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- The Making of Religion - 60/68 -
were going on, and so far as I could see, there was no human agency at work. I had not the slightest belief in anything appertaining to the super-natural. I left just before one o'clock, having been in the house thirty minutes.'
As the policeman says, there was nothing 'super-natural,' but there was an appearance of something rather supernormal. On the afternoon of Saturday White sent the girl Rose away, and a number of people watched in his house till after midnight. Though the sceptical reporter thought that objects were placed where they might easily be upset, none were upset. The ghost was laid. 'Excited expectation' was so false to its function as to beget no phenomena.
The newspaper reports contain no theory that will account for White's breaking his furniture and crockery, nor for Rose's securing her own dismissal from a house where she was kindly received by wilfully destroying the property of her hostess. An amateur published a theory of silken threads attached to light articles, and thick cords to heavy articles, whereof no trace was found by witnesses who examined the volatile objects. An elaborate machinery of pulleys fixed in the ceiling, the presence of a trickster in a locked pantry, apparent errors in the account of the flight of the objects, and a number of accomplices, were all involved in this local explanation, the explainer admitting that he could not imagine _why_ the tricks were played. Six or eight pounds' worth of goods were destroyed, nor is it singular that poor Mrs. White wept over her shattered penates.
The destruction began, of course, in the _absence_ of White. The girl Rose gave to the newspaper the same account as the other witnesses, but, as White thought _she_ was the agent, so she suspected White, though she admitted that he was not at home when the trouble arose.
Mr. Podmore, reviewing the case, says, 'The phenomena described are quite inexplicable by ordinary mechanical means. Yet he elsewhere suggests that Rose herself, 'as the instrument of mysterious agencies, or simply as a half-witted girl, gifted with abnormal cunning and love of mischief, may have been directly responsible for all that took place.' That is to say, a half-witted girl could do (barring 'mysterious agencies') 'what is quite inexplicable by ordinary mechanical means,' while, according to the policeman, she was not even present on some occasions. But it is not easy to make out, in the evidence of White, the other witness, whether this girl Rose was present or not when the jar flew circuitously out of the cupboard, a thing easily worked by a half-witted girl. Such discrepancies are common in all evidence to the most ordinary events. In any case a half-witted girl, in Mr. Podmore's theory, can do what 'is quite inexplicable by ordinary mechanical means.' There is not the shadow of evidence that the girl Rose had the inestimable advantage of being 'half-witted;' she is described by Mr. Podmore as 'the child of an imbecile mother.' The phenomena began, in an isolated case (the tilted table), _before_ Rose entered the house. She was admitted in kindness, acted as a maid, and her interest was _not_ to break the crockery and upset furniture. The troubles, which began before the girl's arrival, were apparently active when she was not present, and, if she _was_ present, she could not have caused them 'by ordinary mechanical means,' while of extraordinary mechanical means there was confessedly no trace. The disturbances ceased after she was dismissed--nothing else connects her with them.
Mr. Podmore's attempt at a normal explanation by fraud, therefore, is of no weight. He has to exaggerate the value, as disproof, of such discrepancies as occur in all human evidence on all subjects. He has to lay stress on the interval of five weeks between the events and the collection of testimony by himself. But contemporary accounts appeared in the local newspapers, and he does not compare the contemporary with the later evidence, as we have done. There is one discrepancy which looks as if a witness, not here cited, came to think he had seen what he heard talked about. Finally, after abandoning the idea that mechanical means can possibly have produced the effect, Mr. Podmore falls back on the cunning of a half-witted girl whom nothing shows to have been half-witted. The alternative is that the girl was 'the instrument of mysterious agencies.'
So much for the hypothesis of a fraud, which has been identical in results from China to Peru and from Greenland to the Cape.
We now turn to the other, and concomitantly active cause, in Mr. Podmore's theory, hallucination. 'Many of the witnesses described the articles as moving slowly through the air, or exhibiting some peculiarity of flight.' (See e.g. the Worksop case.) Mr. Podmore adds another English case, presently to be noted, and a German one. 'In default of any experimental evidence' (how about Mr. William Crookes's?) 'that disturbances of this kind are ever due to abnormal agency, I am disposed to explain the appearance of moving slowly or flying as a sensory illusion, conditioned by the excited state of the percipient.' ('Studies,' 157, 158.)
Before criticising this explanation, let us give the English affair, alluded to by Mr. Podmore.
The most curious modern case known to me is not of recent date, but it occurred in full daylight, in the presence of many witnesses, and the phenomena continued for weeks. The events were of 1849, and the record is expanded, by Mr. Bristow, a spectator, from an account written by him in 1854. The scene was Swanland, near Hull, in a carpenter's shop, where Mr. Bristow was employed with two fellow workmen. To be brief, they were pelted by odds and ends of wood, about the size of a common matchbox. Each blamed the others, till this explanation became untenable. The workrooms and space above were searched to no purpose. The bits of wood sometimes danced along the floor, more commonly sailed gently along, or "moved as if borne on gently heaving waves." This sort of thing was repeated during six weeks. One piece of wood "came from a distant corner of the room towards me, describing what may be likened to a geometrical square, or corkscrew of about eighteen inches diameter.... Never was a piece seen to come in at the doorway." Mr. Bristow deems this period 'the most remarkable episode in my life.' (June 27, 1891.) The phenomena 'did not depend on the presence of any one person or number of persons.'
Going to Swanland, in 1891, Mr. Sidgwick found one surviving witness of these occurrences, who averred that the objects could not have been thrown because of the eccentricities of their course, which he described in the same way as Mr. Bristow. The thrower must certainly have had a native genius for 'pitching' at base-ball. This witness, named Andrews, was mentioned by Mr. Bristow in his report, but not referred to by him for confirmation. Those to whom he referred were found to be dead, or had emigrated. The villagers had a superstitious theory about the phenomena being provoked by a dead man, whose affairs had not been settled to his liking. So Mr. Darwin's spoon danced--on a grave.
This case has a certain interest _a propos_ of Mr. Podmore's surmise that all such phenomena arise in trickery, which produces excitement in the spectators, while excitement begets hallucination, and hallucination takes the form of seeing the thrown objects move in a non-natural way. Thus, I keep throwing things about. You, not detecting this stratagem, get excited, consequently hallucinated, and you believe you see the things move in spirals, or undulate as if on waves, or hop, or float, or glide in an impossible way. So close is the uniformity of hallucination that these phenomena are described, in similar terms, by witnesses (hallucinated, of course) in times old and new, as in cases cited by Glanvil, Increase Mather, Telfer (of Rerrick), and, generally, in works of the seventeenth century. Nor is this uniform hallucination confined to England. Mr. Podmore quotes a German example, and I received a similar testimony (to the flight of an object round a corner) from a gentleman who employed Esther Teed, 'the Amherst Mystery,' in his service. _He_ was not excited, for he was normally engaged in his normal stable, when the incident occurred unexpectedly as he was looking after his live stock. One may add the case of Cideville (1851) and Sir W. Crookes's evidence, and that of Mr. Schhapoff.
Mr. Podmore must, therefore, suppose that, in states of excitement, the same peculiar form of hallucination develops itself uniformly in America, France, Germany, and England (not to speak of Russia), and persists through different ages. This is a novel and valuable psychological law. Moreover, Mr. Podmore must hold that 'excitement' lasted for six weeks among the carpenters in the shop at Swanland, one of whom writes like a man of much intelligence, and has thriven to be a master in his craft. It is difficult to believe that he was excited for six weeks, and we still marvel that excitement produces the same uniformity of hallucination, affecting policemen, carpenters, marquises, and a F.R.S. We allude to Sir W. Crookes's case.
Strictly scientific examination of these prodigies has been very rare. The best examples are the experiments of Sir William Crookes, F.R.S., with Home. He demonstrated, by means of a machine constructed for the purpose, and automatically registering, that, in Home's presence, a balance was affected to the extent of two pounds when Home was not in contact with the table on which the machine was placed. He also saw objects float in air, with a motion like that of a piece of wood on small waves of the sea (clearly excitement producing hallucination), while Home was at a distance, other spectators holding his hands, and his feet being visibly enclosed in a kind of cage. All present held each other's hands, and all witnessed the phenomena. Sir W. Crookes being, professionally, celebrated for the accuracy of his observations, these circumstances are difficult to explain, and these are but a few cases among multitudes.
I venture to conceive that, on reflection, Mr. Podmore will doubt whether he has discovered an universal law of excited malperception, or whether the remarkable, and certainly undesigned, coincidence of testimony to the singular flight of objects does not rather point to an 'abnormal agency' uniform in its effects. Contagious hallucination cannot affect witnesses ignorant of each other's existence in many lands and ages, nor could they cook their reports to suit reports of which they never heard.
We now turn to peculiarities in the so-called Medium, such as floating in air, change of bulk, and escape from lesion when handling or treading in fire. Mr. Tylor says nothing of Sir William Crookes's cases (1871), but speaks of the alleged levitation, or floating in air, of savages and civilised men. These are recorded in Buddhist and Neoplatonic writings, and among Red Indians, in Tonquin (where a Jesuit saw and described the phenomena, 1730), in the 'Acta Sanctorum,' and among modern spiritualists. In 1760, Lord Elcho, being at Home, was present at the _proces_ for canonising a Saint (unnamed), and heard witnesses swear to having seen the holy man levitated. Sir W. Crookes attests having seen Home float in air on several occasions. In 1871, the Master of Lindsay, now Lord Crawford and Balcarres, F.R.S., gave the following evidence, which was corroborated by the two other spectators, Lord Adare and Captain Wynne.
'I was sitting with Mr. Home and Lord Adare and a cousin of his. During the sitting, Mr. Home went into a trance, and in that state was carried out of the window in the room next to where we were, and was brought in at our window. The distance between the windows was about seven feet six inches, and there was not the slightest foothold between them, nor was there more than a twelve-inch projection to each window, which served as a ledge to put flowers on. _We heard the window in the next room lifted up_, and almost immediately after we saw Home floating in the air outside our window. The moon was shining full into the room; my back was to the light, and I saw the shadow on the wall of the window sill, and Home's feet about six inches above it. He remained in this position for a few seconds, then raised the window and glided into the room feet foremost and sat down.
'Lord Adare then went into the next room to look at the window from which he had been carried. It was raised about eighteen inches, and he expressed
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