken off our shoes which I did not wish to do, our shoes were covered with linen over-shoes, and we were shown into a room, where we had to sit on straw mats with our legs crossed under us, which is not so easy to manage. Little Geisha girls then brought us a little square table, a foot high, with fish in lacquered wooden trays, unknown kinds of vegetables in similar trays, Japanese candy, and saki (rice spirit).
Everything was very neat and clean, but we could not eat fish and vegetables in lacquered trays. Then a Geisha in her pretty costume sat down before each guest in order to serve him. These twelve to fourteen year old Geishas are very inquisitive. They freely handled each guest, took off his rings and jewelry and bedecked themselves with them. They had little mirrors and cosmetics in their kimonos (Japanese robes). But one easily permits such liberties from such charming creatures.” Willy discretely refuses to report just what sorts of liberties were or were not taken.
Willy visited Shinto shrines, pagodas, a temple with a thousand images of the God of Mercy. Willy explains:” Each has several heads and several arms, so that they can grant all manner of wishes. Then there is the Higashi Honganji Temple with an enormous rope made women’s hair, to which 10,000 women are said to have given their hair, so that it could be used for the erection of the pillars”
Willy’s report on Japan offers a poignant contrast to Japan today. “I have never yet seen any country in which the people are so contented as they are in Japan; healthy, strong, rosy cheeked, frugal, and always cheerful.”
At last the travel guide glances in the direction of Japanese metaphysics: “From Kyoto I made a day’s trip to Nara, which made the most lasting impression upon me, with the exception of Kikko, which I saw afterwards. The wonderful, primeval forest roads, where you drive between stone pillars, each dedicated to the memory of a deceased person, with shrines and temples in between, hundreds of tame deer, which throng around and eat out of your hand, then the Japanese in their charming costumes, the Shinto Temples, where I witnessed the sacred dance of young Shinto priestesses, the holy horse–wonderful natural beauty, these centuries-old cedars, make a deep impression on the visitor.”
But Willy quickly returns to the travel guide he promised not to write: “From Kara I went to Kobe, the second largest export centre in Japan. I stopped at the Oriental Hotel. Kobe is the place where the foreigners make most of their purchases. Silks, cloisonné, enamel, lacquered work, ivory, and silver articles are all nearly three times cheaper than in the United States, which levy a customs duty of 30 to 60 per cent on these goods.”
“I will here speak of Nikko, though I did not visit it until after my return from China. Its shady woods, its extensive groves and lofty avenues, its religious air, make Nikko an ideal place for the dreamer. The world-famous temples of Nikko are the burial places of the first and third Shoguns of the Tokugawa line of the seventeenth century. The Red Lacquer Sacred Bridge, these avenues of gigantic cypress trees, these wonderful temples in the midst of primeval forests, this dream-wealth of Nature, make Nikko the most attractive place in Japan. I stayed at the Nikko Hotel, and made an excursion with sedan-chairs to Lake Chuzenji — a dream-place. I saw the Sacred Horse again in Nikko, and again witnessed the sacred dance of the Shinto priestesses.” Here of all places Willy decides to keep his description brief.
But Willy turns to the spirituality of the Japanese more earnestly: “An intimate friend of mine in Los Angeles, a colonel, who traveled in Japan in 1897, told me that he had observed the remains of Phallus-worship in Japan. As I could not discover anything of such worship, in spite of repeated inquiries, I asked him where be had seen it. His reply was as follows:
“In Nikko, going from the red bridge up the road following the river, and about 500 yards from the bridge, is a shrine standing on wooden piers, a simple, bam-like structure. In 1897, I saw under the shrine, piled up quite indiscriminately, about fifty phalli carved out of stone, of different sizes, from normal to heroic.
Outside the shrine are a lot of stone ‘lanterns’ (so-called), may be ten of them, standing, with pedestal, about four feet high. Before the phallic worship was suppressed — say in 1878 — each ‘lantern’ contained one of these stone carvings, placed upright, and the women worshipped there. As I examined the ground near by, I noticed that the grass was worn away in front of some of the lanterns, as though by the tread of many feet, leading to the belief that in the darkness of night women still worship there. At the time of the suppression, the emblems were discarded and thrown under the shrine. We understood that everywhere in Japan these phallic emblems were in use formerly. This particular shrine was Buddhist.”
Then Willy suddenly admits that his information about Japan must remain superficial: “I am sorry to say that I was not able to have any metaphysical experiences in Japan.” In place of his own, Willy offers an article about Karma and Shintoism in Japan he republishes from the February 1906 issue of Banner of Light.
After this detour in which Shinto closely resembles popular American spiritualism, Willy returns to his travelogue: “the time the steamer enters it through the Straits of Akashi until she passes out through the
Straits of Shimonoseki it is one gorgeous panorama. The sea is studded with islands of every conceivable shape and size, from the barren rock standing up alone in its grandeur to large islands artificially terraced from the water’s edge to the summit, and all under the highest cultivation. Scene succeeds scene, picture follows picture, with such surprising rapidity that one can scarcely spare time for meals. Un- like most parts of Japan the islands in this sea are lightly wooded. There is an unrivalled view hereabouts. The clear, shallow water of this famous sea, picturesquely dotted with beautiful little islands — decked with shrines and miniature temples — forms as near an approach to Fairyland as can be expected in a matter of fact world. A Fairyland, indeed, of islands and temples and trees —Here is a chance, if taken by easy stages, crisscrossing from island to island, to see Japan in its pristine beauty. There are islands here where the foot of the white man has never rested. “
WILLY ON THE PHILIPPINES
Manila cigar factory 1907.
Willy leaves Japan for a stopover in the Philippines. “On May 27, 1907, we began our voyage through the Eastern Sea and South China Sea to Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The voyage lasted three and a half days, and the discomforts of this journey will never be forgotten.”
Willy’s description of the Philippines reveals a political situation that should have left a sour taste in America’s mouth when it came to imperialist tendencies. “Manila is an old Spanish city, very hot in spite of the tropical vegetation of all kinds, among which the Mindanao tree with its dark red flowers pleased me the most I made an excursion of about two hours to the American barracks, where the heat was unbearable. The natives still live in their straw huts, erected on four piles, and use boats made of a hollowed-out tree trunk. At the cigar factory, which employs 1500 workmen, the very amiable manager explained to me all that was worth knowing about the manufacture of tobacco, and gave besides to each one of our party of ten persons a box of choice Manila cigars.”
Willy cuts to the chase: “The Philippines are the sore spot of the United States; they are said to have cost up to now 400 million dollars for development, and bring very little in. The principal articles of commerce are hemp, sugar, tobacco, cigars, and coffee. They are extremely fruitful, but not yet two per cent of their area is developed. White men cannot work there, and the natives are too lazy. What is to be done with the Philippines is now being much discussed in the American papers. They can be reached by a warship from Japan in three and a half days, while the distance from San Francisco is twenty-eight days. I have nothing to do with politics, but I cannot help thinking that Japan will some day have the Philippines.” Perhaps Willy had a vague presentiment of World War 2?
WILLY’S DOUBTS ABOUT CHINA
Willy finally arrives in China. “Hongkong is one of the finest harbors of the world, and is also a free port — no customs duties, no unpleasant medical examination. Eng-land has done great things here. In the British possessions, such as Vancouver and Hongkong, the first things to strike one are the colossal and massive public buildings. Ships from all over the world lie in the harbor. The Peak rises in terraces behind the narrow coast strip, and wonderfully beautiful is the road leading up to the summit, 2000 feet high. There is a splendid view from here over the harbor, with its countless ships, and little islands, and even at this elevation tropical plants grow. Indian and Chinese silk is the principle article of commerce, and is mostly in the hands of Indians; the military and police forces also consist of Indians, with black frizzled beards and wearing turbans.”
Canton captured Willy’s imagination: ”countless sampans (small flat-bottomed boats) lie in the river on which about 200,000 people live, marry, and die, and some of them never set foot on firm ground. “ But China proves less immediately charming than Japan. “We went through the city in carrying-chairs, and the smell of the place was horrible. All the trade is carried on in the streets, which are only about seven feet wide, so that we were often unable to get either forward or backward.”
Once again Willy is just a tourist: “I visited the Temple of Five Hundred Genii, the Water Clock, the Temple of Horrors with its swarms of beggars and fortune-tellers.
In this temple Chinese tortures are represented by means of figures. Nothing worse was ever invented by the medieval Inquisitors. I tried in vain to take this executioner with my Kodak; he made off as soon as I tried to photograph him. It is an interesting fact that the Chinese will not allow themselves to be photographed; even the bearers of our chairs turned away when we pointed the camera at them. Every Chinese cherishes the hope that he will some day be rich, and does not wish to be reminded of his former poverty.”
Here the translator, who remains anonymous, makes an appearance to add: “Is there not another and an occult reason for this? When we remember that one of the processes of witch- craft, known in France as envoutement, consists in sticking pins into an image of the person intended to be harmed, it is evident that there is a widespread belief that the possession of the portrait confers a formidable power over the person himself. — (Translator’s Note.) Why did the translator choose to remain anonymous? Was it someone protecting his or her reputation, or acknowledgement that such a bizarre book might be hard to believe?
Willy continues to provide the tourist guide he promised he wouldn’t. “Canton is the place for the purchase of silk, ivory, linen, and jade (a green stone, only found in China and Burma). Between the temples one sees the panorama of the open shops, streets of silk and jade and jewelers’ shops; weavers’ dens and goldbeaters’ caves; shoe shops, cabinet shops, meat and cook shops on either side. Unknown cookery simmers, sputters and scents the air. Dried ducks hang by half-yard-long necks, and a queer flat bit of dried meat declares itself by the long, thin tail curled like a grape tendril, to be the rat. The rat is in the market everywhere, alive in cages, fresh or dried on meat-shop counters, and dried ones are often bought as souvenirs of a day in Canton and proof of the often-denied rat story. Theatres are many; shops of theatrical wardrobes are endless in one quarter; dealers in old costumes abound, and there are pawn shops and curio shops without end.”
Willy arrives in Shanghai: “Warships from all over the world lie here, always ready for attack. These powerful fleets of England, Germany, France, America, and Japan form an imposing sight, but they are necessary on account of the fanaticism of the Chinese people. Shanghai is called the Paris of the East, and the European portions, of the city are very pretty.” It becomes increasingly clear that Willy was not a fan of Chinese culture. The cuisine is dismissed with a curt: “Generally speaking, an epicure should not come to China.”
Willy quotes another article, another female author, this one damning the Chinese while praising the Japanese. For example, she finds Chinese temples generally unkempt, and too commercial and noisy, while Japan’s temples are clean and silent.
WILLY WRAPS IT UP
On his way back to San Francisco Willy enjoyed two Fourth of July holidays as his ship crossed the International Date Line. “When I arrived at San Francisco the city was looking dismal; a car strike of three months’ duration had paralyzed all business, so that Mr. Miller expressed the intention of selling out his business and going to New York or Paris ; but I went on after a fortnight to Chicago and thence to Lily Dale, to recuperate in the woods of that charming spot from the exertions of my journey in the Orient, and to have some further occult experiences.”
Willy now provides scant details of sittings but does list mediums, providing their addresses and recommending them to travelers. Throughout the book he seems to dialogue with leading Theosophists by choosing sometimes extensive quotes to agree and disagree with. The reader gets the sense that he’s in a hurry to end the book.
Like the German that he is after all Willy can’t help but make his grand finale a thorough criticism of the Catholic Church for fighting the advance of philosophy and science and for fearing the expansion of human knowledge. To express his contempt of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of Spiritualism, Willy ends his book by quoting Plato: “Many frogs croak at Apollo darting down from afar; but the God sweeps easily over the marshes and away.
RECEPTION OF THE ENIGMA
In the fourth volume of The New Cycle, published in 1896, Willy received a glowing review of the third printing of his book Der Heilmagnetismus. The reviewer describes Willy as “an expert hypnotist and a “magnetopath” of wide reputation.” Willy’s book included “classical quotations, an extensive bibliography of kindred publication, and testimonials from a number of the Professor’s patients–.” The reviewer concludes “While there is no doubt that many cures have been effected through this means, yet we are of the opinion that the restorative influence in most cases is due to the conveyed of healthful suggestions from the mind of the healer to that of the patient. Magnetic healing, like the use of drugs, is ineffective without the aid of an assenting mind.” In other words, you have to want to get better to get better.
But how was An Occultist’s Travels received? “Willy made an appearance in the Nov 4, 1908 issue of the Japan Weekly Mail: “He holds to the doctrine of predestination from which it is but a short step to the hypothesis that every man carries about with him the marks of his destiny, and that certain persons are gifted with competence to decipher these marks. Thus the art of crystal gazing does not surprise him, even when the medium reads his past with absolute accuracy and predicts his future with confidence. He has something much more thrilling to tell, and it is about one Mr. C.V. Miller of San Francisco, owner of an art store in that city.
“The first tendency of these unvarnished narratives is to excite derision. We have all seen conjuring tricks for which we could not account, and we are naturally disposed to regard Miller and his fellows as particularly adroit “magicians” nothing more. But if so, then Reichel and his 15 companions who took part in the séance quoted above must have been marvelously, if not miraculously, befooled–. But apart from such collateral reflections there is the query what should be our mental attitude toward the investigations of men like Lodge, Crookes, Reichel and their fellows. Should we follow the example of the man who declined to look through a telescope lest his theory about the satellites of Jupiter might be upset, or should we admit that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, and that as science has in the past shown its achievements to be practically illimitable, so in the future it may reveal further wonders?” But science was not going to turn it’s attention to the afterlife, science was working on many wonders, some beneficial, but others like mustard gas, bombers, and nuclear warheads would make Willy’s world seem quaint indeed.
But in the Annals of Psychical Science in 1906 a notice appeared about Willy, who had published most of what would become An Occultist’s Travels, in the German journal Psychissce Studien’s Dec 1905 to Feb. 1906 issues. The apparently skeptical but hopeful journal notes: “Again we desire to call attention to the fact we assume no responsibility for the recital of Herr Willy Reichel; we publish this resume, for the time being, by right of curiosity only,” signed by the Editor.
WHAT ABOUT MR. MILLER?
The San Francisco Call, vol. 87, #81 of May 30, 1902 contains a small classified ad under the category Spirtualism: “C.V. Miller world’s famous materializing medium, spirits speak face to face; séance. Tue., Fri., Sun. 50 cents.” Another ad just beneath advertises Miller’s Decoration Day 2 PM matinee, also half a dollar.
Miller went to Europe in 1906. In Germany he gave a number of test séances in private homes. Prof. Charles Richet attended Miller’s séances in Paris. In the C. de Vesme reported in Annals of Psychic Science #21 in 1906 “a white ball, as of gas, about a quarter of a yard in diameter appeared in the air at the upper extremity of the curtains. Finally it came down, rested on the floor, in less than a minute changed into a long shape was transformed into a draped human form.”
But Miller’s reputation was far from spotless. In Letters to Hereward Carrington from Famous Psychical Researchers is found this unexplained note from the famous magician Harry Kellar in 1911: “C.V. Miller was a celebrated materializing medium several times exposed in fraud. I knew him well.”
WILLY AND THE BAILEY SCANDAL
In 1910 the U.K. journal Light published a letter in which Willy figured prominently. “We had the pleasure of a visit on February 1st from Professor Willy Reichel, the well-known occultist and traveler; who told that he was awaiting the arrival of Mr. Charles Bailey, the medium of apports, from Melbourne, Australia, in order to introduce him to Colonel de Rochas and a committee of scientific men sitting at the School of Medicine, Grenoble, France, so that his genuineness might be scientifically proved, and the progress of mankind thereby advanced. Professor Reichel had assumed all the expenses, which were considerable, because Bailey never travels without a companion.
“We cannot, of course, anticipate the report of Colonel de Rochas and the committee, but we regret to learn from Professor Reichel that Bailey resorted to artifices at the sittings, which is all the more deplorable, because, judging from the published reports of his test séances in Australia, genuine phenomena have occurred in his presence. As soon as the report appears we shall return to the subject.
“On Tuesday last Bailey called at this office to receive the money left for him by Professor Reichel for his return passage to Australia, and said that the committee at Grenoble had had as much success as they deserved. In a letter to Professor Reichel, Bailey threatens legal proceedings, although the Professor had paid all the expenses connected with his journey to Grenoble (amounting to over 200 pounds).
“In a letter which we have received from Colonel de Rochas, that gentleman informs us that the two birds which were produced at the recent sitting as being bought from India were purchased in Grenoble by Bailey—they were identified by the bird-seller, who also identified Bailey as the purchaser, and that at a subsequent meeting Bailey refused to submit to a test search and to give further sittings.
“Professor Reichel assures us that he is confident that the phenomena produced through Bailey at Mr. Stanford’s circles in Melbourne were genuine, and that this bitter experience is another illustration of the fact that even otherwise reliable mediums sometimes “help out” the phenomena when their powers become weak.
“As president of the National Association of Spiritualists in New Zealand I believe it is my duty to acquaint the public with the result of Bailey’s visit to France. I have persistently contended that at the séances held in Wellington last year Bailey was not “proved” fraudulent; that here was no evidence worthy of credence, and in the face of fierce denunciation I held to this. In the public press I have given as my opinion that Bailey was no angel—he was known to be erratic. I will not say eccentric, in his everyday life.
“When he left New Zealand I wrote to Professor Reichel and urged him to take every precaution so that Spiritualists might have the truth, even if Bailey had to stand down. The result is before us. And yet I cannot believe that for so many years, under the stringent conditions imposed upon Bailey at Melbourne and elsewhere, he hoodwinked those who sat with him. The Italian medium, Eusapia Palladino, tried to use a little artifice among the scientists she was sitting with, but this was discovered and the tests were made much more stringent. For thirteen years the London Society of Psychical Research shelved her, yet she went on astounding and convincing one scientific skeptic after another. And now the above society endorses her surprising manifestations of power as genuine. It may be so yet with Bailey…
The letter continues to say that the author, W.C. Nation, can’t defend Bailey but he reminds his readers that Christianity and every other institution, are not dismissed outright because of their prominent frauds.
This wasn’t Bailey’s only brush with disrepute. In the May issue of The Open Court appeared “The Ghost of a Living Person“ which revealed that “A Melbourne medium, Charles Bailey, claimed to be controlled by the late Rev. W. H. Withrow while that gentleman was actually living in Toronto.”
WHO PUBLISHED AN OCCULTIST’S TRAVELS?
An obituary of Fenno appeared in Publishers’ Weekly 132 (4 September 1937): “R.F. Fenno and Company was founded in 1885 at 112 Fifth Avenue, New York, to publish fiction. It offered editions of classics as well as new works of fiction in cloth and paper wrappers. By the turn of the century the firm was in financial trouble and between 1903 and 1905 was managed by a committee of its creditors. [Robert F.] Fenno retired from the firm in 1929.
In 1902 Fenno published James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh, a bedrock classic of the positive thinking movement, and a continuing influence on self-help and motivational movements. Although over the years the book sold many millions of copies, it wasn’t successful enough to save Fenno’s company.
In 1904 the committee of creditors published several editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with beautiful covers but alongside the traditional illustrations were reproduced photographs from the currently popular stage production based on the book. They seemed to want to tie into current trends and perhaps that explains the curious blend of metaphysics and travel guide that is Willy’s book.
WHAT’S THE POINT, WILLY?
To his list of all the things Willy likes about America he adds “the very influential position of women.” A striking feature of Willy’s occult travelogue is his open mindedness about the relevance of female sources of knowledge. Like the Theosophists to whom he refers, female authority in matters of wisdom was comfortable for Willy. But this liberal atmosphere was about to change radically. By the 1920’s Houdini and other magicians, along with journalists, were attacking Spiritualism not only as a fraud but also as a negative social force undermining the masculine prerogative.
As Fred Nadis wrote in “If Not Spirits What Is It?” “The efforts of Houdini and other stage magicians to either replicate Spiritualist effects or unmask them also had a misogynistic aspect, in keeping with fears of the “effeminization” of daily life in the progressive era. Mediums tended to be women, and their workplaces often were their home parlors, the only place of power that society accorded them. The press depicted the typical Spiritualist society member as female, past her prime and laughable. An 1893 cartoon featuring Maskelyne [a prominent rival of Houdini] shows him in one corner strangling a serpent labeled “humbug” with the subtitle: He is rough on Spiritualists. Further down some matronly women surround the conjurer above the subtitle: The Ladies of the Spiritualistic Societies Will Persist in Claiming Him as One of their Own. One of the matrons says, “Why should you not own that you are a medium?” As in this cartoon, journalists tended to treat stage magicians as virile, top-hatted gentlemen while depicting Spiritualists as matronly, superstitious women—or effeminate men—prone to “intuitions” and to romantic but wrong headed views of the world.”
This fear of the feminization of society is especially ironic when one considers that two world wars and Nazi Germany were just around the corner.
But Spiritualism’s cultural value went beyond its relationship to feminism and its experiments with altered states and with communication from and with the unconscious. While looking forward to an ever-brighter future, in this life and after, Spiritualism also popularized the historical metaphysical underground culture of Europe.
As Cathy Gutierrez writes in Plato’s Ghost: Spiritualism in the American Renaissance: “Spiritualism may be understood as a cultural expression of Neoplatonic Renaissance thinking refurbished for American use. Specifically, the undercurrent of American hermeticism came to its fullest if most populist expression in Spiritualism, with (Andrew Jackson) Davis himself citing the works of such early modern magicians as Cornelius Agrippa, Marsilio Ficino, and Giordano Bruno. —it is from this Neoplatonic strain that Spiritualism drew its main tenets about the body and the proper techne for it—.”
Willy Reichel’s occult tourism provides a unique and very personal glimpse of this hot house culture of personal spiritual experimentation.
We don’t know what ultimately happened to Willy Reichel. Did he live to see World War One begin? Interest in inner space and consciousness beyond time would soon fade as a new world of technology first unleashed in war and then through industry all over the world transformed human life far more than Spiritualism had, and for the most part, the Spiritualists never seemed to have seen it coming.
Yet elements of Spiritualism have remained vital to American Metaphysical Religion. Is it possible that Colin Wilson is right, and Willy was exploring some as yet unknown faculty of unconscious human creative power? Might we one day be shocked by true ectoplasmic revelations on YouTube? Is that even possible in a world of digital effects?
But perhaps the most shocking aspect of Willy’s book has nothing to do with Spiritualism. His descriptions of the lost wonders of California, Alaska, and Japan starkly remind us of what has been lost in a mere century. Science, while trying to bury Spiritualism in skepticism and ridicule, dismissing it as feminizing and solipsistic, itself unleashed a world of omnipresent toxicity, extinguishing entire species, replacing the beauties of nature Willy Reichel described with bleak scenes of overpopulation and environmental degradation. Today drones are designed to replace bees, rather than banning the insecticides that kill them.
Gutierrez, Cathy. Plato’s Ghost: Spiritualism in the American Renaissance,
Oxford University Press, 2005
Nadis, Fred. ‘If Not Spirits What Is It?’– Turn of the Century Magicians and the Anti-Spiritualistic Performance
Cathy Gutierrez, ed., The Occult in Nineteenth-Century America, Davies, 2009
Reichel, Willy. An Occultist’s Travels, Running Press, 1975
Article 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.